Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Green Cuts Budget Proposals

Are Green Councillors Hands Tied? Or Are They Tying Ours?

Brighton and Hove Socialist Party

The Green budget proposals were released on 1st December. In the face of a 33% reduction of funding from central government they are proposing that £35m of cuts are made over the next two years. Most departments are facing between 5-15% cuts in services. The main cuts over the year 2012/13 will be to adult social care (£3.2m), children's services (£2.78m), housing (£2.09m), communities (£1.1m), city regulation and infrastructure (£4.85m) and resources and finance (£1.85m). Up to 120 council jobs will be lost.

There will be increased parking charges and charges for registering births, deaths and marriages, scrapping mobile libraries, reducing library opening times and closing public toilets. The cuts in areas such as adult social care and children's services will see day centres, meals on wheels and community care cut, as well as cuts to mental health services, childcare training schemes and children's centres. In particular school attendance budgets and assistance to young people not in education, training or employment will face cuts. Many more details of areas that will face cuts can be found in the budget itself, although not in the press releases so far issued by the Greens.
In addition the Greens are foregoing a one off grant from central government to prevent a one year council tax rise, instead implementing a 3.5% rise. Whilst the Greens are correct to point out that the government's offer is a poisoned chalice; it only lasts for a year and would result in lost funding in the long-term, it is not acceptable to offset cuts with tax rises that impact disproportionately on the working-class and poor. This council tax rise is not being used to invest in new services, it is being raised to mitigate the harmful effects of the overall reduction in government funding.
Can Councillors Fight the Cuts?
Brighton and Hove Socialist Party has consistently argued that genuinely anti-cuts councillors would build a mass movement to refuse to make the government cuts. In Q&A notes released at the same time as the budget the Greens take up this question:
Q: Why not defy the Government and refuse to set a budget - or set an uncut one?
A: These are not the defiant 1980s. Nowadays, if we set an illegal budget, an unbalanced budget (where spending exceeds income) or no budget, it will just be set for us by the Council's Chief Finance Officer or a central Government civil servant.”
This is an incredibly important question. They argue that their hands are tied, and a fight-back is simply not possible. If it was true that the council cannot fight this funding reduction then the question for us would be the same questions facing the Greens. However we are not just limited to the options the government present us. The aim of the workers and anti-cuts movements must be to make our own 'option' instead of shuffling along behind variations of a theme we disagree with. More importantly the position put forward above is false.
It is strange to hear them say “These are not the defiant 1980's” only a day after the biggest strike in Britain since 1926, and probably Brighton's largest ever demonstration! The announcements made in George Osborne's Autumn statement made it clear the pain was not yet over, and in fact it would continue for a further two years of austerity after 2015. Disposable income will remain below its 2002 levels as the government aims to reduce public spending to 1998 levels. It is hard to see how the defiance of the 1980's will not return or be surpassed in the coming period!
Politics is not just (or particularly) a matter of council practices and procedures; a mass movement of the working-class can decide questions that politicians can only wistfully chew over for decades. However where is the campaign to demand the funding back from the government? Why have the Greens immediately set about making the cuts? They are silent on the fight-back, and have conducted a consultation which is as a result deeply divisive. That has done nothing to build a movement against the cuts, and everything to undermine it.
Not only have the Greens rejected the idea of using the budget setting process to fight for money to be returned to the city, they seem to have rejected the idea of any campaign at all. The Greens are looked to as an alternative to the main three parties (Tory, Labour, Lib-Dem) in the city, if Green MP Caroline Lucas (who has so far said nothing about the decisions of the council) announced a demonstration, backed by the anti-cuts and trade union movement it would no doubt be taken up by many thousands and signal even more that Brighton is willing to fight. Such a campaign does not in itself mean passing a needs budget, although we argue that is the necessary final step; otherwise the movement will be like a lion with no teeth or claws.
What is the Law?
If anti-cuts councillors took a stand and pushed for a budget that reflected local need instead of the government's directions for cuts, the Chief Finance Officer (CFO) could issue a report to the council under s114(3) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which the council would have to respond to within 21 days.
The chief finance officer of a relevant authority shall make a report under this section if it appears to him that the expenditure of the authority incurred (including expenditure it proposes to incur) in a financial year is likely to exceed the resources (including sums borrowed) available to it to meet that expenditure.” s114 (3) LGFA1988
