KEN LEE, our Town Hall correspondent, on the latest series of serious blunders by the council’s under-fire executive director
Barbara Peacock, the under-pressure executive director of the council’s “People” division, yesterday responded to a resident’s complaint about her department’s failure to respond to repeated pleas for help over the education and welfare of his disabled adoptive son by sending an email to more than 90 recipients… but not responding to the resident himself.
The Coulsdon resident claims that Peacock’s widely circulated mail had a litany of errors about their case, the most serious of which was to allege that the badly stressed father had said he was self-harming to “provoke a reaction”.
Jamie Watson has been battling with the council for several months over the education choices for his nine-year-old son, Tim.
Tim has some complicated, long-term health issues, as well as autism; he had been attending a mainstream primary school in the borough but had begun to feel socially isolated and started expressing feelings of suicide.
The boy’s headteacher recommended to his parents, Jamie and Jason Watson, that Tim’s interests would be best served at a specialist school. But Croydon Council, initially at least, failed to agree or offer a place.
On Monday, Jamie Watson issued a round-robin email to every Croydon councillor, to his MP, Chris Philp, and several senior council executives, including Peacock and chief exec Jo Negrini, listing a set of enquiries he had sent just in the past month which had been allowed to pass without even a courtesy acknowledgement, never mind a proper answer.
Watson’s list included five emails to Negrini that had never been answered, four that were sent to council leader Tony Newman to which there had been no reply, one to Peacock and one to Councillor Alisa Flemming, the cabinet member responsible for children and education.
Peacock and Flemming are, separately, under considerable pressure following a damning report from Ofsted inspectors about the council’s children’s services department, which was rated as “inadequate”, and has seen Whitehall install a commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, to oversee urgent improvements.
The Watsons’ case is a separate matter to the Ofsted concerns, but it appears to be another example where the large council department under Peacock is not fit for purpose.
In his email earlier this week, Jamie Watson wrote, “Barbara Peacock suggested to me that emailing out to a wide number of people doesn’t help my case.
“Unfortunately, it seems [to be] the only way I can get Croydon LA [local authority] to engage with me. We are again left with no choice but to email you all and hope that maybe someone will respond.
“Croydon LA has clearly failed to work with us during the process of seeking specialist educational provision for our adopted son, Tim, who has complex health needs and is also autistic,” Watson wrote.
Inside Croydon has been contacted by a number of parents and carers of children, some like Tim Watson with special educational needs, who have reported similarly frustrating failures by the council to manage their cases in a timely and professional manner. In one instance, as we reported in July, a family has been battling against indifferent council officials for three years to get an educational programme organised for their teenaged son.
It is significant, therefore, that Peacock chose not to reply to the Watsons, but instead circulated all those who had been written to by the parents on Monday.
Peacock’s email effectively blames the Watsons for lobbying to get the best outcome for their son and to protect the nine-year-old’s best interests.
“It’s looks like a classic instance of a bureaucrat covering her arse, rather than doing something about the issues,” one of the recipients of Peacock’s email told Inside Croydon.
“That Peacock has tried to pass the buck to the family is pretty low.”
Sent at 1.30pm yesterday and addressed to “Dear councillors”, Peacock’s lengthy email included: “Our aim with Mr Watson and his partner is to move on from the ‘fight’ they feel have had over securing the long term [sic] educational placement they want for Tim and to seek to work collectively in the interests of both the children and the family. The continual e mails (there are 92 recipients of this e mail [sic]) complaints, LGO Ombudsman referrals, FOI and solicitor letters take up valuable time of officers and do not enable officers to get alongside the family.
“Officers have apologised to Mr & Mr Watson, we have not always got everything right and have made every effort to show how we wish to engage differently going forward but this has not changed Mr Jamie Watson’s willingness to shift his interactions with us.”
When shown Peacock’s email, the Watsons were understandably even more angry.
“No one from Croydon has apologised to us for their mistakes,” Jamie Watson told Inside Croydon.
Watson claims that an email from Caroline Baxter, the senior council official assigned by Peacock to handle the case, had been a typical non-apology apology. “She said she was sorry if we had been upset. She never apologised for the council’s actions that had upset us.” Watson wrote to Peacock asking not to have to deal with Baxter again, and says that that request has also been unanswered.
He also disputes several other points in Peacock’s letter, denying that they have ever submitted a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman, and says that Peacock’s claim that council staff are “reaching out” to the Watsons is laughable.
“How was ignoring seven emails in a month ‘reaching out’?” he said.
“Nothing excuses the number of times Croydon officers have ignored us. If we were engaged in an honest and productive way, with decent, respectful staff, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to email again and again and again.”
But Peacock’s widely circulated email yesterday included a claim which Jamie Watson suggests is deliberately intended to undermine him and his case.
Peacock has been in post in Croydon for just over a year. She is among the first senior appointments made since Jo Negrini became the council chief executive.
Yesterday, Peacock wrote to Jamie Watson’s MP and all the borough’s councillors that his “…passion, has at times, caused concerns to the extent that over the last month his e mails included statements to harm both himself and his children. This subsequently led to the council holding a formal child protection strategy meeting by which Mr Jamie Watson by his own admission said he used to create a reaction.”
Watson denies this.
“I quite clearly said that at my lowest point, I had felt suicidal and that I told the council this to demonstrate the level of exasperation and frustration they had driven me to.
“I would like Barbara Peacock to either retract and apologise for this statement or send proof of her claim.”
Late yesterday, there was a glimmer of hope that Croydon Council might do the right thing for its residents and their young son, when the Watsons were sent a reply to their appeal from Monday. This came from Guy van Dichele, who was recently appointed as interim executive director for adults and all age disability in the aftermath of the Ofsted report.
The contrast with Peacock’s lengthy self-justification is stark.
Brief and to the point, this appeared to be a genuine offer of help. “From what I read in both your emails and the responses from the council, there are clearly differences of opinion on a number of matters,” van Dichele wrote.
“If it would help, I am happy to meet with you, where I would like to be able to agree a way forward that allows us all to move forward in the support to both you and your family. Please let me know if you would like to do this.”
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