Monthly Archives: February 2011

Steve Reed’s Budget Speech To Lambeth Council

It has been reported, and I have commented here, on the way Lambeth Council’s meeting to set a legal budget, faced with massive Tory Lib Dem government cuts, was disrupted by protesters. Council then met in closed session, in the Assembly Hall of Lambeth Town Hall. Five speeches of the planned 41 were made before the budget was voted on.

Contrary to claims made by Lib Dem leader Cllr Ashley Lumsden, and his heir abhorrent, Cllr Steve Bradley, Labour councillors did not laugh and clap as the budget was voted on. This recording made in the meeting of Labour leader Cllr Steve Reed’s speech gives an impression of the tone of the meeting.

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“We Betrayed The People Who Voted For Us”: Another Lib Dem Resignation

Cllr Gavin Chambers

In the words of W S Gilbert, now give three cheers and one cheer more – for Cllr Gavin Chambers. He’s a parish councillor on Buckhurst Hill Parish Council in Essex, the latest in a lengthening line of people who have decided  the Lib Dems are no longer for them.

Cllr Chambers has given the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote as his principal reason for doing so, saying: “I have decided to stand as an independent. I disagree with the party leadership over their support for the Alternative Voting (AV) system. I think that it would be very expensive, difficult to work out and is unnecessary as the system which we have works.”

He added, on the general direction of the Lib Dems in government: “We made promises that we did not keep. We betrayed the people who voted for us. When they voted for us we were a very different party.”

“Nick Clegg said there would be no raise in tuition fees and he has gone back on that. I think that as an independent I will be better able to stand up for the people on my ward and to provide a critical voice on the council.”

A courageous stand and well done.

Here’s the short compilation I made of the statements of councillors leaving the Lib Dems since the general election.

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A Bad Night For Democracy

Cuts protesters begin their 'people's assembly'

It was always going to be a depressing night, with Labour councillors in Lambeth voting for cuts we don’t want to make. We always knew there would be protesters at the town hall, calling on us to make no cuts, set an illegal budget, thereby playing into hands of the Tory Lib Dem government.

The thicket of Socialist Worker and other placards, the string of police and the cameras outside the town hall entrance were the prelude to the council meeting to set the 2011-12 budget, which makes £37 million of cuts to services. I was asked by one protester if I was a councillor. Yes, I replied. ‘I hope you die of cancer, you c**t,’ she said. She was wearing a Lewisham Against The Cuts badge. I said I hoped she got all the way home safely.

In the council chamber, I sat in my seat and noticed spit on my sleeve. Phlegmatic people, those trots.

A few minutes later, the gallery was opened and the noise began. Shouts of ‘shame on you’, ‘take back our council’, etc.

The Mayor, Cllr Neeraj Patil, entered and a man shouted from the gallery ‘Here comes the flummery’. Chants of ‘no ifs, no buts, no coalition cuts’ and ‘let them in’. The latter referring to the fact that about half of one gallery was empty and protesters felt more people should be let in. The Mayor attempted to keep order, but order wasn’t to be the order of the day.

In fact, the gallery was half empty because seats were reserved for members of the nine deputations who were due to address Council, and they were waiting in the ante chamber to come in and speak. Someone shouted ‘They’re all cronies and apparatchiks in that gallery’. Actually, no. I scanned the faces and the only one I could put a name to was Ted Knight, who was laughing and clapping.

For the record, those deputations, which we never got to hear, were tenants’ representatives, pensioners, disability campaigners, Lambeth Save Our Services, adventure playground representatives, Unison and the NUT. There was also a petition to be delivered protesting about the cuts to the park rangers service.

The Mayor attempted to ask, politely, that the people in the galleries allow the proceedings of the council to function. He asked three times and was barracked. He explained that he would have to adjourn the meeting for ten minutes with the intention of clearing the gallery. The meeting was adjourned and councillors rose, some drifting from the chamber and some, like me, staying in their seats.

Jon Rogers, the head honcho of Lambeth Unison used the microphone in the well of the chamber to tell the protesters that if they persisted, none of the delegations would get to speak and the council meeting would be held in closed session. To no avail.

I looked up from my speech notes to see a man, with a baby in a papoose, dancing and clapping in the well of the council chamber. Other people with banners and placards began to walk in. I filmed this.

I was then told by an officer that Council would be reconvening in the Assembly Hall, at the back of the town hall. And so it did. No delegations, and only five speeches in total, not the 41 which had been indicated. Two from Labour (Cllr Paul McGlone, Cllr Steve Reed), two from the Lib Dems (Cllr Gavin Dodsworth, Cllr Ashley Lumsden) and one from the Tories (Cllr Julia Memery).

