How should charities and civil society respond to the cuts?

29 09 2010

Amount of loose change available to replace government funding may vary.

With the coalition’s cuts set to impact all areas of public spending, many civil society organisations, community groups and charities are growing increasingly concerned about the effect they will have on the people and causes they represent.

For all the rhetoric around the Big Society, the reality so far has proven rather different, with charities losing funding and many of the most vulnerable sections of society bearing the brunt of the cuts agenda.

Some charities have focused solely on defending their own area of funding, while others are looking to build a united front – and representatives of this latter group met in London last week to start initial discussions on how charities, community groups and civil society can build a united resistance to the cuts.

The meeting was off the record, so I’m not going to quote people or give a line by line account – save to say that it was productive and focused on strategy – but here are some of the suggestions and ideas that emerged during the meeting. As will be apparent, it covered a fairly wide range of topics.

Just to note, these aren’t necessarily my suggestions – just some of the points that were raised:

  • A key period will be between the finalising of the Labour cabinet on 30th September and the Spending Review on 20th October – the Labour leadership will be working out its approach to the cuts agenda during this time, making it the key three-week period when we (or those in Labour, at least) will have to try and exert maximum pressure on the leadership to take a solid anti-cuts line (etc). Labour will be stuck with whatever it says on Oct 20th until 2015, so it’s a crucial one-off chance to try and influence them as far as possible.
  • Tax avoidance was repeatedly raised as a key issue that needs to be highlighted, both on the fairness point and as a means of reducing the deficit without cutting services. Many organisations that have in the past focused on the impact of tax avoidance on poorer countries are acutely aware that it features heavily in the deficit debate here in Britain.
  • The C1C2 group of middle income voters is a very powerful block that isn’t being engaged properly – we need to identify set piece government cuts that affect C1C2s and mobilise that group (e.g. bus passes and winter fuel payments).
  • We in the anti-cuts movement have to be ready to suffer some defeats over the next year, as the government will be able to drive through much of its agenda through at first – so we will have to be able to maintain people’s confidence during these setbacks in order to win the long game. It’s important to find high-profile set piece ‘wins’ that can be achieved during this first year – specifically chosen fights with the government on big issues that we can win. However, we need to do so without pitting one campaign against another.
  • Local government could provide local campaigners with a chance to score early victories, albeit on individual cuts rather than the entire local government cuts programme. Scotland and Wales also provide opportunities for early breakthroughs, together with London in advance of the 2012 mayoral election.
  • Different sectors must avoid ‘nimby’ campaigning to protect their ‘bit’ by arguing that the government should cut some other sector instead – a form of cutthroat defence. There was a suggestion that different campaigners should enter into some kind of ‘non-aggression’ pact that would avoid different sectors competing against each other for funding. It might also be a way of working with those many charities and lobby groups that are wary of taking overtly political stances against the entire cuts agenda, but are protecting their own sector.
  • Developing that point further, it’s important that we try and spot in advance issues that could divide sections of the anti-cuts movement, and act early to reach some kind of accommodation to defuse any potential trouble. An obvious example would be possible tensions between certain environmental groups and industrial trade unions.
  • Since bailiffs coming to evict non-payers were a major focal point of anger at the poll tax, there was a suggestion of holding protests at county courts when there are eviction hearings of people forced out of their homes due to housing benefit cuts.
  • Co-operation between campaign groups may work best on the basis of mutual support rather than a formal coalition. Trying to get all the member organisations of a formal coalition to agree to joint statements can prove more hassle than it’s worth.
  • Legal challenges to elements of the cuts agenda (judicial reviews etc) could be an important tool. Austerity programmes rely on making a lot of headway in the first year or two – if the austerity programme gets bogged down in the first couple of years, people start losing patience and the programme is in trouble. Judicial reviews and other forms of legal challenges could help put a spanner in the works, and drag things out. Unison have clearly adopted this approach with regards to Andrew Lansley’s NHS White Paper.

I’d be interested to hear readers’ thoughts on those points and others. There’ll be more on this civil society initiative as it progresses.

