At a meeting of Bedford Borough Council on Wednesday night, Bedford Borough Labour Group Councillors issued a series of questions to local Tories, asking if they agreed with the further sharp austerity measures planned by their Conservative Government.
Councillor Jade Uko, (Goldington Ward), asked if the Tory Group of Councillors supported the proposed cuts to tax credits, and if they realised the hardship the cuts would cause.
Cllr Uko said, “I know from speaking to people in my Ward that there is a great deal of concern about changes to the tax credit system. In Bedford & Kempston presently 5,600 working families with children receive tax credits, so cuts will affect over 10,900 local children. Do the Bedford Borough Conservative Group support their Governments cuts to tax credits which will leave these families £1300 worse off each year?”
Councillor Stephen Moon, Leader of Bedford Borough Conservative Group, merely responded that he was not responsible for the policy.
House of Commons Library figures show that those in paid work and eligible for benefits or tax credits are, on average, being compensated for just 26% of their losses from changes to taxes, tax credits and benefits through the so-called ‘National Living Wage’ the Tories are introducing. Even when this is taken into account the shortfall is still £1100.
Cllr Carl Meader (Kempston South) Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, explained that the group had written to local MP’s Richard Fuller and Alistair Burt objecting to the speed and severity of the cuts in the government grant to the Borough Council.
He continued, “Can I ask the Tory Group of Councillors if they comprehend the seriousness of the situation facing this council as a result of the drastic reduction in funding? Do they realise the impact this will have on residents throughout this Borough? What they have they done to lobby their MP’s?”
Arguing that such questions were ‘playing politics’, and wasting council time, Cllr Stephen Moon once again did not answer the question directly. Instead he insisted that the fact the Council had saved £80m since 2009 had resulted in "no material loss to frontline services". He then claimed that debate in council was stifled, they had not been consulted about budget savings, and the list of savings that had gone out for consultation was too small and did not save enough.
It is important to note at this point that three Tory Councillors – Anthony Boutall, Roger Rigby & Jon Gambold - sit on the Budget Scrutiny Committee, which reviewed the Medium Term Financial Statement in June this year. The Council is projecting the need to make savings of between 25% and 40%, but won’t know the exact level until after Chancellor George Osborne makes the Autumn Statement on 25th November, the Local Government Settlement follows this several weeks later. The consultation organised by the Borough Council is merely the first round of identified savings – more will unfortunately be necessary.
Cllr Meader replied to Cllr Moon that the Labour Group was not playing politics, but defending the funding for services needed by the people of Bedford Borough. He felt it was important that all Borough Councillors should be lobbying Government and protesting at the speed and severity of the cuts to local government funding. There was nowhere else left to make efficiency savings – the council will be forced to cut some frontline services, which would impact on constituents of Tory councillors as well as those in wards represented by councillors from other parties.
His views were echoed by Cllr Shan Hunt (Kempston North), who stated that this was the most serious situation she had ever known, and the level of austerity was unnecessary and damaging. Public services delivered by the council, even those statutory obligations, were under threat.
Lib Dem Councillor Henry Vann proposed a Motion to Council as an amendment to the Medium Term Financial Statement outlined by Portfolio Holder Michael Headley at the meeting. This noted that the Local Government Association has calculated that Councils face an additional £10 billion of cost pressures by 2020, echoed their call for fairer funding for councils across the country and called on the Government to deliver “a fair funding deal for Bedford Borough and local government up and down the country, so we can deliver vital local services”.
Although the vote on the Motion was supported by all Labour and LibDems and the majority of Tories, sadly it was not unanimous. There was at least one notable abstention on the Tory benches.