Having experienced a full meeting of Salford Council today, parents of disabled children left the Civic Centre feeling a democracy deficit at the heart of the city.
Parents had asked official questions at the Council meeting, only, they said, to be fobbed off with `politicians' answers'…
"That was the first time I've been to a Salford Council meeting - and I think it will be my last" said Alan Tunacliffe, whose two disabled children currently attend The Grange short term respite centre.
Salford Council wants to save £500,000 by moving children aged 7-17 out of The Grange and into the care of either foster parents or Granville House – currently an adult facility. At the same time, it wants to move children receiving medium and long term care outside the city into The Grange (see previous Salford Star articles for full details – click here and click here).
Horrified parents of children attending the centre have formed a Save The Grange campaign (see here) and one of them, Simon Leigh, asked a question at the Council meeting… `Why does the provision have to change to the detriment of service users?'
City Mayor Ian Stewart responded "This is a very difficult situation for families and we're conscious of that", before handing over to John Merry, Assistant Mayor for Children and Young People, who blamed ConDem Government cuts, and stated that he was "fighting to save the service".
Parent, Margaret Tunacliffe followed up the response by asking whether any councillor in the room would put their 14 year children into an adult facility. But the question was ruled out by Chief Executive Barbara Spicer. Instead, Merry responded that he would be happy to put his child in there, if there were proper safeguards in place. From the public balcony, Alan Tunacliffe tried to ask a question about safeguarding, which, again, was ruled out by Spicer.
Next up to ask a question about adult mental health user group drop-ins were Vee Ball and Stephen Cullen from USUC (United Service Users Committee), no strangers to Salford Council meetings (see here). They tried to ask what the Council was doing to ensure psychiatrically trained professionals would be present at drop-in groups for people with mental health problems, given the loss of two such posts in the last round of cuts.
This was ruled out again by Spicer, quoting the Council constitution, because it wasn't the exact wording submitted in advance of the meeting by USUC.
Vee Ball asked again what support drop-in groups would receive from professionals rather than volunteers…
Peter Connor, Assistant Mayor for Adult Services, said that Salford Council had "not made any cuts to mental health services…we have enhanced them"…
To applause from the public gallery, Vee responded that he had not answered the question, and asked again whether trained professionals would be supporting drop-in groups, given that there was a knifing incident at Ramsgate House drop-in group… "Are you prepared to leave these groups unsafeguarded?" she asked, as Council officers moved in to remove the mic from her hand. Peter Connor didn't respond. The campaigners had seen enough.
"Any question that was asked wasn't answered, everything was sidetracked; they didn't have an answer to a question, they just said something completely different" explained Alan Tunacliffe on his way out of the meeting "It's so frustrating to ask a question and not be given an answer. They just said there were no cuts and `We'll do the best we can and if it doesn't work out we'll have to go back next year and close The Grange'. John Merry thinks he's doing us a favour.
"When I stood up and asked about safeguarding I really wanted to ask a serious question but they wouldn't let me" he added "I wanted to ask about my daughter not being safeguarded by Salford – she was assaulted, and I wanted to ask whether they are making it even harder to safeguard her when they move her in with adults."
Caroline Dawson was another parent who came out of her first ever Council meeting feeling fobbed off…
"What a waste of time" she said "Obviously they're politicians, you put your questions in advance and they know how to avoid answering them. I certainly wasn't happy with the way they answered the questions – anything they were asked they contrived an answer that suited themselves, instead of answering the question that was put."
Meanwhile, Vee Ball, of USUC, now a veteran of Salford Council style democracy, again had her views reinforced by events at the meeting…
"Attempts were once again made to stop us from opening discussion on the real result from the consultation and letting all councillors, not just our leads, Connor and Merry, know we have not been beaten" she said "Today even though USUC went to challenge and champion promised commitments, the Council couldn't even offer up that. For us it was more proof that they never cared.
"Increased support to users, the original ethos behind all the suffering they caused, has been nowhere to be had, as we suspected from the start" she added "But USUC will continue to support service users through the transition and we will meet with the Mayor to discuss the success (according to them) of the new proposal. We will however continue to fight the service users' corner to ensure that the promise of improved services actually is delivered.
"USUC also pledge to support the brave parents fighting for the children at The Grange, who one day will be the next generation of vulnerable adults" she concluded "That it is our mission, to protect and support."
Before the Council meeting began, parents of The Grange children, together with Salford City UNISON members, USUC reps and Salford Against The Cuts campaigners lobbied councillors and got Salford Council staff on their way into work to sign the petition against Council proposals for The Grange.
To sign the online petition - click here