Yesterday I went to meet with the External Auditor of Barnet Council. Accompanied by Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard we were kept waiting for half an hour and then shown into a room which was doubling up for the NLBP sauna. Perhaps someone had been in before us and generated an enormous amount of hot air or possibly it was a tactic to sweat us into submission. Mr Hughes from Grant Thornton came out on the attack before we have even had a chance to settle down. He had agreed to meet Mrs A and myself by not Mr M.
Mr Mustard said that he was just there to take notes and that he wouldn’t say anything but Mr Hughes was having none of it. Mr Mustard gracefully retired but it set the tone for the meeting.
The first point made by Mrs A and myself related to the difficulty in actually inspecting the accounts due to the excessive level of redactions - what happened to that lovely old fashioned word censored by the way?
I made the point to Mr Hughes that this had been ramped up from last year. I showed him two invoices from the same company. The invoice I inspected last year had the name of the consultant redacted (fair enough) but the number of days worked and the daily rate were visible. This year nothing was visible except the VAT amount and total sum, information which is available on the suppliers payments schedule. I also explained that the contract relating to this invoice had also been censored so that it was impossible to reconcile an invoice with a contract eliminating any element of scrutiny. Mr Hughes smiled but stated that it wasn’t his responsibility.
I also raised issued relating to the governance arrangements and the lack of scrutiny by Councillors. I made the point that many people in Barnet would not recognise the Governance Statement in the accounts especially where is it talks about transparency and engaging with local people. Notes were taken but no view offered by Mr Hughes.
Finally the risks around One Barnet were discussed. Indeed it was Mr Hughes who in his report of 10 November 2010 made the classic quote, “there is evidence to suggest that risk management
is not widely understood within the Council.” Sadly I suspect that statement is as valid today as it was 18 months ago.
In all, Mrs Angry and I spent an hour with Mr Hughes. We shall have to wait and see if he takes our points seriously. But if he doesn’t then it calls into question just what accountability exists over the running of Barnet. The 53 Councillors who are not in the Cabinet have very little or no say in decisions that are made. The Scrutiny Committee dealing with One Barnet was abolished. Residents’ rights to discuss these matters at Residents Forums has been abolished. Even the External Auditor seems to have a very limited role in what he can challenge. That just leaves the concerned citizens of Barnet, BAPS, Unison and the Bloggers to attempt to hold the Council to account.
As one of the bloggers, I will keep plugging away trying to hold the Council to account but I am exceptionally worried that if the massive One Barnet Outsourcing programme is pushed through any semblance of accountability will disappear altogether. That may not trouble those who just want the pavements swept and the bins emptied. However, if you are vulnerable, elderly, disabled or less advantaged you should be very worried indeed.