Labour and Tories in last-minute deal to stitch-up Trade Unions

BY CLLR PHELIM MAC CAFFERTY

Last night saw a devastating cuts budget passed for the city of Brighton & Hove, which will hit vulnerable older and disabled people, children and families hard as vital services are stopped.  The budget scraped through only after Labour capitulated to Tory demands to cut trade union support for council staff, to pay for a Tory wish-list.

Labour were clearly feeling the pressure.

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“Solidarity Forever”, sang protestors at Budget Council

In an otherwise incredibly sombre evening, one of the few moments of light was an emotional singing protest. The minute Councillor Warren Morgan began to “proudly” introduce a £68m cuts plan for the city, protesters burst into the trade union anthem ‘Solidarity forever’ with clenched fists in the air. The protesters brandished signs saying ‘They cut we bleed’  in an effort to highlight the disproportionate impact of Council cuts on women.

The protest caused the meeting to adjourn and the entire Labour delegation scuttled off with their tail between their legs.  On their return, they were less than sympathetic to the group who had felt their only recourse to the impending cuts was a very visible protest to the decision-makers themselves.  Labour members in the public gallery insisted that instead of listening to the protesters’ message, the protesters should be forced to leave. Green Councillors meanwhile smiled and sang along to show our support.

For Labour and the Tories, I imagine the protest was a terrible inconvenience for their councillors, eager to get on with the business of stripping vulnerable people of vital services.

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The singing protesters were clearly an annoyance for the Labour administration

Perhaps if Labour had genuinely listened to the concerns of these protesters in the first place, they wouldn’t have felt the need to disrupt a council meeting.  But we know listening isn’t something that comes easy for Labour, as shown from consultations on children centres and libraries where strong opposition was ignored in the pursuit of cuts.

The Conservative group, on the other hand, presented a raft of amendments to save a handful of services.  Staggering hypocrisy from Councillors portraying themselves as saviours of local services, when the national party they represent has slashed local government funding and put these same services at risk.

On the first attempt, the budget was voted down by both Green and Conservative councillors.  Greens opposed the budget, urging Labour to reconsider the magnitude of cuts on the most vulnerable residents in the city.  In the deadlock, Conservatives saw an opportunity to push for their wish list of budget proposals.

What followed next was less of a negotiation than an unconditional surrender by the Labour administration quicker than they could find a white flag to wave.  Despite talking up the value of trade unions to the council (including an impassioned speech from their Whip), and the tens of thousands they save by preventing or avoiding workplace disputes, Labour rapidly ditched their principles and agreed to sack one of their trade union officials when pushed by the Tories.  And so the budget was passed.

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Green Councillors were stirred by the protestors’ spirit before heading into the sombre meeting

The cut to trade unions is bad news for Council staff facing redundancy consultations, or those who will face increasing workloads and stress as services are required to deliver more with less.  At this critical time, it is more important than ever that staff can organise to ensure their work conditions remain fair and reasonable.  With an organisation the size of the Council, it’s all too easy for workers to become trampled by the system.

Trade union facility time is not just a luxury.  Recent analysis by the University of Bradford and the TUC found that for every £1 spent on paid facility time for public sector union reps to represent their members, taxpayers get at least £2.31 back in savings.  Union representation improves staff retention, reduces illness and boosts industrial relations.  It’s an investment that pays countless dividends.

The next year will be hugely damaging to the city, and the damage to council staff morale will be just one of the consequences of stripping local government.  Greens will be keeping a very close eye on what happens next and ensuring Labour and their Tory partners are held to account every step of the way.

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Labour can do better for its council staff

BY CLLR TOM DRUITT

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In my relatively short time as Councillor, I have seen first-hand how tremendously hard Council officers and staff work to provide high-quality services to our residents. It is often a thankless task, which might explain why according to a recent staff survey, only 29% of council staff felt valued.

Another reason for this might be the constant uncertainty faced by Council staff due to local government cuts. We recently uncovered that a total of 360 council staff are currently undergoing a redundancy consultation process, with an estimated 100 staff set to lose their jobs in April. For many, the threat of potential job losses has been hanging over them since the latter half of 2015.

Not only was this redundancy consultation process started without any agreement from Policy & Resources Committee, there has also been no meaningful public consultation on the budget proposals as there was under the last Green administration and as we called for this time too.

According to recent research by the University of East Anglia, regardless of whether jobs are lost, restructuring damages staff well-being, psychological and physical health and job satisfaction. Hardly a surprise then that staff morale in the council is so low.

The current redundancy consultations are a result of the Labour council’s budget proposals to cut £68m from the budget over the next four years, in order to respond to the looming budget gap created by Conservative government cuts to local authority grants.

