Friday 9 December 2011

The elephant that fell through the crack: audit meeting, Part Two

The auditors came to town, but they missed the procession of elephants

After the public question time, there was a member's item from Labour councillor Geof Cooke. He had asked a question about fraud, but Councillor Cooke was not very happy with the question that was in his name on the agenda. He stated that the question he had submitted had been rewritten, and the version which had been published online and attributed to him was not in fact his work.

Councillor Cooke had included a reference to MetPro, and that reference had been omitted.

Why would that be, do you suppose, citizens of Broken Barnet?

Item 6 was the annual audit letter, 2010/11 from Grant Thornton. See 'Everything in the garden is lovely' for a summary.

GT's Tom Foster addressed the committee and told everyone why everything in the garden was lovely. His colleague Paul Hughes gripped his face and listened while Tom glossed over a reference to 'some improvements' that were needed in relation to contracting. Hmm. Some improvements. Move on.

Ah, but Tory councillor Brian Schama was not ready to move on. Mrs Angry rather likes Councillor Schama: partly because he always grins at her in a twinkling Tory amused way at meetings, and partly because he is old school gentleman Tory, and not a boorish oaf like most of the Conservative Barnet councillors. Call Mrs Angry a snob, but she likes her class enemies to be well mannered, and know which knife to use at the table.

Anyway: Councillor Schama immediately expressed his firmly held view that now, six months after the MetPro audit, council contracts should be 100% compliant, and that meant all contracts other than those needing emergency procurement. This appears to be too radical an idea for the liberally minded auditors of Grant Thornton, however.

Lord Palmer's turn to look a bit twinkly eyed. He thought that there was something along these lines that we would be discussing later. Ah ... listen -there is a stomping of feet in a corner of the room: the elephant is awake.

Another Tory on this committee, Hugh Rayner, is another independently minded member (relatively speaking - remember we are talking about Barnet councillors here) and he added now that the report from Grant Thornton was markedly lacking in any really positive terms of appraisal - such as 'outstanding'. Mrs Angry thought that was a little unfair, as any lay reader would fairly swiftly come to the conclusion that the entire procurement system was still outstandingly bad.

Paul Hughes gripped his face even more determinedly and looked glum.

Senior officers present smiled complacently as the Chair thanked them for agreeing to come to the audit committee, even though he had no powers to compel them to do so. It was indeed awfully kind of them, thought Mrs Angry, that they agreed to do their f*cking jobs and go through the process of pretending to be accountable when in truth they are not.

Cllr Old, with his finger firmly off the pulse, went off on a tangent and asked about council assets. What assets, asked Mrs Angry? You've sold them all.

Labour's Alan Schneiderman asked about our reserves: auditor Tom Foster thought, yes, it was a good idea to have some. Marvellous. He chuntered on and Mrs Angry's mind started to wander, but then she thought she heard him use the word 'paradigm' and her attention snapped back in time to see Mr Paul Hughes dart him a mystified look.

Cllr Schneiderman then asked Foster for his assessment of the plans in place (or not) to prepare us all for the huge scale of outsourcing brought by the One Barnet programme.

In a rather extraordinary admission, Foster said they had not really done enough work on this area. What? Why not? He stated: 'We can't really answer this question ...' Er: what is the point of having external auditors if they are not able to assess the adequacy of preparations for a £1 billion commercial project? Surely nothing could be more important?

Foster was off again, rabbiting on about being 'holistic' ... he thought that they might get around to scrutinising One Barnet finances in the future, sometime next year (too fucking late, mate, commented a member of the public) Craig Cooper was looking uncomfortable by this point, as well he might. Of course he might just have been bored. It was an awfully long meeting, and he probably had more interesting things to do.

Labour councillor Cooke asked more questions about contracts not showing up on the awful SAP IT system, where only contracts under the value of £25 K are currently listed. The rest of the council's contracts - the ones they have, or think they have, or what pass for contracts in the happy go lucky world of Broken Barnet - they exist only on a spreadsheet somewhere, supervised by Mr Bob Cratchit, with a goose quill pen and a flickering candle.

Maryellen Salter thought the spreadsheets were a step forward. Well, thought Mrs Angry, one up from the ink stained parchment ledger and abacus system, maybe.

Cllr Cooke tried to bring up the subject of parking revenue, and referred to the sudden 7% loss in income from parking since Brian Coleman's cashless scheme was imposed on the borough. He was told that this issue was too new to feature in the audit committee's remit - the audit committee is of course still dealing with the last quarter of 1843, and struggling to keep up.

