Key points made by Cllr John Ferrett, Leader of the Labour Group, in response to the Majority Group’s Budget Proposals, Portsmouth City Council, 8 December 2015
(Note: Click here to hear the full speech – go to 3 hours 29 minutes from the start.)
- John welcomed the Conservative Group’s decision to reconsider their recommendation to do away with Trade Union Facility Time. He was critical of the trade union representatives’ tactics in using the staff consultation meeting to launch a political attack on the council leader rather than concentrating on issues of priority concern to their members such as cuts to jobs and services. He referred to the invidious position that all councillors were in over the budget cuts, noting that no-one stood for election to make cuts but that as a council it was a legal requirement to set a balanced budget. He urged the trade unions to adopt a constructive and partnership-based approach to working with the council to justify the provision of fixed allowances by ensuring their work was focused on members’ interests rather than based on political and ideological considerations.
- He referred to the problem of having to deal with an overspend of £5.1 million and the savings measures being proposed to address this which all members considered unachievable. He noted that, without reserves to draw on and new saving measures, it was an almost impossible task to deliver cuts to the level demanded by central government within the resources available to local councils.
- He emphasised that Labour councillors had been consistent in arguing that the cuts to local government were unsustainable, noting that at the General Election he had supported an alternative approach and a lessening of the screw on local councils. He also referred to the fact that the council leader had written to George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, mirroring his own campaign message that a change of direction was needed, but that this call had been ignored by the chancellor.
- He reminded Conservative councillors that they had campaigned for the re-election of a government that had made it perfectly clear it was going to continue to decimate local services, and asked Liberal Democrat councillors to remember that they had loyally supported George Osborne’s approach to public spending. He also pointed out that he had no idea what the UKIP policy on local government was, noting his suspicion that UKIP councillors were just as much in dark on this as he was.
- He referred to the democratic deficit in the way that the overspend had been dealt with. He noted that the Council meeting was effectively setting spending limits for each portfolio, while the proposals the councillors had been presented with related to how the administration planned to live within the limits set. While these were only indicative, they had nonetheless been subject to several weeks’ public consultation. He recognised the difficulty of trying to reach the required £11 million figure, but stated that he would have liked the consultation process to have been longer, as he found the limited time and lack of public scrutiny of the proposals quite unacceptable. He recognised that it was for the cabinet to revise the ways in which the spending limits were to be achieved but stressed that it was wrong that the proposals had not been subject to the same level of public scrutiny and accountability as those presented to the meeting. He suggested that this did not reflect well on the administration, while noting that it would be impossible for them to be less transparent than the previous Lib Dem administration.
- He suggested that a cynic might argue that the lack of public accountability could mean that the administration had sought to hide some of the more difficult cuts within the proposals and referred by way of example to the additional deep cuts being proposed to Sure Start Children’s Centres and, among the social care savings, the wholesale changes to the way the council proposed to care for the most vulnerable in our community, those residents with profound learning disabilities, by redesignating Corbyn Lodge as a facility for those with learning disabilities and ending 3 and 4 person residential placements within community settings. He said this major change should have been subjected to the greatest possible scrutiny by the public. He asked the council leader to assure councillors that this would not happen again and asked for the savings proposals to deal with the overspend to be made public for the same period of time as those being addressed at the council’s budget meeting.
- He asked the meeting to note that the Labour Group’s amendment proposing a reduction in the cost of democracy was a recurrent theme during his time as leader and that it had consistently been voted down by opposition councillors, including by the Liberal Democrats even though they desperately needed to restore their tarnished reputation over the way they had dealt with councillor allowances where cabinet members had been happy to vote themselves a 25% increase. He urged the Lib Dem Group to take the opportunity to redeem themselves by supporting the Labour amendment which also proposed a reduction in the number of cabinet members. He justified this on the basis of the huge reductions in the budgets available to cabinet members and the ending or diminishing of many of the services they were responsible for.
- The Labour Group amendment also proposed a move to 4-yearly elections which he hoped would be supported by the council leader and her administration but which had been opposed by the Liberal Democrats even though the measure would save hundreds of thousands of pounds for vital services and would allow the council to have a more strategic, long-term approach to managing its business.
- He referred to the Labour Group’s consistent approach to shoring up Sure Start by using the money raised by cutting councillor allowances which had seen a further big budget cut following the 48% cut made by the previous administration . He found it difficult to comprehend the rationale for these cuts given Sure Start’s proven success in improving the life-chances of the children and parents who use the service, noting that such preventative measures were likely to deliver long-term savings to the public purse. He noted that other non-statutory, but equally essential services, were equally susceptible to similar cuts, stating that it would seem completely counter-productive to cut the sexual health budget, given the potential social costs of unwanted pregnancies and the impact on health outcomes and the cost to the health service of sexually transmitted diseases.
- He contrasted this Labour proposal to the Lib Dems’ proposed amendment to prioritise parking and other equally populist measures.
- He criticised Councillor Vernon-Jackson for publicly stating that the overspend in social care and children’s services was due to ‘incompetence’. He noted that a large chunk of the £11 million saving required could be laid at his door and blamed him for recommending that the Liberal Democrats went into a coalition government with the Conservatives which had introduced the austerity measures forced on councils, suggesting that he should therefore take some responsibility for the speed and scale of the cuts.
- He referred to the Liberal Democrats’ record when running the city – the cash-backs, the refusal to raise council tax to protect the tax base and the squandering of millions of pounds on the Pyramids Centre in a futile attempt to win votes, despite the growing body of evidence pointing to the huge financial liabilities being imposed upon the city by the Pyramids which had not only left the city’s finances in a mess but had also severely damaged the city’s reputation.
- He noted the refusal of the Lib Dems to increase council tax and contrasted this with the Labour Group’s position which had consistently argued for the council tax to increase in line with the limit imposed by central government. He welcomed the administrations’ belated recognition that Labour was right all along, suggesting that they and the Liberal Democrats might also wish to reflect on the millions of pounds of extra revenue that would now be available to the council had they desisted from using the council tax freeze as a short-term electoral weapon.
- He supported the proposed 2% council tax increase as a necessary measure to avoid a further weakening of the tax base and cuts to services, referring to the additional costs to be imposed upon the council by the introduction of the government’s living wage. He noted that a 4% increase in tax next year would be politically difficult but that the alternative would be further cuts to services. He challenged any party opposed to such an increase to level with the public about the additional services they would cut.
- He commended the administration for the revenue-raising initiatives they had undertaken and criticised those who opposed such measures for failing to put the city and the needs of its residents first, accusing them of political opportunism.
- He concluded by referring to the changes taking place within the Labour Party and the considerable pressure being put on the Labour Group to vote against any cuts and to propose a ‘needs’ budget. He said that, despite this pressure, he was proud that the Labour Group continued to pursue an approach which took account of the legal responsibility of the council to set a balanced budget, stating that they had no interest in empty political gestures, but that they would ensure everything was being done to minimise an adverse impact on the local population. He therefore urged the council to vote for the Labour amendment in order to show that councillors understand and are sharing the sacrifices being made by residents. He warned that if the amendment was lost, the Labour Group would be abstaining in order to ensure that the administration’s budget savings could be implemented without further cuts to services that could not be agreed at the meeting.