Bexley council has indulged in so many dishonest and sometimes illegal
practices over the years that some of them fade into obscurity at the back of one’s mind.
I was reminded of one at last Wednesday’s Full Council meeting, the only meeting at which the public is routinely allowed questions - but only for 15 minutes including the often padded out answers.
In an effort to eliminate questions Bexley council once introduced many rules, one of which said that every resident asking a question must agree to having his name and address published on the council’s website. Young adults living with parents and people separated from abusive partners and indeed anyone who values a private life were effectively partially disenfranchised.
When the Information Commissioner got wind of Bexley’s disregard for data protection the practice was stopped although the timing suggested that Bexley council, which was already in a lot of trouble with the Commissioner at the time, jumped before they were pushed.
To replace that discouragement a new set of restrictions was introduced. Among them was that questions would only be permitted on matters of policy. When questions were carefully crafted to be about policy, Bexley council wriggled away from them by saying that once a policy was adopted it became a protocol, and questions about protocols were not admitted. When it was argued that a thesaurus defined policies and protocols similarly it was further stated that protocols were merely operational rules and operational matters were excluded from council question time.
The fact is that all this nonsense was designed to stop Mick Barnbrook and his pals asking questions, the rules were never applied to Tory lackeys embarking on sycophantic expeditions.
Eliot Smith’s question at the council meeting in April; “Given the lack of a safe crossing outside Trinity School, will you [Cabinet Member Don Massey] assure parents that you are taking their concerns seriously” was a long way from being a policy matter.
Another rule is that the questioner must be in the chamber to ask his own question. Until this week there had only been one instance since the new offices were opened of a questioner not being present and a substitute was happily accepted to voice her question.
Elwyn Bryant’s question was not caught by the policy net either but when he fell ill earlier this week he dropped straight into the other trap. Mick Barnbrook asked if he could be stand-in with the inevitable result. Maybe it is because Eliot is a Tory supporter or perhaps they feared Elwyn’s supplementary question; I do not know, but Bexley council are certainly inconsistent when it suits them.
The decision to leave Elwyn’s question unstated and unanswered left 29 minutes for councillors’ questions and the rarely heard Christine Bishop (Conservative, Crayford) was first to her feet and after the customary struggle with the microphone asked cabinet member Philip Read to say what Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons had to say about Bexley’s Youth Offending Team.
Had the answer been in any way negative the question would not have been asked so I hardly need report Read’s answer in detail. “It was highly commendable” and he took 90 seconds to say that.
The supplementary question which does not appear in the Agenda was clearly arranged beforehand because councillor Read was able to answer it with a prepared written speech, a phenomenon he repeated throughout the evening.
Councillor Mabel Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) asked an additional question but councillor Read refused to answer it.
Councillor Ross Downing asked why Social Workers preferred to work for an agency than for Bexley council. Philip Read produced a list of reasons.
Better off in cash terms. Personal circumstances may make higher cash payments more attractive than a pension. Flexibility of employment and agency work is seen as “a short term career option” - which sounds rather worrying for a Social Worker.
Councillor Read referred in critical fashion to Social Workers who set themselves up as limited companies for tax reasons and Bexley was taking a leading role in attempting to put a stop to the practice.
Councillor Joe Ferriera (Labour, Erith) in an obvious reference to the Bexley magazine announcement asked why there were no Recycling Roadshows in the North of the borough.
Cabinet member Craske pretended to know nothing of the earlier announcement and simply indicated that Joe’s question was based on a fallacy.
The reason for Craske’s claimed failure to understand the question is because he has quietly slipped in a Roadshow outside Morrison’s in Erith and is planning one for Belvedere. He and his cronies seemed to think that it was a very clever response when in reality those with longer memories will see it as a repeat of the Parsons Brinckerhoff question when Craske denied he had signed a £4 million pound contract with them. It was a number of contracts adding up to £4 million.
Such underhand tactics merely confirm everyone’s opinion of Craske. His council friends think he is a political genius and everyone else realises that dishonesty comes far too naturally to him.
A supplementary question produced an interesting statistic. At close of business on Wednesday, 9,121 people had signed up to pay the bin tax. Craske said he was confident of being on target but as the door to door canvassing and roadshows may have picked up all the eager gardeners already and the publicity period is more than half way through, signing up fewer than a third of the target subscriptions may be no cause for optimism.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) asked how much the Chancellor’s changes to the welfare budget would cost Bexley council but cabinet member Massey did not know pending a meeting with the Finance Director. The Finance Director was present but she said nothing throughout the meeting. Nice work if you can get it.
When councillor Francis referred to the probable effect on housing and levels of poverty, Massey told him it was “political rhetoric” and “ping pong politics”. It was “a shame” that councillor Francis had asked his question. It sure was, supplementaries can be difficult to answer when the cabinet member hasn’t scripted them in advance.
Ping pong politics and rhetoric may be frowned upon by councillor Don Massey but that didn’t stop him welcoming such comment by councillor David Leaf. “Does the cabinet member agree with me that the summer budget would help most families in Bexley?”
Of course he did, “it is something well worth stating” and went on to crow about the Conservative’s General Election victory. Not bad for a man not keen on political rhetoric and all within a time span of 75 seconds.
Councillor McGannon (UKIP, Colyers) was concerned about knife crime in schools. Cabinet Craske overcame the continuing microphone deficiencies with an acceptance that the statistics were getting slightly worse. Councillor McGannon thought the closure of parks may have a bearing on knife crime but councillor Craske professed not to understand the question.
Councillor Sharon Massey said “crime was a parental responsibility, not just schools” and said she was “particularly concerned about the inference the rise in crime is attributed to young people”. All in the same sentence! Parents, schools. Hasn’t she just done the same thing?
Councillor Rob Leitch briefly became a self-publicist when he asked if cabinet member Craske “would welcome interest from the local community to maintain and enhance the rose garden at Sidcup Place?“ “Absolutely” he would. Craske went on about campaigners and protesters “moaning and complaining” but the rose garden was “a good initiative”. Which set of ‘moaners’ could he have in mind?
Councillor Craske said the Labour group were “sneering” but as I could not see any of them all facial expressions were unknown to me, but they certainly said nothing. Councillor Ferreira began to refer to the residents’ group which looks after Erith’s Riverside Gardens, however the mayor called time and cut him off in mid flow.
It was a fairly interesting half hour under one of Bexley’s better mayoral chairmen (councillor Sybil Camsey) and at no time did I feel inclined to nod off, which is more than I can say for some people.