P.S: Apologies for the rather sporadic updates of late – I’ve been very busy compiling some large Freedom of Information requests. More on those when they come through. Updates will continue to be sporadic until early-mid October.

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Unions should take heart from bombshell cuts poll

14 09 2010

Despite two years of propaganda from right-wing newspapers, think tanks and politicians of all parties that massive public funding cuts are necessary to save Britain from economic oblivion, it turns out that barely one in five voters support the speed and scale of the coalition’s cuts agenda.

According to a Populus poll for The Times, just 22 percent of people support the speed and depth of the coalition’s planned cuts. 37 percent support Labour’s election pledge to cut the deficit more slowly, while significantly another 37 percent say that protecting the vulnerable and keeping a lid on unemployment should be higher priorities than cutting the deficit – even though this anti-cuts line is barely getting a hearing in the mainstream media.

This latest survey will undoubtedly cause discomfort among Conservatives (though their overall share of the vote is holding up) and outright panic among many Lib Dems. It might also provoke a degree of embarrassment to the pro-cuts Times, whose Murdoch-inspired message is clearly not getting through.

But it should also give the trade unions meeting this week at the TUC Congress in Manchester the confidence to press on with plans for co-ordinated strike action.

There are those in the anti-cuts movement who fear that strikes will turn the public against the unions. Meanwhile over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal warns that the unions need to win the public round to the anti-cuts argument before turning to industrial action. He says that mass demonstrations and ‘other action’ will be more effective that strikes in fighting the cuts.

Both fear a rerun of the 1980s, when extended industrial action ended in defeat for both the miners and the printworkers and reporters of Wapping, and a changed industrial landscape that forced the unions into retreat.

But today’s poll shows why there’s no need to tiptoe around waiting for public opinion to fall in line. It already is.

Despite the lack of any meaningful opposition, and blanket coverage of the pro-cuts argument, the public is instinctively suspicious of the coalition’s cuts agenda, with a sizeable minority seemingly opposed to all cuts outright.

Clearly there is an argument to be had and won in public – the impact the cuts will have on the majority of people, the risks to Britain’s economic recovery, the increase in poverty while those who caused the recession rake in huge bonuses once more.

While the public is well aware of the role of doctors, nurses and teachers, the importance of the more prosaic arms of the public sector – legal aid, benefits office staff, Connexions services, to name but three – needs to be spelt out. The unions will need to make the case against cuts – but this they are doing. We are seeing a bigger public relations push from the union movement than ever before.

But we should not lose sight of the importance of strike action. Yes, it creates disruption. Yes, it is often unpopular. But it hits the employer – in this case, the government – where it hurts. Work doesn’t get done. Public transport stops. Offices are shut. Phone calls go unanswered. Agency staff must be hired and paid for.

Only the most obdurate employer, determined to break a trade union, can endure the disruption and expense of a properly planned, well supported strike. Thatcher did, of course, but the coalition does not have her landslide majority, obedient backbenchers and divided opposition to fight a long war of attrition.

And those who worry about the verdict on strikes in the court of public opinion should bear in mind that in the 1980s, trade unions were seen by many as being powerful baronetcies that brought the country to a halt throughout the 70s. Fair or not, the shadow of Red Robbo was a long one.

That is ancient history now. The picture today could not be more different. While the public is not exactly having a love-in with the unions, it is privatisation and financial deregulation – the Next Big Things of the Thatcher years – that are now in the dock.

Privatising public services will not win favour among commuters delayed by franchised trains. Cutting funding to schools and hospitals will bring back memories of the crumbling classrooms and NHS beds crises of the Major years. A recession cooked up in the casinos of the City will not willingly be paid for by the public.

And if economic data continues to get worse, the entire economic basis of the cuts agenda will evaporate.

In that context, while strike action will cause inconvenience and irritation, it is the impact of the government funding cuts that will cause real anger. People frustrated because they can’t access services during a one-day strike will realise that government cuts could deprive them of those services for far longer.

