Today was meant to be the day that the council ratified controversial reforms to social care services for disabled and mentally ill people. The plans would have saved the council some £5.4 million over the next three years. But they would also have meant enormous upheaval.
Most of the city’s existing service providers, including voluntary organizations and charities with decades of experience in the capital, lost out when the contracts with the council were re-tendered. Most of the new organizations coming in have no previous record of working with people in the city.
In the ornate and formal surroundings of the council chamber, a stream of people stood up to give evidence of the impact the changes would have. Carers, parents, and people with learning difficulties spoke passionately about their lives. They spoke of the close relationships they’ve built up with carers, and how important those relationships are to their health and stability.
It was inspiring to see people who have to deal with profound disabilities coming to the city chambers and getting involved as active citizens in the democratic process. Sometimes their speeches were angry, swearing with frustration. But they proved persuasive.
People like Maggie, who has bi-polar disorder, asked Councillors to vote with their hearts.
So many people turned up to the meeting that the public gallery was soon packed, and a spill-over room was quickly filled too.
In the late afternoon, with the testimonies over, the main debate began.
Councillors Paul Edie and Jenny Dawe, Leader of the Council, tried to convince fellow councillors (and the angry crowd in the public gallery) that tenders were a necessary measure, and that organizations had been selected principally on their quality – not their cost.
Mrs.Dawe explained that the two factors had been considered by separate and independent groups, and that the tenders were decided on a rigorous 70% quality, 30% cost basis. She said that many carers would be able to transfer to the new companies, and stay with their clients.
But service providers and users were unconvinced. Ian Wood of Disability Alliance Scotland said that disabled clients were already voting with their feet, with hundreds of them applying for direct payments. That way, they could continue to employ the carers and organizations that they know and trust.
Other people expressed their disbelief that the council could claim that the quality of the services would go up, even as the cost was cut by 21%.
In the end, it came down to a dramatic roll-call vote.
The Labour Councillors had tabled an amendment calling for a two week delay, an opportunity to re-examine the plans, and to process the swelling backlog of applications for direct payments.
Usually, the Scottish Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party ruling coalition enjoy a majority of one in the chamber. But with one of their number unable to vote, due to a declared financial interest in the proceedings, things were finely balanced.
Labour tabled the amendment, and the Greens supported it; but in the end, it would come down to the Conservative party group – and they, in general, support the process of tendering services for contracts.
But not in this case.
The votes were counted, one by one.
The final tally.
28 votes for the motion, and 29 for the amendment…
The gallery erupted in cheering, applause and relief.
For me, it was a valuable reminder that local democracy can work – messy, confusing, chaotic, but ultimately surprising in it’s ability to respond to the demands and desires of it’s citizens.
When Councillor Balfour, himself severely disabled, said that they had seen the council “at it’s best,” there was a touch of pride that was well deserved.
But the excitement of tonight’s vote belies the fact that very little has changed. In two weeks time, the council will again be faced with a vote. And it’s unlikely to vote for a complete abandonment of the tender process, which has taken eighteen months preparation. Councillors Edie and Dawe are already warning that just this short delay could result in legal action against the council by the companies that won the tender contracts.
It’s going to be an interesting fortnight.
Councillor Dawe’s reaction to the vote.