Tonight I've been at Hendon Town Hall for the Budget Overview and Scrutiny Committee Tonight the committee were reviewing the decision to cut theMapledown Special school afterschool and respite budget by£45,000.
So I made my way up to Hendon Town Hall at 7pm for the meeting. I arrived to find myself sitting next to fellow blogger Mrs Angry and surrounded by parents of disabled childrens parents from Mapledown School. Before the meeting started, I had a brief chat with Steve Carroll, the headmaster of Mapledown school. Mr Carroll explained that he couldn't really say anything. As we were chatting, the councillor responsible for the cut, Rueben Thompstone (Rubes as we know him) barged me out of the way and told Mr Carroll how much he was looking forward to finally visiting the school. Mr Carroll was the soul of discretion. As I am not psychic I can only guess what he may have been thinking.
The format of the meeting started with the usual Barnet BS, followed by public question time. The committee consisted of Chair Hugh Rayner, Tories Brian Salinger, Big Mo Braun, Little Brian Gordon, John Hart, and Rowan "yer boat" Turner. From Labour we had Barry Rawlings, Alison Moore and Geoff Johnson. For the Lib Dems we had Jack Cohen.
The questions and answers from the public can be viewed here
We had some excellent public questions from Mapledown parents
Christine Canavan asked why nationally respite budgets had gone up 22% and locally they'd been cut by 27%. For the Councillor a Mr Harrison said that the "funds were not earmarked"
Tina asked why the school had not been visited prior to the cuts to assess the effects. Mr Harrison gave a rather obtuse answer imply "Rubes" would have to answer that one himself.
Then the chair, Councillor Rayner said "Is Sue Here?" "No?" "Erm Good".
We then had Theresa. She asked if any account had been given to what cash would end up being spent as a result of this cut. In other words, when carers get destroyed by stress, who foots the bill and how much will it be. Sadly the answer was that no one had bothered to assess that.
Then we had Labour candidat for Finchley, Sarah Sackman. She'd been asked by the parents to represent them. The chair, Councillor Rayner, ensured that her political role was noted. She explained the high demand for services, the benefits of respite and the results of the withdrawal of services. Sadly certain councillors sought to play up her party role and play down the points she'd made.
She very eloquently pointed out that the Council was out of step with the Tory lead government, who viewed carers and respite as great value for money. They'd increased the budget nationally. She explained that if the parents could no longer cope, the costs would legally fall to the council.
Councillor John Hart suggested that the parents should sort the financial black hole out themselves and urged parents and carers to raise money themselves (whilst caring for disabled children 24 X 7).
Sackman pointed out that Mapledown was not just a nice to have but a necessity. She suggested that councillors should work with parents and help them resolve the issue.
Councillor Brian Gordon suggested that no one likes cuts. He is quite right, the audience reminded him that no Councillors had an allowance cut under the Tories. The meeting was descending into uproar. As with many recent council meetings, the general public start off being very polite. As often happens, myself and Mrs Angry, being old hands, display no such deference. A constant stream of heckling emerged from our corner. Eventually (as often happens) the rest of the gallery realises that there is no need for the deference. Councillor Gordon deployed his usual charm and was the tipping point. The chair of the meeting, Rayner gave the audience a good telling off.
Lib Dem Leader Jack Cohen made his usual intelligent point. He suggested that care for the disabled should be outside the usual political argy bargy and asked whether parents had been properly consulted.
Sarah Sackman explained how they were not. They had no idea of the sclae of cuts when consulted. She also explained how parents of disabled children have more to do than simply complete surveys on the Barnet council website.
Then we had Christine Canavan, explaining the purpose and definition of respite. A short period of rest from a difficult or unpleasant situation. She said "please take time and reconsider your decision". She then stated she was "shocked, let down and angry" at the lack of consultation.
Then we had Rubes up for questions. Barry Rawlings suggested that maybe the cabinet hadn't thought through the cut. He explained how there was cash in the public health budget. He also suggested that the cut may have been unconstitutional because the matter was still in oversight.
