Monday 3 September 2012

Mr Reasonable and Mr Hughes, and yes, everything in the garden is lovely. Still.

For some weeks now Mrs Angry has been having a protracted discussion with Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, the external auditors of Barnet Council, attempting, with absolutely no success sos far, to persuade him to investigate certain issues of public interest relating to the financial management of this borough by our Tory administration.

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has also been trying very hard to raise serious issues of concern with him, and reports today in a post that really should be read by anyone with any interest in the sheer madness of the One Barnet programme, and the incredible, ever rising costs accruing from its implementation.

Mr Reasonable is particularly interested in the contract Barnet has with One Barnet implementation partners Agilisys, working with iMPOWER, the company that now employs the ubiquitous Mr Max Wide, who has previously worked for Barnet and BT.

As Mr R explains:

Back in July 2010, Councillor Dan Thomas signed a Delegated Powers Report awarding the Implementation Partner Contract for a three year period to Agilisys working with iMPOWER. The value of this contract was in excess of £500,000 in the first year of delivery with circa £2,000,000 identified as potential contract delivery cost over a three year period.

In the last two years Agilisys have billed over £3.5 million and, at the current run rate of £275,000 a month, is likely to hit £6 million by the end of the contract next year. So Councillors were told it would cost "circa" £2 million it is already almost double that figure and by the end of the contract period will possibly be treble the figure agreed.

We don't know exactly how these costs are broken down, or the details of the contract, because when we went to the council offices to inspect the accounts, as is the right of residents, according to the Audit Act of 1998, all the material had been ruthlessly redacted, and this contract was perhaps the most heavily redacted document of all.

We don't know which consultants from Agilisys/iMPOWER sit on the One Barnet DRS project board and wield such unelected, unaccountable power of decision over all our lives, in their 'advisory' role on such matters as the recently reported last minute abandonment of the strategic partnership model to a joint venture. This was of course a decision taken by senior officers, and these anonymous consultants, and accidentally announced by an 'interim' director before they had gone through the tedious motions of having their plans rubber-stamped by our dopey, uxorious Tory councillors.

Mr Mustard has determinedly asked for details about the Agilisys involvement in the project board through a series of various FOIs: the response to the crucial question is months overdue in yet another blatant refusal to obey the laws which are meant to protect the rights of citizens to demand openness and transparency from their elected representatives. (If you're still Secretary of State when you read this, Eric, come on: pull your finger out and do something about this slippery bunch of eejits, will you, if you really do believe in all this localism crap you keep banging on about?)

When Mr Reasonable and I had our interview with Mr Hughes, he raised two issues in regard to the whopping Agilisys bill:
  1. That councillors had been led to believe this contract was going to cost around £2 million and that it looked like on present spending it was going to cost £6 million. As such, were officers legally allowed to exceed this budget by so much without getting further approval for the spending by Councillors and did this make that spending ultra vires; and
  2. Part of the money paid to Agilisys was to develop the Council’s new website which was outside the scope of the original contract and therefore potentially in breach of EU procurement rules.
Hmm. Tricky, but Mr Hughes had a ready answer for both queries. The trebling of the fee to these consultants was ok because, ermm, the original agreement had only stated circa £2 million, and was therefore seemingly a licence to print money, and the website development didn't breach EU rules because, oh what was it ... oh yeah, bla bla, it was all part of the customer services transformation, and .... and anyway, it was only 'a small proportion of the overall projection budget' ... as Mr R points out, £300,000 is over the EU procurement threshold, but you know, who's counting, really? Not our councillors, anyway, it seems.

Our auditor did make one concession.

“I have discussed your second point around the governance of the level of spend on the contract and the Council agrees that it would be good practice to take an update report to the Cabinet Resources Committee. The Council is drafting this report which will update members on the level of spend to date, revised projections for level of spend over the three year period of the contract, value for money considerations (including an update on improved terms negotiated by the Council this year) and plans for the procurement of further support when the current contract ends next year. The report is planned to go to Cabinet Resources Committee at the end of September.”

What worries Mrs Angry is that line ... 'plans for the procurement of further support when the current contract ends next year'. Wonder who the lucky winners of that procurement will be?

But this comment by Mr Reasonable really poses the most important question of all:

So how comes it takes an ordinary member of the public to get the auditor to talk to officers to draft a report updating councillors that a contract is millions of pounds overspent? Is it something the 63 councillors paid just under £1.1 million a year should be doing? Is it something the Chief Executive paid £200,000 a year should be on top of? Either way it shouldn’t be down to me.

Who will answer Mr Reasonable's reasonable question: why has it been him who has had to instigate this scrutiny of a consultants' bill that has trebled in size?

Why does Tory leader Richard Cornelius and his Cabinet sit back and lecture us about the need for austerity, and cuts, and complain about the wicked Labour government that spent money like water, when they are so happy to throw so much cash at this company, on a programme that is entirely a work of fiction, an aspiration, an act of faith in something that will never deliver what it promises, because it cannot, and no one involved in designing it really believes, or cares, that it really will.

We will never get to One Barnet. It doesn't exist. And like any good road movie, what matters is not the destination, after all, it's what happens on the way there.

Look out of the window. You're still in Broken Barnet.


Edward the Booble said...

We have a linguistic problem in that the original meaning of the word Tory; thief, has been lost to antiquity.

There is no alliterative tag for the right corresponding to "Loony Left", which played such a key role in the media demonization of the old GLC.

This bunch are easily as dogma led and ideal driven as any of the Labour authorities of the 1980s. Trouble is the ideals in this case demand personal enrichment through policy, and the dismantling of as much of the infrastructure of local government as they can get their snouts into.

Mrs Angry said...

Goodness me: so many visits from Agilisys this morning ... shouldn't you boys be busy implementing something? You know, a joint venture, or a new pencil sharpener, or maybe filling out a timesheet?

Mrs Angry said...

... and welcome back to Agilisys - yes, I can see you ... nice tie, btw. Sit up straight, come on.

And BT too? Post lunch snooze over?