Thursday, 15 August 2013

In her own words: Jane Vernon, on Council tenants in squalor

Last Thursday I carried a story based on a BBC London report featuring residents living in pest infested squalor, with our Council not apparently being much bothered to do a great deal about it. It attracted several thousand readers within an hour of being published, which is probably because of the BBC publicity.

Later that week H&F Council contacted me about the story and gave me their side of things, which I added to my article and which seemed to balance the picture a great deal. It appeared that actually our Council had been quite reasonable. Several of you, however, were furious that I had done so and accused me of giving them a free rein to make misleading claims.

Since then, I have been in direct contact with the woman featured in the BBC programme, Jane Vernon. I offered her the chance to tell her side of the story directly. She agreed and what appears below is unedited by anyone but her. It is pretty devastating stuff. Readers will draw their own conclusions as to how our Council is behaving.
“When I contacted the BBC on 1 August, I never expected them to take our story. I called them purely out of desperation, after two and a half months of living in a flat infested with bedbugs. LBHF’s response to the problem has been uncoordinated and ineffective, and they appear unwilling to take the advice they have been given, that the only way to rid the building of a problem that has been going on for 2 years, is to carry out specialist heat treatment on the whole building.

What I didn’t foresee was that LBHF would be so bothered by the media coverage that they would resort to issuing statements aimed at discrediting me personally. When public figures like Andy Slaughtor or Andy Johnson are given a hard time by the media, or publicly criticised, I think most people would regard that as all part of the job, but I am not a public figure, and I really didn’t expect the council to sink so low. Finding myself the target of a defamatory statement issued by LBHF’s vast and highly professional press department has been extremely distressing; I had thought that life with the bedbugs was a living hell, but this really did add insult to injury.

As the purpose of LBHF’s statement was clearly to damage my credibility, and publicly attack my integrity, I feel I have no option but to defend myself, and I therefore intend to address each point the council make.

It is true that Alasdaire Dunn of LBHF did visit my property on 30 April, I had been in the property for two months at this point, but as I had been severely depressed for much of that time, I had not managed to complete my unpacking. It is true that Mr Dunn offered to arrange help for me with this issue, but as I had nowhere to unpack things to, until I had made the inevitable visit to IKEA, I did turn down this offer. As this offer was made at least two weeks before I first reported the bedbug problem to the council, I do not see how it is relevant.

I did sign a form stating that other than the fact that the oven didn’t work, the extractor fan in the bathroom didn’t work, the electric socket in the kitchen wasn’t earthed, and the toilet seat was broken, the flat was great. If this is not what the form states, I can only say that Mr Dunn told me he had recorded the outstanding repairs.

Throughout April and the first half of May I noticed I had a lot of bites, but it was only when my neighbour told me that she thought they were bedbug bites, and that her and her family had been suffering from them for 15 months, that I realised what the problem was.

I reported the problem to the council on or about 20 May. Since then my property has been treated three times. The treatment has been badly managed and very disorganised.

First visit, no one bothered to contact me about the appointment, and I was not at home.

Second visit, 29 may, no one had bothered to tell me what preparations I needed to make, so the treatment was not very effective.

Third visit, 24 July, only three flats were treated, and the council made no effort to get access to the others.

Fourth visit, 2 August, by this time the infestation in my flat was so bad, that mere spraying was not going to solve the problem. Again two tenants did not grant access, and the council did nothing.

When Debbie Ricketts, of LBHF’s environmental health department visited my property on 3 July, I specifically asked her if I should continue to unpack, or wait until the bedbug problem had been resolved, her advice was not to unpack anything else at that stage. By the time she visited again on 9 August, she had changed her mind about me not unpacking the boxes, and these were clearly the main problem as far as she was concerned.

Later that day I read the council’s statement, and I suspected that Bruce Pennel and Debbie Ricketts had been asked for a briefing on the state of my flat.

It is interesting that they chose to portray me as uncooperative, as I had specifically asked them whether it was possible to get in a professional contractor, to collect, decontaminate and return my belongings, as, however hard I tried to keep up with washing everything, by the time it was dry it was likely to be reinfested.

As for my vast horde of old books and magazines, which I am alleged to be refusing to dispose of, at most I have about one large IKEA Billy book case worth of books: Braille, print and audio, and a couple of catalogues. For the avoidance of doubt, at no time have I been asked to allow a pest control company to treat any books, or the contents of any boxes; far from refusing to cooperate with such treatment, I have positively requested it.

This morning I received an email from Bruce Pennel of LBHF stating that a specialist company would be contacting me to arrange a visit to assess what kind of treatment would be required. When Ms Ricketts attended my property this morning, I asked her how this cleaning process was going to work if the building was still infested. She replied that everything would be contained in plastic. I asked if I would therefore not have access to my belongings, she responded that I could unpack things as I needed them. I pointed out to her that as soon as I did this, my belongings would be reinfested. At this point she became very flustered and said she had to go. I suggested that she probably needed to get back to speak to someone from their coms department, to which she replied “well why don’t you go running to the BBC again.”

I think it is clear from what I have said, that at no point have I refused to allow pest control to take whatever action they have seen fit, and indeed, I have asked for professional contractors to be engaged.

LBHF clearly want to portray me as a difficult uncooperative hoarder, and I categorically deny the allegations they have made against me.

I can answer every point they raise in their statement, and should they make further defamatory statements about me I will have no hesitation in seeking legal advice.

Jane Vernon

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