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Archive for November 7th, 2014

Predictably, there seems to be a rearguard action among Lutfur Rahman’s supporters to try and downplay the PwC report.

We can sum up their arguments thus:

1. PwC found no evidence or fraud or corruption

2. What about other councils such as Newham, Basingstoke and Dean, and Timbuktu (ad nauseam): why not investigate them, why pick on Tower Hamlets?

3. How dare PwC lecture Tower Hamlets taxpayers on the best value of public money when it ‘creams’ off millions in Government contracts.

4. It’s a Tory plot.

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 are the arguments of student common room (where 9/11 truthers might even find a home).

On Number 1, the report says it was made aware of nine cases of suspected fraud involving grants and contracts during its inspection, but it agreed to leave these alone as further questioning might jeopardise police/council investigations.

We can assume that money linked to the Brady Youth Forum was one of those nine and, as I pointed out in this post here in April, the council has some explaining to do on that.

The report, when you read it in detail, is excellent. As I’ve said before, the PwC auditors were clearly shocked by what they found.

And from the tone of the report, you can see where they believe the problems lay. I suspect they had some (probably more than some) sympathy with most council officers (although there are one or two significant exceptions to that).

On the other hand, they seemed wholly unimpressed with certain elected members and their powers of recall to remember important facts and details. The Mayor himself, lawyer, suffered from that problem, but he is much busier than his underlings.

The devil is in the detail, as they say. There was unjustifiable political interference in decision-making. Grant awards could easily have been made on the back of an envelope.

What I’d like to see is much more evidence on how the grant monies were/are actually spent. Which salaries are b eing paid for, what do they do etc etc?

When, in 2012, I highlighted the questionably invoices submitted by Gulam Robbani for his work as a mayoral adviser, there was outrage across the political spectrum, including from inside Lutfur’s camp.

Those invoices, which ‘detailed’ some pretty dodgy timesheets for his work, were signed off by the head of Lutfur’s office, Murziline Parchment. Did she check work done against his invoices? No. He may well have done work to justify his contract but those invoices didn’t show it.

There was no financial or management control in place. And when there are no such controls, you create an environment where wrongdoing can happen. Or where you don’t get the best value for public money.

That’s what PwC have highlighted. How many of these groups receiving grants are submitting solid invoices to back up their original applications?

Surely Lutfur’s supporters can see this? You wouldn’t run a business with your own personal money in that way, so why should a council be any different?

As for Number 2: let’s not forget that the politics of Tower Hamlets have been a nationally known basket-case for many years. It’s reputation become increasingly poisonous. You only have to watch to the video of Alibior Choudhury labelling former Labour councillor Ann Jackson a fascist-type ‘black cardigan’ (when she was in mourning for her ex-husband) to see how low it has stunk.

The dysfunctional politics (together with the challenging transformation to a mayoral system of governance) has caused real problems at officer level. The lack of a strong chief executive and a decent monitoring officer is both a symptom of that, and a contributory factor to the reputational chaos.

On Number 3. This is another form of whataboutery. Shoot the messenger. There are of course concerns about corporate lobbying of government and Whitehall waste. The latter has been something of a political mantra for Eric Pickles himself. But banging on about the bigger macro picture does a disservice to the actual cause.

If we have more scrutiny and adherence to processes at a grassroots/micro/town hall level, then there’d be less need (and work) for the likes of PwC. PwC were brought in because there were obvious failings in that respect.

Take care of the council pennies and the national pounds will better (to some degree) look after themselves.

As for Number 4: if it’s a Tory plot, might you argue: Why hasn’t Pickles gone after the country’s biggest Labour dominated authority, ie Newham?

Lutfur was an easier target, of course, because he was no longer part of the political mainstream. He didn’t have Labour support. But again, this is all part of the dysfunctional politics.

So where are we at?

The council has given its assurance to DCLG over the distribution of further grants, as required by Eric. It has until November 18 to make its representations on the proposal to send in Commissioners.

