Hey folks why has much attention has been paid to the government’s “gagging law”, which attempts to silence civil society. What is less widely known is that the government are also trying to silence elected local councils.
This week in Parliament, Eric Pickles is pushing through new powers to become the censor-in-chief of local government. At the same time, evidence is emerging that his department is encouraging councils to print pro-government propaganda.
Hidden within the government’s local audit and accountability bill is a clause that will give Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, powers to dictate when and how councils can publish communications to local citizens. Even more of a concern is the fact that Pickles is taking a power of censorship to direct what issues and information councils can talk about and what language and phraseology will be allowed.
Ministers have made clear that their intention is to prevent councils from sharing information or commenting on the impact of government policy if they disapprove of the message. Examples given by ministers include not allowing elected leaders of a local authority to publish a comment on the effect of central government funding changes, so furious are they that councils are letting their residents know the scale of cuts they are facing.
Under these new powers, the secretary of state could also force councils to use pro-government terminology, such as the benign sounding “spare room subsidy” rather than the unpopular and unfair “bedroom tax”. Legal advice to the Local Government Association says the censorship laws will prevent local councils from publishing information on issues such as HS2 or health service reconfigurations.
The government argues that the power is needed because local authorities are breaching the current voluntary code on local authority publicity yet they haveonly managed to find one strong examples of a proven breach. While Tower Hamlets council’s publication, East End Life, does seem to flout the code, it is shocking that the government has failed to take any action using the powers that already exist in more than three years.
I’m not sure that agree with Pickles that Tower Hamlets is a problem, so why has he not acted against them? He already has the ability to do so, for example by judicial review. But he hasn’t taken any action at all. In fact, as he attempted to explain to me in a parliamentary question, it is actually because he hasn’t done anything that he believes he needs to give himself these dictatorial powers.
This is so extraordinary that one might assume that if councils knew the full extent of his plans that they would resist. Through several freedom of information requests, I have discovered that the department has not communicated with local authorities about the plans at all since May 2010. No councils have answered have any letters or emails on this subject. This is all being done behind local authorities’ backs.
At the same time as he is censoring councils from saying things he does not like, he is seeking to use them as a propaganda arm of the central state. I have discovered that the department for communities and local government has been circulating suggested press releases to councils.A recent “suggested” press release on the troubled families programme advises local authorities on the positive ways in which they should trumpet the government’s policy.
Pickles preaches the localism rhetoric, but the truth is that he does not like local democracy. Starved of funds, subject to diktats on when to collect the bins, and now subject to censorship, it’s clear that his warnings that cigar-chomping commies are looking to take over government were remarkably prescient.
Pickles’ censorship laws have been described by Annette Brooke MP as a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”. Liberal Democrat Cambridge city council say the clause is “disproportionate and unnecessary”, Watford borough council believe it to be a “threat to local democracy” and their MPs abstained on the proposals during committee stages. Next week, I will ask them to join with Labour to oppose this deeply illiberal council gagging law.
Yet we all recently knew that the government has been accused of putting “anti-European ideology” before the needs of the most deprived people in society after Britain rejected help from a European Union fund to help subsidise the costs offood banks.
David Cameron, who was heavily criticised recently after Michael Gove blamed the rise in food banks on financial mismanagement by families, faced pressure to embark on a U-turn to allow EU funds to be spent on feeding the poor.
The government came under fire after British officials in Brussels said that the UK did not want to use money from a new £2.5bn fund – European Aid to the Most Deprived – to be used to help with the costs of running food banks. The use of food banks has increased dramatically in recent months, prompting Sir John Major to warn that the poor face a stark choice between paying for heating or food.
But British officials rejected EU funding for food banks, which could have reached £22m for Britain, on the grounds that individual member states are best placed to take charge of such funding.
A document from the Department of Work and Pensions explaining Britain’s position, which has been leaked to the press, says: “The UK government does not support the proposal for a regulation on the fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. It believes that measures of this type are better and more efficiently delivered by individual member states through their own social programmes, and their regional and local authorities, who are best placed to identify and meet the needs of deprived people in their countries and communities. It therefore questions whether the commission’s proposal is justified in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.”
Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP who helped negotiate the new fund, accused the government of neglecting the needs of the poor. “It is very sad that our government is opposing this much-needed help for foodbanks on the basis that it is a national responsibility, when in reality it has no intention of providing the help itself. The only conclusion is that Conservative anti-European ideology is being put before the needs of the most destitute and deprived in our society.”
Howitt added that he hoped that a Westminster parliamentary debate on Wednesday would prompt a government U-turn. He said the debate “should be used to shame a government, which is taking food out of the mouths of the hungry, into a U-turn in time for Christmas”.
It is understood that in “trilogue” negotiations – between the European commission, the council of ministers and the European Parliament – British officials formed a blocking minority with three other EU member states to water down the fund which will run from 2014-2020. Under the original plans there would have been just one funding strand for the “distribution of material assistance” – sleeping bags and food. But Britain prompted the creation of a second funding strand known as “immaterial assistance” to cover counselling and budget maintenance but not food banks.
The position taken by UK officials means that Britain will draw down just €3.5m (£2.9m) from the fund compared with €443m for France which is around the same size as the UK. Britain is taking the same amount as Malta, the smallest EU member state with a population of 450,000.
The department for work and pensions said that Britain has not lost any money because the £22m would have come out of the UK’s EU structural fund pot. It said that ministers have not decided how to allocate the £2.9m earmarked for Britain from the fund, though this is expected to be spent on helping unemployed people find work.
The Labour motion scheduled for a vote in the Commons will the Conservatives back it? “That this House notes that the number of people using foodbanks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 since April this year, of whom one third were children; further notes that over the last three years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes the assessment of the Trussell Trust that the key factors in the rising resort to foodbanks are rising living costs and stagnant wages, as well as problems including delays to social security payments and the impact of the under-occupancy penalty; calls on the Government to publish the results of research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which Ministers promised would be made public in the summer of 2013; and further calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on foodbanks, including a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty.”
The Tory Work and Pensions Minister claimed food banks are a sign of success, as if they could ever be an adequate substitute for decent wages and a proper social safety net. And while Labour MPs spoke out about the difficulties families in their constituencies are facing, we had the unedifying sight of Tory MPs jeering and shouting.
The sad fact is that food banks have become a truly shameful symbol of Britain under this Tory-led government. Despite the UK being one of the richest countries in the world we have rapidly rising numbers of British people, many of them in work, are forced to turn to charity to feed themselves and their children.
The reports from the Trussell Trust are truly shocking. Around half of those they are helping through food banks are in work. One in three of those fed by food banks are children. And according to disabled charities, one in ten of those hit by the cruel and unworkable bedroom tax are having to use food banks to get by.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We aren’t losing money – any funding the UK receives from the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived will be taken off our structural fund allocation. Instead we will use our structural funds to support local initiatives to train and support disadvantaged people into work. We have not yet decided how the €3.5m euro pot (£2.9m) will be spent – food aid is just one of the options for spending the money.”
Chris Mould, the executive chairman of Britain’s largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust, told the Guardian: “We would welcome an opportunity to have discussions with DWP about how we could use that €3.5m to good effect. If the EU made a decision in the European Parliament that this money should be used for the assistance of people in severe need – and it has got a food aid tag on it – then we hope they will talk to us.”
On the signs that the government would like to spend the money in helping people into work, rather than on food aid, Mould said: “It is the decision of government at all times what its priorities are for the money it has available. But it does need to spend money in several places not in one place. The Trussell Trust has provided through its network of food banks emergency assistance for over 500,000 people since 2013 who are in financial crisis, who are going hungry who have been referred by more than 23,000 different professionals holding vouchers.
“If people don’t get help when they are in financial crisis they lose their home, their families break down, they suffer anxiety and depression. All these things have a significant financial cost to the state. It is very important that the government looks beyond the narrow single issue argument of spending all the money into employment. Of course that is important but they are spending massive of money on that which is good. But this EU money is extra and originally intended to be for food assistance.”