Saturday 28 May 2011

Running on Empty: Broken Barnet on the road to Contract City

Some weeks ago Mrs Angry submitted a formal complaint to the London Borough of Broken Barnet in regard to the council's unregulated use of the MetPro security companies, and the illicit filming that took place on the night of the March 1st budget meeting.

In breach of the council's own procedure, Mrs Angry did not receive any acknowledgement of her complaint within the stated time limit, and only received a response on registering a further complaint with the Chief Executive. The reply she received then merely referred her to the forthcoming audit committee meeting on 16th June, claiming that all the issues she had raised would be addressed by their 'investigation'.

This is Mrs Angry's response:

This reply is of course completely inadequate as a response to a formal complaint, as I am sure you know.

Firstly, Lord Palmer, chair of the Audit Committee, has stated with no uncertainty that the audit of the MetPro issue is just that, an audit, and categorically not an inquiry. We have not been given, despite requests, any detailed information in regard to the remit of this committee, but clearly it will address only the financial aspects of the matter.
This means that there is no real investigation by the authority, or anyone else, of the key questions that urgently need to be asked concerning the use of this unlicensed security company, without contract, tendering process, or proper scrutiny, throughout a five year period, at enormous cost to the local tax payer.

As to your assertion that MetPro had no permission to film and that such films that exist are not the property of the council, I think you know that this is nonsense: the authority has failed to regulate the terms of service of the company, failed to check the legally required licensing, or data protection requirements, and worst of all, the CRB credentials of employees. This is surely a serious and extended act of maladministration by the authority.

The authority has a duty of care to residents which it has evidently failed in regard to its casual use of this company. Notwithstanding the failure to prevent the filming, obtaining and destroying a copy of the film footage, as you consequently did, itself indicates an admission of responsibility in regard to the filming which took place. Unfortunately this responsibility has not extended as far as obtaining the other copies, and when I asked for contact details for the company in order to make the request myself, the authority was able only to pass on a generic email address, and this request has simply been ignored.

The lack of communication between the authority and the security company is inexcusable and is a serious failure in procedure. The authority clearly had a duty to hold a tender process, check the credentials of the company, award a contract, and monitor the delivery of service. It would appear evident that the authority has failed to do so in the case of MetPro, and this has directly caused the illicit filming of residents at the meeting on the night of March 1st.

Monroe Palmer, the LibDem chair of the Audit Committee, sent the following statement to Mrs Angry:

The Audit committee is carrying out an audit of this area of concern
It will be a wideranging audit covering, I hope, all the areas of concern you list.
The Committee will receive a Report. It will be available to the public. It will be discussed at the committee meeting in Public. There is a 30 minute slot for statements/questions from the public at start of the meeting.
Please do not think that I and my fellow committee members are not as concerned as you are.
However, we await the Audit Report before we make any recommendations.

We can be sure that Lord Palmer does hope the audit will cover all the areas of concern that it ought to address. It remains to be seen, however, if it will investigate in any depth such issues as the data protection implications of the secret filming, for example.

What powers will the audit committee have to take action on any serious failures that the report may discover? Will those responsible really be held to account, or, as is rumoured, and in a repeat of the Icelandic bank scandal, will some less senior officer be marked out and led to the blood stained One Barnet sacrificial altar?

And the problem with the audit committee's involvement in all this is that in theory, it should already have picked up the warning signs of this failure to regulate the payment of a private contract. If there were no systems in place which would have revealed the long term existence of the use of a private company without the regulation of a contract, then it suggests that this is a serious failure of the audit process. The wider implications are immensely important: if Barnet Council cannot run the contract process properly with the companies it uses now, how on earth can it be trusted with the enormous risk of the One Barnet outsourcing programme? External auditors Grant Thornton have ripped apart the authority's preparations for the launch of this scheme: the lack of risk assessment, the lack of any credible business plan: how are they able seriously to propose further privatisation of our local services when they are clearly so incompetent?

And the situation may in fact be far worse than we first thought. The question must be posed: are there other companies used in casual arrangements by Barnet untendered and unregulated by contract?

On Monday Mrs Angry submitted a question to the press office of Barnet Council regarding the two other security companies used by the borough. When, she asked, were contracts awarded to Blue 9 and Magenta, the companies now being used instead of MetPro, both of which seem to have been used by the authority, in varying degrees, at least since 2006, the same year MetPro was first employed.

After two days with no response, Mrs Angry made further enquiries and was rather surprised to get a reply from a Mr Chris Palmer, assistant Director of Communications at Barnet, (no relation, presumably, to his Lordship) keen to assure her that a response would be forthcoming. He is of course a big fan of Mrs Angry, despite once barring her from the Barnet Facebook page for making comments which were considered by Mr Palmer to be - oops - of a political nature, or rather of a nature critical of the infallible policies of correct One Barnet thinking.

Mr Palmer is one of the increasing number of senior officers employed by our authority on private contracts. He is employed via a company called Renouval, costing us £44,325 in July to September, and £31,248 October to December, and another £9,072 in January, £9,571 in February, £11,592 in March. Funnily enough, he does not appear to have been paid in April - as Mr Reasonable points out in his latest post, quite a few of Barnet's consultant and agency employees are missing in action. Perhaps they are giving a month's free work as some sort of Big Society contribution?

