While Labour fiddles

From Liberal Conspiracy, 15 June 2009

More on sheltered housing warden cuts in Barnet – an example of the sort of Tory public service cuts we’ll see more and more:

We go now to a brutalist council building in Barnet’s Totteridge and Whetstone, where yours truly is holed up at a cabinet meeting in a large committee room, watching Cllr Mike Freer, the spiritual void who runs Barnet council, brush aside the concerns of elderly sheltered housing residents who are about lose their cherished onsite warden service in Freer’s latest cost-cutting wheeze.

As reported here recently, Barnet council and its financial team – that group of fiscal legends best known for investing (riskily) £27m in Icelandic banks, where the whole pile tanked – claim they need to find £12m in savings to balance books compromised by inadequate central government settlements (ie, it’s Labour’s fault – a point that Labour rubbishes, for what it’s worth), inflation, and a desire to keep council tax increases below three percent as local and national elections loom.

The council believes it can save £950,000 (re-forecast to £400,000 in a rapidly revised proposal for this evening’s meeting) by removing onsite residential wardens (whose tasks include dealing with health and security emergencies, organising GP visits, organising social activities, and checking on residents at least once a day) from sheltered housing scheme. They’d be replaced with a ‘floating’ support service where support workers based at hubs would visit elderly people who met eligibility criteria.

It’s a proposal that sheltered housing residents hate and have complained bitterly about since it was announced. Many feel that tonight’s their last shot at putting cabinet members off. That’s why hundreds of residents and their family members have turned up to this cabinet meeting to fight the mighty Freer.

Alas – Freer is unmoved before the hordes.

In a ‘prearranged answers to questions from residents’ session – with unarranged audience cries of ‘have you got a mother?’ and ‘what about all the money you threw away in Iceland?’ and ‘I’m going to hold you personally responsible for my mother’s health’ ringing round the room – the disdainful Freer lays out the council’s case for forcing residents to give up the wardens they trust and depend on.

Reading in monotone from a pre-typed sheet, the bored Freer (‘sorry, could you get to your question, please?’ he sneers at one man who prefaces his question to the cabinet with a brief description of his concerns) lays out the (thin) company line on the warden proposal – that cutting the onsite warden service will lead to a fairer distribution of funds among Barnet’s elderly.

At the moment, only Barnet’s sheltered housing residents get a permanent warden service. The council argues that every elderly person in the borough ought to get some level of support, whether they live in sheltered housing or not – that the 1500 or so people in sheltered housing get a disproportionate share of funds.

‘Services provided only for residents in specific locations should be replaced by a more flexible support delivered where people are living,’ drones Freer, over the top of audience protestations, ‘… housing and support services should be commissioned separately to distinguish clearly the roles of landlord and provider…’

‘What a red herring!’ someone in the crowd shouts.

‘Shame!’ the crowd yells. ‘Shame!’

‘I appreciate that feelings run high,’ Freer says as the thing shambles on, ‘but I ask that you give me the courtesy of listening…’

‘Why?’ the elderly shout. ‘You don’t listen…’

‘If you don’t want to listen, there’s not rather a lot of point in you being here,’ Freer tells the residents. ‘If you do want to stay, please listen to the debate.’

It isn’t a debate, of course. It’s the ultimate farce – a not-very-well-acted, going-through-the-motions-of-democracy charade about a decision we are all perfectly aware has already been made. Labour councils are also appalling outsourcers, service-cutters, and liars, but they do a slightly – slightly – better job than the Tories of hiding their revulsion for people who pile into meeting rooms to beg for public services. It’s the out and out dismissal of the concerns of vulnerable old people and their families that has caused such anger in Barnet, and around the country, where debate about canceling warden services has raged.

For what it is worth, the expert view is that people already in sheltered housing schemes should keep their wardens. Help the Aged recently produced a report on cuts to warden services and the impact of floating support on sheltered housing residents in the six years since Labour introduced the supporting people programme which gave supporting people administering authorities (councils in some cases) responsibility for providing housing-related support for a wide range of vulnerable people. (That support is no longer secure, though: in a moment of madness, the government removed the ringfence round supporting people housing-related funding).

