Jul 012011

In a week where the media have been vilifying public sector workers taking strike action to protest at government cuts and pension changes, little coverage has been given to alternative proposals for dealing with the UK’s economic deficit. Patrick V Neville gives his views.

On June 30 we visited two picket lines and attended a meeting of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) to understand their feelings on cuts in public services and to show support for the workers who, against the wishes of the government, organised strike action.
Needless to say, PCS members we spoke to felt unhappy about our nation’s financial situation.

If the full cuts proposed are implemented, one in every five public service jobs would be lost, adding further to the UK’s unemployment rate. Not only could there be fewer jobs, but those who will still have a job available to them face cuts to their pension schemes.

Each worker in government pension schemes could see their contributions doubled or even tripled. To the best of my knowledge, this extra money contributed will initially end up in government funds – but with rising poverty, corporate tax avoidance and evasion and rising prices of consumer goods, will there even be money available for pensions in a few years time? If so, will the cost of living become too expensive for the average person to survive?

Investment in jobs and public services must be in place if we desire a future free from poverty and we could avoid the majority of public services cuts if we take the right course of action.

Corporate tax loopholes are estimated to be costing the tax payer £25 billion a year.

Since moving its headquarters to Switzerland, Boots has reduced its annual tax bill from £100m to £14m, a saving enough to employ 4000 NHS nurses.

Rather than closing tax loopholes, we are making cuts in the public sector.

Billionaire Sir Philip Green is to advise the government on how best to plan for the cuts, rewarding himself hugely in doing so. Sir Philip is the owner of the Arcadia retail group which includes Topshop, Topman, Burton, BHS, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge. The company is registered in the name of Sir Philip’s wife Tina, who resides in Monaco and therefore pays no UK income tax. This arrangement has allowed the Greens to save around £300m in UK taxes.

Tax evasion and avoidance aside, who have we bailed out?

The Royal Bank of Scotland was rescued with £45 billion of public money. This represents over half of the £81 billion planned in cuts over the next four years. Rather than being allowed to stay open, the bank should have come to terms with closure.

Public spending cuts are more damaging, and minimising them and their effect is more important than encouraging risk-taking bankers to carry on trading.

UK Uncut has leafleted members of the public near the premises of targeted retailers to inform them of tax avoiding measures taken by these retailers.

I would encourage anyone wishing to preserve a future free from poverty to choose where they shop carefully, to write to politicians and businessmen, to contact journalists to demand coverage of tax avoidance and evasion and simply to consider bringing up these issues with friends and relatives.

Jun 292011

 With thanks to Mark Chapman.

Civil and public servants across the UK and from within Aberdeen & Inverness Revenue & Customs Branch, will be joining teachers, head teachers and university lecturers striking against attacks on pensions, jobs and services on 30th June.

The government wants to make public servants work at least:-

  • 8 years longer,
  • pay double or triple more per month
  • not get any benefit from that whatsoever to receive a reduced pension
  • accept real term pay cuts of 10% which is not only affecting the standard of living of public servants, but is already reducing the worth of their future pension entitlement

They say  ‘we are all in this together’ but the bankers are still getting their multi-million pound bonuses for failed banks owned by the taxpayer and the majority of the cabinet are millionaires.

In PCS Aberdeen & Inverness Revenue & Customs Branch we will be striking on 30 June.  There will be picket lines at all branch offices, but in Aberdeen as well as having a picket line, PCS representatives and members will also be joining together for a union breakfast followed by a cross unions meeting in the Aberdeen Trades Union Council Social Club at Adelphi at 12pm.

With inflation at over 5% in the last 2 years, the current pay freeze on Civil Servants pay actually represents a real terms pay cut of at least 10%. Probably more when you take account of rising costs. We have also had an increase in National Insurance contributions and VAT. Aberdeen PCS members’ standards of living have already been severely attacked and eroded and we are not prepared to accept any further cuts when they are totally unnecessary, especially when it is clear that the increased pensions contributions we are being asked to pay are going to pay off the deficit; these increased contributions are not being invested for the benefit of the employees.

