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A Sekhemka Decision – The Truth?
Following the Conservative Cabinets decision on the 12th September to sell the Sekhemka Statue that was up until 2 years ago on display in the Northampton Museums for the best part of 150 years the decision was ‘called in’ by Councillor Terry Wire the Leader of the Borough Council Labour group and me for it to be scrutinised by an all-party committee.
For the uninitiated the purpose of a ‘call in’ is to ensure that decisions taken by the administration are fair, reasonable, legal and sensible and is a means of ensuring that at the very least whoever is in control of the Council can be held to account.
It is essentially a part of the democratic process which is why for the Leader of the Council Cllr David Mackintosh (Conservative Rectory Farm) to say on the Chronicle and Echo website that Labour was threatening and jeopardising the future of the museum service by calling it in was nothing more than a ‘hissy fit’.
Worse still for him to say that if the sale of the statue didn’t happen it would lead to cuts in the museum service as was proven last night not only wrong but nothing short of trying to frighten and threaten those who work in and support the museum service into not continuing with their objection to the sale.
We perhaps need to go back to the Cabinet meeting on the 12th September when the Councillor Brandon Eldred the Conservative Cabinet Member responsible for the Museums service clearly stated that “we have consulted widely with all of the groups who support the museums”, a statement that was not supported by the Friends of Northampton Museums, Northampton Arts Collective, Northamptonshire Egyptian Society or Rescue who are an organisation concerned with archaeology and heritage.
In effect Councillor Eldred was saying that those who claimed that they hadn’t been consulted and only knew of the sale when they read about it in the local Chronicle and Echo had been consulted and were therefore not telling the truth.
What happened at last nights ‘call in’ was an incredibly incompetent performance by Councillor Eldred who in spite of people from the Museums and Arts organisations statements saying again that they had not been consulted and continuing to oppose the sale continued still insisted that he, the officers and the Leader of the Council had been consulted with all interested groups.
Most people would have thought that having made the decision and in the knowledge that they were facing questioning from the Overview and Scrutiny Committee they would have appeared with all of the evidence to support their decision available to present to the committee.
It was interesting that evidence of consultation wasn’t available?
The decision and story became even more complicated when Cllr Eldred explained that the decision to sell the Sekhemka Statue was taken because the 2010 version of the document related to the sale of heritage assets had been updated in 2012 and that after following consultation process the Egyptian Collection was no longer considered important to the long-term development of the museums and exhibits.
Unfortunately neither the 2010 or 2012 version of the document was available and Cllr Eldred couldn’t recall when he made the decision to approve the changes in policy?
The committee was then told that the changes had been made on the 12th September which by coincidence was the same day the decision was made to sell the statue!
Cllr Eldred still didn’t recall, (where is Mr Jay QC when you need him) when he made the decision and the ‘consultation’ information on which it was based wasn’t available!!
It then turned out that the only difference between the 2010 and 2012 version after investigation from a member of staff who was despatched to find out was the year.
Effectively after all of the talk of the need for the council to update the documents regularly what in effect those with responsibility for doing it had done was “according to them after carrying out consultation” changed 2010 to 2012.
Confused, you should be and so were the committee and especially the members of the public and organisations who sat patiently through the three-hour meeting.
There was much more in terms of statements, contradictions and retractions along with attempts to divert blame to others that happened and which caused those non Councillors and non-Borough Council staff present to on a number of occasions say very clearly that what was being presented on behalf of the Conservative administration was simply not true.
The one statement they will have gone away with which they now see as the whole approach of the Borough Council Conservatives is the statement by Councillor Eldred that,
“People don’t class this as our family silver. It doesn’t add any heritage to the town at all.”
What an earth made him say such a thing and doesn’t it demonstrate as the heritage lead member of the Conservative administration just what their approach, in spite of comments to the contrary by the Leader of the Council, really is?
It is a statement that the heritage organisations and supporters in the room and those who read it here and in the Chronicle and Echo will remember when this administration go looking for support from them and from national arts and heritage organisations.
Why would anyone support an administration who show such contempt for heritage and the arts and who have such an arrogant approach to the sale of artefacts in violation of the museums ethical protocol for handling and looking after exhibits?
In terms of the credibility of the Northampton Borough Council Cabinet Member for Heritage, the Conservative Leadership and administration and for Northampton itself the damage done by disregarding and failing to consult before making the decision to sell the Sekhemka Statue is immeasurable.
On the positive side one Conservative Councillor on the committee, Councillor Tony Ansell opposed the sale of the statue and the committee agreed to the most important ‘call in’ reason that
‘The Cabinet report says consultation is underway. The sale of the statue should only be considered once consultation has been completed. More consultation needs to be carried out with various stakeholders such as Friends of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery, tourist/heritage groups and local users of the Museums’
This will now go back to the Conservative Cabinet who may decide to ignore the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and still go ahead with the sale and only consult on what the proceeds should be spent on.
It would be a decision that would bring them into conflict with the museums and arts organisations and almost certainly according to those organisations present last night lead to the Northampton Museums losing their accreditation.
Councillor Mackintosh in the past week said that in relation to another contentious issue that he “Wants to raise the profile of Northampton”,
The debacle around the sale of the Sekhemka Statue has certainly done that by demonstrating both locally, nationally and internationally how he and his colleagues view heritage and the arts.
The question is will he continue to support the comments and position of his cabinet colleague or try now to recover the reputation of Northampton by taking decisive action and reverse the sale decision until all consultation is completed and all of the other alternatives has been explored.
What the public will have to decide is who is telling the truth between those members of the public and organisations who say they weren’t consulted with and the Conservative administration who says they did carry out consultation.
Sadly because of the cynicism that exists against all of those involved in politics I suspect this will only serve to strengthen the cynicism which is a shame because clearly not everyone involved is the same.
Which is why I’m pleased that we challenged the decision to sell the Sekhemka Statue and demonstrate again that Northampton Labour is prepared to Listen to Northampton.