Blogger Mr Mustard this week revealed that another lucky senior officer, Deputy CE Andrew Travers, only gets out of bed for the handsome amount of £1,000 a day, in his 'interim' post. I'm not sure how long 'interim' means in Broken Barnet: approximately as long as the duration of the Roman Empire, I'm guessing.

You might think that some of our councillors might ask why, at a time when we are being told of the need for radical budget reductions, and so many council workers on low salaries are facing redundancy, we still need to to spend so much money on the long term use of very highly paid senior officers working in private arrangements with the authority. Is this really the best use of resources? Let's be grateful, though: at least Mr Travers' terms of service have been shown to be sanctioned by contract, even at such a price.

Mrs Angry is at a loss to understand why she has not received information about contracts for Blue 9 and Magenta. Er - there are contracts, aren't there? Those naughty people who suggest that there are more companies other than MetPro who have not had their 'arrangements' sanctified by contract are surely mistaken, aren't they? And these tales of an unfortunate habit in our financial department of invoices being paid before orders, or paid twice, must be completely wrong, without a shadow of a doubt, and we are confident that the Audit Committee report will be able to clarify any misapprehensions on this score. If contracts do exist for Magenta and Blue 9, Mrs Angry will be pleased to publish the details here - if she receives a response.

Perhaps we should see no reason for alarm, anyway. Yes, we have a billion pound budget, here in Broken Barnet, and we are just about to throw much of it in the way of private companies in a One Barnet outsourcing free for all, but just because we cannot manage to regulate the 'arrangements' we already have, this does not mean that it bodes ill for the future of privatised services in our borough. There is nothing wrong in public services being given to any friendly company willing to accommodate the wishes of our Tory administration. We don't need all that bureaucratic red tape and rubbish about safeguarding, and risk assessment, do we?

Equally, Mrs Angry is happy for her council tax to be spent on the monthly bills of private consultancies and agencies employing senior officers, on long term interim posts which are never filled, or made subject to council pay scales, and conditions of service. If we have to pay over the odds for these people, well: this is how market forces work. This is how we do things in One Barnet. Private enterprise has been slowly sliding its hand upwards along the trembling leg of the public sector, and we have been told we must learn to close our eyes and put up with it.

Oh: thing is, all around the country, the many mutant versions of easycouncil/One Barnet/New Strategic Direction are beginning to fall out of favour - look what has happened in Suffolk, where the massive outsourcing agenda has now unceremoniously been given the old heave ho: this is what new Leader Mark Bee had to say:

“The days of the council being a ‘light’ council, being an ‘easy’ council approach which I think underpins the New Strategic Direction, are over. It is now about working with Suffolk to come up with Suffolk solutions.”

The latest thinking on outsourcing generally is of course that, hello - big surprise: it doesn't actually provide the profits we were all once promised. Private sector seducers are getting their wrists slapped. Easy councils are not quite as easy as they once seemed.

Here in Broken Barnet, a significant number of senior officers have legged it, over the past few months. Why the rush to leave Barnet, a successful London borough? Well: it's pretty clear that they do not want to be associated with the collapse of the One Barnet programme. Like canaries down a coal mine, they are the first indicators of a disaster waiting to happen: they are getting out before it's too late, and their careers are hopelessly compromised.

Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: in the next couple of weeks there will be a leadership vote: this gives you an opportunity to stop the One Barnet programme in its tracks. You must know that so much is at stake now: not only are huge numbers of loyal council staff facing terrible uncertainty over the future of their jobs, vital frontline services here in this borough are going to be put at risk. Those who will be affected will be the most dependent and vulnerable members of our community.

Look at what is happening around the country, not just in other local authorities, but with examples of private companies given the responsibility of delivering public services. Look at the perilous state of care homes providers Southern Cross, and the fire service company AssetCo: remember MetPro, and the legionella scandal in local care homes: making profit from public services comes at a cost, and that cost is borne by the residents who have no option but to rely on a deteriorating standard of service.

It's up to you, Tory councillors: in your first year in office, as we know, you have not exactly covered yourselves in glory. Here is a chance to redeem yourselves in the eyes of your constituents. Elect a new leader who is courageous enough to call a halt to the One Barnet programme, and save us all from the disaster waiting to happen.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this well written, careful, informative blog. I'm a Barnet (Finchley)resident who has largely avoided becoming involved with local issues but this seems no longer to be possible. The ideological, short-term thinking needs to be confronted and you are challenging the symptoms.

I'd like to help, in so far as I can.

Mrs Angry said...

Welcome to Broken Barnet, Jeffrey, and thank you for your interest ... one thing for which we must be grateful to our local authority is the unexpected awakening of political consciousness across the borough. I am not sure whether we have to challenge ideological thinking or the pursuit of self interest: I suppose it amounts to the same, in the end.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

I must protest at your appalling grammar.


Go and sit on the naughty step!

Mrs Angry said...

I must protest at your protesting about my grammar, DCMD: I believe that there is a long and pointless debate about the use of this word, but in this case I think it is ok. Of course your old school masters at Slough Comp might disagree. I do hope that I have not invalidated the whole audit process by my grammatical solecism.

I am always on the naughty step, it seems, for one thing or another. Oh well.