There is £120 Billion of unpaid, evaded or avoided Tax to be collected and the UK, the 6th largest economy in the world, holds £850 billion in banking assets from the bailout of the banks – this is more than the national debt.

Mark Chapman, Branch Chair of Aberdeen & Inverness Revenue & Customs Branch of PCS Union said:

“The government admits that money cut from pensions will go straight to the Treasury to help pay off the deficit in what is nothing more than a tax on working in the civil and public sector. The very modest pay and pensions of public servants did not cause the recession, so they should not be blamed, punished or demonised for it.

“Unless ministers abandon their ideological plans to hollow out and attack the public sector in the way they propose, they will face industrial action on a mass scale on 30 June and beyond.”

An AO (Admin Officer), 38 yrs of age added:

“I’ve worked out that I will pay an extra £48.75 per month, have to work 7 years longer than I expected and will lose approximately £19,000 from my pension too.

“I cannot afford this. I already struggle to make it to pay day at the end of the month and this all because this government wants me and people like me to pay for a crisis caused by failed banks and the irresponsible non-investment decisions of those who run those banks.

“This is not equality of sacrifice, is not fair and is criminally unjust. This is on top of an expected pay freeze which is already making life harder for me and is already hitting the future worth of my pension”

There will be picket lines outside most major HMRC buildings and other Civil Service buildings, and services to the public will be disrupted.

Striking Aberdeen PCS Union members will join teachers, other striking workers and representatives from other Unions at various meetings and rallies up and down the country, showing support and solidarity for this action.

PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union is the largest Civil Service Union. It has over 290,000 members in over 200 departments and agencies throughout the UK. It also represents workers in parts of government transferred to the private sector. PCS Union is the UK’s sixth largest union and is affiliated to the TUC.  For further info See: http://www.pcs.org.uk/


Mar 292011

By Cllr. Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council.

The reality of the cuts being forced on Scottish councils was all too apparent at Aberdeenshire Council last Thursday (24 March).  Several papers at the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee dealt  with proposed policy changes intended to give effect to budget cuts voted through the Council in November and February.

On the agenda were cuts to secondary teacher numbers, the number of depute heads in some academies, the provision of fruit for primary pupils, and the extension of charging for musical instrument tuition. The Democratic Independent group of councillors, of which I am a member, opposed these cuts at the full council meeting in November 2010 when the Council voted for budget reductions totaling almost £27 million in 2011/12.

See. https://aberdeenvoice.com/?p=3511

The specific proposals at the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee covered only a small proportion of the wide-ranging cuts Aberdeenshire is making in education. The proposals on secondary school staffing will impact directly on classes, including possibly resulting in larger class sizes for S1 and S2 Mathematics and English, and also on school management – at a time of change in the curriculum.

The proposals for additional charging for musical instrument tuition may result in some pupils being prevented from learning for economic reasons. The proposal to end the provision of free fruit to P1 and P2 children three days a week was part of proposals for reducing spending on school catering.

Obviously, none of these service reductions is desirable, and no-one at the Committee pretended they were.

Take the fruit provision for example.

We know we have a considerable problem of poor diet, such as too much fat and salt, and associated health issues such as obesity. So learning about food and healthy eating is an important part of education. Getting young children accustomed to healthy food is crucial as part of setting a pattern for later life.

Given the seriousness of the problem in Scotland, addressing this issue has to be a priority.  Not only does the individual benefit, but there are potentially  significant savings to the public sector, particularly the NHS, from  improvements to people’s diet. We should not therefore be reducing efforts to get young children into good eating habits.

What makes me angry is that these cuts are unnecessary.

It is still wasting money on preparatory work for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a project that is now simply unaffordable

Firstly, the Council should not have been put in the position it has been by the Scottish Government, having both its grant cut and a Council Tax freeze imposed on it.  Effectively, allowing for inflation, the Council Tax is being cut year after year. That is not financially sustainable and public services are suffering as a result.

