*Updated 8th December, see below
*Updated Thursday with footage, and again, below
Barnet Tories had a real problem, in the run up to the recent election.
What could they put in their manifesto?
What could they use as encouragement for the residents of Broken Barnet to run to the polling stations, on May 22nd, and beg them to form another Conservative administration?
What had they achieved, over the last four years, other than preside over a sequence of unfortunate events, as a result of their catastrophic agenda of policies?
They could not talk about the mass privatisation of services, the handing over of every council function that was not already nailed down or protected; could not mention Capita, or One Barnet, for fear of giving the game away to those residents who have not cottoned on to what has been happening to their borough and local democracy.
Coy references to 'a change programme' took the place, therefore, of any overt mention of the massive outsourcing of our services: but what was left to brag about? Nothing. A dilemma then. Still: they had one trick up their sleeve.
They pride themselves, the Barnet Tories, on their ideological resistance to the principle of taxation. Except, of course, in the form of punitive levels for the poor, as in the bedroom tax.
They become almost hysterical at the thought of the millionaire residents of Totteridge, or the arms dealers and pornographers of Bishops Avenue, being obliged to cough up a bit more in the form of mansion taxes, but of course they should not be expected to pay their fair share of costs which have nothing to do with them, such as healthcare, education, and other indulgences that the lower orders seem to think they have a right to enjoy.
Here in Barnet, they think, despite the continuing reduction in funding from central government, and the devastation on local services that this inevitably causes, we must deprive those services of even more money by cutting our own way of raising revenue, that is to say via council tax. Why? Because ... we don't like the idea of tax, and because we think everyone thinks the same.
Everyone does not think the same, of course, and most decent people understand very well that their local tax supports vital services, and don't want tax cuts that will have a direct impact on such funding.
But Barnet Tories are incapable of empathising with such philanthropism, of course, and therefore, in order to make their electoral chances more favourable, chose this year not only to freeze council tax again, but to go a step further, and cut it, by one per cent. This their leader Richard Cornelius described as a 'gesture', acknowledging the benefit in real terms was negligable: a few pence a week, pointless, and merely symbolic. A gesture, as it turned out, of contempt for those unlucky enough to have to pay the cost of this pre-election bribe.
Within a short while of the tax cut being announced, it was revealed that Mapledown School, a secondary school for children with complex and profound needs, was to lose funding for its vital respite care schemes, which support children after school and during holidays.
This devastating cut, and the impact it would have on the children and their families, was dismissed by both Tory leader Richard Cornelius and education spokesperson Reuben Thompstone, in whose ward the school is located, but who had never visited it.
Cornelius commented, about his plan to deprive Mapledown of funding at the same time as giving his council tax cut gesture: I think the average
person in the street thinks this is fair.
Reuben Thompstone suggested that parents should be 'more creative' in the ways they find funding, and that the school could use its own reserves. At a meeting, Tory Councillor John Hart dismissed the funding as 'handouts'.
Exhausted parents came with their children to a council meeting to explain exactly why comments about creative fundraising were so offensive. The headteacher reminded Thompstone that the school was not allowed to use their reserves in the way he had recommended and that he had already raised a large amount of funding himself.
Widespread criticism of the cuts finally forced the Tories into a reluctant retreat, and won back the vitally needed respite funding - at least for now. But then it emerged that there may be other schools or charitable concerns that have also been the victims of the Tory axe - ten service providers, in fact. They had not had the same focus of publicity for the case of Mapledown, and for them the cuts still applied.
Oakleigh School is the feeder school for Mapledown, and addresses the needs of children from the age of two to eleven: children with a range of profound and complex physical and learning disabilities. No children in the borough could possibly be more vulnerable and dependent than these, yet Barnet Tories had seen fit to impose petty cuts in the funding which provides holiday respite care through its OOPS scheme.
Last night saw the first meeting of the new Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding committee, where the cuts to Oakleigh were due to be debated.
Before the meeting, parents, children and supporters gathered outside the Town Hall. One woman stood patiently, protectively, behind her crying son, like a madonna and child, a latterday pietà.
As you looked on you could only reflect on the absolute villainy of the Tories' action in cutting the funding - how could they even think of taking away any support from these families?
Once inside the committee room, the seats in the public gallery quickly filled, and the councillors and officers took their place at the table. Mrs Angry noted one of the new co-opted members as the man who had been headmaster of St Theresa's primary school, tasked with the almost impossible job of educating her children - the lovely Denis Carey: a valuable addition to the committee, being a man of the utmost integrity and wisdom: qualities, alas which were demonstrably missing from some of the elected members present.
The ineffable Reuben Thompstone, a young councillor whose robust frame somehow exudes the sort of pomposity more usual in a much older man, is the chair of this committee.
To remind us that he was the chair of this committee, he clearly felt the need to exert his authority.
If we can get a bit of quiet, he demanded.
That might seem like a reasonable request, just before a meeting.
In a roomful of young children in wheelchairs, children with multiple disabilities, who are in distress, crying, wailing, twisting in their seats, calling out, banging the floor - this is not, was not, a reasonable request.
