A Tale From The Auditor’s Chair

I need to start this blog with a warning – I haven’t been able to confirm the end of this particular tale (yet) but the source is impeccable.  It is rumour, unsubstantiated, but maybe my friends in the Met can shed some light on it.

When I left the Met, all those years ago, I went and worked for the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) as a bloody civvie.  I applied for, was interviewed for, and was selected for a job as a Forensic Auditor (never be afraid of good, open, honest competition).  Now that’s a very grand sounding job title and let me tell you it has absolutely nothing to do with Forensics.  It meant working for the Internal Audit Directorate, alongside the bean counters and investigating stuff.  They had a whole load of bean counters of various grades and qualifications, but the bean counters (lovely people almost all of them) couldn’t investigate their way out of a game of Cluedo.  Nor should they, horses for courses, that’s not where their skills lie, any more than I and my colleagues could go and conduct a proper audit.  The job involves studying stuff in Forensic detail, looking for the frauds and corruptions that may, or may not not, exist in bloody civvie world.

The Met is not immune to corruption and fraud, perpetrated against it.  Some contractors ‘double billed’. Some contractors billed for services they had not provided. Some contracts were remarkably favourable to the contractor and should never have been written in the manner they were.  Some practices, policies and systems were flawed, and could be exploited by unscrupulous contractors and/or staff.

The majority were absolutely fine, but the Met needed protection from those intent on profiting at its expense.  The Met had a reputation some time ago of ‘just paying’ for stuff.  Submit an invoice and it will be paid, no-one seemed to check very well whether the work had been done or not.  That may not always have been the case, but that was frequently how the Met was perceived.

Our office was staffed mainly, but by no means exclusively, by retired Police Officers. There were three teams of three, each team consisting of a Senior Forensic Auditor and 2 Forensic Auditors, or in my case, me and a Trainee Forensic Auditor. This may sound excessive to you, a luxury that Met couldn’t afford. I would dispute that. We were never sitting around twiddling our thumbs, work was always at hand. Some was referred top us by Finance or Procurement, some was simply stumbled upon or referred by Met SMT and some was self-generated.  In the 3 years I was there our collective salaries were never more than the figure we had been able to save the Met or recover.

The two ‘Headline Grabbing’ enquiries our office dealt with in my time there were ‘Interpreters’ and ‘Misuse of Corporate Credit Cards’, but there were many others, some big, some small, some ‘quick wins’ ad some ‘plodders’.

The main one that I was involved in was the Interpreters enquiry, which had been brought to our attention because a certain Interpreter/Translator who was retained on a part-time basis, paid hourly plus expenses, was found to be earning more than the Commissioner and he was not best pleased.

We were quickly able to establish that the system for paying Linguists was a little lax and would benefit from a bit of tightening up.  My team sat down, looked at the information we had in front of us and devised a strategy for dealing with it, and establishing the size of the problem. An executive decision was taken that we would Forensically examine the ‘Top 10’ earners over a 5 year period.

Welcome to Paper Mountain.

To cut a very long story short, we quite quickly established that SOME of the Linguists had been systematically milking the Met for all they could, but one was head and shoulders above the rest.   Some of you Met and ex Met may well remember the files that came out from us seeking to verify (or otherwise) hundreds of claims for payment submitted by Linguists. The results were astonishing, the most outstanding and an Oscar Winning Performance was by our League leading Linguist for 3 days over a Bank Holiday Weekend, for 14-18 hours per day, at Double Time or Time and a Half plus Travelling Time and Travelling Expenses.  A monumental amount of money claimed for allegedly translating documents relating to a property fraud.

After this person was arrested (and arrested she most surely was) her diary and personal work records (for they were all free to work for other organisations also as the Met couldn’t guarantee them work) were seized and with bated breath I checked her records for this particular Bank Holiday Weekend.  Was she indeed at a Central London police Station all weekend as she had claimed and a certain Detective Sergeant had inadvertently confirmed by signing her claim form for HIS enquiry?

It should come as no surprise by now, dear reader, to discover that the little lady had not been in this particular Central London Police Station for all of those hours, she wasn’t even there for any of those hours, she wasn’t even in England that weekend.  She was in Toulouse providing contemporaneous translation services at a conference, for another agency.  How bold was that?

She was eventually tried, convicted and would have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment if she hadn’t developed cancer whilst awaiting trial.  Then followed the High Court action to recover the monies she had claimed.  All my work had to be examined independently by a Forensic Accountant (I want to be one of those in my next life, they charge more than solicitors) and a Consultant Statistician, by order of His Judgeness.  Once this had been done His Judgeness found in our favour and impoverished Linguist was made to repay over a Quarter of a Million British Pounds to the MPA, and this just represented what we could demonstrate that she had been overpaid in a 5 year period.

Further prosecutions followed, followed by further High Court recovery actions.  I am proud to say that we did not ever lose one of them, we just, occasionally, had to negotiate on the amount the Linguist in question would repay.

Systems and Practices were tightened up in the wake of this enquiry, some Linguists will never work again in that field.  The Met now has a completely revamped method for paying for Language Services., and for any Linguists reading this blog I KNOW that you’re not all like that.  Some even underclaimed their entitlements.

And finally to the point of this blog;

I received information this weekend that almost all of my old department (now under the MOPAC umbrella) is faced with the threat of redundancy.  It has been suggested that an office of 3 and 6 will be reduced to 1 and 1.  Is this really a good idea given the success of our office at saving money, as I said we saved/recovered more than we cost.  We always had a feeling that a chill wind would blow through the Directorate one day, but we always thought that 3 teams would be reduced to 6, not all the way down to 2 thirds of a team.

The example I have illustrated above is by far and away the worst excess that I was aware of in my time there, but there were others. The Corporate Credit Card enquiry was almost as bad, and left unchecked and undetected would have been a corporate disgrace.  I don’t disagree with any department being run efficiently, money can be saved where possible, but NOT at all costs.  I know from personal experience that an establishment of 2 investigators will soon be overwhelmed by any large or complicated enquiry, or even a significant number of small, uncomplicated enquiries.  Maybe MOPAC would have to ‘Buy In’ services from the Private Sector?, but I’m sure Blair Gibbs would probably approve of that.

I’m certainly glad that I’m no longer a Council Tax payer in London. The old MPA did occasionally demonstrate that it had some teeth.  Will Boris?  Will the other PCCs have any teeth, and are they prepared to use them in this manner?  Who knows, time will tell but it may well be too late by then.

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