Monday 1 August 2011

MetPro: questions to councillors - the response from Labour

Nearly three weeks ago, the Barnet bloggers sent a list of nine questions on the subject of the MetPro scandal to every councillor - Tories, Labour and LibDems. We will be publishing details of the responses received, and begin with the answers sent by Councillor Alison Moore, on behalf of the Labour group: we received an impressive number of individual responses from Labour councillors as well. You will see what sort of reply we had from the Conservative members later this week. Can you guess, citizens, how many Tories ignored the survey?

This is an exemplary reply from the Labour group leader, and she is to be commended for taking the time and effort to respond in such detail. If only the Conservative administration in Barnet showed such committment to the principle of engaging with the community it is supposed to represent. Localism in action, Eric: but sadly by Labour councillors, and not your own party, here in the Tory badlands of Broken Barnet.

Comments by Mrs Angry in red.

1. Are you aware of the issues concerning the MetPro security companies and Barnet Council?

The Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore, raised the alleged filming of members of the public directly with the Chief Executive after receiving a complaint by a member of the public. She was informed that an investigation by officers was taking place into the matter.

Cllr Moore, and at least one other Labour councillor who had been contacted by another member of the public on the secret filming by MetPro, submitted a series of questions to officers enquiring into the nature of the contract with MetPro. Replies to these questions were received on the 12th April 2011, by which time the Barnet Bloggers and the media were quite rightly running stories about the company.

The Labour Group and Shadow Cabinet have discussed the issues concerning MetPro, and wider issues around procurement and contract management of services, including the One Barnet Programme at Labour Group and Shadow Cabinet meetings. Actions taken:

* Labour raised MetPro in an emergency motion submitted to Council the day after the news emerged that the company was not properly licensed. The motion called for a full public inquiry. The motion was not chosen for debate by the Conservative administration, despite the public interest in the matter. Text of the motion can be found here.

* Labour called-in to the Scrutiny Committee, Cabinet decisions relating to the outsourcing of services proposed by the One Barnet Programme (see answer to question 5 below for specific examples).

* Labour raised concerns about procurement and contract management with Cabinet Members at Council Question Time (see examples at question 5 below) – even prior to MetPro.

* Labour raised concerns about procurement and contract management of outsourced services at One Barnet Scrutiny Panel meetings.

2. Are you satisfied that the Council has managed the issue properly?

There should have been a full public inquiry;

Our continued concerns about the mass outsourcing of services under the One Barnet programme while procurement is still a weakness have been met with glib responses from the Cabinet Member who seems to think that procurement will be sorted out by outsourcing it;

The One Barnet programme (OBP) should be stopped – at least until procurement is sorted out. In general our view is that outsourcing services is not a panacea to improve the quality or efficiency of services, but it is being treated as one by the administration. All but two of the services that have undergone an options appraisal under OBP are now being outsourced.

The administration has now scrapped the One Barnet Scrutiny Panel, making it virtually impossible to properly scrutinise proposals to outsource services due to the limited time available at Budget & Performance Scrutiny. The Labour Group will be asking Full Council to reinstate the One Barnet Scrutiny Panel to ensure that this work is given enough time and resources.

*This dumping of the OB Scrutiny Panel is inexcusable, and exemplifies the Tory Cabinet's determination to ignore the principles of transparency and accountability, to stifle all debate and free engagement with the democratic processes of the council, making it easier for the One Barnet agenda to be imposed without obstruction, completely against the best interests of the community as a whole.

Cabinet Members regularly fail to attend Scrutiny Committee meetings where services in their portfolio are under discussion. The Leader of the Labour Group has written to the Leader of the Council to ask for his support in ensuring that they do. His public answer follows:

12 July 2011 Council meeting:

Question 18 Councillor Alison Moore (Labour):

No Cabinet Members attended the last meeting of Budget & Performance Scrutiny, including the Cabinet Member responsible for Resources, and the Cabinet Member responsible for the easyCouncil programme. Does the Leader think this is acceptable, when important reports on the management of resources (MetPro and others) and important reports on easyCouncil outsourcing projects were on the agenda, and does he think this damages Barnet's reputation on accountability?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius, Leader of the Council (Conservative):

I regret that I was not able to be at the meeting and further regret that no Cabinet Member was available to be questioned or comment. However senior officers were there and able to answer. Clearly it would be much better for relevant Cabinet Members to be in attendance.