Then we heard from Rubes. Sadly the man is clearly a buffoon. Virtually his first words were that he was "sorry for all the bad publicity". No SH*T Sherlock, we bet you are. He said he was "pleased to hear from the parents". He looked anything but. He looked like a man who'd sat on a shoebrush in truth.
Then Mr Carroll, the headmaster was asked to clarify a few issues by Cllr Rayner. He asked why the school couldn't use its reserves to fund the services. Mr Carroll explained that this would be illegal. The budgets are ring fenced. Rubes shifted even more uncomfortably. He explained how the school had raised £200,000 in donations, but this was for special projects and there was a limit.
If Rubes thought things were bad, they were about to get much worse. He was about to get barbequed by Jack Cohen. Rubes clearly has little comprehension of just how careful you have to be when Jack is on form, and boy was he on form. Jack asked if Rubes had bothered to read any of the responses from parents to the consultation. Rubes replied along the lines that he had better things to do and the officers had read them, he'd read a management summary. Jack persisted "So when you looked, you didn't look at the answers" Jack suggested that the council constition suggested that "due respect had to be given to decisions". Rubes shifted his large posterior uncomfortably. Jack then said "Disability is a proected characteristic. How can you tell is that this decision will protect their equalities". Rubes retorted that the budget cut had left some services in tact. Several of his Tory colleagues looked rather uncomfortable.
It suddenly became apparant that he'd lost his colleagues. Brian Salinger stated that it wasn't clear what the decision had actually meant in real terms. He doubted the cabinet had understood the implications. Rubes disagreed. Then, from a rather unexpected source, the final blow. Councillor Maureen Braun, not a friend of this blog asked Rubes "Who is more vulnerable than disabled children". Rubes tried to string a sentence together, but failed. Braun had summed up the general feeling in the room. Rayner had sensed early on that the Torie were on a loser. He had spent the evening trying to figure out how to extract his reputation from this situation. He clearly didn't want to shaft Mapledown, but couldn't work out how to protect his Tory friend. He moved to a vote and to the amazement of all, Salinger and Braun, to their great credit voted to send the report back to the cabinet. In short a Tory Committee had agreed that the Mapledown cut was unfair and unjust and needed review.
Rayner realised that with an election looing, this presented a constitutional issue. He tried to get a council officer to help him out but no one really seemed to know. Rubes, a large man, seemed to have shrunk and seemed to resemble a demented leprachaun. He looked totally gutted.
Brian Salinger couldn't contain himself and ran to the back to shake hands with Mr Carroll. Mr Rayner ordered him back, but Salinger just ignored him. Mrs Angry and myself were, for a second overcome with emotion. We've sat through a lot of committee meetings and such an outcome was unexpected to say the least,
For the record (and it was not 100% clear), it appeared that Hart, Turner and Gordon did not vote to send the report back. I get the feeling that Braun, Salinger and Rayner had realised the game was up. Hart and Gordon are simply too entrenched in their ways to deviate from the party line. As for Turner. He gives the impression of having the intellect of a Compare the Meerkat.
In fact all that has happened is that the decision has been referred back to a committee stacked with dopey Tories who didn't do their job properly the first time. Will they learn. I suspect that Rayner will order them to make the problem go away ASAP. He is a senior power in Barnet Torydom.
I made a point of congratulating Braun and Salinger. Councillors should realise that when they do the right thing, it gets recognised. I just hope that the Tories can see sense and undo a very bad decision.
It was clear to anyone with a heart that Mapledown is a special case and the kids there deserve to be protected. It is clear Braun got it. It is clear Salinger got it, I suspect Rayner got it. Sadly Rubes Thompstone, Brian Gordon, John Hart and Rowan Turner clearly don't get it. If any are your local councillor and you are inclined to vote Tory, please consider their actions. Salinger and Braun displayed a modicum of human decency. As this blog covers the council election, this will be remembered. We hope that all voters consider this when casting their vote.