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The social care precept is not the answer

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

careAt the start of the month I wrote on this blog expressing my shock and disappointment that Adult Social Care received no additional funding in the Autumn Statement. In the face of a funding crisis in one of our most vital services the government seems to have decided to bury its head in the sand. That’s despite Members of Parliament, local government officials and members of the medical profession, of every political colour, warning them of the catastrophic consequences of doing so.

Fortunately, it looks like the government have realised their mistake and are starting to say something on funding for adult social care. Unfortunately, it looks like all they have to say is offering “solutions” that have been tried and found wanting before.

Cast your mind back to around this time last year, when the then-Chancellor George Osborne announced that councils would be allowed to raise their council tax by up to 2% as a “social care precept”. The government have today announced that for the next two years Councils have the option of levying a larger 3% precept.

Putting side the creative bankruptcy of reheating a policy that was barely a year old to begin with, there more than a few reasons why imposing a greater burden on councils to fund adult social care didn’t work then and won’t work now.

The first is the simple fact that a 3% increase in council tax does not raise anywhere near the amount required to plug funding shortfalls. Last time round an overwhelming majority of local authorities took the maximum possible council tax precept, raising around £383 million nationwide. That sounds like a lot but it barely covered two thirds of the sector’s cost increases for the year. Even with the precept the total shortfall in adult social care funding for 2016-17 alone was estimated at £940 million. There is absolutely no reason to think that allowing councils to raise the precept further will improve this situation.

Neither does this take into account the fact that this additional funding was not distributed equally. The amount of money a local authority can raise from the social care precept is determined by their council tax base. For example, here in Tameside our social care precept raised around £1.4 million, but the same level of increase by Oxfordshire Council saw them bring in £5.9 million in additional funding. Local authorities with lower council tax bases are also likely to have a higher demand for social care services. The result is a system where the areas with the highest need receive the lowest funding. It would be hard to find a more unfair way of doing things.

I said last time I spoke about this that a government’s spending commitments are the best way to tell what their true priorities are. Anybody that wants to know if our social care services will be there for them, their parents or their grandparents should be deeply concerned at the fact that the government is passing the buck for funding to cash-strapped councils while they continue to pile billions into things like corporation tax cuts. The government may say that they want a country that works for everyone, but the ongoing social care debacle shows that they have a very odd way of going about it.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Thursday, November 24th, 2016


Cast your minds back for a moment to the weeks immediately after Brexit. When Theresa May walked into Downing Street she delivered a series of speeches unlike any I’ve heard from a Conservative Prime Minister in recent memory. Obviously, she talked a lot about Brexit, but she also talked about taking on vested interests, cracking down on tax avoidance, doing more for struggling families and giving employees more of a say in how their workplace is run. It was a surprising and welcome change of words, but I decided to wait to see what would happen in terms of action before I got too excited.

Five months or so later, and we’re getting some idea of what kind of action a May government is going to take. Unfortunately, following this week’s Autumn Statement, it appears that my scepticism back in the summer was justified.

Let’s talk about what the government said they would do first. They made the right noises about investment, but we’ve seen absolutely nothing in terms of new or radical solutions. The policy announcements we’ve seen in the Autumn Statement in no way matches the sheer scale of the challenge that we face in rolling back the damage and decay inflicted upon our infrastructure by austerity. £1.1 billion for roads might sound like a lot, but that barely covers what is required in Greater Manchester, never mind the entire country. Releasing money for 140,000 new homes sounds a considerably less impressive when we know that we need at least 200,000 a year every year just to keep our heads above water. Taking steps to reverse our decline in research and development spending – a vital part of building the economies of the 21st century – is welcome but it still leaves Britain far below the figure of 3% of GDP recommended by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Time and time again, it’s bold talk followed by timid action.

Then let’s talk about what isn’t happening, such as the promise to put employees on company boards. This isn’t some kind of unique and radical policy. The Germans have had workers on boards for decades, and they have one of the most successful economies in Europe. During the summer the Prime Minister made this one of her flagship policies, but at a speech to the Confederation of British Industry this week she went out of her way to say that she was not going to force companies to do it. No matter what you think of the policy, that’s a complete and total U-turn. The government have also refused to abandon their planned cuts to Universal Credit. These cuts will cost many working families, the type of families that the Prime Minister claims to be looking out for, thousands of pounds in lost income by the end of the Parliament. They will also wipe many of the gains people will see from the increase in the “National Living Wage”, ensuring that the Chancellor repeats his predecessor’s trick of giving with one hand and immediately snatching away with the other.

