Norfolk County Council met today, Monday 14 February, and adopted a Conservative inspired budget which slashed £60 millions of local services. This was its initial response to a £155 million funding reduction from the Con-Dem government.
On Valentine’s Day, mostly renowned for romantic love and swollen hearts - but also for the notorious gangster killings in Chicago - ruling Tory councillors chose to rip the heart out of Norfolk. A thousand service jobs will go and many others in the private sector will follow as a consequence.
The axe fell heavily on children, young people and the disabled. Services designed to keep children in a safe family environment will now be cut or reduced, increasing the risk that children will be taken into care. Foster and adoption services will be cut, even though keeping children in institutions is the least preferable and most expensive option. Sensory support services for deaf and blind people will be cut by nearly £½ million. Another £½ million will go from services which support those with mental health difficulties to live independently.
And if that wasn’t enough to turn a blue rinse pink, in a move which will cast eternal shame on its proponents, confidential expert advice services for young people are being ended in perhaps the most severe attacks on youth services anywhere in England. It will, of course, create future problems and greater funding needs as well as devastate lives.
This was another Valentine’s Day Massacre and the gangsters wore blue suits. And it was a massacre of the innocents. It is not ‘bloated local government bureaucracy’ under attack, but the very essence of what makes a society civilised: the real ‘Big Society’ of mutual support without an opt-out clause which requires all who can to contribute to the protection of the vulnerable - and to the promotion of what is valuable. UK local government services and the welfare state cannot depend on the often not-forthcoming charity of under-taxed ‘philanthropists’. Publicly funded services were created because of the inadequacy of Victorian charity.
What we are witnessing is an attempt to return to dependency on the overstretched generosity of the most caring - who already contribute more than their share to family, community and civic life. The funding of support services via taxation - national and local - is being destroyed under the guise of strengthening society. Given its council’s enthusiasm for this, Norfolk may have to change its boundary signs from ‘Nelson’s County’ to ‘The Heartless County’. Some local wags are already calling this destructive process – and perhaps its outcome – as ‘Norfolking services’.
This year is just the beginning. The council’s ‘Big Conversation’ consultation was a Big Con. It fell on deaf ears and next year’s county budget will see the Tory axe return for many services which mobilised public support this time round.
But such cuts are not taking place without resistance. If Norfolk’s Valentine’s Day Massacre lacked romance it did not lack tragedy and drama. Several hundred dedicated staff and service users, alongside ‘Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts greeted axe-wielding Tory councillors with bloodstained banners and placards listing the victims of the slaughter: ‘youth services’, ’support for the disabled ‘.
Several people disrupted the council budget meeting and were ejected. Three were temporarily arrested then ‘de-arrested’. The campaign will continue to grow.
Throughout Eastern England, campaigns against the cuts are emerging with the Spring flowers. The Suffolk Coalition for Public Services hosted a meeting in Ipswich on 12 February, Cambridge Against the Cuts had a demonstration on February 12th and has a lobby on the 15th. A similar group in Southend meets on the 16th, with a platform shared by unions and students. Milton Keynes will see a meeting on the 18th, Harlow one on the 24th. A hundred Suffolk firefighters, their families, and supporters, marched through Ipswich on Saturday 12 February to protest against proposed cuts to Suffolk Fire Service.
And a national ‘March For The Alternatives’ is being organised by the TUC in London on Saturday 26 March, bring together hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens to demand alternative government policies. Dozens of coaches are already being booked by unions and local anti-cuts coalitions to take people from East Anglia.
There are alternatives to Con-Dem slash and burn, of course. The £81 billion budget deficit the government chooses to pay off in a few years is neither unprecedented - one of many such myths - or unfundable by more civilised means.
More than £100 billion a year is lost to the UK revenue from corporate tax evasion and tax avoidance: Vodaphone dodged up to £ 6 billion UK taxes by moving income to a Luxembourg subsidiary; Boots saw its UK annual tax payments drop from £131 million to £20 million upon moving its HQ to Switzerland; Cadbury’s - now based in Switzerland - will similarly avoid £ millions of UK revenues which could have funded the services of Norfolk County Council or others. Topshop, part of the Arcadia group run by Sir Philip Green, the Con-Dem government’s ‘efficiency adviser’, paid a record £1250 million dividend to its owner (Sir Philip’s wife, Tina Green) in 2005. She lives in Monaco so she avoided paying UK income tax of around £285 million – enough to pay the salaries of 20,000 UK nurses.
And of course there are the banks. Despite government rhetoric, massive bonuses continue. This recently forced the resignation of Lib Dem Treasury Spokesperson Lord Oakshot. HSBC transfers profits to the UK via Dutch subsidiaries avoiding as much as £2000 million in UK taxes. Norfolk’s budget is small beer compared to this.
And yet the Tory councillors of Norfolk have not screamed for tax justice instead of service slashing. And Norfolk’s MPs , all Tory or Lib-Dem, have not rallied to the defence of the county’s public services or demanded government action to raise revenues from rich tax dodgers instead of attacking the young, the deaf or the mentally ill.
This will not be forgotten and may well affect the outcome of the May 2011 local elections and local results in the next General Election. The Silence of the Lambs (North Norfolk’s Lib-Dem MP, Norman Lamb MP, that is) and his Westminster pals - Tory whip Chloe Smith and others - will be remembered by the young, the disabled, the unemployed and their families across Norfolk when it comes to the vote.
And in Norfolk on every 14 February from now on, families will remember the 2011 massacre of services which could have been avoided if Con-Dem politicians had put ideology and opportunism aside and, well, simply had a heart.
Happy Valentine’s Day.