After Cllr Stuart Barker announced his decision to close 20 Devon County Council residential care homes, opposition councillors immediately called in the decision to allow scrutiny of how it was made.
Scrutiny is important – it ensures that proper procedures have been followed and that, in theory, decisions are not just being made on the whims of councillors. According to Devon County Council’s own scrutiny committee guidance, to maintain an effective scrutiny committee function, scrutiny committees need to:
- bring in the views of local people and communities
- help improve council policies and services so they meet people’s needs better, looking at the issues from a resident’s point of view
- contribute to the review and development of council policies, to make sure that they do what was intended
- make sure the council is open about the way decisions are made
- make sure the council measures its own performance and regularly reports in public on how well it is keeping its promises
- hold the Cabinet and those officers responsible for putting policy in place and delivering services to account
- look beyond the authority at issues and organisations that affect local quality of life
- help better joining up of public and other services
- focus on outcome and improvement.
Cllr Sara Randall Johnson chaired this committee and immediately caused concern by refusing permission for any affected residents, their relatives or relevant professionals to be heard at the meeting.
In our view Cllr Randall Johnson ran this meeting with unprofessionalism and partisan contempt for process. If you don’t believe us and are happy to lose three hours of your life, take a look at the scrutiny committee meeting webcast. Councillors are openly chided for asking questions; told to ask them all at once for some inexplicable reason; told they’d been answered when they hadn’t been. Even Cllr Barker pointed out to Randall Johnson an error she made and volunteered to answer a question she was trying to deny. Not that there were many credible answers – Cllr Barker was allowed to waffle and evade, while Randall Johnson laughs and chats. At one point a Councillor opined that there seemed to be too much scrutiny and that:
“..we need to display some trust in our [council] officers.”
Cllr Philip Sanders, for it was he, is clearly unacquainted with concept of scrutiny, let alone the council’s own advice on the role of scrutiny committees. Just trust them, he reckons. This from a self-proclaimed ‘self-employed management consultant in health care’ – and we all know how well private care homes and even the NHS do when nobody’s scrutinising what they do. He drew a parallel with trust in council officers to trusting an airline pilot – you wouldn’t have a look around the plane yourself would you – that’s the pilot’s job. Ditto council decisions, so stop wasting our time. You wouldn’t believe it unless it was there at 02:08:40 on the webcast.
Cllr Sanders: There is the overwhelming impression amongst the public that the decision was pre-determined; that quoted costs are misleading at best, deliberately exaggerated at worst; and that the whole process has been badly run. Do you not think it your job to try and allay these fears through scrutiny? Because at present you and your colleagues just look like cheerleaders for an ideological decision for which you’re trying to avoid accountability.
Not one Tory councillor called into question the figures or the process. Their job was to scrutinise this decision in the context of the guidance issued by the council, to ensure the decision was correctly made. They really couldn’t be bothered. In fact, if you watch the webcast, you can see that they clearly saw their job as defending the decision against any opposition.
Cllr Alan Connett said during the meeting:
“The chair ruled against our request to be able to invite members of the public as witness, trades unions and others who would have something to contribute to a scrutiny process. So indeed it’s a sad day for scrutiny generally and for this county council in particular that we are gagged, limited in who we can ask, confined to ask only questions of one man, the man who made it, and we cannot examine that evidence by asking others. We were assured when the Conservatives appointed you as chairman that you would be independent, independent of mind and spirit and we find at the first big clash that the Conservative party has won because the it’s a Conservative Party chair. You have not lived up to what you assured us you would do.”
Randall Johnson did not bother to respond to that. She doesn’t feel accountable (it’s a bit of a theme we find).
At the end of the ‘debate’ (see approx. 2hrs44m), Cllr Frank Biederman read out a letter from Julie Glover. Julie had written movingly about her mum, a resident with dementia at Oakwell Care Home in Bickington, North Devon. Julie’s mum receives outstanding care from the staff at Oakwell, and medical advice says she is unlikely to survive a move. Julie says that the closure of Oakwell would ‘not be a sad day, it would be a tragedy’. Cllr Biederman begged the committee to reverse just one decision and save Oakwell as a facility that the council should be proud of. As the webcast pans back to Randall Johnson, she looks confused about what’s been said, having presumably nodded off during the reading (or certainly not having paid much attention). She wearily calls a vote, which was predictably lost as no Tory dares rebel on the matter, assuming there’s any will among the bovine to do so. No comment is made by anyone on the letter. Julie’s mum is dismissed as easily as a request for a new parking sign on your local road.
The ‘scrutiny’ is nicely summed up by the minutes available for this farce:
“Councillor Connett having MOVED and Councillor Hannan SECONDED that People s Scrutiny Committee recommend to Cabinet that no County Council Residential Care Home will be closed until:
(a) an independent expert confirms that suitable alternative provision is available, taking into account the specific needs of each resident;
(b) independent accountants have reviewed, analysed and reported publicly on the financial robustness of the Cabinet s proposals;
(c) a Report is received into the full implications of the effects of the closures/redundancies/retirements of staff on the Council s Pension Fund;
and that, no resident of a County Council Residential Care Home will be transferred to a concern run by an independent provider unless it can be shown to meet minimum acceptable standards in terms of safeguarding, staff qualifications, provision of in-service training, pay and conditions of service.
The Council will monitor such provision to ensure the requirements are met and report annually to Scrutiny.
The Motion was put to the vote and declared LOST.“
You might have skipped over that (it’s a bit dull in some ways), but look again: “Do we care if residents are moved to homes that don’t meet minimum acceptable standards? No, we don’t. We don’t care. WE DO NOT CARE.” This is self-interested amoral decision-making at it’s absolute worst. These people are vile.
In our opinion this was scrutiny in name only. In a little over 2 hours a decision that will irreversibly alter 260 vulnerable lives, most for the worse, and in many cases with terminal results, was debated by a bunch of politicians whose primary concerns are their own political careers.
We asked for Randall Johnson’s feedback on our criticisms of the way this meeting was conducted but she has given no response. A formal complaint was made to Devon County Council. Neither Randall Johnson nor DCC consider it worth responding. They feel that they are unaccountable.