A black hole is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape.
And look: Andrew Travers' black hole from the London Development Agency had followed him all the way to Broken Barnet, to the Town Hall, and up the stairs and along the corridor to Committee Room One, to the MetPro Audit meeting, where it sat on the table all evening, holding us all in its gravitational pull, powerless to resist, and unable to leave the room.
It was time for the man from Grant Thornton to speak. He stopped manically flipping his pen from finger to finger, smiled tightly and told us that in his opinion, the audit report 'raises some quite significant issues in relation to MetPro ...' No shit. Mrs Angry made a note of this startling conclusion, and agreed that the role of the external auditor was indeed a vital part of the process of scrutiny and visibly worth the £373,000 plus annual fee paid to them by the by tax payers of our beloved borough.
Of course it was the bloggers of Broken Barnet, working as 'armchair auditors', on behalf of their fellow citizens, who undertook the all the hard work which exposed the MetPro affair, and the truly scandalous state of the borough's financial administration, and please note, Grant Thornton, they did your work for you free of charge. Perhaps you should pay us a retrospective consultancy fee? Invoice on its way, but payment will be accepted, no questions asked, before receipt of same, Broken Barnet style.
The auditor welcomed the 'robust' internal report. They would be having monthly meetings, and action plans, oh and a three month period of steadying the One Barnet ship might be a good idea. Yes, trouble is that Captain Pugwash and his hapless crew of Tory privateers are insisting on taking the listing vessel out onto the high seas of massive outsourcing of public services in the meanwhile, seaworthy or not ...
Lord Palmer again raised the question of potential fraud. This was neatly deflected by Jeff Lustig, Director of Corporate Governance, by a mention of the corporate fraud team. Will we ever hear any more, I wonder?
Labour's Councillor Brodkin had some questions: officers had assumed a contract with Metpro was in place: how then was the company monitored in the absence of any contract? Ah. Well, Andrew Travers agreed that 'weaknesses' had clearly been identified ... Other questions: who was giving authority for specific use for example at Barbara Langstone House hostel? Where is any evidence of member oversight (the aspect of political responsibility appears to have been conveniently overlooked) and finally, has the One Barnet programme distracted the council from its ordinary functional processes?
Answers were in short supply, but CE Walkley stepped in with a suitably vague response: there was a tendency to blame issues such as the cuts, or One Barnet, but these problems happened five years ago, since when there have been three new leaders, and nine new directors. Well, they have continued since then, Mr W, but it's no good trying to kick the blame that far back. He thought the problem, guess what, 'says something profound about the culture'. Yes, Mr Walkley: it speaks of a culture of decadence and failure, incompetence and corruption.
Palmer now raised the wider implications of the MetPro issue: the future of One Barnet. Spotting Tory councillor Daniel Thomas in the audience, he invited him to come and speak to the committee. Councillor Thomas did not look altogether happy at this prospect, but did as he was told.
Will One Barnet continue? Lord Palmer asked.
Oh yes, retorted Thomas, brimming with confidence, It will ...
Everything would be just fine, working with their partners Agilysis. No problem at all. (thanks for reading and rereading yesterday's posts, by the way, friends and admirers at Agilysis, Grant Thornton, the Audit Commission, Capita etc ...)
Oh, what rubbish, yelled Mrs Angry, who has no time for Tory councillors like Thomas, not long out of sixth form, with no life experience, but adhering to such remarkably blinkered, right wing political positions. Last year, in an amusing one to one budget consultation on the phone with Mrs Angry, Councillor Thomas had assured her that if he and his colleagues did not within a short time receive satisfactory evidence that the One Barnet programme was financially sound they would abandon it. Well, here we are, Councillor Thomas, with all the devastating conclusions of the audit report, and there you are, resolutely looking the other way ...
Labour's Councillor Cooke said there should be no thought whatsoever of increasing outsourcing until there was evidence that it coud go forward, it would be reckless to do so. In regard to the issue of screening the security staff working with children and Barbara Langstone House, this would be a very different sort of inquiry if evidence of abuse had to be presented, wouldn't it?
Lord Palmer moved to the recommendations, repeating his view that the report made 'devastating reading ... horrendous '. He hoped the committee would agree to all the recommendations and commented that he hoped in future 'we don't have to wait for the public, for the bloggers, to tell us before another report like this had to be presented.
The situation, he reflected, was reminiscent of a hospital that would run perfectly well if only there were no patients. And not run by a team of incompetent doctors, thought Mrs Angry.
He wanted the recommendations to reflect his view that there was a need to identify how outsourcing helps, or does not help, the council in 'acheiving control'. For One Barnet to proceed and before there is any further externalisaion of services.there must be confirmation that adequate safeguards are in place.
The next item on the agenda was the larger internal audit: again, Mary Ellen Salter referred us to the incredible number of limited assurances and wrily commented in a masterful understatement that the audit demonstrated the council's position was 'not a good place to be in' ...
The Chief Executive accepted in full the findings and made a lot of promises to be good from now on. This will include the novel practice, apparently, of 'finishing what we started, and tying loose ends'. Marvellous. Give that man a pay rise.
Tory councillor Schama thought the audit report was 'dreadful' - 72% of internal reports rated limited or no assurances? Walkley agreed this was completely unacceptable. And?
Schama later asked the deputy CE and Chief Finance Officer Andrew Travers to estimate the number of contracts other than MetPro that should exist, but do not. Incredibly, Mr Travers did not know, and could not provide even a guestimate. I can think of a couple, muttered Mrs Angry, always keen to assist. Some wag asked if Grant Thornton had a contract. They do, of course, watertight, every last detail carefully agreed: no loose ends.
The last items dealt briefly with other account matters. No one cared very much. By this time, there was an oppressive atmosphere both inside and outside the Town Hall, as a storm had moved overhead, large raindrops splattering against the windows, the sky turning a lurid easycouncil coloured shade of orange.
Everyone packed up and drifted away. The senior officers quietly slipped out, and the councillors went home, shaking their heads.
This is the way One Barnet ends, perhaps: not with a bang, but a whimper. Because something tells me that life is never going to be quite the same, here, post MetPro, in the twilight world of Broken Barnet.
There is reason for optimism in some quarters, however: yesterday Mrs Angry was checking her blog visitors and found one of her MetPro supporting admirers had left a message - or rather a plea:
'Mr Cornlius, (sic) please bring back metpro in Barnet ...'
Not completely impossible, is it, citizens?