It was a really badly judged thing to say.
To say it once, in the circumstances, was bad enough.
To say it again, was simply appalling.
A bit more quiet, he commanded, having acknowledged, graciously, that some might have difficulty in complying with this order.
Not sure, Cllr Thompstone, how you expected the mums and dads of Oakleigh to keep their children quiet, so that the entire room could enjoy the sound of your voice, as you yourself so clearly do.
Some of the children are heavily medicated, and sedated. Some of the children are on the autistic spectrum, and live in a world of infinite confusion, which causes them to become upset, and try to express their feelings without language, by making noise.
Perhaps you might consider, if you find their behaviour challenging, quite how difficult it is to deal with, night and day, all year round - especially with no respite care, in holiday periods?
Mrs Angry had guessed that, forewarned as they were of the visit to the town hall by the families of Oakleigh, and fearful of more negative publicity, just before the delayed election in Colindale, our Tory strategists would have something up their rapidly unravelling sleeve aimed at deflecting the further avalanche of opprobrium that was going to descend on their horrible heads, should they insist on going ahead with the cut.
Thompstone, as predicted, moved quickly to try to defuse the inevitable emotional impact of parents coming to the table and pleading for councillors to restore the funding. He submitted a motion that would give back some of the money: enough to pay for this summer's scheme. He claimed he was doing this because he now realised that parents had not had enought time to take the cuts into account, whereas, as one parent claimed later:
Ms Charles also disputed Mr Thompstone's claims that parents had not
understood the impact of the cuts. She added that OOPS had made repeated
attempts to obtain a contract with the council, but had been met with
opposition by the council officers.
She said: “It is simply not
the case. The people at short-breaks are well aware of that. There have
been heated discussions for two years regarding the contract.”
In fact it is quite obvious that the Tories were merely backtracking on a mindlessly cruel decision simply because they were caught out, and publicly shamed. But what they have approved, now, is only a partial reprieve: £21,000 of the £38,000 needed for the schemes. There is also promised the ominous threat of a more general review of overall funding.
Perhaps Thompstone and his Tory colleagues hoped that would be the end of it, and they could drop the item, and move on. Not bloody likely.
Sarah Sackman, a local barrister who - thank God - is standing as the Labour candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, against Mike Freer, in 2015, has been a staunch advocate for the children at both Mapledown and Oakleigh schools, and had submitted questions to the meeting. She now addressed the committee. You might think that the local MP would naturally undertake such a role - but that is not the sort of thing he does, is it? And next year you can choose between him, and the sort of person who cares enough to make the effort.
Although welcoming the restoration of the lost funding, Sarah pointed out it was unfortunate that it had had to take such a concerted effort to achieve this end.
These parents had had to fight for every bit of support they had. We should be there to support these people, and these children. The council had to do better, to avoid the huge amount of distress caused by their actions.
At this point the Chair cut her off, as she was over what is now a preposterous three minute limit for such public contributions. Our Tory councillors are not awfully keen on the idea of engagement, or consultation, or democracy, and too long an opportunity for criticism from an uncensored source is of course too dangerous a risk to contemplate.
Fortunately, for the purpose of restoring some sort of democratic involvement within the limitations of this meeting, a Labour councillor came to the rescue. Anne Hutton invited Sarah to continue with her comments.
She did continue. She made the point that what was happening here in Barnet is actually counter to what is happening nationally, where we are seeing funding for such schemes increased, not slashed. We must protect the most vulnerable children, surely?
Mr White, parent of a child at Oakleigh, spoke next.
He reminded the committee that OOPS needs long term funding, and explained why, from his own perspective.
Many of the children at Oakleigh, and Mapledown, he said, with courageous honesty, were almost impossible to manage.
OOPS provides the only opportunity for families to find a skilled and dedicated standard of care, from staff who know their children, children who know the staff, and who can benefit, through the scheme, from being in a safe and stimulating environment.
Many of these children, he said, were not mobile, and many have very, very challenging behavioural difficulties.
He talked about his son, who is eight and a half, and is 'non verbal'.
He works for the BBC. He used to work five days a week. Then it was four, then three, then two - and now he struggles to do one.
OOPS helps him to keep going, to contribute in some way to society. Without it, he would be dependent on benefits, and the taxpayer, at an enormous cost. This was not the way forward.
I implore you, he said, to ensure that the funding of OOPS continues.
At this point, Mrs Angry felt a terrible sense of shame. Why should a man of his articulacy, and in his position, be reduced to having to implore a bunch of self satisfied, disinterested Tory councillors for what clearly should be his, and his son's, by absolute right?
New Labour councillor Ammar Naqvi commented that his contribution had been very poignant. He wondered what Mr White thought of the proposed further cuts: were they acceptable?
No, was the emphatic response. It was incumbant on the council to provide the more vulnerable members of society with the support they need.
Another father sat at the table. His son has autism. He pointed out that many parents and children could not attend the meeting as the time was way past their bedtime: such children are generally exhausted, by this time.
