Thursday, 30 June 2011

Yet another consultant running Barnet Council

It has puzzled me for some time that Barnet Council's Head of HR is nether mentioned in the list of senior officers salaries nor mentioned in the supplier payments. Following the submission of a Freedom of Information request I can reveal that Jacquie McGeachie HR Consulting Limited was paid £140,803.28 in 2010/11.

I think it would be terribly helpful if all the senior officers who are paid as consultants were listed in the official list of senior officers salary that are included in the councils annual accounts. This is somethinmg I shall be taking uo with the Auditors, Grant Thornton when I meet them in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The tragic death that should never have happened

A concerned Barnet resident has drawn my attention to the exceptionally sad case of Jesse Moores. He was a young man with learning disabilities, autism and Tourettes Sydrome, living at The Chine, a residential home run by Robinia Care, who died of a tragic and preventable accident in 2005.

I would urge everyone to read the Serious Case Review which has just been published and to think about why it happened and the risks of it happening again.

If nothing else it illustrates that there are exceptionally vulnerable people who live in our community and who need to the best possible care to safeguard their lives. When the government and local authorities talk about cuts, it is often the most vulnerable people who suffer. We must ensure that political dogma and the desire for efficiency savings never impact on those whose lives depend on receiving the best possible care.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Guest Blog - A new show hits town. A review by a troubled democrat

This guest post is from a very repected member of the community detailing the Chipping Barnet Residents Forum on Thursday Evening.

Thursday 23rd June 2011 saw the first production of a new show which its sponsors hope will be the first of a very short run. Seeing as how the performance started at 6.01pm and finished at 6.52pm their wishes may come to fruition.
Following the long running Chipping Barnet Resident Forum produced by Easy Council the challenge was taken up by One Barnet under new management. The recently appointed director will be pleased to note that bringing the time forward to 6.00pm had the desired effect of attracting a new audience. From the audience of 30 over 75% had not been to a forum before. There were two councillors (David Longstaff and Pauline Coakley Webb) and two of Cllr Cornelius’s” usual suspects one of whom stomped out at the interval because he did not understand the script, modern language nor the sublimable message that was not so subtly being sent out by the Key Characters. A reporter was trying to take down the message from the stage but appeared to be as confused as the rest of the audience. She was assisted after the meeting by most of the attendees who gave her their version of events

Although Cllr Langstaff is an actor he was restricted to a walk on part at the end and the Lead was taken by Cllr Barry Evangeli who many will remember as the person who advertised magnum ice cream and said they were priced so that even a councillor could afford them from their increased allowances. He was assisted by a traffic engineer and clerk. There were no Senior Actors and the police failed to arrive. The performance had obviously been well rehearsed and the three spoke in a low monotone that was largely inaudible in the large hall at Coppetts Wood School (carefully selected as a venue as it is poorly served by buses and at the centre of a gridlock on the North Circular Road / Colney Hatch Lane junction especially at 6.00pm – rush hour).

The show open with a show stopping performance from the compere who r e a d o u t v e r y c a r e f u l l y an introduction setting out the constitution of the Area Forums under part V of the LGA 1972 and numerous other Acts. This set the scene – boring - very boring – yawn.
There then followed the new Arrangements and Procedures read again v e r y s l o w l y clearly setting out that the public could raise anything they wanted to except anything they had ever wanted to talk about in the past. Only appropriate items notified in advance would be considered. Only local street based items would be considered. Policy matters would not be discussed. Once it had been raised and accepted they could NOT raise it again for six months. The Forum could decide to take any one of six actions at the meeting. It was made clear the only action that was likely was Action One. “To do Nothing.”.

The performance had 9 acts the first 3 of which were petitions. Action Noted move on to act 4. The audience had obviously failed to comprehend the prologues so started to seek clarification but were told the compere was running the show not them. The six people from Barnes Court were not happy with the traffic engineers comments and insisted that a site meeting be held. That was not in the script but further audience participation ensured that a site visit by the engineer but not Councillors will take place.

That gave encouragement to the 4 people (initially) who presented their petition to save Friern Barnet library and it appeared that it might only get as far as the rubbish bin that night. Interventions from Cllr Coakley Webb led to animated discussions by the performers and the script was rewritten. It will go back to the Town Hall and then go in the bin. The petitioners wanted to speak but were told it was a policy matter so could not be discussed. The audience took a vote and decided it was street based local issue and was eligible under the rules. The petitioner spoke loudly and the compere softly so we heard the loudest voice.
The public participant for act 4 was not present so the matter was ignored.
Act 5 was mainly a solo performance by a regular attendee at these shows Mr Ashwood. He received a low key and even lower volume response which led to a performance of the ritual dance of the ouslam bird. They went round in ever decreasing circles until just as they were about to disappear up a very dark hole Mr Ashwood escaped through the door expressing concern at the undemocratic nature of the proceedings and competence of the actors ( this is a précis of the original)
At least eight people wanted to speak to Act 6 the traffic rat run between Colney Hatch lane and Friern Barnet Road. The compere said that it was on the following performance the Environment subcommittee where they could come and listen to the debate. Speaker” We are not happy with the officer’s report. There are a number of errors and omissions that must be taken in to account. Can we raise them at the subcommittee?
On no says actor two. You can only table questions in writing three days before the committee and you didn’t so you can’t. So there!!

