Thursday 24 April 2014
The choices that we make: Barnet Tories face the parents of Mapledown School
Hey, Barnet: leave our kids alone ... the mums from Mapledown: and pupil Liam Canavan
Of all the stories which this blog has covered over the last four years, perhaps the tale of Mapledown School is the most eloquent example of what is so badly wrong with the values of the Tory group which runs Barnet council.
As readers will know, within a week or so of boasting about a pre-election 'gesture' of a one percent council tax cut, worth around 23 pence a week to residents, our Tory councillors were admitting they had cut the funding for vital support services to families whose children attend Mapledown school for disabled children, near Brent Cross.
The funding was for after school clubs and half term schemes: the cuts, we were told, were unavoidable, due to lack of central funding.
The decision to forego council tax revenue which would have covered any shortfall, due to the need for the pre-election 'gesture' was something that, according to leader Richard Cornelius,'the average person in the street' would think was 'fair'.
And Cabinet member Reuben Thompstone, who has never been to Mapledown School, even though it is in his own ward, helpfully suggested:
“I would encourage the school to be more creative in some of the ways it raises money."
The fury which such statements unleashed not just amongst the parents of Mapledown, but in the wider community and in the media, appeared to have no impact on the Tory administration, other than a sense of bewilderment that anyone should object so dramatically to something that they consider to be so trivial, a footnote in a budget proposal, money saved to use elsewhere, of higher priority, such as their own allowance rise, or the unquestioned and ever increasing bills from the private consultancies still feasting off the One Barnet privatisation.
The Labour group called in the decision to impose these cuts, and this was the focus of last night's Budget Scrutiny meeting, chaired by Tory Hugh Rayner, attended by several parents, members of staff, and at least one pupil from Mapledown.
Rayner opened the meeting by warning us that we should not have unrealistic expectations of the meeting. The committee's powers were 'somewhat limited'. At best, they could - in theory at least - only vote to refer the decision back to CRC, the Cabinet Resources Committee that approved the cuts in the first place.
Some public questions had been submitted. Councillor Thompstone sat stiffly at the front, obliged at last to confront the reality of his policy in the form of the effect on real people, in the real world. It must have been a deeply uncomfortable experience.
Kristine Canavan speaks to the committee, as Cllr Reuben Thompstone looks on
Kristine Canavan, mother of Liam, who is a pupil at Mapledown, and was present at the meeting in his wheelchair, had asked why, if central government had imposed a 6% cut in funding, had Barnet Council taken a 25% cut from the Mapledown budget?
An officer was wheeled out to respond. Bla bla bla: in summary the excuse was the cut reflected Barnet's own agenda of 'efficiencies' and had little to do with government policy.
Parent Tina Kwabi asked why Reuben Thompstone had not visited Mapledown before the cuts were proposed? Answer the school was due for a visit.
(In fact, Thompstone and leader Cornelius are now invited to visit in the near future, and Mrs Angry sincerely hopes that this will be a useful learning experience for them).
Jill Eden, parent - did the Council consult the parents before the decision was taken, in regard to the impact on them?
The response claimed that yes, in regard to - ah, 'budget proposals' the council had consulted with residents, schools, 'contracted providers' and 'other stakeholders' ... you will note the absence of the term 'parents' in that list. Because this was a broad based 'consultation', and the parents of Mapledown do not register very highly on the list of 'stakeholders' when it comes to general budget proposals.
The last question was interesting, from parent Teresa Bull.
What would be the real impact of these cuts, in terms of the subsequent demands on other resources? No sensible response, just a load of guff about meeting statutory responsibilities.
Teresa suggested it was impossible to quantify how the cuts will affect people in other ways, other than financial, that is. The Tory councillors looked on, bemused. The quantification of non financial effects is not something to which they give much thought, in truth. The stress laid on parents, said Teresa ... the effect on their health ...
Ah: cost effectiveness in terms of a burden on health or social care budgets ... this turned on a glimmer of understanding in our Tory councillors.
You mean, summarised the Chair, that cuts here lead to expense elsewhere?
Now they were beginning to pay attention.
Sarah Sackman sat at the table to address the meeting on behalf of Mapledown parents. She is a barrister, and has acted locally in the case of the occupied library, and of course is also the Labour parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.
In what capacity are you here, asked Tory Cllr Brian Salinger? Are you legally engaged? No, not here in her professional capacity, she replied. Clearly there was a suspicion as to her motives. Showing a natural sense of outrage and support for the children of Mapledown is another idea not easily understood by the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet.
Sarah tried to explain how the impact of the cuts on the families of those attending the school. It is not just the pupils themselves who are affected, because the after school support gives the opportunity for the parents and other siblings to spend time together. These parents spend so many long hours a day caring for their disabled children: the cuts were a false economy because withdrawing such a service makes those parents less able to cope, and creates further demand on resources.