Strike action will have to be planned, organised and co-ordinated for maximum impact. It can only go ahead with members’ support. The unions’ media strategy will have to be carefully worked out to fight the anti-union hysteria that will inevitably fill much of Fleet Street. Strike funds will need to be topped up.

Most importantly of all, the anti-cuts movement will need to set out alternatives to the cuts agenda, both for better public services and for economic growth and prosperity. We are seeing the beginnings of this already.

But strikes – along with demonstrations and other tactics – are very much part of the strategy that will be needed to defeat the cuts. They are not the first and only option, but they are a valid and effective option nonetheless. To simply rule them out is to neuter the bear before it enters the pit.

The public mood is already turning against the cuts and towards the unions’ arguments. Now is not the time to go wobbly.





Social housing projects edge closer to the abyss

13 09 2010

The fallout quietly continues from the government’s decision to cut funding for social housing projects.

Almost sixty housing projects incorporating more than 1,500 social or affordable housing units are now under genuine threat of cancellation due to cuts at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), which administers a number of commercial and social housing initiatives.

Back in May the coalition withdrew £230m of funding for the HCA, creating a black hole in the HCA’s budget and throwing hundreds of housing schemes into doubt. The government later provided some financial relief to reduce the funding shortfall, allowing many schemes to progress, but around 160 schemes were still left at risk.

The HCA has now announced that 105 of these at-risk schemes have now secured funding under the body’s Kickstart 2 and Local Authority New Build (LANB) programmes, while one or two others should proceed under different funding streams.

But the remaining housing schemes are in limbo, and may now have to be scrapped. The HCA is working with developers to see if they can be funded under other HCA programmes, but the agency’s own budget is limited and money is in short supply.

Below are links to the schemes that have been saved and those that are under threat:

In the above tables, HBD refers to Home Buy Direct, LCHO refers to Low Cost Home Ownership, and SR refers to social rent. All are forms of social or affordable housing.

Bristol has fared particularly badly. Of 13 Bristol-based schemes that were under review by the HCA, 10 remain at risk, with funding secured for only three developments.

London schemes have generally been given the green light – although eyebrows might validly be raised at the £22m in Kickstart 2 funding that has been committed to six Berkeley Homes schemes in London that contain not a single social or affordable housing unit between them.

Of course, this merely accounts for cuts to two schemes – Kickstart 2 and LANB. The impact of the government’s decision to abandon housebuilding targets will be far greater as Britain’s long housing crisis deepens.





Scrapping the scrapping of NHS Direct – but still cutting on the hoof

10 09 2010

The Lansley is for turning

The Conservatives appear to have learnt little from Labour on the dangers of making policy on the hoof. For British jobs for British workers, now read scrapping NHS Direct.

Yesterday health secretary Andrew Lansley backtracked on the plans in the face of stiff opposition and a mass petition – perhaps the first major national victory against a proposed service cut. Questions still exist over the future staffing and funding levels for the service, but it at least seems likely to continue in some form.

But no sooner was Lansley rolling back from his on-the-hoof policymaking than George Osborne was riding in to fill the breach, suddenly announcing an extra £4bn of benefits cuts for the unemployed, taking everyone surprise, and thoroughly annoying the Liberal Democrats.

The reasons why this makes no sense are sufficiently obvious and oft-repeated that I’ll just list them:

  • there are precious few jobs for the jobless to go to
  • Jobseekers Allowance is already pretty stingy
  • the government seems rather less concerned by the vast sums lost to tax avoidance

But what makes this latest episode so extraordinary is how flimsy it is. It was announced with apparently minimal consultation with the Department for Work and Pensions or the Lib Dems.

The £4bn figure frankly seems to have been plucked out of the air. Can it survive as far as the October 20th spending review? Won’t it get torn apart and shot at by Osborne’s cabinet rivals behind the scenes? The likes of Iain Duncan Smith and possibly Vince Cable must be turning red with rage.

So should we get angry at the latest announcement? Count the days before the government performs another u-turn?

