Controversial plans by Greenwich Council to increase charges for social care were deferred at Tuesday night’s cabinet meeting – angering disabled people who had travelled to Woolwich Town Hall to tell councillors about their experiences.
The council plans to increase charges for homecare services, stop subsidising meals, remove caps on care charges and “charge those can afford to pay” for sheltered and supported housing as part of a package of proposals which it says will make the service more sustainable and bring it into line with other local councils.
But a packed public gallery erupted into anger when – after going through a list of people who were due to speak at the meeting – Labour council leader Danny Thorpe said the decision would be deferred to allow a scrutiny panel of councillors time to study the proposals in greater depth, and that protesters would be barred from speaking. It was not clear to the public that a vote had been taken on the issue. Scrutiny panels can make recommendations, but the cabinet is the council’s main decision-making body and can overrule them.
Thorpe and his fellow cabinet members and senior council officers left the room to jeers and shouts of “resign!” and “cop out!”.
When the cabinet members returned, Thorpe relented and allowed the protesters time to address the cabinet. It was the second cabinet meeting this year to have been halted after protests. One cabinet member later said that the council should look again at its procedures to ensure that they were easier for the public to understand. The same meeting also saw cuts to some special guardians’ allowances voted through.
Thorpe said he and Averil Lekau, the cabinet member for health and adult social care, had been talking to people affected by the changes. Lekau said that the changes were in line with other councils – neither she nor the papers before the cabinet said which ones.
Lekau said that taking the proposals to scrutiny would give people longer than the two minutes allowed in a cabinet meeting to talk to councillors. “Before we introduce any of the charges, we would recommend that we would take this to scrutiny, to give people a change to look at all the mitigation and to have a say in that process,” she said.
The cabinet member stumbled as she said: “I’m clearly minded to go ahead with – to take these recommendations to scrutiny, before the final… – for scrutiny to have it looked at. That’s where I am.”
Lekau said that in view of government cuts decisions needed to be taken that would “enable this council to function”. “At some point, this is a decision that will need to be made.”
Despite Lekau saying that she had told one group about the change of plan on Thursday, the item remained on the cabinet agenda and the decision to send it to a scrutiny panel looked as if it had been taken at the last minute.
Thorpe said: “In view of what councillor Lekau has said, it would be a bit redundant to have representations if the decision isn’t being taken tonight.” He said that going to scrutiny would mean that plans to mitigate the extra charges “would be properly worked through and are clear”.
“I would echo the points that Averil… – councillor Lekau has made, that none of us want to be in the position where we are making the kind of proposals that we know we have to but unfortunately, in the current financial climate, our budgets are at the end of the line.”
There were cries of “shame!” as he adjourned the item. “Some of us have to work out in a very complex way how to be here tonight,” one man in a wheelchair said.
Thorpe tried to stick to his position. “It would not be prudent to hear those representations as anything that is in this report could change.”
“You are torturing us,” one woman responded. “We’ve been doing this for five months now. We are so stressed, anxious and suicidal about all this, and you won’t even listen to us. We’ve made the effort to come here to speak to you politely.”
“In relation to those comments, I think the reality is quite the opposite,” Thorpe said. “The inconvenience I totally accept and apologise for, but what I would say is that because I want to be absolutely clear that we’ve done all we can to mitigate the impact of those decisions, it’s best that is delayed for further work.”
“It’s far more than mere inconvenience. You’re not taking what people are saying into account,” the man said.
“We don’t want to sit here and have everyone speak only for councillor Lekau to say no decision would be taken,” Thorpe said, even though speaking out would have been the least challenging aspect of the meeting for people who had negotiated the Edwardian town hall in their wheelchairs to reach the committee room, which is connected to the street by a single lift.
“It’s a shameful way to treat people,” one protester said. As cabinet members and council officers filed out, protesters shouted “shame!” and “we won’t be voting for any of you again!” Only former council leader Denise Hyland remained to talk to protesters.
But despite earlier saying it would be a waste of time, Thorpe did return and allowed the protesters to speak.
One, Kate Brown, said she became a wheelchair user after she was stabbed in a homophobic attack. Now 71, she said that benefits were her only income – and her care charges could rise from £65 per week to £105 per week or more.
“If I had to cut down to pay the extra, it woild be on food, or gthe clothes and bedding that I need as I am double incontinent,” she said.
“I received funding from the Independent Living Fund for 28 years. The fund ended in 2015 and Greenwich Council took over. After a year on full funding, a social worker cut my hours from 168 a week to 27 and a half in just a 20-minute visit.
“During the interview she said my family should help me and I should be ashamed to have strangers looking after me.”
Another said he coiuld not understand why Greenwich Council was increasing council tax to pay for social care, then sent out letters telling disabled residents that it wanted to cut benefits and increase charges.
“The letter was signed by a councllor who is ‘anti-poverty’! I don’t find this person fit for purpose and they should resign,” he said,.
“Disabled people will either have to cut their care or go without food and heating to pay for their care. And this could result in deaths.”
Addressing the cabinet, Thamesmead Moorings Labour councillor Olu Babatola called on his colleagues to reconsider, and said that the borough’s Labour MPs had written to Thorpe protesting about the changes. “As a Labour and Co-operative councillor, I believe that austerity is not an economic decision, but a political one, and I want you to make the right decision. Let us do the right thing – if this comes back, let us vote it down.”
Another protester called on Greenwich to follow Hammersmith & Fulham and abolish all charges for home care services for the elderly and disabled. The Labour-run west London borough did this in 2017, saying this was because it had “cut waste elsewhere in the council and had negotiated better deals with contractors and developers”.
Responding to the protesters, Thorpe said this would be “like comparing apples with pears because they’ve just had a different start in terms of finances… so it isn’t really a fair comparison”.
“Obviously, all of us in the cabinet are out campaigning for a Labour government and free social care for all.”
At the end of the meeting, the cabinet member for housing, Chris Kirby, said: “Sometimes the processes we go through aren’t conducive to aren’t always conducive or helpful to the public understanding what is going on and why we take decisions. It might be an idea to ask scrutiny to review with a view to making them more transparent and easier to understand.”
“Fine,” responded Thorpe.
The changes are now likely to go before the healthier communities and adult social care scrutiny panel on 6 November before returning to the cabinet next month – meaning two more trips for the protesters.
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