But you told us the item was on the Forum agenda, you didn’t say it was also on the subcommittee. Long silence. Helpful member of audience shouts out “let them ask their questions now, write them down and then refer them to the subcommittee afterwards” long silence, scriptwriter’s conference followed by “No we will not take the questions now. It will be up to the chair of the subcommittee to decide if he will take the questions (Note chair of subcommittee is Cllr Longstaff who was sitting in the audience).

Right if we can’t ask our questions we wish to make some additional points about increased traffic including future refuse lorry movements.
Compere’s ears prick up “What lorries? Where are they going? Answer: Barnet refuse lorries going to Pinkham Way.

Explosion from stage. Voice raised 1.5 decibels at least Pinkham Way is planning. You are not allowed to raise planning matters. You have an opportunity at the planning committee so IT WILL NOT BE DISCUSSED TONIGHT.

Voice from audience “three people for 3 minutes is not consultation nor is it democracy”

Explosion from audience followed by mass audience participation including about 6 people from Pinkham Way although all joined in. Allegations of dictatorship, Agenda rigging, failure to understand Localism, partnership or democracy were met with a response from the stage in a low tone with an air of uncertainty. It appears that pages from Alice in Wonderland had got mixed up with the official script. At one stage we were told that the council knew what it was doing. This answer was probably given in error as the audience all knew what the play was all about and didn’t like it. All of a sudden there were thirty critics all shouting from the same script albeit not the actor’s version. (Please remember that 75% of them had never been to a show before).

Suggestions that the performance had much in common with a Kafka play went over the head of the panel as did references to 1984 ( They didn’t do history at school!!)
There then followed three questions about the Councils working relationship with the police. We were told about the Partnership, working together, Multi agency task force involving the Chief Executive and Borough Commander and at all stages below. We heard how well they talked together but there was a lack of examples of success.
Question “how often does the multi agency meet?” There then followed a quiet dissertation on pulling teeth from hens. Well that is what it sounded like the volume was so low. Eventually Cllr Longstaff was able to tell us it meets quarterly.
Question “and what happens in between”
Compere you have had your question answered we are moving on. The silences and non answers were most revealing.

Compere. We have covered the 9 questions so that is all for tonight Good Night. He picked up his papers and stood up.

Point of order from the floor “Will there be any notes of tonight session and when will they be available.” Long discussion on stage.

There will be notes and they will go on the web site one week before the next meeting.

Question “where are the notes of the January meeting which you must recall because there were so many angry people there. Even longer discussion on stage. This was not in the script.

Answer from Clerk “Tonight was the first of the new Forums so it was not appropriate to publish notes of a Forum that no longer existed”.

Shouts of rubbish from the floor. Could it be that Barnet made most of the previous clerks redundant in March?

The show having started at 6.01 it ended at 6.52pm including introduction and prologue and numerous intervals while the actors checked their scripts or worked out an improvisation.

It was not clear what the authors had in mind; It could have been a comedy, It certainly bordered on farce. There were moments of high drama although the audience was too restrained (just) to opt for murder. The outcome was a tragedy. It was tragic to see democracy killed off so brutally without even any finesse.

Would I recommend the show to a friend? Well no not if I wanted to keep their friendship. They would take it as an insult to their intelligence and would be horrified at the way the actors treated the audience.

It is a shame that George Orwell wrote his book based on his vision of 1984 but not even he could have foreseen what Barnet would be like in 2011.
Those whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad. This play leaves the audience in no doubt as the future of Barnet. Now that is a tragedy

Shining a light on common sense – at last!

I have been complaining about the street light replacement contract for the last 18 months since Barnet Lighting Services notified me that they were going to dig up three perfectly good lighting columns and replace them with three brand new columns. I took the time to go out and photograph the base of the columns and showed them to my local councillors – look no corrosion, the lights work so why go to all that expense when it is not needed. “Ah”, I was told, “it is a regulation and as it is a PFI contract you don’t need to worry about it”. Not surprisingly I was rather irritated by that response especially as in 2010/11 Barnet Council paid Barnet Lighting Services £5,295,243.80 plus a further £30,828.68 to David Webster Limited. I also raised it on the Barnet Councils Ideas website asking why we were replacing perfectly good street lamps at a time that budgets were being cut.
So what, you may say. Well in a new Delegated Powers Report it looks like someone has seen sense at last. They are going to stop replacing streetlights and instead divert the capital into “installing new technology to enable the implementation of energy saving measures”. Given that Barnet Council spend around £1 million a year in electricity costs for street lights anything which can help to reduce that cost should be welcomed.

My only complaint is why they didn’t listen to what local residents were saying and do it sooner .

Friday, 24 June 2011

It’s Official – Barnet Bloggers and Tweeters are a “Valuable Asset”

Reading through the State of the Borough Report which can be read in full here, one thing caught my eye. On page 8 of the report it states:

“Participation and localism
Barnet residents feel less involved in Council decision-making than residents of other London boroughs (39 per cent versus 50 per cent) and 60 per cent of citizens believe that the Council does not listen to their concerns. However, a greater proportion of residents are satisfied with opportunities for participation than in previous years (50 per cent versus 29 per cent in 2008-09).

