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Barnet councillors clash over ‘public right to know’ about Capita fraud report

PUBLISHED: 17:08 16 October 2018

Hendon Town Hall, Barnet Council's HQ

Hendon Town Hall, Barnet Council's HQ

Archant

Barnet Council’s finances came under scrutiny last week as the fallout continued from the fraud that saw a Capita employee swindle £2m from council coffers.

At a meeting of the financial performance and contracts committee, members of the public and Labour councillors quizzed officers over the level of oversight the council had over outsourced operations.

Former Capita employee Trishul Shah was jailed in August after siphoning cash by authorising his own fraudulent compulsory purchase orders.

Shah worked on the Re (Regional Enterprise) contract jointly administered by Capita and the town hall.

An independent report into the fraud by consultants Grant Thornton found the council did not have sufficient oversight over its Capita contracts, including the Re contract.

At the meeting, despite a shared concern over the council’s financial health, councillors clashed over whether or not an up-to-date report on the Capita fraud could be discussed in public.

Labour councillors Kathy Levine, Barry Rawlings and Arjun Mittra were all keen for it to be discussed openly.

However, on legal advice from the council’s chief commercial officer, Cllr Peter Zinkin, chairing the meeting, opposed this along with his Conservative colleagues. Officers then told councillors that even if a vote passed, the exempt report simply could not be discussed in public.

Cllr Zinkin said: “As I understand it we simply could not have this discussion in public.”

Labour group leader Cllr Rawlings said: ”This is the first time I’ve ever seen the recommendations that mean for once, we don’t have a vote in public. I’m not sure what the constitutional position is here.”

Cllr Levine said: “I’m worried about this not being published because of democracy and the right of the public to know what’s going on.”

Despite the opposition, the vote resulted in the matter being reserved for private discussion.

Earlier in the evening, local blogger John Dix raised the spectre of Barnet going bust. He told the council: “I am worried. I am worried we still are not getting the full picture of Barnet’s finances. You’re still discovering historic financial liabilities.

“You may well be dealing with this, but I think there needs to be a public airing.”

Mr Dix pointed to the appearance of invoices for “pension strain” to the value of more than £3.5m in the 2017-2018 accounts despite relating to the two financial years previous to that.

The Grant Thornton report will be discussed in public on November 22 at a council audit committee meeting.

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