Being Leader of Lambeth Council - background
I put myself forward as the Leader of the Council after the Labour won 41 of the 64 Council Seats in May 1986. This followed almost all of the previous Labour Councillors being surcharged and disqualified. I remember Margaret Thatcher stating publicly that Labour in Lambeth would lose seats. Instead, the Labour majority was increased by 6 seats.
I, and Kingsley Smith were Black Councillors elected in late 1985 to replace Labour Councillors who resigned rather than risk being disqualified. The other new Councillors were largely unknown to us and each other, many of them had put themselves forward to make up the numbers not assuming they would win. But win Labour did. At the same time across London, Bernie Grant and Merle Amory were also being elected Leaders of their respective Councils, Haringey and Brent. And for the first time, London had 3 Black Leaders of Councils.
There was interest in the election results not only because Labour had increased its majority but because almost all of its previous Councillors had been barred from Standing, so the new administration would be made up mainly of people who had little or no experience of being Councillors before. The day following election results, the Labour Party sent us a PR person to help advise us on handling quite a lot a media attention. I recall making a statement to her and others in the rooms that I had chosen not to mention my sexuality, but that if the matter was raised by the Press then I would not deny it. This seemed to go down well, I had outed myself to some of the new Councillors who did not know me and made clear that I would not be defensive on the issue.
Within I think the first week of my becoming Leader I was doorstepped in my office by the Daily Mail journalist Tony Doran who had found something I had written whilst at the GLC about being a lesbian. He waived the copy in my face and wanted me to talk about being a lesbian. I was a little cross having never been door-stepped by a Journalist before, and was furious with him, of all the issue I was dealing with this was the least relevant.
I asked him to come back to me in a year’s times if meals on wheels service had not improved or we had taken no action to sort out housing benefit or rent arrears or leaking taps. These were the issues the people of Lambeth cared about not who I lived with. He went away and wrote quite a good piece. Some friends asked what I had done to him to make him appear so benign. It did not last of course, the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sun, Express and Times and one or two others harassed and snooped in a way that (thankfully for them) did not happen to any other Labour Council Leaders in London. I had it all - mouthy, articulate, Black a ‘self-confessed’ lesbian, Jewish. It was they who commented that if only I had one leg I would have the full hand, as though life was a game of cards.
I don’t wish to bleat too much about being harassed by the media in a way that would not be permitted today, in part I was flattered but most of it was nasty and unpleasant. It might have been another matter if I was being paid to be a Councillor. If I was on a fat salary I would expect a high degree of public scrutiny, but I was on no salary at all and was simply trying to do my civic duty. More relevant however was how funny the Murdoch media found the idea of discrimination- what a hoot it was for them. Whole sections of the Black community were demonised and marginalised or excluded and those of us who were using the law to ensure inclusion were vilified and ridiculed.
It is ironic that instead of turning on the Government for failing to comply with laws passed to promote equality, it was those Councils who complied with and wished to promote the Race Relations Act who were targeted and abused. To make matters worse the Labour Leadership endorsed this approach and told us to ‘pipe down’. Even though it had been a Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins who had introduced the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act in the 1970s.
We were using laws designed to counter prejudice and discrimination and encountered a Government, Opposition and Press who were ignorant of laws designed to bring about less discrimination and greater fairness, and intent of silencing us.
In my few meetings in the mid 1980’s with Jack Straw and Jack Cunningham I felt that neither understood fully what pressures our community in Inner London were feeling, racism was real and it needed to be countered, we were using laws designed to have that effect, but we were being told to wait until after a Labour victory at the next general election.
The thing that became apparent was the structural way that society worked in which social class was the means by which relationships at work, at home, in schools and in public spaces was determined, but we did not speak of it. Perhaps it was my early experience and awareness of racism which enable me to see the systematic, but quiet ways that class dominance was exercised. Just like those on race, in which Britain did not have ‘pass laws’ like South Africa but it did have subtle and unsubtle ‘colour bars’.
So over these last decades, I have been writing about class and race, and gender and sex. I have written about policing and I have seen it change for the better. And I know that I rarely see articles about these important issues except in worthy journals. On several occasions, I tried to get essays published in New Left Review a journal which is alleged to be Marxist. But they keep writing things in a language that only academics (and not even all of them) can understand. How is it possible for Marxists to write about working-class struggles in ways that most working class people cannot understand?
An early crisis
Having come into office in May 1986 it was a bit of a shock to be told by the Chair of Housing, Fred Taggart that we had inherited an on-going industrial relations dispute and he was not receiving any sensible advice from the Director of Housing. He had concluded that the Director lacked the experience or management skills needed to address the situation and this, together with a woeful performance in other areas of the department’s work, had led him to conclude that the Director was unfit to perform the duties of his post. Fred worked in a senior officer post in local government and had a lot of experience in housing management issues so he recognised incompetence when he saw it. Given some of the appalling issues our tenants were facing, we agreed we did not need a Director of Housing who was not up to the job.
Ed Atkins had been an unusual choice when the vacancy was filled in January of 1986. He happened to be the husband of one of Lambeth’s Labour Councillors, Sharon Atkin. I wondered at the time whether his appointment to the post had anything to do with the fact that she decided to step away from seeking the Labour nomination to represent Ferndale Ward ahead of the then Leader, Ted Knight. I lived in Ferndale Ward and had reluctantly voted for Ted to stand as Labour candidate in the May elections that year. He was, of course, leading the ‘Anti-Rate-capping’ campaign and it would have been disastrous had he not been selected for that seat -he was one of the sitting Councillors.
On the night of the selection, I phoned both Imelda Inyang and Sharon Atkin to ask them whether they would be willing to stand down from the candidate selection meeting in Ferndale as both had already been selected in other Wards, and this would have meant that Ted would be automatically selected. I recall that both said “yes”, but, later, Sharon seemed to have changed her mind. It may have been sheer coincidence that her husband was appointed Director of Housing days later.
