Nick Sandford on Missed Deadlines in Consultant Inquiry

Back in January 2010 Cllr Mike Fletcher posed a number of questions to Peterborough City Council relating to the amount of money spent by the Council on consultants. In March a Committee was set up to look into the matter. They were due to report back in September. This was put back to November without notice, and now they have produced an Interim Report stating that the questions will be answered in February 2011. Liberal Democrat Cllr Nick Sandford is a Member of that Committee, and he tells the BBC what progress they have made.

08:20 Wednesday 10th November 2010
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

PAUL STAINTON: The big story this morning has been all about consultants. Yes. Peterborough City Council, supposed to bring in a report to tell us what they’ve been spending, what they’ve been doing, and answer a few questions. Well the disagreement continues at the Town Hall over this. So we were expecting the results of this review that had been requested, after Peterborough City Council said they spent twelve million pounds on consultants last year. The review requested by Councillor Mike Fletcher, lot of love for him on the text this morning, and the phones, after his interview earlier. Well we spoke to him earlier, and he said the review was taking too long, and he’s contacted central government about it. (TAPE)
MIKE FLETCHER: ..and that’s why I’ve actually written to Eric Pickles, the Minister for Local Government, and actually with the support of Stewart Jackson, asking for him to investigate this. I look upon it so seriously that when I was the Chairman of that Committee I quite legally asked these questions. And I could expect an honest straightforward answer from officers. And so far, we haven’t had any answers whatsoever. (LIVE)
PS: Well Liberal Democrat local councillor Nick Sandford is with us. Morning Nick.
PS: You’re on this Committee, aren’t you.
NS: That’s correct. Yes.
PS: I looked at this this morning, and the figures spent on consultants are different to what we were told. We were told we were getting a full report now. We’re not. You can understand .. Mike asked fifteen questions. None of them have been answered. You can understand why some people might be thinking this has a certain whiff about it.
NS: Yes I can understand people are concerned, and I share the concern that Councillor Fletcher’s put forward, that there were a number of concerns that people are concerned about the amount of money being spent. People are concerned that couldn’t these jobs be done by people inside the Council, couldn’t they be done more cheaply. I can assure people that in the terms of reference of the Committee, that all of the questions that Councillor Fletcher’s put forward are included. So when we produce the final report ..
PS: We will get answers?
NS: .. all of Councillor Fletcher’s questions will be answered.
PS: But why haven’t we got the final report now? Why does it take so long to find out what we were spending, on whom, and who decided it would be spent on consultants, and how much?
NS: Yes. What we decided initially was we had to pin down what the definition of a consultant was. Because it actually turned out that previously a number of definitions had been put forward. We’ve come up with a fairly robust one ..
PS: Which has reduced the amount spent by half effectively.
NS: Not by half. There was a figure quoted of twelve million pounds, which was over part of the year. What we’ve established is it’s more like nine over a complete year.
PS: So Peterborough City Council got their figures wrong again?
NS: Yes. What ..
PS: We were told twelve million.
NS: Yes. What was happening was they were including contractors in that. Now what we’ve done is we’ve established there’s a difference between a consultant and a contractor. Just to give you an example, I know a bit about trees for instance, and if you were a contractor employed to cut a branch off a tree, that is different from somebody who’s an arboricultural consultant.
PS: Right. So not only are we spending money on consultants, we’re also spending money on contractors, outside of the Council?
NS: Yes. Because what a contractor does, a contractor is employed to provide specific service. As I mentioned with the trees, to cut a branch off a tree. Somebody who is a consultant is employed normally on a significantly higher salary to give actual expertise to the Council. And one of the problems was .. one of the reasons this is taking a bit longer than we originally thought was we do want to do a really comprehensive job. We have been going through a number of different Council departments, actually interviewing people who are involved in the employment of consultants, and trying to find out what the reasons that a consultant is being employed. And we actually want to produce a comprehensive report. One of the problems was, I think as Councillor Fletcher mentioned on your programme, there was a previous report, was published back in 2006. That produced some recommendations which were slightly confused, and it confused the definition.
PS: So we don’t want any more of that. We want a definitive report …
NS: We want a definitive report.
PS: .. and that’s why we’re not getting it until February.
NS: Yes.
PS: We won’t get answers to Mike’s questions until February?
NS: We decided because we were committed to giving a report to this particular Committee, if we’d have just said well we’re not prepared to put a report forward, I think people then would have got suspicious about what’s happening.
PS: Are councillors taking this seriously, this money spent on consultants? Because Mike was saying earlier, every time he raises questions people are giggling, and laughing, and carrying on in the Council. It paints a pretty shocking and ridiculous picture of some councillors if that’s going on.
NS: I can say, I think from the three members of the review group we’ve been taking it extremely seriously. It could be Councillor Fletcher’s referring to internal meetings inside the Conservative group, in which case he needs to address that.
PS: Well it’s a disgrace.
NS: It would be quite appalling if that were to be happening.
PS: So the panel looking at this is you, Steven Lane Independent, and Nigel North, Conservative.
NS: He is a Conservative.
PS: We asked to speak to Nigel this morning, who’s the Chair of the panel, and we were told he was unavailable. But he’s called in this morning, saying they’ve answered all the questions, and the answers will be released at a later date. It’s interesting that he wouldn’t come on to do an interview but he called in.
NS: Yes. Well that’s up to him. But I just felt it was important to come along and .. I think what we’ve found out in the course of this, and I think Councillor Fletcher said this in his interview this morning, he said that there isn’t anything going on in the way of corrupt practice ..
PS: It’s just the way it looks though isn’t it?
NS: Yes. I think that was a concern. But I think we .. certainly of the information that we’ve got so far, we haven’t found any actual evidence of that.
PS: So by February, you’re guaranteeing as part of this committe, that we will know how much has been spent on consultants, who authorised it, and Michael will get an answer to all his questions.
NS: Yes I’ve been looking through this morning the terms of reference of the Committee and all of Councillor Fletcher’s questions are included. So we will want to have that. And certainly by the time of the next Committee, we will be presenting a comprehensive report. Now obviously whether Councillor Fletcher agrees with that, we’re going to have to see. But I think he’s perfectly right to put forward the concerns, and it’s our responsibility as a committee to try and address them.
PS: Thank you for coming on Nick. I appreciate that this morning. Nick Sandford from the Liberal Democrats, who’s part of this Scrutiny Committee, looking at how much money has been spent on consultants. We’ll get a final report and all the answers to all those questions in February.