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Monitoring officer leaves Barnet with Westminster head of legal taking interim role

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The monitoring officer at Barnet Council has left the local authority in the wake of an investigation into how flawed reports were presented to council for decision.

Maryellen Salter, an accountant who was Assurance Director at the London borough, has been replaced as monitoring officer on an interim basis by Peter Large, Head of Legal and Democratic Services and Monitoring Officer at Westminster City Council.

Salter had been in the role since the departure of the last legally-qualified monitoring officer in May 2013.

Her exit follows the recent publication of two reports by Claer Lloyd-Jones, former chief executive of the Social Housing Regulator, the TSA, and an experienced local government lawyer.

Lloyd-Jones had been called in to review how incorrect or misleading reports on members’ allowances and proportionality came to be presented to Barnet Council’s meeting on 2 June 2014 without appropriate legal clearance.

The investigator concluded that there was a general risk of underperformance in the area of Barnet’s governance, culminating in the 'wrong' reports.

There were a number of factors behind this, including that there was no-one at the council who understood local government law in depth (Barnet employs no lawyers) and there were staff in key roles in the governance structure at the council who were inexperienced in governance matters.

Lloyd-Jones concluded that “there was a joint but not necessarily equal responsibility on Barnet’s Governance Team as well as the council shared legal service with Harrow, HBPL [HB Public Law], for allowing the reports containing incorrect advice to be presented to councillors as though they were correct.”

She suggested that changes needed to be made to prevent the risk of other failings. In a second report Lloyd-Jones set out various options for improved governance, including requiring the monitoring officer at Barnet to be the client for HB Public Law.

Barnet’s Policy and Resources Committee was due to meet this week (14 October) to consider Lloyd-Jones’ reports and a separate report by the authority’s chief executive, Andrew Travers.

Travers’ report recommended, amongst other things, a limited scope of high level corporate legal support be removed from the scope of the inter-authority agreement with Harrow and instead by provided ‘in-house’ and/or through separate external arrangements.

Both councils have reaffirmed their commitment to HB Public Law, which is said to be running smoothly.

Performance reports given to its strategic monitoring board have said that the shared legal service has been providing a good quality of service to the two authorities.