Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Tea, scones or enlightenment: what are Tory councillors scared of?

Tomorrow the Jewish Community Housing Association (JCHA) will host tea parties at two of its sheltered housing schemes in Barnet. Councillors have been invited to go and find out more about the schemes and the role of the wardens. This is in the run-up to the Cabinet decision on 8 June whether or not to cut the budget for wardens by £950,000, effectively abolishing sheltered housing in Barnet.

JCHA are not the only group to have invited councillors; several schemes invited councillors to attend the official consultation meetings that Barnet's 'Supporting People' staff organised in the spring. As far as I know, no Conservative* councillors have accepted any such invitation. First, the Cabinet got Barnet staff to do its dirty work for it, presenting the cuts and feeling the full blast of residents' indignation; next, the Conservative councillors have ignored any chance of enlightenment on the issue.

If they are so sure the proposed cuts are right, why don't they go and explain why to residents and their relatives and friends? If they are not sure they are right, why don't they take their head out of the sand and avail themselves of the ample opportunities there have been to find out more, and so reach an informed opinion?

The JCHA have been wise enough to tell the wider world about the parties they are organising, so it has been hard for the council to ignore them. How has the council responded? In the most bureaucratic way you could imagine. Lynne Hillan - now Deputy Council Leader and Cabinet Member for Resources, formerly Cabinet member for community services - told the Hendon Times:
the organisation [JCHA] was acting "inappropriately".

She said: “As the association is a contractor to the council, I believe it is highly inappropriate that they should be so overtly political.”
Was that the best objection she could come up with? Why didn't she explain the proposed cuts? At the time, it was her department that would see them through.

This statement bears wider and yet more worrying implications. It shows us a future where a contract culture pervades all council services, as more and more third sector organisations and private companies bid to win contracts with the council. They will be treated as though they were all 'only in it for the money' when in fact many of them simply provide a service to vulnerable people, and should be expected to defend the value of that service above and beyond what's 'in it for them' as contractors. You would expect in-house service providers to stick up for their 'clients', wouldn't you? Why should it be any different for third sector organisations?

*I concern myself with Conservative councillors because Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the council are opposing the proposed cuts.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Who's for a spell in the naughty chair? Public question time, Cabinet meeting, 8 June

Back in December a few unsuspecting Barnet residents decided to avail themselves of the facility to put public questions (about the 'Future Shape' programme) to council leader Mike Freer at a Cabinet meeting. While 30 minutes is set aside for this at each meeting, it turns out that it is never needed.

First we squabbled with Democratic Services about what was the proper deadline for submitting questions, but once it was agreed that we had met the deadline, we turned up for an answer to our questions.

I had thought that we might be lucky if our questions were heard at all, as we had submitted very late on. I expected there to be a great long list of questions, with ours at the end. But, in fact, ours were the only questions and apparently it is extremely rare (as in, never happens) for questions to be put. I wonder whether that is because no one realises they can do it...

Or is it because a few unsuspecting individuals have tried and found it a chastening experience? We certainly did, not so much as to be deterred from doing it again, but it wasn't a barrel of laughs.

First you are called forward to a chair (my friend called it 'the naughty chair'); then Mike Freer (or the relevant Cabinet member) reads out the answer to your question. The question is not read out, it is printed on a piece of paper which any audience member might or might not connect with the answer they have just heard. Unless you have good shorthand skills or a recording device it is very hard to have any record of what the answer to your question was; although Freer has it written down in front of him, you can't have a copy of this for your own records. The questions and answers don't appear in the minutes, although they very easily could.

If you keep your nerve, and can think fast enough, and can work out how to use the microphone (not everyone is familiar with these devices), you can ask a supplementary question following on from what Freer has just told you. Then you get up, shuffle away from the chair and it's the next victim's turn. It's quite... er... humiliating. On one level this is to be expected. These were, after all, hostile questions - this is politics, we are political enemies (if that is not too strong a word). On another level, it is totally unacceptable. Provision exists to ask questions, but the way it is carried out, on the rare occasions it happens, negates any democratic content it might have.

