I spent last night at a “consultation” at Birmingham Council House when the Chief Executive, Stephen Hughes explained the 2012-2013 budget. We have until early January to respond. Respond to what? David Cameron has already laid the ground rules which herald the end to the Public Sector. The dispossessed are being dispossessed.
Chris Khamis, chairing the meeting, called me early on. I wanted to know where the cost of using Capita, one of five or six firms of accountants or bankers by any other name was shown. I didn’t think they came cheaply and I wondered if there was going to be savings in the amounts we paid them in the next budget year. I had in mind salaries of their staff and whether they were facing severe cuts in wages or redundancies. Stephen Hughes told us how they had helped Birmingham cut back in use of properties, saving considerable sums. No mention of those buildings such as Hawthorn House in Handsworth Wood, a community resource after local people “saved” it, housing a library with a children’s playground on its site. After its sale for private use Handsworth Wood has become an amenity-free zone.
I wanted to know if Capita was a company that operated off-shore on a Caribbean island avoiding paying tax. Did the City Council support an organisation that didn’t pay its taxes. I got no answer to that. It seems that an essential component of Capita’s business is telling others how to do just that!
“Have your say on the budget” proclaims the form we are asked to complete with four questions about “top service priorities”, all of motherhood and apple pie proportions. Do we agree that “protecting vulnerable people (children and adults)” should be a top priority, or encouraging investment to create jobs and helping people into work”? Perhaps we ought to “strongly disagree” about “improving education and skills (employability)” should go. Or perhaps we could dispense with “a clean, green and safe city”. These are “essential services” so when did they become inessential. When the Lib Dems backed the Tories to take over Birmingham in 2004 is the answer, providing a blue print for a ConDem government that puts profits first and people nowhere.
I have witnessed a case where an frail elderly Asian woman was being reassessed for her care needs. The social care and health officers who called wanted to be sympathetic but they were working to a higher agenda. They started off trying to justify a decimation of the time carers spent saying “we don’t know how the amount of time was justified in the first place”. This undermines their own colleagues professionalism and judgement doesn’t it? The family is in receipt of direct payments and pays carers of their choice to look after their mother and grandparent. The result of the cut was that the carers found the task impossible in the time allotted and left. It would have meant that their already low pay was cut back further. Cameron wants an army of volunteers to step in. They are people who can survive on fresh air presumably in his “Big Society”.
“We are all in this together” proclaims the Chancellor of the Exchequer. No we bloody aren’t. There’s absolutely no shared pain at the top. Those with the power to make decisions do so at the people’s expense unashamedly. “Sorry” says Stephen Hughes to the employees whose “hurt” he feels he as not acknowledged before. What difference does that make? It would have been better to have said nothing.
From one point of view the City Council, like others, has been put in a totally impossible position given the government’s intention to dispense with the public sector. What we, the public are being asked to do is to select from a prepared list where cuts must inevitably fall. It is like being asked to choose your method of execution. By taking part it gives the decision makers some sort of justification for something they know otherwise as having none.
I could have gone to hear Norman Finkelstein speak on the unification of Palestine and Israel at Birmingham University. I’m hoping that New Style Radio will have an interview with him. I’m sure whatever he said it would have been more worthwhile than what we were fed at Birmingham Council House.