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Park Rangers have seen jobs threatened over the last four months

For some teams, such as park rangers, staff have not known from one day to the next how many of the team will be lost. As it currently stands, it now looks like Labour have found a way to fund most (though not all) of the team. It makes you ask: if the money was available, why were such drastic proposals put forward in the first place?

The Council budget has been shrinking since 2012, but this year is different. The Green administration was able to protect the city from the majority of the budget cuts through efficiency savings, reducing the number of buildings, the modernisation programme and by attracting £100m of inward investment in transport and infrastructure regeneration. We have not seen anything like this in the last nine months, and this year the cuts to the council’s budget are worse than ever.

This requires a whole new approach. We cannot continue to make efficiencies because where efficiencies were available they have already been made. Every saving the council makes now will have a direct, negative impact on frontline services, and to deal with this we need entirely new thinking.

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Brighton & Hove City Council at Kings House

This new approach would involve re-assessing the whole organisation in terms of the level of need in the community, both to build up a picture of what we have to deliver and to provide evidence for a strong case to be put to the Government for a better deal. We saw last year the farcical situation where David Cameron chastised his local council in Oxfordshire for cutting frontline services. Mr Cameron actually thought the savings required of Oxfordshire County Council could be made with ‘back-office’ efficiencies.

This shows a total lack of understanding for the impact of austerity amongst senior Government officials from the Prime Minister down, and the Government’s surprise announcement late last year that councils would be able to raise a further 2% council tax for social care services demonstrates that as the penny drops the Government can be made to listen. With a national leader rightfully against austerity policies and dozens of Labour councils up and down the country to join forces with, Labour have an opportunity to stand up and say “enough’s enough”. But they don’t.

With a new assessment of service requirement and a strong campaign for a better deal from Government, the council would be better placed to look at the staffing required across the council to deliver the services that residents so desperately need. The council would then be able to start a meaningful conversation with staff around the staffing needs in each department, working with staff to identify the needs and how that needs is made up.

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Unions lead the protest against Brighton & Hove City Council cuts

Council staff know these are difficult times. Unions know these are difficult times. But staff feel understandably disempowered and demotivated when these decisions are made above their heads, or when they are invited to a consultation where the result is a foregone conclusion. Let’s stop playing God with people’s lives and start talking, and more importantly listening, to our staff and work together to shape the council of the future. Sadly it’s too late for this budget, and that is why Greens are rejecting it. But if we start now it won’t be too late for the next budget.

Cuts to social care will imprison disabled and older people in their own homes

BY PHÉLIM MAC CAFFERTY

One of the biggest areas of concern in the upcoming Labour Council budget is Adult Social Care. Over the next four years Labour have made it clear that they will cut over £20.5 million from budgets to support disabled adults and older people.

These cuts come amid growing evidence of a crisis in health and social care, with fewer older and disabled people receiving the support they need.  According to a recent BBC report, two-thirds of requests for care are rejected by Councils across the country.  In 2013 the report by Mencap found that 36% of disabled people receiving care were unable to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house, and 47% reported that the services they receive do not enable them to take part in community life.

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Service users protest against proposed closure of the Tower House Day Centre in Brighton & Hove

In administration, Greens pulled out all the stops to stave off cuts to frontline services.  That’s why according to the data behind the BBC report, in Brighton and Hove, just 16% of requests for care from older and disabled people were rejected in 2014-15, compared to 72% in East Sussex and a staggering 96% in West Sussex.  We sought steady improvement of services, but we knew exactly how important these services were and that they couldn’t be cut without dire consequences.

What was once a pursuit of value for money has under Labour become a relentless march towards the lowest common denominator.  The new administration has become obsessed with bringing costs into line with neighbouring authorities, despite these councils facing criticism and protests as their disabled and older people go neglected.

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A pensioner receives the meals on wheels service, set for a 30% cut

The few remaining services provided by council teams may have a higher unit cost, but they are of outstanding quality and delivered by dedicated, caring staff.  Similarly, sheltered housing for people with learning disabilities may be a little more expensive than if provided by the private sector, but the quality of care is excellent and people are empowered to engage in the community and have friends and relationships, compared to bare-minimum care found in some private care homes.  This is not a luxury, it is an essential part of treating people with dignity.

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Service users from Brighton & Hove Speakout who provide advocacy for people with learning disabilities, whose future is uncertain

The Conservative Government has given councils the power to raise council tax by a further 2% to pay for the increasing costs of social care.  Aside from the fact that this represents central government offloading its responsibilities onto council taxpayers, 2% will fall far short of the investment needed to cover the cost of the ageing population.

We need to change the way we think about health and social care. For a start, policymakers have to stop just seeing numbers, and better understand what a £20.5 million cut will mean in terms of quality of life and care outcomes for disabled and older people.

We need to decide what kind of society we want to live in.  For Greens, we know it’s a society where our most vulnerable members are supported to contribute, not where they are shut away.  Austerity is letting down entire generations of older and disabled people and condemning them to social isolation and poverty.