And, by the way, I don't know how they would accommodate someone in a wheelchair in the tight space that leads to the naughty chair.

But don't be put off! The deadline for public questions to the Cabinet of 8 June that will take the decision on whether or not to cut the budgets for sheltered housing wardens and the Welfare Rights Unit (remember - they don't have to make these cuts!) is this Wednesday 27 May, at 10am. Email questions to David.Seabrooke@barnet.gov.uk. If you want more advice, email me at info@barnettuc.org.uk... or David Seabrooke!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Sheltered housing wardens: it's a cut, a cut they don't have to make

A lot of the propaganda for cutting Barnet's sheltered housing wardens focused on the 'unfairness' of spending more money on sheltered housing residents than on other elderly people in Barnet. The implication was always that money would be taken from sheltered housing and channelled instead into services that would benefit all of Barnet's elderly residents.

That's not true. Apart from the fact that it would be better to level up spending on the elderly rather than levelling down, the sheltered housing wardens cut is just that... a cut. I've written to the opposition asking them their opinion. I've also been looking again at the council documents.

It's a cut...
On pages 7-10 of the budget headlines 2009/10 you can see the proposed efficiencies/budget reductions/budget increases for adult social services. Under budget reductions you will see the proposed cut of £950,000 for sheltered housing. Under budget increases you will not see any proposed increase in spending on services for the elderly. That's because there isn't one. The sheltered housing wardens cut is a cut to services for the elderly, pure and simple.

Another document: on page 106 of the "Complete agenda and report pack" for the Cabinet meeting of 23 February (accessible here), scroll down to 'Service reductions' - there again is the sheltered housing cut. Page 107 shows a reduction in spending on 'Supporting People', which includes sheltered housing, compared to last year of £995,400. Overall, spending on 'older adults (over 65s)' will go down from £50,274,970 in 2008/9 to £48,436,250 in 2009/10, a reduction of £1,838,720.

I have had to revise this issue because of the confusion around it, even among campaigners for retaining wardens. At this late stage in the day it ought to be impossible for anyone to be in any doubt about what is proposed. But still we are.

That's why it was so wrong to cancel the May residents' forums: we had been going to put questions exactly clarifying these points to councillors and council officers, but we were prevented from doing so.

Again, the May council meeting had no space for public questions so gone was another chance to clarify matters. On the eve of Barnet's Tory councillors taking their decision, Barnet residents are still not sure what is being proposed. Is that deliberate? I don't know. Well, whether it's deliberate or merely unfortunate, I know that it's plain wrong.

It's a cut they don't have to make...
Revising the documents again, I am reminded that the council doesn't have to make this cut at all! The Cabinet passed the budget headlines at its meeting in February, but it included a contingency, based on the lower than expected inflation rate, in case, after consultation, they decided not to make the cut.

On page 8 of the "Cabinet's Report to Council Meeting on 3 March" (accessible here) it explains:
Consultation on Sheltered Accommodation and Welfare Rights Service

Extensive consultation on the proposal for sheltered accommodation had started on 9 February 2009. The results of this consultation, together with Welfare Rights Consultation, would be presented to Cabinet when completed for full consideration and no decision will be confirmed pending the results of the consultation. However, whilst there was no change to the Budget Headline savings of £0.95m and £0.18m, the £1.4m central contingency provision provided by the 0.5% reduction in inflation would be available if these savings were not implemented and no alternative proposals could be identified.
Yes, to reiterate, they don't have to make this cut at all. You can still join the campaign to make them see sense and drop the proposal, email wardens@barnettuc.org.uk to get in touch.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Sheltered housing: Press goes our way

There's been good press coverage of the march and protest against proposed sheltered housing warden cuts in Barnet.

For the march through Barnet council leader Mike Freer's Finchley ward on Saturday 9 May see Hendon Times and Inside Housing.

For the Barnet annual council meeting protest on Tuesday 19 May see Barnet Press and Hendon Times.