Lord Palmer thought it might be a good idea to hold more audit meetings. Craig Cooper yawned.

Next up: CAFT, the corporate anti fraud team, presenting a report on performance.

Cllr Rayner asked about the effectiveness of anti-fraud prosecutions as a deterrent, and explained that as an ex military man (like Captain Cooper, of course) he was aware that the enemy needed to know how powerful your weapon is ... Lord Palmer intervened and pointed out to Councillor Rayner that in fact we are not allowed to shoot benefit scroungers. Typical Liberal wishy washy spoilsport.

Publicity was an effective weapon, however, we were told. Let's put all details in that marvellous publication, said Rayner, the corporate magazine, 'Barnet First', (one of those Town Hall Pravdas that you so dislike, Eric, but they still waste money on, even though they are never delivered to residents and sit unread in some warehouse, at our expense).

One imagines that if this journal were to be more widely distributed, thieves and scroungers all over the borough would of course be sitting by their letter boxes, waiting for the next issue, and moved by the tales of fraudsters prosecuted by CAFT, side by side with morally uplifting pictures of our virtuous Tory councillors presenting their friends with civic awards, would feel suitably chastened and instantly resolve to eschew a life of crime.

Mr Jeff Lustig, the Director of Corporate Governance, spoke up to explain that the BBC had been filming a CAFT investigation: 'Operation Avalanche', shortly to be shown on a series called 'Saints or Scroungers'. Lord Palmer mused on this title and wondered which was which, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Before this item finished, there was a curious development. Palmer asked the officer from the CAFT team if she would kindly look at the issue raised by Mrs Angry regarding the senior officer and one of the four short listed outsourcing companies. Mrs Angry was rather taken aback by this suggestion, as fraud had not been an allegation made by her, rather a potential conflict of interest, which is, although a very serious matter, entirely something else. Mrs Angry would have preferred that CAFT had investigated the MetPro affair, which was curiously considered a subject not requiring assessment by the corporate fraud team.

Item 8 was the report from internal audit. Councillor Cooke wanted to know more about a reference to some sort of compliance requirement applied in the case of countries outside the EU. Some people in the room were clearly puzzled by this and wondering why it was relevant. It is relevant: what is generally not understood is that the One Barnet outsourcing programme will not only take jobs away from this borough, it may well take some services overseas. Mrs Angry is not the only blogger to have received visits from companies in the Indian subcontinent apparently interested in what may be on offer for them.

Lord Palmer now introduced an interesting question in regard to the internal audit report. What, he asked, is the extent of Cabinet members' involvement? There are 10 executive members: what do they do? Perhaps Ms Pam Wharfe might have been able to tell us more about her dealings with Councillor Brian Coleman at this point, but Craig Cooper wanted to sing the praises of deputy leader Councillor Dan 'John' Thomas, who was always very keen to know what he was up to (I'll bet), was 'interested in results' (even the wrong ones?) and 'holds me to account'. Hmm. But you are still there, Captain Cooper, even so.

Uh oh: procurement again. Palmer is clearly not going to keep quiet much longer about a certain case that has been raised, a non compliant 'contract' involving over £2 million pounds worth of tax payers money. Mr Cooper's head drops.

It does seem, suggested Cllr Rayner, that there is an elephant in the room. The room, at this point, was shaking, as heavy feet pounded impatiently in the corner. The elephant, we were told, would be performing shortly.

FOI requests now though: aha - Labour's Cllr Schneiderman reminds officers that there should be 100% compliance as this is, oh yes, so it is, to be sure, a legal requirement. Mr Lustig agrees: in an ideal world, he said, there would be 100% compliance. The London Borough of Broken Barnet is not an ideal world, reflected Mrs Angry: it is a state of dystopian nightmare, where compliance is irrelevant. Lustig blamed the 'complexity' of many requests. Mr Mustard, Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry all groaned. Mrs Angry muttered to Mr Reasonable that he might admit that the requests which are routinely delayed, obstructed, or simply ignored are in fact the politically sensitive ones, rather than those presenting 'complex' demands.

Back to procurement: oh - Ms Pam Wharfe sits at the table in her shiny, kitten heeled patent shoes to answer questions. Mrs Angry is wearing pointy, high heeled boots. Pointy high heeled boots win over kitten heels. Ms Wharfe once took a very close interest in the contents of Mrs Angry's living room window, you know, and now look: Mrs Angry is taking a very close interest in her shoes. Isn't life strange? Karma, see.