* The increasing tendency to non attendance simply reflects the growing arrogance of the Cabinet members - and their contempt for the democratic process.

3. Do you agree with the comments of Lord Palmer, chair of the Audit Committee, that Barnet Council’s Internal Audit is under resourced?

The Labour Spokespersons for Audit and Resources, Cllr Geof Cooke and Cllr Alan Schneiderman respectively, have raised the under-resourcing of the audit function at Council meetings well before and following the MetPro scandal. See below exchanges.

Council meeting on 12 July 2011:

Question 6 Councillor Geoff Cooke (Labour):

The special Internal Audit report on procurement of security services from MetPro exposed dreadful failings in the procurement function in Barnet including a lack of any central register of contracts but earlier routine reports on the central procurement team twice gave a verdict of ‘Limited Assurance’ rather than ‘No Assurance’. Are there any plans to increase the staffing of Internal Audit?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

Resource levels are kept under constant review and will be maintained at a level sufficient to maintain a robust internal audit service.

Following a review of internal audit by the external auditors, the external auditors submitted a report to the Audit Committee and noted in their conclusions that no significant issues were identified with internal audit's work, the CIPFA Code had been applied in all significant respects and the work was produced to a satisfactory standard.

Council meeting 25 January 2011:

Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

Why did the Cabinet endorse cutting the Council’s internal audit service when officers believed that the proposed cut would reduce the service by an unacceptable level?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

The Council faces tough choices on spending cuts, and no area of the Council should be exempt from reviewing their costs and coming up with more efficient ways of delivering services. Officers have been working up alternative proposals that would not reduce the level of service to the level initially indicated.

Supplementary Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

Thank you Mr Mayor. When I raised the internal audit cuts back in October I was told that it would not affect the internal audit service which is now acknowledged not to be the case. So it is good to see that this ill-thought cut out is now been reconsidered, but why has he and the rest of the Cabinet approved it as an option given the warning that officers had given.

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

Mr Mayor, the Cabinet were right to be ambitious with savings across all the services in the Borough and it now transpires that the One Barnet approach of sharing back office services may actually save costs. We are now talking with Enfield, and sharing the service with them should be able to realise all the savings in the proposals. So, I’m glad that we have been ambitious and quite clearly the Labour Group would not have been as ambitious.

*As Mrs Angry reported last week, as heard at Thursday's Cabinet Resources Committee, it is now admitted that other local authorities are showing a predictable reluctance to share such services with the MetPro tainted London Borough of Broken Barnet. No surprise, really, is it?

Council meeting July 2010:

Question 43 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):

Does the Administration "buy in" to the internal audit process?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

Yes, the Administration fully supports the internal audit process as a key element of effective corporate governance.

Supplementary Question 43 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):

Why then had Cabinet Members not required senior officers to co-operate with the internal audit process and thus avoid the need for the external auditors to comment on the lack of buy in?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

Mr Mayor, I am not aware of Cabinet Members being involved in the audit process that to the extent that they had encouraged services not to buy in to audit. I can state quite clearly now that we are bought into the audit process, we have restructured the audit function, we brought it under the finance directorate, and we co-operate with the Committee and the auditors. And it is for the Audit Committee to oversee all this and to raise any concerns either with the Chief Executive or the Director of Finance.

4. Have you personally spoken to the Leader of the Council about your views on the MetPro scandal?

Individual councillors will respond to this issue directly, although it is quite clear that the Administration wish to view this as an officer level failure, as was the case with the Icelandic banks saga.

