TONY JOHNSON: Famous for 15 minutes

The last part of January’s “extraordinary” (unscheduled) council meeting covered proposals for changing the scheme for council tax rebates. The proposed scheme would see a third of child maintenance payments being classed as income.

“A little bit of a tweak”

The council papers which described the changes were introduced by the Executive Member for Finance as “a little bit of a tweak to our current scheme but just keeps it within the budget”.

All present quickly learned from the leader of the Liberal Democrat group that the council papers “were the first we knew about it, when we saw it on the agenda”.

This is not good enough” he went on to say, before asking for a recorded vote – an unusual but remarkably prescient measure.

“Taking cash from children”

The leader of the Labour group followed up with a blistering denunciation of the proposals which started with a direct quote about the “consideration as to WHETHER we protect vulnerable groups” – before asking if the council really meant ‘consideration’ or ‘whether’ we should protect the vulnerable.

He redoubled with “this scheme proposes that we literally take cash from children” before going on to say “it will be food, clothes, school trips, colder houses or Mum going without an evening meal” before advising that he didn’t believe that people became Councillors to have this on their conscience.

His concluding remarks continued the concerns “we are being bounced, either by the executive or by officers into approving this scheme”. The deadline was 31st January, just seven days ahead.

Fiat lux

Put simply, “taking cash from children” was the best political speech I’ve heard in WBC’s debating chamber.

Indeed, if it were twice as good as it actually was, it would be half the quality that this borough sorely needs – from councillors of all parties, in all walks of life, on all topics.

The debate ended with an energetically partisan dialogue between the proposer and another member – in which the mayor rightly intervened, suggesting that the pair take their disagreements outside the chamber.

I name that vote Cyril

A named vote is definitely not Cyril the Squirrel. It’s where each councillor’s name gets called one by one and their vote – for, against or abstain – gets recorded.

When the vote to take food off children’s plates had been approved, it was noticeable that there’d been silences from seven councillors (six conservatives and one independent).

And while I don’t claim to understand all the nuances of WBC’s historic voting behaviours, in my opinion these seven were probably dead-set against the motion but had diplomatically “stepped outside for a cup of coffee” rather than be seen voting disloyally against the ruling group’s proposal.

After the Lord Mayor’s show

The debate ran for just under fifteen minutes then the mayor banged the gavel to bring everything to a close and, under normal circumstances, that’d be that.

However, someone had their brains in gear and as the electoral consequences were made clear after the meeting, the new leader of the council had the wit and the courage to issue a press release announcing that this ill-starred proposal had been sent back to the drawing board.

And while some might be concerned as to the constitutional rectitude of this move in overturning a vote of full council, it was better that he took action – to prevent harming those least able to defend against it.

Running a spanner check

Looking through those council papers, they clearly state “that the council is under a duty to approve any revisions to the scheme by January 31st” – as is clear in section 5.2 of schedule 1A of the Local Government Finance Act 2012.

However this has been law for over six years, so one wonders why it was only brought forward on January 24th ?

Moving through the council papers, under “Analysis of the Issues”, they say that “the public consultation exercise was undertaken using a variety of methods (EG: – Social Media, News Release, Leaflets, Flyers, The Council’s Website) between 14th November 2018 and 16th December 2018”.

The good news is that the consultation IS on the Council’s website, although with a December closing date it’s curious that it still appears as an Open Consultation; however, neither the consultation nor the survey clearly state the proposed new policy; but there was a claim that an analysis of the consultation would bepresented to the Council’s Executive committee” (it wasn’t).

Looking through WBC’s social media (Facebook and Twitter) there’s plenty of mentions of consultations about the Local Plan Update, the Borough’s Visions and Priorities, Homes for the Future etc, but I can’t find anything that mentions the council tax rebate consultation.

And while a council tax rebate scheme was published in the Borough News magazine in 2016, I can’t find any mention of the proposed changes in the 2018 editions. Nor any news releases on WBC’s news website.

All of which makes one wonder whether the council papers, including the alleged cost projections, bear much relation to reality.

The Last Word

If you’ve seen the film or remember the events, you’ll recall that the “pretty large bang” on Apollo 13 led to the command module running out of oxygen and power, leading to the mission being aborted.

So it might be wise for the “loud bangers” at Shute End to forestall the whimpering (even from their quieter colleagues) as repairs, learning and evolution get underway.

Phil Creighton

Editor of The Wokingham Paper, and has worked in local journalism for more than 20 years including the Wokingham Times, Bracknell Standard and Reading Evening Post. He's also written for computer magazines, The Baptist Times and, to his delight and probably not yours, interviewed several Doctor Whos.

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