CROYDON IN CRISIS: Tonight’s meeting of the council’s GPAC – General Purposes and Audit Committee – will mark the end of a error, as Labour councillors risk handing even more control to council executives.
By STEVEN DOWNES
Karen Jewitt, the councillor for Thornton Heath ward, will chair what is probably her last General Purposes and Audit Committee meeting tonight – which will probably be the last to be chaired by a Labour councillor at least until 2025.
You might say that tonight’s meeting marks the end of an error. Potentially, it marks the start of yet another new one, thanks to more bungling by council leader Hamida Ali and her cabinet.
GPAC is supposedly a crucial part of the local authority’s scrutiny function, where elected representatives hold the council’s professional staff to account. But GPAC is about to be placed in the hands of an individual who could end up being dominated and answerable to senior council executives, the very people whose work GPAC is supposed to scrutinise.
This reversal of accountability is the latest example of the poor judgement and decision-making of Ali and the rump of Tony Newman’s numpties, and will leave Croydon Council Tax-payers even more vulnerable to the whims and hubris of unaccountable council officials on six-figure salaries.
Following the council’s financial collapse last year, government minister Robert Jenrick sent in commissioners for a Rapid Review whose report, published in February, castigated the Labour-controlled council’s poor levels of financial controls, both through the Scrutiny committee and GPAC.
The council’s scrutiny committee, chaired by Sean Fitzsimons – who was placed on allowances of £42,000 per year by Newman – was “not forceful in their challenge and did not refer key decisions back for the consideration of full council”, according to the Review.
Nonetheless, Fitzsimons remains as chair of Scrutiny.
The Review added of the work of GPAC: “The audit committee appears to have been similarly unchallenging.”
This finding led to a recommendation that the audit committee should be chaired independently of the ruling Labour group – something interpreted as being by a member of the opposition group of councillors, the kind of arrangement which often happens with parliamentary select committees at Westminster.
But with customary ham-fistedness, Hamida Ali and her cabinet – made up largely of councillors previously loyal and unquestioning of the discredited former leader, Newman – wrestled for months over ways to avoid handing the GPAC chair to the local Conservatives. In the end, apparently encouraged by council chief exec Katherine Kerswell, they came up with a plan for an “independent” chair, to be paid nearly £1,000 per day by Croydon’s cash-strapped council.
The recruitment process for this role – to be filled “ideally…” by “a qualified accountant” – closed on Monday, with the terms of appointment making it clear that whoever is brave (or foolish) enough to put themselves forward for such a task will be answerable not to the representatives of the people of Croydon, but to the senior staff whose generous salaries are funded out of Council Tax.
As the job description for the role states (with our italics for emphasis):
- “Working with the Chief Finance Officer (S151) and the Chief Internal Auditor to plan an effective work programme for the committee…”.
- “Receive briefings from Directors or other senior staff in order to understand the context and import of forthcoming issues…”.
- And “Report to Council when necessary to give assurances about the Council’s financial statements, risk management and internal control mechanisms or to raise concerns of any significant weakness.”
It’s just a matter of who determines when it is “necessary”. Given the recent history of Croydon senior staff under previous CEO Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, it could be never.
The recruitment brochure also stated that candidates should be, “Assertive in pursuing the correct course of action… Enthusiastic, not easily deterred and able to convey enthusiasm to others…,” which is nice, and, “Committed to excellent public services,” which would make a welcome change.
It is understood that Jewitt, who was only recently appointed to the position, tried to resist moves to unseat her as chair, managing to make her appear as a scapegoat when so many others had escaped any suggestion of sanction.
Jewitt even put forward radical proposals to reform GPAC, to the point of suggesting doubling the number of meetings it should hold, to at least 10 per year, to cope with its wide brief and extensive workload. Ali and the Labour cabinet ignored her, preferring this “independent” solution to the government’s instructions.
According to one Katharine Street source, “Of course, a good independent chair might act in the best interests of the borough’s residents. You would hope that they would. The trouble is, Hamida Ali and those who advise her have managed to come up with a set of circumstances that has completely reversed the relationship between the GPAC chair and the council executives.
“Whoever is appointed will need to be a very strong figure to overcome the systemic blocks on information, the culture of secrecy and cover-up that pervaded the council under the likes of Nathan Elvery, Jo Negrini and which was allowed to fester by Tony Newman and Simon Hall.”
The GPAC chair appointment is for a minimum four-year term – so going well beyond next May’s local elections – and requires up to nine days’ work per year, in return for £8,000.
Hamida Ali and the Labour group’s desperate efforts to keep the chair of GPAC out of Tory hands looks likely to backfire badly. According to one Conservative councillor today, “I didn’t think it was possible for things to be worse than they were under Newman, but maybe I was wrong.
“Ali is a decent human being and clearly trying hard, but the results (or lack of them) speak for themselves.”
The risks of allowing an important council scrutiny function to be influenced and dominated by the very people it is supposed to be keeping a check on is demonstrated by tonight’s agenda.
GPAC was supposed to be considering the financial details of crucial reports on Brick by Brick and the “value for money” (Ha!) of the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls.
Yet senior council officials, such as interim finance director Chri Buss and CEO Katherine Kerswell, have failed to submit the anticipated reports on these controversial issues.
Sources at the council suggest that these potentially explosive reports have in some manner been caught up in legal considerations.
Grant Thornton’s “value for money” review of the £69million (at the last count) refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls is now not expected to be made available until September – by which time, GPAC’s new “independent” chair could be in place to decide what is, and what is not, discussed in the public domain.
Tim Pollard, the former leader of the Conservative opposition group at the Town Hall and a member of the General Purposes and Audit Committee, today expressed his frustration with this latest instance of council executives preventing their work being checked.
“It seems the council has learned none of the lessons from the Report In The Public Interest and other investigations and it still thinks it can bugger about with the committees that are supposed to hold the executive and officers to account,” he said.
“The meaty items on GPAC’s agenda tonight are now to be replaced by useless verbal updates. No reason for this has been given.
“On top of Hamida Ali’s refusal to allow questions on the finance items late in Monday’s meeting of the full council, it is clear that literally nothing has changed.”
- You can support Inside Croydon’s news-breaking independent local journalism. Sign up today as a subscriber. Click here
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and BBC London News
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named the country’s rottenest borough in 2020 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine – the fourth successive year that Inside Croydon has been the source for such award-winning nominations
- Inside Croydon: 3million page views in 2020. Seen by 1.4million unique visitors