Sunday 23 October 2011

H&F Conservatives: “We’re Not Embarrassed!” As £5m to 12m Is Wasted On Shoddy Consultant Contracts

Gone but not forgotten
During the last year, H&F Council eventually agreed to examine the highly unorthodox consultancy contracts it now admits it has wasted millions of pounds on. But that examination was a direct consequence of a two year investigation carried out by H&F’s Labour Opposition. This was featured on today’s Politics Show and BBC London News

Audit Committee reports were successfully pushed for by Councillors PJ Murphy (Lab) and Mike Cartwright (Lab) who are two of that Committee’s members. This began after concerns arose about the Conservative Administration’s curious method of hiring Mr. Nick Johnson, which it claims is a “full-time consultant”.

Conservative councillors initially complained that they didn’t understand why the Audit Committee was “wasting its time” looking into these matters but were then embarrassed to discover that the majority of contractors hired by their Administration: 
  • Had NO valid contract
  • Had NO clear specification of what the council was buying
  • Had NO performance criteria
  • Had NO performance monitoring to check outcomes
  • Had NO checks for value for money
Indeed, the investigation showed that while the Conservatives argued they were cutting the number of staff they employed, they were actually hiring many of them back on inflated private service company contracts which were hidden from public scrutiny. This meant:  
  • Some council bureaucrats were being paid twice from the public purse given that they were former local government employees already on generous final salary pensions (who had often been allowed to retire early) but were then hired back by H&F Council as full time employees for sums ranging up to £1000 per day and more
  • The Conservative-run Council kept no records of how many consultants it employed and initially tried to stop any investigation by the Audit Committee on the basis that it would be “too much work” to compile this information
  • The Conservative Administration got itself into a situation where consultants were hiring other consultants to do work that was unspecified, unmonitored and in many cases unnecessary
  • The Conservative Administration even paid consultants despite the work not being completed and in one case the consultancy company had even ceased to exist.
Indeed, the Opposition estimates that H&F Council has wasted between £5m to £12m by commissioning consultants for work that was thoroughly unnecessary. It is however, still difficult to have much confidence in the way H&F Council is managing these contracts. It was only last month that the Finance Director eventually wrote to me to confirm that as a consequence of the Opposition's investigations, a new “procedure for the selection, appointment and management of consultants and interims was approved by the Executive Management Team (EMT) on 13th July.”

Consider that for every £3 the Conservative led government has cut to H&F Council’s budget, the local Conservative Administration has added an extra £1 cut. That translates into service cuts and local stealth taxes, such as ending the Sure Start children’s education programme in all but name; cutting homeless acceptance criteria;  introducing a 55% parking charge increases in just one year; and a new £12.40 hourly care charge for the elderly, sick and disabled.

To be fair to Cllr. Greg Smith, I think he did quite a good job on today’s Politics Show by putting a positive spin on what is an awful story about his Administration's waste and incompetence. But much of what he said was blatantly not true: he falsely claimed credit for taking "the initiative" and investigating what was going on. He even tried to blame a previous Labour Administration that left office nearly six years ago. All of the incompetence the Council has identified is a direct result of the policies and actions of the current Conservative Administration although Cllr. Smith did tell the BBC that he and his colleagues were "not embarrassed" in the slightest - which is a concern in itself.

Meanwhile, H&F Council is still refusing to say how many more of its full time staff are actually employed by agencies and therefore hidden from public scrutiny. The agencies enjoy a high commission which is paid to them from public funds with every monthly bill. While there are occasions when large organisations may need to employ people like for short periods it is very peculiar for people to be employed by a council as agency workers on a permanent basis. However, the Opposition has already discovered that many of these individuals hold high level council positions and have been employed by H&F Council in exactly this way for years.

Many residents will be asking how much more is there to come out? H&F Council therefore needs to be transparent and publish a full public account of what's gone wrong and why they tried to avoid fixing it. Then the Administration needs to publish a detailed plan of how they are going to ensure this type of waste never happens again. If they don't do that and we discover further problems, then the Opposition will be calling for some high profile resignations.


RosemaryP said...

This puts the £88,000 required to finance H&F's Archives into perspective - the £88,000 that was whittled to the bone, leaving the Archives to run on a shoestring with volunteers. So much for the Council's respect for the borough's collective memory. This is embittering news - it's bad enough to lose valuable facilities to reduce debt, it's intolerable to lose it to a bunch of consultants.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes consultants can be good value - when they have objectives, those objectives are managed and monitored, when they have contracts - but this doesn't seem to be the case. It seems more that we are asked to stomach axeing police, children's services, farming out education to private companies - all on the basis 'we need to save money' - meanwhile friends get paid behind the scenes for what exactly....those paying them can't even say....!