On hearing the Fred Taggart’s concerns, I asked the Chief Executive, John George, for sight of the interview papers. The Council, of course, followed equal opportunity procedures that required each candidate to be marked against clear and transparent criteria. It did not take long to see that another candidate was not only far better qualified but scored more consistently against all the criteria. His name was Gurbux Singh who, unsurprisingly, sued the Council for racial discrimination. He believed and I think he was right, that he was the best-qualified candidate for the job. However, I do not believe that he was not appointed because of his race, something worse was in play, and he was not appointed because of political favours towards a Councillor’s partner.
Ed Atkins, like all new senior officers at the time, was subject to 6 months probationary period, and the Chair of Housing had alerted me to the situation just before the 6 months had elapsed. We took decisive action; meeting with Atkins we agreed relatively generous termination. He would keep his car, and pay in lieu of notice. We drew up and agreed a joint statement. He appeared to agree with the terms on Friday the 6th June 1986.
An Urgency Committee, Chaired by me, met and terminated Aitkin’s employment. But by the following Monday things had changed- over that weekend I received a number of late-night abusive, threatening or silent calls. Ed Atkins then wrote to the Council, on 9th June, expressing his desire to renegotiate his severance terms, on the grounds that on the preceding Friday he had been in hospital in the morning and was not at his best when we met.
We agreed a further meeting where he was represented by his ‘friend’, Ted Knight. The Trades Unions also asked that the following should attend; Roy Bush, Dave Perrine, Pat Lineham, Toby Kitchenside, Fred Cox, Sylvester Smart, Alf Sherwood, Karen Pate and John McKay and they hoped that a national official from NUPE would be present. I cannot recall whether all of them did attend but I remember that there were more of them than there were of us.
Ted Knight was at pains to tell me that the Principal Race Relations Advisor had been present at the interview of Ed Atkins for the post of Director in January. He implied that this meant that the interview had been fair. I asked one simple question, which for me would determine the outcome of the meeting, “Did the race relations advisor have voting rights?” Since the answer was “no”, he was merely an observer, I angrily stated that if Ted Knight thought than merely by having a Black man in the room this guaranteed fairness then he knew less about equality than he claimed. To try to use the Advisor, Phil Sealy, as human shield was, I thought, despicable, particularly when I had questioned Mr Sealy about his views on the appointment and he said he thought that the best candidate had been Gurbux Singh, not Ed Atkins, but his professional view had not been canvassed when Councillors had agreed to appoint Atkins.
The meeting broke up with Atkins not reinstated and me fuming that they had tried to both intimidate me and use another Black person to act as a fig-leaf for what I thought were dirty dealings. If I had not had grit before this incident I certainly acquired it at that meeting, and in the subsequent facing-down on those in the Lambeth Labour Party who tried to defend a corrupt appointment.
Same Race Placement
When I was first elected as a Councillor in 1985 I was aware that Lambeth was one of the first Councils to implement a policy of Same Race Placement. This was a policy operating in Social Services which recognised that a child’s development in part depended upon a wide range of nurturing and care, and that a significant issue for a Black child not able to live with a Black parent was receiving nurturing and care to combat racism. Janet Boateng was the Chair of Social Services that introduced the policy, it was she who also helped introduce a fostering and adoption unit that sought to positively encourage Black people to come forward to foster and adopt.
I recall one of my important tasks when I first became a new Councillor was to sit in the Fostering and Adoption Panel and with one other colleague decided who was judged suitable to foster or adopt and child. It was an important task which I did not take lightly, I was proud that Lambeth recognised the importance for Black children in receiving appropriate advice and care to tackle racism. I took it as a given that our responsibility was not simply to address the cultural needs of the child but that potential fosterers or adopters had a range of skills to meet the child’s needs.
Lambeth was, I believe amongst the first Council not to insisted that those coming forward to foster or adopt were married and or heterosexual. Many of us knew children who had successfully been nurtured by a single parent through choice or because of the death of their partner.
At that time in the mid-1980s such policies were considered ‘loony’ but what really got under the skin of quite a few people was that we knew that White middle-class people were not necessarily the best people to provide a home for a Black child.
But it was only when I became the Leader of the Council that I was made aware that our Same Race Placement Policy was in fact not a written document it has simply become custom and practice. So, very early on in our Administration, I requested that a formal policy paper be brought forward to full Council after it had been agreed by the Social Service Committee. All these years later I can still recall the Council Debate. It was the best one I had seen or participated in my time as a Councillor or officer. It was passionate and almost every Councillor had something sincere to say.
Some, but not all the Tories thought that it should not matter whether adoptive parents were White or Black, I and the other seven Black Councillors were convinced about the requirement to meet the cultural needs of Black children as well as their general welfare. For once it was a passionate and respectful debate that took up most of the agenda but for the Daily Mail and other Newspapers, it was yet another example of ‘Loony’ Left’ politics. For me, it was a practical and necessary move to ensure that those children who needed to be cared for by others had at least a good chance of being equipped to deal with racism by those who experienced it themselves.
My own thinking about Same Race Placement developed quickly after that debate and I became clear that there were a variety of ways that a Black child could have positive parts of their identity supported, one of them was the creation of Black History Month which we launched in October 1987. Fostering and adoptive parents could learn about identity and rather than ignore racism they could provide books and images that were positive and realistic or even aspirational.
What I discovered later when I was reviewing Hackney Councils social services provisions for children was that social workers had adopted a political definition of Black which included African and Asian. I had assumed that those evaluating and matching the needs of children would apply common sense. They apparently did not but assumed that the experience of racism alone was sufficient.
I had by then developed a broader understanding of social services and realised that one had to spell out that considering the ability for a child when reaching adulthood to contact their birth family it might be better for them if they had grown up in a setting similar or close to that of their birth family. So, if the child was born to a Christian Indian or Pakistani women it might be better to try to match the carer as closely as possible to the child. The same might equality be true for a child who is Ghanaian and/or Muslim. I did not think that it could be easy to place every child with a perfect match but it would be wrong to reduce everything to skin colour.
Nearly 30 years later the current Tory Government has announced it intends to scrap any requirement for considering racism and in doing so I hear some of the ignorance and misunderstanding I initially heard from the Tory Councillor Colleagues in Lambeth back in the mid 1980’s; one of them was John Bercow who has at least become more reasonable and informed.
