THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT settlement announced by Welsh Government continues an eight-year run of real term reductions to local government funding.
That’s according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) in response to Tuesday’s (Oct 10) announcement of the provisional budget for local government by Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford.
The Welsh Government claims the Budget will ‘protect key services’, as they continue to squeeze councils into devoting an ever-larger slice of an ever-diminishing budget to its core priorities.
‘COUNCILS PROTECTED FROM WORST OF CUTS’
While the Welsh Government claims that no council will have to cut more than 1% off its budget next year and 1.5% off the budget for 2019/20, when other costs are factored in all councils will be faced with a further significant cut above and beyond the headline claims. And taking Welsh government grants out of the final settlement suggests that cuts will be deeper still.
Announcing the provisional settlement, Mark Drakeford said: “Last year I told local authorities to prepare for the tougher times and harder choices that lay ahead as the flawed and failed policy of austerity continues to hit Wales hard.
“My priority, using a formula we have agreed with local government, is to try and protect councils from the worst of the cuts.
“Next year’s settlement might be difficult. We have done all we can to make it manageable. Councils must now use this time to plan ahead and ensure that funding goes to the services and people who need it the most.”
‘SERVICES HAVE BEEN PUMMELLED’
Professor Drakeford’s words got a stony welcome from the WLGA.
A statement from the body said: “In the context of ongoing and prolonged austerity, councils will view this as a very difficult and challenging settlement for supporting vital services that contribute to the education, health and well- being of our communities.
“Leaders across Wales have pushed for parity of funding and particularly sought new investment in a range of services, such as economic development, environmental health and transport, which have been pummelled by cuts.
“The headline reduction of 0.5% fails to recognise the full story; with service pressures that amount to £212m in 2018-19 alone, the sector will have to look for savings of nearly 4.5% of net budgets in the next financial year. This comes on top of cuts of over £1bn that have been made to date and 25,000 job losses across the sector. While the reduction is within the range predicted by the WLGA, local government is still bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.”
‘POSITION IS UNSUSTAINABLE’
Commenting on the draft settlement, Councillor Debbie Wilcox (Newport), WLGA Leader said: “The problem for local government is that we are now in a ‘war of attrition’. Services are wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed.
“The whole position is unsustainable. Local authorities cannot go on to be expected to make the harshest of cuts whilst continuing to provide the same breadth and level of service; in short, something has got to give. “
‘WORKFORCE DESERVES A PAY RISE’
Councillor Emlyn Dole (Carmarthenshire), WLGA Plaid Cymru Group Leader said: “Welsh councils will still face severe financial pressures estimated to be over £200m for the next financial year alone due to demographic factors and workforce related pressures.
“I would urge the UK Government to use its Budget announcement in November to fully fund any relaxation of the pay cap. Every 1% increase in pay costs the public sector around £100m, and £35m of that is attributable to councils.
“Our workforce deserves a pay rise. In this context, local government funding must be more flexible and the transfer of nearly £100m of grants into the settlement is a positive step. I would urge Ministers to think about the other funding flexibilities for the other £700m in grants which put an additional administrative burden on the public services.”
UNDERFUNDED AND UNSUSTAINABLE
Councillor Hugh Evans OBE (Denbighshire), WLGA Independent Group Leader said: “The funding formula delivers a range of increases and decreases across the 22 local authorities. We need to make sure that the system takes account of the additional needs of providing services in communities with diverse needs and especially the additional costs of providing services in rural communities which are dramatically underfunded.”
Councillor Peter Fox OBE (Monmouthshire), WLGA Conservative Group Leader said: “Social services and education should be funded on equal terms with health, which means providing the £160m that both services need to stand still next year. There are also a range of preventative services within councils that will not survive unless the Welsh Government has a long hard look at the way it allocates money across the totality of public services. Ring-fencing small sums in the settlement for those services is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as other services suffer.”
‘SERIOUS CASH INJECTION REQUIRED’
UNISON has also criticised the Welsh government’s budget for local authority spending as wholly inadequate. The trade union has warned thousands of jobs will be lost and local public services will be reduced or disappear completely because councils are under severe financial pressure.
UNISON also blasted Welsh Government’s failure to fund the implement of the Foundation Living Wage to lift thousands of council workers out of in-work poverty, something it says could have been achieved with a relatively modest injection of cash.
Dominic MacAskill, UNISON head of local government said: “Today’s news is grim indeed. People can’t understand why their library opening hours will have to be reduced or their youth club shut down in the name of austerity. Communities need quality local services otherwise they cease to be healthy and liveable places but councils are struggling to provide these and more – parks and leisure services, food hygiene and environment health services, on the meagre budgets Welsh Government has today granted.
