Doing the best we can with a terrible deal from the Government
Last night I was due to speak at Islington Council’s budget meeting, but couldn’t. A group of protestors took over the gallery and made it clear they did not want to hear any of the arguments, they only wanted to disrupt the meeting by screaming at Councillors (and other members of the public who’d come to ask questions), using percussion and chanting.
I’m in favour of protest, and I understand how angry people are with the cuts that the Government is forcing councils to make. But the level of cacophony last night was off the scale. If people don’t like the way democratic politics works, it’s their prerogative to get stuck in to change the system from within; not to shout Councillors down who are trying to do the job for which they were elected.
It was a real shame that the proceedings had to move to another room without the public, but with the press present. No one there relished it, but we had to agree a budget one way or another. Most of the protestors had come to demand that Labour Councillors vote not to set a budget at all. Resist and fight the cuts they yelled. But if they truly cared about ensuring the poorest paid in Islington and the most vulnerable are protected, they wouldn’t have been asking that. Because had we not set a budget, the consequences for Islington residents would have been far, far worse.
Legally, not setting a budget or setting one which didn’t balance would have allowed Tory Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to determine that we hadn’t fulfilled our ‘best value duty’ as set out in the Local Government Act 1999. That would have allowed him to either direct us to set a budget or to take over the setting of the budget himself. I can’t see Eric Pickles keeping spending on free school meals, or the £100 council tax discount for people over the age of 65, or establishing a Citizens Advice Bureau, can you?
Even if Pickles didn’t intervene, not setting a budget has potentially disastrous consequences because the Council would not be able to collect council tax. Without this money we would quickly be unable to pay for services and staffing costs. As a Council, we’re not allowed to borrow money for revenue purposes, only capital, so we wouldn’t be able to cover salaries through that method. If we couldn’t pay salaries or for services we’d be served with legal challenges left right and centre. So what we’d end up doing is cutting off our nose to spite our face. We’d end up hurting those people we got elected to try and protect through making an irresponsible party political protest.
A well known St George’s Ward resident has been down this path before and made this point in one of the most powerful speeches of the second half of the 20th Century. It went like this:
I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.
The melee last night is exactly what Cameron and his supplicant, Nick Clegg, wants to happen. For their political survival, they need the public to believe that their local councils can avoid making these cuts with a few tweaks here and there. They want the public to focus their ire on Councils in order to escape the blame themselves.
But we’re not going to let them off the hook. We will say loud and clear for as long as this disgraceful government exists that there was an alternative. An alternative which would have halved the deficit by 2014, but would have kept our school building programme going giving jobs to construction workers and making our secondary schools fit for the 21st Century. There was an alternative in which we would still have had to find efficiencies – cut middle management posts and merge services – but in which the Future Jobs Fund would have been saved. An alternative which wouldn’t have forced the NHS through a costly reorganisation which looks set to end in privatisation.
In fact, Labour’s alternative was very similar to that proposed by Nick Clegg as he stood, like a yellow-tie’d siren, on those leader debate stages. Remember when he said it would be “silly” to stop the Building Schools for the Future programme? “We need to continue to invest in our schools building”, was one of his last interventions in the final Leader’s debate.
Now all we hear from Clegg, and our Lib Dem opposition on the Council, is that Labour’s to blame. If you missed the Lib’s “it’s the Labour Party’s fault” briefing which sought to distance themselves from the Government, you can read about it here. It is particularly disappointing that the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose the introduction of free school meals in Islington primary schools. Not only is it incredibly valuable for bringing the hugely diverse school population together and ensuring disadvantaged young people get one hot meal a day, it has also increased the amount of money the Council receives from central government because we have identified more children who are eligible for free school meals. At a time of cuts, this money going to young disadvantaged children is more important than ever.
I didn’t dream of getting elected only to have to decide which services to cut or to look at lists of people who are about to lose their jobs. It’s horrific. It’s not what Labour people want to do. But I strongly believe that Islington Labour has gone about this budget process in the best possible way. We’ve stuck to our values of trying to make sure the cuts don’t impact on the poorest and most vulnerable. So we’ve provided £2 million for child protection. We’ve found £2 million extra for people with learning disabilities. We’ve earmarked £400,000 to help low income families to find work to ensure we help combat child poverty. Islington is one of the few boroughs in the whole country to keep adult social services for people with moderate needs.
And this is despite the fact that Islington has had the highest reduction of government grant of any borough in London despite being the capital’s fourth poorest borough. The councils in London which have been awarded some of the smallest cuts are Richmond, Havering, and Sutton. What do these councils all have in common? They are controlled by Tories or Lib Dems. These cuts are designed to protect the Coalition and hurt Labour councils like Islington which have to provide for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country.
But despite the cuts that we face, we have kept our manifesto promises, unlike the Lib Dems in Government. We’re keeping our free school meals pledge, we’re establishing a Citizens Advice Bureau – needed more than ever in this dreadful climate of cuts and job losses, we’ve kept the £100 council tax discount for people over the age of 65, and we’ve decreased the next Chief Executive’s pay packet by £50,000. Unlike so many other boroughs, not a single children’s centre or library is going to close as part of this year’s budget.
Islington got the worst deal in London, but the Labour Party here is doing its best, letting our values guide us and doing our utmost to protect the most disadvantaged people in this borough. This is only the beginning. The next step is to join us at our rally against the cuts on March 26th. We want to see as many Islington residents registering their disgust at the Government’s cuts as possible. If you want to get involved, please find more information here. Hope to see you there!
Cllr Jessica Asato