The local blogging community has expanded during 2010-11. In the last six months, almost 1,000 stories about Barnet have been posted on local blogs, and roughly 300 tweets make reference to Barnet (the Council, the place or other areas within the borough) every day.

An active and involved citizenry should be regarded as a valuable asset. The challenge for the Council and its partners is how to engage productively with residents to develop a balanced dialogue using new channels".

So there you have it; a clear admission that an active and involved citizenry is valuable to the community, and a challenge to engage more productively with us. What makes this statement all the more ironic is the report from Barnet’s most eloquent blogger, Mrs Angry about the shenanigans at last night’s Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum where the views of “active and involved citizenry” in attendance were completely overruled!

I think there is something very strange going on at the Council. It’s an almost schizophrenic approach to the residents. Some officers recognise the value that bloggers bring and are helpful and constructive; others treat us with nothing but contempt. Likewise for members.

I would urge the more recalcitrant officers and members to embrace this view that there should be a more balanced dialogue but to do this the council needs to start building a relationship of trust. The change in format of the residents forum is just one example of where the trust is currently sadly missing in the relationship between citizens and the council. If the Council are serious about engagement then a sign of good faith would be to sweep aside the draconian and undemocratic changes made to the residents forums and to engage with local groups as to how the forums could be made much more effective.

PS, as a footnote the statement that “a greater proportion of residents are satisfied with opportunities for participation than in previous years” should be treated with a little caution given the survey methodology has changed fundamentally and in the full version of the Residents Perception Survey Report it comes with a big health warning stating, “Caution should be applied when making direct comparisons to the former Place Survey due to the different methodology”.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

One Barnet - That'll be another £150k please

The One Barnet juggernaut ploughs on consuming resources along the way. I read with interest in the latest Delegated Powers Report DPR 1345 that the One Barnet programmmes needs some more people to help keep it on track. Two Assistant Project Managers for a fixed term contract of 2 years, each person earning between £35,418 - £38,069 per annum plus on costs. Now given that Barnet initiated the tendering process for a mass outsourcing contract last week with a value of between £600 million and £750 million then I suppose another £150k seems like a drop in the ocean. However, given the Council has just been through a round of front line redundancies it does seem somewhat insensitive.It also worries me that One Barnet spending continues to rise which seems strange for a strategy that is suppose to save money.

Is Barnet Listening to its Residents?

Yesterday Barnet released details of their long awaited Residents’ Perception Survey. This survey was last carried out in 2007/08 and replaces a major national postal survey (The Place Survey) which was scrapped by Grant Shapps last year.

The survey was carried out using telephone interviews in February and March this year and covered a representative sample of 2000 Barnet residents. The full details of the survey can be read here but I have pulled out a few elements which I found most interesting.

•40% of residents say that Barnet listens to the concerns of local residents. This represents a 12% drop since the last survey in 07/08 and 15% below the London average of 55%. I think it is rather bad timing that tonight the new "reformatted" residents' forums start, with an earlier start time making it much more difficult for working people to attend and with a much more rigid structure of what can be asked including no questions on the night.

•38% of residents agree that the council involves residents in local decisions, 12% below the London average. The results also noted that 17% of Barnet residents say they don’t know.

•Only 13% of residents believe that activities for children are excellent or good whereas 24% believe they are poor or extremely poor and 48% who simply don’t know.

•34% of residents believe council owned leisure facilities are good or excellent, 11% lower than the London average.

•A high proportion of residents rate the repair of roads, parking and quality of pavements as poor or extremely poor.

•Only 33% of residents agree that the council allocates its budget fairly across services. However 42% of residents say they ‘don’t know’.

•Only 36% believe that the government and the council are right to reduce spending, even if it means reductions in services and/or increases in charges and taxes.

•74% are worried that cuts in council budgets will affect me or my family significantly.

•43% of residents are satisfied with the opportunities for participation in local decision-making provided by the council while 11% ‘don’t know’.

•52% of residents would like to be more involved in the decisions that affect their local area. 21% of residents say it depends on the issue.

Some of the other results include the following:

•85.5% of residents are satisfied with their local area as a place to live – slightly down on the 07/08 survey.

•The top five issues which most worry local residents are:
- Condition of roads and pavements 31% - a new criterion for this survey.
- Crime 29% – down by 11% compared to the 07/08 survey and 9% lower than the London average.
- Rising prices/interest rates 27% – up 16% compared to 07/08 and 10% higher than the London average.
- Lack of jobs 24% – up 16% compared to 07/08 and 1% higher than the London average.
- Level of Council Tax 23% - down 13% compared to 07/08 and the same as the London average.

•89% of residents agree that people from different backgrounds get on well together in Barnet up 6% compared to 07/08.

•74% of residents feel strongly that they belong to their local neighbourhood compared to 65% of residents who feel strongly that they belong to the London Borough of Barnet.

