WALTER CRONXITE, our political editor, on last night’s potentially defining meeting of the council
The body language spoke volumes.
There, sitting behind council leader Tony Newman, the Labour councillors’ heads were down, the arms folded. Facing unremitting questioning after Ofsted found that the council’s children’s services are “inadequate”, Croydon’s Labour group are not in a good place.
Julian Ellerby, the political commissar appointed on the say-so of Labour MP Steve Reed OBE to help keep Newman in check, looked agitated throughout the three hours or so of proceedings. If he wasn’t heard actually uttering the Tuckerism “clusterfuck” in the Town Hall corridors, Ellerby was sure to be thinking it. Not even the greatest of spindoctors could persuade anyone that that was a meeting that went well. And Ellerby’s barely in the Vanarama National League when it comes to spindoctoring.
Alisa Flemming emerged from the evening as the cabinet member for apologies, and an apology of a cabinet member. Supposedly with overview of the council’s work in children’s services, Flemming, the Upper Norwood councillor, has failed to impress in her three years as a cabinet member. Last night demonstrated why. Privately, nearly as many of her own party’s councillors as those who spoke from the opposition benches are saying it is time for her to go. Their anger is clear.
Over the course of the fractured, three-part meeting, Flemming apologised repeatedly for the children’s services failings. Despite her having attended monthly briefings with the director of children’s services, the now-departed Ian Lewis, and the heavily criticised safeguarding board, Flemming claimed she had never had any hint of the difficulties the frontline council officials were having.
Maybe that’s because, as a council-produced video from April shows, Flemming had been completely sold on Lewis’s councilspeak bullshit, and the “new vision” for children in the borough. Perhaps her focus should have been more on the delivery of real services.
In the past year, Flemming accepted the assurances from Lewis, and his boss, Barbara Peacock, and her boss, Jo Negrini, the council chief executive, that improvements to the standard of service were being made.
Now, faced with a situation in which she is damned if she knew how bad things really were in children’s services, and damned if she said she didn’t know, Flemming chose to claim the latter. What might be called the incompetence defence. In that, at least, she was most convincing.
Flemming went on to tell the meeting that when the Ofsted inspectors were in Fisher’s Folly in July, she had thought the council would get a “requires improvement” rating. As if that would have been good enough.
“There is a recognition the service is not as good as it could be,” she said, winning the first of numerous NSS* awards on the night.
Peacock, who in her previous job had taken two years to get Medway’s children’s department from “inadequate” to “requires improvement” (which prompts the question: how was she ever selected last year as the right person for similar responsibilities in Croydon?) hardly got a ringing vote of confidence from Negrini when the CEO announced that the People department is to be restructured, and executive director Peacock given fewer responsibilities.
Negrini failed to mention that she herself had been a key figure in the relatively recent reorganisation of the council’s departments to create the all-too-large People department (when giving herself an enlarged Place department and enhanced status to go with it). The reorganisation was all done in the name of “efficiencies” – councilspeak for job cuts.
Nor did Negrini mention last night that she had been a decision-maker in handing the exec director job to the (so far) deeply underwhelming Peacock.
Flemming and Peacock between them now have 10 weeks to turn things round in a department that is supposed to ensure the welfare of all children in the borough, overseeing adoptions and fostering, and supervising unaccompanied minors who arrive in Croydon seeking asylum. The government has parachuted in a commissioner to oversee that work being carried out. If, in December, Eleanor Brazil is unconvinced that enough progress has been made, then the department will be taken out of Croydon Council’s hands.
The early signs are not promising.
For a start, Flemming appears to be in denial, trying to claim that this year’s Ofsted inspection was more “vigorous” (she probably meant rigorous) than the previous visit five years ago. Not that any of that matters anyway, apart from in the Punch and Judy world of tit-for-tat exchanges inhabited by too many of Croydon’s local politicians.
Then there’s the improvement board, tasked with digging the council out of the mess of its own making. The board has an independent chair in Edwina Grant. Grant, a former senior council official in the Midlands who is now a trouble-shooting consultant, was previously on Rotherham children’s services improvement board.
Grant has not impressed so far. She left her first Croydon meeting before it was over. She had a train to catch. But this was not before Grant announced that she would be in Croydon “for not many days”. Grant may need to revise that estimate. The problems in the children’s services department seem to be twice as bad as the council first thought.
Last week, Newman announced an additional £1million spend, from the council’s reserves, for children’s services. Last night, Simon Hall, Labour’s finance cabinet member, announced that they were to double that additional spend, to £2million. Hence the quick-fix £1,500 “bonuses” for social workers and their line managers in the struggling department, plus, the meeting was told, shiny new mobile phones and laptops (were our council’s staff really so ill-equipped before?).
Offered the chance of an open goal, Tory leader Tim Pollard fluffed his lines. He really could bore for England.
But as, laboriously, he went through his notes, Pollard’s inner accountant did highlight the fundamental flaw in Labour’s defence. The idea that short-comings of the children’s services department is all because of an austerity squeeze on resources can be challenged. As Pollard pointed out, the spend in this department has been better-than-ring-fenced, and in fact was up 26 per cent, from £42million to £53million, while the number of children in the council’s care had only increased by 4 per cent.
