The People’s Assembly (Scotland) was formed in the early part of 2011 after the general election in 2010. We now have all the major Unions directly affiliated, including Trade Union Councils and local campaigning anti-austerity groups throughout Scotland.
Since our inception, and in accordance with our Constitution and Founding Statement, we have campaigned to lobby our governments both at Westminster and Holyrood to reverse the effects of damaging austerity, and to replace it with a set of policies to provide us with a fair, sustainable and secure future for all. No longer can we tolerate politicians looking out for themselves and for the rich and powerful. Our political representatives must start governing in the interests of the majority based on the following: a fairer economy for a fairer Britain, including Scotland; more and better jobs; high standards of social housing; protecting and improving public services; fairness and justice; and a secure and sustainable future.
Throughout our campaigning initiatives and our various public meetings and conferences, it has become abundantly clear to us that the cuts, closures and loss of jobs, particularly in Scotland, are now reaching crisis point. Some 40,000 local government jobs have gone and our public service provisions are at breaking point. Therefore, we decided some months ago that our priority was to concentrate our efforts on local government and its representatives, including council leaders and individual councillors, setting out our arguments for budget alternatives.
By mid-December 2016, we have received responses from Falkirk, Inverclyde and Inverness, together with a couple of individual councillors. This has been extremely disappointing, especially since the Fraser of Allander Institute said: ‘All local authorities could face crippling cuts of 10% arising out of a combination of a reduction in Scotland’s block grant from Westminster, together with the cost of the SNP’s manifesto commitments’. This equated to some £700m between next year and 2020. This estimate comes on top of the £350m reduction of last year.
Our next step is to prepare and print a People’s Manifesto – Budget Alternatives to use amongst the general public, campaigning groups, anti-austerity organisations and trade union councils. In the main, the set of alternatives we are laying out is progressive and is not exhaustive. The political will needs to be at the forefront of these aims, and is worthy of serious consideration including: meaningful engagement and joint working with the recognised unions/People’s Assemblies to campaign for fairness, justice and against austerity; no compulsory redundancies; no to externalisation and/or privatisation and outsourcing; better utilisation of council reserves; a more coherent and joined up national campaign against Westminster and Scottish government austerity; issuing of bonds to raise funds more cheaply; re-financing of PFI and other debts; signing up to UNISONS’s Ethical Care Charter; campaigning for a debt amnesty for historic debt where Unite Scotland’s estimates that 44p of every £1 collected in Council Tax in Scotland goes towards paying off debt; produce parallel or citizens budgets that illustrate the need for services and the associated costs, combined with local impact statements for both budgets; campaign for an amnesty for pre-devolution debt owed to the Treasury’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) – this could reduce the amount by around 10p in the £1 thus freeing up around £194m per year to invest in cut-hit council services; no more wage freezes – pay council employees a decent cost of living wage increase; no more tokenistic consultations so there is genuine community engagement and consultation; and stop using the language of ‘customers’ and talk instead of citizens, residents, service users and council employees who have needs and expectations.
We note with despair the Draft Budget delivered to the Scottish Parliament by the Finance Minister, Derek Mackay MSP. Whilst there may be some merit in tinkering with the Council Tax bands and transferring this money to Head Teachers and the lifting of the freeze on Council Tax, together with further investment in the NHS Social Care budget, it becomes clear to many that several of these initiatives are outwith the control of local authorities.
Mackay’s speech to parliament stated: ‘that an increase in spending power on local government services equates to £240.6m’. This is all smoke and mirrors as councils do not have any say or control over such matters. All the extra money suggested is to be ring-fenced for government priorities. Clearly, the Scottish Government has failed to use its income tax powers that it has argued for consistently.
Local authorities across Scotland are still predicting huge budget deficits next year and every year up to 2020. All councils need investment and cannot continue to absorb cuts to funding on the levels they have had to contend with. Our alternatives could assist local authorities if the political will is there. We will support those councils who give these matters serious consideration and publish their position accordingly.
Phil McGarry is the Chair of the People’s Assembly (Scotland)