Then the votes. Eight amendments, six from the Lib Dems and two from the Conservatives. Those were rejected one by one by show of hands. Then the substantive vote. A recorded vote, with the name of each councillor present being read out by the Mayor and each in turn saying ‘for’ or ‘against’. Half an hour and a legal budget was set, containing the effects of savage and unnecessary cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, on a scale not seen since before the Second World War.

So what did the protest and council chamber occupation actually achieve? Councillors having a truncated debate in closed session with police at the doors, heard only by a handful of council officers and a few journalists. Protesters talking to themselves in the council chamber, glorying in having – momentarily – prevented openly accountable, democratically elected local democracy from functioning.

Whose opinions were changed? What would the deputations have had to say if they could have been heard? I would like to have known. What would Labour councillors have said about the effects of cuts in their wards? How did Lib Dem and Tory councillors feel about being let off the hook over the cuts forced on Lambeth by their government? Relief, I would imagine.

I’ve no doubt there were genuine local residents in the town hall last night. But the manner of the protest didn’t allow their voices to be heard by councillors, or councillors to be heard in return.

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Will Lambeth Move Towards Transparency?

Lambeth Town Hall

I was listening this morning to edited highlights of a recent Lambeth Council planning meeting (yes, I know, it sounds sad for a Sunday morning but it concerns an important development issue for my patch), recorded by Streatham resident Mark Oxley. It’s almost an hour long (much shorter than the actual meeting) and you can listen to it here.

A fair summary of a contentious meeting, recorded by a resident of the borough. Mark has said elsewhere that he intends to ‘find out just what rules govern taking notes of meetings.’ He was technically breaching the rules. I’ll explain why, and then explain why the rules should be changed.

Rule 20, one of the briefest rules in Lambeth Council’s lengthy constitution, has this to say:

‘No-one is allowed to take photographs of or record using any audio and/or visual equipment the proceedings in meetings unless permission is given at the meeting.’

The chair of a meeting can in theory adjourn a meeting if the rule is being broken, be they the Mayor (Full Council), the Leader (Cabinet meetings), a scrutiny chair, the chair of a scrutiny commission, or the chair of any other formally constituted meeting being held in public (note: council meetings are meetings in public rather than public meetings).

On occasion, ‘standing orders’ have been suspended (by agreement) to allow photography and audiovisual recording, as for example with the Full Council when civic awards are presented, or the rare occasions when public galleries are full and a video link is provided to an overflow room.

Quite frankly, Rule 20 exists for no good reason. How long it has existed and why it exists is a mystery to me. Why Lambeth councillors should not be photographed or recorded in town hall meetings when we can be photographed or recorded anywhere else is indefensible.

Other councils, quite rightly, offer a webcast of virtually every meeting. Here is a link to the feast of local democracy that Maidstone Borough Council has to offer.

That is a sensible way to provide the official record, so that residents who are unable to be at a meeting can catch up with it online. A live webcast which would be placed in an online archive for retrieval seems to be a sensible way forward. Some councils do this, and some, like Lambeth, don’t.

What about the unofficial record, like Mark Oxley’s podcast? Well, if councillors like me can tweet away merrily and even blog from council meetings (whilst paying due attention and guided, of course, by the Code of Conduct), why on earth shouldn’t the public be able to tweet, video, photograph and otherwise relay the meeting to a wider audience?

Neighbouring Southwark has recently agreed to allow people to make recordings in some of its meetings. Well done Southwark. It’s time for Lambeth to follow suit and abolish a pointless rule.

Across the country, councils have varying attitudes to how their meetings are recorded. Some have full, almost verbatim written minutes, some have literally bullet points. Some do webcasts, some don’t appear to be aware of the existence of the internet.

Surely there is a case, given growing concern about the democratic accountability of councils in a time when cuts are being made to services, to establish a national common level of transparency about where and when, and with what level of debate, decisions are made.

Some councils may, given their financial situation, not see investing in webcasting and fuller minuting as a priority. But allowing the public to transmit the words and actions of councillors beyond the town hall costs nothing and would be an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.

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Big Society: A Closet Size Queen Comes Out

Nick Clegg

Junior member of the Cameron government, Nick Clegg, appeared on LBC this morning. Presenter Nick Ferrari asked him repeatedly whether or not he likes the Big Society (BS for short). Clegg repeatedly tried to dodge and waffle his way out of an answer. First, he claimed the government had removed the right of councils to ‘spy on your bin’.