The government, she reminded the committee, has recognised the value of short break care, and set aside its own funding for such purposes: why then was Barnet Council cutting its own funding for this sort of invaluable support? Why not look for alternative funding within its own budget - by cutting councillors' allowances, for example, Barnet First magazine, or even the public health budget?
Time for councillors' questions for Sarah Sackman.
Councillor John Hart was unmoved.
He suggested that the support which was at stake was only one of a number of 'nice things' that must necessarily face the chop.
He recommended 'self help'.
Perhaps you can imagine how well that went down with the exhausted parents sitting in the room, worn down by the relentless responsibility of caring for their severely disabled children.
It was, we were told, all about 'the choices that we make' ...
Of course our Tory councillors seem to have forgotten, or perhaps simply do not care, that although most of us who are parents choose to have children, no one chooses to have a child with disabilities.
Sarah reminded Hart that these schemes are not 'nice things'. For the parents sitting behind her, they are a necessity. As for choices: the budget cuts clearly were political choices.
Brian Salinger, who has a disabled son, said he did understand parents' feelings, but he also understood the constraints on finances. As to allowances, he did not claim all of his, he said, could the same be said about the Labour councillors?
You are an independently wealthy landlord, observed Labour's deputy leader, Barry Rawlings.
Libdem leader Jack Cohen asked if the parents, governors and staff off Mapledown were consulted in November, when the decision had been made?
No, replied the parents in the committee room. Sarah pointed out that parents were not consulted as they could not have known about the proposed 27% cuts in support. Parents responsible for severely disabled children do not have the luxury of spare time to browse the council's website for budget information, and notice such proposals tucked away in obscure reports.
And now it was time for Kristine Canavan to address the committee.
You can watch her here: if you can bear it. You can hear her son calling to her across the room, as she speaks.
You will probably find it incredibly moving.
And if you are moved by this, you are clearly not suited to the role of a Conservative member of Barnet Council, and you may congratulate yourself on the measure of your own humanity, and pity those cold hearted Tories who sat there, indifferently, and later voted to ignore everything she said.
Or worse, the next day, made the most offensive comments in the local press - see here :
Because Cllr John Hart, who did not vote to refer the cuts decision back to CRC, explained to the Barnet Press:
“Why should I?
We need to make economies.
My brother was disabled and there was nothing available for him when he was a boy.
I suggested there are other ways to raise the money.
People are too used to handouts nowadays.”
With quiet dignity, Kristine Canavan tried to explain the meaning of respite care, and tell the councillors what a lifeline it was. It gives time to recharge, she said - to prepare for the unpredictable.
She listed the multitude of problems that her son Liam has, and the challenges he and she have faced in his thirteen years of life: the consequences of a genetic syndrome, and cancer, the difficulties with mobility and visual impairment; the tendency to self harm.
Her daily life as a parent to Liam she described as walking in a minefield: a routine of endless medication, interrupted sleep, temper tantrums, dealing with soiled linen, dealing with an unwell child who is unable to communicate the problem when something is wrong - to say that she has time for 'fundraising', she said, is insulting.
Struggling to cope, for her the after school care was vital: what a difference it made. The support was from trained professionals, who know the children: the staff at Mapledown are outstanding. She is not able to afford the non subsidised care which would replace this care. She asked the councillors, some of whom, notably, were refusing to look at her while she spoke, to reconsider their decision.
We are real people, she said, who love our children, and want to care for them as long as possible: parents need these breaks, and the children themselves need them too ... and then Kristine concluded with that truest of observations ... a society's measure is by how it treats its weakest members.
How we treat our weakest members. Here in Broken Barnet, sadly, we do not consider the needs of our most vulnerable residents to have the same importance as the needs of able bodied, and the already priviliged members of society have a weight of influence and a voice denied to those less fortunate.
As Cllr Davey constantly reminds us, in this borough we want only the well off, and those who do not depend on council services. Or, as Councillor John Hart said today, those who do not demand 'handouts'.
Barry Rawlings, who had called in the Mapledown decision, thanked Kristine for coming.
The Chair wondered aloud about the practicalities of the funding, how the subsidy worked. Then: why, he asked, could the school not use its reserves to do this?
The parents and staff were furious.
In a particularly ill judged letter to the local Times paper, in defence of his cuts, Reuben Thompstone had made a similar jibe, blaming the school for expecting to fund the support:
... with over £100,000 in Mapledown School’s reserve account, it is for the school to determine how best to use their resources for those they serve.
Mapledown's head teacher, Steve Carroll explained later to the councillors, including Thompstone, who should already have known this, as should the officer advising him, that the school is not allowed to use its reserves in this way.
If the school could afford it, he said, we wouldn't be here.
As for being 'more creative', he said, as Cllr Thompstone had demanded: he had spent untold hours raising around £200,000 for the school.