5. Besides the MetPro scandal, do you believe that there are other serious problems with purchasing in Barnet Council?

The Labour Group Leader issued a statement about other incidences of poor procurement and contract management: Times series report

Adults Services: The recent Serious Case Review into the death of a vulnerable adult and the recent annual Safeguarding report has shown there are still problems with commissioning and procurement in Adults Services. A few years ago there were also problems in the procurement of the Meals at Home Service, which the Leader and the previous Deputy Leader of the Labour Group expressed concerns about, and tried to call-in to scrutiny, but the decision to agree the contract was taken by an officer under delegated powers so it could not be called-in and challenged. The Meals at Home service failed on the first day with meals not delivered to vulnerable adults, and invoicing problems for some time afterwards (you may recall invoices for hundreds of pounds were sent to elderly people just before Christmas). Labour’s Health & Adults Services Spokesperson has raised concerns at Council around the reliance on Telecare following the scrapping of sheltered housing wardens – Telecare received a “no assurance” from audit – a proper Service Level Agreement with the support service was not in place (see the exchange with Cllr Cornelius that is re-produced below).

Environment: The procurement of technical and complex contracts to deliver the bridge replacement project at Aerodrome Rd ended up in hundreds of claims from contractors against the council, and an overspend of around £12m. There have been problems with the contract management of the cashless parking service which audit have picked up on and given a “limited assurance”. There have been complaints from residents about the street lighting PFI – in particular where lamp posts have been placed in front of driveways, and directly in front of bedroom windows *(ha - ask Mrs Angry about it: see her many posts about this idiotic, wasteful scheme earlier this year) – Cllr Cooke also raised the Streetlighting PFI at Council in November last year – the exchange is re-produced below. The Labour Group have raised concerns over the quality of road maintenance and believe the contract specification may be to blame – see the below motion submitted by Cllrs Kath McGuirk & Claire Farrier to Council.

Central services/Finance: Barnet has £27.4m frozen in Icelandic banks as a result of not following Treasury Management Practices properly. There have been problems with the procurement and implementation of council IT systems (Housing Benefits and Council Tax systems and SAP).

Labour councillors have called-in to Scrutiny Committee virtually all the One Barnet Cabinet reports, and raised the issue of procurement and contract monitoring/management at those meetings including BMOSC, the now defunct One Barnet Scrutiny Panel, Budget & Performance Scrutiny, other scrutiny committees as well as General Functions and the now defunct Joint Corporate Negotiation Committee that both deal with staffing issues and TUPE. Links to the call-in requests regarding procurement/contract monitoring/service monitoring are shown below. It is interesting to note that on only one occasion in each of these instances (the Parking Service Business Case) have administration members on BMOSC supported Labour’s call to refer these outsourcing plans back to Cabinet, and in that one case, when Cabinet met to discuss the reference back, Cabinet simply re-affirmed their original decision:

Business Management Overview & Scrutiny (BMOSC) 11 July 2011:

Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Annual Safeguarding Report to raise issues of procurement; also the New Support Services (including procurement) & Customer Services outsourcing plans: committee papers

BMOSC 1 June 2011:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Cabinet decision to proceed to procurement in the Adults Services Business Case – contract monitoring was raised: committee papers

BMOSC 21 March 2011:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the New Support Organisation & Customer Services Options Appraisal and raised lack of service specification prior to procurement: committee papers

BMOSC 16 December 2010:

Cllrs Barry Rawlings and Kath McGuirk (Labour) called-in Cabinet decisions relating to the potential outsourcing of Adults Services, the Parking Service, the Passenger Transport Service, Development & Regulatory Services and the One Barnet Framework – to delay procurement and request more robust business planning figures.

The Sub-Committee referred the decision on the Future of the Parking Service back to Cabinet for the following reason:

“That the procurement should be delayed due to a lack of robust evidence of financial information and for a full options appraisal to be carried out, including the in-house option.”

