Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Living In The Shadow Of The State : By Ken Curran

This is not about some central European State during the days of the Warsaw Pact and the Iron Curtain. Although the title may suggest that possibility. It is about the United Kingdom, its form of Government and its relationship with Local Government.

I have just re-read the Sheffield Labour Group's 2012 Manifesto. Its aims were modest and, I believe, honest when published. Almost six months later, the document measured against events has begun to show just how difficult it has become for Local Government to make any promises prior to an election. This is particularly the case in England.  Local Authorities in both Scotland and Wales under their own devolved Governments are more fortunate than their neighbours, in no longer having to deal with London. They have benefited by having their own Civil Servants who live either in Wales or Scotland, as do all those Members of the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies who form their administrations.

Since 1979, the scope of Local Government has changed almost out of all recognition. So has the way in which Councils make their decisions. The old Committee Systems have been scrapped, changing the roles of Councillors who are now unable to influence decision-making or to initiate new policy. The Cabinet System which is now used is where the main strategic policy decisions are first promoted and debated. Members of the public can attend Cabinet Meetings. There are also Interest Panels which the Council Leader attend, along with Chief Officers and key Councillors. From a political standpoint, the most important Panel is the one which includes Industrial and Commercial interests, which in Sheffield extends to the Universities and the NHS. Whilst these outside bodies can be involved in the considerations about Council Policies and the performance of Council Services, they can't dictate policy to the elected Council. They can, however, influence political decision-making in a way that is not available to the general public. So whilst the Panels widen debate, they also give undue influence to vested interests in the City. The changes over the years has forced Local Councils to behave like Private Businesses. This new system actually stifles debate rather than enhancing it. The nature of local politics now revolves around who runs services. Increasingly in Sheffield this is not the Council.

In the late 1970's Nicholas Ridley, who was the Local Government Minister in Margaret Thatcher's Government, advocated that Local Councillors should meet once a year to select who would run the Council Services for the next year. I hate to consider somebody like Nicholas Ridley to have been a visionary. He has gone to where he can no longer threaten people, but all those people who live in daily fear of their jobs have the likes of Nicholas Ridley to thank for their sleepless nights. We have almost arrived at where Ridley and Thatcher wanted Local Councils to be. The journey has been aided and abetted by New Labour masquerading as progressives. We now know today that we were actually deceived by these people. We have not improved the level of Local Government debate nor enhanced democratic decision making.  Conversely we are putting millions of pounds sterling into the private sector, so that profits can be made at public expense. Local people are losing out all the time. When services are either outsourced or formally contracted out, it always involves losses in both employment and the levels of earnings for those staff who are retained. Even those workers protected by TUPE* transfer agreements are only covered for a temporary period. Councils hide the full implications of privatisation. Yet however Councils try to camouflage their actions, the adverse consequences of their actions are always borne by those living at subsistence levels.

Labour Councils, rather than actually representing the views and aspirations of local people, become agents of the Westminster Government. Local Democracy is increasingly undermined by the state. No Labour Councillor joins the local council to sack local people, yet in effect up and down the country they find themselves increasingly doing the dirty work for the Westminster Government. The reason so many people don't vote is that they feel unrepresented under the present system. Local Councillors are spending a good deal of their time carrying out the instructions of Government Ministers and not representing those who voted for them. The people of Sheffield, Chesterfield and Rotherham played no part in creating the current economic crisis, yet they are paying a very heavy price for it. The case for radical constitutional reform is long overdue. Why can we not have our own Northern Parliament with the same sort of rights as the Welsh and Scottish people? I am sure that we are quite as capable of governing the North of England more honestly and sincerely than Whitehall has ever done.

KEN CURRAN.        

* =   TUPE stands for Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. These as supposed to protect people when their employer changes, such as when a company is taken over or a public service is contracted out.