There is something very wrong in Barnet Council. We have a scrutiny committee system which is there to provide checks and balances on the Cabinet. This coming Monday, the Budget and Performance Scrutiny Committee are considering two reports. The first is on the financial business planning which sets out where all the savings will be made over the next three years. The other is the Monitoring Report for 2010/11. Both of these reports are substantial and the committee papers run to 226 pages. As someone who has a great interest in how Barnet Council is run, I took the opportunity to submit three questions under the public questions slot in the agenda.
Sadly Barnet Council don’t like my questions so they have found a loophole in the constitution to stop me asking questions or speaking at the scrutiny committee meeting.
It all hinges on the rule that you cannot ask a question or speak on a topic that has already been decided at a committee meeting. Not a decision made by the committee at which you are asking the question, but any committee or sub-committee of the council. Because both of these reports have been approved by the Cabinet and Cabinet Resources committees there can be no public debate. Cabinet Resources Committee has only 6 members drawn from the Cabinet and a quorum of 3. The Cabinet has 10 members and a quorum of 5. No members of the opposition parties or conservative backbenchers sit on these committees and that is why we have a scrutiny system. Most of the time reports go to the scrutiny committee BEFORE a decision is made so that they can provide input. However, in this case, both of these contentious reports have been submitted to scrutiny AFTER a decision has been made. This means no public debate in the scrutiny process – full stop.
Although I would have liked to ask a dozen questions I had restricted myself to three - trying to be reasonable simply doesn’t seem to work. The questions are set out below. Judge for yourself if you think these questions should be answered.
1. Given that £21.3 million of the projected savings over the next three years are rated as at high risk of not being achieved, is this committee satisfied that sufficient consideration has been given to alternative scenarios if these savings are not realised.
2. Reviewing the top 100 contracts received a high number of votes on the Ideas website and had most comments. The Cabinet report stated that “A review of spend activity has taken place and a programme of work is underway with all service areas, to review the contracts that are in place, confirm that activities remain appropriate and that discussion with contractors has started to ensure we continue to deliver value for money”. However, according to a response on the Ideas website, at the Corporate Risk Committee on 2 September 2010, a report stated that "Low targets were set for % of contracts held by the Council which have been reviewed and renegotiated for Quarters 1 and 2 (0% for Q1 & 5% for quarter 2). Because this is complex work involving in excess of 240 contracts it will take a period of months before reviews and renegotiations are completed. Preliminary work to locate and begin reviewing has taken place through Q1 and will continue through Q2. We expect 30% of contracts to have been reviewed by end of Q3 and 50% by end of Q4. We expect to have renegotiated 5% of those contracts deemed necessary by the end of Q2, 15% by the end of quarter 3 and 30% by the end of quarter 4". Are Committee members satisfied that a review of the top 100 contracts is receiving the attention it deserves?
3. At 9.8.2 in the CRC Monitoring report, it states that £390,000 was drawn down from contingency to cover rental for buildings 2 and 4 at North London Business Park. Given that rent is a known consideration and that the rent free period must have been known at the time of signing the lease, why was it not adequately budgeted for resulting in the shortfall having to be taken from contingency. Does this suggest a lack of financial planning?