Saturday, March 29, 2008

Without a separate agenda

Last week, I was called to appear before the KCC Cabinet Scrutiny Committee with the Managing Director of Kent Adult Social Services, Oliver Mills We appear from time to time to account for decisions made in the delivery of social care. This cross party committee usually provides a healthy challenge and a trasparent way to open up the democratic process.

We had been called to explain our decision to decommission the Queen Elizabeth Resource Centre in Dartford, which provides a day service to adults with physical disabilities. Over the last few weeks, the issue has appeared on television, radio and in local press on numerous occasions, and I agree more than anyone that we need to make sure we get this right, for the sake of the service users themselves.

But there was an uneasy feeling of politics at last week's meeting. The Committee called as witnesses two disabled service users, and throughout over two hours of questioning, one leading question followed another. One opposition Councillor stood up to "read a prepared statement" which was little short of a political press release.

I felt saddened by the lack of quality and rigour in a process for which, over the years, I have come to have great respect. The final act was to ask another opposition Councillor, who did not even sit on the Committee, to stand and deliver a tirade of accusations and half truths. When my officer colleague tried to respond, he was denied.

After the meeting was terminated by a power cut, I spent an hour discussing the issues over a coffee with the two disabled service users who appeared as witnesses. And guess what? In many ways, they felt as let down by the process as I did, and we achieved more from a coffee and a chat than through two hours of "open democracy".

There's a legal maxim which goes something like "He who comes to enmity shall have clean hands". In other words, if we're going to challenge and question, do it without a separate agenda.

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