Monday 16 July 2012

Broken Barnet: where all senior officers are equal, but some are more equal than others

Margaret Hodge

Yes. An interesting week in Broken Barnet.

Tomorrow is the day when the District Auditor comes to town.

Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable and Mr Mustard will meet Mr Paul Hughes, from Grant Thornton, and he will listen politely to our list of queries in regard to the accounts of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and look slightly uncomfortable, and then he will promise to give the matters his due consideration, and then we will go away, and he will ride off into the sunset, and that will be that.

Or so you might expect. That's what happened last year.

But that's when Mrs Angry was still an apprentice armchair auditor, and still innocent. Not anymore.

The point of this chance to speak to the auditor is, as you may recall, meant to offer the opportunity for residents to raise with him any concerns they may have after inspecting the accounts of the authority, as is our right under the terms of the Audit act of 1998. Unfortunately, as we reported, Barnet chose to obstruct this right of inspection, in breach of the law, and will now have to face the consequences.

So, an interesting week ahead, and hello: one which began very promisingly this afternoon, with another spectacular humiliation and exposure for our very own council in, of all places, the House of Commons.

The House's Public Accounts Committee, was today discussing the interesting subject of interim consultants, paid into private companies, and their erm, no not evasion, their avoidance of PAYE and National Insurance, and all that boring stuff the rest of us have to contribute to, in order to pay for government spending on you know, trivial matters like healthcare, education, welfare support.

This useful sidestepping approach to the attentions of HMRC was first revealed by Barnet's own interim consultant blogger, Mr David Hencke, not so long ago, with the story of the interesting tax arrangements of Ed Lester, head of the Student Loans Company, and the consequent revelations of a widespread practice of similarly favourable deals throughout Whitehall and the public sector, a conveniently overlooked loophole which has deprived the country of untold millions of pounds in tax revenue.

Barnet Council's senior management team, of course, is stuffed full of interim consultants. Look what happened when questions were asked about our beloved borough, and the precise number of posts which are filled in this way: you can watch the recording of this here,

if you would like to revel in the moment - starts at about 15.20.

Chair Margaret Hodge stands for no nonsense and has a keen instinct for no, not truth evasion, truth avoidance, by any speaker.

Ms Carolyn Downs, from the Local Government Association, is sitting before the committee ready to assure them about the insignificant number of posts reported by seven of the nine regional employers asked for details of interims receiving salaries above £50,000.

Rather astonishingly, Ms Downs told the committee she had identified only 13 posts in total. In the country. Yes: only 13.

Margaret Hodge asked her about - oh ... Barnet Council, where there are said to be perhaps seven posts - ( in fact, we think there are around double that, Margaret) - Oh dear, no, Ms Downs could not possibly comment.

Why not?

Because although she had asked Barnet Council last week erm ... they had not replied.

Perhaps no one was in at the time. Or they were hiding under a table in the Comms team room.

Naughty, naughty, London Borough of Broken Barnet, not answering a question for the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Anyone would think you had something to hide.

As there are, apparently, only 13 such posts in the whole country, but an undiscovered nest of the little critters, equal to that sum, thriving here in our borough, what does that tell you, empty headed Tory councillors of Broken Barnet?

Answer: it tells you that, as we keep saying, the senior management team, the over paid officers who are pushing you to believe in the necessity of the One Barnet outsourcing madness, have all the control over this authority, and are doing very nicely out of us, while you sit back & let them get on with it, and lecture the rest of us on the need to make savings, and abide by a diet of austerity measures.

The Chair of the Public Accounts committee was of the opinion that interim, in this context, should only mean in a post by necessity of circumstances, for no more than, ha - six months. The woman from the LGA agreed - and with a straight face - and told the committee that not one of the 13 people she had identified had been in post longer than a year.

In Barnet, some of our 'interim' post holders have been in place since 2009.

Our Section 151 officer, Mr Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers, the deputy Chief Executive, and Chief Finance Officer, is in an interim appointment - since 2010. You might think he is run off his little feet with work here in Barnet, what with all the procurement mess, and the £1 billion outsourcing programme & stuff, but no, he is also now the (interim) Director of Corporate Resources for East Sussex Council. Clearly, he is so good at being an (interim) he can do it in two places at the same time - like a man with two mistresses, you might say ... While he is present in Broken Barnet, his contract (yes, he does have one, a rare thing here) stipulates that we must pay him £1,000 a day for his troubles. But, as we have often observed, Andrew clearly is worth every fucking penny, isn't he?

I'm sorry, Lord Palmer, did you say something?

Ms Jacquie McGeachie, the 'interim' Assistant Director for Human Resources, has been with us since January 2009.

Just a couple of examples. Plenty more where that came from.

The woman from the LGA told the committee that interim posts were only allocated when there was a problem with recruitment, (in Barnet the problem usually is that they can't be bothered to try very hard) for a short period, less than six months, or in exceptional circumstances, for instance, and this does happen, she assured us, as if it were the most terrible event that could occur, if an authority lost a Chief Executive OVERNIGHT. Just imagine, if you will, waking up tomorrow and finding that Mr Nick Walkley had disappeared without a trace. OVERNIGHT. Sad loss, but we would be about £200K better off, if they didn't fill the post. With an interim. For the next four years.

Ms Downs stated in her offering to the committee that there was not really much to worry about in terms of keeping a tighter grip on the issue of too many interim consultants in local government because - ha ha, you'll like this - because 'there is now so much accountability and transparency about everything we do'!

Oh dear me, how Mrs Angry laughed. Are you laughing, Mr Reasonable, and Mr Mustard, Barnet Eye, and Citizen Barnet?

Margaret Hodge and the committee were not awfully impressed by Ms Downs' failure to extract from Barnet the question about the number of interim posts here. She has ordered our council to provide the relevant information to her. We all look forward to that.

And why is this all so important? Because as she said at the start of the meeting:

'if you are in a job that is funded by the taxpayer, you have a moral duty ... to contribute through PAYE and National Insurance contributions back to the public purse ...'

A moral duty. In Broken Barnet?

Eric Pickles must be sitting in his office, banging his head on the desk and weeping tears of frustration. What to do with this troublesome council?

If Barnet Council was a school, Michael Gove would be sticking it in 'special measures', and sending in an emergency task force to sack the management, sack the governors, and put an end to the catalogue of disasters that unfolds, week by week, in this borough's administration.

Your armchair auditors do their best, but really, why should we have to? Pull your f*cking finger out, Eric, and do something. Please.

And in the meanwhile: Mrs Angry must do her homework for tomorrow's meeting.

More tomorrow.


Mr Reasonable said...

Oh dear! Perhaps Mr Walkley and Cllr Cornelius will be receiving a summons from Mrs Hodge to appear before the Public Accounts Committee. I am sure that, yet again, Barnet will be on the receiving end of bad publicity exemplifing poor judgement and poor leadership from the top.

Mrs Angry said...

I do hope so, Mr Reasonable. We could have a bloggers' day out & go and watch them wriggle. What fun.

And more fun this afternoon, with the auditors. See you later ...

Anonymous said...

Might be appropriate to call Jacquie as head of HR, to explain the policy Barnet has on this.

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm, good point, Anon. Not sure there is room enough in the committee room for potential visitors from Barnet ...

baarnett said...

You will be wanting to suggest to Margaret Hodge that the Barnet Leadership is anxious to appear before the committee, by contacting her:

And you mustn't take custard pies.