Cabinet, 10 January 2011 (Decision item 10) – resolved that decision item 10 (Future of the Parking Service) taken by Cabinet on 29 November 2010 be reaffirmed: committee papers

BMOSC 13 September 2010:

Cllr Kath McGuirk (Labour) called-in Cabinet decision to re-focus road maintenance work – asked for recommendations to be changed to make reference to monitoring of contractor quality and performance: committee papers

BMOSC 8 April 2010:
Cllr Alan Schneiderman (Labour) called-in the Treasury Management Strategy – proposed an additional recommendation that should set out what the specific member monitoring arrangements of the service are and should be: committee papers

BMOSC 16 November 2009:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the updated Future Shape report.

BMOSC 7 September 2009:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Cabinet Decision relating to the procurement of Community Advice Services following the axing of the Welfare Rights Service. Asked about the procurement process, and the need for a proper service specification that has taken account of a comprehensive needs analysis prior to procurement: committee papers and further

BMOSC 13 July 2009:
Cllrs Alison Moore and Barry Rawlings (Labour) called-in a further iteration of the Future Shape Report and here.

BMOSC 18 June 2009:

Cabinet Overview & Scrutiny (COSC) 10 December 2008:

Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Future Shape Report.

Labour councillors with audit and resources in their Shadow Cabinet portfolios have asked questions on audit and privatised / contracted out services at Audit Committee and Full Council eg:

April 2009 Council meeting:

Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

In the light of the ineffectiveness of the internal auditing of financial procedures within Treasury Management which failed to pick up breaches of the Treasury Management Strategy, will the Cabinet Member reconsider the £100,000 cut from internal audit in this year’s budget?

Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council (Conservative):

As highlighted in the Scrutiny working group report, Internal Audit has reviewed the treasury management functions every year since 2002/03 and did not highlight any compliance issues to the relevant senior managers. A full investigation is to be initiated of both the internal and external auditing practices regarding treasury management and, as a result, I do not feel able to comment further at this time.

Supplementary Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

It is true that breaches of the Treasury Management Strategy weren’t picked up by Auditors but is that not a case for actually putting more resource into auditing rather than cutting them?

Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council (Conservative):

Councillor Schneiderman talked earlier on about asking the right questions. Well, perhaps, in one of his rare meetings with the Officers, he might like to ask the proper question of how this reduction was arrived at, because actually it is not reducing the internal audit headcount.

The £100,000 reduction is broadly based in two parts; one is a reduction in fees paid to Deloitte for external work and the one is the deletion of a post of an information co-ordinator, neither of which are to do with internal audit and the internal audit headcount remains unchanged. If he had asked the right questions perhaps he would have had the answer to this before tonight.

July 2009 Council:

Question 46 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

Can the Cabinet Member detail the contract monitoring activity for all currently externalised Council services?

Answer by Councillor Lynne Hillan (Conservative):

There are at least 400 contracts in place across the council, some of which are provided by external organisations and partnerships, and it would not be possible in this reply to provide comment on them all. Some contracts, such as the Primary School (PSCIP) Contract with Kier and the leisure contract with Greenwich Leisure London are managed centrally within Major Projects, though the majority of contracts are managed and monitored across the organisation by Directors and their heads of service. The Corporate Procurement Team manages corporate contracts and is available to provide advice and support to service directors in carrying out their contract monitoring responsibility. The monitoring of contracts and effective delivery of services remain important elements of these commercial arrangements.

*Well, isn't this statement interesting? Clearly Directors and heads of service were understood to be responsible for monitoring contracts, spectacularly failed to do so, yet remain in post.

July 2009 Council:

Question 15 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):

In the Internal Audit Annual Report no assurance could be given regarding the ‘Telecare’ system. This report was issued on 01/06/09 – a week before the cabinet meeting discussing the future of wardens in Barnet’s Sheltered Accommodation and in which Telecare was cited as a major component of future provision. Were Cabinet informed that there were ‘weaknesses in control that put the systems objectives at risk’ before making their decision?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):

The Telecare system is a valuable technology that enables people in need of assistance to summon help immediately. This system has additional functions over and above the basic alarm service and is in its third year of operation.

