Last month, in the wake of the Scottish Government’s draft budget and the announcement by North Lanarkshire Council of its intention to launch a public consultation on the £73 million worth of savings it is required to make over the next 3 years, I wrote about the damage that cuts on this scale would do to local communities.
The consultation period is now complete, with 3,000 responses received from local households across North Lanarkshire.
Councillors from certain quarters have been quick to criticise the rate of response, but whilst it may represent a low proportion of the overall population, it represents a significant increase on the number of respondents to the Council’s last consultation, and I have no doubt that each and every response will be carefully considered in the Council’s deliberations.
Whilst some will no doubt continue to query the way in which the consultation was conducted, there are more important matters at stake and, as I discuss in a blog on the STV local website, reproduced here, we must not let a debate over the relative merits of the consultation deflect us from discussing why it was necessary in the first place:
“North Lanarkshire Council’s task of saving £73m over the next three years will be a painful process.
But we must not shoot the messenger.
In the wake of this week’s latest round of disappointing employment statistics, Alex Salmond confessed that Scotland’s economy is ‘bumping along the bottom’.
Whilst I welcome this rare outburst of candour from the First Minister, I am disappointed at his failure to offer any credible alternative to the current course of action.
It has become increasingly apparent that, however misguided are the decisions being made at Westminster (and they are very, very misguided), the policies being pursued by this SNP Government are only making things worse.
We can see this in the way that Education Secretary Mike Russell has presided over a 70,000 reduction in full and part time college places.
We can see it in the unprecedented drop in nursing and teacher numbers over the past 5 years.
We can also see it in the way the SNP has pillaged local authority coffers.
In the most recent Draft Budget, the Scottish Government more than doubled the 2.2% cut it inherited from Westminster (increasing it to 5.7%) before passing it on to local authorities. In addition to this, the under-funded Council Tax freeze looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.
Mr Salmond is fond of railing against the financial constraints placed upon him by Westminster.
Yet he has no qualms about imposing even sterner financial restrictions on local authorities.
This strikes me as somewhat hypocritical, and leads me to suspect that Mr Salmond’s obsession with the Independence Referendum is less about local democracy and accountability than it is about amassing power.
Despite the disdain with which the SNP Government has treated them, local authorities are crucial to Scotland’s economic wellbeing.
They are major public sector employers (a sector on which Scotland is hugely reliant); they support local communities; they fund investment in schools, hospitals and social services; they drive growth in local economies.
Local authority revenue comes primarily from three sources: the block grant received from the Scottish Government (reduced by 83%); the Council Tax (frozen); and fees levied for certain services (which offer restricted scope for raising funds).
With so little power to raise further funds, North Lanarkshire Council must find the £73m required within its existing budget.
Making cuts on this scale is a thankless task, and I have little doubt that when they begin to bite, the Council will be criticised.
No one likes the bearer of bad news.
But this is just what Alex Salmond and his SNP Government want: to create the impression that it is Westminster’s fault, the council’s fault – anyone’s fault but theirs.
However, responsible Government is about making tough decisions.
I welcome the council’s willingness to consult widely with local residents on matters that will have a real and tangible impact upon their lives.
Taking the views of local people into account, I believe the council will, wherever possible, strive to protect jobs and front line services, and to do the best it can for the people of North Lanarkshire.”
On Wednesday 30 November, I and my Labour colleagues united in solidarity with thousands of union members and public sector workers throughout Scotland and the UK, to strike against the coalition Government’s iniquitous attack on public sector pensions.
Whether in the form of reduced pensions or frozen pay, public sector employees are being made to bear the brunt of the UK Government’s austerity measures. It has been argued by some that public sector pensions are considerably better than those in the private sector – however, that is an argument to enhance private sector pensions, not sabotage public ones.
I refused to cross the picket line because I believed in the justness of the cause, and I respect the right to strike. In stark contrast, the vast majority of SNP MSPs crossed the picket lines and attended Parliament as normal. Scottish workers need a party that will support them in word and action.
I am immensely proud to have been part of a historic day of industrial action. Like their tory predecessors, the coalition Government is protecting the richest at the expense of the rest. Bankers continue to rake in millions, whilst unemployment rises and public pay is cut.
But on 30 November we sent the message loud and clear: we will not take it lying down.
I also spoke in a Scottish Parliament debate on the UK Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, during which I criticized proposals to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a change the Government hopes will cut the disability bill by 20%, an annual saving of £1.45 billion by 2014-15.
Depending on how the plans are implemented, this means that between a fifth and a third of Scotland’s 340,510 claimants could lose their current benefits.
I have lived with disability all my life and I take many of its consequences for granted. Every so often, however, I pause to consider its implications. I cannot drive a car without adaptation. I cannot tie my own shoelaces. I cannot chop an onion unsupervised. However, my problems are nothing to what many disabled people are forced to contend with. On their behalf, I passionately object to the Welfare Reform Bill’s contents.
We all remember the Tories’ commitment to creating a compassionate society. The Welfare Reform Bill makes it perfectly clear that that commitment was not worth the Michelin-starred napkin it was scribbled on. Under this UK Government, the compassionate society has morphed into the suspicious society.
The SNP Government’s reluctance to state how it plans to deal with the proposals will only add to the anxiety and stress that are being felt by the thousands of disabled people. SNP members are forever eager to remind us that things would be different if more powers were devolved. Now the SNP Government has a chance to show its mettle in the full gaze of the public eye.