Thursday 27 February 2014

Guest Blog - Disrespect and Barnet Council by Barbara Jacobson

By Barbara Jacobson,
There is always something to be learned at the Cabinet meetings, and the one on Tuesday night was no exception. Janet Leifer was the only person to make a public comment about the problems posed by Your Choice Barnet (YCB). Janet is a stalwart campaigner – I would say ‘tireless’ but the truth is campaigning is tiring work – for the rights of disabled people, and chair of the Campaign Against the Destruction of Disabled Support Services (CADDSS).  She spoke strongly and clearly about the lack of transparency and openness of YCB Board meetings (even the minutes are not available: the council claims that they are on the website, but searches reveal only an ‘error’ page) and movingly about the problems faced by service users when the venues for their activities are not compatible with their needs.

Maybe if they had listened, some Cabinet members could have learned something about these very real and important issues. The first lesson we learned was how little they cared. As soon as Janet began to speak Cllrs Thompstone and Dean Cohen seemed to share a joke. Then they, as well as Cllrs Longstaff, J. Tambourides and Hart, began to turn the pages of the documents that they should have read before the meeting. When Cllr Tambourides stopped turning pages, she stared ahead of her or at the ceiling. It was not clear whether Cllr Rams was playing with his mobile phone or using it as a calculator to assess the losses of YCB, but like the others named, he never even looked at or made a pretence of listening to to Janet Leifer. Cllr Dan Thomas, on the other hand, gave Janet his full attention. Although I couldn’t see him from my vantage point, I am sure Cllr R. Cornelius was similarly attentive. It is not simply bad manners to blatantly ignore a speaker, but also indicative of those councillors’ attitude towards the people they supposedly represent and, thus, to democracy itself.  

When Cllr Cornelius asked his Cabinet colleagues whether they had any questions for Mrs Leifer, no one raised a hand – not surprising when more than half of them had apparently not heard what she was saying.

Later, Cllr Brian Gordon went to the table to speak about a report he had submitted. What a difference: every councillor turned to face him and appeared to listen. How much easier it is to listen to one of your own discussing a report you know you will agree with than paying attention to someone whose views challenge yours, to someone demanding fairness for the disabled. This is lazy politics and the second lesson we learned was that the Cabinet has more than its fair share of lazy politicians.

When these councillors come knocking on your door and want you to listen to their request to re-elect them, I hope you will remember what they really think of you. Then teach them a lesson at the polls in May.

The third lesson we learned  on Tuesday night was that the directors of YCB have a duty to act in ’the best interests of the organisation’ rather than the best interests of the service users. It seems beyond the Cabinet’s comprehension or power of imagination that best interests of the service users are in the best interests of the organization. By focusing only on ways to make money, the YCB Board and its single shareholder, the council, ensure that the service losers will suffer and therefore YCB’s finances will continue to suffer – because people from other boroughs will not choose to buy services from a company that has more regard for their cash than their well-being.

Through public questions at the meeting the council revealed that it will collect approximately £1.3m from the imposition of the 8.5% council tax on working age claimants of benefit. When asked why the council tax cut of 1%, which will cost the council £1.3m, couldn’t be used to offset the imposition of the tax, Cllr Cornelius replied emphatically that nothing was free, everyone had to understand that and make a contribution. So even if you have nothing and are dependent on benefits, you have to pay. That’s obviously a Conservative Party moral imperative. Now look at the figures again and you’ll see the fourth lesson we learned: that the £1.3m the council is grabbing back from people on benefits is funding the council tax cut. Not a moral imperative, but an immoral action.

We learned too that if central government allowed a mansion tax, Barnet Council estimates it would be better off by approximately £30m. Think of all the jobs and services that would fund. Will it happen? Try demanding that any candidate for council or Parliament that wants your vote will support a call for the government to pass a law enabling this tiny tax on the extremely wealthy so the council would have no excuse to tax the poor or to sell off our libraries and sports fields, no excuse to cut health and social care services.

If you want to make your voice heard on these or any other issues, come to the two remaining public meetings that Barnet Alliance for Public Services is hosting. The next one is at the Barnet Multicultural Centre in Algernon Road, West Hendon, on 18 March. The last one is at the Greek Cypriot Centre in Britannia Road, North Finchley, on 10 April. The doors open at 6.30, entry is free and the meeting, which starts at 7pm, provides a chance to discuss your views with candidates of the Labour, LibDem and Green parties; the Conservatives have been invited, but as you can tell from the description of the their attitudes to residents, they are unlikely to send a speaker. They haven’t sent one to either of the last two meetings. When asked why not, Cllr Cornelius said he wouldn’t go to a meeting with ‘those people’.  That’s us, folks. Cllr Rams tweeted that it was more fun being at a Boys’ Brigade meeting than being at the ‘hustings’. Well, being one of the boys must be more fun than answering awkward questions from voters, but why bother to be a councilor if you can’t face your constituents? If your local councillors are Tories, you might want to ask them why they’re hiding.
Barbara Jacobson is a Barnet resident. Guest blogs are always welcome 

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