Is that really a core principle behind the Big Society? I wasn’t aware of people lying awake at night wondering if Lambeth Council’s Special Wheelie Bin Intelligence Squad was on the prowl for refuse-niks. They are rather more likely to be concerned about whether or not their bin will be emptied as regularly as in the past,which, given savage government cuts to local government now and in coming years, is a justified concern.  Or perhaps the idea is that the community will be empowered to spy on each other’s bins. Who knows?

Clegg then haltingly attempted to explain the BS ‘concept’. In my experience, when politicians haltingly attempt anything it’s fair to say they are either filled with bafflement or they are plain old reluctant. In Clegg’s case, it would be reasonable to conclude he is filled with both bafflement and reluctance. But contrast his subsequent remarks in favour, confirming he is in fact full of BS.

Ferrari then turned to Clegg’s apparent lack of community activism, asking why he isn’t running a pub or taking over the local park. Clegg responded that he would be too busy explaining student fees policy to serve any drinks. Perhaps, especially in a pub in a studenty area. More probably, Clegg would be sorting through the ashes and rubble of The Cremated Phoenix.

Here is part of the interview I’m referring to .

NF:  Are you a fan of the big society, does the big society as a proposition, has it been sold well, does it work, do you like it?

NC:   Look it is a label, a set of words which I think actually speaks for something which runs quite deep in the British psyche which is that people don’t like to constantly be told what to do, what to think, they don’t like, last week, a good example, we actually talked about it on the radio last week, and I took a lead at this, we’ve repealed the right of local authorities to spy on your bin, to break and enter into your home, to have a sort of poke around your house and I think what we are doing is we are restoring peoples sense of privacy.

NF:  So you do like the big society?

NC:   I like the whole underpinning of a big society in which people…

NF:   Golly, why won’t you say you like the big society…

NC:   No, I’ve just said of course I like the big… of course I like the concept of the big society, I’m trying to explain the concept of a big society…

NF:     You do like it?

NC:   Of course I do…

NF:    So why aren’t you doing it?

NC:    Why aren’t I doing what?

NF:    Because we are all meant, even if we have got 3 young children, as I know you have, we are all still meant to be running our village pub and becoming school governors, and taking over the local park, shouldn’t you lead by example?

NC:   Well I think if I tried to run the local pub now I’d be too stuck trying to explain the fees policy, and too busy to serve any drinks… I think the whole idea and the big society bank, which was announced over the last few days, will be a real boost to giving social enterprises and voluntary groups and others the kind of means they need to get going and take control of their own areas in the way in which we think really works.

So there we have it. It’s big. Eye-wateringly big, whether as a label, some words or a concept. And it’s got something to do with society. The Liberal Democrats, who a year ago thought it was ‘patronising nonsense’, now think it will be a ‘real boost’ that ‘really works’. Nick Clegg came out of the closet today to say so.

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Dave’s Dodo: Thoughts On The Big Society

Big Society (Societus Crassus)

Observing the various relaunches of David Cameron’s cherished ‘policy’, the Big Society, it’s unsurprising that it never quite seems to get off the ground. Like the Dodo, that ungainly, ill-fated cousin of the pigeon, it does not possess the power of flight. Everyone knows what happened to Didus Ineptus.

Societus Crassus, Mr Cameron’s very own squawking, flightless bird, seems to be as clumsy as the Dodo. Cameron said today ‘People are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. People like the idea.’

Do they? Cameron might claim as much in defending the idea, existing as it does as a cover for ideological cuts. But is the ‘passion’ he spoke of today shared by a waiting nation? Not according to a Sky News poll, which showed that 78% of viewers would not volunteer themselves, compared to 22% who would.

A Sunday Mirror poll yesterday showed 41 per cent of people think the Big Society is a cover for cuts – against 21 per cent who back the idea.

Cameron today claimed his Big Society ‘will not make us popular. In fact it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that is my duty. We have to do this for the good of the country.’

An interesting, if Dodo-ish, attitude. But can a policy that relies on mass volunteering work without the required mass of volunteers? Can public services and voluntary sector organisations, currently being dismembered by Cameron’s government, reassemble the hacked up pieces of themselves and carry on?

The opportunity to volunteer, to make a difference and contribute to the good causes has existed ever since human beings first had spare time. Look, for example, at the honours list each time it comes out and there are hundreds of people who have done good work in their community. But they have never before been expected to take on the burden of running significant services, day in and day out.