Had the Council been allowed to decide on the level of Council Tax next year, some of the cuts to services could have been avoided. Aberdeenshire’s Band D Council Tax is £1141. A one penny in the pound increase, £11.41 per year or 22 pence per week, would bring in around £1.2 million to help pay for public services.

All the cuts included on the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee’s agenda last Thursday and more could have been avoided had the Council been allowed to increase the Council Tax by just a penny in the pound.

Secondly, the Council could have chosen different priorities for spending. It is still wasting money on preparatory work for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a project that is now simply unaffordable. Schools should come first, not grandiose and unaffordable road schemes.

But, at last Thursday’s Education, Learning and Leisure Committee, all the proposed education cuts were accepted by the Committee.

– Martin Ford is the top candidate on the Scottish Green Party’s list of MSP candidates for the North East Scotland Region at the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election.

Dec 312010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council

Decisions by the Westminster and Scottish governments have left Aberdeenshire Council facing its worst budget cuts ever.

For 2011/12, Aberdeenshire Council has no choice but to make cuts in its budget totalling in excess of £30 million. The Council’s funding from the Scottish Government has been reduced and it has had to agree to freeze the Council Tax. In real terms, allowing for inflation, the Council’s Government grant has been cut by more than five per cent

In fact, Aberdeenshire Council’s position is worse than previously thought.

Unexpectedly, just before Christmas, the Scottish Government advised Aberdeenshire Council that the grant figure it had announced for the Council was wrong. Instead of a grant of £426.988 million for 2011/12, Aberdeenshire would be getting more than half a million pounds less, £426.477 million. The Council will have to cut a further £511,000 from its revenue budget for 2011/12 as a result of the Scottish Government’s revision of its grant funding figures.

There is nothing Aberdeenshire Council can do about the level of funding the Scottish Government decides it is to get, and nothing the Council can do about what will come from its other main source of income, the Council Tax (see: Council Tax freeze and many cuts decided, Aberdeen Voice, 26 November 2010).

The task for Aberdeenshire Council is to minimise the impact of the loss of income it now faces on the public services the Council

The bulk of the saving required in the 2011/12 revenue budget was decided at the full council meeting on 25 November when cuts and efficiencies totalling almost £27 million were voted through by the Council’s Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration.

I am sure many people do not yet realise how the cuts that have been decided will affect them. Standing in the middle of Newmachar the other day, by the village hall, the breadth of the impact of the cuts really came home to me.

I am appalled at what is being done to really important services – and angry because at least the worst of the cuts could so easily have been avoided

Behind me, in the hall car park, were the recycling skips. A cut of £350,000 in spending on information about and promotion of recycling was one of the administration’s budget cuts voted through on 25 November. Optimistically, the administration’s budget for 2012/13 also includes a £500,000 ‘efficiency saving’ achieved through a reduction in the amount of recyclable material going to landfill.

It seems unlikely, to say the least, that cutting virtually the entire budget dedicated to informing people about the importance of recycling will lead the following year to such a dramatic improvement in the recycling rate.

Newmachar village hall is in School Road, a lit street with, by the village hall, a pavement on one side. In the 2011/12 budget, spending on footway maintenance has been cut by £200,000 and the amount allocated to installing dropped kerbs reduced by 50 per cent. Over £100,000 has been docked from spending on testing and maintaining street lights.

Next to the village hall is New Machar School. Provision of classroom assistants in primary schools is to be significantly reduced over the next two years. Spending on classroom assistants is to be cut by 50 per cent (£1.3 million) during 2011 to 2013 and by a further £0.53 million in later years. Spending on primary visiting specialists will be reduced by £200,000 in 2011/12. School devolved budgets are to be cut.

On the opposite side of the road from the village hall is a grass verge on which is sited a dog-waste bin. The administration’s cuts voted through on 25 November include reducing the funding for dog wardens by a third in 2012/13. In 2011/12, £200,000 is to be saved by reducing grass-verge cutting. The budget for village orderlies – a much appreciated service that certainly helped keep towns and villages tidy through the summer – has been cut completely from next year.