Or just sigh at the incompetence and illogicality of it all?





The Tory council that’s lobbying against Cameron’s cuts

9 09 2010

Interesting shenanigans at Conservative-run Derby City Council, which has found itself lobbying against the Tory-led national government’s spending cuts.

At the end of July, a council vote forced Conservative council leader Harvey Jennings to write to communities secretary Eric Pickles in protest at the impact of government funding cuts on Derby.

And then last night, the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems all voted to lobby education secretary Michael Gove over his decision to axe most of the city’s schoolbuilding programme, which was weeks away from signing contracts when he pulled the plug.

So is this a Tory council in revolt? Well, not quite.

This May’s local elections left the council with a three-way split between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Negotiations saw the Conservatives form a minority administration, with the Lib Dems not part of a coalition but allowing them to govern.

This left the Conservatives vulnerable to defeat on individual votes – as happened in late July, when the council was debating the government’s in-year cuts, and the council’s budget strategy.

The Labour group moved an amendment to approve the council’s budget strategy ‘but to actively lobby against the Government’s proposed 25-30% cuts in grant’ – see page 14 here.

The Conservatives voted against it, but with a few Tory councillors absent and the Lib Dems abstaining – for reasons that aren’t clear, even having spoken to two of their councillors – the amendment was carried.

As a result, Cllr Jennings had to write to Pickles in his capacity as council leader, warning about the impact the cuts would have on Derby. The full letter is here (apologies for the imperfect formatting) – one highlight is where he confirms that imminent funding cuts to local councils are likely to hit poorer areas hardest:

‘A key message I would like to get across is how the funding cuts will not affect all authorities to the same extent. Highly geared, deprived authorities such as Derby are particularly vulnerable to both Specific and Formula Grant cuts and I would urge you to give this serious consideration before any decisions are made on funding share in the comprehensive spending announcement.’

Cllr Jennings takes fire at how the current grant system and three-year settlement – both legacies of the Labour government – favour London boroughs over councils like Derby, and urges Pickles to reform the system before October’s spending review.

And then:

‘…it would be deeply regrettable if we had to cut our capital programme at a time in which we have a strong desire to create jobs for local people.’

What’s this? A Conservative council leader backing public spending as a means of creating jobs for local people? Why yes, yes it is!

In conclusion:

‘To keep the impact on service provision to a minimum we urge that any further cuts announced during the Comprehensive Spending review in October are kept to a minimum.’

No word yet on whether Pickles has replied.

As for the Building Schools for the Future programme, the scrapping of which has provoked concern among many Conservatives, Derby has seen 11 local school redevelopment projects scrapped, and just three ‘sample schools’ saved.

At last night’s council meeting, all three parties backed a proposal to write to Gove opposing the decision to scrap the local BSF programme, and to invite him to Derby to discuss the situation. No doubt a letter will follow shortly.

None of this will realistically alter anything by itself. But it is possible to believe that letters of protest from a series of Conservative and Lib Dem minority-run councils may discomfort the Conservative leadership, and cause the Lib Dem leadership plenty of concern, ahead of next year’s local elections.

Derby City Council hasn’t yet decided what specific cuts it will make, but it expects to reduce spending by £30m over the next five years – on top of £32m it was already planning to cut over three years. This from a total annual budget of £200m. 750 posts will go.

There has been controversy locally over a planned £34m refurbishment of Derby’s council headquarters – Labour says the money could be better spent on schools and services. The council insists the refurbishment will recoup money over time, described in detail by the council here.

Meanwhile, Derbyshire County Council was the target of a 150-strong protest yesterday over plans to increase adult care charges, led by Unison and service users who forced the issue into the council chamber.





Could the Lib Dems’ woes strengthen the coalition?

8 09 2010

Next year’s local elections are seen by many in the anti-cuts movement as a prime opportunity to inflict serious damage on the Liberal Democrats, and by extension weaken the coalition.

