The BIG Issue

Bank of Money

We understand that Dictionary.com have just decreed that ‘complicit’ is the word of 2017. Therefore it is most appropriate that we  publish whistleblower Nigel ‘Highbrow’ Hobro’s audit of the BIG fund. A definitive account (thus far) of auditing failures written by someone who believes in public accountability and protecting the public purse about people who profit from the lack of both. 

THE BIG FUND Audit

Voluntarily and, for no pay, I have performed an audit of the BIG fund. Although I was one of two whistle-blowers I am going to trace what I would have done had I been in receipt of the data as a Council Internal Auditor.

I imagine that the Peer Improvement Board take Councillor Davies at his word, that WBC is open to learning from other councils. They arrange that a Bolton Borough Internal auditor job- swaps for a short period to bring objectivity to an investigation that, as per Cllr Philip Davies “was not fit for purpose” when performed by WBC’s own Internal Audit Service. Clearly it was not fit for purpose as both Beverley Edwards’ 350 page report, and David Garry’s 33 page report were riddled with partisanship, the main drive being to exculpate their colleagues. I am not shown their reports, let me imagine, just the gist of them lacking independence. As an internal auditor I very much welcome the freedom of not being obligated by ties of colleagueship and passage of years with any of the WBC staff I will be engaging with.

On receipt of allegations from two qualified and mature employees of a subcontractor working on a council project, I would have commenced by performing a type of SWOT analysis-Strengths Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This SWOT analysis was demanded of every application for council funds whether BIG or Intensive Start Up Scheme (ISUS).

Pictorially the matrix is represented below. I would outline in words why such fractions were given.

What are the risks to the whistle-blower’s livelihood if he be lying-100%; and if he be truthful given the hoops he must go through at an Industrial tribunal, well very significant. Thereby I have analysed his risk to livelihood, irrespective of his truth or otherwise, as being 80%

If the whistle-blower is correct then what profit might he make? The answer is very small, if any, as the Council does not pay any bounty to a whistle-blower.

If the whistle-blower be correct what threat is there to a council officer? Given the unions within the council, given the dissemination of responsibility within the council, there is little threat to any individual council officer. This operates to enhance the possibility of lying by council officers as the penalty is much mollified by group responsibility, lack of punishment and the council’s desire to keep gross error from public view. In this case already some councillors and the press’ reportage has unmasked WBC Internal audit as “unfit for purpose”.

Examination of the history of the Martin Morton case and the Colas whistle-blowers gives a trust rating very high to the whistle-blower and correspondingly low to the officers.

first chart

My preliminary conclusion therefore is that I give credence to the whistle-blower. I examine his claims with a view to progressing further, anticipating systemic failure.

I ask for a contract with wirralbiz for the BIG fund work on which they might be paid up to £1,500 per case. All six of the files examined by the whistle-blower were prepared by wirralbiz.

Since it is clear that the files were concealed from him for a long time I presume they were a random sample. His access was to them was swiftly closed down after pressure from Invest Wirral. He has shown me emails to that effect.

I ask for a full list of BIG recipients notated as to wirralbiz prepared, and as to those independently prepared.

The contract for services re BIG is unsigned! which increases the factor of systemic risk.

There are 49 recipients of which 25 were prepared by wirralbiz.

Having received the arguments of the whistle-blower on the six files he examined I retrace carefully his logic.

Lockwood Engineering Ltd –    Evidence of a criminal offence of phoenixing the company assets into Harbac UK ltd. The transfer of £30,000 worth of equipment part funded by the council, with the Head of Regeneration’s consent, raises dramatically the risk of officers being deceitful.

Prima facie the whistle-blower is correct in that the liquidation of the company could have been predicted as high risk if very significant liabilities had been included within the cashflow given to the council.

M L Engineering Ltd  –    conclusive evidence of fraudulent representation by either the Fieldcrest ltd or by the business itself. If the latter, the contractor of wirralbiz is at the very least guilty of gross negligence. Negligence  is compounded because a prior claim already had been dismissed with the claimant presenting as a sole trader, but now presenting as a limited company.

I chose the above two as the whistle-blower had made claims thereon which imperilled himself, and, his having been proven correct,  requires me to compile a new SWOT. This incorporates the fact of the skimpy and unsigned contract which must have governed up to a maximum of £500,000 of Working Neighbourhoods money, and of the criminality involved in the first two wirralbiz files. I have learnt from the whistle-blowers that Invest Wirral dismissed out of hand their allegations between May and July 2011. Invest Wirral simply cited that chief accountants in WBC had been involved and could not possibly be wrong. Having read the first two files this  rings alarm bells as it took the first whistle-blower to demand an interview with Kevin Adderley for these allegations even to reach internal audit.

chart the second

I justify this analysis based on   1. The risk the whistle-blower has taken to point to criminal activity

  1. The detection of two out of six random files containing criminal behaviour not detected ,or even perhaps sanctioned by council officers, must lead me to suspect systemic failure.

