IF there is such a thing as a serious pantomime, this was it.
One hundred people had gathered outside Huddersfield Town Hall to protest against plans to cut care for vulnerable adults.
Mike Foster from Kirklees Save Our Services used his loud-hailer to point out each councillor as they approached the front door.
The crowd booed and hissed and heckled as the decision-makers went in on their way to chop £31m from next year’s Kirklees Council budget.
Clr David Sheard gave them a big wave and a grin as he went into the town hall last Wednesday afternoon. His Labour colleague, Clr Mohammad Sarwar, recognised one of the protestors and stopped to shake his hand.
Clr Molly Walton waded into the crowd, wagging her finger and arguing with anyone foolish enough to make eye contact with her.
The protest was about the gravest of matters – cutting care to thousands of vulnerable adults. But there was something comic, something pantomime about the heckling.
It was Act One of a protest play which I had seen at the town hall many times before.
Act Two would take place during the meeting itself in the council chamber when some of the protestors would heckle speakers until the mayor banged his gavel and demanded order.
But then something went wrong. Instead of being allowed into the town hall to watch the meeting – as is their legal right – the protestors were blocked by security guards who looked suspiciously like nightclub bouncers rather than council employees.
A dozen protestors – and this angry columnist – were allowed to enter at 4.59pm, one minute before the meeting started. Another few were permitted into the over-spill room after the meeting was underway.
But most of the protestors were never allowed past the foyer.
I cannot say for sure what happened next because I wasn’t there. What I do know is that a stand-off developed and the police were called.
An hour or so later, with the budget cuts in the bag, Kirklees leader Clr Mehboob Khan rose to inform a shocked council chamber of what had happened downstairs.
The “rabble”, as he described the protestors, had “rushed into the reception area” of the town hall. They then “attacked four members of staff” and a female council employee was “punched in the face.’’
There were gasps from some councillors as Clr Khan recounted the violent events which had happened just a floor below.
But Ian Brooke from Kirklees Save Our Services, who had been in the foyer at the time, told a very different story. There had been some pushing and shoving by both sides, he said, but no punches thrown by protestors.
The police later confirmed no arrests had been made at the town hall and no crimes reported.
Then on Friday the council’s chief executive, Adrian Lythgo, praised staff for making sure the situation in the foyer “didn’t get out of hand.”
It was a very strange way for him to describe an incident in which four of his staff had been assaulted.
I asked myself how I would feel if I had been punched in the face in the line of duty only to return to the newsroom to hear my editor’s consoling words: “Cheer up, Barry. At least it didn’t get out of hand.”
Tracking down those who set upon the council staff was proving difficult.
I asked Kirklees on Friday and again on Monday if they could study their CCTV footage to provide descriptions of the people who attacked their staff so the Examiner might help bring these thugs to justice.
I’m still waiting.
In the meantime, the truth about what happened on Wednesday night is slowly seeping out.
I suspected at the time that those on the doors that night were not council employees.
There was something about their uniform and their manner which suggested they were more used to informing drunks they wouldn’t be admitted to a nightclub than discussing the finer points of the Local Government Access to Information Act 1985 with a disgruntled journalist.
I asked Kirklees on Friday if the council had paid for outside security for the meeting. No answer was forthcoming so I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Then I asked the press office again on Monday. That evening the answer finally came. The council – which has its own friendly, respectful and effective security staff – had indeed hired private bouncers for the event.
The cost to you and me? One hundred pounds.
Good thing Kirklees is flush with money at the moment or I might be tempted to get a wee bit angry about that.
The council assures us there will be a review into what went wrong last Wednesday.
Here’s one conclusion Kirklees can take from the town hall debacle which also applies more widely. When you contract out a service which could be supplied in-house, you often end up paying more and getting less.