In this year’s council budget speech we proposed scrapping the Tories ‘£70 Garden Tax. We also included funding for quarterly deep cleans of all Barnet’s residential streets, and extra resources for tackling the epidemic of fly-tipping that blights our borough. And because we believe in fairness and tackling poverty pay, we also proposed paying the London Living Wage to former Fremantle care workers who have transferred in to the Council.
All of this would have been funded by a mixture of cutting councillors’ special responsibility allowances, reducing spend on senior management and making the Barnet First magazine self-funding through advertising.
I was in hospital on the evening of the budget Council meeting and couldn’t attend, so my speech was given by Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Ross Houston – thank you Ross!
Budget Council Meeting, Tuesday 3 March 2020
Speech by Cllr Barry Rawlings, Leader of the Barnet Labour Group (given by Deputy Leader, Cllr Ross Houston on the night)
Thank you Madam Mayor,
I’m speaking tonight in support of the Labour Group budget amendment, and want to thank finance officers, particularly Paul Clarke, for their help preparing it.
Before I talk about the Labour Group budget amendment, I’d like to explain why we’ll be voting against the administration budget. And it’s because once again this is an administration budget balanced on the backs of the poor and those most in need.
Most of the cuts fall disproportionately on the poor, elderly, disabled, and on women and children particularly in children’s and adults’ social care.
And, although the Government say austerity is over, we all know it isn’t, and it clearly isn’t for Barnet – it’s just been renamed “prudence” by Cllr Zinkin.
“Prudence” roughly translates as a big black hole of £37m stretching out to 2025. We’re all grateful to Cllr Rozenberg for translating this – and he ought to know – he’s been speaking and voting Tory for at least the last 6 years. But even he now admits what the rest of us have known all along – the Government aren’t giving us enough money to do all the things they expect us to. And the budget report says this clearly.
Every year the Council slashes services to meet the budget gap, but the budget gap is like a bulge in the carpet – whenever you stamp on it, it just reappears somewhere else in the room. It’s a big black hole, and soon, if not dealt with it’ll do what all black holes do – suck everything into it until there’s nothing left.
Cllr Zinkin – who seems to be running the Council – said at the P&R meeting “There is no black hole. There is just a lot of pressure from vulnerable people in the borough that we are determined that we will meet our responsibilities towards.” I have to say, it must be difficult being a Tory with all these vulnerable people putting pressure on you.
But we know that, whatever Cllr Zinkin says, this Tory administration are not meeting their responsibilities towards them. I can say, categorically, that this Council cannot be meeting its responsibilities under the Care Act.
Every year the complexity of need and demand for social care increases, every year we do not get enough funds for it from Government and every year the Council cuts the budget. And yet, miraculously, the Council says they always meet all the need – whatever the size of the budget. There is something wrong with this picture, and the sooner we start admitting this, and talking about what the solution might be, the sooner this Council will really start meeting their responsibilities towards those who need our protection and support the most.
Last year this Tory administration decided to meet their responsibilities towards vulnerable people by attempting to force around 40 of them into residential care against their will. Thankfully, this plan has been quietly dropped but the majority of that saving will have to be made up elsewhere in the budget – no doubt by salami slicing the care packages of others whose needs are less complex.
So, this year we are not surprised to see around £1.5m of cuts that will reduce access and eligibility for crucial social services dressed up as ‘strengths-based practice’ and ‘increasing independence and wellbeing’ – which on paper sounds good, but in practice is underpinned by a system that actually wastes money and creates dependency.
Perhaps the most cynical of these cuts is the plan to generate £250,000 of income by clawing back so-called “miss-spent” money from older and disabled people with direct payments by forcing them all on to pre-paid cards so the claw-back can be affected.
The Council have defined “miss-spent” as anything that is not included in or that doesn’t contribute to the outcomes set-out in the individual’s care plan. Sounds legit doesn’t it?
But the examples we’ve heard about are for services previously approved that have been cut without liaison with the parents/carers, like spend on taxis used to take a disabled service user to hospital appointments or activities, when the carer does not drive and the service user cannot go on public transport; or on short breaks for carers with their adult disabled children; or day services stopped without explanation or liaison so the service user is stuck at home for most of the week.
Forcing people on to pre-paid cards to prevent them from spending their direct payment in the way that they feel best meets their wellbeing needs hardly represents choice or a person-centred system. But this is the reality of life for those that have to rely on the Council because they cannot manage on their own, and it’s a disgrace.
I have some sympathy for the administration – even I don’t believe they want to do these things. The fact is all Councils are locked into the same failing system.
An increase in council tax or social care precept won’t fix this. And a bit more money from central government won’t either – although that would help, and this Tory administration needs to be doing far more to lobby for more resources than they actually are. Reversing the cuts proposed by the administration won’t fix it either – so we haven’t even attempted to try. It is the system that is broken, and it is going to take a completely different approach to understanding, assessing and meeting need. And that requires both a local and national political consensus.
But so far, every attempt to get the Tories to engage with us on this issue in a cross-party way has been met with denial and refusal. However, we will continue to try and build that local consensus.