Actions: read through remaining four of the whistle-blower’s files to see if more error does exist which may raise the probability of systemic error.

Company 3       The cashflow is extremely optimistic. The company’s solvency depends upon a loan owed it by a group company with no assets, a figure of over £1m pounds!                  

Company 4          The company does start out with £60,000 net deficit. There is an allegation of connexions between Mrs Basnett and the wife of the claimant director. The claim was dismissed by the whistle-blower but then resurrected despite his advice based on the BIG fund rules that claimants be solvent. Why?

Company 5          The company already has received a BIG grant so the second should have been examined more closely. The publication does have an intimate connexion with Egerton House, owned by WBC, and does not concern itself with exporting out of the Wirral and thereby the project was and remains disallowable under the rules of BIG  

Company 6       The sole trader is a director of a company that is insolvent. Prima facie this does present an equivocation vis- a- vis the solvency rules of BIG.

Review of the above files renders a percentage of error of 100% whereby I can conclude that the wirralbiz files are highly likely to contain a very significant error ratio since 6 out of 25 files randomly chosen are wrong in one way or another. That represents 25% of the wirralbiz files which in a random sample is highly significant.

Time taken 15 hours.

I must now consider the outline of the system which previously had been marked by David Garry, WBC Internal Auditor, as more than satisfactory. How did the errors in wirralbiz’s files pass muster with the WBC accountants and the independent panel?

I will commence by researching from the list any of the independently prepared BIG successful claimants who may have gone into liquidation. I locate two as below:

New Gaming Concept limited    – into liquidation  18/03/2010 and fully dissolved  25/06/2011

Corrin Kenny ltd  – entry into liquidation 22/03/2012

I ask for the files to discover that New Gaming Concept ltd’s claim had been tagged by the Chief Accountant to as invalid unless it could find £45,000 to cover its needs for the summer of 2010. The file shows a quick exchange of emails between Invest Wirral and Brendan Ludden, the director,in February 2010, where an unsigned claim form was provided as guarantee that North West Development Agency (NWDA) would provide more funds. Highly unsatisfactory and proved by events less than a month later to be unsound. The company filed for winding-up in March 2010.

The reason for the claim was to remove from Liverpool to Birkenhead so it was not a Wirral company when it claimed!

The company was heavily geared and the Liquidator’s statement shows a loss of public money in excess of £800,000.

I email a member of the Independent Panel as to what they saw at each meeting? He confirms no accounts were shown to them just a synopsis by a WBC accountant and the business plan itself.

I conclude that the Independent Panel whether they be from Federation of Small Business or some othe small business group, are to some degree operating in the dark.

Corrin Kenny Ltd- the file showed that the council had only sight of published accounts up to 31 March 2010 which were more than 8 months old. This was in contravention to the BIG requirement to produce management accounts of no less than 6 months old. Review of Companies House records highlighted that the accounts were unreliable as the comparative figures in the March 2010 accounts do not agree with the accounts filed with Companies House for March 2009.

Secondly, the project links communities within Wirral but does not export services outside of Wirral which in effect invalidates the claim. I note that the claimant address on the application is at Egerton House where Invest Wirral is located yet its stated offices on the internet are Innovation House, Bromborough. There may be a connection between the claimant and Insiders within Regeneration department as the application is full of buzz words relating to recent council schemes, going so far as to quote the previous CEO.

Within 10 months and, as I am performing this audit in August 2012, the company entered compulsory liquidation by petition of the Inland Revenue.

I note that of the two Budgets prepared independently of wirralbiz that I have reviewed, the New Gaming application does present a balanced cashflow, a Profit and Loss and Balance Sheet. The template adopted by wirralbiz, that used  in over half the successful applications does not incorporate Projected Balance sheets. The latter omission suggests the wirralbiz template is that used in the Intensive Start Up scheme, designed for start- ups without a history of trading , and not appropriate to existing and substantial businesses.

Time taken 5 hours.

Conclusion: I must extend my sample from 8% of the non-wirralbiz files. I will choose those that prima facie seem to break the rules of BIG.

I will restate my risk matrix after reading the following files:

Aspire Trust Ltd and Aspire Creative Enterprises Ltd

Quite properly the Chief Accountant, Bob Neeld expresses a reserve shared by the independent panel that the Aspire Trust Ltd is a charity which ab initio is excluded from BIG. It is Invest Wirral that advocates for the company and, on the basis of a prior application by Merseycare ltd, granted even though it was a charity, the Panel agree to consider a revamped application by a “trading arm” , and separate company ,to Aspire Trust ltd.

Aspire Creative Enterprises Ltd

The budgets are prepared using the Fieldcrest Ltd (i.e. wirralbiz) template which does not make a balancing document. Despite the turnover exceeding VAT limits no VAT is calculated in Year 1 nor in Year 2, but no-one from the council  identified this error. The charity having planned a turnover exceeding vat limits is obliged by VAT rules to register for VAT.

