Monday 6 June 2011

Easycouncil: the stinking truth exposed by the MetPro Report

I've just come home and read my way through the MetPro Audit Report.

I expected to be surprised, but this report really exceeds all expectations.

It is quite frankly a staggering, appalling indictment of the financial and managerial state of this borough: a catalogue of every conceivable act of incompetence you could imagine might take place in the worst run local authorities in the country.

No wonder our Tory councillors and senior officers didn't want any independent inquiry. They must have hoped that by keeping this catastrophic situation confined to the remit of the internal audit committee any recommendations can be managed in such a way that will contain the full impact of the findings. If so, they are gravely mistaken.

There will be a lot of comment on the report in the next few days, no doubt, but in the meanwhile, here are some choice extracts:

The report immediately acknowledges 'serious deficiencies in current procurement arrangements', and rather understates the conclusion that controls have been 'ineffective'.

More than £1.3 million pounds has been paid to no less than THREE successive MetPro companies, over a period of five years, with numerous serious breaches of regulations of all sorts. This was not a single act of maladministration, this was a total systemic failure tolerated by not one individual, but many, whose responsibilities should have ensured it was impossible for these breaches in regulation to continue.

The prevailing political culture in Barnet is directly responsible for the laxity which allowed such breaches to occur and remain uninvestigated for so long. Our Tory councillors cannot plead ignorance: it is their duty to put in place the mechanisms which should effectively scrutinise the financial management of their administration and clearly they have completely failed to undertake this responsibility.

The report continues:

'No procurement exercise had been undertaken to appoint MetPro, in accordance with the Council’s CPR. No written contract between the Council and MetPro could be found. There is no record of an approval and authorisation for the use of MetPro for providing security services. In the absence of a formal procurement exercise, we could not locate the following documents/confirmation for MetPro, which the CPR require:
  • Financial viability of the company
  • Equal Opportunities Assessment
  • Criminal Records Bureau checks
  • Confirmation of company’s Public Liability Insurance arrangements
  • Confirmation of the company’s Health and Safety registration
  • Confirmation on the SIA licence status of the Company Officers
  • An agreed specification which outlined the service to be provided
  • An agreed schedule of rates for payment of invoices
  • A process for monitoring performance of service delivery to establish if the Council was
receiving value for money' 'The council has failed to comply with its CPR (procurement regulations) and financial regulations, exposing the council to significant reputational and financial risks' Er, rather than worrying about the council's reputation and finances, should we not be worrying more about the residents, children, and vulnerable adults put at risk by the council's failure to monitor SIA and CRB checks?

'Officers cannot on the basis of existing procedures give assurance that this will not happen again, due to the lack of an accurate and complete contract register and effective monitoring arrangements for contracts ...'

'Internal audit cannot give assurance that this non compliance is an isolated incident, due to a lack of an accurate and complete carefully held contracts register ...'

As my last post illustrates, the non compliance over MetPro clearly is NOT an isolated incident.

The report observes 'we cannot rule out fraud' although it states none has been alleged, and no evidence found. Let us look at the facts, as stated by the audit findings:

By September 2010, officers were aware that no contract with MetPro existed, yet they allowed the situation to continue, and to expose residents and staff to risk from the use of such a company.

In the period 2006/7 a procurement exercise had been arranged but 'did not progress. The reasons for this, we are told, are 'unknown.'

After a review in 2009 by Samwell Associates, a need for a security specification was again identified. Comments the report: 'However, to date this procurement exercise has not progressed.'

Why the f*ck not? That a sustained failure to implement such basic systems went unnoticed by all council officers over a period of so many years is surely beyond all credibility?

The report makes an interesting comment in the section dealing with potential fraud: it refers to councillors' Members' Interest forms and declarations and notes rather naively that no one has mentioned a connection to MetPro. I feel totally reassured by this, of course, but might point out to Lord Palmer and his team that the systemic failure of almost every aspect of safeguarding which ought to have been in place in regard to procurement over so many years has left the council wide open to attempted fraud and possible corruption, and I personally believe that there should now be a fuller investigation which would address these issues.

