When scrutiny becomes excruciating

Written by Cllr John Baldwin


I know that to many of you the inner workings of your Council must seem arcane and deeply uninteresting.  So, the thought of reading a blog about a meeting of the Adults, Children and Health Overview and Scrutiny Panel on the 14th of May will fill you with dread.

But trust me, stick with it, ‘cos this one was a belter!

The run-up

Let me set the scene.  On the 30th of April, during a virtual meeting, over the furious objections of your Liberal Democrat and some independent councillors, the cabinet of RBWM voted, 9-0 to adopt a report recommending sweeping changes to the children’s centres, youth services and family resilience teams.  The document tried to dress up £600,000 of cuts as a ‘transformation’.

Undeterred by this predictable defeat, we carried on the fight to save these precious services and referred (‘called-in’, to use the jargon) the cabinet’s decision to the scrutiny panel.

That brings us to the evening of the 14th.

What happened next

The chairman of the panel, Cllr. Julian Sharpe (Con. Ascot & Sunninghill) started the show by outlining the purpose of the meeting, which he got wrong and the structure of the meeting, which he also got wrong.  Soon after this there was a heated discussion about the correct constitutional procedure.  Cllr. Stuart Carroll (Con. Boyn Hill), who is not even on the panel, performed a mini-coup and briefly took over the Chair to begrudgingly accept that we were right, and the real Chairman was, err… not!

So, with the world temporarily righted, the five signatories to the call-in* laid out their case which was that the decision was legally unsafe, it violated existing council policy, it was a corruption of best practice, it was based on a flawed Equality Impact Assessment and the report was riddled with contradictions and errors.

The Bobby in the shower moment

Now it was ‘their’ turn.  And that is when the really crazy stuff began — as if in an ultra-vivid dream, everything was no longer as it once was!

According to the Tories, it turns out that nothing had been decided at all on the 30th of April.  They voted 9-0 not to do anything —it was as if that whole virtual meeting literally never happened!

Yes the cabinet sat, yes the paper was discussed, yes the paper had an implementation timetable, yes the paper identified by name the centres that would close, yes the paper enumerated the savings and the redundancies and yes the cabinet knowingly voted to accept it all.  But all along it was just the beginning and not the end!  Or was it the middle and not the beginning? Or the end and not the middle?  No-one seemed to know anymore!  The Tories did not seem to care!

And here is where the serious stuff starts.  Because of course it is not funny.  The Conservatives have made a mess of this and they needed to cover it up.  That is why they tried to circumvent the constitution and close off the debate.  That is why a lead councillor, who was only an invitee, had to take over from a Chairman who had completely lost the plot.  That is why the remaining Cabinet members were furiously messaging the empanelled Conservatives with ever wilder advice.

Yet all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Look over there!

So, they turned to the officers.  After thirteen long years of what the Tories call ‘efficiencies’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘innovation’ and the rest of us call cuts, there are precious few of those left.

Vital services have been outsourced and contracts rewarded to multi-national corporations.  The few employees who remain are keenly aware that the axe might fall upon their necks at any time.

After a little prompting from Cllr. John Story (Con. Ascot & Sunninghill) a succession of officers went along with the dream theme.  The agony of their dilemma was written on their faces.  It was a horrible sight to see.

We continued to try and point out the obvious, as too did one brave soul who was attending as a co-opted member of the panel.  He asked to be heard and the, by now, seriously rattled Chairman, failed to recognise him (they have met before!) and begrudgingly allowed him to speak, but didn’t grant him an answer, going straight to the vote instead.

Bizarrely the panel, which has a built-in Tory majority, then moved a motion to begin the whole process all over again.

Now this is what WE wanted all along!

So why didn’t they throw out our challenge?

Simply because the original report DID violate existing policy, it WAS a corruption of best practice, WAS based on a flawed Equality Impact Assessment, WAS riddled with contradictions and errors and it WAS legally unsafe – or would have been had it actually been a decision, which it apparently wasn’t!

They tacked on enough to cover their political rumps, which, once challenged by us, was the limit of their ambition.

What now?

Now they are out there, tweeting their nonsense about obstructionism.  However, what they hate is that, for the first time in far too long, there is a numerous, committed and engaged opposition holding them to account, under the leadership of Cllr. Simon Werner (Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green).

So, what did we win?  Well no-one needs to lose their job immediately, no centres will close immediately, and all the current services will continue to be delivered where people want them, close to home.  That took a lot of work, but it is worth it when you slow a dangerous runaway train.

Next?  We carry on our fight to protect universal services, delivered in local communities.

Not so dull after all, is it?

*Signatories

  • Cllr. John Baldwin, Lib Dem, Belmont
  • Cllr. Amy Tisi, Lib Dem, Clewer East
  • Cllr. Catherine del Campo, Lib Dem, Furze Platt
  • Cllr. Simon Werner, Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green
  • Cllr. Helen Price, tBF, Dedworth and Clewer West
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When scrutiny becomes excruciating

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