LETTER: 'Discussion' about Citizens' Advice Bureau funding withdrawal 'felt like a rubber-stamping of a pre-determined decision'
PUBLISHED: 15:56 23 January 2020 | UPDATED: 17:33 23 January 2020
I read in last week's Ely Standard that East Cambridgeshire District Council was to withdraw its funding from the Cambridgeshire Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB) and use the grant money it was saving (about £47,000), plus some extra funding, to employ and train its own officers to carry out the work currently done by the CAB.
I thought this a very poor exchange. The withdrawal of the funding means that the CAB may have stop providing its impartial service to people who might, among other issues, have problems with finance and their relationship with ECDC - a service which they will then be compelled to seek from the organisation with which they are having those problems.
In order to check that I had not misunderstood, I went to the meeting of the ECDC Operational Services Committee where the matter was to be discussed.
I had not been to a council committee meeting before, and it was an eye-opener. Questions from concerned parties, which had been presented in advance of the meeting, were read out and then answered by officers so rapidly and with frequent reference to other, unseen, documents, that if the councillors present fully understood the responses then they were way ahead of me.
If those asking the questions had critical observations on the answers, and it appeared that several of them had by the head shaking and muttering in the public gallery, there was no real opportunity to state them.
The committee members could then ask questions, and these were answered by officers in the same rapid way.
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The chair called for a vote without further discussion, but a member asked for a debate, which was granted, in which a number of interesting points were raised.
These included the wealth of professional knowledge and experience offered by CAB volunteers which could not possibly be equalled by the ECDC officers who were to be 'upskilled'.
It also included the fact that ECDC's investment in the CAB had yielded almost double its value in hours of advice given by CAB volunteers.
There was also a request that the matter by deferred to the next meeting so members could have more time to think about it.
However, this request for deferment was turned down and the meeting moved to a vote.
The members' minds were made up - and, it seemed to me, had probably been made up before the meeting even started - and they voted along party lines with the Conservative majority cutting the grant.
This did not feel like a discussion, it felt like a rubber-stamping of a pre-determined decision, and if it is what is now regarded as democracy with the needs and concerns of the electorate as its driving force, then we are in a truly sorry state.