Cara Davani – didn’t she leave Brent Council two years ago? And it was a year ago that the Council finally admitted that she had been given a “pay-off” (of £157,610). Surely the enquiry into this must have been sorted out by now? I’m afraid not.
When I last gave an update about “progress” on the investigation of objections to Brent’s 2015/16 accounts LINK we had been told by the Auditor that he anticipated sharing material documents with the objectors by the end of June. When the agenda for Brent’s Audit Advisory Committee meeting on 26 June appeared on the Council’s website, KPMG’s “External Audit Progress Report” said that they expected to share the documents, and other material, ‘in July’.
As the Auditor had agreed to share those material documents (which he received from the Council in mid-December) with the objectors, and we had been expecting to get them early in 2017, I asked to speak about this item on the agenda for Monday evening’s meeting, and the committee Chair (David Ewart, an independent member) agreed in advance that I could. I hope that Martin will be able to attach the text of what I said to this blog, so that you can read it in full if you wish to. There were two points that I wished to raise with the committee, and the Chair asked me to deal with them separately.
The first was the objectors’ disappointment with the lack of progress in KPMG’s enquiries, and our concern that the investigation process might have been changed, without explanation. We were originally told that we would have the chance to make further comments before the Auditor reached any ‘provisional findings and views’. The latest progress report spoke of sharing ‘our provisional view and material documents’ at the same time. I asked the committee to invite the Auditor to clarify the position, and to encourage him to provide a timetable for the remaining steps in his investigation, through to his final decision on the objections.
The Auditor, Andrew Sayers, did not seem to accept that there was any real change from what his predecessor had set out in November 2016. He thought that knowing what his provisional views were would help us and the Council when he shares those views and material documents with us. He still wants any further comments from us, and assured the meeting that his provisional views will be open to change in the light of any further comments and evidence he receives. On how long it was taking, his response seemed to be that he had to do his job properly [I would agree that he should, but does it really need to take so long?].
The Auditor seemed to suggest that the material would be shared in about six weeks (so August, rather than July?), but said the timetable after that would depend on what further comments he receives and what further investigations he may need to make, so he could give no indication of when his final decision might be published.
There were murmurings from the committee over how long his investigation was taking, and what it would cost (Mr Sayers did not know how much it had cost so far, but he would write with a figure that could be passed on to committee members). Cllr. Davidson, in particular, was concerned over the costs, and appeared to suggest that KPMG could be carrying out unnecessary work, just to increase their fees.
My second point, asked the committee to recommend that Council Officers consent to Mr Sayers sharing the legal advice with us "in strict confidence". The papers around that advice comprise very ‘material documents’, as they provide the only evidence in support of Brent’s decision to make the payment to Ms Davani.
The Chair asked Brent's Chief Legal Officer, Debra Norman, to address them. She told the committee, effectively, that "Legal Privilege" was a fundamental principle that should never be breached. She did not appear to consider whether, in the particular circumstances of this investigation, refusal by the Council to allow the objectors access to the documents, in strict confidence, might appear to be unfair.
The Chair asked Mr Sayers whether the lack of consent from the Council was "impeding" his investigation, and the Auditor said that it was not, although it might mean that he had to take legal advice himself over whether to disclose certain documents to the objectors. I am not sure whether committee members realised that this would mean additional costs to the Council for the investigation.
I was allowed a brief reply, but like Mr Sayers, I had to say that I could not disclose the full nature of the allegations in the objection, but that they did involve matters which were 'contrary to law', and that this was more than a possible query over whether a QC's advice was correct.
There was no real discussion or vote on what action the committee should take over my second point. It was almost like a shrug of the shoulders to say "well, we can't go against the advice of the Chief Legal Officer".
I was probably naïve to think that the Audit Advisory Committee might, just might, be persuaded to recommend that the legal advice, which the Council claims as justification for the £157,610 “pay-off” to Cara Davani, could be shared with the objectors. But at least I tried to move things forward towards getting this long-running matter resolved, and the minutes of last Monday evening’s meeting will hopefully record the main points of what was said.
So, Wembley Matters readers, and the rest of Brent’s citizens, will have to carry on waiting for details of why the payment was made, if that is found to be different from the Council version(s), to be officially revealed. You can be sure, however, that the five local electors who objected to Brent’s 2015/16 accounts will do their best to see that the truth comes out, eventually.