One of the routine hoops that the Full Council meeting has to jump through is
to approve the reports from the various Committee chairmen. With any
luck they are quickly nodded through one by one and everyone can go home at a
reasonable hour. The 17th July was not one of those occasions, Labour Members
objected to the report from the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee
which had been chaired by Councillor Alan Downing.
The objections were reported in the News Shopper two days later but rather formally and with little sense of the disarray that had arisen. Here I will attempt to shed rather more light on what came over as a particularly disgraceful half hour of transparency versus censorship.
Councillor Wendy Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath) referred to “the technical documents” presented to the Scrutiny meeting on 2nd July. She had attended because she was “particularly keen to hear what was said about SEN transport in view of the debacle that had taken place at the beginning of the year causing children and SEN parents distress”.
She learned that a report from last May painted a rosy picture and, “verbatim” Cabinet Member John Fuller had said that “schools were saying we are on your side and agree with your policy, we think it is great”. He went on to say “the majority of the appeals we had last year regarding travel we won. The Council were correct. We had one parent who took us further than we wanted to go and they lost. They had to pay costs and everything. We were right in what we were doing and this year we had no complaints at all”.
The foregoing conveys only a little of Councillor Perfect’s message which was buried deeply within quoted paragraph numbers and sub-section this and sub-section that. It all being a little too complicated at the end of a long day I wandered towards the boys’ room muttering “that woman can bore for England”. A Conservative Councillor heading in the same direction agreed whole heartedly.
However by the time I returned Councillor Perfect’s message was beginning to shine through. Far from John Fuller’s “there’s been no complaints at all”, “every single case had been upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman”. 55% of complaints to the LGO from London “came from one borough, Bexley”.
Ms. Perfect’s objection to the Scrutiny Committee report had the potential for serious embarrassment and Councillor Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) began to read out yet more unpalatable facts in the manner of someone reading a telephone directory. It was only marginally less boring than Councillor Perfect’s address. One could see various Conservative Councillors on the verge of nodding off, as indeed was I.
So bored or maybe embarrassed was Council Leader O’Neill that she interrupted and asked the Mayor to rule the Labour objection out of order. After conferring with her learned friends, the Leader’s attempt to use some arcane point of order was overruled by the Mayor and Councillor Ogundayo was invited to continue boring all and sundry to death.
Councillor Teresa O’Neill objected but the Mayor was having none of it. The Leader was clearly not happy and continued to mumble objections.
Councillor Ogundayo continued as before apparently oblivious to the fact that reading a catalogue of SEN transport rules and regulations was masking her message. viz. that the Scrutiny Committee had been told porkies on 2nd July.
The Mayor herself diplomatically stated her own “personal opinion”, that the Labour Councillors had taken boredom to new levels. Making amends for what had gone before, Councillor Sally Hinkley (Labour, Belvedere) got a little bit closer to the point by quoting from the LGO’s damning reports on Bexley. “Bexley does not reflect the law” being a typical extract.
Councillor Dave Putson (Labour, Belvedere) quoted from yet more LGO case reports which showed up Bexley Council in a very bad light indeed. Among other things Bexley Council was demanding that single parents should be in two places at the same time. The almost ten years old Bonkers’ tag line “Dishonest and Vindictive” was once again proved to be very appropriate to Bexley Council.
Councillor Sybil Camsey (Conservative, Crooklog) objected on a technicality to Labour Councillors exposing the Council's failures to act lawfully and with compassion. “This discussion should not be taking place.” The Mayor disagreed.
Councillor Francis (Labour, Belvedere) wondered, as no doubt will all of us, “why Members opposite do not wish us to talk about it”.
The Mayor attempted to focus the debate by saying it didn’t really need quotations from all six LGO reports and I am inclined to agree.
Labour Leader Daniel Francis summed up. In essence the case was that the Cabinet Member made a statement favourable to his portfolio in July which completely ignored half a dozen disturbing LGO reports made in the Spring. It seemed like a fair cop that didn't really need more than half an hour of lecturing to prove.
Six times the LGO had said that Bexley Council failed in its statutory duties but the Cabinet Member appeared to be either oblivious of it or concealed it from the Scrutiny Committee. Councillor Francis called for a special meeting to discuss remedies and the way forward “in the interests of residents. There has been a serious attempt to mislead the Scrutiny Committee and the only option open to the Cabinet Member is to resign”.
The Conservatives jeered their contempt for honesty and Scrutiny Chairman Alan Downing said “the party opposite does not share our concern [for disabled children] and spoke a lot of twaddle. I can’t believe what I have been listening to and I wonder what they are on about”. So discussing adverse LGO reports is ‘twaddle’ according to the Communities Chairman. Is there any need for further comment on such callous remarks?
Councillor Francis appeared to be close to tears as indeed should be every resident of Bexley who gives a moment’s thought to the injustices dished out to the disabled by Bexley Council.
The LGO reports really are damning.
Labour's Press Release.
It has been reported that the arguments continued long into the night away from the gaze of the webcams.
Note: As one might expect Bexley Conservatives conducted a furious fight back on Twitter to mask the LGO’s reports with sometimes irrelevant facts. Their main claim appears to be that Cabinet Member John Fuller did not mislead the Scrutiny Committee but had merely taken his eye off the ball and didn’t know about them. I would prefer to think that is the case because John Fuller has led an almost blameless life in the nine years I have been attending Council meetings.
When the facts become clear they will be reported in another blog.