Friday 17 November 2017

Councillor Reuben Thompstone - The worst committee chair in Barnet?

Councillor Reuben Thompstone
Cllr Thompstone
Councillor Reuben Thompstone is the chair of the Children, Education, Libraries & Safeguarding Committee for Barnet Council. In return for this, he receives a Special responsibility allowance of £15,333 on top of the ten grand basic allowance he gets as a councillor.

This Committee has a wide range of responsibilities, which include:

·         Planning the adequate  provision of school places in the Borough
·         Investment in educational infrastructure;
·         The Library Service
·         Cultural activities
·         Powers, duties and functions of the Council in relation to Children’s Services (including schools)
·         Approving the Children and Young People Plan

This Committee also leads on the Council’s responsibilities under the Children Act 2004 and Education and inspection Act 2007 to:

·         Oversee effective support for young people in care; and enhance the Council’s corporate parenting role
·         Oversee the multi-agency Youth Offending Team
·         Oversee the effective provision of support across partners for the well-being of vulnerable families - including the Troubled Families programme

The Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee is made up of Councillors and co-opted Members.  This Committee has three co-opted Voluntary Aided School Representatives to provide a faith perspective on education matters.

The Committee also has two Parent governor representatives elected by other parent governors to represent the views of all parents on decisions relating to education.

I think most people would agree that this is an important role and that it deserves a chairman who is competent and takes the role seriously. Firstly lets consider what the role of a councillor is. Councillors are elected by the voters in their ward as representatives to ensure that the organisation is run in the interests of the voters, taxpayers and residents. They are expected to ensure that the paid officers do their jobs and that their is proper democratic oversight. Council meetings are held in public, so that anyone who is interested can see that everything is being run in above board fashion. The constitution of the council allows for residents to ask questions at meetings, make representations and present petitions. The constitution allows for a maximum of half an hour for this at meetings.

There is a very sensible reason for this. Councillors are meant to represent residents and this half an hour allows for residents to have their say. Regardless of whether councillors agree with what members of the public have to say, if they are doing their job properly, they listen with respect and if there are genuine issues, they should do their best to address these issues.

The role of the chair of the committee is to ensure that the meeting is run effectively. A primary role is to ensure that when members of the public interact with the committee, their concerns are addressed. Members of the public, who give up their time to address the committee do so out of a public spirited desire for the council to conduct their business in a proper manner.

I've asked questions on many occasions, presented petitions and addressed committees. Whenever I have done this, it has been because I felt the council needed to address serious issues. Unlike councillors, I don't get paid to do this. I get nothing at all out of the experience, except on occasion something to say in a blog. Most of the people who ask questions don't even get to write a  blog. They just care. One example of such a person is Gerrard Roots. Gerrard asked a question to the CELS committee on Wednesday night. Mr Roots was formerly the curator of Church Farmhouse Museum.  He dedicated his working life to the culture of our Borough and is clearly a man with a great wealth of knowledge and a huge interest in the cultural life of the Borough. He curated many exhibitions of great value to the people of the Borough and during his tenure, he built the reputation of Church Farmhouse as a highly innovative museum. many of the exhibitions were featured in TV and radio articles. I first got to know Mr Roots when the museum featured an exhibition about popular music in the Borough ( .
Our studio contributed many exhibits. Other excellent exhibitions I recall were ones such as the one of photography of the Spanish Civil War, the Harry Beck London Transport Exhibiton and the one LGBT culture in the Borough.

He is a very well respected member of the local community and he asked a question about the meeting held to put together a bid for the Barnet bid for London Borough of Culture, which was mentioned in the meeting Agenda reports pack - I would have expected Mr Roots to be a prime contact to attend such a meeting, given his wealth of knowledge, contacts and history of working in arts and culture in the Borough.
"Please give me a complete list of those 100 or so individuals and organizations invited to the workshop held in July, and the names of those who actually attended. Please tell me, too, the name of the 'outside facilitator' who convened the workshop. In addition, please give me a complete list of the individuals and organizations who participated in the follow-up workshop held on 9 November."

The response Mr Roots received was as follows

The request for information will need to be assessed through the Information Management Team due to the provisions in legislation, Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998. 
For further information and to make a freedom of information request please visit the following webpage:
I was present for the meeting. Mr Roots used the opportunity to ask a supplimentary question. What ensured was perhaps the worst example of how a chair should behave I have ever seen. Mr Roots was rightly upset that he'd received a complete non answer. As a very minimum, given the huge sum Councillor Thompstone is paid as a committee chair, I would expect him to read answers to questions and to challenge the officers if a non answer is given. Mr Roots asked why he'd received a non answer. It was clear what information was required. The council could redact any individuals name that they wished. He asked for the individuals and the organisations. There is no reason why a list of the organisations asked couldn't be provided. I personally cannot see why there is any privacy issue in regards to individuals attending if they are representing an organisation at a council run meeting, however they could have said "A representative from Brent Cross shopping centre" had they wished.

The organisations represented included Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group, CommUNITY Barnet, Barnet and Southgate College, Middlesex University, Brent Cross shopping centre,
Metropolitan Police, Job Centre Plus, Groundwork London, Federation of Small Businesses, West London Business, Argent Related and Saracens, according to the report.

I would have expected those attending to be aware that the council has an openness and transparency policy and that they should have been informed that their names may be made public. Given that a bid for London Borough of Culture is a positive and good thing to do, any individual should welcome the opportunity to be named as a represenatative. It seems ironic that Mr Roots name has appeared on the council website, when names of people attending a meeting, which I believe should be open and transparent is deemed "Private".