Called ‘Nobody’s Listening,’ the Help the Aged report accepted the SPAA view that floating support in sheltered housing was an effective use of resources, BUT recommended residential wardens ‘should be retained if alternative arrangements are unsatisfactory for tenants living in existing schemes’.

The report was highly critical of the treatment of elderly tenants: ‘our focus groups and views expressed by the [sheltered housing residents’] lobby show that many residents do not feel their views have been properly considered …in some areas, we were told that the changes were pushed through quickly, with little time for tenants to organise opposition or seek external advice.’

So it has transpired at Barnet. Residents say councillors have not responded to their requests for meetings. The overwhelmingly pro-warden response to Barnet’s March 2009 consultation exercise on the topic is apparently dismissed by Freer at tonight’s meeting on the grounds that the majority of respondents were sheltered housing residents, or their supporters.

Freer has another problem, as most politicians must: people simply don’t believe there isn’t money to cover their services. Barnet sheltered housing residents think the council is perfectly able to pay for the warden service AND to support elderly people who want to stay in their own homes (‘you can afford both!’ they shriek at Freer. ‘Have both!’). In this era of duck houses, moats, third mansions and banker bailouts, the ‘we have to find savings’ argument has worn – noticeably – thin.

Resident after resident tells me that £950,000 is peanuts as far as council finance goes – especially for a council that had £27m to gamble in Reykjavik, and found thousands last year for consultancy on its plans to outsource all council services.

Resentment is everywhere. One member of tonight’s audience inadvertently explains why people in need vote for the likes of the BNP – ‘cut back some of the other money you’re wasting,’ she yells at the cabinet. ‘You give it to all of these immigrants! Spend it on your own people!’ – thus shoring up my long-held theory that a hatred of immigrants and the erosion of public services are inextricably linked. People fight when there’s not enough to go round.

Anyway – it’s over quickly this evening. The cabinet votes to cut the warden service. Yvonne Hossack, a lawyer representing some of the residents serves council officers with a letter advising them that she will apply for a judicial review of the decision.


To the residents (the links are to videos shot outside the meeting by Barnet Unison):

David Young, 78, has lived in the Kingsley Court sheltered housing scheme for four years. He says that if his warden, leaves, he’ll have to leave his flat and move in with his son for support and security. So much for independence.

‘The majority of people went into these flats on the condition that wardens were going to be provided. If it doesn’t happen, they have to find other arrangements. They feel so insecure.’ He says that £950,000 a year for residential wardens ‘is peanuts to them [the council], absolute peanuts. They just spent £27m of taxpayers’ money in Iceland.’

Shirley Schers, 66, is a schizophrenic who relies on her warden’s day-to-day monitoring of her illness. ‘He keeps an eye on me in case I get depressed, and when I was, he called the psychiatrist and he made sure that I was perfectly looked after. I’m not able to do anything else, because I’m not rich enough to go into a home. I’ll have to stay in the flat and make sure that nothing happens to me. I will be be terrified. I really will.’

Miriam Fishman, 81, moved into sheltered housing 17 years ago ‘because there was a warden to look after us… every day he is there, for 24 hours. If anyone has an accident, he is there. If the fire alarm goes off, he lets the fire people in. He lets the ambulance people in… a lady fell the other day when he [the residential warden] was [away] on a training course, and she lay on the floor for half an hour until the mobile warden came to let the ambulance people in. A lady fell out of the bath when our warden was on duty and he was there in one minute. It’s not good enough that they take our wardens away. We don’t want a mobile warden – no way. I wouldn’t have come to live here if I knew that they were going to do this.’

Ruth Lerner’s biggest fear is isolation. ‘A couple of months ago, I had a vertigo attack…the warden got the doctor for me. He even went and got my tablets for me. Who [else] would do that? I don’t know not what we’ll do.’

The answer to that is she’ll go without. Labour’s recession and dysfunction in recent months have given the Tories the excuse they needed to make the public sector cuts they were always going to make – including cuts that save next-to-no cash, and are notable only for their cruelty to the poor.

Audio of the cabinet meeting.

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