Coup d'état by Thurrock Council at the Citizens Advice Bureau?
The boss of the Thurrock Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), Mike Rawlings has spoken to Your Thurrock in order to, as he says, put the record straight over the bitter battle over the future of the advice centre. Mr Rawlings believes that the CAB is the victim of a virtual coup d'etat by the Labour run, Thurrock Council. A coup, that along with a smear campaign against him is designed to oust the staff at the Thurrock branch.
Many believe that the CAB are being punished for exposing the "bully boy tactics" of a number of council departments, including debt payments and housing. According to Mr Rawlings, the independent trustees at the CAB have all left over the last six months, leaving a rump of Labour councillors, council officers and a former Labour mayor.
The Trustees of Thurrock CAB, registered charity 270471 as listed on the Charity Commission website are: Barrie Lawrence (acting chair) ex-mayor Mike Hursthouse council officer Richard Speight labour councillor and portfolio holder Charles Curtis labour councillor
Mr Rawlings said: "The proposed plan for the bureau was drawn up by a council officer and includes removing the bureau from Grays to South Ockendon hub in order to pay rent to the Thurrock CVS to make the hub sustainable. No plans for a bureau in Grays have been shared with staff, volunteers or the local community. As far as we are aware no one has contacted the bureau or its trustees to discuss funding the local service, this maybe because the trustees are council appointees.
"Citizens Advice is a separate national charity who have a membership scheme of which Thurrock CAB adheres to. It does not represent the bureau only the trustees of the charity can do that. All staff have been told is that they are under threat of redundancy but no consultation has taken place with individuals or with the affected communities in Thurrock who have been served by the bureau for 40 years. The bureau’s proposed funding is for one year only so will only put off the inevitable."
"Jackie Doyle-Price has written today to ask council leader John Kent to personally intervene to secure the future of the Thurrock Citizens Advice bureau from closure and keep it in Grays, rather than move to South Ockendon as has been proposed. In her letter, she said:
"The first thing to say is, and I am sure you agree, we need to retain an independent citizen’s advice service. It is also my belief that it needs to be in Grays to be accessible to everyone. I would welcome your reflections on that point. At present the board is far from independent. With the exception of Barrie Lawrence all the board members are members or officers of the council. As such the agenda driven by the board is entirely dominated by the financial interests of the council and not about the duty of trustees to deliver the service. Until the board of trustees is fit for purpose there is not going to be a mature decision making process to take the bureau forward.
The key mover in all this process has been Michael HirstHouse. I am not sure whether he qualifies as a trustee any longer. You state that it is with the Bureau's management to come up with a solution. This is news to the staff at the bureau. It begs the question then with whom is it with. Is it the chairman? Is it Michael HirstHouse? It has been suggested that the bureau will be moved to the South Ockendon hub. I do not think that an appropriate place for this service. It should be located in line with how best to deploy the service, not to sort out a black hole in the council's accounts. Put simply, the decision to relocate the service should not be a unilateral decision by one former council officer. Being perfectly frank with you, I believe this situation has been mismanaged by officers within the council who have taken exception to the challenge given by the CAB."
In riposte, the Council issued the following statement, saying: “Thurrock Council is involved in close and positive talks with the national Citizens Advice Bureau with a view to ensuring a well organised and sustainable CAB presence in the Borough.
“In February councillors, and council officers met with senior national CAB staff.
“On 5 February, Julia Dennis, Head of Network Development and Support for the national CAB organisation wrote to the council saying: ‘We all agreed that we should work towards a CAB service in Thurrock that will be financially sustainable and an incorporated legal entity. It should be completely independent of the Council and its Trustee Board should be free from Council members or officers.’
“In reply, Council Leader, Cllr John Kent, wrote: ‘Both the meeting and the letter have helped to move us forward towards a sustainable solution for Thurrock CAB, an objective we all would like to see. I am pleased that the Bureau Trustee Board agreed the way forward.’ He added that the council has offered up to £85,000 funding for next year.
“Thurrock Council is currently waiting to receive the Bureau’s management plans and to receiving their transition and business plan. The current Thurrock CAB board has members from both main political parties – Labour and Conservative – and the Council wants to see an organisation that is not only capable of independently scrutinising the Council, but also, in these increasingly difficult financial times, is focused on becoming self-sustaining – both aims agreed with the national Bureau Trustee Board. “
As ever I'd be grateful if anyone with local knowledge could chip in.
The local knowledge I can chip with is that the lurid headlines mask the underlying story which is much the same as every other bureau facing closure. A lack of willingness to fund advice work. The Council gets its budget cut and it has little choice but to pass on cuts – or so it says - which may well prove to be a false economy in the long-term.
Yes there were problems with the makeup of the Trustee Board at one point
Yes various Cllrs have used the future of the CAB as a political football
Yes the bureau is too heavily dependent upon Council funding but name me a bureau that isn’t?
The headlines mask the fact this case is much the same story as elsewhere. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.