8. I Ask Three Questions in DCC’s Council Chamber on 7th February 2007

November 5, 2008

I simply could not believe what I was reading, with regard to what I came to call the “Fish Oil Farce” and having written to the councillor responsible for scrutiny of education, only to have my letter passed to David Ford so that he could answer it, only confirmed my impression that members knew little if anything about this. I then found out from another councillor that DCC ran a scheme called “Public Questions” which allowed members of the public to submit three questions to the council and to be able to ask them in person at a council meeting in the council chamber. This Public Questions system was introduced by two particular councillors (Nugent and Manton) as an apparent appearance of democracy and public involvement and their publicity leaflet for the scheme was somewhat laughable. After the May elections, the new leader of DCC, Councillor Simon Henig, wanted to review this particular aspect of publicity and the leaflet was withdrawn! One could hardly blame him for doing so! I shall copy the leaflet in a future post about the system of DCC Public Questions, soon. For now, all you need to know is that the leaflet featured a circular sign with a bull’s head in it with a diagonal line through it – i.e. “No Bull!” and the accompanying message was, “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers…no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”  (Forgive me while I try to stop shaking with laughter – it’s spoiling my typing!)

There, that’s better – in control again!

So I submitted the following three questions to be asked at the end of the council meeting on 7th February 2007:

  1. Why has Durham County Council, in conjunction with Equazen, not undertaken what appears to many to be an obvious and unique opportunity to carry out a scientifically controlled trial, with appropriate controls, of the possible effects of fish oil supplements on the academic performance in mainstream children in the county’s schools?
  2. Were Members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation, or is the council simply blindly supporting a trial (or initiative) implemented by its Officers?
  3. David Ford is quoted in the Durham Advertiser (13/01/07) as saying, “there has not been sufficient time for the fish oil supplement to feed through the system and have any influence on the pupils’ mock-exam performance, but they would now have to wait until the results of the proper GCSEs later in the year to measure any impact. Given that by his own admission the “initiative” is not scientifically controlled, how does Durham County Council propose to measure any possible impact with any degree of scientific rigour?

I put on a suit and sat through the council meeting on 7th February. A large contingent of Year 10 students from Easington was in attendance, no doubt viewing democracy at work as I duly read out my three questions.

Councillor Claire Vasey then simply read out the prepared answers, as follows:

This initiative is an opportunity for young people and their families to choose to try, at no cost to themselves or the local authority, a supplement which may assist them in their learning. Our approach meant that the opportunity was open to all. A controlled experiment by definition denies some students that opportunity. This opportunity was supported by officers of the authority in their advisory role to autonomous schools. Schools and toung people and their families were thenable to choose to particiapte or not.

We have said that we will look at outcomes through levels of take-up and through perceptions of staff, pupils and parents following this year’s GCSE examinations. Our review will provide information for our schools and parents and may prompt further scientific research.

This statement was read out fairly quickly and I had little opportunity to note it down. Consequently, when the chairman asked me if I would like to reply to councillor Vasey, I was somewaht at a disadvantage. However, I stood up and said that it was somewhat illogical and incongruous for councillor Vasey to talk about not denying pupils benefits she had not yet demonstrated to exist, despite having the clear opportunity to do so. That was the best I could manage on the day, being my very first time at this caper!

Councillor Vasey apparently  came to talk to me in the lobby after the meeting, but I missed her, having been “nobbled” by a journalist from the Newcastle Journal, who then ran an excellent piece on Thursday 8th February 2007, including a fine editorial comment castigating DCC.

It was only when I got home and read Vasey’s answer in print, online, that I realised that she had simply ignored my second question. I wrote to councillor Vasey, who offered to meet with me to discuss the matter further. I wrote again, declining her kind offer and pointing out that by ignoring my second question, she was ensuring that an answer was not on the public record. I also told her on both occasions that I considered her actions to be morally reprehensible. I summarised my position to her on 13th February as follows:

“In summary:

  1. You did not answer my important question in the chamber on 7th february
  2. You continue to avoid answering that question
  3. You have said that you suspect that I have already made my conclusion on the issue
  4. I cannot reach a conclusion without an anwser from you
  5. You have skilfully avoided putting an answer to my question on public record
  6. I find your actions morally reprehensible

On 2oth March 2007, five weeks after I asked my three questions in the council chamber, a “Supplemental Answer” appeared on DCC’s Public Questions website, as follows:

“A recommendation to use Omega 3 supplement was made by officers in line with the normal advisory relationship between the County Council and its schools. In that sense, members were not directly involved in the decision, although key Members were made aware of and spoorted providing this opportunity to schools.”

So that’s all right then! (even though it took them a while to think that one up)

 

I should add that I had entered into a fairly lively correspondence with the then Leader of DCC (I think “Buggins’ turn” tended to apply) councillor Ernest Foster, who sent me a letter on 20th March 2007, giving the “Supplemental” answer.

I e-mailed the officer in charge of Public Questions (a very nice guy) as follows:

Dear ****,

I do not belieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve it!! (Imagine a Scottish accent)

I ask a question in the chamber on 7th february, Councillor e-Vasey-ive studiously avoids answering it, newspaper articles ensue, interviews are given on Radio Four, David Ford gets his knickers in a twist and will barely shake my hand, letters fly to and fro between the chairman and me and now, almost unbelievably, on 20th March, Councillor Foster signs a letter to me which actually answers my question appropriately and that answer is posted on the appropriate section of the DCC website. Almost beyond belief (but not in Durham!)

There is only one logical question begging here:

Why did DCC not simply say that in the first place?

Too many greasy poles to be climbed, too many reputations to be saved, too many backs to be covered, too much duplicity, too much political expediency and little sign of integrity. So what’s new?

I am looking forward to the next Public Questions session in August. Why the public should not be able to submit and ask questions after each and every council meeting is beyond me. One would have thought it to be almost essential.

I suppose we are supposed to be grateful for the “token gesture” we actually have (even when one’s questions are not answered!)

The frequency of the Public Questions initiative reminds me of the old joke about the trappist monastery.

The monks are allowed to say one word per year, other than prayers, and it takes a new inmate five years to say “The porridge is too salty.”

The Abbot then chides him (he has a Papal dispensation to speak, commensurate with his rank) and says, “You’ve only been here for five years and you’ve done nothing but complain!”

I look forward to August.

Yours etc…………….****

That was quite a saga to drag some information out of them. I shall post another installment in the ongoing saga of the Fish Oil Farce soon.

 

 

 

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