In 1982 responsibility for paying housing benefit to those with low incomes in the private housing sector passed to Local Government. We found that the arrears we owed these tenants were in the millions. Within weeks of our election in May 1986 we set up an Internal Consultancy Team which reported to us in August 1986, this detailed the situation in the administration of both public and private sector housing benefits within the council and made a series of recommendation to resolve the problems.
This bland statement hides the anger that many of us felt that hundreds of tenants were being evicted because we, the Council were not giving them money they were entitled to, and it was happening for ideological reasons. But by then I did not care whether Thatcher was right or wrong- what I knew was our people were hurting and we had better sort it. We resolved that these two separate and autonomous part of the Housing department were to be unified, as they were in other Councils; that computer systems capable of running the unified system would be introduced, this I believe is the decision on the computer system I was forced to make in April earlier that year.
From August 1986 throughout that summer my colleagues Fred Taggart and Peter Mountford-Smith, Chair and Vice Chair of Housing met with the Trade Unions and hammered out a deal for unifying the Housing benefits system, agreeing staffing grades, accommodation, training and everything plus the kitchen sink. But by January 1987 Industrial action threatened to scupper the negotiations. The allegations I recall were about institutional racism and it was then that I sent a letter to all staff setting out my Administrations plans to tackle institutional racism throughout the Council not only in the Housing department. What we were not prepared to do was release confidential background evidence to the allegations of institutional racism.
After so many years I cannot, with complete accuracy recall every fact related to this crisis, I kept a record of my letter to staff which helps jog my memory. It was a big deal for us to ensure that we would deliver our promises to improve our services, not some vague aspiration but a concerted piece of work that delivered services we were legally obliged to deliver. I did not care if it supported or thwarted Thatcher, I did care that thousands of working-class tenants in Lambeth got the housing benefits they were entitled to.
And in the meantime, the Sunday Times splashed a story over its boycotted pages claiming that the Chief Executive has warned me that I should stop meddling in officers affairs. This was deeply ironic as it was I who had written to him telling him what politically we were going to do to get out of the administrative mess he was presiding over. That January 1987 was the start of a concerted onslaught on me by the media; I could not open a newspaper without some scurrilous report of my doings.
I have chosen to highlight so-called Agency Gardening as an example of the many bureaucratic hurdles we faced as an administration. Unfortunately, I did not keep copies of the vast heap of correspondence relating to the matter but I kept enough to get my facts correct.
In this instance, I must name the Chief Officer who headed the department in which Agency Gardening sat. In early 1987 we had set up a Value for Money Panel made up of myself, the Deputy Leader Dave Morgan, the Chairs of Social Services and Managements Services, our task was to examine all Council services and agree actions that would save money and improved services. We had commissioned officers to look at the costs and provision of something called Agency Gardening. There were 262 people employed by the Council to cut the grass and 7 supervisory staff, the tasks covered grass cutting in parks, gardens and the grass on council- run play facilities, housing etc.
We commissioned a time and motion study on the numbers of staff needed, given the quantity of green space within this inner-city London borough. It came up with figures far fewer than those employed and I recall the options ranged between employing a total of 49 or 70. This would mean that over 180s staff would lose their jobs if we accepted the recommendation. And accept the recommendations we did.
I took the more generous of the figures and agreed that by the end of the exercise we would employ no more than 70 Agency Gardeners in 21 teams and 7 mobile supervisors to manage them. However, it took a very long time to get there. Henry Gilby was a formidable public servant; I have never in my 40 years of public life come across anyone quite like him for sending long and detailed memos and letters. I have one dated the 6 May 1988 3 pages long and attached to a document from earlier which was 7 pages long. He detailed each and every repair in each and every park or garden as though this might justify why tenants and others should pay more than 3 times the amount that the services were worth.
Henry always came to meetings ‘mob-handed’ bringing at least one assistant director and several other service heads. And he could argue for hours on the minutiae of budgets but he did not explain why the Council was paying for the storage space and contents of hundreds of unused and unpacked lawn mowers. I brought him photographs of what I had seen when I made unannounced visits to his Directorates premises spread around the borough.
I recall saying during one of these interminable meetings that if every gardener we employed was to use nail scissors to cut all the grass in the Borough we still had too many gardeners. Council tenants were paying for grass cutting on estates that simple was not being done. In the end, I high-jacked the next meeting, having as usual assembled in my office I asked them all to follow me, some of them went in a Council vehicle, the remainder in my car. We went first to an estate in Larkhall ward that I represented, we looked at waist high grass. Before excuses could be given we got in the cars and travelled to 2 further estates to see similar or worse scenes of uncut grass. I did not want to know what the men were doing when they should have been cutting grass, all I insisted on was that we stop employing more people than were needed, and those who were employed did the work.
In the course of the budget cuts we made in March 1988 all those excess post were deleted. And my office was occupied by some of the workers in protest. It was almost funny to think that some of those present thought that theirs was a revolutionary struggle for fairness when more poorly paid tenants were paying for grass to be cut which was not cut. I can still look back at this little tussle with rye amusement. Why did I not sack the Director, or why did the Chief Executive not sack the Director on my behalf? Because that would have been political interference, apparently.
In November 1986, I received a letter from a Trades Union convener expressing his concerns about the letting of building contracts. I was aware that one Trade Union was implicitly criticising another trade union (UCATT) and naturally I was reluctant to get involved in that, however Ed was adding to a growing body of evidence that significant wrong doing was occurring in the Construction Directorate.
I did not know the details but had a strong feeling that there was a problem with the way that the Council let it contracts for building and maintenance work. What I did know from my brief period as Deputy Mayor was that the Mayor or Deputy opened sealed tender documents. I was aware that this was intended to avoid corruption between officers and contractor in awarding building contracts. But there is much more to contracts than simply opening them. Who was invited to bid? Might there be collusion in defining the contracts? These were amongst the many concerns I and the Chair of Construction had.
In addition, I was approached by a group of local companies who claimed that they were consistently thwarted from bidding for work. This was the start of the Lambeth Black Contractors group. At that stage I did not know the extent of the discrimination against them, but I considered it more important to eliminate corrupt practices of any kind and replace them with contracts compliance processes which incorporated equality of opportunity for all suppliers.