And here's today's editorial from the Barnet Press:
Drop plans to scrap the wardens service

The Barnet Community Campaigners have given Barnet councillors an idea about the strength of feeling over plans to scrap the sheltered housing wardens scheme.

They have done well to collect more than 1,600 signatures from the residents themselves as well as their loved ones.

Everyone is tightening their belts at the moment, but there are ways of saving money so that people who provide such an important frontline service do not become victims of cutbacks. It is high time plans to scrap the wardens service are discarded.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Report of the sheltered housing protest, Hendon Town Hall, 19 May

I'm posting a few pictures from the protest tonight outside Hendon Town Hall, against Barnet council's proposal to cut the sheltered housing wardens. The occasion was Barnet council's annual meeting, a ticket-only affair, with a mere dozen members of the public admitted as witnesses.

Inside, Brian Coleman was sworn in as the new mayor, and immediately dignified his office by having a go at Barnet's handful of bloggers whom he accused of disparaging councillors, council officers, etc. Someone tell the first citizen of Barnet that it's called democracy. We only report what happens. If you don't want people to read bad things about you, Mayor Coleman, don't do bad things.

Outside, a group of elderly residents from sheltered housing schemes in the borough and their relatives and supporters gathered, we numbered about 80 at the height of the protest. A small delegation went into the town hall to present a petition with more than 1,600 signatures on it to the outgoing mayor John Marshall.

The campaign continues: campaign meeting next week, email wardens@barnettuc.org.uk for details. Date for your diary: Barnet council cabinet meeting on Monday 8 June that will take the decision on whether or not to cut the wardens and the Welfare Rights Unit.

David Cameron urges residents to sign a petition

Apparently Barnet's mayor designate, Brian Coleman, is sceptical about the value of petitions and ignores them when he gets them. It's just as well, then, that Barnet residents will be handing their petition against the proposed sheltered housing warden cuts not to him but to the current mayor John Marshall, tonight, before the council's annual meeting.

A small delegation from the protest outside Hendon Town Hall (5.30-8pm) will be ushered inside briefly to present the petition. Mayor designate will be in his chambers on the first floor getting ready for his big night.

It'd be interesting to find out the extra cost of hosting tonight's meeting and mayor's reception at the photogenic town hall, in the middle of building work, rather than at Barnet House, Whetstone which has been good enough for council meetings up to tonight and presumably after tonight. I feel my first Freedom of Information Act request coming on.

In dismissing petitions Coleman is out of step with his party leader David Cameron who today on Radio 4's "Today" programme was urging Britons to use any tool of local, grassroots democracy they can lay hands on to get their point across. OK, he was talking about them asking for a prompt general election, not mounting a defence of sheltered housing for the elderly, but the idea is there! This is how the BBC reports him:
The Conservative leader urged party supporters campaigning in next month's European and English council elections to start collecting signatures for a petition calling for an immediate general election.

"I want as many people as possible, whether you support Labour or the Lib Dems or no party at all to join in," Mr Cameron said. "Write to your local paper, write to a national newspaper - start your own petition. From the power of our collective pressure we can force Gordon Brown to act."
Let's hear it for the power of collective pressure! I find myself agreeing with the leader of the Conservative party for, probably, the first and, I trust, the last time in my life.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Spoiling the council's party? Where's our invitation?!

For some weeks I have had delicate negotiations with the police and Barnet council as I help to organise protests against the proposed sheltered housing cuts.

All of the parties involved acknowledge that, in theory, sheltered housing residents and their supporters have a right to demonstrate their anger and to seek to change the council's mind. Some people, though, would rather they didn't exercise that right - the protests are inconvenient, in an administrative sense and, increasingly, in a political sense.

The police have been the least obstructive, which is impressive, considering that it's them that have to police the protests. Council staff have all been polite but you can sometimes hear the politicians breathing down their neck in the background.

Personally, I am not pushy and have to keep reminding myself of some basic principles so that I stick to my guns.