“Savage spending cuts might be directed by Westminster Conservatives but the Welsh Government must see the lack of new money for local authorities in the announcement today will mean thousands more council jobs are lost and services at smaller councils might collapse altogether. Our warning couldn’t be starker: without a serious injection of cash, some councils will become unsustainable.”
Mr MacAskill added: “Public service workers will be incredibly frustrated their concerns are not being listened to. Welsh government has missed an opportunity to lift thousands of hard working council staff out of in-work poverty by failing to fund the Foundation Living Wage for all local government employees. They agreed this was necessary in the NHS and the Civil Service, why can’t they do it for all public service workers?”
Halfway to Paradise
PARLIAMENT had its first opportunity to discuss the unsurprising revelation that the seriously wealth retain their serious wealth by means of aggressive tax avoidance schemes on Monday (Nov 6).
With the Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged elsewhere, questions were fielded by Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Mid Devon, Mel Stride.
It appeared that Mr Stride was unprepared to admit that anything was at all untoward with tax avoidance schemes that only the rich and shameless can afford.
Adopting a startling line – prefigured by briefings to the right wing national media – Mr Stride averred that there was no ethical difference between a retail investment available to all UK residents, namely the ISA, and Apple sending out a questionnaire to British Crown Dependences asking them whether or not they would be so kind as to allow Apple to use a brass plate in one of them to ensure it did not have to pay that pesky tax on hundreds of billions in profits.
Never mind brass plate: Mr Stride’s stance had the appearance of brass neck.
In fact, he made great play of the fact that Labour – last in government seven years ago – had done nothing to close the tax loopholes the party now complained of during thirteen years in power. And he was helped in repeatedly avoiding – or perhaps evading – the main issue by being given the opportunity to underline that point by a number of tame questions posed by Conservative backbench stooges.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, presented with the opportunity to make a decent and succinct point on the subject attempted to ask questions of Mel Stride, specifically with regard to investments made by the Duchy of Lancaster – whose current chancellor is Conservative MP Patrick Loughlin – on the Queen’s behalf in offshore tax vehicles.
He may as well have tried nailing jelly to the wall.
David Lammy invited the minister to explain the legitimate reasons for funnelling money offshore to avoid tax, when two-thirds of UK taxpayers are subject to PAYE and have no choice in the matter.
Mr Stride’s response was as remarkable for ducking the question as it was for its content.
“It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality,” Mr Stride suggested, indicating that all was preventing the average worker from availing themselves of the opportunity was a lack of ingenuity and the odd £10m knocking around to make such a vehicle worthwhile.
Jonathan Edwards’ question and its answer deserve full repetition to underline the extent to which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was prepared to be candid.
Jonathan Edwards asked: “After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?”
So, the question is whether the government back the wealthy over the poor and acknowledge the outrage of those with no choice but to hand over their money to the Treasury.
Mr Stride’s response suggests he heard an entirely different question.
“The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40b. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.”
An answer to the question actually posed was absent.
It was that sort of performance. Brazen, shameless, partisan, and deliberately obstructive.
Mr Stride will go far on that sort of form.
New leader for Welsh Liberal Democrats
JANE DODDS has been elected by Welsh Liberal Democrat Members as the party’s new Leader, beating Ceredigion candidate Elizabeth Evans in a keenly-fought contest.
Jane Dodds, Montgomeryshire Candidate and child protection social worker, takes over the role from Acting Leader Kirsty Williams immediately.
The result was announced to an audience of members in Cardiff by returning officer Lord German.
Jane Dodds, the new Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, commented: “It is an honour to have been elected as the next leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats – to focus my energy on bringing like-minded people together to rebuild our party and to re-establish the Welsh Liberal Democrats as the radical, progressive force of Welsh politics.
“I’d like to thank Liz Evans for running an excellent campaign and giving members a vital opportunity to discuss our next steps as a party. I’d also like to pay tribute to Mark Williams and Kirsty Williams for their unwavering commitment to our party.
“Wales needs the Welsh Liberal Democrats now more than ever. Wales needs the progressive, pragmatic, and reforming voice of Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly and in Westminster to give us an exit from Brexit, a fresh look on creating more and better paid jobs, protecting our environment, and delivering on Kirsty Williams’ education reforms.
“We have been down, but we aren’t out, and I’m confident of what lies ahead for my party.”
