Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Care Scare Bunch

Remember this?

"Councillors were faced with the information that the old Civic Centre was riddled with asbestos, resulting in no-go areas where maintenance and repairs cannot be carried out without the use of costly measures to protect against the deadly white dust. It has leaky roofs and dodgy air conditioning which has to be constantly policed to guard against legionella bacteria."

That was officers' justification in 2006 for an urgent move out of the Civic which, if you believed their original reports, had to be completed by the end of 2010 or it would be armageddon in the town centre.

You may recognise some of these elements if you happened to be sitting in that pile of rubble listening to the Arthur Clark Care Home debate. It was like groundhog day in terms of self-justification by the lead councillor. Woo asbestos! Woo expensive refurbishment! Woo new regulations!

But was it really Rachel Eden speaking? I doubt it. She was simply parroting her officer briefing. It's a well worn officer tactic which can be condensed into: "Won't somebody please think of the children" (or in this case the elderly). If you go against their advice, you are a very bad person and bad things will happen and it will be your fault.

This tactic was used liberally during the debates on the Civic relocation with both Tories and Labour using officer scare stories to justify their attacks on the Lib Dem group who had the temerity to question the officer advice (as it turned out quite correctly). Questioning officer advice was equated with questioning their integrity. It is not the same thing at all and a deliberately disingenuous argument.

The underlying problem is that if you don't keep a close eye on the officers they will try to pull the wool over your eyes. I've seen plenty of examples where not all the options were presented in an effort to ensure certain outcomes and in some cases where facts were deliberately withheld. I'm not saying this was necessarily true in this case, but there seemed to be a familiar pattern being played out.

Officers are not necessarily doing it for bad reasons but to ensure their preferred outcome. They view elected members as an irritant to the good running of the council. This can be articulated in the words of one officer who said to me quite bluntly: "How dare [councillors] try to tell [officers] how to do their jobs? What do they know about [running a council department]?"

The normal way is to give the lead councillor what is referred to unofficially as a '$h!t' sandwich. Officers will prepare three or more options in response to a proposal or request for a report. One of them clearly will be their preferred option (and is usually easy to spot). To ensure it is selected they surround it with options to give you a gentle nudge in the right direction. That's the sandwich!

Uncharacteristically, I do have some sympathy for Cllr Eden. It is true that you sometimes have tough decisions to make and you can't always take the popular path. Even so, there was enough reasonable doubt in the thoroughness of the options to warrant sending the officers back to explore other avenues. The fact that a decision needed to be made as a matter of urgency rather than as a general policy decision about council run care homes leads me to believe that the closure was already worked into next year's council budget.

The cynic in me knew that all the protests against the Arthur Clark closure were in vain but I'm pleased to see so many turn out to see the political process in play but don't be fooled by the change from a Cabinet to Committee decision making structure. It's a step in the right direction but it is not being done for the good of local democracy. It is a mechanism to tie the opposition into unpopular decision making and it's a tactic Tony Page has deployed with monotonous regularity over the years.

The truth is that Council decisions are not made in full council or committee. They are made at Labour General Committee and group meetings. When the Cabinet made decisions the responsibility for those decisions was clear cut. In the neue politik opposition parties will have to learn quickly that a failure to speak at committee will be used as an indicator of acquiescence -  even when in practice opposing a predetermined decision by the party in power is futile.

The bottom line is that the decision to close Arthur Clark was made weeks ago in a Labour meeting. Don't kid yourself that it was made in any other way.