•47 % of residents tend to or definitely agree that they can influence decisions that affect their local area – from my own perspective, the local fight by the community in New Barnet against inappropriate supermarket development shows that when the community speak and works together they can influence decisions that affect our local area.

•Surprisingly 58% believe that local people could work together to deliver some services that are currently provided by the Council. I am not sure people understand the full consequences of what this means but it support the statistics that people have a strong sense of belonging to their community.

•62 % of residents agree the council keeps residents informed about what they are doing, 9% below the London average.

I sincerely hope that Barnet read the results, listen to what local residents are saying and involve us much more in influencing the place where we live. The other thing that jumps out at me from this survey is the high level of “don’t knows”. I hope that Barnet Council act on this positively and develop a much stronger communication strategy to tell the residents of Barnet what is actually going on.

As a footnote, I would also note that it is disappointing that the actual questionnaire has not been published as an appendix to the survey which makes it much more difficult to understand how the questions were asked and to provide some context for the answers. I also hope that Barnet publish the raw dat very quickly so that we can examine the results in more detail.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Barnet residents respond to Barnet Council’s MetPro audit report

On Thursday 16 June 2011 the Audit Committee of the London Borough of Barnet met to discuss the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal.

The report was commissioned as a result of pressure from Barnet residents, who alerted the Council to problems with the MetPro companies that the Council’s own procedures had completely failed to identify.

While the audit committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Monroe Palmer, did an excellent job of identifying many serious problems with this vendor account, many issues which residents were concerned about were deemed out of scope of this investigation. Furthermore, the committee has no powers to impose any remedy, and can only aspire to “inspire the executive to do better” (to quote Maryellen Salter, Assistant Director - Audit).

In addition to the serious concerns about Barnet Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies, there are wider implications of this affair for the Council as a whole. The problems which remain to be addressed are:

A) Legal issues. The Council’s Internal Auditor cannot exclude the possibility that fraud may have taken place. The Director of Corporate Governance Jeff Lustig indicated that since there was no evidence of fraud, there was no need to investigate. This is a highly unsatisfactory response and appears to be in breach of the council's own policies and procedures.

The Council’s financial regulations are clear on this point:
“Any suspected irregularity involving any asset, or the exercise of any function, of the Council must be reported by the appropriate Chief Officer to the Chief Internal Auditor to inform the overall assurance that can be delivered and to the Corporate Anti Fraud Team (CAFT) Manager for investigation.”

B) Contract procurement and monitoring. Barnet Council are pushing forward with the One Barnet Programme, a major outsourcing scheme, even though the audit team has identified serious and fundamental flaws in the Council’s contract procurement and monitoring processes.

The audit report into MetPro confirmed that there had been a breach of EU procurement laws which ensure fairness and anti-discrimination as well as best value. The internal audit report is silent on compliance with procurement law; however, given that only the largest 180 contracts out of 9,700 vendors are audited, it is likely that there are other legal breaches. In view of the shocking findings of the audit report and the recognition by the Audit Committee that the focus on change and the One Barnet Programme had been a contributory factor in these failures, we believe that all but essential contract renewals should be put on hold until an effective system of contract procurement and monitoring has been put in place and tested.

The multiple failings detailed in the MetPro report and in the Internal Audit Annual Opinion must be addressed, and Council staff working in procurement fully trained in the Council’s own Contract Procedure Rules before the Council can even consider embarking on an expansion of outsourcing.

The chair of the Audit Committee said that the audit department is unable to perform its duties owing to lack of resources. Barnet Council’s audit team should be strengthened and ways found to ensure that its recommendations are carried out.

C) Project management. In 2006, Barnet Council launched a SAP system to manage procurement, at an initial estimated cost of £8 million. This was done to modernise the control of payments and purchasing.

The cost of this project has spiralled to £25 million, more than three times the original estimate. Not only has this system failed to prevent the problems demonstrated by the MetPro report, it seems that the promised benefits of automation have not materialised. MetPro invoices have had handwritten numbers and notes on them. Payments have been made to non authorised accounts, and it seems that no proper audit trail exists. How can a system that cost £25 million have failed to address all of these issues?

The SAP fiasco shows that Barnet Council cannot manage large projects, cannot control costs and cannot implement outsourcing projects that work. They should not be considering One Barnet outsourcing until they fix the problems with their project management that the MetPro scandal has highlighted.

D) Safeguarding. The issues of safeguarding raised by MetPro have not been addressed. In light of the contact with vulnerable adults and children at Barbara Langstone House by MetPro employees who were neither SIA licensed nor CRB checked, Barnet Council should investigate in conjunction with the police whether there was the potential for or actual incidents of abuse, not only in relation to MetPro, but also in relation to any other security firms engaged by the Council. In addition, Barnet Council should keep central registers of all CRB, SIA and other required checks for all people working with the Council. This issue should be addressed immediately.

Barnet Council should work with residents who were illegally filmed by MetPro at the Council meeting on 1 March to address any data protection issues that arose from that episode, and possible other actions of this nature, instead of, as it has done up until now, trying to wash its hands of all responsibility.

