Friday, 4 March 2011

Eric Pickles must clarify his intentions on Voluntary Sector funding

Clive Betts MP and Chair, Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has written to Secretary of State Eric Pickles today saying that if the Government is to introduce legislation to proscribe council funding of the voluntary sector, he must announce the detail of his intentions immediately.

Clive Betts said:
“The government’s stated Localism agenda doesn’t seem to have lasted very long. But, if it is to go into reverse on that policy in relation to councils and the voluntary sector, it must do it immediately.

It is totally unreasonable and unfair – both on local councils and to local voluntary organisations – for the Secretary of State to suggest that he is minded to legislate to determine a new financial regime for the relationship between councils and voluntary organisations to have effect in 2011/12, but for him not to announce any details.

Councils are agreeing their budgets now in accordance with a statutory timetable. Voluntary organisations are setting their budgets recognising the grant-aid they have been told they are likely to receive. Both are now in the process of issuing redundancy notices to staff, in accordance with statutory requirements.”

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

He’s lost. I’m confused.

When he was asked his first question in the House of Commons this week, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, responded I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker, but I have not the remotest idea where I am.” Most of us were not surprised, as his populist announcements having increasingly departed from reality.

The debate was about the impact of the government’s policies on voluntary organisations. David Cameron’s stated policy objective of a Big Society seems at increasing variance with the big cuts in funding for the voluntary sector throughout the country. To many national and local voluntary organisations, it looks far more like a Smaller Society.

Eric Pickles’ Local Government Minister then told MPs “Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council will see its spending power fall by more than 8.8% next year.” He continued “The worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts.

So, what are we to make of the decision of the Liberal Democrat controlled Sheffield City Council to cut the total grant to Sheffield voluntary organisations by 15% in cash terms (close to 19% in real terms) next year? This is twice as much as the Minister says the City Council’s spending power is being cut. I think most people will think that ‘twice as much’ is ‘disproportionate’.

Further, although the total cut is 15% cash, many local organisations in our area – from the Citizens Advice Bureau to pensioners’ groups to those working to improve the local environment – will not actually know how big a cut they face until July.

Thus, we’re left with Local Government Minister describing the council as ‘worst-run’ whilst the Deputy Prime Minister says he is supporting his Liberal Democrat council colleagues’ budget decisions.

I’m confused. I leave you to make up your own minds.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Safe in their hands?

I’ve lost count of the number of pre-election promises that the Conservative-led government has already broken.

The justification for breaking promises – that the state of the public finances is worse than they expected – simply doesn’t wash. The budget deficit for 2009/2010 was several billion less than forecast and the same is true for 2010/2011.

One important issue that has been given little media attention is David Cameron’s pre-election promise to “protect NHS funding”. We now know that this is another promise that he is going to break.

The first indication was when the government double-counted £1billion for caring for elderly people. First it was announced as ‘extra money for councils to spend on elderly care’ and then it was announced as part of the NHS budget, as part of Cameron’s desperate attempt to make his figures add up.

Now, the government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility has revealed with the latest inflation forecast, there will be an even bigger real terms cut in NHS funds next year. As the NHS struggles with making £20 billion efficiency savings, it is also being forced to spend £3bn on a new top-down re-organisation …. another broken promise.

As local health authorities and hospitals start to struggle with this, we are already beginning to see the real outcomes. It was little surprise that the new government was determined to do away with NHS targets as waiting times for both in-patient and out-patient treatment start to rise for the first time in a decade.

Now we learn that more than 50,000 NHS jobs will be cut over the next 5 years and that the majority of these will be doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. It appears that in the early stages, mental health services are going to be particularly badly hit. In Sheffield, -parents of children with mental health problems have already been told that waiting-times for appointments are rising rapidly.

It was little surprise that people’s confidence in the NHS has risen dramatically over the last 10 years to the highest level ever, given the massive investment in extra clinical staff, new buildings and equipment, with huge drops in waiting times for initial appointment and treatment.

We should all expect those services now to deteriorate and confidence levels start to fall towards those inherited in 1997. Are you confident that the NHS is safe in this government’s hands? I’m not.

The criminals must be laughing

Between 1997 and 2010, crime fell by more than 40%. It doesn’t matter whether you look at reported crime statistics – the numbers of crimes reported to the police by the public – or the British Crime Survey, where more than 40,000 people are interviewed in detail each year about their personal experience of crime during the last year. This survey picks up crimes which people don’t report to the police.

I have little doubt that this massive reduction resulted from a combination of a significant increase in police numbers (after cuts in numbers during the last Conservative government), the introduction of Police Community Support Officers, increased public confidence in the police to tackle crime, new laws to tackle anti-social behaviour, and the development of Community Safety Partnerships – where all the agencies and local people get together with a determination to both prevent crime and catch perpetrators.

Bizarrely, the Policing Minister in the Conservative-led government, Nick Herbert, doesn’t believe in any of this. When he recently announced that the budget for policing was going to be cut by 20% over the next 4 years, he made the astonishing claim that “there is no such link” between police officer numbers and the amount of crime.

We are now beginning to see the impact of those cuts. In our region alone, police authorities have already announced a cut of 775 police officers and 1570 support staff next year, with more to come. The same Minister has just announced a cut of 50% in the budget to support Community Safety Partnerships next year, with a further 30% cut to come in 2012.

We should always be looking for services to become more efficient, effective and responsive, but it is simply ludicrous to suggest that any efficiency improvement can make up for the scale of these cuts. Similarly, it is nonsense to suggest that ‘cutting the back-office’ won’t have any effect on the front-line. The back-office includes scenes of crime staff, intelligence co-ordinators and analysts, people who support the victims of crime. And, now we discover that the recently promoted local crime maps will actually take police off the streets, because local police officers will now have to do the data-inputting that was previously undertaken by the back-office staff.

Two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrat Leader of Sheffield City Council proudly announced that the LibDem Conference to be held in Sheffield in March would bring £2.5 million to the local economy. He did this at the same time as he smuggled out his decision to make big cuts the number of PCSOs in the city. But now we learn that the cost of policing that Conference will be more than £2m, which means making an additional £2m in cuts in frontline policing in our area.

Local villains must be laughing all the way to the bank. I don’t think that local families and communities will find this is any laughing matter.