Austerity propagates inequality

Yesterday we found out the settlement that Denbighshire County Council (DCC) will receive from the Labour Welsh Government. It’s a further cut of 0.9%. The County Council have already had to cut back over the years, and they are extraordinarily lean. I’m afraid that further cuts will inevitably mean cuts to services, though you can be assured that I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues will do everything we can to fight these cuts.

I have great sympathy with those officers who are having to decide where to cut. Yesterday the BBC ran a story saying how Council staff were going off sick because of the stresses and strains that they were under having to implement these cuts.

It’s not right that people who are employed to serve the public are having to decide where to cut. Austerity is a political decision. Politicians should take responsibility. Politicians in London are borrowing more than ever, yet are insisting on Austerity and cutting core grants to the organisations that deliver frontline services, while at the same time Government politicians who insist on these cuts claim that they can’t live on £141,000 a year (I’m looking at you Boris Johnson).

So I have a lot of sympathy for County Councils and those officers that are having to make impossible decisions.

However, where my sympathy wanes is when the Councils themselves show that they’re out of touch with the communities that they are meant to serve.

We’ve already heard of excessive spending at various Councils across Wales. Take my Plaid colleagues campaign in Powys, for instance, to stop the Chairman from getting a £37k Audi; or my Plaid Colleagues on Wrexham County Borough Council’s Campaign to scrap the ceremonial position of Mayor, and the £135k per annum that this position costs, amongst a great many other examples.

Now ordinary people, like you and I, know that stopping the excessive spending won’t plug the gap. We know that in the grand scheme of things these costs are comparatively small, when Councils have budgets in the hundreds of millions. But these excessive spending practices show a people that are out of touch. It suggests that we are not all in this together, as some might have us believe.

Take our campaign on Denbighshire County Council to introduce a Real Living Wage for all staff members at DCC. We’re told that this would be impossible to introduce, as it would cost over £1m to implement. On the face of it this is true, but there are ways of overcoming this, and I’m working with the Living Wage Foundation and other organisations to develop a viable plan. But if we accept the £1m figure (and I don’t), it would mean lifting 1,400 people and their families out of potential poverty. 1,400 people would benefit from this policy, but we are told that we can’t afford it.

£7,000 was spent on an external company to carry out the appointment of a senior director within DCC last month. Now I have no wish to discuss the individuals involved – that wouldn’t be right nor fair. There’s no denying their talent, commitment or ability to do the job asked of them. But it’s the principle that we need to discuss. While we are told that we don’t have £1m in order to pay 1,400 people a fair wage, we spend more than £1/2m on half a dozen members of staff, and £1.5m+ on 31 staff members. Again, these officers do excellent work, they are committed and we are fortunate to have them. This is not the point.

We’re told that we can’t afford to pay a Real Living Wage to 1,400 people, but we can afford to pay very generous wages for a small number of people. When cuts are forced on us by both Westminster and Cardiff Governments, it’s those lower paid staff members who get their P45s. Don’t believe me? The figures speak for themselves, sadly. Because of this damned Austerity DCC have lost 200 committed members of staff in the last two years, 158 of them earning less than £20k p/a. Only three of them were earning more than £60k p/a.

Since being elected I’ve argued against such pay structures, and have voted against Councillors receiving an increased allowance as well. For information my increase will be donated to a local good cause in the ward that I serve.

Nothing will be done until the Welsh Government legislates against excessive pay awards. Personally I think that they should bring in a maximum wage policy, whereby the pay structure is set with a reasonable difference set between the lowest and highest paid members of staff. If the top gets a percentage increase, then everybody gets an equivalent increase in order to stop the pay differentials becoming excessive.

I value the work that our highest paid officers do immensely. But I equally value the work carried out by our lowest paid members of staff. Each of them have a role to play, and I expect each of them to fulfil their duties to the best of their abilities. Those who clean our schools and public toilets, for instance, carry out an important public health role, and ensure that we have clean facilities to use without spreading illnesses and bacteria. Prevention is better than a cure, we’re told, therefore in the long run these individuals save us a lot of money and trouble. This is just one example.

We have some of the best staff working at Denbighshire County Council – they work long hours to ensure that front line and essential services are delivered to those of us who live here. We need to make sure that they all know that their work is valued, whichever rung of the ladder they’re on.