Yes, Barnet council organised a consultation over the warden cuts. But they would rather ignore the results which, I suspect, show overwhelming opposition. In that case, then, we have to organise political actions that will show the depth of opposition, and make politicians change their minds. Politicians? They are politiicans still, aren't they, Barnet's Conservative councillors, who finally will have the say on whether these cuts go ahead?

When we have our protest outside the annual council meeting next Tuesday 19 May, 6pm, Hendon Town Hall, where invited guests will witness Brian Coleman being sworn in as Barnet's next mayor (!), let's consider how that will look, politically.

The vast majority of the sheltered housing residents, their relatives and friends, are angry and upset; probably the majority of Barnet residents think that cutting the wardens is a lousy idea. The motivation behind the cuts is to save money, not improve the service or increase equality, and most Barnet residents could think of better ways to do that if we have to.

Yet the residents are forced onto the streets to protest, while Barnet's Tory politicians throw what amounts to a party to celebrate the swearing in as mayor of a councillor who is widely despised, even by members of his own party. Remind yourself what the mayor does: it is not just a ceremonial role, but important for the safeguarding of local democracy. Do you believe that Brian Coleman is capable of doing this job?

On Tuesday, after wrangling, we have won the concession that a small contingent of residents will be allowed into their own town hall to present a petition against the cuts to the outgoing mayor. A few lucky souls, sworn to behave themselves, will be allowed into the meeting itself (masochists only need apply). I don't swear very often - in print - but you have to ask yourself whose bloody council this is! And I have to say to Tories, politically, it doesn't look good.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

March to save sheltered housing wardens, Finchley Church End ward, Saturday 9 May

Today's march through Barnet council leader Mike Freer's ward, to defend sheltered housing wardens, passed off well. It had taken a while to get police permission and so we only had two weeks to publicise it, during which I spent two spells away. Nevertheless, 150 people came, of all ages and backgrounds, the vast majority of them sheltered housing scheme residents and their relatives and friends.

The march was organised by Barnet Community Campaign and supported by Barnet trades council.We gave out leaflets to the public as we walked from Finchley Central tube to Victoria Park, where we held an inpromptu rally on the grass outside the park. Andrew Dismore MP who has spoken well in Parliament on the wardens issue was there. I don't always agree with Andrew (that's putting it mildly) but it would be churlish to begrudge him some limelight on this issue. Labour group leader Alison Moore has supported the campaign as well.

But the day belonged to the residents. The Hendon Times interviewed a number of them - while the picture on their website perhaps concentrates too much on the MP for Hendon! The turnout today convinces me that a more joined-up campaign against warden cuts around the country, with proper press attention, could not have failed - is it too late to save wardens in Barnet and elsewhere?

Our campaign continues through contacting councillors, council leader Mike Freer in particular. There will also be a lobby of the annual council meeting on Tuesday 19 May, from 6pm at Hendon Town Hall. Campaigners will hand in their petition to the new mayor Brian Coleman, who is reported to be sceptical about the value of petitions. I hope we can serve it up in a way that will have an impact.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Sheltered housing: a national battle being fought council by council

If a national debate had been held on the fate of sheltered housing for the elderly, the cuts that are happening around the country could never have gone ahead! Why? Because the vast majority of people want to retain sheltered housing.

Instead, we are having to fight council by council to save sheltered housing, with barely a word about it in the national press. Cuts have gone through in some areas, in a few places, notably Brighton and Hove, they have been fended off, in Barnet we are still battling.

Join our march this Saturday, if you can, or send messges of support to wardens@barnettuc.org.uk.

Saturday 9 May, assemble: 11.30am, Finchley Central tube for a short march through Finchley Church End ward, represented by Barnet council leader Mike Freer, to Victoria Park. Barnet still needs wardens!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Suddenly everyone cares...

There's not an election in the offing, is there? Stupid, I know there is. A poll card dropped through my letter box this morning followed shortly after by a newsletter from NHS Barnet and a newsletter from the Met's Burnt Oak Team.

