Wednesday 2 February 2011

Local Tories Preferred Boozing Instead Of Scrutinising H&F Councils 2011/12 Budget – What Were They Trying To Hide?

The biggest areas of H&F Council’s budget are in adult social care and housing. If you add in the overlap with the health services then the Select Committee charged with looking into this year’s budget (see page 88) in those departments had an awesome responsibility… At least that’s what most reasonable people would think. So why did the Conservative Committee Chair only allow a mere fifteen minutes for his committee to question officials about the sixty page budget document – most of which is page after page of detailed figures?

Cllr. Andrew Johnson (Con), the Chair of the Borough’s Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee, arrived at the last meeting five minutes late. He had already arranged that two other weighty items were on the agenda prior to his Administration’s budget. But he then announced that there would be a special addition at the front of the agenda. That would be on swine flu vaccines.

It quickly transpired that this extra item was a consequence of this report I had posted on the 5th January. So the Conservative Administration wheeled out Dr David McCoy, who is the Borough’s NHS’s Director of Public Health. He gave a very informative presentation about how vaccines are ordered, showed graphs about influenza infections over recent years and explained how the vaccine is shared out locally. He even mentioned that he had read my piece so I asked him if his people had phoned round local GPs, how many had ran out of flu vaccine in the Borough and what was the problem with my surgery? He said they hadn’t done a survey and didn’t have that information but no GP had reported their lack of vaccine to the centre. So while, it was very nice to hear from an independent, non-political expert such as Dr. McCoy it didn’t shed any light on this issue and took up forty minutes of what should have been questions about the Conservatives' controversial budget.

By the time we arrived at the Budget it was 9.15 pm. We then had a long talk from different officials – who did as officials do and, in short, said the budget they and H&F's Conservative Cabinet had put together was the best possible budget this Borough could have. So at 9.45 pm questions began. By about 9.55 pm I suggested to Cllr. Johnson that he extend the meeting by half an hour from the 10.00 pm close these committees are set to finish. I had been a select committee chair ten years ago and always agreed to such request from committee members, and particularly the then Opposition Conservatives. It always seemed obvious to me that you look ridiculous and uncommitted if you refuse. But, Cllr. Johnson refused: “No!” he said, adding “If your side hadn’t gabbled on asking all those questions at the beginning then we’d have time for this.” The Council’s Chief Executive, directors and senior officials had waited all evening to be quizzed. I briefly listed a few of the Administration's cruellest cuts – particularly those again targeting the disabled and said we have a duty to go through these. Now becoming visibly nervous, Cllr Johnson again refused but added, “OK, I was five minutes late so let’s look at the business of the next meeting and finish at 10.05 pm.” Again I pushed him pointing out that my fellow Labour Councillor Rory Vaughan and I were ready to stay so what pressing engagement did the Conservative members of that committee have?.. The meeting ended.

Fifteen minutes later, as Rory and I were leaving the Town Hall we looked across the road at the Saluatation Pub and wondered if the Conservatives were in there. It was interesting to study their reactions when they saw us standing outside on the pavement. Startled?.. Yes. Panic?.. I think so. We waved. At least they all had the grace to look extremely embarrassed.

This year H&F Conservatives are making a record £26,890,000.00 of cuts. Many of these target the elderly, sick and disabled and other vulnerable groups. Officials don’t always provide councillors with the full picture as is evident from this leak. So councillors of all parties have a duty to go through the Administration’s cuts in detail and quiz officials on their assumptions; evidence; analysis; the risks; the options and their conclusions. None of that happened at the Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday, 18th January. The reasons for this were deliberate. So what were H&F Conservatives trying to hide? I will provide a full report on H&F Council’s 2011/12 budget later.

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