Thursday, 23 February 2017

Managing cuts or fighting for local services?

First published in the Morning Star on 21/2/17:
It’s budget season for Scotland’s local authorities, the time when councils tell us how good they are at managing cuts — or not as the case may be.

In the real world, jobs have gone in their thousands with remaining workers facing overwhelming workloads.

They are insulted by the government and media spin that cuts are “transformation,” closures are “estate rationalisation” and redundancies are “workforce planning.”

It has been encouraging to see more councillors challenge the cuts this year.

One quote from North Ayrshire’s Labour council leader Joe Cullinane that resonated with what unions are calling for was: “I will not simply manage austerity cuts.”

But we still have many who see the job as managing cuts rather than defending services. That has only served to disguise the real effects of punitive central government settlements.

This year’s settlement has its own spin. We were told a deal struck by the Greens and the SNP has “pumped” £160 million more into local government.

The reality is it’s a cut garnished with a sleight of hand on capital funding. So instead of local services being hit for £327m, the cut is a mere £225m on top of hundreds of millions before.

Then add the double-counted £100m for social care which turned out to be the same money in both the health and council budgets and you can see why folk might get confused.

Changes in council tax bands and council tax rises of up to 3 per cent will bring more money but with council tax typically accounting for only 15 per cent of income it won’t avoid cuts.

There is some good news. Unison’s Ethical Care Charter calls for a living wage for homecare staff so government money to fund that from last October is welcome.

The charter also calls for quality training and for service users to have time to talk with their homecare workers. Not much to ask really.

But even the good news is tempered by only four authorities — all Labour-led — signing up to the charter, with one more pledging to work towards it.

Even where councils have fought hard to protect jobs and services, too often it has been done silently.

With councils suffering 87 per cent of all devolved job cuts, they should all be shouting about austerity being dumped on them.

They should be protesting about taking the flak for council tax rises while the Scottish government refuses to use its own tax powers. And they should be telling the public the real effects on services.

That’s why Edinburgh UNISON urged its council to publish a parallel budget to show what services could be like without the cuts.

The fact that it didn’t might have come from Labour reticence to embarrass their SNP coalition partners.

But both parties have done enough in other parts of Scotland to embarrass themselves in recent weeks.

The SNP Angus council sits in a region with a clean sweep of SNP MPs and MSPs. It might have felt politically strong enough to take brave decisions to protect services.

It didn’t. It decided to cut 170 social care jobs, cut low-paid staff’s hours and conditions, change full time jobs to part time and privatise services.

Local unions say compulsory redundancies look inevitable. Not much joy in Angus for people relying on the anti-austerity party then.

But before the “SNP Bad” tweets arrive, let’s pop 60 miles down the road to Clackmannanshire, the “wee county” run by a minority Labour administration since the SNP resigned last May.

That Labour group has crossed the line and opened the door for compulsory redundancies. Local activists are furious. The fact that it went through on the vote of the one Tory has rubbed salt into the wounds.

Apart from the human cost, it’s an unnecessary embarrassment as a revived Labour left strives to rebuild its working-class base.

It is also a major issue for council trade unions who have made “no compulsory redundancies” a national bargaining issue.

Branches from around Scotland will back the local unions’ demonstration on February 23 to try to force a re-think. (Update 23 Feb: In  a remarkable change of circumstances, the Labour Group  ousted their leader and reversed their position on compulsory redundancies. They then voluntarily gave up power when SNP refused to agree to a budget change that would prevent compulsory redundancies.)

But, as so often happens in Scotland these days, the austerity that underlies all this gets lost if the debate descends to divisive nationalist versus unionist rhetoric — terms that would have been alien to most of Scotland until recently.

The result is that next to nothing radical happens to use powers to challenge or mitigate austerity in the here and now. It doesn’t have to be that way.

UNISON Scotland published a report entitled Combating Austerity last year listing ways to mitigate austerity with strategies like refinancing debt, buying out expensive PFI, using imaginative borrowing and bonds and better use of pension funds.

Early indications are that bodies who have taken up these strategies are saving well over £100m to protect services.

It may be much more. We will need to campaign to coax more councils into taking these strategies seriously.

Alongside that we need to lift the profile of local services and demonstrate their value.

One way is to build on the work being done by trade unions and the People’s Assembly Scotland to forge alliances and campaigns with community and user groups, laying the blame for austerity firmly with the Tories, but also demanding resistance from our councillors and MSPs.

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