Wednesday 20 July 2011

MetPro: still no answers from Grant Thornton

Broken Barnet, audited by Grant Thornton

Last week, you may recall, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable had an interview with Mr Paul Hughes, the representative of Grant Thornton, external auditors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry spent more than an hour and a quarter with Mr Hughes, and had lots and lots of interesting things to tell him.

Poor Mr Hughes had not expected to see Mrs Angry, and a sighting of the wicked witch of Broken Barnet as he arrived at the council offices that morning had evidently given him an unpleasant surprise. Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry were duly informed that Mr Hughes would not see the troublemaking pair together, in case they ganged up on him, and made him cry.

Mrs Angry sent word back that she promised to be gentle with Mr Hughes, (obviously she could not speak for Mr Reasonable) and he pulled himself together, and kindly agreed to see the two armchair auditors at the same time.

Mr Hughes, who is a personable enough man, and has a lovely, soothing, Alan Bennett style of speech, which makes you think about tea and biscuits, and long, wet afternoons in Southport, sat and listened to a long list of issues which Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry felt moved to bring to his attention, while his assistant took notes, as did Mrs Angry.

Did you know, citizens, by the way, that Maryellen Salter, the head of Internal Audit at Barnet, used to work for Grant Thornton?

Mrs Angry watched with interest, throughout the course of the discussions, as Mr Hughes, the champion pen jabber of the MetPro audit committee meeting, became increasingly red in the face, and by the end of the session had been reduced to a double handed, chin gripping state of anxiety, which was, shamefully, a sight that Mrs Angry secretly rather enjoyed, and which she had hoped reflected an intention to do something urgently about the more pressing concerns which had been raised. Mrs Angry can be surprisingly naive at times.

Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry agreed that they would not publish the details of their discussion with Mr Hughes until he had had a chance to reply to the points they had raised, and they have stood by that decision - until now.

Unfortunately, we have now received responses from Mr Hughes which suggest to us that the issues we have brought to his attention will not be the subject of any hasty consideration, if at all, despite the urgency of certain aspects of matters raised. Writes Mr Hughes:

"Over the next 2-3 weeks we are carrying out a programme of work to review the Council's response to the issues raised by the internal audit report, discussed in the Audit Committee meeting and reiterated in subsequent communications.

We will report our findings in our Annual Report to Those Charged with Governance, which will be presented to the 6 September Audit Committee meeting. Until we have completed our work and presented this report we will not be issuing any further comment on this matter.

As noted in our previous letters we will not rule out the possibility of further reporting, including under our statutory reporting powers, should it be required after this time."

In other words, the position of Grant Thornton has not changed from the one explained to us at the beginning of the meeting. Mrs Angry has reason to believe that other letters very similar to this have been sent to Andrew Dismore, and at least some of those who contacted Mr Hughes, after his email address was published in this blog, and also by up and coming blogger Mr David Hencke, about ten days ago.

In fact this response could have been written at any point since Mr Hughes' refusal, some three weeks back, to allow a public interest inquiry into the MetPro scandal on the curious grounds that it was unnecessary, too expensive - and would tend to undermine confidence in a public body.

You might be wondering why any of this matters. Let us explain. Mr Reasonable will tell you all about the issues he raised, and the wealth of material which he brought to the attention of Mr Hughes. I will tell you about some of the things I mentioned.

Obviously the subject of MetPro was the first issue we wished to discuss, and the decision by Mr Hughes, as the borough's external auditor, not to allow the public interest inquiry. Mrs Angry expressed her strongly held conviction that public confidence in the London Borough of Broken Barnet was already at an all time low, and that the only way in which this might be restored would be if there were a further inquiry into what was quite clearly, whether or not Mr Hughes liked to admit it, a matter of public interest. She also patiently explained the existence of a widely held perception that there was a potential conflict of interest in the decision to proceed with an inquiry being in the hands of Grant Thornton, who were themselves so intimately involved in the issues under scrutiny.

