On Thursday 8th May, the public gallery was full as the scrutiny committee of Leicester Council met to discuss cuts to voluntary services in the city. Leicester Race Equality Centre (TREC) and Leicester Council of Faiths were both allowed to submit a response (although they were limited to just 5 minutes each to put their case).
TREC argued that it provided a unique service, responsive to the needs of diverse communities in the city, often working with extremely deprived and vulnerable people, and had worked to improve relations between communities in the face of far-right attempts to increase racial tension, as has happened in Thurnby Lodge and with the EDL protests. In both these cases, TREC have been involved in combating racist ideas and developing dialogue between different ethnic groups.
The council’s response to TREC’s demands for an Equality Impact Assessment amounted to just 144 words, which was completely inadequate, and contrary to the council’s legal responsibility under the 2010 Equality Act. The council’s consultation exercise was itself discriminatory, by being on-line, it excluding people without access to the internet, whether due to poverty or to disability. Only 136 people responded, and only 78 attended public meetings, with overlap between the two groups. This failed to do justice to the vast number of people across Leicester City affected by the service cuts.
Peter Soulsby, the Mayor of Leicester, acknowledged the good work done by voluntary services in the city. However, he sought to blame the Tories for the cuts, rather than taking any responsibility himself for their implementation. He said that services had to go out to tender, as this was “the way of the world”, and that the council had no choice except to cut the overall funding pot. He failed completely to address the points relating to the failings of the council’s own report. Rather patronisingly, the groups were reminded that they could also apply for external funding and were offered assistance with this.
The response from both the Council of Faiths and TREC was that they already routinely approach external sources of funding, and that TREC had exceeded the council’s own agreement as to the services it provides, with a 98% satisfaction rate from users of the service. In the past year, TREC had dealt with 794 enquiries, and faced a 70% increase in cases of harrassment. Since 1967, an estimated 150,000 people had benefited from their support.
Mayor Soulsby went on to admit that a total of 18 other services were having to go through similar reviews, such as children and adult services. It is obvious therefore, that the cuts being made by the council are widespread and affect the most vulnerable people in our society disproportionately – in the case of TREC, asylum seekers, refugees and people experiencing discrimination or harrassment. TREC works with all communities in the city.
However, Soulsby offers no strategy to stop cuts to services. We were left wondering – what was the point of voting in a Labour Mayor, or 52 Labour councillors, if they then fail to provide any meaningful opposition? In the 2015 elections in Leicester, the Socialist Party as part of TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition), will provide such a principled opposition. If any Labour councillors are prepared to break ranks and vote against cuts, then we will support them in their stand. However, we are seeking to put forward as many candidates as possible against councillors who cut services. We will also look to stand against Soulsby in the mayoral elections, in order to save jobs and vital services in the city.
The Socialist Party would scrap the tendering process, it merely adds bureaucracy and opens up public services to the private sector. Instead of wasting resources in drawing up tender documents and having to justify themselves to the council, services should simply be able to get on with the job they are supposed to do.
We point out that the council has a choice – it could refuse to implement cuts and use its £150 million reserves to buy time to build a campaign to force the government to back down on its austerity agenda. If Leicester united with other Labour councils across the country, and built support amongst council trade unions for united strike action, the government would face massive opposition and could be forced into a position where it had to back down. However, if Labour councillors are not prepared to fight, and the overwhelming evidence is that the vast majority of them will do nothing – then they should stand aside for others who will.
The Socialist Party has a long track record of fighting successful battles against cuts – for example Liverpool Council’s fight against Thatcher from 1983 to 1987 and the mass non-payment of the Poll Tax in 1990. We will continue to fight against all cuts to services, whichever party is implementing them.