Wednesday 8 June 2011

Sins of Omission: Barnet and the MetPro Audit

If, like all the best bloggers, you happen to have spent your formative years in the Catholic educational system, (thereby acquiring the warped sense of morality which leaves you with a life long hatred of institutional hypocrites), you will be familiar with the Confiteor, the act of confession, whereby forgiveness is sought 'for what I have done, and what I have failed to do'.

Sins of omission, the stuff we failed to do, rather than the more obvious, glaring acts of wickedness we may commit in the course of our lives, are so much more interesting, I always think. And so much harder to define, aren't they?

Failure to act can have consequences just as disastrous as the commission of a sin, or a crime, and a passive tolerance of wrongdoing is in many ways more culpable than a random act of lawbreaking.

Which brings us to the sensitive subject of the range of matters covered by the MetPro Audit, the seen and the unseen. Without a doubt this report reveals details of the breathtakingly awful sequence of corporate maladminstration by the London Borough of Barnet. But it fails to address the full impact of these failures, some of which are themselves sins of omission committed over many years, and during two Tory adminstrations.

In the excitement over the MetPro Audit, readers may not be aware of the wider implications of full findings of the council's Internal Audit Report, a subject referred to by Mr Reasonable earlier this week. I urge you to read his post and his summary of the findings of this Report. You will see that the gross incompetence of Barnet Council is not confined to the appalling breaches of procedures involving the MetPro scandal.

What is truly shocking here is the following indictment of the authority's failure adequately to address the issue of compliance with CRB checks on a corporate level. In regard to such requirements, the report comments:

  • There were gaps in the scope and content of existing policies and procedures at the time of the audit and there was no robust monitoring process to assess compliance with these procedures
  • There is a lack of clarity in terms of application/interview questions that recruitment officers should adopt for safer recruitment purposes
  • There is a lack of an audit trail to substantiate pre-employment checks
  • There is no common process at a corporate level to confirm compliance to the CRB requirements across all service areas
  • Some CRB procedural processes have not been fully complied with
  • Only limited site inspections are being carried out to confirm CRB arrangements within supply management in Adults Social Care and Children’s Services, no policy exists setting out the approach to those contractors not visited
  • There are differing approaches to CRB checks within HR, Adults Social Care and Children’s Services and as inefficiencies exist
  • Within Children’s Services disclosure notes in relation to CRB’s are being retained for more than 6 months, this is in contravention with the Data Protection Act
  • For agency staff who start employment before their CRB clearance is received there has been no evidence of a risk assessment being completed as required by the HR protocol
These conclusions are simply incredible, aren't they? Looking at the MetPro case, we have an example where Barnet has allowed unlicensed security employees, acting illegally, whose CRB credentials have never been checked, to have close contact with residents to whom it must have a duty of care, and most worryingly including children and vulnerable adults. Look at the following excerpt from a pdf document published by MetPro, with the title 'Emergency Response at Barnet Council':

"Our mobile officers are a valuable asset where staff, such as social workers and housing officers, visit unpredictable clients. From performing this “on location” protection, to providing secure escorts for foster carers and “at risk” children, we are trusted to be involved with very sensitive cases. Working closely with Child Protection Services, we have been directly responsible for interventions protecting children as well as monitoring the safety of contact between children and parents to ensure no-one experiences any form of distress."

Amongst the other boasts in this ludicrous document, in which the company claims to have been described as 'compassionate steel' are references to working at Barbara Langstone House, a local hostel for vulnerable homeless residents. The company, incidentally, also claims to have had letters of commendation 'from local residents and councillors' on the beneficial effects of their presence at the hostel, and that its zero tolerance of drug and alcohol abuse had eradicated problems such as anti-social behaviour. This latter statement is absolutely untrue, in fact the situation, until recently, has been a major source of trouble for local residents and necessitated constant attention from the police. - with notably little support from the council.

On page 4 of this document there is a photograph of a MetPro employee with three children in a park. One of the young girls appears to be having physical contact with the male employee. Without implying any wrongdoing on the part of this individual, it is clearly inappropriate that an unlicensed security employee of a local authority, whose CRB credentials have not been established, to be engaging with children in this way.

Before the Report was published, I submitted a statement to the Audit Committee councillors in regard to the MetPro issue, and included a copy of this document. As far as I am aware, there is no reference within the Audit Report to the need to set up a separate inquiry to investigate the possibility of breaches of safeguarding regulations concerning children and vulnerable adults that may have taken place due to the failure of the authority to ensure proper validation of MetPro's license and CRB accreditation. Surely, in the circumstances, it is necessary for such an inquiry to be put in place?

Another issue which my statement raised, and is an area which has been omitted from the scope of the audit, despite assurances from the Director of Corporate Governance, in reply to a formal complaint, is the question of the breaches of the data protection law, and specifically the matter of the illicit filming of bloggers and other residents at the Budget Meeting of March 1st. This matter must also be, as promised, the subject of a full inquiry to address questions such as how many other residents have been filmed without their consent? Were any children filmed? What happened to the footage?

Another serious omission in this audit is the unresolved question of accountability. The report tells us what went wrong in the sequence of failures regarding the MetPro issue, but it fails to address the need for those responsible to answer for their actions. There are so many references to failures in procedure, and yet no one is being identified as to their involvement, or asked in any detail to explain why, for example, on so many occasions, officers failed to implement the procurement process.

Lord Palmer's investigation dismisses any possibility of fraud without actually looking any closer than an glance at councillors' declarations, and a naive acceptance that as no one confessed to any link with MetPro, there could not be any doubt over such a possibility, yet the thought that officers should be scrutinised for the same potential conflict of interest appears not to have occurred to anyone.

The Barnet bloggers are well aware of all sorts of allegations in relation to this unsavoury story, some of which we have not published, but there most certainly is enough information within this report and elsewhere in the public domain to suggest that a fuller - and independent -investigation into the possibility of fraud may well be necessary.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Tories in Barnet are in the slightest bit keen to do the right thing, and put their oft quoted committment to transparency into action, however: in today's online local Times, Councillor Daniel Thomas gives us, dismissively, in a statement of unsurpassing stupidity, even by Barnet Tory standards, the summary of his conclusion on the corruscatingly awful indictment of the MetPro audit:

“I know that contract management is an area we need to tighten up on, which is exactly why we have this report.”

The thing which is tightening up nicely, in the meanwhile, is the noose around the neck of the Tory administration of Broken Barnet.

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