Mrs Angry reminded Mr Hughes of the annual audit letter his company had produced for Barnet for the financial year of 2009/10, in which the borough's finances were, rather surprisingly, perhaps, given a clean bill of health. Mr Hughes was unfamiliar with the details of this letter, but unluckily for him, on her way to the meeting, Mrs Angry had just had time to grab a look at the copy published on the Audit Commission's website. She was happy to remind him that the letter had announced that 'managing finances continues to be a strength area for the council', and had even praised improvements made in areas such as commissioning and procurement. Grant Thornton had also found no 'control issues'.

Mrs Angry assured a nodding Mr Hughes and his assistant that she was of course just an empty headed woman with no understanding of the complexities of the audit process, but still she did find it odd that in the years in which MetPro has been so happily employed on such breathtakingly unregulated terms, and being in fact only one case symptomatic of an entirely unregulated system of procurement, contracting, monitoring and payment, that this should somehow have passed unnoticed by the borough's auditors, who were, after all, paid rather a lot of residents' money to look after the financial health of their council's administration.

Oh dear. This observation was not, Mrs Angry felt, entirely welcome. But there it was, hanging in the air like a foul smell: the stench of MetPro, like a rotting corpse under the floorboards, getting more and more noticeable by the day.

And talking of which, the conversation moved to the conclusion made in Lord Palmer's MetPro audit report that the possibility of fraud could not be excluded. We pointed out to Mr Hughes, at some length, and in some detail, why Barnet's bloggers and many other residents were concerned about the apparent lack of interest by the authority in investigating this extremely serious aspect of the MetPro scandal. You must draw your own conclusions, ladies and gentlemen, as to whether or not we were wasting our breath.

Mrs Angry has noted, incidentally, some very interesting visits to her blog in the last couple of days, arriving via search terms which indicate a significant new line of interest from a particular public body, and Mrs Angry would hope that all the appropriate parties, including our auditors, are aware of this, otherwise it could prove to be rather awkward for them.

Moving on, then: early in the meeting we had discussed a matter relating to Barnet's stealthy and unhealthy increasing reliance on the use of so called 'interim' contracted 'consultant' senior officers, on very generous rates of pay, and with no signs of their posts becoming formalised or even fully published in the online expenditure. Mr Reasonable will fill you on all the details.

Mr Hughes mentioned in passing that the scrutiny of declarations of interest, gifts and hospitality of senior officers came under his remit as auditor. This was a timely discovery for Mrs Angry, who explained to him that she was concerned about the refusal of Barnet Council to respond to a Freedom of Information request in regard to the attendance of senior Barnet officers at any events organised by BT. This request is weeks over due, and Mrs Angry has heard nothing since the 6th July, when, after more than one enquiry, she was eventually given an apology for the breach of statutory time limit, and told that, oh dear -yawn -the officer was 'still getting the information together'. No further information has been forthcoming. Why does this matter? Well, read my post 'Only Connect: BT and the cult of Vital Vision' for the wider perspective, but there is a more acute reason for concern.

On Friday 8th July, our council held a 'market' event for various profit hungry companies that might be interested in the banquet of business opportunities that is being laid out for their delectation, as part of the One Barnet outsourcing of our public services. Attending this event, we are told, were the obvious contenders such as Capita - oh, and BT.

Surely it is perfectly clear to any reasonable person that in these circumstances, with such huge business contracts at stake, and bearing in mind the disastrous state of management of our financial administration, that there has never been any more pressing need for transparency over the matter of the declarations made by our senior officers? What justification can there be for withholding such information? In the next few weeks, who knows what sort of negotiations will be taking place. How can the residents of Barnet be assured that these negotiations will be made in accordance with the highest standards of probity and transparency? Well, they can't, in my view, as things stand.

We pay a massive annual fee to have our council's financial management scrutinised by external audit. We are told by the devotees of the One Barnet faith that they are committed to 'better services for less money'. Do the residents of this borough think that we are getting value for money from our contract with Grant Thornton? I think it is a fair question, don't you?

No wonder Eric Pickles is so keen on the free services offered by the the citizen journalists and armchair auditors of Broken Barnet.

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