I was born and brought up in Essex, and by and large, despite all the jokes, I’m usually proud to say I’m an Essex man. I was born in a house in Leigh (at the bottom of Leigh Hall Road), and I went to school at North Street Infants and Juniors, and then Westcliff High (for Boys, naturally).
But Essex people don’t have the same invincible self-belief that, say, Yorkshiremen have. And when I found out about this year’s County Council Budget, I did wonder whether being an Essex man was something to be so proud of.
This year’s finances were always going to be tight. The Liberal Democrats and Labour put together proposals which required significant cuts in some services. But a Labour councillor was ill on budget day, and we, the good people of Essex, find ourselves lumbered with a budget put together on the back of an envelope by the Tories.
So – what does it mean to you and me? Two things: first, every Council Tax payer in Essex will save 17 pence a week. (Don’t reach for your calculator – it’s £8.84 a year. The price of two packets of cigarettes. Or two bottles of cheapish wine.) Second, £3 million of cuts will have to be made, beyond the reductions already needed to balance the books.
Most of these extra cuts will fall where they hurt most, on the poorest and weakest members of society. On those who have the smallest voice. On the frail elderly, on vulnerable children, on the mentally ill.
We’re pretty well off, on the whole, in this part of Essex. I was surprised, when I first became a councillor in Rayleigh, to discover that there were poor and vulnerable people two minutes’ walk from my front door; homeless, helpless, distressed people, looking for support in a hostile world.
Who looks after these people? You and I may not see the hidden suffering that some Essex men and women bear – but they are looked after by a brave and selfless army of helpers, friends, family and professionals. Social workers are the butt of more jokes than Essex girls – but day after day they deal with the flotsam and jetsam of our society. They pick up the pieces when families fall apart, when babies are abandoned, when elderly relatives become too much to cope with.
Cllr Pat Pascoe has been on the Social Services Committee for eleven years. She resigned last month as Chairman as she cannot implement the cuts the irresponsible Tory budget has made inevitable. Please listen to her words:
“Conservative county councillors voted through a budget which cannot be implemented without causing hardship that is totally unacceptable in the affluent society in which we live … The Conservatives claim that they will make the savings by freezing or cutting the pay of our staff and reducing paid sick leave.
Most of this saving, if it is achievable, will be at the expense of Social Services staff – partly because they are the largest staff group affected, and partly because they suffer the greatest stress. Many are amongst the lowest paid of the council’s employees. Like nurses, they spend their lives caring for the old and the ill and those suffering physical pain and mental anguish, from new-born, abandoned babies to frail centenarians. There is a national shortage of Social Workers and Occupational Therapists. It is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit Home Care Assistants and Residential Care staff.”
It may seem unnecessary to say so, but may I point out that there are two types of wealth? The most obvious is the cash you have in your pocket or bank account, or the house, car and other worldly goods you own. Not so obvious is the wealth that is represented by the ability to walk down the street without being mugged, to know that your health is in good hands if you fall ill, and that your children will be have a decent education.
The Tories, both nationally and locally, appear to have fallen for the attraction of the former. They think that a few pence a week in your pocket is better than the assurance of a decent life for our most vulnerable citizens.
Personally, I’d rather pay an extra 17 pence a week and be sure that my neighbours were well looked after. Then I’d be proud again to call myself an Essex man.
So here’s to the army of dedicated Social Services staff in Essex who will come under fire again when they have to withdraw or refuse services to those in desperate need. We should remember that it is not their fault. It is the fault of the Conservatives at County Hall.