Tony Newman described it at the Town Hall last night as, “Levels of incompetence I’ve not seen before.” And given the conduct of some of his most senior councillors, Newman’s seen loads of incompetence in his time.
The leader of Croydon Council was railing against the borough’s treatment by the Home Office, which had withdrawn a £4 million grant, money intended to cover the cost of the local authority looking after unaccompanied asylum seekers. With the immigration screening office at Lunar House, Croydon is regarded as a port of entry to the UK on a par with Heathrow airport and Dover harbour. The council has to take care of more than 400 refugees each year who arrive in Croydon without parents or adult supervision.
But in October the Home Office withdrew the grant unilaterally and “in-year”, that is, after the council’s budgets for the year had been set, leaving a gaping £4 million chasm to be plugged at a time of unprecedented cuts to the money which the borough is receiving from central government.
In the six weeks since Theresa May’s department withdrew the grant, Newman and council officials have been having urgent discussions, including meeting with Home Office minister James Brokenshire, and attended by Croydon’s two Tory MPs. The meeting led Newman to believe that the £4 million grant was to be restored. Newman announced as much at last week’s full meeting of the council.
But bringing the matter up under “urgent business” at the start of last night’s cabinet meeting, Newman announced that nothing had not been resolved after all.
Some of the grant was to be refunded, but only £2.7 million of it. “As a result of further discussions, the Home Office came back to us and said that they would be paying us £600,000 less.
“They said: ‘Good Lord! We didn’t realise it was £1.3 million. That was never the intention. You should only be about £600,000 short of what you were originally getting. We must have got our numbers wrong’.
“Well, £600,000 is not acceptable any more than £1.3 million,” Newman said.
Newman highlighted that, on Thursday, the Chancellor is expected to announce the government’s annual settlement for local authorities. Good news is not expected, but this will come just as Fisher’s Folly prepares to shut up shop for a two-week Christmas break.
The uncertainty over the missing £4 million is making the Labour council’s task of balancing its budgets almost impossible.
“This is no way to run a pub,” said Newman, who may know something of that, too, “let alone a country and it’s completely unacceptable.”
The Home Office was due to send officials to Fisher’s Folly for a meeting today. Newman said that they would be expected to explain their errors.
Newman described the situation as “chaos and confusion at the highest level of the Home Office and it’s completely unacceptable for this council against the backdrop of other funding cuts, attempting to set a budget and work out how we balance the funding of services.
“Frankly our patience is being tested by this mess,” he said.
The Tories on the council, led by Tim Pollard, questioned the wisdom of Newman’s crude insults of the Home Office before the matter had been settled, though his colleague, Jason Cummings, said, “You retain the support of both sides for unaccompanied asylum seekers.”
When making the announcement, Newman promised to release the correspondence between the council and the Home Office. “There are letters we will be happy to share,” Newman said. The Tories asked whether he would be any better at keeping that promised disclosure than he has been over his promise to release the consultants’ report over the Fairfield Halls.
“We want our money back!” Newman said to round off the announcement. Just a pity he has failed to get quite as angry over the £100 million overspend on the council offices under the supervision of the man he has appointed as the council’s chief executive.
- The last council cabinet meeting of 2015 concluded in less than an hour last night, despite having a full agenda. A council spokesperson denied that this was so that Newman and his mates could get into the Spreadeagle in time to watch the football…
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