Taken For Granted

by Quinn

In announcing 2,000 redundancies, Manchester City Council was in no doubt about where the blame really lies.

The unfairness of the government’s financial grant settlement for Manchester, one of the five worst in the country, has been widely reported.

We now have to find £110m in savings next year – £60m more than expected – because of front-loading and the redistribution of money from Manchester to more affluent areas.

The accelerated cuts mean we can no longer achieve the staffing reductions we have been forced into through natural turnover, which is why we are proposing a time-limited offer of voluntary severance and voluntary early retirement.

Quick as a wink, local government minister Grant Shapps shot back

Labour hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. They admit there need to be cuts but can’t say where they would fall. Ed Miliband needs to go back to his blank piece of paper and come back with a plan.

We have been quite clear that if councils cut chief exec pay, join back-office services, join forces to procure and cut out the crazy non-jobs, they can protect frontline services. Yet Manchester has a chief exec on a pay packet of nearly a hundred thousand pounds more than the prime minister who won’t lead from the front and take a pay cut and a Twitter tsar on nearly £40,000.

But quite how full is the government’s “piece of paper” when it comes to the cuts? In the main it seems to consist of a series of percentages, the size of which is dependant upon the individual minister’s proximity to the centre of influence and their negotiating skills with the treasury, and with the detail on what is actually to be cut generously devolved away, along with the blithe instruction to “do more with less” and that “you must protect frontline services you simply must”. So, lucky Messrs Gove and Lansley get smallish cuts to education and health (presumably because they have expensive departmental rejigs to waste money on) but weak negotiators or gleeful masochists like Theresa May and Eric Pickles are looking at 25% budget cuts in the home office and local government, but with the decision on “how” to be made elsewhere.

Now, I have no issue with the “how” being made as near to the coalface as possible, that is as it should be. The problem is that the “how much” figure seems to have been cooked-up in an ivory tower in Cloudcuckooland. And, as with Manchester council, when those cuckoos come home to roost and the departmental percentage for cuts is translated into actual losses of jobs and services, central government adopts a “not me, guv” attitude, and blandly asserts that savings of wasteful back-office paper-shuffling jobs can be made and the front line saved, but with no indication at all of how it can be done. So we should perhaps be grateful that on this occasion Grant Shapps has shown us the way, put some meat on the bones, and pointed out an efficiency that can be enacted; namely the sacking of that wasteful and indulgent Twitter Czar. (I prefer Czar to Tsar, because it’s nearer to the word Caesar; but you may say it as you choose.)

Except Manchester City Council don’t employ a Twitter Czar, or even a Twitter Tsar, do they? That much should be blindingly obvious to anyone in a state of consciousness, or so I thought when I heard the allegation on the afternoon news. Sure, they’ll have an internet communications manager or something, who will, among his or her other responsibilities, ensure a presence on twitter (an excellent idea, in my opinion), but you’d have to be pretty jaundiced, or moronic, or, apparently, a government minister, to believe that they employ someone on £40k whose sole responsibility is to tweet all day (which means, sadly, that there’ll be plenty of people readily lapping up that crap in blogs, and message boards, and, apparently, cabinet meetings).

Confirmation came during the PM programme, where it was announced

In the item earlier in the programme, you’ll remember, about 2,000 job cuts at Manchester City Council, we quoted Grant Shapps, the local government minister, saying the council employed a ‘Twitter tsar’. Well the council have been onto us to tell us they’ve have never employed such a person, though they do have a website manager which the Daily Mail referred to as a ‘Twitter tsar’ last October.

Okay, but that doesn’t mean the Daily Mail is wrong, does it? Perhaps Grant Shapps and the Mail were using the same, accurate source for this Twitter Czar claim? Eddie Mair continued

We’ve checked with Grant Shapps’s department and they said the newspaper report is what he based his comments on.

Brilliant. Tell me this isn’t representative of the wider picture. Tell me this doesn’t show, even in part, how the government has formed its theory about what cuts are or are not deliverable. When those actually responsible for effecting central government’s cuts complain, are their complaints really being dismissed based upon bullshit stories from the Daily Mail’s agenda-book? And is Grant Shapps so stupid that it didn’t occur to him that the Daily Mail story was a nonsense, here as elsewhere? Or does he simply not care, knowing that the reality won’t get as wide an airing as the convenient myth?

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on Grant Shapps. He had to come up with some figure for local government cuts, and with the scrapping of the Audit Commission I guess thin air is as good a place as any. If he can’t himself specify where cuts can be made and has no idea what can genuinely be delivered, what is he to do but to work from Daily Mail headlines? Perhaps if we knew a bit more about Manchester council’s expenditure, if their processes were a more transparent, then he’d be able to make a statement that isn’t a bundle of idiotic gibberish piggy-backing upon a twisted tabloid half-truth? For as he also says

It’s equally disappointing that the council has so far failed to put all expenditure over £500 online so it can exposed to full public scrutiny.

Quite right too. Let’s get this stuff up on the website, so everyone can decide where the cuts can be made, so we’re not having to operate in the realms of guesswork and fantasy. Let’s do it, and yesterday.

Hmm. I wonder whose job it is to put all that information online?