Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Anti-Cuts Meeting in Weston - really well attended!

The Anti-Cuts meeting held at the Salvation Army Hall in Weston was well attended tonight, and many of the attendees will also be coming to our lobbies of the council on 18th January and 22nd February. We will also be arranging another public meeting. For me the most moving speaker was a lady whose disabled adult son had been moved into care here from another county because it was cheaper. Her family then had to move here to be close to him and she is now really worried that he might be moved again because it might be cheaper somewhere else. This is the stark reality of the cuts.

The following is my speech to the meeting tonight:

I want to talk briefly about what North Somerset Council has proposed in order to implement the cuts for 2011. The Council have to make £17.5 million cuts in the first year of 4 years of cuts, amounting to a total of £47.3 million or 31% of their budget over those 4 years.

The Coalition government are claiming that frontline services will be protected, and in fact the council’s own initial budget document repeated the coalition mantra that “we are all in this together” but we must protect services for vulnerable adults and children. Since their budget situation worsened they are now saying that some of the most critical services for the vulnerable are at risk because central government have made some of the biggest cuts to these services. We believe it is just not possible to cut such a large amount of money without it impacting on the front line. By far the biggest budget cut to council services will be to Children’s and Young People’s services – including cuts to the team which is responsible for school improvements, cuts to Connexions and Aiming High for disabled children, withdrawing funding from the schools music service, reducing funding for extended services in schools, and reduced funding for services provided by the voluntary sector – so much for the Big Society! As the council’s budget position has turned out to be worse than they were expecting they are now proposing cuts to youth services, the early years workforce, children’s centres, and what they describe as positive activities for young people.

In Adult Social Services we are particularly worried by the proposals which will see £500,000 taken out of the budget for care packages for the elderly and people with physical and learning disabilities, a £1 million reduction in supporting people services, again impacting on the care and support of the most vulnerable, and reductions in home care and residential care. The Supporting people grant will also be reduced by another 14% over the next 4 years, impacting on disabled adults, and also those private sector organisations that currently are contracted to provide that care – again so much for the Big Society and the Coalition’s argument that the private sector will step in to create new jobs as public sector jobs go.

Our library service is also under threat. Staff in libraries will be reduced and replaced by self-service machines – there has been no consultation with service users on this plan. Local people will be asked to volunteer to run libraries. If volunteers fail to step forward then most of North Somerset’s rural libraries will eventually close. Cultural and leisure services are to be transferred to private companies – this includes the Winter Gardens, Playhouse, Tourist Information Centre, Churchill and Wyvern Sports Centres. The museum is to be transferred to the Town Council. There will be job losses in Regulatory services such as Environmental Health and Protection, Trading Standards, Food Safety, Licensing and Commercial Health & Safety, and as a result impacting on the health, safety and rights of the people of North Somerset.

As far as jobs are concerned, in the first year the council will lose 130 full time jobs. The council’s future intentions make it clear that they will be operating with a significantly reduced workforce – this could amount to losing 25% of its workforce over the 4 years of cuts, and that’s excluding those council employed staff who work in schools, for whom we currently have no estimate of job losses. We are seriously concerned about the council’s ability to deliver services with such a reduced workforce, and we are also worried about the knock-on effects for the North Somerset economy, given that the council is currently the largest local employer. Council staff are also on a 3 year pay freeze and the council intends to cut the payments it makes to staff for unsocial hours working, affecting the lowest paid staff, and impacting on the local economy.

As a public authority the council have what are called equalities duties and as part of these duties they have to assess every change they make to a service to make sure that it is not having a detrimental impact on particular groups of people – these include men and women, young and old people, ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, gay people, and people of different religious beliefs. We have, so far, seen very little evidence that this has been done as part of their proposals to cut services, but the report going to council on 18th January states they are being completed. If they fail to complete impact assessments it may be possible for us to take legal action against them because of it.

We are constantly being told that the cuts to public spending are necessary in order to pay off the deficit. But this is simply not true. The deficit is the difference between what the country brings in, in the form of taxes, and what it pays out, in the form of spending on public services. The Coalition government has taken the decision that 80% of the deficit will be paid off with cuts, whereas 20% will be paid off with taxes and they have chosen the most unfair tax of all – a VAT rise – to do that.

We believe that the Coalition government’s savage spending cuts will hit the poorest hardest, will slow down the economic recovery, and increase unemployment. We believe that the cuts are not an economic necessity, but are politically motivated. The majority of people in the country did not vote for such savage cuts delivered at such speed.

We believe that there is an alternative to the cuts, and that those that caused the recession – the banks and other financial institutions – should pay for it through increased taxes and closing tax loop holes and tax havens. We heard only last week that top business leaders awarded themselves 55% salary increases in 2010, when most ordinary working people either had their pay frozen or were given well under inflation pay rises. The banks, including those banks which we as tax payers own, are about to dish out their bonuses. While in 2011 ordinary people will see their bills rise, will lose their benefits and services, and may even lose their jobs and homes.

So what can we do about this? For a start, every single person here can write to their councillor, MP and the media expressing their views – you can also get your friends and families to do the same. You can attend and even speak at the council meetings on 18th January and 22nd February when the budget will be set – we will be lobbying councillors from 5.30 pm on both days. The majority of North Somerset councillors are either Conservative or Liberal Democrat, and we need to get them to use their influence within their parties in central government to stop these cuts. The council also have £7 million in reserves, which they could use if they chose to

Finally we can all attend the TUC march for jobs, growth and justice in London on 26th March. This is a weak government, and we the people, if we protest, can get them to change their minds, or even get rid of them. We’ve done it before with the poll tax, we can do it again.

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