 

It’s time to wake up the treasury

BY CLLR PHÉLIM MAC CAFFERTY

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HM Treasury: The heart of UK austerity

Brighton and Hove: Join us to wake up the Treasury!

Saturday, 13 February, meet 10am at Brighton Station

Wake up the Conservative government ministers to the cuts hitting Brighton and Hove and the reality of public sector cuts!

Play a musical instrument, sing, blow a whistle, ring a bell or bang a drum before we hand a letter in to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Treasury, Horse Guards Rd, London SW1A 2HQ.

We will be meeting by the piano in Brighton Station at 10am to catch 10:18 to Victoria. Once in London we will be marching to the Treasury to make as much noise as possible and to deliver our letter.

More details: Bit.ly/Treasury13thFeb
for further queries please email phelim.maccafferty@brighton-hove.gov.uk

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The cuts must stop now!

 

 

The false economy of cuts to our children and families

BY CLLR ALEX PHILLIPS

At next week’s meeting of the Policy and Resources committee, we will see the final budget proposals from the Labour council in Brighton and Hove, which look set to propose unprecedented cuts to services for children and young people. In years to come, we may look back and realise that this was when everything changed – when the city sent a clear signal to its youth that it could no longer invest in their future.

The cuts will see massive reductions in early years parent groups and targeted home visits, and an end to intensive courses for new parents struggling with their first child.  It will see the end of open-access youth work by Council teams and massive reductions in services in places like the Moulsecoomb 67 centre, which has served young people in our city for nearly 50 years.

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Children centres will see massive reductions in services

This is the inevitable product of an ideological and fundamentally flawed agenda of austerity, forced upon the country by an out-of-touch Conservative government.  They came into power to fix a “broken Britain”, but all they have achieved is soaring inequality and increasing queues at newly established food banks.  If Britain wasn’t broken when they started, it sure will be by the time they’re through.

The services for children & young people which are set to be cut are absolutely vital.  They help parents to make the right choices for their children and give them the skills, guidance and help they need from an early age.  Youth Services keep young people engaged and happy, ensure they stay on the right track, and allows us to intervene as needed to keep them away from self-harm, substance misuse and crime.

As some of you may know, I used to be a Secondary School French Teacher, as well as teaching German, PSHE and Citizenship and supporting pupils as a form tutor.  Being a teacher provides a remarkable insight into the lives of families and children from all backgrounds.  I have heard from countless parents how important early years support was in allowing them to cope and overcome depression.  I’ve also seen first-hand how children hit puberty and are bombarded with thoughts and feelings they can’t always process, and the right guidance and support is critical at that time.  Teachers face tremendous pressure and rely on youth services to provide this additional support.

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As a former secondary school teacher I understand the importance of early years and adolescent services

These cuts are short-sighted and make no sense. We will see more parents unable to cope, and more young people getting into crisis, self-harming and committing crime.  We’ll see more children being taken into care or needing costly services from the NHS or local authority. The immediate value of any cuts will be completely wiped out by the cost of crisis services.

These cuts reveal that the Labour Council, faced with a huge cut in income from central government, has no plan beyond uniform cuts across the board.  When the Greens weathered a similar storm in their own administration, they used every resource to keep frontline services going.  In contrast, the Labour leadership has thrown its hands up in the air.  In opposition, Greens can only watch if Labour unites with the local representatives of their Tory masters to force these cuts through.

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The Playbus is another vital service under threat

Back in May, Labour promised to offer the change that neighbourhoods and families need. Nationally, the Conservatives committed to giving children the best start in life.  Yet we see both pushing forward with massive cuts which will hit parents, children and young people when they most need our help. We should instead be investing in services as a preventative and cost-saving measure.

It’s not yet a done deal.  Greens will oppose these cuts and I urge the other parties not to abandon our children and young people, for the sake of our city.  Join us in standing up for a better future.

Greens unite against fracking – A high price for an empty promise

BY CLLR PHÉLIM MAC CAFFERTY

Local Councillors have seen a surge in contacts from residents this week, who are rightly very concerned about leaked government proposals to take decisions on fracking schemes out of the hands of local councils.  I’d like to reassure all residents that we take these dangerous and undemocratic plans very seriously and are determined to present a unified, robust response at both local and national level.

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Greens declared Brighton & Hove a fracking-free zone in 2013

The Green Party remains completely opposed to fracking.  Keith Taylor as our region’s Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Caroline Lucas as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Brighton Pavilion all oppose fracking.  When the Greens ran the City Council, we were one of the first councils in UK to declare ourselves a ‘fracking-free zone’ and all Green Councillors remain firmly committed to that position.

An attack on democracy

Just before Christmas the Conservative Government introduced The Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 without any parliamentary debate, to allow fracking under Britain’s national parks and sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). This is contrary to commitments by ministers in January 2015 that fracking in national parks would be banned outright.

