Following the damning report into Barnet Council's legal governance failings, leading Barnet Labour figures have written to the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government demanding that Barnet Council be subject to a best value inspection.
Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Secretary of State
Department for Communities and Local Government
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF
14 October 2014
Dear Secretary of State
Claer Lloyd-Jones’ report into governance at Barnet Council – best value inspection
You will be aware that the external legal report into Barnet Council published last week identified serious failings in the council’s governance.
These included the payment of allowances to councillors without a lawfully approved system being in place and decision papers that were legally incorrect being presented to councillors on the issues of allowances and the council’s committee structure.
Lloyd Jones’ report noted that ‘there is no-one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet’ and that council committees were not properly and lawfully set up in terms of political proportionality. Barnet has not had an in-house legal department since September 2012, when all of Barnet’s legal functions were delegated to Harrow council.
The Lloyd-Jones report does not examine decisions by councillors or legal advice given to them prior to May 2014 and there is now serious concern that many other decisions have been made without legal advice or with incorrect legal advice.
This raises the further concern that poorly advised decision-making has lost or wasted council tax payers’ money and Government grants administered by your Department.
There must be no cover up of any financial losses caused by these failings.
We believe that the amount of money that has been lost or put at risk can only be established through a best value inspection, to be ordered by you using your powers under the Local Government Act 1999.
We ask that the inspection considers all decisions since April 2012, when Barnet decided to close its in-house legal department.
Only a comprehensive best value inspection can give council tax payers a complete picture of the losses incurred. In particular, we would suggest that the inspectors should investigate Barnet’s decision to fight on and defend its unlawful policies on residents’ parking permits in the High Court and the Court of Appeal in 2012 and 2013.
Barnet has still not settled its legal costs in the case it lost in July 2013 and thousands of residents have still not been refunded for the unlawful excess parking charges which Barnet made them pay, totalling more than £2m. Barnet’s legal costs and the costs of the residents’ lawyers are estimated at more than £600,000.
We ask that the decision in July that seven Conservative councillors with property interests in the private rented sector were entitled to vote on an accreditation scheme for landlords should be reviewed.
Council tax payers need to know if the lack of legal knowledge at Barnet contributed to the indefensible decisions to cut playschemes for disabled children and remove housing rights from victims of domestic violence.
The inspectors should also review legal agreements with external contractors to ensure there has been no re-occurrence of payments to suppliers without contracts, as happened with the security firm MetPro which was paid £1.4m over six years.
We would also ask you to confirm whether you have discussed the situation at Barnet with Mike Freer, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, who was until recently your Parliamentary Private Secretary, or with Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon.
Mr Freer was responsible for the drive to contract out most of Barnet’s professional services when he was leader of the council from 2006-2009, with Mr Offord as deputy leader.
We would like to know if Mr Freer or Mr Offord discussed Barnet’s governance with you. The Council's failings have been obvious for a long time and we would expect you as Secretary of State to be concerned about decisions taken at Barnet.
Sarah Sackman (Labour Parliamentary candidate for Finchley & Golders Green),
Amy Trevethan (Labour Parliamentary candidate for Chipping Barnet),
Andrew Dismore (Labour Parliamentary candidate for Hendon), and London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden
Cllr Alison Moore, Leader of Barnet Council Labour Group