Parents of children with disabilities were furious yesterday when they learned that Salford City Mayor Ian Stewart had issued an official statement (see here) branding them and their supporters `rent-a-crowd'.
The parents, trying to save services for their children at The Grange respite centre, had called for a lobby of the Mayor as he attended an event at Eccles Town Hall as part of Youth Day celebrations in the city.
And the Mayor responded by issuing a statement condemning the action, which he misguidedly attributed to trade union UNISON…
"I am appealing to the UNISON local branch officials to call off their misguided lobby – better to sit down and discuss any issues like sensible adults, rather than resort to the usual rent-a-crowd placards and megaphones, which do not set a good example for our young people" he said.
The parents called his comments "insulting" and "disgusting"…
"The Mayor's press release is disgusting…is that what he thinks of us, a `rent-a-crowd'?" fumed Margaret Tunnacliffe who has two children with disabilities currently using The Grange
"The parents called this lobby, not UNISON, and I, as a parent, think that standing up for children with disabilities, is showing a good example" she added "The Mayor's comments are insulting. We're here to fight for our children because they cannot fight for themselves. The Grange is the only place in Salford for our children with disabilities, and without it families would break down, it's as simple as that."
Another parent, Dave Thornley, was also incensed…
"Calling us `rent-a-crowd' is ridiculous" he said "We're `not rent-a-crowd', we're concerned parents. The press release was measured, written from a political point of view. Turning around and telling us that everything that UNISON has said is untrue is wrong because it's not."
Last night, outside Eccles Town Hall, parents and supporters confronted Stewart as he arrived at the Youth Day event, where he repeatedly told them, as in the press release, that they had been subjected to misinformation by UNISON…
"The unions have been told that The Grange is not closing" he said "Watch my lips, it's untrue. Nobody's closing The Grange."
There are no proposals to close The Grange as a building – but there are proposals to close it as a centre for children with disabilities who need short term breaks, and re-open it as a centre for children with long term needs who are currently receiving that care outside of the city.
The Council is further proposing that children who go to The Grange will be either sent to `specialist' foster carers if under 14, or put in Granville, currently an adult facility, if between 14 and 17.
Parents have questioned the ability of foster carers to cope with under 14 year olds who have autism or challenging behaviour, as well as the arrangements and safeguarding issues associated with putting 14 year old children into an adult facility (for full details see previous Salford Star articles click here and click here).
Last night, UNISON, parents and the Mayor were embroiled in a war of words and semantics over the proposals…with UNISON putting out a leaflet in response to the Mayor's press released allegations of `misinformation'. The printed words spilled into vocal attacks outside Eccles Town Hall.
One parent told the Mayor that "My family will never get respite because my daughter will go to Granville as a 17 year old adult and my son will be 15 and will also go to Granville. If you're talking about children and adults going on different days, how will my family get respite?"
As Stewart was about to answer, a UNISON rep shouted the answer that "It will be mixed"… and the Mayor rounded on him…
"Did you just say it will be mixed?" he shouted "I'll tell you what, I shall check that out and if you're right I'll admit it openly but if it's not you're in trouble…"
"It's in your own report" said the rep "It says there will be `a mix of age ranges'"
"All of this is being made harder to deal with by people giving misinformation" Stewart added "The officers better tell me that the allegation that was made before is untrue because I'll be very, very angry if I find out that it's true."
At the end of the ten minute street `discussion', Stewart agreed to meet with parents to listen to their concerns.
After the lobby, UNISON treasurer Ameen Hadi told the Salford Star that the Mayor was just playing with semantics…
"No-one has said that The Grange is closing - but it is closing as a short term centre if you want to look at it like that" he said.
Ameen also questioned the legitimacy of some of the Mayor's allegations…
"He's stated that by making The Grange become a long term stay centre he'll be able to bring 12 young people back from outside Salford, yet The Grange only takes five young people so I don't know where he's got his maths from" he said "I think everyone is in favour of bringing these children back to Salford but why should they be brought back at the expense of children who need short term breaks?"
"The Mayor also says that no children will be mixed with adults but in the Council's report to UNISON it states that there will be `a mix of age ranges'" he added "If you've got a unit [Granville] that has forty beds and you let children in, you maybe fill six beds – are the rest of the beds going to be left empty? On the Council's own terms it doesn't make economic sense. And if it is mixed, how are they going to guarantee safeguarding?
"If you take Margaret's children – one under 18 and one over 18 – her family can't get respite if they are proposing to allocate adults and children on different days" he explained.
"What surprises me is that the Mayor is not supposed to make a decision until 23rd September but if you read the press release it sounds like he's made the decision already" Ameen revealed "That can't be right when he's supposed to be listening to everyone's views. But maybe he will listen now…
"I don't want to score a pyrrhic victory to say `The Mayor doesn't listen' - I'd rather he listened and changed his view" he concluded "There's nothing for UNISON to gain, or the parents to gain, by saying `I told you so, the Mayor doesn't keep his promises'. I'd rather the Mayor reconsidered and did the right thing, for a change."
Also attending the Youth Day event last night was John Merry, Assistant Mayor for Children and Young People, who refused to back up the Mayor's slurs on the campaign. Did he think that those who organised the lobby were a rent-a-crowd or concerned parents?
"I didn't say that" he responded "I can't comment on what the Mayor said. All I'm saying is that I don't think this was the appropriate event to lobby. There are other opportunities rather than this particular event, which has not been organised by the Council but by young people, that's why I'm disappointed."
On their way into the Youth Day event, young people were handed leaflets which stated… "It is fantastic that Salford's young people are going to be rewarded as part of Youth Day and we congratulate all of them on what they have achieved…
"We are sorry if it appears that we are here to disrupt that celebration, but Youth Day is about giving young people a voice – we need to make sure that disabled young people have a voice too…"
See also previous Salford Star articles on The Grange - click here and click here
Photos by Steven Speed