Exclusive :The district auditor’s disgraceful response to the Barnet MetPro scandal

Andrew Dismore: Right to complain Pic courtesy: thejc.com

The scandal over  the employment of security guards by MetPro Rapid Response is one of the worst examples of a council failing to monitor outsourcing of a service – the only one I know where an authority never even signed a proper contract. See my earlier blog at http://bit.ly/ktHKbs

 So it is  outrageous that  Paul Hughes, the  district auditor,has refused a request from Andrew Dismore, the former MP for Hendon and now Labour’s challenger to Tory Brian Coleman, for a full scale public interest inquiry into the affair.

Andrew rightly decided to report the council to the district auditor and call for a public interest report into the scandal. In his letter to Mr Hughes he pointed out:” Having been at the Council meeting when the Robocop style of security used by MetPro at the request of the Council first came under criticism, the consequent investigations have revealed a catalogue of catastrophic failures by Barnet Council and its leadership.

” This poor contracting and lack of financial control  is not a one off, as the Iceland investment fiasco and cost overruns of the Aerodrome Rd bridge confirm.

“What is especially worrying, is that the internal audit found there were inadequate systems to ensure the same thing did not happen again. The “One Council” initiative will create dozens of opportunities for more to go wrong too, with consequent mammoth losses to Barnet’s long suffering tax payers, if immediate corrective action is not taken.”

Mr Hughes reply is equally instructive:

“Where the body is already taking action to remedy deficiencies the auditor may conclude that a Public Interest Report at that point would only have limited impact and may in fact have the effect of unnecessarily undermining public confidence in a public body” (my italics).

“Therefore,whilst we consider that the matters raised in the internal audit report do represent serious internal control issues, our view is that a public interest report is not required at this time.”

He goes on to say the reasons he has refused a further inquiry is because Barnet has promised to investigate further and reform its procedure and because ” the matter is already in the public domain”.

He leaves a faint hope of reconsidering his decision if the council responds by significantly delaying reforms or the failure is found to be systemic (by the council investigating itself).

Barnet has responded. It is cutting  nine more jobs in the department supervising contracts – presumably to increase the scope for more mistakes.

 As  the leader of Barnet Labour Group, Alison Moore  says:” How will cutting posts help deliver an “effective and responsive” procurement service when the council are about to embark on complex privatisations?  I suspect this decision has more to do with saving money than sorting out the service. This is a barmy proposal.”

Andrew Dismore has challenged this pathetic decision of  the auditor whose company Grant Thornton managed to miss the MetPro scandal for three years and pass Barnet’s accounts without any question.

His letter warns: “Nothing could further undermine public confidence in Barnet’s administration, which is now at rock bottom as any objective resident would confirm and as evidenced by the Council’s own satisfaction surveying.”

 “My request for the public interest inquiry was not just in the context of Metpro, but more generally into Barnet’s contract letting and monitoring processes and checks. Only this week, the Hendon Times has carried on its front page yet another example, this time in the contracting (or lack of it) for care services, where failings at the social care centre with whom the Council failed to follow proper procedures and checks and to agree a formal contract actually led to the death of a resident with learning difficulties. Barnet are serial offenders presiding over a catalogue of procurement disasters. ”

…” there appear to be more deep seated problems with procurement and contracts that throw real doubt about the council’s capacity to take on the highly risky “easyCouncil” service outsourcing.  In the circumstances, I would invite you to reconsider your decision. ”

Mr Hughes will know that a public interest report by him could have wider implications for other councils. Given Barnet boasts it is a Tory flagship council that is blazing the privatisation trail – that is even more reason to check its public probity in this area.

Of course  there might be other reasons. I am sure Mr Hughes is a man of such probity that he  couldn’t have reached his decision in the knowledge that Grant Thornton, under new audit reforms following the abolition of the Audit Commission,, would need to persuade Barnet to continue its lucrative auditing contract. I mean he wouldn’t decide the commercial profits of Grant Thornton are more important than public probity. Or that given under the present rules Barnet will have to pay for the public interest report, that he could save the council money and avoid annoying Brian Coleman by refusing to investigate.

But you don’t have to sit back. If you, and say, all the bloggers in Barnet think Mr Hughes is wrong you can demand he reconsider. I suggest you do this to back up Andrew Dismore. You can email the auditor at paul.hughes@uk.gt.com .

A judge is likely to look sympathetically at large numbers of residents demanding the district auditor investigate  the £1.3m non contract with MetPro and Mr Hughes’ decision is subject to judicial review. I hope it won’t have to come to this.

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