Review: Anger over report on cost of city council consultants

The firm which demolished the old Corn Exchange building, above,  to make way for the new St John's Square was paid �348,691.44. Picture: Alan Storer/Peterborough ET
The firm which demolished the old Corn Exchange building, above, to make way for the new St John's Square was paid �348,691.44. Picture: Alan Storer/Peterborough ET
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AN angry Peterborough City Councillor claims a report a year in the making has still not answered his questions over a multi-million pound bill.

Councillor Michael Fletcher was visibly angry at a special meeting of Peterborough City Council’s sustainable growth scrutiny committee which met last night to consider a review into an £8.5 million consultancy bill.

A cross party panel was formed following Cllr Fletcher’s questions about the cost of appointing external experts.

But he was unhappy with the response which took 13 months to compile, led by councillors Nick Sandford (Lib Dem), Nigel North (Con) and Stephen Lane (Ind).

Cllr Fletcher, who is no longer on the committee, said: “From what I have seen, the panel has conducted an in depth inquiry but there are sections which give me great cause for concern.

“It is often repeated within the report consultants should only be engaged on a short term basis, but it is a well known fact some have been here continuously, for a number of years.

“It is also stated, quite plainly, that senior officers have the authority to actually hire these people at no known rate of payment other than that the remuneration is within the framework as detailed on the rate card, whatever that means.”

Cllr Fletcher’s complaint was backed by councillor Nick Arculus who criticised officers for not responding to his questions sooner.

He said the member of staff responsible deserved a ‘dressing down’.

In response, Kim Sawyer, the council’s legal chief, said the questions asked formed the template for the panel to work for and she did not want to interfere with the process.

The year-long report detailed 31 recommendations on the process of hiring and using consultants which will be considered by the cabinet at the next meeting in June.

The scrutiny committee called for a further two to be added to make the process more transparent.

Currently, the council can pay a firm to carry out work on its behalf which can then be sub-contracted out to another firm.

But councillors can not then examine the terms of the sub-contract prompting some to claim this system is open to abuse.

Cllr Arculus, who sits on the committee, said the process threatens many of the council’s plans.

He said: “There is no point in us having all these grandiloquent policies, such as the environmental capital, if our sub-contractors aren’t behind them.

“If there is no point having these policies it calls into question why we have a unitary authority.”

He was backed by Cllr Sandford who said the councillors had a right to know how the subcontractors worked.

He said: “What I am concerned about is the practices of some sub-contractors who we don’t know about.

“How do we know if it’s being out-sourced to China and work is being done on our behalf in a Chinese sweatshop?

“If we can’t look at the work and contracts of the sub-contractors how can we scrutinise it?”

FACTFILE: consultants costs

PETERBOROUGH City Council revealed it spent £8,486,207.48 on external consultants for the financial year 2009 to 2010.

Of that sum, more than £5.5million went to one firm called Amtec Consulting Plc.

The firm searches and appoints experts in several fields through the council’s Professional Services Partnership.

The work ranges from adoption services to advice on seeking external funding.

The council also paid Amtec to help reduce the number of administration staff.

The next largest consultant fee is Athene Communications, a PR firm, which was paid £417,259.89.

The work included managing the Future Jobs Fund and providing staff for a community cohesion project in the city.

Other consultants included Manchester based Connell Bros Ltd which was paid £348,691.44.

The firm is an expert in demolition work and was paid to knock down the Corn Exchange.

Meanwhile Headstuff Ltd was paid more than £80,000 to seek out grants and other funding available to the council.

The report notes that Headstuff was paid out of grants it found and that a team within the council has now been set up to carry out the work consultants were previously paid for.

In some cases, consultants filled a management role at the council while a full time member of staff was found.

This included Educational Services and Training Ltd which provided a senior education officer while a job was advertised.

And one individual was paid £58,360.78 for specialist advice to the department of childrens’ services.

Payments under £50,000 were not detailed in the report.