In short, the official rather than helping a resident with a valid question, were as obstructive as possible. Mr Roots was simply told he had to issue an FoI request. Given that the council were discussing the bid, councillors and members of the public had no opportunity to actually find out who had been engaged. Not only that but Councillor Thompstone, rather than standing up for a taxpaying resident with a genuine interest in culture, rudely dismissed Mr Roots, once it was clear that the officer was not interested in answering.

I also spoke at the meeting. I had previously emailed all of the councillors, to make what I believe were helpful suggestions. Mr Thompstone did not acknowledge my email. When I spoke, he did not welcome me or thank me. I was polite and I believe my input could only be construed as constructive, even if he didn't agree at all with what I was saying. I may be old fashioned, but I detest bad manners. I had put myself out to attend his committee and make a positive input to a process which should be good for Barnet. Councillor Thompstone treated me with complete contempt. Now you may think that he simply sees me as a trouble making political opponent. If he does, he clearly didn't read my email or listen to what I had to say. If he isn't doing that, then he's really not doing his job.

My mind went back to when I addressed the Audit Committee chaired by Hugh Rayner in September. I also made a statement at that meeting (as did fellow blogger John Dix). It was a difficult meeting for Cllr Rayner. However, he made a point of thanking myself and John after and assurring us that he was listening to our comments and taking them on board. He also thanked us for our efforts. Whilst I disagree with Hugh on many political issues, I respect him and think he is a decent chairman. He clearly recognises the rights of residents and the value of engagement. He also was quite happy to challenge Capita and demonstrate leadership in his role.

Sadly Councillor Thompstone is the opposite. As well as Mr Roots, fellow blogger Theresa Musgrove and Local campaigner Barbara Jacobson also asked questions. Mr Thompstone repeatedly interrupted Ms Musgrove, hectoring her saying "have you actually got a question". Ms Jacobson was treated with equal contempt. Councillor Thompstone answered no questions. He simply asked officers to respond. That is not what a char should do, especially when officers are not providing answers.

We then had a lady presenting a petition on School funding. Labour Councillors asked for Councillor Thompstone to write to the Secretary of State for education to ensure that Barnet does not lose out when the new funding arrangements are introduced. Councillor Thompstone asked the lead officer to explain what he was doing in this respect. A cross London organisation of Boroughs is working to make the case. The officer felt that his was a good forum to apply pressure. Labour members agreed, but asked if he could also write to the secretary of state, to specifically make the case for Barnet. Councillor Thompstone refused. I was quite shocked. As a Conservative Council, with many outstanding schools, Councillor Thompstone is ideally placed to try and get a good deal for Barnet pupils. Tory Councillors across London are doing just this. Sadly Councillor Thompstone, the man responsible for education in Barnet, does not think it is necessary to try and work for a better deal.

It may amuse you to know that I was out for a few beers with a mate of mine last night, who is a Tory Councillor in Bedfordshire. He was telling me that he's currently furiously lobbying the Tory government about changes to the rail service, which will adversely affect his ward and the residents who elected him. This is what good councillors do. I've attended most of the committees of Barnet Council. It is clear to me that of all of these, Thompstone is the worst chair (IMHO). Not only is he rude, but he doesn't take responsibility, doesn't listen and is cowardly. Failing to write to the secretary of state to defend Barnet Schools is a shocking dereliction of duty. He gave no reason other than "I am not into political grandstanding". If Councillor Thompstone is unable to write a letter to the secretary of state for Education which lays out good reasons why schools in Barnet need to have their funding protected, then he is not up to the job and should let someone who will take responsibility do the job. If he thinks standing up for pupils and schools is "grandstanding" then lord help us. I have a vested interest in this. I am the chair of a trust which is responsible for raising funding for one of Barnets top schools. I have seen first hand just how devastating the current financial position of schools is becoming. When flagship schools, which are in the list of top schools in the country can't balance the books, something is seriously wrong.

During the meeting, perhaps the most useful input came from Councillor Helena Hart. She is a long standing Tory councillor who clearly takes her role seriously. She is chair of the Health and Wellbeing board and is an excellent councillor. It is no surprise to me that Barnet failed an OFSTED inspection for childrens services when they let a buffoon like Thompstone run the committee. If I was the Leader of The Council, I'd promote Helena Hart to the job. She would do the job properly and I would have no material for blogs like this. But sadly in the London Borough of Barnet, being good at your job means nothing when the allowances are dished out. These committee chair roles are simply used as a mechanism to dish out taxpayer funded allowances to political allies.

The only quality Thompstone demonstrated that could possibly justify his role is the fact that he's clearly an excellent brown noser, who wants to stay in with his political masters. He clearly thinks writing to the secretary of state to defend Barnet schools is a bad career move as he plots his political career. Sadly he is too dim to realise that if he makes a good case, he will come to the attention of the high fliers and will be seen as a man who can do tough jobs.

I will wrap this up with a question about leadership. Who was the greatest ever Tory Prime Minister? My vote would be for Winston Churchill. Churchill was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs, he was fearless. What do you think Churchill would have made of a spineless individual, unprepared to stand up for the students who he is responsible for educating? I doubt that Thompstone would have got on in Churchills Tory party. Sadly though, things are done rather differently in Barnet.

1 comment:

Mr Mustard said...

Gerard Roots has in law actually asked an FOI request when he made the request in writing, from an identified indivdual for factual information held by the council. The council could answer it as business as usual (BAU as they are fond of writing) or bumped it into the FOI system and told Gerard that they had done so & that he would have his reply within 20 working days. He does not have to make a new request to the FOI team as requests can be served on any employee of the council and this one already had been. I would expect the member of staff who prepares answers to public questions to know this.