I really don't like going on demos as I think I have said on here before. But very often I have a lot of agreement with the cause that the demonstration is espousing.
So instead of going for a walk down the middle of the street on Saturday I spent the time writing this instead (an adaptation here of a version that was a letter to my councillor and another to my MP - I might yet do a much shorter version to the local newspaper.
Following on from today's demonstration "against the cuts" here are some thoughts to consider.
- The cuts are being imposed because the Council does not have enough money to fund the services the populaion needs. The health and social budget is the largest proportion of the council's spend and there is not "fat" anywhere else to make up the shortfall in this area. Equally there is no evidence of significant waste or unnecessary spend in Health and Social care; in fact they are already underfunded with respect to the needs of residents. We should not be asked to choose between having an effective public transport system and having effective local health and care provision. Nor should we be diverted into debates about the relative merits of particular solutions - our public services are there as public services because we all might sometimes need them and it is best to provide them as a universal public service.
- Therefore the Council must gain additional money to maintain (and increase) the level of services provided. There seem to be essentially three ways that this could happen. One is by charging for services - but this would be entirely contrary to the principles of public service. Public services are public because they are most effectively provided collectively, and are free at the point of delivery. No-one I know wishes to live in a world where you have to pay to visit the local park, or have cash on hand to pay the bin-man to empty your dustbin. No one wants to see the elderly, lonely and vulnerable members of our community have to pay on entry to a day care centre. Asking a battered wife seeking refuge to pay on delivery for the privilege of receiving care and compassion would be truly inhuman.
- A second option is to increase the Council's revenue by raising council tax and business rates. This may be a reasonable option for purely local services like libraries, but health and social care are provided within a national context. I would not like to see a return to purely local funding of basic services like health and education. We already live in a desperately unequal society, I can think of few more effective ways of exacerbating that than by returning to the situation where wealthy communities automatically get better quality services than poor and deprived areas simply because they can afford them..
In addition central government rules make it almost impossible for the Council to increase its revenue by the required amount in this way - the way the government caved in to Surrey Council's recent suggestion that they would increase their council tax by 15% illustrates the point.
- That leaves an increase of funding from central government (and hence national taxation) as seemingly the only option. At a national level there is far more "wiggle room" for moving money and priorities between different pots - but those become deeply politicised choices. When we are discussing the basic level of social, health and educational care that a society provides such political debates on priorities (for example Trident or Health, Offensive capability or Social care, Fossil fuel or Renewable) seem spurious distractions from the real question of how we as a society provide for our basic needs.
There may be a valid political debate as to how taxation revenue should be spent once basic social needs have been met - for example should any surplus go on building a high speed rail link or expanding an airport, should we have weapons of mass destruction or a defensive civilian militia, should we use state resources to promote less damaging behaviours like using less private transport and eating home grown food? These questions should be debated politically once we have created and are maintaining a society that meets basic needs , food, shelter, health, education, for all citizens. The cuts being imposed are undermining these basic requirements of a good society and if there is to be no increase in taxation then it is the discretionary political spending that needs to be cut first.
We also have to recognise that as citizens we enjoy a relatively low rate of taxation when compared to other better organised countries, and our businesses generally enjoy an exceedingly low level of taxation which nowhere near pays for the social and environmental costs of their activities. To worsen the situation there seems to be considerable evidence that tax collection from larger businesses and wealthier individuals is considerably less effective than from "the little people".
To cut to the chase on the cuts and our situation locally it is clear to me that the proposed cuts are wholly unacceptable. As an elected politician do you share this view and if not then what political solution you propose. Perhaps you could elucidate?
One problem is that for most people most of the time most cuts have no direct impact. If the swimming pool or library closes and you haven't used it recently it doesn't affect you - until you do want to use it again. Most people would like the health and care services to be available if and when they needed to use them, but whilst they do not need them this is only a background concern. This allows politicians off the hook. Do you recognise that even though it possibly forms a tiny proportion of your postbag, there is a background concern here which it is your responsibility as our representative to articulate?
There seems to be a general perception from the political class that the electorate will not vote for tax increases. This has never realistically been tested by putting the choice to a vote. Of course those with the lowest wealth would be least able to afford an increase and could not support it even if faced with the choice of no service and no increase, or keeping a service (that they might not immediately need) and having to pay increased taxation.
The nature of the tax system, especially since the flattening of tax bands over the past 40 years, coupled with the fact that by definition the more wealthy members of society are more likely to have discretionary spending that they could divert into paying for services if and when they need them, means that the perception that the public will not vote for tax increases is probably correct.
Council tax in particular is somewhat regressive in nature. If we accept that the banding of properties (at 1991 values) is broadly correct, and that to some extent the value of a property is a proxy for the wealth of those living there, we can see this by looking at the relationship between notional property value and council tax paid.
Typically a Band H property has a notional value more than 8 times that of a band A one, and yet it only pays 3 times the amount of council tax.
The basic principle here needs to be to each according to their need, free at the point of delivery, and paid for by all in proportion to their ability to pay (according to their means). We seem to have lost sight of this guidance over the last thirty years and we urgently need to insist that government re-connects with it.
As Surrey County Council's recent success shows the only effective way to apply pressure to the government is to threaten to expose them to public scrutiny. Even if the presumption that the public will never vote for tax increases is correct, simply forcing it to go to a vote makes everyone aware of the implications of the cuts being imposed and the failure of government to use the revenue to care for society.
So let us call upon our Councils to all propose an emergency increase in Council Tax and Business Rates sufficient to cancel the proposed cuts and restore services to level that as residents we expect. If this means a 20% + increase in local taxation and thus a referendum then so be it. At least then we will have a proper debate about the nature and value of public service in a way that connects with everyone, rather than allowing our politicians to hide behind the fact that a false choice is offered by relying on the fact that people not currently using a service will be less inclined to object to it being cut - they'll moan like hell when they need it in the future, but that will be some other politician's problem.
Given the situation and as a "anti-cuts" Labour politician would you support such a move? If not please explain why not and what alternative course of action you would suggest.
For central government such an action threatens their legitimacy and has the potential to fundamentally question the role of government. Once we go down that line it starts to make more sense for all taxation to be collected locally and for Bristol City Council to agree on our behalf how much of our money to pass to central government for things like fighting wars, expanding London's airports, building infrastructure of no direct benefit to us as residents of Bristol.
The proposed cuts are an obscenity. If we resist the attempt to divert the debate into spurious choices and stand united as a City saying that these are the things we need then we can hand down a real challenge to Central Government. Time for our Mayor and Councillors to stand up and be counted as representatives of Bristol, not acting as lickspittles of central government.