Some in Lutfur’s team want to take an aggressive stance and examine a possible legal challenge…another misguided David vs Goliath battle.

I know there are senior council officers who would rather now just knuckle down and take the medicine. Further legal challenges would just further erode the borough’s reputation.

Lutfur should see the appointment of commissioners as an opportunity. With them there, it’ll arguably be more difficult for people to criticise him. He’d benefit, both politically and as an administrator. He’d be better able to concentrate on his messages such as housing.

And when/if the Commissioners leave in 2017, a year before the next election, he might even have a good success story to sing about.

In the meantime, I leave you with PwC’s report on how the council co-operate with the inspection team (this, remember, after the town hall had ‘welcomed’ their arrival). The penultimate paragraph, 1.46, is particularly telling. The Interim Monitoring Officer is not named: It’s Meic Sullivan-Gould.

Timing and duration of the Inspection

1.28 The Inspection commenced on 4 April 2014, the date of the Appointment Letter. Our field work was substantially complete by 5 September 2014, since which time we have focused on fact checking with the Authority and with individual witnesses (see below for more detail) and in finalising this report.

1.29 In the Appointment Letter, we were directed to report our findings from the Inspection by 30 June 2014 or such later date as might be agreed between us and the Secretary of State. This flexibility reflected the inherent uncertainties at the outset of the Inspection. Examples of these uncertainties included the

volume and ease of access of information that might need to be examined; the extent, nature and implications of any issues that might emerge; and the level and timeliness of co-operation we would receive from the Authority.

1.30 By a letter dated 27 June 2014, PwC informed DCLG that it would not be in a position to report by 30 June. This letter formalised the position that had been apparent for some time prior to that date and which had been discussed between PwC and DCLG on a number of occasions. The primary reason given in the 27 June letter for the need for an extension beyond 30 June 2014 was the failure of the Authority to provide information on a timely basis, or at all, in relation to a number of important requests made by the Inspection team. Given the inherently iterative nature of the Inspection, the delay in provision of information had a significant impact on our overall progress in pursuing our enquiries in the various areas of focus, as well as our ability to plan for and arrange interviews, which were expected in turn to bring to light further information and documents that we would need to review and consider.

1.31 By a letter dated 30 June 2014 DCLG replied, agreeing to a postponement of the reporting deadline. It was proposed that further discussions should take place between PwC and DCLG in the first half of July 2014 to determine by when PwC could reasonably be expected to report under the circumstances. Those discussions led to the conclusion that we were unlikely to report before the middle of September 2014, but that the position would be kept under regular review.

1.32 For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that by a letter dated 4 July 2014 (received by PwC on 7 July 2014), the Mayor wrote to PwC objecting to the manner in which the Authority’s level of cooperation and responsiveness to requests had been characterised in PwC’s letter to DCLG of 27 June 2014 and asserting (in summary) that such characterisation was inaccurate and partial. PwC responded to the Mayor’s letter by a further letter dated 17 July 2014. In the 17 July letter, PwC rejected the Mayor’s assertions on the basis that there were no material errors of fact in our 27 June letter, and also took the opportunity to expand on some of the aspects of the Authority’s stance that had contributed to delays in the provision of requested information and documentation.

1.33 On 25 September 2014 we received a further letter from the Mayor responding to our letter of 17 July 2014 to him. The Mayor reiterated his view that our 27 June 2014 letter did not present an accurate and impartial view of the Authority’s co-operation with the Inspection. We remain of the view that our 27 June 2014 letter presented a materially accurate and fair view of the position. We will respond formally to the Mayor’s latest letter shortly.

