The government finally moved late last week to make it legally possible for local authorities to stage “virtual” council meetings, and to continue with a semblance of Town Hall business during the covid-19 lockdown.
Yet less than 48 hours before the Whitehall edict to give the all-clear for councils like Croydon’s to move into the 21st century and embrace socially distanced communications technologies, Tony Newman and his Labour group at the Town Hall had already done just that, holding a secret meeting so that they could be briefed by the council chief executive, Jo Negrini, about how she and her senior directors are coping with the coronavirus emergency.
But Newman, and Labour, excluded all members of the public from the briefing, though the council leader and a couple of his colleagues gave the game away somewhat when they put tweets into the public domain about what was being discussed behind closed doors.
Not all Labour’s councillors joined the important meeting, according to Addiscombe West councillor Sean Fitzsimons, who informed his followers that “virtually all” Labour’s councillors managed to log in.
When he was asked whether the public would be allowed to ask questions of the council officials whose wages they pay for, Fitzsimons dismissed that with a terse, “Council meetings are not online yet.”
This contrasted markedly with the public service ethos on display the following day, when ahead of their own, similar briefing meeting staged online, the Croydon Conservatives openly encouraged residents in their wards to send them questions which might be put to Negrini and her council staff.
At the Labour meeting, the first good news was that Negrini was well and still able to collect on her £220,000 annual salary.
Concern had been expressed among some councillors, after Negrini’s email had been sending out an auto-response for more than a week stating that, “I will be checking my emails intermittently”. Perhaps not exactly the sort of reply you expect from a very well-paid senior public servant amid a crisis. Especially not one who had ordered all staff to work from the office, just at a time after more considerate employers were making arrangements for their staff to work from home, more safely self-isolated during the pandemic.
Having locked out Croydon’s locked down public from the online Labour get-together, council leader Newman tweeted that the meeting was, “… a welcome opportunity for us to thank our excellent CEX Jo & her team for their phenomenal work supporting all the residents.”
Trebles all round!
Newman is, of course, the council leader who decided to appoint Negrini as the borough’s chief executive, and who has allowed her salary package to balloon by more than 20 per cent in four years, so he might be expected to take that rose-tinted view. Though some who read Newman’s message observed that, as the date was still April 1, perhaps it was intended as a late Fool’s Day gag.
Oh, how we laffed!
With the press also being excluded from the behind-closed-doors meeting, it is difficult to assess what evidence was provided by Negrini to show all this “phenomenal work” she was claiming that she and her staff had done. Certainly, the number of direct orders issued by central government to local councils in the past fortnight has been phenomenal, and council staff across the country have been reassigned to new covid-19 roles as largely determined by Whitehall civil servants.
The public has been told that the council has had an important role in setting up hubs to distribute food and medicines to vulnerable people around the borough, though those working in covid-19 self-help groups and hubs, set up from a standing start in the past fortnight, suggest that they have yet to hear anything from the council or their charity quango, Croydon Voluntary Action, and therefore they are soldiering on without much in the way of help from Fisher’s Folly.
Phenomenal work indeed!
The charities and volunteer groups also suggest that few, if any, of their elderly neighbours who might have underlying illnesses or be over the age of 70 to place them in the “vulnerable” category have received the promised letters from the NHS saying that they will get support from the council. Inside Croydon has received some anecdotal reports of the NHS letters dropping on to doormats this week – 10 days to two weeks later than might have been hoped.
Those voluntary groups also report that while some of them have too little donated food to package up and go round their neighbourhoods, others actually have too much food to be distributed.
Those who think that they are vulnerable and in need of support can contact the council, on 020 8604 7787 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another councillor to tweet from the secret meeting was Caragh Skipper, the unselected councillor for Fairfield ward.
Skipper detailed in public her questions about the limited protections being offered for renters during the coronavirus crisis.
Skipper was told that evictions are not permitted for those with formal rental contracts. Those in less formal circumstances who lose a roof over their head who, for example, get pushed out of a family home or who have been sofa-surfing could contact the council’s Gateway service. And those who are enjoying a rental holiday should contact Gateway to see at the earliest opportunity whether they can get government cash in the form of Local Housing Allowance. All useful information put into the public domain by Skipper that might otherwise have been hidden from public view.
Skipper used the opportunity to express her view that Labour should be “ready to resist attempts by government to dial back support for our most vulnerable when the crisis ends”. Assuming a typically Corbynite tone, Skipper asserted that “we are poised and ready to take on this government”.
But then that was before Sir Keir Starmer was named as the new leader of the party.
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