So there we have it. Despite what they said, the government has flunked every opportunity to take the decisive and radical action they promised back in the summer. What we’ve ended up with is a familiar story for anybody who has lived through the last six years of governments. A pittance of investment that leaves our vital infrastructure on life support, headline-grabbing promises that are abandoned as soon as the ink is dry on the newspapers and always, always “jam tomorrow” for hard-working families that are struggling today. It would be bad enough in normal times. In these extraordinary times it’s the fast track to catastrophe.

The North Deserves a Better Budget

Friday, March 18th, 2016


It’s a familiar ritual by now. Every Budget Day for the past 6 years local government leaders up and down the country have woken up hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Yesterday was much the same.

Local Government has so far borne the brunt of the Chancellor’s cuts to public spending, and Northern urban councils like Tameside have been affected worst of all. On current projections we are set to have had £200m taken away from us by the Government by 2020.

There are some limited crumbs of comfort in the Budget for Greater Manchester. The £300 million for transport infrastructure in the North is welcome. However far more money will be required before anything becomes a reality. It also does nothing to rectify the obscene North/South divide in transport investment. One project in London, the Elizabeth Line, has at £14.8 billion cost almost 50 times more than what has been allocated for the entire Northern Powerhouse in this Budget.

As we should have come to expect from this government, there are also far too many cases of ideology triumphing over evidence, common sense and indeed, basic reality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their plans to turn every school into an academy by 2020.

In Tameside we’re for our young people getting the best possible education, be it from academies or local authority schools. 91% of children attending a local authority school in Tameside are at a good or outstanding school as opposed to 36% of those attending academies. All the evidence suggests that forcing local authority schools to become academies is one of the worst things you can do if you want to raise standards and local accountability. That’s why I’ve called for a Regional School Commissioner to be appointed for Greater Manchester as part of any future devolution deal, a call that I will state again here. If we’re supposed to continue being responsible for how well our children do in schools despite academisation we need to be given the power to make it happen.

And to go with the good and the bad we’ve got the ugly as well, in the form of the announcement of further £3.5 billion cut to the public sector and a £1.2 billion cut to disability benefits. These are cuts to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, either through taking money straight out of their pockets and through taking money out of the services that they rely on. All to pay for tax cuts for big corporations and some of the highest paid people in the country.

So what do we have when it’s all said a done? If you’re rich, live in the South or are a big business, then you’ll probably think it’s a good Budget. On the other hand, if you’re poor, live in the North or use public sector services then you’ll fear the worst. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Once more, it falls to us to protect the most vulnerable and maintain the services that our communities rely on. It was a hard task before, and this Budget is not going to make it any easier.

Tameside Budget 2016-17 Agreed

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

This Tuesday evening the Full Council met to discuss the budget for the financial year 2016-17. These discussions have been held in light of the release of the Local Government finance settlement, which imposed upon us a cut of £54 million over the next four years, on top of the £128 million we have already suffered since 2010. Instead of admitting that it has failed to fund local services adequately, the government has instead chosen to place the burden for maintaining these services on the shoulders of councils and local taxpayers.

As a result of this, councillors in Tameside have been forced, like the majority of other councils in the North West and throughout the country, to raise council tax by 1.99% and introduce the full 2% adult social care precept.

This is not a decision we have taken lightly, but due to government cuts our vital services are being put at risk. As an urban, Northern council we have also received no additional income from the government’s transition grant, most of which has gone to rural shire counties in the South and Home Counties. The 10 local authorities that received the most from the transition grant each received on average £12.72 million, over four times what we can legally raise through increasing council tax and the social care precept.

At the end of the last year, our online budget consultation showed that 75% of respondents were supportive of a council tax increase when they were made aware of the financial challenges that we face.

Tameside remains a low tax borough. Our total council tax increase over the last 10 years is lower than both the English and the North West average, and it’s a fact that even with this increase our council tax still remains one of the lowest in both Greater Manchester and the North West. The increase will also raise £2.8 million to ensure that we can continue to run the vital services that our elderly and vulnerable residents depend on.

We will keep making the case against austerity and for investment in local authority services at the regional and national level, as well as continuing our own plans to make Tameside a better place to live, work and do business in.