Kirsty Williams AM, Welsh Liberal Democrat Cabinet Secretary for Education said: “The Welsh Liberal Democrat membership had two fantastic candidates to choose between. Two proud Welsh women with long records of standing up for their communities.
“What has become clear over the last few years is that nothing can be taken for granted. We must fight tooth and nail for the values that we liberals hold dear.
“I know that the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be safe in Jane’s hands. I know she has the skills, drive and energy as we look to rebuild this great party.”
Impact of Brexit on Wales discussed
PARLIAMENTARY questions last Thursday (Oct 26) were not easy for Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis.
Nailed to the spot about pronouncements he had made to a committee of MPs the previous day which had rapidly been contradicted by the Prime Minister, he managed to combine apparent certainty that there was no tension between his position and government policy (whatever that turns out to be) with an unwillingness to acknowledge that anyone could conceivably be concerned about Parliamentary sovereignty being bypassed by the refusal to give it a vote on Brexit’s terms.
For those who backed Brexit on the principle that parliamentary sovereignty and the ability of the House of Commons to make and scrutinise legislation was of paramount importance, it was uncomfortable listening.
Bluster and bloody-mindedness, it is rapidly turning out, are no substitute for the ability to master a brief, understand it, express it, and stick to it.
In fact, the position was rendered even worse by statements made by the Ministers of State in Mr Davis’ own department the previous day that they had not even bothered to read, let alone understand, briefing papers prepared for them by their own civil servants on the potential impact of leaving the EU. You might suppose that ignorance is bliss and, if it is, the Minister wished to share its blessings widely by refusing others the opportunity to examine that of which they remain willfully – and, no doubt ecstatically, ignorant.
After being offered sympathy by Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Sir Kier Starmer for the difficulties in which he found himself, Mr Davis was successively hit by a series of exasperated questions – some from his own colleagues – to which he offered increasingly snappy and impatient answers.
Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards, who has the misfortune of seeming to be more familiar with Mr Davis’ brief than Mr Davis does himself and doomed to try to educate pork as a result, attempted to get a straight answer on whether or not the UK Government would seek endorsements for the Brexit deal – if any – from devolved administrations.
Jonathan Edwards reminded MPs that national and regional Parliaments within EU member states will all be consulted on the final withdrawal deal and that six months have been allocated for that process.
Mr Edwards asked Brexit Secretary David Davis that ‘in order to ensure that the future relationship works for every part of the British state’ did he agree that ‘the formal endorsement of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly should be sought before any final deal is reached—or is it going to be a case of “Westminster knows best”?’
In response, Mr Davis again failed to guarantee Wales a voice in the deal, stating ‘this is a treaty for the United Kingdom’.
Bearing in mind the continued absence of any commitment to discuss with ministers within the devolved administration on any substantive points, it seems that the UK Government is increasingly determined to go its own way and drag the other nations of the UK along behind it.
Speaking after Mr Davis’ shambolic and ill-tempered performance, Jonathan Edwards said: “As I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues have said before: the British Government is using the Brexit process as a means of re-centralising power in Westminster, rolling back the progress we have made towards self-government in order to reinstate Westminster-rule.
“In his answer to me this week the Brexit Secretary once again fails to guarantee our democratically elected representatives in the Welsh Parliament a formal role in influencing the deal with the European Union. This is particularly concerning when we consider the profound economic differences between Wales and England.
“The position of the British Government is even more insulting when we consider that devolved governments within the other EU member states will have an opportunity to influence and effectively veto the deal. The British government needs to say why it refuses to afford the same right to the devolved governments here.”
However, on Monday (Oct 30) the UK Government made an effort to – at least partly – assuage those concerns.
First Minister Carwyn Jones met with Theresa May in Downing Street in an attempt to at least break down the conflict between the Senedd and Westminster on how a way forward might be found in relation to what Mr Jones had previously described as ‘a constitutional crisis’.
Speaking to BBC Wales after the meeting, Mr Jones said: “Progress is now being made in making sure there is agreement as to the way forward, not imposition. But that progress needs to continue. We’re not in a position yet to support the bill.
“The bill needs to change so the warm words that we hear are reflected on the face of the bill, and that means making sure that powers meant to come to Wales do come to Wales.”
Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns said: “I’m optimistic that the Welsh government will be able to respond to the new powers that they’ll get, but also that we’ll have a common framework around the UK that will work for business and for stakeholders and for investors.”
A No 10 spokesperson said Mrs May and Mr Jones ‘spoke about constructive dialogue at the recent Joint Ministerial Committee and the progress made on working together to establish principles on common frameworks’.
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