Barnet’s alarm monitoring service (Assist) has dealt with Alarm calls since 1989 from Sheltered Housing schemes and others. This operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. This exceeds Telecare Service Association good practice in terms of response. This will continue to provide service to all Sheltered Housing Residents.

The Telecare audit raised the issue of a service level agreement not being signed with the response support service. This agreement is now being finalised and will contain performance targets, reporting expectations and information sharing. The Cabinet made its decision regarding the replacement of the warden service in sheltered accommodation as a forward looking improvement and no specific allusions to the audit of past and present telecare system were made.

Supplementary Question 15 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):

Would you agree with me given this wasn’t discussed with the Cabinet, that there has yet to be a full and frank discussion of the issues with the Cabinet?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):


July 2009 Council:

Question 17 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):

In the Internal Audit Annual Report, no assurance could be given regarding the Meals at Home Service. This is more than 2 years after the failure of the invoicing system that caused so much distress to users of the service. How many years will it take to get it right and is this not further evidence of the administration’s lack of competence?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):

The audit of the meals on wheels service was initiated by the Director. The report recognised that improvement work had started prior to Audit. The assessment and invoicing function continues to improve. All concerned are working to ensure that the invoicing will be right, very quickly and not in a timeframe measured in years.

Supplementary Question 17 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):

Can Councillor Cornelius enlighten me, getting it right will not be in the timeframe measured in years? Was he looking for epochs, aeons, millennia to get it right?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):

I was looking for a short period of time but I was reluctant to commit myself to a specific date.

*In One Barnet, time is measured in grains of sand passing through a giant egg timer, which conveniently flips over and begins the process anew, whenever there is a danger of time running out.

Nov 2010 Council meeting:

Question 36 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):

The Council’s street lighting PFI contractor customarily blocks the pavement while replacing lamp columns. On average per lamp column, for how long do pedestrians have to walk in the road and what is done by the Council to minimise that time?

Answer by Councillor Brian Coleman (Conservative):

It is not possible to provide a definitive timescale per lamp column, as the works required at each location may vary depending on site circumstances and underground obstructions. It is not customary to block the whole of the pavement while replacing lamp columns. However, on those rare occasions where the whole of the footway on one side of the road is closed due to an excavation the opposite side is, whenever possible, left unobstructed at that point and signage is installed to guide pedestrians to that effect. Therefore, one would expect the general public to cross the road and use the unobstructed footway. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prevent those pedestrians who seem to prefer to walk along the road to pass the guarded excavation from doing so. If Councillor Cooke wishes to report such cases I am sure Officers will deal with them.

*Councillor Coleman does not need to walk on pavements like ordinary citizens: on the rare occasions that he is not transported by taxis, or carried in a sedan chair, the divine being's feet never touch the ground, and he floats along the pathway at a height of six inches, like a particularly fearful ghostly apparition.

Supplementary Question 36 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):

Is it not the case that the Council’s contractors can literally go along a road digging holes around existing lamp columns and blocking off the pavement; and then leaving the road for days on end before they come back and complete the work? And isn’t the absence of an answer to the last part of my written question an indication of future shape of things to come because this contract is not being supervised properly?

Answer by Councillor Lynne Hillan, Leader of the Council (Conservative):

I’m afraid that you have 2 different contractors – you have got the contractors who go and fix the lamp post and you have got the contractor who does the electrical work. That is standard practice as I am sure you do not want people who fix lamps getting involved in electrical work and it is against health and safety. Actually, do you know what, we have replaced so many lamps around the Borough and the only one complaint that I have ever had is you, Councillor Cooke.

*Here is another one, then: Mrs Angry's lamp post was replaced, completely unnecessarily, over a six month long period, only completed at all due to the embarrassment caused by this blog in a series of posts poking fun at the whole process.

As reported last week, the Cabinet and Resources Committee approved the proposal to nick more than £400 k of contingency fund money and divert it to the PFI lighting scheme: why?

