This was the scene in Croydon Town Hall during a full meeting of the council last night. Two well-paid local councillors engrossed in the Crystal Palace match on their iPad, rather than engaging in a debate about crisis facing the borough’s council services through Tory cuts and the impending closure of the Fairfield Halls for refurbishment.
If senior council figures such as Pat Ryan (£21,345 in “allowances” per year, for doing… no one’s quite sure what) and John Wentworth (£20,091 in council “allowances”, on top of his generous pension from being a headmaster) can treat council business with such utter contempt, is it any wonder that the public regard their elected representatives equally contemptuously?
It is far from the first time that councillors have been caught distracted by their smart phones or tablets while in the council chamber. Inside Croydon has reported instances in the past.Indeed, even last night, around the same time that this scene was being played out, another councillor, Jason Cummings, an aide to Tory MP Gavin Barwell, was busy not on council business, but tapping away on Twitter trying to explain how he had made an attempt to sign-up as a Labour Party supporter.
And during last night’s meeting, both Steve O’Connell (Conservative) and Sean FitzSimons (Labour) managed to announce to the chamber goal “flashes” and the result from Goodison Park, with FitzSimons somewhat lamely trying to come to his two colleagues’ rescue by suggesting that they were just checking on the score.
Had that been true, then it might have been done with a brief, and discreet, reference to the BBC Sport App. It need not have involved setting up Sky Sports on the council chamber desk, in full sight of the public in the gallery above, as councillors Ryan and Wentworth did.
Among the Council Tax-payers to witness the councillors’ questionable conduct were several employees of the Fairfield Halls, whose jobs and future are under threat because of plans to close the venue during refurbishment work. Not that Councillors Ryan and Wentworth seemed that bothered. No wonder there was angry shouts from the gallery.
The behaviour of these two senior Labour councillors, part of leader Tony Newman’s protected inner circle of close chums, amply demonstrates why Croydon is so ill-served by its over-populated council, on both sides of the chamber. This, after all, was just the sixth time this year that they will have had to sacrifice Monday Night Football for the drudgery of a council meeting. It was almost as if Wentworth and Ryan had only turned up for the mulled wine and mince pies laid on at Council tax-payers’ expense in the Mayor’s Parlour afterwards.
Both Ryan and Wentworth really ought to know better. But as well as being a brazen error of judgement, their watching of the Premier League action during the council meeting shows that as politicians, they are barely Isthmian League standard.
Ryan was recently dumped as the Labour group’s chief whip. Wentworth, whose council allowances are topped up because he presides over the important pensions committee, has also worked as the election agent for Progress MP Steve Reed OBE in Croydon North.
Would Wentworth, when working as a headmaster, have tolerated a pupil playing Candy Crush on their smartphone during assembly? Of course not.
During the course of the whole meeting, which lasted from 6.30pm until long past 9pm, neither Wentworth nor Ryan made a single contribution to the proceedings. A bit like The Hon Emily Benn, and she didn’t even bother to turn up for the meeting at all.
The distracted laziness of some councillors closest to Newman presents the Labour leader with a serious problem as his faltering administration approaches the halfway mark. Will Newman take any action over Wentworth and Ryan? Probably not; Newman will undoubtedly dissemble and deceive to cover their unworthy arses.
But the problems continue to mount for Newman over the behaviour and comments of another councillor who, like Wentworth and Ryan, is supposed to represent Upper Norwood ward.
Alisa Flemming is Newman’s cabinet member for children and schools. At a cabinet meeting last month, in the chamber and recorded on the council webcast, when discussing the new benefits system, with one-payment-per-month universal credits, Flemming said, “While it would be a nice idea to get one payment a month, there are so many residents within this borough that do not, unfortunately, have the skills and capability to manage their money in such a way that at the end of the month their bills are paid and their children are fed and looked after.”Flemming, you may need to be reminded, is a councillor from the Labour Party.
At the same meeting, Flemming also said that there are “increasing levels of betting shops in the borough and, with one single payment, I’m sure we will see an increase in where that money is going”.
Quite rightly, the Croydon Sadvertiser reported Flemming’s remarks just as she said them. They have returned to the story twice more since, seeking comments from Flemming’s leader, Newman, either to condemn the remarks as a patronising misrepresentation of the working poor, or to give his unreserved support to his cabinet member. Until last night, publicly, Newman had chosen to do neither. Some around Katharine Street were beginning to wonder whether Newman was “hanging her out to dry”.