Now, leaked proposals outline the Government’s intention to classify fracking schemes as “Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects”. This would give the government Planning Inspectorate final say over decisions and would allow them force through fracking schemes against local authority wishes.  According to the leaked document, this is part of a wider government strategy to foster a ‘maturing shale gas production industry’ within 10 years.

These proposals are the Government’s response to Councillors around the country who have repeatedly stood up for their local population and their local environment and refused to allow fracking in their area. If this is allowed to happen, it marks a massive attack on local democracy. It also flies in the face of promises by Conservative government ministers to devolve greater powers to local communities.

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The ugly surface hides the true danger below

An attack on the environment

Fracking risks potential contamination of our fresh water supplies in the South Downs as well as rivers and the environment. Studies conducted on fracking by the Environment Protection Agency in the US also indicate that fracking can cause earth tremors. In the UK, a study commissioned by Cuadrilla itself found that fracking was the likely cause of an earth tremor in Lancashire in 2011.

What is the alternative?

Fracking will only provide a few years of energy but could come at a colossally high price. Even if it could reduce costs, I don’t believe for one second that the energy companies will pass on any savings to the customer.

It is extremely short-sighted when there is so much potential in cleaner, greener energies. We only have one planet, and as we are now witnessing the effects of climate change it’s clear we desperately need a new approach.

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Fracking is about the future of our planet.  Photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS

Forget the false promises being made by shale gas.  What we need is to invest in the renewable energy industry instead, with a Green New Deal which can cut greenhouse gases and employ thousands at a period of time when we have never needed both more.  Renewables are the future – a stable, secure investment which would position us extremely favourably in an uncertain economic climate.

As the Convenor of the Green Councillors on Brighton and Hove City Council, I am working with my Green Party colleagues, Caroline Lucas MP and Keith Taylor MEP to resolve how we best oppose this dangerous move from government.  This will include writing to central government as a clear first step.

The local Labour enforcers of a callous Tory government

BY CLLR PHÉLIM MAC CAFFERTY

As we edge ever nearer to a final decision on Brighton & Hove City Council’s budget for the 2016/17 year, more information is coming to light every day as to how residents are likely to be affected.  The outlook is bleak – huge chunks are being cut from vital services which will be felt by every generation, in every community.  We will see vulnerable residents plunged further into poverty and desperation.

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Was this what Labour voters expected in May?

In administration, the Greens took great pains to avoid making cuts to frontline services.  We implemented a tough value-for-money programme that brought about significant efficiency savings across the Council.  Despite being required to make £77m of savings, we didn’t close a single library or children’s centre.

Now, the Labour-led Council has announced it must make £68m of cuts over the next 4 years.  These cuts will see £22m taken from budgets to look after disabled and older adults, will see the closure of community libraries, cuts to park rangers, animal welfare, children’s centre groups, and teachers for children with special educational needs.

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This is Labour’s response to massive Tory government cuts which will see the main support grant given to Brighton and Hove Council effectively disappear.  Despite the Tories promising that Councils will be able to keep 100% of business rates they raise, this will not come into effect until 2020, after cuts to the support grant, and is likely to come with costly additional responsibilities such as the administration of Attendance Allowance for older people.

Labour has offered only token resistance to implementing these cuts, despite the fact nationally the party controls over 110 councils up and down the country, and could offer significant resistance to national government.   Locally, the Labour Council has no coherent plan or vision beyond swingeing cuts across the board.  The biggest losers will be those most in need; poorer children and families, homeless people, older people and disabled people.
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There is a better way.  There is more that we could be doing as a city to resist these ideological cuts.  There’s also a better way to manage council finances, and it starts with a conversation with the entire city about how we can do things differently.  Greens have been clear since early last year – when faced with a looming budget gap, the city must be involved in agreeing the way forward.

Sadly, the Labour Council has done the exact opposite.  For the first time in years, they have decided not to carry out a postal survey of budget proposals, and have cut in-depth scrutiny of proposals by staff, service users and community groups.  They have pressed ahead with proposals such as cuts to children’s centres despite massive opposition from 87% of people they consulted.

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Greens joined the Trades Union Council and hundreds of residents to urge the Council to reconsider

At this point, this year’s budget process has now gone too far to offer a good option, or even just a fair one.  Greens are faced with the prospect of either tinkering with a catastrophic budget to strip vital services, or protesting it as firmly as possible while Labour and the Tories gleefully launch us into a new era of local austerity and inequality.  We’ll be consulting with our party members as to how they want us to respond.

Greens are on the streets, listening to residents and taking the fight to both the Council last week and HM Treasury on February 13th.  We are urging Labour Councillors to think again, and not to cut front-line services.  Labour should join us, and join our residents, and show that they are more than just the local enforcers of a vicious Tory government.