ELECTION COUNTDOWN: The local Tories are suspicious over the sudden banning of a senior councillor from a key social services improvement board meeting. WALTER CRONXITE reports
For Labour in Croydon, it has been the issue that they dare not mention during the past month of electioneering, an open wound of guilt, mismanagement and incompetence which might have doomed their hopes of retaining control of the Town Hall at Thursday’s local elections.
For Croydon’s Tories, there has been some reluctance at the idea of politicising such as sensitive issue as the near-collapse of the council’s under-funded Children’s Services department.
But, with less than a week to go to polling day, the Conservatives have now played that card.There had been an uneasy truce between the parties over the state of the council’s Children’s Services department since the crisis was made apparent in September when a report by Ofsted inspectors found “widespread and serious failures”, which “leave some children at risk of significant harm”.
The running of the department has been taken out of the hands of Croydon Council, with a Whitehall-appointed inspector overseeing a range of improvements being carried out with help from a team of social workers from another local authority.
The cross-party consensus on the matter has been jeopardised, though, by the exclusion from the latest meeting of the improvements committee overseeing this work of the Tory shadow cabinet member, Maria Gatland.
Gatland was told by senior council employees that she would not be invited to April’s improvements board meeting because it fell during purdah, the period when the council is supposed to avoid politically sensitive announcements which could sway how the electorate votes.
The April meeting was due to receive the latest report on the progress – or otherwise – of the improvement works, submitted by the independent inspector, Eleanor Brazil.
After six months of co-operation in the interests of getting the children’s services department back on an even keel, the apparent lack of trust shown in Gatland by council officials – the decision is thought to have been taken by the £130,000 per year executive director “People”, Barbara Peacock, supported by council CEO Jo Negrini – has left Gatland annoyed and bemused.
“Who’s actually running our council?” the councillor said today.
Gatland feels that, if elected councillors are denied the opportunity to properly scrutinise the work of council executives and staff, then essential accountability will be lost. Many of the problems which were highlighted by Croydon’s failed Ofsted report arose because council employees misled councillors in official reports and meetings.
Gatland has assumed that if she was excluded from the April improvements board, and denied the agenda and reports that accompanied on grounds of purdah, a similar exclusion must also have been applied to Alisa Flemming, the Labour cabinet member who presided over the near-collapse of the children’s services department yet has remained in her job despite such serious failings.
But Gatland has had no confirmation that Flemming did not attend the April meeting.
Seething over being denied access to the meeting and progress report, Gatland said, “By doing this, council officials have taken away elected councillors’ ability to represent our residents.”
It is therefore more than coincidence that, after playing down the children’s services issue as an election matter so far, Croydon Tories last week started to include it more prominently in their digital campaigning.
“We’ll invest properly in our children’s social care service to ensure that social workers have manageable case loads and are properly managed, supported and equipped to do the job well,” Croydon’s Tories announced this week.
Of course, such undertakings suggest that Croydon Conservatives might be suffering some mild political amnesia over the drastic austerity budget cuts applied over the past eight years, leading to extensive redundancies across council staff, in particular in Children’s Services.
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