This is not an easy time for local councillors. As has happened before, the government is passing to local authorities the pain of deciding where cuts should be made, and closing off the escape route of allowing them the alternative of raising more income through local taxation. It is all the more galling when government ministers trumpet localism, which at this time largely means devolving responsibility without opportunity.
So where should councillors cut and where not? This is a time when even if the coalition government passes the pain disproportionately to the poor and less powerful, there is an opportunity for caring Conservatives, Liberal Democrat local activists and Labour redistributionists to stand up and be counted.
This is not a soft or easy option. It means not caving in to the middle class lobbyists for libraries, theatres and arts centres. It means not prioritising the roads lobby and all the disgruntled callers about potholes. It means not protecting funding for school support and improvement when schools themselves choose not to pay for this assistance.
It does mean cutting back on the central capacity within service departments and the expanded corporate services which were generated to feed the greedy beast of a controlling, performance managing and untrusting central government. It does mean putting on the back burner all those grandiose plans about economic development and environmental enhancement. But most of all it means giving an overwhelming priority to caring for and protecting very vulnerable children and disabled and older adults.
Why is this important? It is important because it is a principled moral stance to take. It is important because once care and protection services are decimated they are not easily reinvented. It is important because when they are lost the impact is immediate and often not reclaimable for current service users who are left vulnerable, stranded and in danger now. And it is important because councillors need to be mindful and wary of the responsibilities they hold and the the liabilities they may face if they forget their duty of care.
Firstly, recall Haringey. It was not only senior managers and front-line council workers who were fed to the media-generated mob following the horrific death of little Peter Connelly. Leading councillors also found their political careers and personal reputations in the firing line.
Secondly, there is a corporate responsibility for councils, and a possible personal liability for key post holders and decision makers, to seek to ensure the safety and security of children and adults who may be in danger and very vulnerable.
Thirdly, amongst the decisions which have to be taken to make cuts some will attract considerable attention in the short term as lobbyists and campaign groups fight their corner for their interests. But who will shout loud for children in danger and for people who are isolated, stigmatised and marginalised? Their voices may be unheard now, but their stories will be told when tragedies occur and their care and protection has been found to have been neglected. They present a continuing risk to council and councillors’ reputations long after the noise of organised interest groups has subsided.
Wise councillors will be seeking clarification at this time not only about the corporate accountability for decisions collectively taken within councils, and the liabilities which may then follow, but also about their own individual accountabilities and liabilities. They will be asking for risk assessments to inform their policy and budget decisions. And they will be thinking of how to balance short-term decision-making difficulties against longer term continuing risks and liabilities which may come back to haunt and bite them beyond the current crescendo of cuts campaigning. It is no easy time to be a councillor, but it is an even more difficult and risky time to be a child or adult needing care and protection.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and a former director of social services