Agenda Setting

Written By: Chris Williamson
Published: January 13, 2018 Last modified: January 13, 2018

The Conservative Party is behaving as if it has discovered a new magic money tree growing in the coffers of local authorities? But truth is it’s just another Tory deception.

When ministers are challenged about the impact on public services of the relentless cuts they are imposing on local government budgets, they universally display the same Pavlovian reaction. In fact, these Tory ministers rather remind me of Pavlov’s salivating dogs whenever they stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons to justify the cuts, telling the nation that everything in the garden is rosy. However, people living in the real world outside the Westminster bubble know that everything is far from rosy. They can see that their public services are consistently falling short of expectations.

These Tory ministers keep saying, “Look at the colossal reserves being held by local councils, constabularies and fire and rescue authorities.” They are hoping their “nowt to do with us, guv” tactic will fool the electorate and shift the blame for their recklessness onto the subordinate arms of the state. But as Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have once said: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Nevertheless, this Tory govern­ment is undeterred by Abraham’s axiom.

The truth is, this ministerial mantra about reserves is nothing more than political poppycock dressed up as a justification for continuing the unprecedented squeeze on funding for essential services. It is a fiscal falsehood to claim that spending reserves can solve the funding shortfall being experienced by local public services up and down the country.

The Conservatives seriously expect people to believe that there is no funding crisis because these public bodies haven’t spent their reserves. But this defies the rules of basic arithmetic because you can only spend reserves once. Yet despite this incontrovertible reality, these Tories try to portray themselves as a safe pair of hands when it comes to handling the public finances.
When I challenged the Home Secretary in the House of Commons this week regarding the government’s flamboyant flimflam about the reserves held by fire and rescue authorities, she launched into a nonsensical non-answer.

I asked her if she was aware that most of the reserves held by fire and rescue authorities are already earmarked for future spend? I also pointed out that the annual budget for the fire and rescue service in England is £2.3 billion, yet it holds only £143 million in unallocated reserves, which is less than a month’s operating costs! I suggested she was living in cloud cuckoo land if she was seriously suggesting that capital reserves of just 6% were an adequate buffer for all emergencies.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, when Amber Rudd responded, she denied that she was residing in cloud cuckoo land and claimed I was “being too lenient on these enormous reserves that have been accumulated”. She then went on to say, without a hint of irony, that the Labour party wasn’t familiar with “careful public finance guarding”, demonstrating that the Home Secretary doesn’t do self-awareness.

In response to another question about the cuts in the number of frontline firefighters, the Home Secretary deployed a twisted logic to justify the reduction. She said that because “there are 50 per cent fewer fire incidents that firefighters have to attend … we are still able to get the very best service from our firefighters.” This answer betrays a woeful ignorance about fighting fires, and disregards the fact that firefighters do so much more. Figures for last year show a 7 per cent increase in the number of rescues by firefighters, responding to a range of other emergencies, including road traffic collisions and flooding. It also fails to acknowledge that the reduction in the number of fires has been achieved by the fire prevention work undertaken by firefighters .

Although there may be fewer occasions when firefighters are mobilised to tackle fires, depleting their numbers can have serious consequences. This was highlighted on New Year’s Eve in Liverpool when a devastating blaze in the Echo Arena car park (pictured) destroyed 1,600 cars. It also caused so much damage to the fabric of the building that the car park will have to be demolished. The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, said were it not for the cuts, “eight fire engines would have been at the scene in minutes instead of just two”, which could have contained the fire and avoided the devastating damage. The Association of British Insurers have said the blaze is likely to result in claims worth at least £20m.

Spurious excuses to avoid properly funding our public services is a gross dereliction of duty by a government that has lost any semblance of credibility.

About Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson is Labour MP for Derby North.