However the council can reject this guidance; it is false for the Greens to argue the CFO can force the budget through. According to the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy report on the role of the CFO in local government,
If the authority (or the executive) acts positively on the s114 (114A) report, well and good; if not, any further formal action is to be taken by the external auditor...”
There are then three courses of action available to the external auditor, section 6 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 or the issue of an ‘advisory notice’ under section 19A or an application to the Court for a declaration under section 17 of the 1998 Act. The first option allows the external auditor to require information to investigate, while the second allows the external auditor to issue a notice to the council explaining they are overspending. However the law is very clear:
“An advisory notice is a notice which...requires the body or officer before i) making or implementing the decision or ii) taking or continuing to take the course of action... to give the person who is for the time being the auditor of the accounts of the body not less than the specified number of days’ notice in writing of the intention of the body or officer to do that thing.” 19A(3)(d) ACA1998
In other words, the council can decide to proceed as long as they inform the external auditor within a set period of time of their intention to do so. The external auditor may then apply for a court order under section 17 which may result in an order to rectify the accounts but since 2002 and the passing of the Local Government Act 2000 it may no longer result in personal liability for the councillors.
Once the CFO has issued a notice to the council and it has been rejected the councillors could be referred to the Standards Board, a process which takes months and which we could use as a platform to gather support for refusing to make the cuts. While it may end in suspension it is not a short, rubber stamp procedure. We would make it as transparent a process as possible and call demonstrations to put focus on the fact that anti-cuts councillors attempting to resist government cuts are being hauled before the Standards Board! Anyone involved in the anti-poll tax campaign will know that court procedures can become a weapon in our hands, they can become a platform to express our ideas or a way to create a massive backlog.
Impact on Councillors
The impact on individual councillors will not be a personal fine as with the Liverpool councillors, after the law changed in 2000, but (at worst) a suspension. Green councillors need to ask themselves whether fighting the cuts is more important than their council seats? But if a movement was built to refuse the cuts, if the councillors used the standards board procedure as a platform to further build the campaign and deepen the mass following they had built, and still the government suspended them, nothing would stop us restarting the process and running in the by-election on the same program of refusing to make the cuts!
Imagine the uproar if they, after all that, imposed commissioners! What difference is there in principle between the Greens (or any other party) being forced to carry out the government cuts, or the government itself directly imposing them? The question is whether we are going to fight or not – and councillors need to decide which side they are on. The Greens may argue there is not difference in principle, but in practice they are able to protect the most vulnerable. However as the details of this budget emerge it is clear there is very little option available to them but to cut services. As the Greens themselves said 'there is no fat left'. If they do not fight for the extra funding they will be cutting into meat and bone.
Ultimately whatever action the government may or may not eventually take depends on the campaign waged to oppose the cuts outside the council chamber. The most recent example of a campaign to resist local government cuts was in Liverpool in the 1980's. The threat of imposing an unelected government commissioner was made by the Thatcher government but they did not take this step, instead they waited for then leader of the Labour party Neil Kinnock to attack the council before picking off the councillors Had they imposed commissioners it would have sparked an even bigger fight-back as a result, especially against the backdrop of the miners strike in 1984-85.
The Greens plead with the movement while they are making the cuts 'our hands are tied, we are doing our best to oppose the cuts by directing the axe'. However the law looks very different. If they cannot demonstrate that their hands are tied by the law, then we have to conclude it is the Greens themselves that are tying the hands of service users, local authority staff and trade union members in Brighton and Hove!
The conclusion that we draw is that the Greens should be waging a campaign but they are not. So we have to build a political force that will do all of this, that is rooted in and depends on a mass movement of the working-class to achieve its aims. That is why we are proud of the role we have played at the core of the strike movement and the rebuilding of the trade union movement in Brighton and Hove; confidence and democratic organisation is needed to oppose this government's unjust pension reforms. We are proud to be part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, standing in the Westbourne by-election. We are proudest of our call for a strategy to win the fight against the cuts, to end the capitalist system which breeds them and replace it with a democratic socialist society!