Contract Compliance was not just about who bid for contracts, but whether and how contractors and suppliers had an equal opportunity to bid. If contracts were always let in large blocks many smaller companies would be excluded from bidding. We wished to encourage local businesses to bid for work, not only in construction but in the supply of stationary, food, cleaning products, equipment etc. With the dismantling of GLC Supplies following the abolition of the GLC there was an opportunity for local businesses, employing local people to bid for work. Instead Lambeth seemed to have been mired in ad hoc, obtuse and probably corrupt practices in which officers may or may not know what was happening but Councillors did not and if/ when we did try to find out we were often accused of meddling.
I liked the idea of contracts compliance not only because it was likely to bring about greater fairness in the letting of contracts but it was also likely to lead to greater transparency and accountability in how contracts were actually run. We needed to ensure value for money, but if we did not know what contracts were being let and why, how could we do so?
Matters came to a head for me when I was informed by the Chair of Construction that he had been asked to sign off a purchase for £1m of bricks made by the Director of Construction. To make matters worse the deal had been done on a golf course late that morning! What on earth was this man doing on golf course in work time? Standing Orders did give Officers authority to agree small contracts but not large ones. My response was to sack him and we did. I knew that he could take us to an Industrial Tribunal and would receive maximum compensation of £15,000 - this in my view was a small price to pay. The alternative would have been to suspend him, deal with hearings and appeals whilst he stayed on full pay. The dismissal was raised at an emergency Policy and Resources committee and I recall arguing that getting rid of the Director in this way was cheaper and quicker than any other method.
We received what, at the time we considered to be an unhelpful intervention from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the CRE had been aware that since 1984 Lambeth Council had been developing plans to set up a Contract Compliance Unit, though it seemed to be on hold due to the rate-capping campaign. But by 1986 we had revamped our proposals and were working with Lewisham Council, the Inner London Education Authority as well as the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to develop a fair and easy to use scheme that did not require every potential contractor to register with multiple Authorities. The CRE seemed to be taking the view that we should do less, rather than more, to promote equality of opportunity when letting contracts. At the time the then Secretary of State for the environment Nicolas Ridley wished to restrict the scope of contract compliance and the CRE were apparently supporting him.
The irony of this failure to use the rules to impose fairness and transparency into the letting of contracts, especially construction contacts was that I and my administration were later (1993) accused to allowing corruption in the letting of contract, yet at every attempt to take action against corruption either the media or the Government told us not to ‘interfere’. Steve French, as Chair of Construction tried exceptionally hard to tackle wrong-doing, he and I, suspected corruption but it is one thing to suspect that freemasons have a hand in construction contracts, it is quite another to have evidence to take to the police or other authorities. In February 1987 I gave a public commitment to hold an independent enquiry into Construction Services, I have no record or recollection of what happened to the Enquiry but I would not be surprised if, like other attempts to get to the truth it was thwarted.
Weeks after the election in May 1986 I received information, which today we would call ‘community intelligence’ that there was a significant increase in policing in the week leading up to Whitsun. At this stage, I had no working relationship with the police except for the request from the Acting Commander for me to assist him to recruit more black officers.
When on Friday the 23rd of May 1987 I received reports that there were several groups of officers, some with Alsatian dogs on street corners and van loads of officers parked 100 metres from each other. We were used to seeing pairs of officers but this was quite different. Worse still, several organisations reported that the local police had phoned them to tell them to board up their windows as there was likely to be a ‘riot’ on the coming Whitsun.
I knew I had to act and called a meeting with a few trusted and appropriate Council officers and drafted a letter to the Commander warning him that I knew what he was about to do and holding him responsible for any damage to property if it happened. I then put out a press statement which had the headline ‘Police are bent on War’. The effect was magical. By Saturday morning the Instant Response Units had gone, the streets were calm and an enjoyable Whitsun was had by all. Of course there was a hostile press reaction as well as some criticism by members of the Labour Group and of course the Tories, but what was achieved by this intervention was there were no disturbances that weekend and the painstaking work done by the Council and the local Police over the previous 5 years since the Brixton Uprisings was no destroyed. We also showed that the Council was prepared to intervene with the police to address justifiable grievances.
It was at this point that I set up formal meetings with the Brixton Police to discuss issues of joint concern. I would have no truck with the sham Police Consultative Committees. We agreed terms of reference, the key one of which was that there would be published minutes of our meetings. Despite much of the media hype I had never been anti-police. I was critical of their use of the old 1824 Sus law especially to stop and arrest any young (or old) Black man on suspicions that they are about to commit an arrestable offence. I was similarly concerned about how Brixton was viewed and that most Black people in the area wanted a fair and accountable police service.
I made my meetings with the Police known to the community and I recall what little negative reaction I received came mainly from some of the well-heeled squatters, many of them in receipt of Trust funds, I called them the Trustafarians. Over the next 2 years, I had a number of important and fruitful meetings with senior police officers and a few at the Home Office. One tangible thing that was agreed was that the Police would seek my permission to use Council property in conducting surveillance. I wanted to be assured that serious rather than speculative operations were to be carried out. One of the earliest was to try to catch a rapist preying on women late at night. After this, we did make use of crime prevention officer’s help to design and redesign estate layouts so that we reduced the likelihood of opportunist crimes.
However, the most controversial approvals I gave were for drugs raids where there was evidence that heroin and cocaine were being traded. I did not hide any of this from the community since it was these drugs that were injuring and killing our children. At that first meeting with the Chair of our Police Committee Julian Lewis, and the Police it was agreed to meet again on the 16th July, but I received a note of apology stating that the police were unable to attend, I was immediately alarmed.
Julian cautioned against me expressing publicly my alarm at the cancellation of the meeting so instead, I drafted a letter which was despatched by hand inviting them to another meeting on the 24th of July. There was no particular significance of that date; it was simply the next occasion that Julian and I were both free. I was not very surprised when the police failed to turn up at 9.30 on the 24th I had a feeling that they had something planned but I had no idea what.
I had a meeting that day with 7 other Leaders of Association of Local Authorities in Central London and received a call from my office telling me that Brixton had been raided. I left the meeting, hailed a cab and was on the Frontline just after 5 pm. When I got to the road blocks I received briefings from several people at the barriers who knew me and from one of my trusted community workers. I was told that all the surrounding streets were blocked off and heard from distraught mothers who were trying to get home or pick up their children from childminders and nurseries.