Tory Cllr Maureen Braun regarded Mr Carroll impassively, as she munched on a biscuit.
The gaffe about school reserves by the Cabinet member demonstrates perfectly the total lack of grasp he has on his field of responsibility, and is yet another example, as in the case of Tom Davey, of someone too inexperienced for their post.
Barry Rawlings pointed out that the funding was available to the council, and had been in the Labour budget. There was no reason now, anyway, to refuse to look at the matter again.
Thompstone (or Councillor Reubens, as the Chair kept referring to him) sat at the table next. He has a deadpan expression, and tone of voice, which chunders on and on in the same antipodean drawl, delivered with a pomposity which belies his relative youth, and was received with a less than rapturous welcome from parents and residents alike, who began heckling him.
The Chair tried to intervene, looking sternly at the blogging corner, occupied by Mrs Angry and Mr Tichborne, who took absolutely no notice and carried on regardless, in time honoured fashion.
Thompstone did not exactly help his position. The report, he thought, was a good one. He talked about tough decisions. He made sneering references to 'Labour candidates'. The Chair asked him to address the real issues of concern, but clearly this was not on his agenda, and he was hopelessly out of his depth.
Difficult, of course, to have to defend cuts to a disabled school's vital respite care scheme but then: that is what happens when you make cuts to a disabled school's vital respite care scheme, straight after trying to pull of a pointless political tax cutting stunt for your disaffected voters, weeks before an election.
Jack Cohen had some questions for Thompstone. Had the cuts been made simply because of a political will to reduce budgets? No.
Had he seen the written answers to the limited consultation there had been? I saw a summary of responses, he said. Not individual ones. Why not? It would be prejudicial.
This last response provoked no little outrage in the public gallery, as you may imagine. Clearly Barnet Tories are not comfortable with the concept of consultation, but to avoid looking at the results for fear of being influenced by residents' views is a step beyond the normal line of retreat from reality. Or as Jack put it:
When you consult, you don't look at the answers?
I think you already knew that, Jack, didn't you?
How can you fight your corner, he asked?
At this point, an angry father from Mapledown who had come right to the front to watch the councillors' faces as they tried to justify their actions, shouted at them: You are responsible!
Thompstone was stumped by the last question from Jack Cohen. Which corner was he talking about?
He seems to forget that being a councillor is meant to be about speaking for residents, rather than shutting them up: admittedly he has had a lot of experience shutting them up in the local Residents Forum, where he was Chair when the new rule of censorship was imposed.
Did you read the Equalities Impact Assessment?
Can you tell us about it?
Outside this meeting.
More outrage. Jack Cohen asked him to say, hand on heart, how he had advanced the interests of the pupils of Mapledown School. He pressed the question: Thompstone's first response was deemed lacking in courtesy by the Chair: he muttered something about maintaining significant something or other, clearly floundering: the angry father got up in disgust and stormed out, and who could blame him?
Councillor John Hart was aggrieved by the reference to allowance rises, and indeed attempted to blame the whole idea of allowances - and this was a refreshing departure - on Tony Blair ...
Brian Salinger mused on what was clearly a dilemma for him. As a parent who had faced similar challenges, and as a committed Conservative, loyal to his own principles. He said might vote to refer the matter back. Follow your conscience, suggested Mrs Angry, showing boundless optimism, and an element of naive expectation in the slightest possibility of a trace of conscience still remaining in the cold, cold heart of a Barnet Tory councillor.
And then Maureen Braun surprised us all. Normally a loyal enforcer of party discipline, she suddenly asked, blurting it out, as if not entirely sure of the answer:
Who is more vulnerable than these kids?
Labour councillors and two Tories, therefore, managed the impossible: to agree to refer the Mapledown cuts decision to the committee that sanctioned it. The two Tories who supported this vote, it should be noted were a parent of a disabled child, and a woman. Of the three who did not, two have no children, and the other is a man of professed religious orthodoxy, but apparently not moved by the spirit of compassion, in this instance.
One problem is that that committee will shortly no longer exist, as the authority is abandoning the Cabinet system. Another is that it will not prevent the cuts from being reaffirmed: a situation that is perfectly likely should the current administration be returned to power.
And lastly it should be noted that not only did the Chair not vote for the referral, three of his colleagues were conspicuous by their failure to support such a move: these were:
Councillor Brian Gordon, Hale Ward, standing in Edgware Ward this time, as Hale, where Rayner is standing, is likely to go to Labour. Edgware is looking more of a risk than previously thought.
Councillor John Hart, standing in Mill Hill, no longer the Tory stronghold it was, and now without the Libdem support it once enjoyed.
Councillor Rowan Quigley Turner, standing in marginal Underhill.
Councillor Reuben Thompstone is a councillor for Golders Green.
Remember their names, on May 22nd.
Harriet, a former pupil of Mapledown, and a much loved member of staff