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News and Comment July 2012

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26 July (Part 2) - Bexley council. It’s never their fault

I find myself disinclined to make complaints to Bexley council at every opportunity, that appears to be the job of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group (BCMG). Whereas I find the lack of straight answers to be a disincentive to expending the necessary time, the BCMG refuses to let anything pass unchallenged. It may be some sort of ‘cake and eat it’ hypocrisy but I admit to finding Bexley council’s excuses for abrogating their responsibilities and proclaiming their eternal innocence fascinating in their inventiveness. Here is the latest to have come my way.

When I showed up for the Audit Committee meeting last month, BCMG members were in the Civic Centre foyer so I lingered awhile and they persuaded me the Standards Committee would be more interesting. As a result we all dashed up the stairs to the Public Gallery with barely a minute to spare.

The Committee wasn’t expecting guests and already seated around their table ready to go. There were no spare chairs. A council officer jumped to attention, gathered her thoughts and said she would fetch some. I went with her to help and BCMG member Michael Barnbrook did the same. The two of us each carried a stack of chairs back to the Public Gallery and placed them very close behind the seated councillors. Probably it was uncomfortably close and we were made to shuffle them backwards.

Mick and Elwyn Bryant weren’t happy because although the Public Gallery has a hearing loop no microphones were provided. Without them their electronic ear trumpets aren’t a lot of good. They muttered their discontent though how loudly I am no longer sure. We all spent the meeting leaning well forward to pick up what we could but it wasn’t easy. Even one councillor at the table, Alan Deadman, said he was having some difficulty hearing everything that was said.

Mr. Barnbrook, as is his way, put in a formal complaint about the lack of facilities for the disabled and got a reply from Head of Committee Services, Kevin Fox; the same man who invented the story that the council’s Standing Order 84 which allows for the public to be excluded from any portion of a meeting that might discuss salaries, could be misinterpreted to prevent any meeting taking place at all. How would he reject a complaint about the council’s failure to make any gesture towards satisfying its responsibilities under Equalities legislation? He lied of course, the alternative was to admit a council failure.

Mr. Fox has said in a letter that when Mr. Barnbrook “arrived the committee officer was in the process of preparing the room”. This is totally false. I walked in alongside Mr. Barnbrook and know exactly what happened. Unlike Mr. Fox I was there. The committee officer was sitting at the committee table with her papers in front of her seconds before the appointed start time. She responded quickly and I have no criticism; the absence of chairs was rectified without delay. Why does Mr. Fox feel compelled to say otherwise? Orders from above perhaps?

“The seating was arranged near to where members of the Committee were sitting” the council’s letter claims, not the most precise of terms. I accept the seating was “near” but it wasn’t near enough. Surely that much was obvious from the position Barnbrook and Bryant chose for their chairs before being made to move them?

Mayor Alan DowningMr. Fox also wrote that members of the public must say if they cannot hear proceedings but the precedents for that set by the pen jabbing mayor Alan Downing are not encouraging. As he demonstrated in an ugly display of bad temper, mayor Downing explodes in fury when anyone says they cannot hear. Having witnessed that, Mr. Barnbrook may have been unwilling to make a big enough fuss to be noticed by the chairman of the Standards Committee.

Fox’s wonderfully verbose conclusion is that in future “members of the public with disabilities will be requested to contact that officer a reasonable time in advance of the meeting to advise they will be attending a particular meeting so that whatever provision is reasonable can be made”. It’s to become a bit like wheelchair users who wish to get a train to London from Erith only worse, at least you can get to London on the down platform at half hourly intervals. If you are deaf and wish to see Bexley council in action and hear them too, you either give them notice or risk an intemperate pen jabbing. Take your pick.


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