Within minutes I approached the cordon and asked to speak to the senior officer in command. I made myself known to Mr Monk and insisted he tell me what was happening, which he politely did, informing me that a few arrests had been made within the Afro-Caribbean Community Association (ACCA) and that they were still searching for further evidence. I was also given a handout prepared by the police for Operation Condor which I was not impressed by. ( insert copy)
During the next few hours, I walked in and out of the cordon, asking officers what was happening and why and then, telling people amassing at the cordons what was going on. I knew from previous occasions that the Police did not communicate at all with interested parties, I could tell that they thought their handout was sufficient, and I know it was not. The Police were correct in their assumption that most local people did not want to see drug dealing on our streets or drugs being sold to children, but the handout and manner of the raid implied that all local people, especially the Black community supported drug dealers.
When I conveyed what was happening inside the Centre back to the waiting bystanders many people were reassured. Their fear was that there were men in the Centre being beaten by the police. Being able to tell them that there were only police in the Centre and that they were conducting a thorough search for hidden drugs and firearms, telescopic cameras had been inserted into the toilets to detect flushed drug packets, this reassured almost everyone outside.
People were angry and frustrated that the streets had been cordoned off, that this was a large scale and dramatic raid and they felt under siege, and it was important for me to defuse the situation which I did. During this 2 or 3 hour period, I recall receiving news that there were hundreds of police in riot gear up at the Tulse Hill Territorial Army Base. Coupled with the reports I had of how the initial raid was conducted an increasing picture emerged that a riot was predicted and anticipated. I had no way of knowing whether this was deliberate or just plain racism.
Did the police assume that Black people by being black would riot or were their actions intended to provoke a riot? It is hard to say and at that stage, I hardly cared; my concerns were to avoid violence at any cost. I knew from being on many picket lines and demonstrations that the police could inadvertently provoke a violent reaction to their tactics by failing to communicate, and by assuming that everyone on the other side of the barriers was hostile to them. I knew it not to be the case and that if people knew what was happening and why they might support the police.
It had only been a couple of months since the swamp tactics of the Whitsun holiday. Even if I was wrong about police intentions to cause a reaction I knew that frustrated and suspicious people at the cordons might be provocative. It was my task to defuse this tension, and for several hours I did. The tricky point was getting the police to leave, once the search of the premises was over, the evidence bagged and removed the last act was to get the hundreds of officers back to their coaches. The first 2 Serials were stood down but it was clear that Commander Lloyd was reluctant to withdraw the last Serial. The longer they stayed on the street the more that frustration and anger was rising.
I took the decision to face the crowd and walk backwards as the police withdrew, and on at least 2 occasions turning around to insist that the police withdrew more quickly. In these few minutes after the police cordons had withdrawn most people stayed still so that the distance between the remaining police and the crowd increased with me in the middle. What I knew would happen did, which was that a few young people threw bottles in the direction of the retreating police officers. Some landed near me but none got as far as the police. What I also knew would happen did happen, many of the Black women on those cordons turned on the mainly White bottle throwers who then ran away. The police withdrew without further injury and as far as I was concerned this was a successful outcome.
The next task was to de-brief with the police. I insisted that I explain to the Police Area Commander what was wrong with Operation Condor. He thought that it had all gone well and yet they had used huge amounts of police resources, nearly 2000 officers to arrest less than 10 men. The communications with the community were non-existent, except for those provided by me, and finally, the planning of their exit was rubbish and would have left them vulnerable if they did not intend to be open to attack.
I described reactions of many of those present, which was frustration and anger, not that there was a raid but the manner in which it was done. According to those who witnessed the initial raid, it was large and threatening like a UK version of an American SWAT team. Commander Lloyd heard me out and seemed to accept that I was not hostile to the fact that a raid had occurred but was frustrated that it could so easily have led to a violent reaction from significant sections of the community because it looked and felt like a village under attack and siege.
There was no question in my mind that selling class A drugs (whether on Council premises or off) was not acceptable, but to play into the media’s image of a lawless Black community was not helpful to building trust and confidence between the police and the communities they serve.
At the end of the meeting, Commander Lloyd gave an undertaking that I would see the photos/filmed footage taken by the surveillance cameras placed in Council property next to ACCA; I would also see the evidence gathered at the scene. I agreed to this because someone needed to conveyed facts to the community, especially those who had seen the raid. So far, so good, but within a couple of days of that meeting, I heard that a respected community activist who had been supervising the ACCA was still being questioned by the police. My sources told me that there was considerable anger and that some people were talking about using guns to free him. I visited the clubs, pubs and meeting places where I knew some of those ‘concerned’ were likely to be. In speaking to them I heard resignation that so many men had been arrested but no sense of anger at the raid. They seemed to understand that it was proper for the police to arrest people dealing in Class A drugs, but what was not acceptable was for the worker, a known and active Christian who had been working with young people to get them off drugs and drug dealing was still in custody.
Having determined that the concerns were credible and worrying I met again with Commander Lloyd and told him of my fears. Within hours following that meeting I received a message that the Community worker had been released and that the tension had subsided. It did not come as a shock to hear that guns were in circulation in Brixton, had I known who held them I would certainly have told the police, but I did trust the people who informed me of the anger and frustration out there. Having heard some of it for myself I knew that I could speak to a senior Police Officer to try to defuse the obvious tensions.
Soon after this series of events I held an open meeting in Dexter Square, part of Railton Road and spoke about both drugs and guns. I had been advised by senior officers within the Council not to do so because it was considered dangerous. I rejected their advice believing that it was my job to let criminal wrongdoers know that we would not tolerate drugs being sold flagrantly on our streets or pubs and clubs. I shared the growing view that marijuana should be de-criminalised but unless and until it was it remained illegal to use or sell it. My real concern, however, was of the sale and associated crime related to heroin and cocaine. My message was clear; the Council would not defend people who were dealing in illegal drugs and we would not tolerate excessive and insensitive policing.
Days after this public meeting I received a call from a senior Civil Servant at the Home Office asking me if I would come to talk to police officers about the possibility of decriminalising cannabis. I did meet with them and told them of my belief that with the widespread use of cannabis, drug dealers had support and thereby cover to sell class A drugs as well. It was a long and wide discussion from which I recall there was no follow-up mainly because there was no change of Government at the next election.
