CamdenNewJournal

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Finance chief Theo Blackwell: £2.5 million council bungle was ‘totally unacceptable’

Details of compensation stay under wraps due to 'HR' issues

14 September, 2017 — By Richard Osley

Theo Blackwell and Don Williams

CAMDEN’S outgoing finance chief described a contract bungle, which led to £2.5million being spent on compensating a private company treated unfairly by the Town Hall, as a “totally unacceptable situation”, in his final public remarks in the role.

The unnamed firm walked away with the pay-off after raising concerns about the way it had been overlooked for a lucrative public works deal. The botched negotiations came to public attention after a New Journal exclusive last month. At Monday’s full council meeting Labour councillor Theo Blackwell – the council’s money man for the last seven years – was asked to explain what went wrong.

As Tories pressed for answers, he warned that some details had to stay confidential due to an issue relating to internal staffing. “This was, of course, a totally unacceptable situation. It’s been treated immediately with the utmost seriousness,” he told the chamber. “In order to find out what happened, internal audit investigated the circumstances and this led to HR [human resources] action being put in motion.” Cllr Blackwell added: “In general terms, I should stress that even strong procedures do not, as we know, always result in compliance when human behaviour or human error failures are involved.

But we did identify improvements that could be made to our larger procurement programme, to ensure deeper checks and balances are put in place and that is what is happening now.” Camden was understood to be ready to stand its ground when a legal threat arrived, but later settled after hiring a QC to advise the council on how badly exposed it was.

“This was a large contract, but we need to have a global sense of the amount of money that we spend on external providers, which goes into several hundred million pounds every year,” said Cllr Blackwell. “As I say, it is unacceptable, disappointing and as councillors ourselves – you know we are not the officers involved, we are the people who challenge officers to say what went wrong here – we made sure that, on behalf of Camden’s tax-payers, necessary steps are taken.”

Tech expert Cllr Blackwell is due to leave the council after 15 years as a councillor and is starting a new job as Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s first “chief digital officer”. A by-election in Gospel Oak will then be triggered, the second in the ward this year.

Conservative councillor Don Williams, the opposition’s finance spokesman, had put Cllr Blackwell on the spot by raising the contract bungle. He said that “residents and councillors of all parties had been shocked and very disappointed” when the case had been revealed. Previous discussion of the blunder had only taken place in a council meeting which press and public had been excluded from attending. Cllr Williams described the loss of the money as a “disaster” and urged the council to provide more details as soon as possible.

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