Sunday, 21 September 2008
Some Council Officers Do ‘Ave ‘Em
As families all across the country tighten their belts and cut back on non essential luxuries, it is reassuring to know that the recession has not hit Barnet Council which spent £14,000 of taxpayers money on televisions for five Chief Officers, as part of a contract for audio visual equipment worth over £91,000.
You may have already read about this appalling extravagance in the Barnet Press or on local resident’s Rog T’s blog in the Barnet Times. One resident suggested that the expenditure was obscene. Frankly, it was worse than that. It was grotesque.
Inflation is rising. Unemployment is rising. Pensioners are being forced to choose between heating and eating, but Chief Executive Leo Boland must still have a 46” wide screen television in his office. Has he no shame?
Important questions about this scandal remain unanswered:
1. Who authorised the expenditure?
A council spokesman says “Under the council’s scheme of delegation this specific strand of work was approved by the authorised officer.”
That doesn’t answer the question! Who was the officer?
“The overall scheme of work was part of the acquisition and adaptation of Building 2 which was approved by members through the Cabinet Resources Committee.”
Why does the council refuse to publish a schedule of works and a budget which includes the expenditure on televisions? Why do they refuse to disclose which meeting of the Cabinet Resources Committee approved this expenditure? If the minutes of that meeting were available, we would instantly be able to ascertain whether councillors knew that they were approving expenditure on televisions for chief officers or whether the costs were buried amongst other items of expenditure.
Another council spokesman says: “The item is in the 2007/08 budget under the capital programme, as published on the council's website; unfortunately it is programme HE01 and is covered by slippage into 2007/08 that is not properly explained.”
Not properly explained? That’s a bit of an understatement. On page 164 of the budget in question, there is a reference to HE01 with the commentary “IT costs including desktop and applications, data and voice networks, internal cabling and communications.” To suggest that this can include televisions is manifestly absurd.
It is equally absurd to suggest that this expenditure was approved by councillors. A source close to the Leader told me “I’m a councillor and I didn’t know we had bought any televisions.” Well how would they know if the budget only mentioned IT and voice networks? What have they got to do with a 46” wide screen Sony TV?
This is not the first time that council officers have buried significant expenditure in the accounts. On the face of it, there is an arguable case to bring a charge of false accounting against whoever was responsible for the cover up.
2. Did the council obtain competitive quotations?
Under contract procedure rules, the council is obliged to seek three written quotations for contracts over £75,000 in value. Did they do so? It appears not.
For contracts under £25,000, the council does not have to obtain a written quotation. This contract was billed in nine separate invoices. The council’s spokesman said “the amounts are separately arranged contracts, and may not be considered as a whole.”
Absolute nonsense! It is quite common for a contract to be invoiced in several parts. To suggest that each invoice is a separate contract is a clear absue of power in order to avoid contract procedure rules.
Competitive quotations are necessary for a good reason. When you look at the invoice for the televisions, it is quite clear that the council paid way over the odds for the equipment. But what did they care, it was not their money?
3. Was the supplier given a written contract?
For some reason, the council is refusing to answer. It is not exactly a difficult question.
Contract procedure rules clearly state that a written contract must be provided in all cases. If such a document exists, why does the council refuse to release it, as this would prove that the rules were complied with?
It would seem that either the council is deliberately withholding information from the public, or there has been a serious failure of management control.
It certainly appears as if some aspects of the contract have been carried out unlawfully. But the ball is in the council’s court. If they cannot or will not provide the documentation to prove that the purchase of the television equipment was properly authorised, then there will be no alternative but to bring this whole matter to the attention of the Audit Commission.
One of the most disturbing aspects about this, however, is that whilst Labour and the LibDems condemned the expenditure, Tory leader Mike Freer told the Barnet Times he thought it was justified.
Not one Conservative councillor has said publicly that the council was wrong to spend taxpayers money on televisions for chief officers. Privately I know that many of them are outraged. Perhaps they are all too afraid of Freer to say a word against him in public?
But come election time, they will have to answer to the voters. A councillor’s duty is to the electorate first and foremost, and if they continue to remain silent, the public will conclude that they simply did not care about taxpayers money being frittered away.