17 October 2012

....we are willing to pay any price....

Executive summary:

It is impossible to get some people to follow the rules at Barnet Council, it is the law of the jungle when it comes to procurement. Senior management have failed.

Some background:

The council paid over £1m to an unlicensed security guard company (MetPro - ooh not typed that name for a while - a stink takes a long time to disperse) without a contract being in existence.

This led to the production of a Procurement Action Plan (Mr Mustard christened it PAP and pap it certainly is) which Nick Walkley presented to the Audit Committee on 16 June 2012.

Before he did so Mr Reasonable was able to speak for 5 minutes and one thing he said was "the management culture is flawed".

The soon to be ex CEO Nick Walkley said he was concerned that departments knew and did nothing (has anything changed since?).

The now mayor, Brian Schama, said that the council cannot rely on systems that compliance is done.

Andrew Travers said that he accepted that core processes are fundamental. He is the line manager of all contracts. He takes full responsibility for sorting it out. The action plan is to be implemented by September 11.

Mr Mustard sees from his 12 pages of longhand notes that later on in the meeting Nick Walkley said "have to change the culture" (you didn't manage it Nick and now you are on your bike) and he also spoke about "finishing what we started" (oops, One Barnet not finished).

Cllr Geoff Cooke said "we have to make the officers buy in".

Cllr (Lord) Monroe Palmer said "people too busy not doing their job".

The 6 September Audit Committee saw the arrival of Mick Stokes (he's already history) to present an update on the PAP and the traffic lights were all blue (closed) or green (on target). No blogger, who was present, thought the plan was satisfactory (whitewashed in blue & green is an unusual combo). The plan included the embedding of Contract Procedure Rules in information systems and monitoring routines. Instructions were issued to all relevant staff by email on 20 July 11 regarding new procedures and controls which will also be included within staff training.

At this meeting Mick Stokes told the committee that potential cavalier spend is restricted and constrained (did he leave because he found it wasn't?).

Monroe Palmer (he is so good, he really should be listened to more) said he "doesn't want to be bitten again" (by poor procurement controls).

On 26 October 2011 Mr Mustard put the cat amongst the pigeons by sending the following email to Pam Wharfe, the interim director of parking and other stuff.

Dear Ms Wharfe

Part 4 of the council's procedure rules says that for a contract with a value of £75,000 to £156,442

Request three(3) or more written competitive quotations but must have minimum 2 returned. Less than 2 bids returned then repeat competition.
Please can you tell me why you have signed DPR 1419 in breach of that very clear rule.

The Procurement Code of Practice says that a supplier should not get more than 25% of its business from the Council. What percentage of the turnover of R M Countryside Services Ltd emanates from Barnet Council?

On 9 November he wrote again

I note that the council has a 10 day target for replying to correspondence. I hoped that having raised such an important point, especially after the Procurement Action Plan was presented to the Audit Committee, that a reply would already have been received to my below email. I look forward to hearing from you very soon.

On 28 November, failing a response, he turned his enquiry into a complaint. 

This caused a reaction and he got a reply the next day, part of which was

I have reviewed the issues you have raised about this contract. I have thought carefully about the withdrawn tenders and I am content that officers still achieved value for money by using the term contractor who did competively (sic) bid for the work. My overriding duty is to secure value for money and the best available option for the council (5-1) and I think that officers had reasonably sought a good price for the work using a competitive process.

On 5 December Mr Mustard wrote again (why do the council think they can fob Mr Mustard off, he just keeps on going?)

Dear Ms Wharfe

You have repeated the supposed value for money for your actions which I have already discredited. You are in breach of the Constitution. This is what the council website says about the Constitution ( which includes the Contract Procedure Rules ).

"This Constitution sets out how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people"

You are bound by the Constitution as otherwise there would be little point in its existence. On what grounds are you ignoring the rules and continuing with a contract that has not been lawfully made?

and the highly unsatisfactory response was:

I have nothing more to add.
Pam Wharfe
Interim Director Environment, Planning & Regeneration

You might be adding something later!

The final piece of background is the report of the Task & Finish Group on contract monitoring. It was presented to the Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 29 February 2012. Mr Mustard was in the public gallery.

Monroe (Mr Mustard is a big fan of Lord Palmer) agreed that more robust monitoring was needed. He also said that "people who place the orders disregard the rules" (proof to follow Monroe) and "officers simply do what they think is right" (even when it is wrong). He asked if the service areas were buying in? Monroe was worried about "people doing what they want" (bang on again).

The smoking gun

Mr Mustard asked on 27 April 2012 to see emails about the use of RM Countryside. He got his answer on 10 October 2012 (the longest 20 days ever). There were over 30 pages of emails. Mr Mustard showed you one yesterday and there are 3 more today. The other pages, not released by Mr Mustard, simply show in general the topsy turvy way in which goods are purchased in Pam Wharfe's directorate.
emails about paying any price for parking meter removal

Well look at that.

"Haven't heard back but we are willing to pay any price to have one or both of them start removing ASAP!"

Any price! Any at all, just choose a number and the council will pay it. That is Mr Mustard's money you are spending Barnet Council. If it is going to be wasted Mr Mustard can do it himself.

You can see some people trying to follow the rules. The Highways Manager knows that Pam Wharfe has asked Audit for advice. He also knew that Declan (his boss, the Assistant Director of Highways & Transport (a no. 2 to Pam Wharfe) was reviewing the RM FOI question. Now that was Mr Mustard's question and he should simply receive factual answers and not have his questions subjected to review meetings where risk is minimised.

The interim Parking Maintenance Manager knew that RM were up to their limit. They did not have a contract and had been given a purchase order for £30,000 both of which were rule breaches but at least he knew he had already gone far enough.

Other quotes were being sought but they were for more money. The net should have been cast wider.

The problem is that Cllr Brian Coleman, at that time the Cabinet Member with irresponsibility for parking, simply wanted meters gone and was asking for RM Countryside to be used. Mr Mustard does not have any proof that Brian was told that they were over the spend level for RM (you can form your own conclusion on that point).

How could Pam Wharfe have written to Mr Mustard that she was content that her officers obtained value for money when they were prepared to pay any price? any price!

Yours frugally (unlike the council)

Mr Mustard

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