"Dear Lord Palmer,
You may recall that at the last Audit Committe meeting I submitted several questions regarding the issue of the conflict of interests of senior officers of the borough, expressing particular concern about the need for transparency during the One Barnet programme and the current tendering process that will outsource £1 billion worth of council services.
I raised the specific example of an officer who had taken an active part in the dialogue process for the customer service package, worth £750 million, and has now taken a post with one of the four short listed companies competing for the business on offer.
Without making any personal accusation of wrong doing in this case, it seemed to me, and to many others, that this is an extraordinary development within the context of such a hugely sensitive commercial negotiation, and that in the interests of transparency and probity there must be an urgent investigation into the circumstances in which this former employee was able to take up a position with a shortlisted tendering company. I am uncertain as to whether any such investigation has since taken place.
At the audit meeting I had asked:
1.What controls and procedures does Barnet Council have in place to manage the risks of conflicts of interest - and the perception of conflicts of interest - inherent in the appointment and secondment of Senior Officers to and from organisations with which the Council has, has had or is likely to have, commercial relationships?
"Barnet Council's pre-employment recruitment process requires that all selected candidates complete a Code of Conduct-Declaration of Interest questionnaire. Secondees sign a three-way secondment agreement between the individual, Barnet Council and the seconding organisation which will be specific to the requirements of the particular post. All senior individuals working on One Barnet projects sign a declaration of interest form for each One Barnet project for which they are involved in the procurement. In addition, anyone involved in the procurement must sign a Competitive Dialogue Confidentiality Agreement specific to One Barnet."
I asked then if such declarations were in the public domain. You suggested that such material would be available on request made via the Freedom of Information Act. I replied that I had had a less than satisfactory experience of asking questions on 'sensitive' subjects in FOIs to Barnet Council.
If you care to read this piece I have written in my blog on Friday:
you will see that on 1st November I submitted an FOI request to Barnet in regard to a register of interests for senior officers, the implementation of which was agreed in March 2011.
"In March this year, the council's directors and senior officers proposed creating a register of interests in order to log any potential conflicts of interest relating to procurement and other issues resulting from the One Barnet outsourcing programme. Please tell me when this register was implemented, and give me copies of all entries to the current date."
As is, regrettably, usually the case with any FOI request to the authority on a politically sensitive issue, no response was made within the statutory time limit. This is deliberate practice by the authority and such obstruction, as well as the failure to make the declarations of interests properly accessible, is in direct contradiction of the oft repeated committment to transparency and scrutiny, and the principles of the new localism act adopted by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and supposedly a keystone of Coalition government policies.
The eventual response sent 18 attached forms of declaration of interests by senior officers, and refused to forward the details of another 67 'non senior' officers.
Despite the register supposedly being implemented in May, most of the 18 forms were signed in October, the rest in September, yet the 105 working day period for the competitive dialogue process for the DRS package ended, as I understand it, on 28th October. There are some curious omissions too: why are there no declarations from the Chief Executive, and only one from the Deputy Chief Executive? And where, one might ask, is the declaration from the employee who has gone to work for the shortlisted company?
I wonder if, as Chair of the Audit Committee, you would care to comment on the response I have had, and consider what action might be appropriate to pursue in the light of what appears to be a failure of the due process of regulation of the declaration of interests?
Last year's exposure of the MetPro scandal was instrumental in revealing not just an example of gross negligence in the specific case of the authority's security arrangements, but in the wider and frankly astonishing scale of incompetence in the management of procurement, contractual procedures and payment - in the greater context of the failures that needed to be addressed, one issue was overlooked. That was the consideration of whether or not any malpractice had taken place by any council officers. In my view, there was clearly evidence sufficient to warrant an inquiry by the Corporate Anti Fraud Team, and it is deeply regrettable, in my view, and that of many other residents, that no such investigation took place.
In the case of the declaration of interests, and I know that there was some confusion over this at the audit meeting, without suggesting any specific example of alleged fraud, I think that it is paramount that there is an urgent investigation into the broader issue of the apparent lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the interests of senior officers - and any less senior officers with direct responsibilities involving them in the dialogue process of the One Barnet outsourcing project.
I would go further, in fact, and say that the process should be suspended until it can be ascertained that the two separate dialogues - and possibly other recent contractual negotiations - have taken place with due regard to the proper regulation of such processes. Failure to do so could arguably place the authority in a difficult position should it later be challenged by any accusation of improper practices or failures in regulation that may have taken place throughout the course of the tendering process.
As I am sure you are aware, since 1st July 2011 there has been a new Bribery Act, which applies not just to senior officers of the authority, but to all employees, and I would also be interested to hear your opinion as to whether or not Barnet has made adequate provision within its processes and commercial transactions to minimise the risk of breaches of the new legislation, taking into consideration the lack of transparency and apparent laxity with regard to compliance with the register of interests in the case of the One Barnet procurement process.