Our response to the Comprehensive Spending Review

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

As you can imagine, I watched this afternoon’s Comprehensive Spending Review with considerable interest. The first thing that leaped out at me, as I’m sure it will for most people, is the huge, colossal U-turn that the Chancellor has performed on working tax credit cuts. This isn’t a reduction in working tax credit cuts. This isn’t slowing down the rate of working tax credit cuts. This is a complete and total abandonment of the entire idea; dropped like a hot potato after a furious outcry from politicians (including quite a few Conservatives), charities and the public.

You won’t hear me complaining about this. Since the moment they were announced I, along with other Labour councillors up and down the country, believed that working tax credit cuts were an unforgivable attack on the very same hard-working people that the Conservatives claim to represent. But this U-turn should teach us two things. Firstly, in the face of sustained pressure for common sense solutions this government will back down from its ideological drive to shrink the state. Secondly, if this government ever claims in the future that “There is no alternative” they should be tempted with the contempt those words deserve. Austerity is a choice. Indiscriminate cuts are a choice. There is another way. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

I’m also pleased that the Chancellor has seen it fit to allow us to raise more money in council tax for the provision of adult social care. Across the country, council adult social care services are dangling off a cliff, and if we fall over the edge we’ll probably end up dragging the NHS with us. However, the Chancellor has another thing coming if he thinks that this will be the answer to our social care ills. Even if Tameside Council took the full 2% precept in council tax it would raise just £1.4 million, a drop in the ocean compared to the £79.5 million that adult social care services cost us per year. In that respect this is  a sticking plaster.

It also doesn’t allow us to raise money for other equally important services, including children’s services, disability support and public health. I support any measure that lets us make sure that our elderly can live in comfort and dignity, but I will continue to also fight for fair funding for children who need our help, people living with disabilities who rely on our support, the homeless and the countless others who are currently facing the full force of government cuts. The measures announced today do nothing for these people.

As I write this other members and officers in the council are poring over the small print and analyses of the entire Comprehensive Spending Review. As soon as we know the full implications of what has happened today we will share them with you. As with most of these things over the last five years I doubt it will be good news. The Chancellor has made his choices, and our job now is to deal with the consequences in a way that protects vital services and vulnerable people in Tameside.

Have Your Say on the Council’s Budget

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Every so often I find out that, despite my long years in politics, I still have the capacity to be surprised.

This time last year we rolled out the first edition of our online budget consultation. The reason we did it was simple; we wanted to show the people of Tameside the true extent of the financial challenge we faced, free from the misrepresentations and the distortions that often occur when local government and money are mentioned in the same sentence.

We trusted that the people of Tameside would be willing to take part, and you absolutely delivered. By the end of the consultation period we had received over 1,000 responses through the online budget simulator alone, and nearly 3,000 responses if you include others ways of getting in touch like e-mail, letters and social media.

To put that into perspective, out of the 63 local authorities that used the budget simulator only 3 had a higher response rate than Tameside.

But the truly important thing is what you told us.

Firstly, 73% supported rolling out the bin swap as a way to protect vital services and the environment by reducing the amount of waste we send to landfill.

Secondly, when faced with the choice, 78% of you supported an average council tax increase of 4.2%. That’s over twice the amount we’re legally allowed to raise council tax by without having a costly referendum.

Honestly, if somebody had told me that would be the outcome at the start I don’t think I would have believed them.

Because we had that information, we made the decision to increase council tax by 1.9% last year. As everybody was quick to remind us, we were the only council in Greater Manchester to do so. But we knew that we had the people of Tameside behind us when we made that choice.

It also showed us something else. People absolutely have opinions about the challenges we face, and as elected officials we need to give them the chance to make those opinions heard.

That’s why we’re launching our second online budget consultation. From now until 22nd December anybody in Tameside can give their views on how to manage the cuts imposed on us by the government.

To help as many people as possible reply we’ll be putting on over 150 budget simulator events and drop-in sessions throughout Tameside in libraries, Active Tameside centres, community groups, children’s centres and more.

If you’re unsure about how to complete the budget simulator then council staff will be happy to explain to you how it works and help you through the process of completing it at any of these events and drop-in sessions. You can find where and when they’re being held in your area by downloading the schedule here.

Alternatively, if you’re happy with completing the budget simulator by yourself, then you can do so here.

If you’ve completed the budget simulator, then I’d ask you also to spread the word about it to your family, your parents, your friends and your neighbours. If they also live in Tameside then get them all to complete it as well. There is no such thing as a wrong opinion, and the more replies and information we get the better we will be able to use them to inform our budget decisions for next year.

Democracy doesn’t get more direct than this.

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