Council: Tuesday 20 April 2010:

Opposition Policy Item in the name of Councillor Kath McGuirk (Labour) – Potholes in Barnet - Amendment in the name of Councillor Claire Farrier (Labour)

“Council notes the extraordinary number of potholes in Barnet – with over 3,000 reported by local residents since October last year, and 2,560 the council have identified as of 12th March that still need repairing.

"Council notes that maintaining our roads and pavements was a key manifesto commitment for the Conservatives in the Local Elections in 2006, but despite spending tens of millions of pounds the state of Barnet’s roads has barely improved, and in some cases is worse than before.

"Council believes this is a direct result of the policy of patching and of poor quality maintenance of our roads over the last eight years which has now been laid bare by the extreme winter weather. In addition, the Barnet Conservatives have cut the winter maintenance budget year on year, compounding the problem further.

"Council welcomes the extra £176,000 that the government has given Barnet to help repair roads after the winter weather, but notes that the administration has allocated little new money in the budget for road and pavement repairs in future years.

"Council believes that maintaining our roads and pavements is a basic and core service that the council provides, and that it should continue to be so.

"Council asks Cabinet to consider reviewing the state of our roads and pavements, what resources and policies are needed to maintain them properly, as well as how road maintenance is procured and what contract specification is used.

"Council also asks Cabinet to work with any Scrutiny task and finish group set up to look into or review this.”

"Council asks that Cabinet closely monitor the progression of pothole repair work.”

Council meeting 12 July 2011:

Question 28 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):

Does the Cabinet Member now accept that it is not acceptable to have a target of reviewing only half of the contracts held by the Council and if so what will the target be raised to?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

I believe that it is appropriate for the council to agree a performance indicator for 2011/12 to review 100% of contracts held by the council in excess of £25,000.

6. Do you think a halt should be called to the One Barnet Programme while investigations continue and basic procedures in procurement and contract monitoring are improved?

The Labour Group are on record saying that One Barnet should be stopped as a result of the procurement failures – but also before MetPro occurred:

Labour Group position on One Barnet post MetPro revelations: Times series article.

Council meeting 12 July 2011:

Question 24 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):

What is your assessment of the risk of progressing with a major expansion of outsourcing under ‘Easy Barnet’ before the Council’s procurement operation has demonstrated over a sustained period the capacity, organisation and competence to support current outsourcing?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):

I believe that risks are being mitigated against now that a Procurement Action Plan is in place and that the Council will be working with an implementation partner when outsourcing.

Labour Group position on One Barnet just prior to MetPro revelations: Times series article and

Labour Group position on the publication of the first major iteration of the Future Shape project:

7. Do you believe that as a councillor you have a responsibility to prevent such scandals arising in future?

All councillors have a responsibility to scrutinise council services and raise concerns where they have them in order to prevent scandals of the MetPro kind. The full support of Cabinet Members, administration scrutiny members and officers is required in order to achieve this. The Labour Group looks forward to working with colleagues cross-party to try and prevent anything like this occurring in the future.

8. Have you read the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal?

Individual councillors will respond to this.

9. Are you happy with the decision to remove nine staff from Barnet Council’s procurement team, as proposed by Craig Cooper at the General Functions Committee on 30 June 2011?

Cllr Alison Moore, the Labour Group Leader, issued a statement once the General Functions report was published saying that cutting posts in procurement was a bad idea. Labour councillors on the General Functions Committee voted against the proposal when it was discussed at General Functions committee: Barnet Times article

*As we saw, although procurement was the responsibility of Captain Cooper and his fellow Directors and heads of service, they all remain in post, whereas several key posts in the lower levels of procurement have suddenly been lined up for the sacrificial altar. Why is this, do you think, citizens?

There are, as you can see, still many questions about the MetPro affair which remain unanswered. You may like to form your own conclusions as to why this might be so.

Thanks to Mr Mustard for technical support, although of course Mrs Angry is just pretending to be a technological eejit, did you know?

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