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Sadiq Khan

Bonkers Blog June 2013

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19 June (Part 2) - Thinking aloud and no thinking allowed

This BELL business in which a lady unfortunately died has created a fair bit of interest as I thought it would. Reporting it requires me to tread carefully, relying on documentary evidence and trying to put natural prejudices aside, and I fear I may not be very good at that. Perhaps I should explain.

For more than 30 years I tinkered with the works inside GPO and BT telephone exchanges which might be considered to be a bigger version of Bexley council’s CCTV and emergency call system (BELL). The common features are cables, switches, call routing diagrams, that the staff is well trained and the management understands the technicalities. Without that things quickly go pear-shaped.

I am in danger of alienating half my readers here but during those 30 odd years I had twelve bosses, two of whom were female. Neither had the foggiest idea of how a telephone exchange worked but then neither did two of the men. However the big difference was that the females were skivers, disappearing for long periods, shopping or powdering their noses or something, which bothered me not one jot, the less often they were there the better. The problem was that both would occasionally lose all reason and decide to sack someone on a whim. Get a complaint, disagree with someone’s point of view, out the door they went. Not for long usually. The GPO was a Civil Service Department and official dismissal procedures would take months if not years and BT was no different in its early days. However both my female bosses would jump in with both feet and tell someone they were sacked. Rules disregarded, reasons optional.

In the almost four years this blog has been going I have been shown files from disgruntled (obviously) staff who claim to have been unfairly dismissed from Bexley council. An official reason is always given but whether it is the real or justifiable one can be a matter for debate.

The proportion of dismissal decisions made by women is high but perhaps not unduly so given their dominance of Bexley council’s middle management, but what gives me a dose of déjà vu is that a study of the case papers has always revealed inconsistencies and where relevant, total ignorance of anything even slightly technical. I think this BELL case is heading in that direction too but maybe it’s my old prejudices coming to the fore. It’s best you know that and perhaps bear it in mind as things progress.

In cases such as this I generally let the blog run behind the known facts to allow thinking time so it will not surprise you to know that I have already acquired documents which include many of the names working with BELL at the time of the April 2012 disaster.

Maureen HolkhamAn email yesterday asked “I wonder why Maureen Holkham's beaming visage graces your latest item on 'Death by Council Cuts'? I think we should be told!” The simple honest answer is that hers is just one of many names involved but the only one for whom I have a picture. On reflection her inclusion was less than fair especially as no explanation for the picture’s presence was offered thereby allowing unfounded conclusions to be drawn; so I removed it. This provoked another email; "Where has Maureen Holkham gone?" You lot rarely miss a trick.

Ms. Holkham was in charge of Communications (CCTV and BELL) in the months and years leading up to Mrs. Baker’s untimely demise but the responsibility appears to have been reassigned to Adult Care (Tom Brown) in April 2012. Almost certainly coincidence and of no great significance anyway.

I have no evidence that Ms. Holkham was directly involved in the decision to inadequately staff BELL overnight although you would think that an £88,088 p.a. Deputy Director in post since 2007 might be bright enough for the disaster potential to cross her mind. Maybe it’s my prejudices coming to the fore but I am seeing technical incompetence again if over five whole years the Deputy Director failed to anticipate the consequences of an unanswered call. Observing Ms. Holkham at meetings does nothing to boost my confidence levels, nor did sight of a different set of dismissal papers.

If I was a newspaper journalist I might be content to leave the case at this point. That Bexley council allowed one inexperienced operator to handle their emergency call system single handed and that a call went unanswered and a lady died must be a story in itself. The fact that nothing was known of the death until now is indicative of a cover-up which might add colour to that story. But Bonkers is not a newspaper and will not leave things there. Where names are known they will be named. When Teresa O’Neill marched into Bexleyheath police station demanding I should be arrested for “criticising councillors on a personal level” she abused her powers attempting to ensure the secrecy she craves. Any expectation I might cooperate with her ambitions were instantly forfeited.

In the days to come more will be revealed about the way Bexley council manages its affairs. Its senior managers contributed to the death of a vulnerable person, one of 2,000 or more if reports are correct, who pay a fiver a week for the peace of mind that help is only a bell push away. Bexley council failed them and if procedures have improved, there is as yet no evidence of it.

 

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