CROYDON IN CRISIS: Town Hall leaders, most of whom presided over the council’s financial collapse, last night voted to take £116 per month from the borough’s poorest and most vulnerable. But the vote was not as straightforward as they expected. By STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon Council’s Labour leadership last night voted to remove Council Tax Support worth as much as £29 per week from around 20,000 of the borough’s most vulnerable households – but it took the ceremonial Mayor to use his casting vote to push the unpopular measure through.
The benefit cuts are to save the cash-strapped council £5.7million per year, part of around £38million-worth of budget cuts proposed for the next financial year in an effort to balance the books after the Labour administration bankrupted the borough in 2020.
The vote taken on the benefit cuts was unusual in Town Hall chamber terms because one Labour councillor, Waddon ward’s Andrew Pelling, broke with his party whip and voted against the measure. It is believed that since 2018, and despite all the controversies over the council’s finances, this is only the second time that a Labour councillor has dared defy the party whip.
Pelling has been vociferous in his opposition to the measures, which he claims could still cost the council extra money through creating homelessness and other consequences of the poverty it will create, and he has said it is, in any case, unnecessary because the council can find the cash needed from other sources, such as the pension fund, where he chairs the committee.
The proposals have been strongly opposed by local voluntary help groups, food banks and trades unions, some of whom claim that the council consultation used to justify the measures was misleading, and possibly unlawful.
The episode around the vote illustrated the absurd pantomime that Croydon Council meetings have become, in this, the second decade of the 21st Century.
Because of covid safety precautions, only 19 of the borough’s 70 councillors were allowed to be present in the Town Hall chamber for the meeting. Although many councillors were following developments remotely – in the manner which had become familiar during the strictest lockdown arrangements – now, only those physically present in the Chamber are allowed to vote. It truly is the worst of all available options.
Chairing the meeting, in the fur and scarlet robe of the ceremonial mayor was Sherwan Chowdhury.
After a brief speech to introduce the motion for the revised Council Tax Support regime – “I know many members will be troubled by what we are about to do,” said Stuart King, the council deputy leader who has overseen the introduction of these cuts, warning of dire consequences for the failed council if “difficult decisions” were not taken and the cuts agreed – Chowdhury then called for a vote.
This was conducted, in the year 2022, by those councillors in the Chamber shouting “Yes” or “No”.
The “Yeses” were somewhat muffled.
When it came to the “Noes”, there was one very loud shout.
Mayor Chowdhury was quick to declare that, “The ‘Yeses’ have it.”
But John Jones, the council’s new Monitoring Officer, sitting beside the mayor, and another council official, pointed to the back of the room, where Pelling was drawing attention to himself.
Pelling demanded that his “No” vote should be recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
It was immediately apparent that Chowdhury’s assumption that a Labour motion had been carried was wrong. There were 11 Labour councillors in the room, including Chowdhury in the chair, and eight Conservative opposition councillors.
Pelling’s “No” had clearly meant that the vote was tied, and when Jones called for a show of hands to conduct a count, Chowdhury used his casting vote to settle the matter, 10-9.
The contrary vote was a matter of some small Croydon political irony: Pelling was only able to attend the meeting in person and cast his vote because another Labour councillor, Clive Fraser, agreed to give him his seat.
Fraser is the Labour group’s chief whip, whose job is supposedly to stop his colleague councillors from voting against the party line, rather than facilitating it.
Pelling, a former Conservative councillor, MP and London Assembly Member, has been a Labour councillor since 2014. Although reselected by Labour members in Waddon to stand as a candidate in May’s local elections, he is facing a party investigation with a re-interview expected later this week. He believes he is subject to a witch hunt because of his support for a directly elected mayor, and part of a vendetta against him being conducted by friends and supporters of Tony Newman, the discredited former council leader.
Last night’s whip-busting vote has stoked speculation on Katharine Street that Pelling is in fact planning to run as an independent for Croydon Mayor in May.
It won’t be the first time that he has sought election without the backing of a major party. In 2010, after losing the party whip while Conservative MP for Croydon Central, he ran a well-organised independent campaign but finished fourth, behind the three major parties, in the election that saw Gavin Barwell take up the seat at Westminster.
Today, Pelling tweeted, “I voted at council to stop the cuts to Council Tax benefits… Now is not the time to axe Council Tax Benefits. 20,000 non-pensioners (the law stops the council from hurting pensioners) receive this benefit in Croydon.
“My ward, Waddon, has the second-highest claim number in the borough at 1,300. With up to £125 a month lost to recipients, I had to oppose a decision inimical to Labour values and which will lose us money in higher care and temporary housing costs as people default on rent and get evicted or carers collapse.
“I hated the reference last night to ‘difficult decisions’ having to be made. The people put into difficulty are the needy.
There’s no alternative I’ve been told by a colleague. [But] the money can be found in being bolder with private sector contractors who can be fined for non-performance just modestly in relation to their turnover. Four funding flows just entirely ignored by council, but the needy pay instead.”
Read more: Cynical, hypocritical and devious: benefit cut to hit thousands
Read more: ‘We are all victims’: time for a residents’ Council Tax strike
Read more: Further £38.4m to be sliced from next year’s council budget
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