I particularly enjoyed this passage from the police newsletter:
Officers then searched the store and its surrounding area and as a result there was a very positive outcome. In the alleyway behind the store PC Gunnell found three large bags of cannabis.
Yes, it would make my day too. (Only joking... never touch the stuff.)

And, of course, last Friday there was that Important Message From The Leader of Barnet Council. Whatever the merits and demerits of the case he makes about stroke services, the assiduous delivery of this letter (when I haven't seen Barnet First for a year), coinciding with an article about it on the front page of the Barnet Press, can only be interpreted as a blatant piece of PR mongering on behalf of Mike Freer.

Of course, he is not standing in the European elections or a council by-election; he has a longer term ambition. But the day when he'll know whether the ripe plum of a Westminster seat is about to drop into his lap draws nearer. Only the voters of Barnet (well, Finchley and Golders Green, actually) can stop him sinking his teeth into its soft, juicy flesh...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

No politics please, we're in an election period? Sheltered housing march, Saturday 9 May

I have just been compiling dates for the May residents forums and information on how people might submit questions. I was going to send this out to friends of the campaign to save the sheltered housing wardens. Then I received an email from Barnet council democratic services:
Cancellation of Resident Forums: 11, 12 & 13 May 2009

I write to inform you that due the Totteridge and Edgware By-elections and the Elections to the European Parliament on 4 June 2009, the Residents Forum meetings scheduled to take place in May have been cancelled. Items that have been submitted for those meetings will go forward to the Residents Forum meetings scheduled for June.
Of course, I emailed back expressing my dissatisfaction and received this prompt response:
Yes I know – some pressing issues were going to be raised and I suspect that many residents will be slightly unhappy, it would seem that the June forum will be loaded with issues as well. However discussion or promotion of politics is not allowed in particular during this period especially at forums.
Rules is rules (although this does seem to be one of the more absurd).

This makes the march this Saturday 9 May, to defend the sheltered housing wardens scheme, more important than ever: assemble 11.30am in front of Finchley Central station. We will march to Victoria Park: that's not far, but we hope that many sheltered housing residents will be on the march - distance is not so important as holding this protest at all.

Please attend, please let people know about it; and if you would like more details please email wardens@barnettuc.org.uk.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A big win for Visteon workers and lessons for all on May Day

News arrives that the Visteon workers from Basildon, Belfast and Enfield, made redundant without notice when Visteon UK went into receivership, have scored a big win in return for their month of hard campaigning.

According to the Basildon Recorder, the 600+ workers, instead of receiving NOTHING in the way of redundancy pay, which was what they were offered at the start, have now been offered
three months pay in lieu for redundancy and 52 weeks salary. There will also be a week’s salary for every year served by workers aged 41 or under, or one-and-a-half week’s salary for every year served by workers aged over 41.
Their union, Unite, is pledged to fight on for the pensions money that many have lost and which is not part of the offer. Ballots at Enfield and Basildon plants seem overwhelmingly to have accepted the deal; a ballot at Belfast on Sunday is likely to accept as well, although there people are more likely to be worried about their chances of finding another job.

What lessons can we draw from this episode?

(1) Don't lie down and let people walk all over you, even (perhaps especially) in a recession - stand up for yourself and you might get something.

(2) Solidarity is powerful: from the start, the workers got important support and sympathy from other trade unionists and campaigners. Their threat to go to the Bridgend plant of Ford (Visteon was a spin-off from Ford, and Visteon workers were guaranteed Ford mirror contracts) to ask for solidarity action seems to have been decisive in getting Visteon and Ford to negotiate in good faith.

(3) Grassroots organisation is vital: if the workers that were immediately affected had been more organised they would not have had to rely so much on union officials who were slow, perhaps even reluctant, to mobilise in the early days.

Let's celebrate this victory. Ordinary people should not be expected to pay and pay for a crisis that they did not make. Oh, and happy 1st May: international workers' day.