Croydon councillor gets in a pickle, Croydon Council makes a Horlicks

By - Monday 14th December, 2015

Councillor Alisa Flemming recently gave sketchwriters and opponents a lot to play with. But she was also onto something, and should have focused on what she and her colleagues could do about it, says Robert Ward

Councillor Alisa Flemming.
Photo public domain.

Councillor Alisa Flemming, cabinet member for children, families and learning in Croydon’s Labour council, has got herself into a bit of a pickle. At the council cabinet meeting on the 17th November, whilst discussing welfare reforms and the roll out of Universal Credit she stated that a single benefit payment was a “nice idea” but “so many people” in Croydon lacked “the skills and the capability” to make sure their bills are paid and their children are fed.

She went on to complain about increasing levels of betting shops, seemingly concerned that money from Universal Credit was going to be spent there. The meeting is available via CroydonLive, so if you are concerned she may have been quoted out of context or that I have misrepresented her comments, do please watch it. It is item eight on the agenda.

It is ironic that she got into this pickle by accidentally raising a point that might just be of relevance to Croydon and over which the council has some control. Ironic because the bulk of the words from Croydon’s Labour councillors were devoted to complaining about matters over which they have no influence whatsoever. Corporation Tax and how much Amazon pays, David Cameron’s tone of voice, MPs’ gestures in parliament and the number of corporate tax investigators at HMRC were all covered under an agenda item to agree “the further local actions to assist residents during the roll out of Universal Credit”.

This is a continuing theme – the last Conservative administration held a debate on the European Union in 2014 – and one that adds no value whatsoever to the lives of Croydon residents. May I suggest that future cabinet and council meetings begin with taking as read that the Labour councillors blame all things on evil Tories and reduced funding from central government? This might then allow time for discussion on matters over which the council does have control; issues which need to be aired, challenged and modified should there be a case to do so, indeed the purpose for which they were elected.

Local government is not supposed to be an entertaining panel show

Councillor Flemming’s remarks were of course a gift to the Tory opposition. They seized upon them, demanding apologies in a precisely similar manner to the way in which Labour councillors attack Tory statements that might somehow be negatively construed.

Council meetings begin to remind me of the radio show Just A Minute, where contestants seize upon their fellow contestants’ hesitations and repetitions. If their intervention is successful, the contestant gets the chance to take over the floor. Their fellow contestants then get the chance to do the same back to them.

But local government is not supposed to be an entertaining panel show. It is about doing the right things and managing very large budgets to provide public services to Croydon. Discussing issues put forward by the ruling party, and others constructively challenging those ideas from a position of informed opposition, is how our system is supposed to work. The end result should be a better service for Croydon.

It is a legitimate concern that some people may be tempted to overspend

Take the issue raised by councillor Flemming. It is a legitimate concern that someone used to having their money paid in weekly instalments who suddenly gets it paid monthly may be tempted to overspend, leaving themselves short at the end of the month. I like to consider myself relatively good at money management, but this would be a risk, albeit I hope a low one, for me.

Given the large numbers of people who will receive Universal Credit in Croydon, many of whom will not have a financial buffer to fall back on, I would expect that more than a few will be at risk. But this is a risk that has been recognised and ensuring adequate mitigation measures are in place was supposed to be the subject under discussion. Yet councillor Flemming said nothing of what should be done.

As to whether these particular folk will spend their apparent windfall at the betting shop, I don’t know. Unlike councillor Flemming I like to think that this would not be the case, but if it is a concern of hers, then the discussion should again have been about what to do about it, not continued blaming of central government constraints over which she has no influence. She and indeed all councillors should try to remember that they are Croydon Council, not some kind of wannabe-Westminster.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article.

  • Pass The Deutschy

    Robert you make some great points here, I agree that changing the benefit payment to a single lump sum is a bit meaningless, to be honest I don’t get why they are doing it. When people don’t have enough money it can be hard to make good decisions about the money they do have. Having been in such a situation I speak from experience and I’m pretty good with managing my money but the temptation to not pay the rent and “sort it out later” has come upon me many times especially if it meant I could get a night out. They stopped paying people their rent money because of this so why they want to start again I don’t know and not everyone gets paid monthly. I always got paid weekly! Then again on the continent this is how they pay the money and people manage so maybe it’s just change and we’re not used to it.

    Councillor Flemming’s remarks were not as bad as reported but they were sweeping and judgemental and could have been expressed in another way. People on benefits face enough prejudice and remarks like this do NOT help in the slightest, they just reinforce the unemployed as lazy layabouts who are not trying to help themselves which is often FAR from the truth and someone in a position of authority should be wise enough to speak on such a sensitive subject in a way that does not court controversy.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      I could not agree with you more. The short-termism and lack of direction that poverty creates are beyond the experience of the comfortably-off and should be explained to them. But judgement and blame are so much more satisfying. The remarks made by Councillor Flemming are deeply unfortunate to say the least.

      • Robert Ward

        Thanks Liz and PTD.

        Purpose of monthly payments is I understand to get out-of-work people to experience more of what it is like to be in work to prepare them for that possibility. Paying rent to the recipient rather than landlord is to encourage financial responsibility. There are obviously down-sides to both.

        Most important action when there are downsides is to work out how to mitigate them, which is what the Council item was about. I recall being told at short notice that I was moving from weekly to monthly paid and having to live three weeks without pay. At least UC has given much longer notice but some will not prepare. Unfortunately at the meeting it was all political posturing.

        Indeed Liz, Councillor Flemming’s remarks were just unfortunate rather than evidence of some underlying malaise. This sort of caught-you game I think is most unhelpful whichever side gets caught out. Had a Tory said something along the same lines the Labour response would have been just the same.

  • Stephen Giles

    “But local government is not supposed to be an entertaining panel show” – no, but when Labour Councillors attempt to speak, we are treated to a 21st century Goon Show!!