In the weeks leading up to the meeting we collected signatures to a petition opposing the cuts to public services. In it we called on the authority to use its powers to avoid making cuts and to insist that central government make up the shortfall. This gave us speaking rights to raise our petition at the meeting. The text of the speech Graham Higginson gave is as follows:
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in support of this petition, which asks you not to carry out any further cuts in Jobs or Services, and instead to set a Budget to meet the needs of the people of Cumbria, in opposition to the orders of central government.
The petition was organised at short notice by Carlisle Socialist Party, and the signatures were mostly obtained on two Saturday mornings in January in the streets of Carlisle, Penrith and Workington, in little more than an hour. There are 116 signatures, 41 from Carlisle residents, 48 from Penrith and Eden, and 27 from various parts of West Cumbria.
This petition asks you to stop the process of cutting services generally, year after year, in ways which are increasingly damaging to the community which you are supposed to represent – which you have a duty to represent and to champion.
This was not a local campaign on a single issue, conducted over weeks, with the support of a local newspaper, Chamber of Trade, and a Member of Parliament, so naturally it does not have a great many signatures. The present Leader of the Council will no doubt dismiss it, as “not statistically significant”. But although it has only a small number of signatures, that does not mean there is no widespread support for the demand. What is significant is that very few people who had the chance to sign the petition refused to do so, and those who refused did so because they did not think it would make any difference – “What’s the point, they never listen”.
The County Council’s budget consultation gave the public the choice between cuts of £24.4 million or £22.6 million in 2014/15, which we have compared to having your arm cut off above or below the elbow. Subsequently the lower level cuts option has been withdrawn, and the amount of future cuts has been substantially increased. So what was the point of the so-called consultation?
We say the people of Cumbria should have been given the chance to vote against any more cuts – to maintain current levels of service. This would require Cumbria County Council to set a budget to meet the needs of the people of Cumbria, and to lead a fight against cuts which damage the county’s economy and society. It would mean that Members of the County Council, of all parties, should campaign within their own parties, and put pressure on the county’s M.P.s (most of whom belong to the coalition government parties) to demand that the government halt any further cuts to council budgets.
Local government expenditure did not cause the financial crisis, yet, as the present Deputy Leader of the Council has recently said, local government is being made to bear a disproportionate amount of the reduction in public expenditure.
Socialists believe the financial crisis had a completely different cause, and that the wrong people are being made to pay for it, while those who caused it get off scot free, and are even massively rewarded with bonuses, which the government appears either unwilling or unable to control. We believe there are sufficient national resources to “balance the nation’s books” in a totally different way.
We do not claim that all of the people who signed this petition would agree with all of our policies, but they do agree that “Enough is Enough – No More Cuts in Jobs or Services”. We believe there is growing evidence (such as the Cumberland News survey of county opinion) that large numbers of people agree that the cuts have gone too far and are severely damaging to the county.
You cannot pretend that these cuts do not impact on front-line services, and are detrimental to the public who use and rely on the services. You cannot pretend that the cuts are not a severe blow to the staff who lose their jobs, and even those who remain in work suffer from heavier workloads to cover for absent colleagues. You cannot pretend that the loss of purchasing power has no ill effects on the local economy. You cannot pretend that the cuts are not increasing disappointment, depression and despair in the whole community.
You say you are sorry, but you have no choice. The government orders you to cut, and so you must obey. If you, our elected councillors, cannot carry out the policies which the county needs, what use are you? If you cannot do what you say you would like to do, why should anyone vote for you? Growing numbers do not vote at all, and is it any wonder, when whatever the outcome of the election, you form coalitions which do the bidding of central government and cut services and jobs year after year?
A final question - Who do you think you are? Are you the representatives of the people of Cumbria? If so, fight for them, protect their interests. Or are you the servants of Westminster and Whitehall? If that is the case, we might as well be ruled directly by government commissioners, and cut out the expense of the County Council and the sham of local government altogether.
We say you should stop following the orders of a government which nobody elected, on an austerity programme which the majority voted against, and which one of the parties now in government said it was opposed to at the general election. If county and district councils do not fight for the right to make their own decisions and to provide the services which their communities need, then local government ceases to have any meaning. In asking you to Stop the Cuts in Jobs and Services, we ask you to stand up for Cumbria; stand up for local government and Democracy, against central government and Dictatorship.