Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on a heated debate in the chamber this week
The first full council meeting of 2018 descended into acrimony and insults, as shocking details continue to emerge regarding Croydon’s failing children services department, with one Labour cabinet member at the meeting describing a fellow councillor who questioned her attendance record as “a very silly man” and accusing him of being a stalker.
Full council meetings are where cabinet members are supposed to be subject to questioning from the public and other councillors.
But Alisa Flemming, who has been Labour’s cabinet member for children since 2014, chose to lecture one Tory councillor that he had “no right to question me” when she was asked to explain her 28 per cent attendance record at meetings of the Croydon Safeguarding Children Board in the two-year period prior to Ofsted’s damning report last September, which found children’s services to be “inadequate”.
With the opposition Tory group continuing to call for Flemming to resign or to be sacked over the children’s services crisis, Andy Stranack, the Conservative councillor for Heathfield ward, had asked whether the cabinet member might undertake in future to publish her council work diaries.
Flemming was visibly angry. “You are a very silly man,” Flemming said to Stranack. The remark caused shock which could be seen in the faces of councillors sitting on her own side of the chamber.
It prompted an immediate call for a point of order over the insult from the Tories’ chief whip, Mario Creatura, which the chair of the meeting, Mayor Toni Letts, either did not hear or seemed to over-rule.
Flemming, a councillor for Upper Norwood ward who receives £43,000 per year in “special responsibility” allowances as a member of council leader Tony Newman’s cabinet, was allowed to continue to speak.
“I have had far too much of my time in this council chamber having my capability as a councillor questioned around things you have no right to question me on,” Flemming said.
“Yes, you can ask me about children’s services,” Flemming said. “What you won’t do is to ask me how much time I do and don’t spend time in this building.”
Stranack, who has cerebral palsy, appeared a little distressed when the Mayor turned to him for a supplementary question to the one which had not been answered.
“I accept that I have a physical disability, but I am not silly,” he said.
Stranack then pressed Flemming over official figures, published ahead of a council scrutiny meeting, showing 700 missing children in Croydon. Asked by the Mayor whether she would like to answer, Flemming said, “I might just indulge him.”
She then accused the Tory councillor of “stalking me”.
Flemming said, “It has no bearing on your right to ask me that question so …”, and paused, before returning to the diary issue, “I’ll make that very clear, it has no right, you have no right, it does not work like that. In relation to your comments, you should know, because I would say clearly you must be stalking me to know what time I am and am not in this building.”
Stranack said he felt “patronised for my disability”.
Flemming’s 28 per cent attendance record had been taken from public records and the council’s own minutes of the Croydon Safeguarding Children Board from 2015 to 2017. For one of the meetings, Flemming had her deputy, Shafi Khan, attend in her place.
Flemming was later defended on Twitter by the £53,000 leader of the council, Newman, who claimed she had been absent from just two meetings “during her pregnancy with a hernia”.
There was a scrutiny meeting on Tuesday to hear in detail about the improvement plan for children’s services, where presentations were made by council officials Barbara Peacock and Philip Segurola. Flemming did not attend.
At the previous night’s full council, the insults were traded across the chamber throughout the session, with John Wentworth, the former headteacher who is one of Labour’s Upper Norwood councillors, shouting “Twitter boy!” at Creatura, who recently landed himself the plum job as Theresa May’s twitterer-in-chief.
The meeting was so bad that Mayor Letts appeared exasperated, regularly relying on her gavel to call the meeting to order.
“I am really very unhappy,” Letts said, before quoting to members the council’s constitution that says they should “refrain from comments of a personal nature about another member”.
“Silly things have been said by an awful lot of people,” she said. Insults, Letts said, “Fly across this chamber… and I won’t have it.”
No apology was offered from Flemming to Stranack.
There are 14 weeks, and just two more meetings of full council, before the local elections on May 3.
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