Tuesday 21 September 2010

Audit committee - oops we lost £2m!

Tonight's Audit Committee was both disappointing and disturbing. Mr Reasonable had tabled two questions, one about Future Shape and one about very expensive computers for councillors, neither of which got a written answer nor a reasonable verbal response. The proceedings were dull, Barnet Times reporter looked very bored and then got up an left the meeting before we had got to any of the juicy business. Future Shape was glossed over, "yes in an ideal world we should have done a business cased but we are going to do one now" Mr Travers reiterated that they had only spent £810,000 on consultants last year and it would be £1.5 million this year. What irritates me is that he failed to mention all the senior staff they have appointed in the name of future shape including setting up a new commercial directorate that will cost an additional £500,000 a year. What about the budget of "up to £500,000" for legal advice on how to set up Local Asset Back Vehicles (the structure for flogging off local assets). What about the Implementation Partner Contract that we aren't allowed to know the cost of other than it is "in excess of £500,000). None of that got mentioned. Several Councillors expressed concern that they still didn't really understand what was being proposed and that there was a lack of detail. They were promised that by the next meeting in December there will be more details.

Then a rather interesting point, a number of people have been allowed to join the Barnet Pension scheme who were previously council employees but have been transferred to other employers. The example given was some of the non teaching staff at Middlesex University. Now what is supposed to happen is that the council then claim these pension payments back from an organisation called the Higher Education Funding Council from England. The problem is that Barnet forgot to make the claims and as a result we didn't recover the £2 million we were entitled to. You can't backdate these claims so that money we didn't claim is lost forever. Chairman says well its lost and we can't reclaim it but it is a systemic failure. Why didn't the auditors pick it up? Up pipes one of the Grant Thornton chaps. "Yes but we did identify it in the 2006/07 audit but nobody picked it up. Sharp intake of breath! Serious matter!

Finally onto the matter on computers. The Council have splashed out £106,000 on buying new tablet computers for Councillors. That's £1682 per councillor. I had asked if anybody bothered to check what councillors actually use their computers for to see if they need one of these very high spec tablets. Cllr Palmer decided that actually it was all about the inconvenience of log in and how he wanted an apology from the IT department. Yes but what about these expensive tablet computers. Well they were expensive and probably over specified but it was easier for everyone to have the same machine even if it cost more. I reckon they have wasted £50,000 and more fundamentally did they need to buy these 1700 of expensive machines for all of the council staff. We then have to leave the room so they can talk about the procurement process which we the residents have to pay for. Overall, a hugely disappointing waste of time and a clear indication that the council will do whatever it wants and there is no one there to stop them.

Friday 17 September 2010

Deputy Chief Executive is a contractor

Chipping Barnet Residents Forum on Wednesday evening was a rather poorly attended meeting. 10 people in the audience including two councillors. On the agenda were three questions, two of which we submitted by Mr Reasonable. First question related to the empire building at the council and the recruitment of 8 people to form the new Commercial Directorate which will cost £900k a year to run - was this a good use of money when front line services are being cut. Response from the Council yes but we need to do this to make the savings and it will stop us having to use consultants. In theory not a bad answer except for the fact that on Monday night Mr Reasonable had been at a Scrutiny committee meeting asking awkward questions about the appointment of consultants who will cost in excess of £500k and actually may cost several million pounds. No comment from the panel.
Next question concerned the deputy chief executive and the fact that he is not a direct employee of the council. Yes the council confirmed that he is not a direct employee of the council, he is a contractor and the fact that he gets paid between £15,000 and £17,500 a month through his shell company Halliford Associates is ok because it is within the budget. Mr Reasonable made the point that surely someone who is in such an important position and has a statutory responsibility as the Section 151 Officer should be directly employed by the council to ensure continuity and loyalty. A little debate from the audience noted by the panel - next question! Perhaps if there had been more members of the public there there would have been more debate. perhaps it is only Mr Reasonable who sees this situation as unacceptable. Perhaps people just don't care. We then spent more than 1 hour debating cross overs in High Barnet. Overall a deeply disappointing meeting. I sat there wondering why do I bother.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Secrecy and Expensive Consultants

Mr Reasonable has been very concerned about the cost of consultants being used for Future Shape project. On Monday I went along to the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee to ask a question about the appointment of a company called Agilysis who have been awarded a contract as "Implementation Partner". I had previously tried to ask this question at the Future Shape Scrutiny Committee meeting in August but because this specific contract wasn't on the agenda I wasn't allowed to ask the question.On Monday night Cllr Jack Cohen had asked a general question about this contract so because it was now on the agenda I had the chance to ask my question. When awarding these contracts the council allocate scores for quality and cost for each bid. My concern was that none of the bids got particularly high quality scores. I asked questions about the process and in particular were councillors happy that a contract costing "in excess of £500,000" was awarded to a company with a comparatively low quality score. What came out eventually was that there is no quality threshold on these bids. Whoever gets the highest score wins the bid even if the quality score is low. I know this may sound a bit dull but if the Council are going to spend huge amounts on consultants, then surely they should be of a high quality. As a member of the public you get no opportunity to enter a debate on this matter so I waited until Cllr Jack Cohen asked his question. Having already lit the blue touch paper councillors were now keen to understand much more about this contract. Much talk about blue sheets and things that members of the public shouldn't know about. At one stage Mr Reasonable was asked to leave the room so councillors could discuss the actual costs of this contract. We can't be trusted to know what the maximum cost will be. £1 million, £2 million, or even more - I don't know but your councillors do. So we, the residents and ratepayers of Barnet are not allowed to know how much the council are spending on consultants! Cllr Jack Cohen also asked questions about what these consultants are actually going to do. Quite a bit of management speak but puzzled looks from councillors. The question was asked again but to no avail. So there you have it; a contract for consultants that we aren't allowed to know the cost and for which councillors don't understand what they are going to do! Only in Barnet.