No-one flexed the projections for a worst case scenario, a fault common to all the wirralbiz files and likely to be so with independently prepared files. Bob Neeld simply states he cannot comment on a new business income flows. However in contradiction the Panel is told that although BIG fund excludes new businesses with less than one year’s trading, somehow this is evited by the Aspire Trust ltd, as opposed to Aspire Creative Enterprises Limited, having operated for some 10 years?

The projections do not explain why in a digital hub Cost of sales is 50% of sales? This is not a retail but a service based enterprise so what are Cost of Sales? No-one appears to have asked? Did the Panel see the Projections or just the synopsis?

The business projections appear to be wildly optimistic and I checked what Invest Wirral were given as monitoring accounts. The turnover for one year was just in excess of £3,000, a far cry from the £100,000+ projected.

The statement given to the Panel via Bob Neeld was that “the cash indicates that without the grant there would be cash deficits for the first four months”.

I created two Budgets one including the VAT required and one without, and in neither case did the cashflow require the full £15,000 grant. With VAT as per the projections the company needed £5,500, and without Vat just under £10,000. Bob Neeld would have better served had he recreated the cashflow, balanced it with Profit and Loss and with Projected Balance sheet before ever making a glib statement as above. It took me 40 minutes which given £15,000 was being given to a start-up and a quasi- charity, the case certainly deserved.

Alternately he might have stated that a start-up achieving a Profit of 0ver £20,000 in Year 1 without VAT ,and £12,000 with VAT, was improbable. Either way his short email to Invest Wirral appears to be rather in the manner of Pontius Pilate.

Total time 2 hours.

I have now to restate my probability of systemic failure before I examine LEC lights, or decide if indeed need to do so.

I estimate the risk to be above 90%. I have spent 22 hours, and commuted for 5 days from the Bolton Metropolitan borough. The charge to WBC to date is one week of my salary some £1,250 with a mark up of 100% for travel time and costs, that is £2,500.
Conclusions:

There is a grave risk for this project that wirralbiz files some 25 of 49, represent very poor value for money.

There was always a systemic risk in the diagram of procedures viz

Two at least of these claims involved fraud

No signed contract with wirralbiz can be located

Chief accountants when advancing caveats against projects are over-ruled presumably by the occlusion of their opinions and deprival of the historic accounts to the Independent Panel.

There appears to be a rush to hand the money out even though the Chief Accountant has told me funds could be carried over almost indefinitely, year to year

Other factors troubling myself include the probability of a cover-up:-

The dismissal of a qualified accountant, one of the whistle-blowers later, was because “Nothing would get past him” quote from Invest Wirral to Wirralbiz yet he dismissed just his first two claims , one from a start-up-ineligible- and one from a company with a £60,000 deficit.

The officers have claimed to me that he was a disaffected employee of wirralbiz yet I understand he was only made redundant 11 months after he made his allegations.

The second whistle-blower claims Kevin Adderley lied to him regarding liquidations in the BIG scheme. Generally he was lying because New Concept Gaming ltd and Lockwood Engineering Ltd had both  gone into liquidation before the interview whereas he claimed no BIG fund recipient had gone bust.. The officers have used sophistry to cover his statement and subsequent statements. They have claimed “going bust” is on completion of the liquidation, which usually takes 12 months, but this represents a turning upside down of common sense.

A further troubling observation is that, however cursory councillors’ approvals may be, a significant number of grants {20} were given without seeking the consent of councillors and on the say-so merely of Kevin Adderley and/or the Chief Executive. This provides a motive to cover up.

Recommendations

The internal auditors who presided over the enquiry have both left the employ of WBC.

The Chief Executive also has resigned.

For the above no sanction may be applied.

I recommend that Invest Wirral be advised of their failings and caution be applied in running such schemes as BIG ever again.

Kevin Adderley as a senior public official ought to receive some disciplinary proceeding.

The two files M L Engineering ltd and Lockwood Engineering ltd should be referred to the Police and communication should be opened with the on-going Liquidators as to the fate of the £30,000 worth of equipment funded by BIG which I suspect was transferred prior to Liquidation to Harbac without any payment being given.

The contract with Fieldcrest ltd, now employed by Invest Wirral should be suspended whilst the Police consider the allegations with regard to M L Engineering Ltd.

The failings I have seen would never have been located without the whistle-blowers who clearly have been resisted and not rewarded. Clearly the WBC should out of common morality thank them publicly and as soon as possible. Government auditors have told local government that 80% of serious failings are discovered by whistle-blowing and only 20% by systems. WBC needs to encourage whistle-blowers and not block them.

I will return to perform the Intensive Start Up Scheme which I have learnt from Government Internal Audit agency is currently being investigated, including Wirral’s ISUS, from a serious complaint from a Supplier to the scheme in addition the allegations of the two whistle-blowers. When I commence a week of ISUS investigation I will bring to it a clear appreciation of the value I attach to the allegations and considerable caution in dealing with the local government officers.