Thursday, 31 March 2011

Full council report - Conservative/Libdem shambles

This is my personal account as a Labour councillor.  I don't tweet during council meetings as I like to give my full attention but I do like to report back:


Short report:
Full council showed up what a shambles the administration is in:  the Conservatives and Libdems did not have a full understanding of what they were doing, were failing to give residents any sort of adequate notice of changes to their services and charges and getting personal and rude when challenged over policy*.

In contrast the Labour group made well considered, costed proposals, stressed the importance of consultation and focused on attacking administration policies not individuals.


From an electoral point of view there were some telling comments:  Jan Gavin, our candidate in Redlands was referred to as 'Cllr Jan Gavin' by Richard Willis, who was rather red faced in his correction and Cllr Benson complained that "You are going to come in and do the easy stuff" (disregarding the fact that the council is going to have to make MORE cuts next year!) - clearly suggesting that they expect us to take enough seats to win control, and showing where at least one of them is!


*If you don't want to read the full report here are examples of each:  they confused a cumulative 3 year saving with an annual figure (and heckled when corrected), they are sending out notices of changes to bus passes this week to come into effect on Friday, and I was told I should 'get out of the civic centre' (meaning into the community, not that I should resign, at least I don't think the lead councillor was being THAT rude) when I pointed out that we needed to do more to create alternative provision before we put more pressure on carers and the voluntary sector.


Full report:

Full council on Tuesday was another marathon - got back home at ten past twelve, having left the house at 6pm.

We started the evening with a petition regarding council support for Tai Chi for the elderly.  My Grandma goes to this and loves it so I personally hope that support can be found although from the reply I wasn't clear what the administration were saying, but it sounded like 'no'.

Then questions from members of the public council candidates, and the time honoured tactic of using this section to highlight issues that are being used in local election campaigns (honourable exception to the resident from Hill Street - at least I think so!).  Not criticising - but I do think we could find a better way of getting the public involved, maybe a Q and A session without pre scripted replies that rotated round the portfolios?

Then councillor's questions which were the usual attempts to publicise things that he administration are doing, perhaps press releases might be more sensible?  Again I wonder having gone through a full municipal year if we could have a less scripted approach.  For example I would have liked to ask the lead councillor about the late notice for the green bin charges (i only received my letter this morning in fact!), but the deadline had past by the time the administration had decided to implement from 1st April, while issuing notices in the last week of March!  (Incidentally following the uproar you now have a couple more weeks to give notice!)

We then moved on to three presentations, all of which were useful in different ways.

Moving on to the reports and motions there were some items that had all party agreement, for example Chris Maskell's motion that we should formalise the act of remembrance at the Forbury Cenotaph on 11th November (in fact Cllr Willis - belatedly - agreed to second it), or the comments from all party leaders that setting our own allowances (councillor's pay) is a ridiculous practice.  So before I talk abut the remaining three issues please bear that in mind - your councillors don't disagree just for the sake of it but when we have deep and serious disagreements.  I point this out because there were accusations of 'playing politics' flying around, which aside from the fact that we are all like it or not local politicians, suggests that the differences are not real or have been trumped up for the fun of it.

So firstly the transport report.  Much of this is what long serving councillors call 'business' which I believe means "we have to pass this but no-one has anything to say about it".  However there were two very serious and controversial proposals.

Firstly the decision to implement 'stage 2 (Southern)' parking meters during the next year.  This follows up from the cabinet's budget plan to raise £500,000 from parking meters.  Tony Page, in full command of his brief and making the Redland's councillors in particular squirm, explained that this was the parking meters being rolled out in the hospital and university areas.  Cllr WIllis stood up and stated categorically that "We have no plans for parking meters in the University and hospital areas".  Now either this is another one of his famous U-turns or he hadn't read his own report.  As Tony said "I won't use the L word but we all know what it is" (it rhymes with higher).

To an extent I pity the Redland's libdems on this as I think they have been either misinformed or at least misunderstood the situation.  Regardless they rejected Tony's amendment which was to state explicitly that parking meters should only be implemented after full consultation with residents.  If they have no plans for parking meters it is just plain odd that they refused the amendment.