Pollard’s back-up speech-maker was beer salesman Mario Creatura. So someone had really been scraping the barrel.
Reading carefully from his prepared notes (too lazy to learn even a three-minute speech?), Creatura seemed to be speaking in blank verse. “Who’s running the council?” he asked, repeatedly. Someone must have told him that repeating a phrase is a oratorical device. Trouble is, if you ask a question, you need to anticipate the answer. The answer Creatura got from the Labour benches was, “We are.”
Which would make a nice change, if only it were true.
The people who really run the council are always the executive directors, such as Negrini, on their cushty six-figure public salaries, who think that they are above any public scrutiny, whether from the residents who pay their wages or, as this episode has amply demonstrated, from the councillors, Tory or Labour, elected supposedly to represent the public interest.
Euphemisms abounded about the frankness, or lack of it, between council officials and our elected representatives. Hall spoke of “assurances we were given” by council officials that “were not true”. He and his cabinet colleagues, Hall said, had been “misled”. To most people, that sounds like he thinks they’ve been lied to. And Hall is not the only one.
But this really should not be any surprise, when on every major issue to confront the council in recent years, from the inexplicably exorbitant £140million cost of the Fisher’s Folly council offices (who profited from that?), to the underhand allowances claim by the Tories’ former leader Mike #WadGate Fisher, to the multi-million-pound financial obligations of the Beddington Lane incinerator deal, senior Croydon Council officials – supposedly public servants – have done their utmost to hide the truth from the public. In some cases, these senior officials have even threatened disciplinary action against councillors when they dared to ask questions persistently and directly.
Fisher, de-selected as a council candidate by his erstwhile Tory colleagues, and Phil Thomas, were both in attendance at the Town Hall last night, but neither wanted to, nor were allowed, to say anything.
It was a curious, constitution-bound piece of public debate, going first from the scheduled cabinet meeting, then at 8pm moving the chairs around and some donning Trumptonesque robes for the emergency council meeting, and then afterwards reverting to the cabinet format. None of which helps any of the at-risk children in the borough get better served by our council. As they re-arranged the chairs and water glasses for a second time, the urge to shout out: “Stop fucking about and do something”, was almost too much.
The councillors had been lectured by Negrini, told that they are 70 “corporate parents”. Yet Negrini made quite sure that the council constitution stopped all but six of those “corporate parents” from expressing their views, asking questions, or speaking at all at this public meeting.
The one really effective speaker in the meeting was Maria Gatland, the Tory councillor for Croham ward, who had a clearness of thought and eloquence which was sadly missing from so many other contributions.
The second part of the cabinet meeting was no better as a means of shedding light on what needs to be done, after the emergency council meeting allowed the Labour group, with its in-built majority, to demonstrate that they can out-shout the Tories to win a vote.
The Labour amendment, which was passed, said, “The council regrets the failure to operate as effectively as possible our children and families social services and has apologised to the residents of Croydon for the recent inadequate Ofsted report. This council pledges to deal with all the weaknesses and failures outlined in the report and notes the progress reported at cabinet of our improvement plan that has begun to address the issues raised.”
To do that, though, to really do that, will require some real honesty from those responsible, including the council’s executive staff. Especially the council’s executive staff.
So consider this. Last night, Negrini, Croydon’s £185,000 a year chief executive, told the Town Hall chamber that, “We were all collectively aware of these issues.”
So she did know. They all knew, according to Negrini.
“We had a plan and we just did not drive it forward fast enough.”
So she did know, and was ineffective in dealing with it.
Then there was this snippet of dissembling. “Ofsted have said that the council has the capacity to improve the services and if asked by the DfE would say that,” Negrini said (referring to the Department for Education).
Now this was a prime example of the sort of arse-covering dishonesty which got Croydon to the position it is in today over its children’s services. Negrini was effectively telling the assembled councillors that, despite a damning 39-page report from Ofsted, those inspectors really think that Croydon Council “has the capacity to improve the services”.
Negrini was unable to point to where in the Ofsted report it expresses such confidence in her and her executives’ ability to do this. That’s probably because it is no where to be found in the report.
And of course, if the DfE and Ofsted had such confidence in the Negrini-run council being able to improve its children’s services, then they would not have appointed Eleanor Brazil as a government commissioner to oversee the work over the next three months.
The arrogance of Negrini in saying this, given the crisis circumstance, is seen by some backbenchers as demonstrating her contempt for all the councillors, and for the residents of the borough.
For his part, Newman did not clarify who he might have had in mind when, engaging in his favoured Soprano mode, he said, “You can’t do much more than change the senior people in charge.” Tony Soprano, remember, was a specialist in waste disposal. And yes, that was meant euphemistically.
The Labour council leader could come to regret offering his own councillors such a helpful guide as to what they might do. In the corridors and the bars after the meeting, word was that at least three of Newman’s cabinet colleagues are already discussing their leadership options.
Newman must hope that they don’t get round to realising that, by his own definition of leadership, “You can’t do much more than change the senior people in charge.”
[*- NSS = No Shit Sherlock.]
- Damning verdict on Croydon’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services
- Commissioner appointed to oversee children’s services
- Negrini tells staff: ‘There are some things that we don’t do well’
- Two key figures leave council over Ofsted inspectors’ report
- Bromley Council leader forced to resign over Ofsted report
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