Sunday, 22 May 2011

MetPro Inquiry: now you see it, now you don't

If you cast your mind back to the last but one full Barnet council meeting, you may recall that an emergency motion calling for an urgent public inquiry into the MetPro scandal was thrown out by a unanimous Tory vote, and we were informed by acting leader Andrew Harper that such an inquiry was totally unneccessary, as the matter was being referred for investigation by the internal audit committee.

Since then there has been no further public statement, no announcement of the date of the meeting, (16th June), no explanation of the remit of the committee, its scope, or powers of investigation. The only information we have has been chiselled out of individual councillors, after efforts made by local bloggers. After asking Lord Palmer for information, he made it clear that he was not entirely certain of the direction of the investigation, and told bloggers that he needed 'space' in which to take on board his duties and reflect on the committee's approach.

We now have the clearest indication possible of the committee's approach. Blogger Mr Reasonable was sent the following clarification as to the terms of reference on Friday by Lord Palmer:

"This is not an ‘inquiry’ but a detailed internal audit

The report will be published as all Council committee reports are published. Members of the Public can apply to speak prior to the committee discussing the audit report."

So there we have it. No inquiry: an audit. And therefore, we can be sure, the only view of the whole stinking heap of shite that this committee will take, with their One Barnet pegs on noses, will be from a financial point of view. Errors in procedure will be found to have been made, unsanctioned by senior officers and councillors, some poor sod lower down the scale will get the blame, and those really responsible will get off scot free.

All other aspects of this matter will be deemed beyond the remit of an audit committee: the lack of licensing and CRB checks, the covert filming of residents, the failure of the council to obtain the original footage, the secret destruction of the copy they were given.

There will be no answers given to the most interesting questions of all, such as: how did MetPro come to be taken on by Barnet in the first place? Oh - and were there any councillors or senior council officers involved in the introduction and approval of the company?

Worst of all, perhaps is the fact that the committee which is holding the audit could be held responsible itself for failing to out into place the very procedures which allowed the irregular use of this company to continue unchallenged for five years.

I took a look at the minutes of the last Audit Committee meeting in March. What I found hardly inspired me with any confidence as to the rigour of its scrutiny or its powers to change the ways in which council finances are organised. Look at the following extract, which comes from a meeting of the committee which was informed by Tom Foster, from external auditors Grant Thornton, that out of twenty audit reports undertaken between November 2010 and January 2011, no fewer than eight were graded as 'below satisfactory assurance'. That's 40% of all audit reports ... According to Item 9:

INTERNAL AUDIT, RISK MANAGEMENT AND CORPORATE ANTI FRAUD TEAM (CAFT) ANNUAL PLAN 2011-12 (Report of the Assistant Director of Finance, Audit and Risk Management – Agenda Item 9) The Assistant Director of Finance, Audit and Risk Management introduced the report. The Committee discussed whether consideration could be given to request that for all Council outsourced contracts of high risk or above a certain total value, for example £500,000, the Council retains a right to obtain assurances from the company, if the Council considers this appropriate. The Committee requested that they should receive a presentation from the relevant Directorate on the expected governance/assurance arrangements of the One Barnet projects that are outsourced.

Why is Barnet Council, already committed to enormous private contracts, and about to embark on a mammoth launch of further outsourcing of services, only now considering the safeguards it might need to have in place? It is absolutely unbelievable, isn't it?

I don't doubt the integrity of Monroe Palmer: I am sure that he was as shocked as anyone by the MetPro debacle. It is clear, however, that the audit committee is simply not capable of taking on this issue and giving an adequate and objective assessment of what went wrong, or what should be done about it.

As I was navigating the council website, this neat little example of One Barnet doublespeak caught my eye - according to our masters at NLBP:

Governance is ‘The highest standard of transparency, integrity and accountability in the way in which the Council and its partners operate, embodied in a set of rules and procedures'.

Hmm, that may well be true, but this is not exactly how we do things here, is it, Mr Walkley?

1 comment:

Don't Call Me Dave said...

As the council now admits that they are not holding an investigation, there is no reason why the matter cannot immediately be referred to the Audit Commission and/or the External Auditor and/or the Local Government Ombudsman for an investigation, before crucial files are accidentally lost in the fire/flood (which is taking place next Thursday). These bodies do not like to investigate local authorities when councils are impartially (ahem) investigating themselves, but the council has conceded there is no investigation. So what’s stopping them?