I come back to the black hole. The Council is having to make £92.7m cumulative cuts over the medium-term financial strategy, whilst increasing council tax and the social care precept by the legal maximum.
These are cuts that hit everyone – but impact on the poorest and those in need most. Residents are being taxed more but get less for their money. And after all this the Tories can’t even get the basics right.
Most of our streets are not cleaned unless someone complains, fly-tipping is epidemic, our roads are riddled with potholes despite millions of pounds of investment, and bins are still not all being collected on time.
And in order to try and plug a bit of this black hole the Tories want to charge everyone £70 a year to collect any garden waste – but they won’t guarantee to always collect it every week or even every month!
Well, over 9k people have now signed our petition calling for this stealth garden tax to be scrapped, so we’ll be reversing this charge in our budget amendment.
But all of this puts the Tories in a bizarre position as the party of low tax. They promised to keep council tax low but whacking it up by the legal maximum and piling on lots of stealth taxes is not really keeping it low is it?!
And they’ve broken each and every one of the other local election promises they made as well. They promised to collect the bins every week – they can’t even do that.
They promised to stop over development but have been scuppered by their own Government who are forcing through the massive NLBP development that was refused by our own Planning Committee on completely legitimate planning grounds. And now the Leader of the Council has had to come out and say his own Government’s housing targets are too high.
The Tories promised to invest more in our roads and pavements – but there are so many craters in Barnet in places it looks like the surface of the moon.
And most ironic of all – the Tories promised to fight for Barnet’s fair share of police and then failed to support the Mayor of London and Police Commissioner’s call for London to get its fair share of the 20,000 new police. You literally couldn’t make it up!
The Barnet Tories are rubbish at standing up for Barnet. They are rubbish at collecting rubbish, and at clearing up rubbish, and they are rubbish at securing the resources to enforce against those who fly-tip rubbish. But if you can’t even get these things right it’s time to hand over to people who can.
So, in the Labour Group budget amendment we’ll be investing £1.5m to collect and clean up the rubbish that the Tories won’t.
And Madam Mayor,
We will be paying for much of this by making the same saving to senior management that we proposed last year.
However, clearly there is some concern that the Tories may be tempted to take this saving because the s151 officer has decided to make some comments to deter them. There were no s151 comments on this saving last year, so I hope to be given some latitude to respond to this. No disrespect to the s151 officer – she has a job to do, but so do I.
Usually we are told not to detail cuts to individual posts in the budget amendment, but as I want to wholeheartedly recommend this saving to the administration I think I should provide some of the detail so they are in no doubt about what is being proposed.
The saving is based on reducing the Chief Executive’s pay from over £200k (including on costs) to £150k (plus on costs) – which is what the Prime Minister is paid to run the whole country. In line with this saving we have reduced all other senior officer pay above £58k pro rata.
We are also proposing to flatten the senior management structure a bit by getting rid of the so-called ‘Executive Director’ tier – a complete misnomer since all the other Directors are not ‘non-executive Directors’. We also merge a few roles which cuts the senior management headcount as this has increased from 107 senior managers to 197 since 2013.
None of this is a reflection on any of the current postholders, it is a point of principle. When cuts affect frontline staff there must be some movement at the top as well.
And, as the s151 officer points out – all of this is possible. In 2010 the senior management pay bill was around £2m, but it is now closer to £5m. It really does cost an awful lot of money for the Tories to work out how to cut services to Barnet’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, doesn’t it?
Of course, it’s all about political choices.
The s151 officer comment states that “Lower salaries may not encourage experienced directors to apply to work at Barnet, and the employment conditions might not be competitive enough to attract potential leaders.”
Well, on this side of the chamber at least, we are far more concerned that poverty pay may not encourage experienced care workers to apply to work at Barnet. These are the people that deliver some of the most sensitive services that there are to our older and disabled people, and they deserve to be paid a living wage.
The senior management saving in our budget amendment directly funds lifting the former Fremantle care workers out of poverty pay to bring them up to the London Living Wage – and we make no apologies for that.
To conclude, I must comment on the Lib Dem budget.
Council tax is a regressive tax, it hits those on low and middle incomes hardest, and raises a relatively small amount. I recognise that the Lib Dem budget includes funding to ameliorate their proposed increase in council tax for people in receipt of council tax support. But this will not help other low income and middle-income families struggling to pay household bills of which council tax is one of the largest.
I also recognise that offering a referendum on council tax to the public as a way out of the black hole may seem like the right thing to do, but the only ever referendum on council tax to date got a resounding “no” from the public. I strongly suspect the same would happen in Barnet, and then you’d be left to explain to residents why you spent £600,000 of council taxpayers’ money to ask them a question you knew the likely outcome of.
We therefore will not be supporting the Lib Dem budget.
But I urge everyone to support the Labour Group budget amendment, which I now formally move.
[The Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Olly Martins, proposed a 15.8% increase in council tax for 2015-16. The poll was held on 7 May 2015. 91,086 voters (30.5%) supported the proposal, whilst 207,551 (69.5%) opposed it. Surrey County Council proposed to hold a referendum on a 15% increase in council tax for 2017-18, but later dropped the proposal. – House of Commons Library briefing: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN05682]