E) VAT and invoicing. The Council do not have procedures in place to ensure that invoices meet legal requirements. The example on the Council’s own website is deficient. It is clear that staff are not properly trained in dealing with payments. A training programme must be instituted as a matter of urgency, to ensure compliance.

F) Culture. It is of great concern that the Audit Committee has made similar criticisms in the past, yet there has been a further deterioration. This should be a disciplinary matter for senior management, since it is accepted by the CEO, Nick Walkley, that this is a widespread problem resulting from lack of proper operational management. It is clear that attempts to inspire an audit culture have failed.

There is a culture of complacency at the top of Barnet Council. Senior officers know that they will not be held to account for any failings that take place under them, and that they can expect huge payoffs if problems are detected. Senior posts are filled by contractors on short contracts, with no vested interest in the future of the Council. No effort is made to replace these interim appointments with permanent staff. Until this culture of complacency is eradicated, nothing will improve. Senior staff should not be contractors on temporary contracts with no vested interest in improving the procurement culture, since it is clear that a root and branch review is likely to uncover more issues which will require addressing.

As concerned residents, we call for all of the issues above to be dealt with immediately. We want an action plan to be drawn up, with short timescales, and published for residents’ information. Without this, the residents can have no confidence in Barnet Council, its executive or its leadership


Derek Dishman
John Dix
Adam Langleben
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Friday, 17 June 2011

Barnet's £¾ Billion Gamble

Last night we heard about the parlous state of the Council's procurement and contract monitoring systems. This wasn't just in relation to MetPro, but indicated a much more widespread problem throughout the council. Last night there was great debate about the role of One Barnet and the risk that it has resulted in senior officers taking their eye off the ball in the day to day running of the Council. Imagine my surprise then that today Barnet has published the tender notice for the New Support and Customer Services Organisation. This is a huge tender and will last 10 years with an option to extend for a further 5 years.

The services in scope are as follows:

o Procurement
o Customer Services
o Estates (Asset Management, Building Services, Property Services)
o Finance
o Human Resources
o Information Systems
o Revenue and Benefits

The estimated value of the tender is between £600 million and £750 million. No, I haven't got the figures wrong. The value is up to £¾ billion. Having been at the audit committee last night and heard the mess that the council's procurement and contract monitoring is in, I can only see the launch of this tender process as utter and complete madness.

I urge every citizen of Barnet to question their councillor and ask them how on earth they can take a £¾ billion gamble.

Last Night at the Mushroom Factory

Last night I attended the audit committee dealing with the MetPro report and the Annual Audit Opinion. Now most of the Council meetings I attend seem to cover up and dismiss criticism and try and obstruct questions from the public. Last night it seemed there was a shift in mood. The reports were, without a doubt, utterly shocking but for once officer and councillors seemed to be in agreement. Yes it is bloody awful (I paraphrase here). The scale of deficiencies in the council’s procurement and contract management are staggering and if this had been discovered in a private sector company heads would have rolled. A number of councillors seemed shocked at the scale of the problems. Recognition should go to Lord Palmer as chairman and Councillors Rayner, Schama, Cooke and Brodkin for their tough questioning along with the two independent committee members Richard Harbord and Debra Lewis. The chief executive and the chief financial officer seemed contrite, yes it’s bad and we must change. Yes, but why the hell did you let it happen in the first place. I don’t feel they really got to the heart of the issue and I’m not sure the problem will be resolved but at least they recognise the problem exists.

However during the meeting there was then movement from the back of the room and up pops Cllr Dan Thomas. Sadly I think he must be living in a parallel universe. It was as if the report had never been written. Yes we are going to plough on with One Barnet. This report is just what we need. Our consultants, Agilisys will sort it all out. Now this is where the difference exists. Most of the people on the audit committee have got life experience and a few (or a lot) of grey hairs. Some of them have run businesses. They get it. They understand that if your procurement and contract management systems are fundamentally failing, then the last thing you do is embark on a huge outsourcing project. But not Cllr Thomas. This is where political dogma takes over from common sense and frankly that it terrifying.

Last night I accused the Audit Committee of suffering from Mushroom Syndrome, kept in the dark and fed horse manure. I hope they get a bit tougher and stop accepting everything they are fed from the cabinet and the senior officers and start asserting their positions as the guardians of the council’s finances.

Set out below is the speech I gave to the audit committee last night.

“I have read this report several times now and I still find its contents shocking. Barnet Council is a billion pound business yet some of the most basic administrative procedures are missing and frankly that is a disgrace. Coupled with the findings in the Annual Audit opinion that provides only limited assurance on the Council’s overall internal control environment, this report into MetPro is indicative of a much more serious and deep-seated problem in the way this council is run.

I don’t want to go through the specific details of the report which I am sure you have all scrutinised in great detail. What I do want to address is what is not in this report, the underlying causes of this problem and how the council intends to move forward.

Starting with what is not in this report, I am disappointed that it has not addressed the very serious issues of data protection and safeguarding and why the council destroyed illegally recorded film taken by MetPro. Frankly I think it was short sighted of whoever drew up the terms of reference to exclude these issues from this audit. These issues will not go away and it will continue to be a running sore in the side of Barnet Council. I urge the committee to recommend that these very serious issues are investigated and addressed as quickly as possible.