Approach to our work

General principles

1.34  As directed by the Secretary of State through the Appointment Letter, our primary focus throughout the Inspection has been the four areas outlined at paragraph 1.8. Our approach to each of these areas is set out in more detail in the relevant sections of this report, however, at a general level, our approach to each area has typically included the following common elements:

Fact finding meetings with relevant officers (i.e. employees of the Authority) (“officers”) to gain an understanding of the operation of the area in question;

“Walk-throughs” of relevant processes to confirm our understanding;

Requests for information, data and documentation of relevance to the Authority’s financial systems, relevant processes generally, or individual programmes or transactions, as appropriate;

Detailed analysis of individual transactions or categories of transactions targeted on a risk based approach; and

Formal interviews with selected officers, councillors and the Mayor.

1.35  The above steps are iterative and often overlapping, rather than strictly sequential. Furthermore, while each of the four areas has been the subject of a separate work stream within the Inspection, there are certain points of cross-over between them, which are brought out in the relevant sections of this report.

Selection of items for detailed examination

1.36  Within the four primary areas of focus, the selection of specific transactions or categories of transaction for detailed examination has been judgemental and risk-based rather than purely random or statistical. As intimated above, the Inspection has not occurred in a vacuum. It was instigated as a result of concerns brought to light by a variety of sources, some of which have been aired in the media. In addition, further sources, from both inside and outside the Authority, have approached us with information during the course of the Inspection. We have also had regard to matters escalated through the Authority’s own governance processes, including the deliberations of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee (the “O&S Committee”) and the work of the Authority’s Internal Audit function. Finally, we have made our own judgements about where risks might lie given the nature of the transactions in question.

Information sourced other than from the Authority

1.37  In the early stages of the Inspection, we established a dedicated and regularly monitored email address (lbth.inspectors@uk.pwc.com) through which anyone wishing to provide information in confidence could contact us. This email address was featured on the DCLG website. Over the course of the Inspection, we have received 256 communications into that email address from 38 individuals. In addition, other sources have approached us directly (i.e. other than through the dedicated email address referred to above), again with information of varying degrees of relevance to our remit. Not all of these communications were relevant to our terms of reference, but those that were have been factored as appropriate, into our approach.

1.38  In addition to the above, we have also had dialogue with a number of former officers of the Authority about their contemporaneous knowledge of matters relevant to the Inspection.

1.39  We have actively sought to engage with those sources who have come forward and who appeared to have information of potential relevance to our terms of reference and where we required further detail or clarification. Not all sources have been able to back up their concerns or allegations with tangible evidence and in those instances, where we have not been able through our Inspection to fill this evidential gap, we have been unable to give the information they have provided much, if any, weight.

Fact checking by the Authority and by interviewees

1.40  The extensive factual components of sections 3 to 7 inclusive of this report have been subject to a fact checking exercise between us and the Authority. The Authority was given a 10 working day period from 11 to 24 September 2014 to review factual extracts and provide comments and, where appropriate, any additional evidence which it wanted us to take into consideration. In parallel, individuals whom we have interviewed, and from whose interviews we were proposing to cite particular statements (with or without attribution), were given the opportunity over 10 working days to review and comment on those citations. We have received responses from the Authority and the majority of the relevant individuals, which at our discretion we have reflected as we deemed appropriate in this final version of the report.

The Authority’s stance vis-à-vis the Inspection

1.41  On 4 April 2014, the date of our appointment, the Mayor’s Office4  issued a statement welcoming the Inspection stating “I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to send independent auditors to review our grants processes. This review will demonstrate that the Council acts in the best interests of all Tower Hamlets residents ”.

1.42  On 1 July 2014 (some three months later) the Mayor wrote to the Secretary of State informing him that he had asked the Authority’s Interim Monitoring Officer to initiate a judicial review of his decision to instigate the Inspection. We note that, in refusing the Authority’s application for judicial review, the judge considered each of the grounds advanced by the Authority in its application as “unmeritorious” and the first ground as “hopeless”. We understand that the Authority has now applied for an oral hearing and that this is due to be heard by a High Court judge on 14 November 2014.