Sitting behind Ms Wharfe is a large grey elephant, rearing up on its hindlegs and reducing Mr Paul Hughes to a frantic display of pen waggling. As an auditor of some experience, Mrs Angry can tell you that this is code for: Help me - I do not want to be here, I wish I was somewhere else, and I wish I had become a train driver instead of an auditor. Of course, if Mrs Angry subscribed to the Freudian school of analysis, she might interpret his gesture in an entirely different way.

Ms Wharfe explains that, as Mr Mustard discovered, she signed a DPR generously bestowing work worth around £80K upon RM Countryside Ltd, a company with whom Barnet had a contract, or at least an arrangement, that had already been deemed to be non compliant. There also appears to have been an absence of other tenders for this work. Oh: the work the company was paid for? It was to remove the parking machines so disliked by Ms Wharfe's boss, Councillor Brian Coleman. It would seem this programme has come to an unexplained halt, for some reason. The removal was supposed to have been completed by November 21st, but the machines still stand forlornly in their places, unused, and unloved, wrapped in black bin bags and sticky tape, like Lady Gaga tribute acts.

Ms Wharfe said in reply to Cllr Rayner that no, she had not seen the company's accounts, and that no one had noticed that the involvement with this company had continued despite the 25% of total work rule that is supposed to prevent using any companies being used with too great a reliance on council business. No one had noticed the aggregate amount, which was unfortunate, but nobody's fault. Well, yes it was, but someone else's. Not a senior officer. Senior officers sign documents but apparently do not have to check them before they do so.

Captain Cooper dealt with the issue smoothly, with nice hand chopping gestures. There were inevitably going to be 'legacy' issues in procurement. When they had started looking at the number of non compliant contracts (courtesy of our MetPro investigations, rather than the rather extraordinary fact that Cap'n Cooper and his team had apparently not noticed that the council had no proper tendering, procurement, contractual and payment procedures) ... well, at first they had thought that there might be say, two hundred non compliant arrangements. As it turned out, and he thought this was a testament to the hard work of his officers that this was revealed, rather than something to be ashamed of, er, oops: six hundred contracts that are not contracts were found to be lurking in the filing cabinets of Broken Barnet. A testament to your officers' incompetence, then, Captain Cooper, or, more fairly, perhaps, the incompetence of the senior management team?

Still: carry on chaps, business as usual - as he said, there will inevitably be instances that fall through the system. This one, he told us, had, er, 'fallen through a crack'.

To my knowledge, he boasted, to the amusement of the bloggers, there are no others.

The chair, and committee members, and bloggers laughed, and laughed, and then laughed some more.

Cllr Schama sternly expressed the view that he expected full compliance from all officers, from the Chief Exective Officer down. Goodness, what a demand, Councillor Schama.

As the meeting came to an end, the Director of Corporate Governance announced that he had to read out a statement. He explained that he needed to clarify a point, after remarks made during the CAFT item by the Chair, Lord Palmer, and to reiterate that a member of the public (ie me) had not alleged any fraudulent activity on behalf of any individual. Mrs Angry was perplexed by this. Er, can I say something, she asked. NO, came the reply, which she ignored. Because, she said, that is quite correct, I made no such claim. How very peculiar, thought Mrs Angry, and rather touching: the director of Corporate Governance, perhaps inspired by the mention of Carter Ruck at the Tambourides complaint hearing, has felt moved, as a gentleman and lawyer, to defend my reputation. Hope he doesn't send me a bill. She almost felt regretful, then, and slightly ashamed of the blog she wrote comparing him to Captain Pugwash.

The meeting ended, and the zoo keeper came to collect the elephant, and take him away to a secret destination. Unfortunately, the elephant's stomping in the committee room has caused a large crack to appear in the One Barnet building, and it is likely that many other inconvenient truths may fall through this crack in the near future. Let's wait and see, shall we?


baarnett said...

Tuesday 6pm:

They seek her here, they seek her there, they seek these bloggers everywhere.

The glass is clearing... I see a posting... there are some words coming through... "Mrs Angry, mystery shoppers - "... No, the glass is cloudy again... Maybe the posting will reappear...

Mrs Angry said...

sorry baarnett: was trigger happy in my rage ... see new post