They do what they do because they have spare time to do it. But expect them to take on the running of, for example, a local library, and that could be a back-breaking pressure for many. Is it a fair or realistic expectation? Does the Big Society give anyone any choice in the matter? If local services will disappear unless people volunteer, is it volunteering? Is it obligation? Is it what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’? Or is it an open-ended community sentence  for people who haven’t done anything wrong?

David Cameron is placing  a romantic 18th and 19th Century notion of philanthropy, where big benefactors endowed hospitals, orphanages, almshouses or free public libraries (which were then run by paid staff), up against the reality of public services in the 21st Century (with all the expectations of high quality that are placed on them, rightly, by modern users).

It unsettles me, given Britain’s unhappy recent history with bankers, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have now turned to large financial institutions (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland) to help the Big Society fly. Investment will now take the form of loans to ‘social enterprises’ from the Big Society Bank. Loans, not grants. And the banks, as banks do, will inevitably want to see some return on their £200 million investment.

In addition, £100 million has been earmarked from dormant bank accounts. Ah, those dormant bank accounts. I’ve lost count of the number of times dormant bank accounts have been earmarked for various purposes in recent years. I’m surprised there’s anything left in them.

That initial pot of £300 million is around 3.5 times what Lambeth, one borough among many, is being forced to cut by government over the next three years. I presume it’s intended as seed money to encourage others to invest, which leads me to wonder whether the Big Society Bank, and the Big Society, are intended as stealth mechanisms for wholesale privatisation of public services. Where publicly run services, weakened by cuts, are being set up to fail by Cameron, Clegg and Co, private enterprise will be lined up to pick over what is left in the debris.

In Lambeth we are taking a different approach, advancing plans to become a co-operative council. We are driven, not by commercial imperative, but by co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. We recognise that to protect public services we must take a democratic, mutual approach with the public we serve. So, as examples, the ambition is that youth services will be run by community-led commissioning that allows very local decision making on the best way to provide services, library services may be placed in a trust (or trusts) owned by the community, and schools encouraged to group into co-operative trusts, sharing resources to benefit children.

Lambeth Council is not abandoning services. We are working with residents to provide them. The response from the community has been encouraging. Unlike Cameron’s Big Society, our co-op council is ready to fly.

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Lib Dem Quits After Racist Tweet About Chuka Umunna

Cllr Warren Swaine

No, not in Streatham, where I live, but in the area where I grew up, in Reading.

Liberal Democrat councillor for Katesgrove ward, Warren Swaine, decided to pass comment on the recent performance of my good friend and neighbour Chuka Umunna, Labour Member of Parliament for Streatham, on BBC Question Time.

Cllr Swaine (pictured) tweeted this:

“I am waiting for the Labour guy to claim, ‘Is it because I is black’ as a defence for being a muppet.”

Disgusting. Loathsome. Detestable.

I watched Chuka on TV, as I often do, and thought it was an excellent performance. As a press officer I used to brief people up for Question Time, and still do occasionally. So I can claim to know a thing or two about effective QT performances. I texted Chuka afterwards to say so.

Chuka is young, bright, articulate. He’s a very capable politician, in the Commons, in the media and, crucially, in the community he serves. Warren Swaine has shown himself to be the reverse of that, the negative, the underside of the stone. He is a bilious disgrace to his party, the people who elected him and the office he holds. If anyone is a muppet, it is Swaine. A racist muppet.

I read today that Cllr Swaine has now ‘stepped down’ from his role as Cabinet Member for Environment and Sustainability on Reading Borough Council, but not before turning his not inconsiderable mind to maligning black community leaders on his own doorstep.

Reading is a town (it should really be a city) with a significant black and minority ethnic population. Cllr Swaine, who uses being half Sri Lankan as a defence when it suits, chose to question the integrity of campaigners trying to prevent funding cuts (by his Tory Lib Dem administration) to Reading Council for Racial Equality. Swaine said on his blog:

“Maybe I can be forgiven for thinking that they [RCRE] aren’t quite the spontaneous groundswell of support they were supposed to appear as.”

Swaine also sought to suggest RCRE has leanings towards Labour. RCRE director Rajinder Sophal has responded:

“Cllr Swaine came to RCRE disguised as a friend but actually with malice in his heart. We treated him nothing other that as a friend and colleague and we feel let down by his outburst.”

I do hope that in 2012 the voters of Reading will assist Warren Swaine in ‘stepping down’ from his role as a councillor.

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