Something else which is missing from this report is who is to blame. No one seems to have been held accountable and without that how can the problem be resolved. The Council employs an extensive and highly paid senior management team yet not one of them appears to have taken responsibility for this mess. The constitution states that “Substantial breaches of Financial Regulations shall be reported to the Deputy Chief Executive by the relevant Corporate Director and may be treated as disciplinary offences”. So come on then, who is going to be disciplined?

I also disappointed that this report does not acknowledge who brought about this investigation. It was the concerned residents and bloggers of Barnet who investigated this situation and who demanded this inquiry and it would have been nice to see that acknowledged in this report.

So moving on to how the council proposes to address this problem. I have read the recommendations of this report and they appear to be both ill-conceived and utterly ineffectual. Seven of the ten recommendations are basically saying do what it says in the Contract Procedure Rules. Well I hate to tell you this but that won’t stop it happening again.

When read together with the Annual Audit opinion it is clear to me that there is a flawed management culture within the council that is the root cause of the problem and a defective management structure that has allowed this to take place.

The culture of change seems to focus on unproven and high risk consultant led initiatives. The language of change is everywhere and in every department. The problem is that it has resulted in managers taking their eye off doing the day to day basics of running the council properly. We have a senior management team who include a number of highly paid consultants such as the section 151 officer who by the very nature of their contractual relationship have no long term commitment to the council. The man who is designated to be responsible for implementing so many of the recommendations, Assistant Director Commercial Assurance, is another consultant CCMPS, whose contract according to DPR 1249 ends no later than January 2012. So much for creating continuity to follow these recommendations through.

The culture of Barnet Council has to change. The focus of the management team needs to concentrate on getting the basics right. If you think MetPro is a problem just wait till the outsourcing kicks in. Those contracts are worth hundreds of millions of pounds and at the minute it is patently obvious that the management systems for monitoring and enforcing those contracts are simply not in place.

As an Audit Committee you have an opportunity, no a duty, to safeguard the financial interests of every rate payer in Barnet by demanding much tougher actions arising from this report and the Annual Audit Opinion. I also urge you to instigate a much broader review as to the way in which this council is being run and to challenge the culture and structure of the council that is exacerbating this problem. Failure to take this opportunity may well see this type of situation arise again in the future except next time the problems will be on a much greater scale. In the past I get the impression that this committee has been suffering from Mushroom Syndrome, kept in the dark and fed horse manure. I would urge you to take a much tougher line in order to avoid this happening all over again”.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

£1 million to leave Barnet Council

Reading through the un-audited accounts I have come across some pretty shocking news. In 2010/11 Barnet council paid out over £1 million in "compensation for loss of office". In other words, people paid to leave. The largest payment was to Mr Brian Reynolds, former Executive Director for Environment and Development. He was paid the handsome sum of £280,485 to leave. Others payments for compensation for loss of office include the former:

- Director of Environment and Transport £143,832
- Acting head of Health Integration (Irene Findlay) £106,685
- Assistant Director Inclusion £103,955
- Assistant Director Building Control & Structures £96,692
- Principle Inspector Challenge Intervention £95,661
- Director of Strategy £67,793
- Director of Corporate Services £58,923
- Assistant Director Shared Services £42,675
- Assistant Director Regeneration £20,511

These are huge sums of money being paid out yet the council has advertised for a new Head of Planning Environment & Regeneration on £140,000 a year. What on earth is going on!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Metpro Invoices

Straight after the Council meeting on 1 March I submitted a Freedom of Information Request regarding MetPro. One of the questions I asked related to the number of staff and cost. The response I received was that there were 7 Metpro staff on duty and the cost was £411 plus VAT.

In the last 24 hours the Metpro invoices have been disclosed and they show some very worrying signs of poor procedure like a hand written timesheet different charging rates etc. Of particular interest to me are the invoices which relate to the council meeting on 1 March. On closer examination the invoices for council meeting show only five staff on duty at a cost of £411 plus VAT, not seven staff as detailed in the FOI response. I duly emailed the FOI department to query this and almost by return was told that yes there were seven staff on duty but MetPro had only billed for five staff! I wonder how many times the reverse was true.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Barnet Internal Audit Report - It just gets worse!

Having ploughed my way through the 268 pages of the Audit Committee papers I have to say that I am utterly shocked by what I have read. On top of what I have already reported on MetPro, the Internal Audit Annual Opinion Report goes much further on the various shortcomings.
The overall internal audit opinion is only “limited assurance”, that is one step above no assurance. Hardly a vote of confidence. Set out below are just a selection of the findings and there are many many more. I will be very interested to see how Audit Committee members address such a catalogue of failures. At some stage the committee have to stop looking at the symptoms and start addressing the underlying causes.

•With the exception of Adults, the role and responsibilities of devolved procurement teams/officers are unclear.

•There is no process in place to ascertain the performance of devolved procurement teams and if/where these teams add value to the Council’s procurement objectives.

•There are not effective oversight arrangements in place to ensure that monitoring complies with Contract Procedure Rules.