Last night, Newman and Flemming were cornered by the procedure of Town Hall questions: the leader had been asked a written question, and provided a non-answer in writing. The questioner, Tory councillor Mario Creatura, then sought to ask a supplementary of Newman.
Flemming intervened “on a matter of personal explanation”.
She delivered a statement which was more articulate than most of her previous, often stumbling performances in the council chamber. And Flemming made it clear that she was not going to apologise for her own remarks, which have caused grave offence among many Croydon residents, including Labour Party members and supporters.
“My words were taken out of context,” was her first feeble offering. And untrue, which is never a good start.
“I am not ashamed to say that I have in the past received benefits,” Flemming continued in her self-justification for comments which can surely never be justified. “I would never, ever, stigmatise those in receipt of benefits,” Flemming said, presumably ignoring the remarks she had made in the cabinet meeting just a couple of weeks earlier which did, indeed, stigmatise those on benefits.
“I do feel very strongly,” she said, “If offence was taken…” but she failed to complete her thought-process with this, or the sentence. She may have been distracted by some heckling from the opposition seats.
“I have written to the Croydon Advertiser and put forward my position. The Advertiser is doing what journalists do…”, yep, reporting what elected representatives have said. “They have given their point, and I have given mine.
“I cannot demonise what it is to be poor. I understand poverty. I do not demonise the poor and I will continue to speak for them,” she said.
At no point in Flemming’s clearly impassioned pleading did she once use the words “Sorry”, “Apology”, “Error” or “Mistake”.
So it’s clearly not her fault that she stood up in Croydon Town Hall and said: “There are so many residents within this borough that do not, unfortunately, have the skills and capability to manage their money in such a way that at the end of the month their bills are paid and their children are fed and looked after.”
Nor did Newman take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of his misguided and ill-equipped cabinet member. Instead, he reverted to an old script about not taking lectures from the Tories.Which would all be well and good if Newman and his crisis-hit crew had managed to show themselves to be any better than Croydon’s Tories. But with each passing week, promises made by Newman are being broken, and his lies are mounting up.
Last night, Newman’s pre-election promise to investigate the £100 million overspend on Fisher’s Folly, the council offices, was dismissed with the excuse, “we can’t revisit everything which was done in the past”. No Tony… what’s a mere £100 million for a local authority that’s having to make 600 staff redundant?
Newman also tried to claim that the reason he has failed to respond to letters and emails sent nearly six months ago was because his small staff is overworked. This seemed, at once, to be passing the buck to council employees, while also strongly suggesting that Newman (allowances: £53,000 per year) cannot cope with his workload.
Inside Croydon also happens to know this to be untrue, and that Newman has failed to reply to correspondence dating back more than a year. We have received numerous complaints from our loyal reader about the council leader’s reluctance to engage with residents, even in his own Woodside ward. In another case from another part of the borough, more than a dozen emails outlining problems and concerns have not even been acknowledged by Newman and his publicly funded staff. As well as incompetent, this is just plain rude.
A month ago, Newman made another promise, to release the Mott McDonald consultants’ report on the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls. Last night, the council leader appeared to suffer a bout of amnesia, even though his promise is also, like Flemming’s appalling comments, recorded for posterity on a council webcast.
If Tony Newman was any good as a human being, never mind as a politician, he would have apologised to the people of Croydon for Flemming’s comments immediately, and he should be seeking to replace her in a January reshuffle. Ryan and Wentworth should be despatched to the backbenches, their allowances halved, at the same time.
Newman would also have been as good as his word and last night handed over bound copies of the consultants’ report on the Fairfield Halls, while telling his chief executive that Croydon is now an open and transparent council and these details need to be shared and discussed. And while he’s about it, Newman should have told Nathan Elvery to dig out the CCURV contracts for Fisher’s Folly so that we can all see who it was that made mega-profits at public expense, and investigate whether any of them are retrievable.
Politicians telling lies is probably not breaking news. In Croydon, politicians being more worried about the football than Tory austerity cuts is hardly news, either. And nor should we be surprised that Tony Newman, Alisa Flemming and their mates, find the word “Sorry” sticking in their throats.
But the public is justified in being disappointed and angry with them all.
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