The second amendment was regarding changes to the bus pass scheme.  It's been public for some time that the council is planning to remove free travel for pensioners before 9.30am (incidentally also after 11pm, although I think the clubbing pensioner demographic is limited)  but what even some coalition councillors didn't realise was that this plan included the approximately 3,500 disabled pass holders and 1,500 carers who can travel free when acompanying them.  We know that this will affect parents taking their children to school (who don't want to burden the council with the cost of doing it), disabled workers and those with medical appointments.  Not only is it a very serious and costly change for people but the letter informing people of this was still sitting in the post room on Monday at 4pm.  The changes come into affect from Friday.  Truly a lack of respect for our elderly and disabled residents.
Again our amendment called for proper consultation and communication before any change was implemented.  This was rejected.   Labour was accused of scaremongering during the debate for saying that the Conservatives would cut support for elderly and disabled people. 

The second controversial issue was the issue of elderly care.  This is something that all parties know is hugely important and much of the report was something that all sides could welcome, for example the progress with the free re-ablement program started under my Labour and Whitley colleague, Mike Orton and continued under the current administration.  However there were two big policy differences.  The first is that the lead councillor, Daisy Benson, proposed to cut the eligibility criteria for council help from 'greater moderate' (several day to day functions impaired) to substantial and critical only.  This is something that Labour has always been able to find a way to avoid in the past.  It is not to say it will never ever change but if it did it would have to be after new services and support was implemented not before.  I was proud to second Mike's amendment to this proposal which called for a speeding up of the reassessment program, to develop more preventative and alternative support and to keep supporting those in greater moderate need.  We acknowledged that this might cost up to £250,000 more in the short term and identified where an alternative saving could be made:  through management restructure in the adult social care and adjustments in the grants budget.   Again, the administration rejected the proposal, quoting a figure of £1.5 million a year in savings.  I pointed out (to heckles claiming I was wrong) that this was a cumulative figure, and they had added up total savings over several years.  A large number of administration councillors including cabinet members had clearly not understood their own proposals as it is clearly spelt out in Table 4 of the report.  The other rebuttal line was Cllr Benson's claim that there were already voluntary providers out there.  Of course this is true and I'm very aware of this  (hence my interest in the Tai Chi question) but the real point is that we would be placing an extra burden on family and voluntary carers without having introduced alternative ways of supporting people.  This is reflected in the administration's own report.  One of the reasons the saving is so little is that there is an expectation that those in greater moderate need whose services are taken away will 'deteriorate faster' and thus move into the substantial or critical needs more quickly.  Think for a moment what that means to people - and imagine if that was applied to your Grandparents, parents or maybe even yourself. 
The second amendment we moved had received a lot of publicity elsewhere, and refers to the huge increase in day centre charges.  The administration was planning to reassess people and as they were reassessed move them on to the new scheme (this is what they meant by phasing).  This would have meant that there were people in the same situation paying completely different amounts - some £5.90 some £43.03 for the same service.  =There has also not been consideration of hardship cases.  Our amendment was to say that the implementation should only occur once everyone had been reassessed and secondly that cabinet needed to make provision for those who will be put into hardship by this.
The view amongst Labour councillors was that the smart thing to do for the administration would be to accept this amendment because it sorted out the shambles that the proposed scheme would have led to.

The third controversial item was Graeme Hoskin's motion on the NHS which bent over backwards to try to make it easy for the Libdems to back us by effectively copying and pasting from the motion passed at Libdem conference.  This was something that both the Libdem councillors who attended the conference had voted for, so we were hopeful the Liberals would break ranks with the Conservatives.  In the event  and Cllrs Daisy Benson and Cllr Kirsten Bayes brought forward a truly shocking motion which mostly praised the government's approach to the NHS.  It seems that they say one thing at Lib-dem conference and another locally.  Is that because they are so concerned about staying onside with the Conservatives or just that they have no backbone?  Soon-to-be ex-Cllr Gareth Epps abstained, which I respected, as I know he's in a difficult position with the rest of his group.  In the debate some of the Conservatives made some truly shocking statements about the NHS.  Cllr Mark Ralph in particular stating that "You seem to have a problem with private companies running the NHS" (Yes!) and "Democratically accountable w
commissioning - well that sounds like a waste of money to me".   It was late at night by now but we'd lerant a lot about the shambolic way that the council is being run, the lack of respect that the Conservatives and Libdems have for keeping residents informed in the most basic way, and that - at best - that some Conservatives and Libdems don't read their own reports to council.

When we take back control (which is looking more and more likely that it will happen this May) we won't be able to reverse everything,  But we will be having a thorough review to change what we can in year.