Throughout the whole of my tenure as Leader of the Council, the Daily Mail and others branded me anti-police. Naturally, I was not but I was anti-police racism and sexism. I was deeply critical of how far the Met had moved away from the notion of policing by the consent of the people. Not only were the few Black police officers continuing to receive abuse and discrimination from their colleagues, whole communities in Brixton, Tottenham, St Pauls and Toxteth were experiencing disproportionate and discriminatory policing. When I and others like Bernie Grant said so, we were accused of being anti-police by the same newspapers who have just (2011) discovered the same thing 25 years later, when most of those excesses have been stopped. Thank you, Daily Mail and Express and thanks also to the Times and Telegraph for your astute and timely reporting-not.
CCT 1980s Style
Compulsory Competitive tendering or CCT was the name given to a Tory Strategy to stop Councils providing services when the private sector could provide them instead. What it meant in practice was that unless Councils reduced wages and conditions of services so that they could compete with the lower tenders by the private sector, in-house services would be lost to Council employees. I never had the time to look at who the shareholders were of the companies who bid for these councils services and later all Public services. We saw what was happening as cleaning services in hospitals were contracted out, wages fell as did hygiene standards.
In my short time as Leader of Lambeth, the proposals for contracting out were being shaped by the Government. We were restricted in what could be put into a contract related to pay and working conditions so, for us the only area for manoeuvre was on the specification. We had to set high standards for anyone providing the services, this to my mind was the only way to defend the services and the workers who provided them. Some Trades Unions were reluctant to look at changing the ways services were run and as a result, many contracts were won by the private sector offering lower costs. This was always at the expense of the workforce.
It would have been better for Councils to have looked harder at the specification of work- what was to be provided rather than merely the headline costs. The Companies which won these contracts built-in profits for the shareholders, those profits could only come by making the workers work harder for less pay. Such was the desperation to maintain a job that many workers had no choice but to accept these conditions.
I still think that Labour Councils and Trades Unions should have been more willing to make significant changes to work practices which increased efficiency rather than lose those jobs. This for me, was never about empire building within Councils or wanting to maintain large workforces. It was always about delivery better services and better does not always mean cheaper, but neither should it mean more expensive services.
The people who need council services the most, tend to be poor, the fact that they are poor does not mean that they have no rights to have the services delivered according to their needs and not those of workers who provide those services. I had taken that position and tried to put it into action since I became a public servant. I contrast my approach to that of some Directors of service in another Council who stated ‘the purpose of the Council is to be an exemplary employer’ to which I replied, ‘no it isn’t the purpose of this Council is to deliver services.’
Since the Coalition Government came to power in 2010 matters have only got worse with Councils and other public authorities forced to contract out vital services to the likes of Serco and G4s. The result has not even been an increase in quality, what can be shown is that pay for workers is reduced and in many cases services have got worse but profits are up! This is not to imply that some public services continue to be complacent, inefficient and generally slack, but increasing private profit has not done the trick either, services are more rationed and more expensive.
Setting the Council budget
Setting the budget for Lambeth council was one of the most challenging periods of my life, one from which I gained huge experience and self-knowledge. I cannot now recall the exact date in 1987 that the general election was called by Margaret Thatcher but I received the news in a meeting that there was to be an early election which I knew Labour was likely to lose. As the Leader of Lambeth Council, I suspected that we might again be the target of vicious budget cuts, as the Ted Knight administration had during the Rate-Capping campaign. All Labour Councillors campaigned locally for our 2 MPs and they held their seats but throughout the nation, there were more constituencies won by the Tories than there were by Labour so we were in for more tough times ahead.
The issue for me and my colleagues was would we resist the likely cuts as our predecessors had done or would we make cuts? The group was split, one-half whom I called the Trotskyite wing, the other we simply called the Right Wing who seemed to be arguing that they would make more cuts and that they would all be painless. We, the small group of 8 members who were Chairs or vice-Chairs of major committees, met at my house on a Sunday just after the General Election Results and agreed an outline of our plan. We could, of course have resigned, which would have spared us the responsibility of making hard decisions. The option of defying the Government and copying Ted Knight was frankly not credible especially after we had found that the previous administration had under-spent the Government limit. So the choice was to make the cuts and do so in the least harmful way.
One thing that distinguished us from the pro-cuts Labour splinter group was they refused to refer to cuts and instead insisted that they would make ‘savings’. We knew we would have to cut services and budgets and wished to be honest about them. The challenge was to do so in a way we could defend. Our meeting at my home on that Sunday was to explore the strategy for achieving our intentions.
What we came up with is now called an ‘impact assessment’ in which we looked at each and every service provided by the Council, all of our expenditure to outside bodies and what assets we could legitimately dispose of. This exercise could not be done unless and until we knew line by line what the Councils multimillion budget contained. Each Chair of each committee had general knowledge of what services were provided and how much they cost but we did not drill down to the minutiae, that was the role of Council officers. I, as Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee, was responsible for scrutiny of the overall budget and the allocation of departmental budgets but there was much detail unknown to me and to Committee Chairs.
What the 8 of us knew on that Sunday afternoon was that at least 75% of the Councils expenditure was spent on wages and salaries. That was the place to start, but not by cutting 25% of every departmental budget. Instead, we were going to do something far more difficult, which was to assess each and every service provided by the Council and determine one of 4 options that would apply to that service.
These options were to decide which would apply to each individual service provided or paid for by the Council:
Maintain a standstill budget (which was effectively an inflation cut)
The target was to reduce the budget by £60million the equivalent of 25% of the previously projected budget need. But this was not about money alone. We had the opportunity to look at who received the services and how effective the services were.
Although we had already prioritised Social Service and Housing as the vital services this did not mean that services within these departments would not be subject to the same critical scrutiny that was intended to apply to all other departments. Everything would be scrutinised without fear or favour. There were to be no deals for Chairs of Committees to win their votes at the coming Labour Group elections. All services were to be subjected to the same brutal criteria about meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people in the Borough.
