Wilful ignorance and staggering hypocrisy - David Cameron objects to cuts.

By Virginia Moffatt
November 10, 2015

Yesterday’s  Daily Mirror ran an interesting article about a very public argument between  the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth. The row was significant because Mr Cameron, an Oxfordshire MP, had written in the local paper complaining about the Council's cuts to frontline services.

I took particular note for two reasons. Firstly, as a former Oxfordshire County Council employee and a local resident, I was curious to see what their correspondence said. And secondly because it is highly unusual for local councillors to criticise their party leaders.

The correspondence begins with Mr Cameron challenging Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to close children’s centres and other services  in Oxfordshire. In his letter, the Prime Minister claimed such actions were unnecessary because the Council’s income had increased in real terms in recent years. I read this with incredulity because, as I’ve reported elsewhere on this website, being a former council employee I know full well how much Oxfordshire’s budget has been slashed over the last five years.

So I’m delighted Councillor Hudspeth set the record straight by pointing out to the Prime Minister that far from having an increase, Oxfordshire County Council has had its income halved in the last decade, with the grant funding cut from £122 to £62 million. And that since 2011, a staggering £602 million had been taken out of Oxfordshire’s budgets.

A further criticism made by the Prime Minister is that Oxfordshire should follow good practice and merge its back offices. To which Councillor Hudspeth was quick to respond that the Council has gone as far as it can. He’s not wrong there either.

When I arrived in Oxfordshire in 2006, Social Services had its own Human Resources and Finance Teams. These were merged into a corporate team in 2008 with job losses and reduced availability of key staff. Over the years since HR and Finance were regularly restructured.The most recent means all back office functions are now managed from Hampshire.

Each time the back office was restructured managers like myself took on extra work, whether it was a more hands on involvement in recruitment, disciplinary and grievance or managing and reporting financial accounts for budgets. Which meant when our own teams restructured, the workforce was stretched at every level, with everyone doing twice the amount of work they were doing in 2010. Oh yes, and that’s all without anyone getting a pay rise  in years.

When you’ve done all you can to cut from non-essential services, then you are left with no choice but to make cuts to frontline services. So whilst it is terrible Oxfordshire is doing this,  I'm staggered by the Prime Minister's wilful ignorance on the impact of his austerity measures.

Mr Cameron is an intelligent and well educated man, but he seems impervious to the politics of cause and effect. What on earth did he think would happen to local government when Eric Pickles  agreed 25 per cent cuts in 2010?  Did he somehow miss the  Chartered Institute of Public Funding and Accountancy (CIPFA) judgement that council spending would have reduced by 1/3 by the end of his first Parliament?  Was he having a day off when the Local Government Organisation (LGA) stated that on top of the 30 per cent already cut, there were another 10 per cent  cuts to come? 

Perhaps it’s just a case of Mr Cameron believing his own publicity. That if he keeps calling on authorities to be ‘more efficient’ they will manage it by some kind of miracle without touching a single service that affects him, his children, friends, neighbours and constituents?

Nonetheless, it is the height of staggering hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to complain about local cuts, when they are only necessary because of the actions of his government. And it’s not the first time either.  I was still working in Oxfordshire when the children's centres were last under threat. I well remember the hollow laughter  when we heard the Mr Cameron had signed a petition to save his local service in Witney.

Around the same time, I also witnessed an astonishing intervention from him on behalf a constituent who had a social care problem. Of course one would expect a good MP to act for local people, but did it not once cross his mind that the  situation had only arisen because of his programme of austerity?

The second reason that this correspondence is important is that it breaches an unwritten code about the relationship between local and central government. It is very rare for a leader of a Council to criticise the Prime Minister when they are in the same party. It takes a lot to make someone as prominent as Councillor Hudspeth to break ranks.

In my time in Oxfordshire, I saw many local Conservative councillors were unhappy with being forced to cut services they knew were important.  I saw them do their level best, along with officers, to minimise the impact of the cuts, and to maximise income by increasing council tax by up to 1.99% (against official party policy). I longed for someone to speak out against the government, though the realist in me recognised that this was unlikely.

So I can only conclude that Mr Cameron's letter was the last straw for Councillor Hudspeth, who I know to be a decent, hardworking public servant.  I'm very pleased that he is no longer prepared to be silent over the Prime Minister's  wilful ignorance and staggering hypocrisy. His response has  made it very clear exactly where austerity leads – the closure of services in every community in the land, including Mr Cameron's own home turf.

I really hope that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are listening. Because when even your own party can't stomach the level of cuts you are imposing, it's probably about time for you to change tack.

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© Virginia Moffatt  is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.