Behind the verge opposite the village hall is the cemetery. Spending on grounds maintenance in burial grounds is to be reduced by £130,000 in 2011/12.

Beyond the cemetery is the play park. Spending on maintenance in parks and open spaces is also to be reduced by £130,000 in 2011/12.

Next to the play park is the library. A saving of £80,000 is to be made in 2011/12 by reducing the opening hours of some Aberdeenshire libraries.

Then there are the cuts that don’t show – unless you are a person who depends on the service that is being cut.

I am appalled at what is being done to really important services – and angry because at least the worst of the cuts could so easily have been avoided, had the Scottish Government allowed councils the freedom to decide on their own Council Tax. A two per cent increase in the Council Tax in Aberdeenshire, that is 44 pence per week for a Band D property, would bring in £2.4 million that could be spent on schools or social work. For the cost of a cheap bar of chocolate, cuts to classroom assistants or social care for children could have been avoided.

The Council still has to find around a further £4 million of savings to balance its budget for 2011/12. I hope the administration will work constructively with opposition councillors through the rest of the budget process to minimise the impact of these further cuts on the most crucial Council services.

Dec 182010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council

Last week a key decider of Aberdeenshire Council’s 2011/12 revenue budget became known – the level of grant support the Council will be getting from the Scottish Government.

It is important to remember that Scottish councils depend on the Scottish Government for the vast bulk – around 80 per cent – of the money they need to meet the cost of providing public services.

An overall cut in its funding for local government next year of 2.6 per cent has been promised by the Scottish Government provided councils agree to a Council Tax freeze and other measures – otherwise the cut in grant funding for councils is to be 6.4 per cent.

Aberdeenshire Council has already decided that it will freeze the Council Tax and meet the other terms set by the Scottish Government as conditions for a smaller cut in its grant (see: Council Tax Freeze and Many Cuts Decided, Aberdeen Voice, 26 November 2010).

By enforcing a Council Tax freeze, the Scottish Government has removed from councils any real say over the total amount they have to spend.

In fact, within the overall 2.6 per cent reduction in funding for councils, Aberdeenshire Council has done relatively well. It will receive funding of £427 million from the Scottish Government towards the running costs of council services in the financial year 2011/12.
This is a cut of 1.9 per cent in cash terms – not as bad as expected and not as bad as the 2.6 per cent average reduction in funding councils are facing.

A 1.9 per cent cut in cash terms, though, is a cut of more than 5 per cent in real terms – once inflation and other increases in costs are taken into account. This is a severe cut.

Moreover, as a result of the formula used to distribute funding amongst councils, Aberdeenshire is still receiving a much lower grant per head of population than most councils do. Aberdeenshire Council receives more than 12.5 per cent less than the average amount of funding provided to councils per head of population. And unlike many councils, Aberdeenshire also has to cope with the budgetary pressures that result from having a growing population.

Aberdeenshire Council’s Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration voted through budget cuts and savings totalling almost £27 million at the November full council meeting. Efficiencies and cuts were approved right across the range of public services provided by the Council.

However, the extent of further spending reductions – beyond the £27 million of cuts and savings already voted through – required to achieve a balanced revenue budget for 2011/12 could not be worked out until the Council’s grant settlement became known. The 1.9 per cent cut in the Council’s funding from the Scottish Government means additional savings totalling around £3.5 million will now have to be found.

Council finance officers are still seeking clarification from the Scottish Government regarding some of the conditions that the Council has to comply with in order to avoid the threatened funding cut of 6.4 per cent. There is therefore still some uncertainty about the full financial implications of what the Council will have to do in order to have its funding cut by 1.9 per cent.

So while it is now clear that the Council will have to find additional savings of close to £3.5 million, the exact amount still cannot be calculated.

In total, Aberdeenshire Council will have to cut approximately £30.5 million of spending to balance its revenue budget for 2011/12.

That is going to have a serious impact on Council services and on some service users.

The Council is responsible for deciding exactly what it will cut.
However, it has been put in a position where the total saving required has been decided for it – and for that the Scottish Government must take responsibility.