At last night's Audit Committee, One Barnet scarcely got a mention and only because I raised it in my questions. With just four members of the public in attendance (including Mr Mustard who took copious notes), a couple of officers and Richard Cornelius (who had been invited to attend by Lord Palmer) the meeting was a rather sad affair. Having submitted four questions and had the replies a few hours in advance, we went through the same old ritual. My first couple of questions related to the huge bill Grant Thornton had charged the council for dealing with electors questions. The answer came back that they had charged £30,400 to deal with questions from two electors and an objection to the accounts. Grant Thornton said that all these tricky questions had to be dealt with by Mr Hughes himself as he is licensed to deal with such matters Even at Mr Hughes' charge out rate of £325/hour that seems like a huge amount of time for such inadequate responses. Grant Thornton's fees for next year have been cut by 40% thanks to a re-tendering exercise and the reduction in the amount they have to pay to the Audit Commission. Perhaps it is in the extras where they will make back their money, a painful lesson that we will undoubted experience with One Barnet Outsourcing.
My next question related to the on-going role of the corporate anti fraud team when revenue and benefits and procurement are outsourced. I was reassured that everything will be alright - where have I heard that before - and that new processes will be in place. I also managed to ascertain that yes these processes for fraud referral have been incorporated into the contract specification. I wonder however just how effective they will be compared to the current set up.
Interestingly, when this subject came up later on in the meeting, Cllr Sury Khatri also expressed concern about just how easy it would be to deal with fraud matters when the person is an employee of a different company 200 miles away. He gave an example of when his office was split with some people remaining in London while the majority were moved to Cardiff and just how difficult it had become to communicate effectively with them. It will be alright they kept saying but I think Cllr Khatri remained unconvinced.
My last question was about the "no assurance" finding for the regeneration programme. My concern was that if we have no assurance about the performance of this vital and strategically important service, it must represent a major risk if we outsource it now. I then followed this up with the much bigger concern about Internal Audit no longer having a direct role in reviewing the performance of the outsourced services (that will be Capita's internal auditor's responsibility). Councillor Palmer, to his credit, noted the concerns and he made a point of saying that he had called in the Cabinet decision to appoint Capita at the Business Management Overview & Scrutiny Committee. Sadly it will have no effect and I think we now need to depend on the two Judicial Reviews to have any impact.
The events of last night showed me what an utterly toothless creature the Audit Committee has become and when most of our services are passed over to Capita (yes, I reckon they will get the DRS contract as well) it will be totally impotent.