Regular readers will know that I am pretty obsessed with the Tories’ plans to introduce a Powers of General Competence Act if they come into power, and how this will be used quite deliberately by councils up and down the country to slash services and remove much needed welfare provision from the most vulnerable.
I have, I will admit, been quite frustrated that senior Labour people have not picked up on what the Tories are up to, despite my personal appeals to them. I’ve not even had the courtesy of a reply from the minister to my two letters.
However, I do accept that much of the problem I’ve had in setting out my case is that I’ve not had any hard evidence to support my assertions about the pernicious way in which the legislation will be used.
All I’ve been able to do is point at the relative secrecy with which it’s been developed within the Tory-dominated Local Government Association, the way in which it removes parliamentary control over local authorities actions in a manner which is beyond the actual requirements of what the legislation is supposedly for, and how it fits with the overall Tory agenda of ‘EasyJet councils’.
I’ve known I’m right – I’ve been combatting Tories in local government long enough to know what their intentions are – but I’ve not had the proof.
The proof lies, strangely, in another slightly obscure piece of legislation, the Sustainable Communities Act (2007) which allows local authorities to put forward proposals to the Minister for Local Government (currently John Denham) around greater flexibility of their actions as they relate to central government functions.
There are currently 193 such proposals shortlisted by the LGA for the minister, and a decision on these will, I assume be made after the election. Note that, unlike the proposed Power of General Competence, the minister on behalf of parliament has the final say on what flexibility local authorities can enjoy. The full list of all 300 proposals submitted in 2009 is here.
The important submission is from Essex County Council, led until recently by the now disgraced Lord Hanningfield, and one of the leading lights in the new ‘radical’ Tory councils, as shown by its recent mass outsourcing of services and jobs to IBM UK Ltd. These people are right wingers, make no mistake about it.
The submission needs to read in full to get a sense of what they’re about:
Proposal theme: Worklessness, unemployment and skills: The duty to set the eligibility criteria and amounts payable for all working age benefits for all claimants in Essex be devolved from central government to ECC.
The last few months of difficult economic circumstances have highlighted a number of major problems within the existing structure of the labour market in the UK. This proposal seeks to tackle one of these, specifically the problem of market distortion caused by working age benefits. It is generally accepted that any level of benefit payments will have a distorting effect, but more recently it has become apparent that a single, nationally set system has an unduly large influence on certain areas when analysed at a local level.
ECC has already put a significant amount of resources into analysing the state of the labour market in Essex as a part of its programmes to help people in the county back to work. It has become apparent that the labour market situation in Essex is sufficiently distinct to the rest of the country that it would greatly benefit from a tailored set of employment and benefit policies.
Any set of benefit rules must provide a decent standard of living for all while also providing, wherever possible, an incentive for the recipient to find work. However, there is an intrinsic problem with any nationally set rules in that huge local variations exist in what can be classified as a ‘decent standard of living’ and ‘an incentive to find work’. The failure by the existing benefits system to take this into account causes adverse effects on both the economic and social sustainability of local communities.
We therefore propose that the duty to set the eligibility criteria and amounts payable for all working age benefits for all claimants in Essex be devolved from central government to ECC.
As this proposal seeks to tackle worklessness it will be essential that control over the eligibility criteria and payment rates for Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance be transferred to ECC. This would put us in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions and ECC skills and training programmes.
Alongside this, it may become necessary to alter other, related benefits. For example, recipients of Income Support are automatically eligible for Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit. Should we decide to change eligibility to Income Support for certain groups, we could ensure that other benefits were maintained. Therefore in order to ensure a unified approach and ensure that the system remains fair to all residents, we propose that criteria and rates for all working age benefits are transferred to ECC.
Our aim in using these powers would be to join up benefits with other programmes to fit better with the needs of the people of Essex, the Essex economy and the work, training and skills programmes ECC are already running. This would greatly strengthen the impact of other initiatives designed to help people back to work and thus help to improve local economic sustainability.
Additionally, by targeting the known affects of worklessness on individuals and their communities, these proposals could have an important role in promoting social sustainability within the county as well.
It’s pretty clear what these weasel words mean.
Being “in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions” is policy speak for reducing benefits to such an extent that people will take any job, anywhere, in any conditions.
“[T]here is an intrinsic problem with any nationally set rules in that huge local variations exist in what can be classified as a ‘decent standard of living’ and ‘an incentive to find work’” is a plan to starve people into submission.
“Should we decide to change eligibility to Income Support for certain groups” means they do intend to cut the benefits of the sick, for example.
These people are ruthless anti-working class bastards who know exactly what they’re about, and are desperate to get on with out Purnelling Purnell. The guy must seem like Nye Bevan to them.
Now, as I’ve said, the final decision on this proposal for local authority control over central government spending lies with the Minister.
That’s why it’s important that there isn’t a Tory government, and the prospect of a Tory local government minister on May 7th. For the good of the unemployed in Essex, we need to keep the Tories out by whichever which way. On this, I even half agree with Toynbee:
Urging a tactical vote to keep the Tories out is not a tribal game – I am one of Brown’s fiercest critics. It is a reminder that profoundly different choices will be made by centre-left and centre-right.
But this is only the half of it, for finally we back get to what the Powers of General Competence are really all about.
Here’s our corrupt friend Hanningfield, pontificating on Conservative Home in the weeks before he was found out:
Should the Conservatives win the next election, Essex County Council looks forward to using the power of general competence the recent [Tory]decentralisation paper promises. In the meantime, however, local government has been given the opportunity – through the Sustainable Communities Act to make proposals to government on powers it would like to exercise.
I will be outlining on Conservative Home our six proposals which we believe offer real, practical localism – tackling local economic, social and environmental issues in Essex (my emphasis)
One of these six proposals is the very one I refer to above – the deliberately vicious plan to slash benefits for the most vulnerable people in Essex.
But Hanningfield lets the cat out of the bag on his Tory home turf; he’s not really interested in the Labour legislation; this is just a practice run for the real legislative deal, when he and his Essex cronies get to do whatever the fuck they want to the poor.
This time, though, there’ll be no ministerial oversight, no minimum standards, no checks and balances.
With the Powers of General Competence in place, no one can touch the corrupt Hanningfield’s successors, for the (draft) law explicitly allows their actions primacy over parliamentary legislation. If you don’t believe me, read it again, especially para 3.1.
and this is just the start. Remember that Hanningfield is (or was) a top Tory insider, with direct links to the other ‘radical’ councils like Barnet, Southampton, and Hammersmith.
This is a plot to undermine 60 years of the welfare state, and to legislate so that the destruction they wreak cannot be easily reversed. This is the second wave of Thatcherism that not even Thatcher dared dream of. This is real. It’d start with the working class of Essex, but it’d soon catch on.
Now will someone bloody well listen to me?