•The Procurement Code of Practice (PCOP) has not been reviewed since June 2009 and there is evidence of out of date information within the document.

•A complete and accurate contracts register is not in place corporately.

•There were no formal contracts in place for all contractors of SEN meaning monitoring against identifiable and specified contractual obligations was not possible. This practice was outside of the Contract Procedure Rules.

•Key projects were put on hold to ensure that the Pothole Elimination Project went forward, the risks of these scheme’s not going forward within Footway Maintenance and Traffic Management were not assessed or measured for impact.

•The Waste Prevention Strategy has been ineffective in delivery of outcomes.

•There were no support Business Continuity Plans for IT provision and Accommodation (facilities) as required by the Strategy.

•Environmental Health Management have not carried out a full risk assessment as required under Section 18 Standard of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). Management do not consider that they have capacity to achieve full compliance will by the March 2011 deadline.

•The service did not have a signed contract in place with the provider of cashless parking.

•The Parking Service has had limited success at implementing its overall Strategy.

•Significant issues within financial planning arrangements due to the lack of forward planning, and robust recovery plans to resolve the current shortfalls in income levels.

•There were incorrect accounting for and depositing of VAT monies and there is not sufficient checks in place to identify shortcomings in the VAT collection and reconciliation process.

•The parking service did not properly understand or document how the contractor was following up on fraudulent credit cards used in cashless parking transactions.

•Adequate processes do not exist to ensure routine reconciliations of amounts collected with amounts banked.

•Management did not have a process for checking the accuracy of charges applied by the contractor on individual transactions.

•There were delays (in excess of target times) between when street light service requests were received by the Council (including through Fix-My-Street route) and when they were submitted to the contractor.

•The contractor failed to undertake a significant number of customer satisfaction surveys resulted in under performance, and the analysis of responses by residents to these surveys ceased in April 2010. Officers did not seek adjustment relief from the contractor in light of this.

•There is currently no overarching Information Services (IS) level plan in place. Furthermore, in most cases, the service level business continuity /disaster recovery plans are incomplete or out-of-date.

•There are at least three single points of failure located within the IT network that, if realised, may have a severe impact on the continued availability of the network.

•The grants database/register was found not to be complete, accurate and up-to-date.

•The grant conditions have not always been recorded and updated in the grants register.

•There is no common process at a corporate level to confirm compliance to the CRB requirements across all service areas.

•Some CRB procedural processes have not been fully complied with.

•Only limited site inspections are being carried out to confirm CRB arrangements within supply management in Adults Social Care and Children’s Services, no policy exists setting out the approach to those contractors not visited.

Monday, 6 June 2011

MetPro - a catalogue of disaster.

Well the Internal Audit report into the MetPro Scandal is out and it doesn't make pleasant reading. It is a catalougue of failures to stick to council procedures. It states:

"No procurement exercise had been undertaken to appoint MetPro, in accordance with the Council’s Contract Procedure Rules (CPR). No written contract between the Council and MetPro could be found. There is no record of an approval and authorisation for the use of MetPro for providing security services.

In the absence of a formal procurement exercise, we could not locate the following documents/confirmation for MetPro, which the CPR require:

- Financial viability of the company
- Equal Opportunities Assessment
- Criminal Records Bureau checks
- Confirmation of company’s Public Liability Insurance arrangements
- Confirmation of the company’s Health and Safety registration
- Confirmation on the SIA licence status of the Company Officers
- An agreed specification which outlined the service to be provided
- An agreed schedule of rates for payment of invoices
- A process for monitoring performance of service delivery to establish if the Council was receiving value for money.

There has been a failure to comply with the Council’s Policies and Procedures with regards to roles and responsibilities. Officers interviewed had assumed a corporate contract was in place and relevant checks on MetPro had therefore been undertaken. Recently, from September 2010, assurance was given to officers we interviewed that a corporate contract was being procured by the CPT as they were aware at that time that no contract was in place with MetPro. At the time of writing this report this procurement exercise had not started, however a detailed specification existed."

Not only that, but it appears that when MetPro changed from Rapid Response to Emergency Response, they gave an invalid VAT number. This may result in the Council facing penalties for the overrecovery of output VAT and as a result there has to be a review carried out to calculate the exact figure the Council has overpaid VAT on MetPro and to immediately contact HMRC.

What the report fails to mention is that this inquiry only happened because of the persistence of the bloggers of Barnet who forced the council to consider the evidence they had identified. If it hadn't been for the half a dozen concerned citizens, there is a good chance that MetPro would still be in place, without licenses and in breach of VAT regulations.

What this report also does not identify is who is to blame and how many other suppliers are operating in breach of council procurement policies. Reading this report I think any reasonable person would be calling for heads to roll and an immediate embargo on any further outsourcing until there is clear evidence that adequate systems are not only in place but are actually being used.

Lost - one scrunity committee - reward for finder!

Looking through the council's list of committees I noticed that the One Barnet Overview & Scrutiny Panel wasn't listed. Maybe that is because it is a panel not a committee I wondered so I patiently scrolled through the council's on-line diary of meetings and guess what? The One Barnet Overview & Scrutiny Panel has disappeared. Does this mean they don't need any scrutiny of One Barnet decisions or did the questions just get too awkward. Either way it seems strange that some of the biggest decisions facing Barnet over the next 18 months will go unchecked.