He explained that having a child with such complex disabilities might be understood by any parent as going back to the time when your child was a baby. Except that that time, with such a child, goes on and on and on. So the respite offered by OOPS and similar schemes was like 'a pearl in the life of parents like these'. It gave them the chance to recharge properly.
And then it was time for Rose.
Rose and her daughter's partner Ross had been sitting next to Mrs Angry.
Mrs Angry had read Rose's story in the local paper, and been humbled by her dedication to her two disabled grandchildren, for whom she cares, as their mother is too unwell.
Can you possibly imagine what it is like, to be the carer for two children with such complex, distressing disabilities: children whose lives will be limited by their illness, and have no outcome other than the most bleak?
Rose was determined that the councillors who had wanted to remove the funding for her grandchildren's respite care to understand exactly what impact such a move would have.
She began by explaining the level of medication her sixteen year old grandson Ben relied upon: some fifteen different types of drugs. What were these for? To try to relieve the pain and distress his deteriorating condition caused him. The seizures to which he was prone - sometimes 80 a day. The thrashing about, scoliosis, neuropathic pain, difficulty in breathing, an inability to swallow, constant infections.
His sister, Sophie, only seven years old, suffering from worsening epilepsy, no longer mobile, continent, or able to feed -
Reuben Thompstone interrupts this pitiful, painful description, crassly, stupidly, telling her she has only a short time left to speak.
She continues, increasingly distressed, speaking of the more joyful moments of her time with Sophie, when she takes you by the hand, she said ... at this point her daughter's partner turned to Mrs Angry and said he wanted to comfort her, would it be alright? Yes, yes - go and sit next to her. He did so, and sat silently as she said, speaking with unbearable candour, straight to the heart of anyone with any semblance of humanity:
I love my children, more than you can understand, and I want to look after them at home, before they die, which is inevitable ...
Unbelievably, Thompstone interrupted her again, to the disgust of almost everyone in the room.
The heartbreak, she told us, is too difficult to describe.
She explained that she was always one inch away from the end of her tether: who could blame her?
And her message to the councillors was this: with knowledge, comes understanding - and responsibility. She rejected the insulting pretence that the temporary reprieve over funding was due to an administrative error, and referring to the UN charter on the rights of the child, she said:
I urge you to give our children the respect and dignity they deserve.
After she had returned to her seat, Labour's veteran councillor Agnes Slocombe angrily demanded to know why it was that we always take so much from those who have so little.
Because those people don't have a voice, said one of the parents.
If it had not been for the tactful intervention of Labour councillors Rebecca Challice, Anne Hutton, and Ammar Naqvi, Rose would not have been able to make the speech that she made, on behalf not just herself and her two grandchildren, but all of those who benefit from the vital support schemes that this money has always funded.
Apart from the rudeness and insensitivity of the Chair, none of the members of the Tory group who imposed these cuts, in order to make savings necessitated by a pathetic 23 pence a week tax bonus, had the courage to speak to any of the parents who sat at the table. They sat in evident discomfort, silently listening, their body language speaking eloquently of their unease. Perhaps they thought of their own children, or grandchildren, and had the glimmerings of an understanding about what they had done, and what they will probably do again, as long as they think no one much will notice.
This is the real face of the Barnet Tory group: they vote for these proposals, and then withdraw them if there is protest, but sit silently by when brought face to face with the victims of their policies in action.
The money they are making in savings, and the further savings - the 'haircuts' that Kate Kennally later so efficiently explained, including those being proposed for childrens' services: this pales into insignificance when compared to the funds squandered on the consultation fees alone for the implementation of the privatisation contracts - contracts that give us a modest amount of pocket money, and allow Capita to give all the rest to their shareholders.
In the upside down world of Broken Barnet, run by our Tory councillors, this is how things are, where the rights of disabled children, by definition the most vulnerable of all residents of our community, take second place to the best interests of private enterprise.
It's no wonder that the Chair of this meeting didn't want to hear the noise made by the children of Oakleigh School, or listen to the stories their parents had to tell. People with a voice are so much more difficult to ignore, aren't they?
The parents and teachers of these schools are heroic, truly admirable people.
Who could be more worthy of respect - and who could make some of our elected representatives look any less worthy?
Please see the comment below from Lisa Dresner, on behalf of the marvellous 'Resources for Autism', which, along with several other bodies, has lost a third of the funding needed to provide vital short breaks with children affected by this extremely challenging and distressing disability.
As she says ' 6 weeks with no appropriate respite is a very long time for both the child and their families' ... their cut has not been restored, and the only conclusion that one can draw is that it is because they have not had the ability to campaign as loudly and as effectively as Oakleigh and Mapledown schools.
What sort of council do we have where policy is to cut funding to disabled children to pay for pre election tax 'gestures', and then restore some of it if the affected recipient is able to perform well enough before their Tory representatives, and plead with them for mercy, and ask for what should be theirs, by right, as a priority of funding, and with humble thanks from the authority for the invaluable, irreplaceable service they so lovingly provide?
Updated 8th December 2014
In the last week, Rose Charles' grandson Ben passed away.
Sincere sympathies for their loss to his family, carers, and supporting staff at Oakleigh School.
Rose continues to care for Ben's sister, Sophie.