The last time I went to one of James Hunt’s People Scrutiny meetings it
dragged on for more than three and a half hours thanks in part to
the extensive line up of guest speakers. On Wednesday there was little of that and the Agenda
was a mere 45 pages instead of 194 but any hopes I might have for an early night were not realised.
Councillors droned on for nearly three hours and I was struggling to find highlights that might make interesting blog reading. Prospective MPs presumably attend for very different reasons to me. (See Stefano Borella’s Tweet below.)
After 80 minutes the five members of the public present had reduced to just me and as the evening progressed the number of councillors heading for the door went from trickle to procession. I had decided to leave at either ten o’clock or the end of Agenda Item 8, whichever came first. Probably the wrong decision but outside the chamber at ten o’clock I exchanged friendly words with a total of five councillors who were variously, stretching their legs, clutching a drink, heading for the toilets, who were wondering how much longer the meeting could possibly go on for.
I don’t think it’s chairman Hunt’s fault. He doesn’t permit councillors to be too rambling or do anything other than ask a question but answers can be expansive rather than succinct or precise. The longer they are the more likely it is that they are excuses for failure.
The real problem with scrutiny meetings since the last election can be laid at council leader Teresa O’Neill’s door. Reducing the number of committees from seven to three was supposed to reduce the opportunity for scrutiny but meetings go on for twice as long instead.
The younger councillors have been heard complaining that the minds of their elders begin to drift towards cocoa and hot water bottles by nine thirty. It’s probably true but given a few more years the younger ones may become a little more sympathetic.
The new police chief put in a brief appearance. He told us that he had been with the British Transport Police but as if to apologise for that assured everyone he had experience in a number of northern cities too. The borough wide dawn raids last Tuesday had resulted in 57 people arrested and charged, and with that he was gone.
My superficial judgment is that Jeff Boothe seemed to be a decent bloke and I know that some who have met him in a one to one situation have been impressed but the same was said of two out of three of his predecessors and all three of them are currently under investigation for covering up Bexley council’s criminal activities.
Maybe both Bexley council and the local police have learned the error of their ways and we will never see a repetition of such things. One can hope.
15 minutes into the meeting the first question was thrown into the arena, it came from councillor Alan Downing (Conservative, St. Mary’s) who as vice-chairman was paid £750 for sitting down for three hours. He provided cabinet member Philip Read with an excuse to speak about the recent lifting of the Children’s Services Improvement Notice issued by the Department for Communities.
Read managed to speak for four minutes without any serious attempt at insulting fellow councillors. There was an oblique reference to Mabel Ogundayo - “it gives the lie to some of the things we have heard from other people” - and he revisited his ‘60% permanent staff’ claim without any attempt to deceive listeners that the figure for social workers was not yet that good.
This was not the Read of old and his message this time was very much in line with what was heard at the Children’s Social Care Sub-Committee meeting. The new found honesty from cabinet member Philip Read must be good news for the borough but bad for those who look for entertainment on these pages.
Councillor Mabel Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) graciously acknowledged the efforts of the staff who had worked for the breakthrough on the path to a fully acceptable service. Peace in our time?
Councillor Brenda Langstead (Labour, North End) was concerned about schools not meeting the needs of SEN children and asked what might be done to encourage the schools. She was told that there was already a team of specialist teachers working on that problem.
Councillor Ross Downing’s (Conservative, Cray Meadows) question was answered by cabinet member John Fuller with some impressive statistics including the doubled number of companies offering apprenticeships in the borough.
Soon after all the other members of the public had succumbed to boredom and departed, councillor Sharon Massey (Conservative, Danson Park) livened things up by making a bid for the £8,802 job of chairman. She judged that councillor Chris Beazley (UKIP, St. Michael’s) had strayed a little from the straight and narrow and decided he should be stopped in his tracks.
“Don’t identify the public by name”
Perhaps councillor Massey should hold her tongue more often.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) wondered why Trading Services was carrying out inspections at premises where fireworks are sold now rather than at the obvious time of the year. No answer was forthcoming.
Councillor Langstead was curious about how the Save Old Manor Way Playground petition had managed to worm its way on to the council’s website when other equally worthy petitions, she mentioned the Slade Green Communities and Belvedere Splash Park, had not. No one knew the answer to that question either.
Councillor Brenda Langstead was not at all sure that the council would be able to provide the new legal minimums for domiciliary care at the very low fees Bexley council has been prepared to offer care agencies. The Acting Director of Adult Social Care, Tom Brown, chose his words very carefully. He said the council could not pay more than it could afford and if payments were raised to recommended levels it would cost £2 million. (†)
He was however trying to ensure that care workers would no longer be expected to be in four different places at the same time. Mr. Brown hesitantly said he was working in partnership with the home care providers but he sounded like a man who had no confidence in his own words. He will have been put in an impossible position by the cuts to front line service budgets. (†)
Earlier in the discussion of domiciliary care services, councillor Sharon Massey commented that her company, Supreme Home Care, takes “no work from Bexley council intentionally”, effectively scotching any rumours to the contrary.
Listening to the meeting a second time, it was surprising to discover it was less tedious than ‘in the flesh’. I suspect this may be due to the sound quality, depending on the speaker, in the chamber being so poor that the temptation is to give up listening. The recording turned up reasonably loud is less of a strain on the ear ’oles.
Nevertheless is is still tempting to say that the most interesting observation on April 1st was councillor Seán Newman’s decision to abandon Messrs. Gillette and Wilkinson. That and the smashed glass panel just outside the chamber. Who lost their temper with whom?
Note: The two paragraphs suffixed (†) are summaries taken from the webcast as I left 20 minutes before the meeting ended.