Friday, February 22, 2013

Wirral Cuts: "Transformational Change"... For The Worse

A section of the crowd outside the town hall on Monday
Last night I reported on the angry and tearful scenes in Wallasey town hall last Monday, as the Labour cabinet announced the cuts they intend to make in Wirral. As I described, the council's 'Executive Summary' aimed to put an optimistic gloss on the slashing of one third from the budget:
"...the emphasis was deliberately placed on listing what will be ‘saved’ from the slashing of the budget by one third, rather than what will be taken away by the Wirral Labour administration. For example, “We will retain pensioner discounts for Council Tax” can be translated as ‘We will cut all Council Tax discounts except for those going to pensioners’ (not just coincidentally the age group with highest voter turnout come election time)."
Council Tax bills will also rise 2% across all bands, which is indeed, as the administration boasted, below the rate of inflation. It is also far above the average wage increase which people in paid work received last year.

The headlines went to the ending of the sponsorship deal with Tranmere Rovers, and the closing of one day centre out of three currently in operation for adults with learning and physical disabilities, plus a care home in Bromborough. Overall, 350 jobs are slated to be lost, but this is far from all. Having now had a few days to look at the detail in the handout, I can state that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Much of the restructuring is described as "transformational change". This might seem pointless, as all change is 'transformational' by definition. Perhaps a better label would be 'big changes for the worse'. I quote: "...we will put in place over the next three years a radical programme of transformational change to replace the traditional model where Councils deliver most services directly". That is to say, the long-undermined 'traditional model' where the council pays workers to do work for the benefit of the community is to be abolished. It will "require us to build on the excellent work we have done in recent years with key partners such as the NHS, the police service, the fire authority and the voluntary, community and faith sectors." [emphasis added] In other words, people will as far as possible be made to work without payment.

This is confirmed in the next paragraph. Although all the libraries are to remain open and in the "traditional model" for now: "We have developed an exciting plan to involve local Friends Groups, The Reader Organisation and other similar organisations in a number of libraries and we are looking at opportunities for developing social enterprises from the work done by people with learning disabilities." The 'Big Society' is coming to Wirral in a big way.

"Labour's pledge to our staff" makes fascinating - if sickening - reading. It is the only part of the document where the name of the party running the council is mentioned - and for good reason: "Last year, one of the opposition aims was to reduce the amount of money the Council spend on Trade Unions." For Labour however, this is a false economy, because: "We believe that a business case can be made for good industrial relations", as "the Trade Unions play an important role in representing staff and helping the Council to achieve efficiencies [emphasis added]. Labour will "continue to support this work, however, in conjunction with the Trade Unions, during the course of the next financial year we intend to review the funding for full time Trade Union Officials to ensure we are achieving the best value for money."

For trade union officials, the message could hardly be clearer - help us police the increased exploitation of your membership and we'll save you a seat at the trough. No wonder "since November 2012 [the month of the first Wirral anti-cuts protests] over 20 meetings have taken place with the Trade Unions." According to another paragraph, they have discussed all employees taking five days unpaid leave per year (equivalent to a pay cut of around 2%), all overtime to be paid at "plain time" rates, a pay freeze for one year, and the removal of various allowances. So far, the unions have presented the issue as being entirely one of job cuts, therefore effectively offering these givebacks for nothing, and with barely a mention of industrial action being even possible.

Meanwhile, in order to "reduce the cost of democracy", "We therefore propose to save £275,000 by holding elections every four years, and reviewing the number of meetings and committees held to both reduce administration costs and to enable Members to focus on what really matters to local people." Of course, local people will also have far less opportunities to get across "what really matters to them". Even less democracy than already exists, essentially.

This - plus cuts in every other type of local council service - is what awaits Wirralians on the other side of the up or down budget vote on Tuesday 5th March. Similar attacks on the working class are taking place nationwide.

I will publish an article on the need for new locally-based anti-cuts strategies in the coming days.
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