Monroe Palmer should be given credit for doing his best to address the MetPro issue within the constraints of an audit report. There are however significant omissions which must not be overlooked: for example - the data protection issues in relation to the covert filming of residents, including me: a resounding silence on that score. How curious.

Oh, and there is no clear indication as to who, if anyone, should take responsibility for the grossly incompetent sequence of events which lead to this company's five year employment by the authority.

We have a deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer who is paid £1,000 a day to oversee the financial organisation of this borough: I'm guessing he hasn't started packing his One Barnet pencil case yet. I imagine the Commercial Director read the report, adjusted his cufflinks and carried on with business as usual. And probably some lesser ranking officer has already been given his marching orders.

The wider implications of the MetPro scandal are also patently avoided in this report: the easycouncil, futureshaped world of One Barnet has been shown for what it really is - an empty, infantile concept masquerading as a political model, but serving as a process to facilitate the profits of the unregulated private sector. Easycouncil was the much vaunted idea of our local Tory MP Mike Freer: in fact he became leader of Barnet Council in the same year that MetPro was first employed by the borough. There is a fitting symbolic signficance there, at the very least, I think, don't you?

And finally: funnily enough, in Lord Palmer's report, he takes the trouble to thank the council's management and staff for their time and cooperation. Ahem. Monroe, Mr Walkley, Mr Harper - I think there are some other people you might like to say thank you to. Let's not overlook the fact that if it were not for the determined investigation of the bloggers of Broken Barnet, this whole stinking business would never have come to light, would it?

You're welcome. Have a nice day.


Mr Mustard said...

It is clear Mrs A that at the top at least Barnet really is Broken and unlike Humpty Dumpty it is not going to be able to put all of the pieces back together again, partly because some of the pieces were missing in the first place.

Mr Mustard may not have mentioned that his first job as a naive 18 year old was as a junior auditor for the local Council and he spent his time on mundane tasks like mileage claims and checking that car park income matched the number of tickets issued - in the good old days when cash was used for all purchases, and that the cash actually reached the bank on a daily basis. These are the very basic checks that the senior officers have failed to carry out in their indecent haste to explore new ways of working and I little thought all those years ago how useful my experience would be or that I would witness such incredibly arrongat blistering incompetence as I read about yesterday. And to the Auditor, who is one of the few highly paid people currently earning their pay at Barnet Council, welcome to Broken Barnet & well done for not trying to sweep the mess under the carpet.

Moaneybat said...

" The report observes 'we cannot rule out fraud' although it states none has been alleged,"

Maybe the report should have included
"as a Councillor, one has friends and acquaintances tendering for contracts"

MickeyN said...

If the procurement documentation was deficient and if the proper procedures were not followed and if there was no evidence of internal controls - such as supervision and senior management scrutiny - HOW can the auditor so categorically rule out conflicts of interest?

Also, whereas the audit has dealt with the how, what and why, it has (unlike a proper inquiry)entirely missed the WHO. If heads do not roll for this debacle, then one has to conclude that there is no accountability in the government of Barnet. If this were a private company (so beloved by the powers that be in Broken Barnet) the senior team (Walkley, Travers etc) and the board(Hillan, Harper, Coleman etc) would be fired for the damage to the organisation's REPUTATION alone, leave aside the lack of compliance, systemic irregularities, financial incompetence, unreliable management information, and the risk to people and assets (including those guarded by the unregulated Metpro).

Mrs Angry said...

Mickey: you are absolutely right - the report is shirking the duty to identify those responsible for this mess, and clearly there can be no accountability without responsibility.
Many of our senior officers are rewarded with grossly inflated salaries on the basis that they have to be recruited on the same terms as they would receive in the private sector. As you say, in the private sector, they would already have been thrown out. The other dimension is the political responsibility of the last two Tory administrations. More on this later.