We knew we would have a fight with our vocal, articulate middle-class service users about ‘their’ libraries and swimming baths and parks. But few of these services were Statutory - that is to say, Councils did not by law have to provide more than a minimum of leisure and other services. We did, on the other hand, have to provide for elderly vulnerable people and families with small children and disabled people; by law, these were some of the Statutory services, those that we were required to provide. Given a choice, Councils even today have the same and often worse dilemmas to face between what is popular and what is essential.
But at the time our challenge was mainly ideological. We had been elected after the previous Labour Administration had been surcharged and disqualified from being Councillors in March 1986. In the Council elections of May 1986 Labour had increased its majority, winning 41 of the 64 seats on the Council but many of those who stood for Labour had thought they were unlikely to win and stood only to make up the numbers. Most of the Labour Councillors had little direct experience of Councils or representing more than their local youth club or nursery. Some people had come from the National Union of Students, a few from a strong Trades Union background. I was one of the few people who had been an officer in Local Government and had some direct experience of how Councils worked but over that first year a pattern emerged.
A small group who wanted the Council to carry on Ted Knight’s confrontational policies (I called them the Trotskyists); a soft left group aligned then to Bryan Gould (one of them was John Mann now an MP); and us, pragmatic socialists of the left but concerned about the most vulnerable members of society. The 8 of us where different to each other but we are all frustrated that the Council was not delivering good services to the most vulnerable people who needed them. We were united in our determination to improve the services and we also hated Margaret Thatcher but were realistic enough to know that we could not defeat her and nor could we justify not improving services even as we cut discretionary services.
What was different about our approach was that we deliberately and uniquely prioritised not those services which were the most popular but the ones that impacted the most upon vulnerable people.
I recall one case when we were going through the Departmental budgets line by line when I questioned why the provision for an aspect of children’s services was so large, especially compared with other budgets heads in the department. It transpired that the Council was caring for a boy who had for years been locked in a cupboard under the stairs. I cannot now recall how long he had been there nor what action had been taken against his abusers but I was in no doubt that the assessment of his needs required a costly but necessary response from the Council as required by law.
I had been an Officer at the GLC and was responsible for the Grants budget of nearly £25 million pounds. Before that I had spent 5 years in the Inland Revenue and knew how to read accounts and challenge budget forecasts, I needed to be confident that no wastage or inflationary estimates had been concealed in Lambeth’s estimates.
The benefit of having been a Local Government Officer was that I knew that many senior officers measure their status by the size of their budgets. This included a heavy bout of spending in the period leading up to April so that they could receive a similar budget in the coming year, plus inflation. This meant in one case the purchase of unnecessary stationary or in the case of one, Director Henry Gilby the purchase of even more lawnmowers. The money that had been spent last year, plus inflation had been the model for budgeting, and in a few places, it still is, these were quick ‘spend’ items. It is a macho game of size, irrespective of what you spend the money on. This is not to imply that Lambeth’s budget was more than was needed and Thatcher was right, but if we redirected resources to those who needed them most we could at least know that we were doing something useful.
Was it the more mobile residents of the borough who knew how the systems worked and were good at the accessing those services? For me this was not about class hatred but of knowing that people like my mother would have been far too proud to demand anything of the Council or the State, but many middle-class people had no such qualms.
So, in demanding a breakdown of what services we provided and who benefitted from them we were better able to refocus our priorities. One significant increase in charges was introduced when I discovered that we were charging a mere £1 per week per child for use of Council nurseries. We were attacked for demanding a 400% increase in fees. But it made no sense to me that women who could not get a place in a Council run nursery were paying 20 or 30 times more in the private sector.
These were the young Black single mothers we were trying to support to get back into work whose numbers exceeded the young Black women using Council nurseries.
When faced with a huge deficit in the budget we had to look at everything but apply the notion of equality. It was noticeable that my White socialist colleagues who challenged increasing the £1 fee but had no answer to the reality of much higher fees in the private sector. This was not the first example of political dogma but it was amongst the most glaring. In making cuts to departmental budgets we sought to leave aside emotion and look directly at who was receiving services and who needed them most. Inevitably emotion did creep in but what I think we all did in making these outline decisions was to look at objective need, in contrast to political expediency. This, I am proud to say, we did.
We had begun planning for a reduced budget in early 1987, knowing that the budget would need to be agreed by the Council by 31st of March 1988 at the latest. The General Election of May 1987 only made this more likely, although at the time we did not know how intransigent the Thatcher Government would be. We had been an administration of less than a year, 41 Councillors who hardly knew each other and were mainly new to Local Government. By early 1987 factions of Left/ Right and Centre had developed which from my point of view were a distraction, but as a leadership group we had already become alarmed at the waste and inefficiency we found in how the Council organised and ran its services.
These difficulties were made much worse by the deliberate actions of the Government to deny, thwart and frustrate any legitimate requests we made of the Department of the Environment (who were responsible for Local Government); and the media attacks on me personally for being Black, a lesbian and a socialist. Copies of the Press cuttings show what appears to be a concerted attack on me for being any or all of these things but rarely if at all can I find any specific allegations of wrong doing.
The most glaring example of these personal attacks was a middle page spread in the Daily Mail (May 26 1987) of my children and former husband entitles the “Kids that Linda Left”, when I found out that they had paid my ex-husband a mere £400 I was horrified that he charged so little. There was no purpose to the story as I was not standing for Parliament; I was just being a Councillor. But it typified an approach to target me because of what I was, knowing that they were tapping into State sponsored prejudice.
Twenty-five or more years later it is still frustrating to recall those two years 1986-88 when I was Leader of Lambeth Council. They were exciting times, I worked an average 14 hours each day Monday to Friday and at least 10 hours over the weekends. Councillors in those days received no pay but we did qualify for attendance allowances of £12.86 per day if we attend a Council meeting. So I was not in it for the money. I had been a middle-ranking Local Government Officer for several years before I became a Council Leader and at the same time I was a political activist, still an active feminist and newly involved in the campaign for more Black Councillors and MPS.
