second meeting yesterday was chaired by councillor Eileen Pallen who I have not
seen perform before. I have been thinking hard about how I might provide a
succinct pen picture without offending too many sensibilities. If I was Olly
Cromwell it would be easy, he would allow ‘total arsehole’ or something ending
with ‘tard’ to flow from his fingertips but I am struggling; maybe I’ll think of
something appropriate by the time I get to the end of this piece.
I particularly wanted to hear what was said at this meeting because over the past year I have discovered that several Bexley care workers live not too far from me and through them I’ve learned a little of the conditions under which they and their colleagues work. I consider myself to be quite a long way removed from being a bleeding heart Socialist or even Liberal, but I have become seriously concerned about what I see as cynical exploitation of low paid workers by Bexley council. Only a few weeks ago our council announced, apparently with a degree of pride, that it pays less for care services than any nearby borough. If only that were the whole story.
You may be relieved to hear that the meeting was tedious and wholly self congratulatory so I am going to skip the detail. It began with an address by a volunteer from the Alzheimer's Society speaking of their work and the help provided by Bexley council. Most of us will have had a family member affected by this dreadful affliction but most present looked totally bored. To be fair it is probable that no one learned a great deal that was new.
As the meeting got into its stride it became apparent that there was something wrong with the microphone system. If anyone raised their voice above a whisper it provoked a high pitched whine right on the edge of my own audible limits. The members of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group were apparently oblivious to the aural torture as all three present are as deaf as the proverbial post and their hearing aids were not passing the offending noise through. After various council officers told us how wonderful they were questions from councillors were largely confined to Peter Catterall, Cheryl Bacon and Peter Reader. Intelligent enough questions in my view. Peter C. wanted to know what happened to families that were for whatever reason unable to take up a council offer of social housing. The answer was in essence ‘slung on the scrapheap’. Peter is not a heartless Tory Toff and didn’t seem to be overjoyed at the prospect of people sleeping in shop doorways but if he asked how many people might be so affected I didn’t hear the answer.
At one stage councillor Catterall didn’t turn his microphone on and one of the BCMG people raised his hand while asking if the forgetful professor could remedy his omission. Peter said he had not turned it on because he couldn’t stand the feedback any more; however recognising the council’s responsibilities he flicked the switch. Then he moved the microphone rather too far from his lips which provoked another BCMG hand in the air. Peter Catterall did his best to compromise. During the whole of this episode chairman Eileen Pallen studiously ignored the issue and Mick Barnbrook whose hand had been in the air. Has she learned nothing from the pen-jabbing mayor whose disdain for the deaf saw him interviewed by the Local Government Ombudsman a couple of months ago?
Later in the evening I moved from one side of the council chamber to the other to sit behind Peter Catterall and fairly close to the chairman. Over there the feedback was indeed horrible, far worse than Mick Barnbrook could know from the other side of the chamber and Peter Caterrall’s ‘excuses’ were in my opinion totally justified. But not the lack of comment by the snotty nosed chairman.
Before my move there were two further incidents. Elwyn Bryant, knowing how I have been taking a close interest in care services, came over to me and whispered a question into my ear. I could barely hear him but whispered my reply.
This provoked a complaint from councillors Sybil Camsey and Geraldene Lucia-Hennis. Both drew the chairman’s attention to “the disturbance”. Chairman Pallen appeared to ignore that too, I’m not totally sure as I was still a bit taken aback by their complaint because I do try very hard to follow their many rules. The whisper was nothing like as disturbing as the microphone feedback.
Camsey is the councillor who has said that petitions to Bexley council are not worth the paper they are written on and Lucia-Hennis is famed for getting into a serious argument with a resident and then claiming it didn’t count because she was not on duty at the time; as if a councillor is only a councillor when in the council chamber. Intelligent eh?
A month ago there was a Commons debate on council care services and the BCMG had got hold of a copy of Hansard. My MP, Teresa Pearce, had played a leading role and had drawn the House’s attention to the somewhat dubious employment practices of Bexley council and that they were “abdicating responsibility” for its care workers which is exactly what my own enquiries revealed. Not that it is a big secret, cabinet member Chris Taylor has gone public in the past with his claim that once he contracts out a service to an independent agency he has no further responsibilities.
The BCMG wanted to ask, as permitted by the council’s protocols, if the Committee was aware of the Hansard report. It would have taken 30 seconds at most. However the chairman steadfastly looked away and ignored the hand in the air and the following spoken interruption. As a chairman she was totally out of her depth and this representative of ‘The Listening Council’ was struck dumb.
When the three BCMG members - and myself - began to discuss Pallen’s lamentable performance among themselves she said she would adjourn the meeting. The BCMG people chose to leave instead; you can be sure there will be a formal complaint. It was at this stage that I moved across the chamber to get a closer look at the pathetic individual chairing a meeting that was totally uninterested in the MP’s assertion that Bexley’s care worker employment model passes responsibility to a vulnerable person.
Sitting close to Eileen Pallen was a slightly unnerving experience, a combination of pale visage and piercing dark eyes defeats all attempts to detect who she is looking at. With only a 1·5% swing to Labour required to unseat her I predict a successful career as an extra in zombie movies after the next election.
The meeting ended after 135 minutes at 21:45 and I asked Mr. Tom Brown, Deputy Director of Adult Care, if he knew of the Hansard report and in particular that Bexley’s sub-contracted care workers are paid in a way which almost certainly contravenes the minimum wage regulations? I found Mr. Brown to be a perfectly decent man ready and willing to speak to me but regrettably he did not know and was happy to tell me that is not something the council would wish to get involved in. He was, no doubt, only obeying orders. Cabinet member Chris Taylor has a lot to answer for.
Regretfully I have not yet thought of a better description of the chairman than the inadequate Cromwellism above so will have to settle for pathetic, pointless, overpaid waste of oxygen. Your suggestions are welcome; on a postcard to…