1.43  It should be acknowledged that the Authority gave assurances to us that the initiation of judicial review proceedings would not affect the on-going cooperation of the Authority with the Inspection. Notwithstanding the issues outlined below and elsewhere concerning the level of cooperation of the Authority and its responsiveness to our requests for information and documentation, it is fair to say that the commencement of judicial review proceedings did not in itself have any significant effect on the Authority’s dealings with the Inspection team.

1.44  At the outset of the Inspection the Authority established a Project Management Office (“PMO”) to oversee and manage the flow of information and documentation to the Inspection team and to assist in the arrangement of meetings and, in due course, more formal interviews. This was in principle a helpful step and created a useful mechanism for liaison between the Inspection team and the Authority, very much in accordance with our desire for there to be a clear line of communication and a single point of contact for formal requests. The Inspection team has met regularly with the PMO team to discuss the status of information requests and provide further explanation and clarification where necessary. Initially, such meetings took place on a daily basis, reducing in frequency as the Inspection progressed and the need for such frequent meetings reduced. We recognise the PMO team and no doubt many other officers have put in considerable effort to collate and provide the requested material.

1.45  Over the course of the Inspection, we made a total of 290 requests via the PMO for information or documentation. Some of these were quite broad, in some cases involving the provision of large volumes of documents or data, while others were for targeted items mentioned to us in meetings or interviews or referred to in other documents already provided to us. Inspectors are required to give three days’ notice of a request. In practice, we have not generally insisted on being provided with full responses to all requests within three days, recognising that some of our requests were substantial in scope or that the requested information or documentation might reasonably be expected to take longer to collate.

1.46  As discussed at paragraph 1.41 et seq, despite its public assertions of support for the Inspection, the Authority has at various stages raised a number of obstacles to our progress which have significantly delayed the provision of information or documentation and which in large part led to our request for an extension of the time table for the Inspection. These obstacles broadly related to the Authority’s concerns about the legality and/or scope of the Inspection. Additionally, the Authority raised issues as to whether or not we were entitled access to documents that might be covered by legal professional privilege.

Taking each of these in turn:

On 12 May 2014, we were informed that the Interim Monitoring Officer required us to “certify” a significant number of requests. There is no legal basis upon which the Authority could require such certification, and we were not prepared to do so. Furthermore, the form of words the Authority sought to prescribe in the certification defined the scope of the Inspection too narrowly and were therefore not in a form which we could accept, even if we had been prepared to do so in principle. All requests for which the Authority was taking the position that it needed individual certification were put on hold. On 13 June 2014 (just over a month later) without further explanation, we were informed that certification was no longer an issue.

On 7 May 2014 we requested access to certain legal files. This request was followed up as outstanding on a number of occasions until 4 June 2014 (almost a month later), when the Authority informed us that we were required to sign up to a number of written conditions and undertakings in relation to the requested material. These included an acknowledgement up front that all the said material was privileged, which we pointed out we could not know without seeing it first and which was unlikely in any event, given the probability that even legal files would contain material that was not itself privileged by virtue of the circumstances in which it had been created. Without our acceding to all of the Authority’s demands in relation to this material, we started to gain access to it on 16 June 2014, some six weeks after first requesting it.

1.47  One example of a request of central importance to the Inspection which was subject to very significant delay was the provision of basic accounting data covering the majority of the Period. Until 1 April 2013, the Authority used a JD Edwards Financial System, migrating to an Agresso Financial System during that year. While in discussions with the Authority about the provision of data from the current Agresso Financial System (which also resulted in some delay) we requested data from the JD Edwards Financial System on 29 April 2014. We know from discussions with relevant Authority staff that the data was extracted and ready to be provided to us by 12 May 2014. However, the Authority challenged the legality of this request, and it has continued to reserve its position on this matter, even as it finally authorized the release of the data to us on 20 June 2014, almost two months after the initial request and just ten days before our original reporting date. We have referred to the data from the JD Edwards Financial System and the Agresso Financial System together in the remainder of this report as the “Financial Data”.

 

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