Public services under threat

This is a letter to the Swindon Advertiser

In the argument over the Council’s Wi-Fi initiative Council leader Rod Bluh said that the decision to loan £450,000 of Swindon’s council tax payers’ money to a private company was a “commercial decision”. A commercial investment is, of course, a risk. If it doesn’t come off then public money will have been wasted. Mr Bluh’s action tells us about the priorities of his group because this risk with our money was taken at the very same time he was announcing cuts in services, including the proposed reduction in the grant of Dial-a-Ride. So uneasily did these two things sit together that the Council backed down over the Dial-A-Ride cut.

What is the point of another Wi-Fi competitor when the town cannot afford to pay for services for some of the most under-privileged and vulnerable members of the population? Is the ruling group more interested in winning kudos for its innovative ‘entrepreneurial’ skills or providing services which are needed?

The other thing which exposes the outlook of the Council is its attitude to the staff it employs. The Council abandoned negotiations with the trades unions over a new pay and grading structure, and decided to impose its own system, threatening to sack any staff who refuse to sign up to the new contracts. This is nothing other than industrial dictatorship.

You may have heard of market supplements. This is where additional money, over and above the rate for a job, is paid because of the difficulties of recruiting staff. Swindon Council, however, with the ‘innovation’ for which they think they are renowned, has come up with the idea of a negative market supplement. In other words where they find that the ‘market rate’ for a particular job is less than they are paying their own staff, then the obvious thing to do would be to cut their wages to the ‘market’ level! What this would mean in practice is driving down the wages of already low paid workers. How can you tackle inequality when the majority of women staff are low paid and you subordinate their wages to the ‘market’?

In case the Tories haven’t noticed, the “new world” which Rod Bluh’s Party helped to create – based on unrestrained markets, and ‘irresponsible lending’ – has come crashing down. The current government, having swallowed the free market dogma preached by Thatcher and Reagan, has spent a fortune bailing out the banks and financial institutions that helped to create the crisis. Whilst our money is being used to rescue these profiteers, the public sector is faced with unprecedented cut-backs. Rod Bluh’s party wants to outbid the current government in cutting public services. This has implications for the services which millions of people depend on.

There was a time of course, in 19th century Britain, when the state left everything to ‘the market’. It didn’t have any building regulations, for instance. So Swindon had the benefits of the free market in housing – typhoid and other diseases which resulted from the lack of sewers not to mention the absence of clean water. The state had to provide these services to prevent disease sweeping through communities.

Public services are essential because private enterprise will not do something if there is no profit in it. We need a roof over our heads, we need heating, we need water, we need food, we need healthcare when we are ill. Reducing all these things to commodities means that if people cannot afford them then they cannot have them. That’s why we have the housing crisis we do. That’s why the privatised utilities have fleeced us, and why millions of gallons of water leak away every day.

Swindon Council can conveniently blame the current government for the financial crisis. If their own government comes in we shall see what tune they sing then. What is clear is that subordinating wages and services to the ‘market’ can only mean an increase in exploitation and services which do not measure up to the needs of the population.

Martin Wicks

Secretary Swindon Trades Union Council

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