I truly wanted to see a different politics, one that put working-class people first. But what was different about my approach was that I loathed the ’workerists on the Left’ and the middle-class do-gooders on the right of the Party. My criteria for making decisions when I was Leader was ‘would my mum understand or support this?’ You could not look at the inefficiencies in our Housing Department as an example and simply accept that nothing could be done. So from day one of taking office I and the other Committee Chairs had to get to know what was going on in the areas we had responsibility for and get to know each other.
I recount here the case of Ed Atkins, one of the first crisis to hit us, but the over-arching challenge from day one was the budget. Labour had won an additional 7 Council seats since Ted Knight’s administration had been surcharged and disqualified. The budget we inherited was not as bad as we had thought, in that Ted had failed to spend the sum they were surcharged over. The final spend figures for that year 1985/6 were at least £10m less than the limit set by the Thatcher Government. This in part arose because a little political ploy that Ted had introduced in his last months in office, that of introducing a policy to employ only registered disabled people until Lambeth Council meet the 3% employment threshold. At that time all large employers were required to have at least 3% of their workforce who were register disabled, except that most employers applied for and obtained exemption from the quota.
My dilemma in coming into office was discovering that there was a significant number of vacant posts, due to the time it took to recruit for each post- should I apply for the exemption from the quota? Many people including senior officers and the Trade Unions wished me to do so. It would of course have been a betrayal of our much vaulted equal opportunity policy. I needed to fill vacant posts because they were having a dire impact upon service delivery- What to do?
I have referred earlier to two of the early challenges that face our Administration, the Ed Atkins challenge and the 3% Disability quota
For me, the matter was quite straight forward- Ed Atkins was not the best candidate for the post, he had no Housing qualifications or experience and his seemed to have been a political appointment which in my view was corrupt. So we let him go, and I gained quite a few enemies within the Lambeth Labour parties. That was month One.
In the following months as we became more familiar with our areas of responsibility and how the Council worked, but also, how it did not work. By the first 6 months of my role as Leader I became more and more convinced that John George, Chief Executive (CE), Ex-Guards and a fine upstanding gentleman was not the right person to be the CE of Lambeth. I took soundings from my colleagues who appeared to agree, I spoke to Mr George who seemed to agree and knew he was entitled to a generous pay off.
I had nothing personal against him, but I knew that I did not wish to be an active Chief Executive as my predecessor Ted Knight clearly had been, whilst allowing John George to be the figurehead of the administration. I had someone competent in mind to undertake a thorough and independent review of the Council so that we could eventually employ the right Chief Executive within say 18 months or 2 years. In other words before the next borough elections when we would have been able to show progress in sorting out the Council. What happened over Christmas I am not certain but I received a call from a Times journalist with a story about me planning to sack John George after he had apparently criticised my interferences into Council business. It was galling for me to be held responsible for all that was wrong in the Council and at the same time not able to employ competent officers to run the Council. So John George stayed and the administration of the services did not get easier.
This then is the background to the key budget we had to set, and over which we resigned. It is, I know, very different from the media impression created of what I and my colleagues did and were trying to do. We all wanted to see Lambeth Council provide descent services to the people of the Borough and that was our primary and secondary purpose. Most of my colleagues combined their role as Chair with full or part-time jobs. I believe I was the only one of us who worked full time as a Councillor but once I had found out what a travesty was being done in the name of the Council I committed all my energy to improving what we delivered. The budget should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. It was the Thatcher Government that made ‘setting and lawful balanced budget’ an objective in its own right whether the level of that budget met the basic needs of the people of or not.
The budget that we set was within the limits dictated by Government but what I and my colleagues were all proud of was that we know exactly what services were going and which services were staying. We resisted caving in to political pressures from articulate middle-class people who wanted their library around the corner to be kept open at the expensive of many disabled children and adults whose lives depended upon social care. Or those families living for years in bed-and breakfast accommodation where they could not cook or wash their clothes. These were the hard choices we made and ones that I can live with over 30 years later.
The budget for the Council’s spending for 1988/9 had by law to be set on or before the 31st of March 1988. There was, in my view no benefit to be gained by delaying the decision. I was determined that the Council meeting should not be deferred and that the cuts budget would be set. I was far from happy that we would set a cuts budget but I was also unhappy that not setting the budget would place the Council and its staff in even more difficulty. So, the meeting went ahead, Joan Twelves and a number of her colleagues had vowed to vote against the budget so every vote of our side of Labour Group was vital if the budget was to be set that day. I have described earlier the tortuous process we had undergone to examine every line of the budget and every service those figures represented. If nothing else I was confident about the consequences of our decisions.
We knew what the Council was providing and what services we had not cut, we had to go through the lobby’s and vote on the overall package. To add drama to the day one of the votes I relied on the get the budget through was that of Pauline Watson who had just had a baby. Without her vote, I could not guarantee the budget would be approved. After frantic calls to her, I sent a Taxi to collect her and wait, whilst she voted and return here to her home, baby in her arms all the while. To my relief and that of my colleagues, the budget was set. I am not sure I have ever had to be so determined and steely and I still remember the grim determination that I needed to show to my colleagues and the officers that we were going to set the budget.
I was confident that vulnerable adults and children would not be made more so by our actions, and that other vital services would be protected but some of the discretionary services would go, but I could morally defend these decisions. However, I was in no doubt that making Lambeth Council cut its budget by 25% was a purely vindictive and politically motivated action by the Thatcher Government.
In the weeks that followed the budget, all the political positions in the Labour Group had to be contested. I and my colleagues in the Leadership group put ourselves forward to remain in our posts, whilst the group led by Dick Sorabji, which we called to the Right, put up a slate to replace us; and Joan Twelves the ‘no cuts’ group also stood against us. I recall those weeks of hustings with sadness and frustration. The Right-wing group of Labour Councillors said they could make even more ‘efficiency’ savings; whilst the workerist group lead by Twelves said they would reverse the cuts but would never reveal how they would do so. In the end, the three Lambeth Labour Parties did not give us the backing we needed and we, the Leadership group, following another meeting in my sitting room agreed that we would all stand down. We drafted a resignation statement and agreed that it would not be released until we were ready. The next day I called a Press Conference and the 7 of us resigned en masse. The amusing irony for me was the squeals of rage from our local Labour Parties that we had resigned even though it was they who had failed to back us.
To read more about my life, read my forthcoming book called Linda Bellos a Memoir 1950-2017