Below is the text of my speech today to the Executive of North Somerset Council who went on to recommend their budget to the Full Council meeting on 22nd February.
You may be surprised to hear that we are very sympathetic towards councillors as they make the difficult decisions over cuts to this year’s budget. BUT we also think that there are choices to be made and ways, which you can mitigate the impact of the cuts if you choose to do so. It is also our view that choices you have made previously have made your position even more difficult. I am particularly referring to your decision to keep council tax increases under the rate of inflation for the last 3 years, and your strategy of privatisation, which has effectively put large parts of your budget outside your control, and has resulted in greater cuts to frontline services. It is also the case that the majority party in this administration are also the majority party in the Coalition government – your party campaigned nationally on massive public spending cuts, and now you need to tell your leaders how the cuts are impacting on the people of North Somerset and get them to change their minds.
It was very disappointing that despite my letter to all councillors regarding the council’s legal duty to complete equality impact assessments, written at a time when I knew you would be scrutinising the budget proposals, did not result in equality impact assessments being part of the scrutiny process, as they should be. A progress report on equalities is attached as an appendix to the document you are considering today. We have been provided with initial equalities screenings for a handful of the proposals but in our view they are lacking in any equalities data and evidence of consultation. I also understand from the council’s Equality Officer that the assessments for all the budget proposals will not be ready until 15th February. Councillors should be aware that it is a legal requirement for every service in the council to have an equality impact assessment and to make adjustments to that assessment as changes to services are proposed – the Council’s own Equality scheme also makes this clear. In addition Section 4.3 of the Council’s Equality scheme states that “All new and proposed strategies, services and policies from across the Council are required to undergo an equality impact assessment before they are presented to the Executive, as stipulated in our policy development framework.” This supports our view that it is not possible, or even legal, for the Executive to approve this budget today, as equality impact assessments are not available for all of the proposals.
The council publishes each directorate’s equality action plans on the website. I want to briefly mention a few of them now. The Development & Environment equality action plan 2010 identified an equalities issue in the number of books and other materials available for Black and Minority Ethnic groups and as a result planned to invest more money – but library material funding is being cut by £30,000 in the 2011 budget proposals, and library staff numbers are also being reduced – what will be the equalities impact?
The Adult Social Services & Housing equality action plan 2010 identified equalities issues in the lack of availability of support services for older and disabled people in rural areas as well as lack of domiciliary care in rural areas – how will this be affected by the reduction to Home Care and Supporting People funding?
In addition to equalities issues, we are still concerned that money, which could be in the revenue budget is being diverted to capital or put in reserves. We were pleased that our suggestion to review earmarked reserves has resulted in almost £1 million being released for revenue, but at the same time saddened because most of it will be used for over £600,000 of unbudgeted severance costs. We are very disappointed that you continue to refuse to use your non-earmarked reserves, even to mitigate the impact of cuts to services to children and young people, people with physical and learning disabilities and older people.
We are also disappointed that although the council has under-spent on staff salaries in 2010 to the tune of almost £790,000, it still wants to cut the unsocial hours payments it makes to some of its lowest paid workers, such as Home Care Assistants – and this is on top of the 3 year pay freeze. Not only are there equalities issues in the proposals to cut our terms and conditions, but in our view it will impact on service delivery and will cost the council more in the long run as individual employees take out legal cases against the council.
If the Executive approves the budget proposals today without having seen the equality impact assessments for all of the proposals, not only will they be acting in contravention of their legally required equality duties but they will also be acting in contravention of their own Equality Scheme. In addition the report contains some cuts the details of which are yet to be announced and which also have not been assessed for equalities impacts – these cannot possibly be approved. That is why again we ask you to delay setting your budget until you have all the relevant information, otherwise you may leave yourselves open to legal challenge, which ultimately will be more costly both in terms of money and your reputation.