While the Conservatives’ poll ratings have generally held up since the election, the Lib Dems have fallen back sharply*. While the figures published this week by The Independent showed their poll ratings stabilise, they are still well down on their election result, and light years from their Clegg surge ratings.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Photo not dated 2011.

Most worryingly for the party, the Independent’s poll suggested that only 62 per cent of Lib Dem voters at the general election would vote for the party again if an election was held today – with 22 percent defecting to Labour.

Many in the anti-cuts movement see the Lib Dems as the weak links in the government, and hope that major losses in the local elections next year could unnerve Liberal Democrat MPs. The thinking is that Lib Dem backbenchers – especially left-wingers and those in Lib-Lab marginals – will fear for their seats if they remain in the coalition, and rebel against the government. Enough rebels means the coalition will collapse.

But while it makes sense to target any parties and councillors who support the cuts, and support those willing to fight against them**, we should be aware that a bad night at the polls next year might actually strengthen the coalition.

Consider this – Lib Dem MPs in Lib-Lab marginals see the party trounced at the polls next year. Maybe they will think that if they stay in the coalition they will lose their seat at the general election – the conclusion being that it’s time to get out.

But it’s equally possible that these MPs might think that collapsing the coalition prematurely would force an early general election in which they would almost certainly lose their seats. They could decide that with the polls looking so bad in 2011, it would be best to tough it out and pray that the economy recovers strongly enough by 2015 that the party’s poll ratings recover and they hold onto their seats.

They may see the choice as between certain disaster in 2011 and probable disaster in 2015. If that’s the choice, many will sit tight and avoid upsetting the applecart.

There is a precedent here – as Labour tanked in the polls during 2008 and 2009, one of the arguments successfully deployed by Gordon Brown’s camp against possible leadership rivals was that any new party leader would have to call a general election to have any kind of legitimacy – and that based on the polls in 2008-9, such an election would lead to absolute disaster.

Labour MPs bought it, and stuck it out to 2010. It’s perfectly possible that a local election disaster next year may lead many Lib Dems to the same conclusion.

That doesn’t mean anti-cuts activists should not target Lib Dem councils next year – it’s just something for the strategists to bear in mind. Forewarned is forearmed.

*Of course, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings also fell back after previous elections – in the past, their support has always dipped between elections, before rising during election campaigns. But this was because they only got publicity at election time; now, their leaders get constant publicity as cabinet ministers – and yet still their ratings fall.

**Whether ‘those willing to fight’ the cuts includes Labour remains to be seen





Tea Party crazies come to London

8 09 2010

A warm welcome to the cranks, crazies and billionaire donors of the US Tea Party movement, whose lobbyists are coming to London today to spread their message of climate change denial birthism Islamophobia tax cuts for big business the common man.

The Guardian reports that many of the think tanks and lobby groups that have backed the US Tea Party will be attending a conference promoting the small government agenda in alliance with Britain’s ever-reliable Tax avoiders payers Alliance (ok, enough with the strikethrough).

According to the newspaper: ‘Today’s conference will be attended by Americans who have lobbied in the US to overturn Barack Obama’s healthcare plan and maintain tax breaks for the rich. Several of the groups have close links to the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, prominent tormentors of the Obama administration.’

Big Oil is prominent among the backers of the conference – the Cato Institute, which is sponsoring the event, is bankrolled by oil companies, while Americans for Prosperity was founded by oil billionaire David Koch.

In truth, this is the smart end of the Tea Party movement – I doubt the Kochs are dumb enough to question President Obama’s birth certificate; they’re just happy for their movement to use the issue to tangentially undermine his healthcare plans and economic stimulus package. The think tanks have left their loony bin outside the proposed ‘Ground Zero mosque’.

But the Tea Party and their fellow travellers on the loony wing of the Republican Right have a bad reputation in Britain and the rest of Europe. If they’re teaming up with the Taxpayers Alliance, hopefully it will show more people what the TPA’s ideological agenda is – helping the rich get richer at the expense of everyone else. And that can only be a good thing.

So a warm welcome to the Tea Party. Bring it on.