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Labour demands Eric Pickles intervene over Barnet Council legal woe

PUBLISHED: 10:00 24 October 2014

Labour's Sarah Sackman, Finchley and Golders Green parliamentary candidate, outside Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Polly Hancock.

Labour's Sarah Sackman, Finchley and Golders Green parliamentary candidate, outside Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Polly Hancock.

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"There is no-one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet. Barnet employs no lawyers."

In her letter to Eric Pickles, Sarah Sackman refers to several Barnet Council decisions made since the transfer of the legal service to Harrow Council in 2012, alleging lost or wasted council taxpayers’ money. They are:

- 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

- Seven Conservative councillors with property interests in the private rented sector were entitled to vote on an accreditation scheme for landlords

- Decisions to cut play schemes for disabled children and remove housing rights from victims of domestic violence

- Alleged payments to suppliers without contracts

This was the damning conclusion reached by solicitor Claer Lloyd-Jones after investigating errors that rendered Barnet Council’s governance legally flawed.

This month Maryellen Salter left her role as the council’s assurance director in the wake of Ms Lloyd-Jones’ probe, which found that Ms Salter’s governance team was responsible for producing erroneous reports for Barnet’s annual council meeting on June 2.

Sarah Sackman, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, is now calling on local government secretary Eric Pickles to investigate the failings in June, insisting they could be just the tip of the iceberg.

She points to a number of decisions made by the council recently which require urgent investigation, including “Barnet’s decision to fight on and defend its unlawful policies on residents’ parking permits”, which has cost the council an estimated £600,000 in legal fees and £2million in parking permit refunds to residents.

Barnet chief executive Andrew Travers was also forced to postpone several meetings after it was discovered the two erroneous reports – underpinning the council’s new committee system of governance – were incorrect and left the new committee system “flawed”.

The reports – outlining the political proportionality of the new committees and the new members’ allowance – were repeated from previous reports and did not address current legal issues.

This oversight was put down to Barnet Council’s decision in 2012 to outsource its legal service to Harrow Council on a five-year contract titled HB Public Law.

It is one of a number of contracts for services the council has tendered since 2012, as part of its flagship One Barnet outsourcing programme aimed at tackling a £72m budget deficit.

The contract transferred all of Barnet’s in-house lawyers to the Harrow-based service, which provides legal assistance to Barnet Council officers.

In the case of the erroneous reports, Ms Lloyd-Jones criticised the Harrow service for giving “no comments or advice” on drafts of the reports sent to them by Barnet’s governance team.

Ms Sackman said: “As a barrister who specialises in public law, I know that it’s imperative that councils have proper, professional legal advice to protect democracy, defend against corruption and ensure due process so that public services are there for the whole community.

“Barnet Council’s failings have been obvious for a long time, and in this report they have been confirmed beyond doubt.”

Ms Sackman, along with Barnet Labour leader Cllr Alison Moore, has written to Mr Pickles asking him to send in inspectors to get to the bottom of Barnet’s governance problem.

She is calling for a best value inspection like the one launched by Mr Pickles into allegations of poor financial management and fraud at Tower Hamlets, to ascertain whether there have been previous failings from the transfer of the legal service.

She has also asked Mr Pickles if he has spoken with Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, his former parliamentary private secretary, about the council’s governance - noting Mr Freer’s role in spearheading the One Barnet programme as Barnet Council leader.

But Mr Freer said: “I haven’t been leader of the council since late 2008, so they need to get over it and take responsibility.

“She [Ms Sackman] clearly has no idea how parliament works. He [Mr Pickles] wouldn’t seek my advice on whether to intervene, it would be quite inappropriate.”

Barnet Council is not unique in moving to an external shared legal service. Last year, Merton, Kingston, Sutton and Richmond councils merged their legal departments.

And in May, the Ham&High reported the content of leaked Islington Council e-mails which revealed Camden and Islington council bosses had discussed the prospect of merging legal services across nine London boroughs.

Labour’s Theo Blackwell, Camden cabinet member for finance and technology policy, said the council was open to sharing services where appropriate. Camden currently shares cemeteries, school meals, public health and audit services with Islington.

But he insisted there were currently no discussions about sharing legal services with Islington.

He said: “Barnet has been a bit gung-ho with back-office services. This is what happens if you don’t think about things in detail. This rush to outsource and share can throw up some problems.”

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