Over the last year or so I have become increasingly exasperated by the failure of the Labour Group Leadership on Waltham Forest Council to respond effectively to the widening concerns about how Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies have been used in the Borough.
In February of last year, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions about the concerns that were being raised: firstly about the use of money by EduAction who were at that time running the Borough’s education service, then to what extent Government Offices properly monitor the use of Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (checking the outcomes claimed) and whether the Government was satisfied with the work done by Dr Foster Intelligence for Waltham Forest (using central government monies), and finally about whether the Government Office for London was happy that money intended for five wards with high deprivation had been spent elsewhere.
These questions related to information passed to me from local residents that suggested that outcomes relating to non-existent children had been claimed in respect of the Youth at Risk programme, that £47,000 had been paid for a health needs assessment of the area that had not been reclaimed despite the organisation that provided the assessment acknowledging that the work concerned was inadequate and broke its own standards for accuracy, and that money had been diverted away from the areas targetted towards other pet projects. The answers I received suggested that there was no formal process by which Government Offices checked whether the outcomes claimed for particular projects funded by them as the individual local authorities were the accountable bodies for the expenditure. The Government Office confined itself to monitoring the progress of the local authority as a whole towards theoverall targets set.
I followed this up with a long series of requests to the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, as did local residents and others. Eventually, the Council was goaded into action and published some of the findings of its own internal auditors and commissioned external reviews of some of its processes.
These raised even more concerns - such as, the £6,000 received by one external contractor although £66,000 had been paid to him according to the documentation in the accounts. Significantly, one of the external inquiries found that the documents about how individual decisions on payment of specific grants were made, by whom and the purpose for which the grants had been made were missing in a large number of cases.
In respect of a number of these issues, local residents have asked the police to investigate.
Now, the Council’s new Chief Executive has proposed a further and broader inquiry that will look at ALL of the Council’s procurement processes. As the local newspaper says:
“Documents reveal a systemic failure within the council to correctly allocate, administer and monitor Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending since 2004.
A police investigation is currently conducted into allegations that EduAction, the company which used to manage education in the borough, used NRF money to boost profits.
The Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) was launched in an attempt to target NRF more effectively, but it later emerged that many BNI contracts, totalling millions of pounds, did not follow rules to prevent fraud.”
Throughout the developing scandal, the leadership of the Labour Group in Waltham Forest seems to have been hoping that the problem would simply go away. Initially, they declared themselves confident that all decisions had been properly taken. They resisted further investigations – so much so, that the traditional questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” started to be asked.
At one stage, I received a phone message from one of them, noting that I was asking all these questions and inviting me to “resolve it within the Party”. I am afraid there are wider public interest questions at stake here and these matters need to be seen to be resolved openly and transparently.
Now they have an opportunity: the Chief Executive has proposed a further inquiry (I assume this is not intended as another delaying tactic), so when they discuss his recommendation tomorrow night, they should acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong, commit themselves to being totally open about who was responsible, and put in place all the necessary steps to restore public confidence. Nothing less will be sufficient.