Anyone who finds the lost panel will be rewarded with one of Mr Reasonable's tasty but thrifty Poverty Pies.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Priorities and what’s important in life!

Today I spent the day with my dear old mum who lives in Bristol. She is 91 and has had some health problems recently. It has meant her moving out of sheltered housing and into a nursing home. Having decided to go out for lunch and with the motorway to Weston-super-Mare at a standstill, we decided to go to Portishead instead. There is a little cafe down by the sea front where she enjoyed a lunch of fish, chips with a cup of tea followed by an ice cream. She doesn't eat much but she enjoyed every mouthful! When we get together we always have what we call a family chain. Me, my mum, my partner and my children all sat round the table, joined hands and “sent the love around”. A very simple expression of love but one that reinforces the importance of families. My children love their granny and I just wish we lived closer. After lunch, I sat on the sea front with my Mum holding her hand while she had a snooze and my partner took the children for an excursion on the boating lake. When we got back to my mum’s we wrote all about our day in her visitors’ book. It helps her to remember what has happened. The children drew some lovely cartoons of us all having lunch together and of me and my mum holding hands. A day where there was no mention of Barnet Council, One Barnet or outsourcing, just a whole lot of lovin’. It just shows that the best things in life don't have to cost a fortune.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

MetPro Scandal - Open letter from the Bloggers of Barnet

As you may know, Mr Reasonable is exceptionally unhappy at the current outsourcing programme of One Barnet. There are enormous risks associated with this process and unless the right systems are in place and the evidence is clear, we could end up facing huge financial losses. The MetPro Scandal has highlighted major shortcomings within Barnet council's procurement and contract management procedures. Many people were hoping for a full inquiry into what happened but there are now real concerns that the Audit Committee which simply brush MetPro under the carpet so they can press ahead with this ideologically driven madness. Today, five Bloggers of Barnet are publishing this open letter which has also been sent to every Councillor in Barnet.

Please read this letter and then ask your local councillor whether they think the One Barnet outsourcing should still be pressing ahead with such undue haste.

MetPro and Barnet Council: contract failures call One Barnet Programme into question
On 16th June the Audit Committee of Barnet Council will meet to discuss the findings of its audit of the circumstances surrounding the MetPro Rapid/Emergency Response scandal. The signatories of this statement believe that, while it is far from a suitable way to address the issues raised, the audit is likely to expose shortcomings in Barnet Council’s ways of working that will lend force to our call for a full, independent investigation into the Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies.

Those responsible for the failure to regulate the Council's relationship with MetPro are in many cases the same people assisting with the review. As such they have a vested interest in the outcome. We believe that this review is therefore not likely to be sufficiently objective, however useful its findings might be.

Despite assurances from Lord Palmer we are not satisfied that the audit will cover all the problems revealed by the MetPro case, particularly those pertaining to breaches of residents’ data protection rights and their potential exposure to harm through contact with inadequately regulated security staff.

Furthermore, we believe that the MetPro case proves conclusively that there is systemic failure in Barnet Council’s purchasing and vendor management systems and processes.

Given this, we believe that it would be grossly negligent to allow a major outsourcing programme such as the One Barnet Programme to proceed.

We suspect that, far from being an isolated case, the irregularities in the Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies are likely to be an indication of serious mismanagement on a much larger scale. We call for a full investigation not only into the general process of contract tendering and allocation but also into the role played by respective responsible Directors. Our own investigations so far suggest that this would result in major cost savings for Barnet Council and Barnet Council taxpayers.

With regard to the MetPro audit, we have identified the following significant areas of concern and we ask the audit committee to address these questions:

1. Does your audit review show failings that have been identified and reported to the Council officers previously by Internal Audit? For example, the Head of Internal Audit reported to the Audit Committee (29 September 2009, Item 8, pages 30-31) that the then Director of Major Projects (Mr Craig Cooper) had confirmed that effective spend analysis monitoring and monthly vendor monitoring processes were in place.

See link below to access the report:

2. Did the Directors agree to take actions to address reported failings?

3. Did the Directors fail to take actions to address reported failings?

4. Why did the Directors not take actions when they were supposed to?

5. What will the Audit Committee do to stop recurrence where Directors fail to address reported failings on time?

On the wider subject of the systemic failings of Barnet Council, we ask that the CEO Nick Walkley immediately institute the following measures:

I. A moratorium on all One Barnet Programme work, until such time as system failings can be shown to have been addressed.

II. A full investigation into the tendering process and the role played by the relevant responsible directors.

III. A review of the payment process including any transaction where purchase order was raised after receipt of an invoice.

IV. A process where all retrospective purchase orders are sent to executive level for sign off and review.

V. A full review of the democratic oversight process, to ensure that similar serious irregularities cannot occur in future.

As concerned residents we believe that these measures will go some way toward restoring public confidence in Barnet Council and, moreover, will save the taxpayers of Barnet a significant amount of money.

We ask all Councillors, regardless of Party affiliation, to support all of the above measures.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne