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Sleights of Hand

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When the Artful Dodger first takes Oliver Twist out ‘to make pocket-handkerchiefs’, Oliver gets caught while the Dodger escapes back to Fagin’s den in Saffron Hill, in what is now the southern end of the London Borough of Camden. The campaigning website 38 Degrees recently paid for newspaper ads depicting the chancellor of the exchequer as the Artful Dodger because of his tax avoidance. But some of George Osborne’s other sleights of hand are much sneakier.

The 27 per cent cut in central government funding to local councils, combined with what the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has called ‘the most radical shift in power to local government for a generation’, means that though the cuts are being imposed by Westminster, local authorities have to decide which services are to be affected – and therefore, or so the government hopes, take the blame (this seems to be what Pickles really means by a ‘shift in power’).

Camden, where I’ve happily paid most of my council tax over the past decade, will lose between £80 million and £100 million in the three years from April 2011. What happens after that isn’t clear – perhaps the Big Society is expected to have stepped in by then. In the meantime, just a few of the Labour-run council’s proposals include ending the borough’s play service and cutting its free nursery provision for three and four-year-olds to the statutory minimum, closing some of the 13 libraries and stopping all ‘non-essential’ repairs to council housing.

On Monday night, the Camden Trades Council, an association of trade unionists who live and work in the borough, held a meeting at the town hall to launch Camden United Against the Cuts, a campaign to inform and encourage local opposition in the run up to the council’s budget meeting on 28 February. Short speeches from the platform were followed by an hour of suggestions and interventions from residents and campaigners (including UCL students) in the chamber. It quickly became clear what most of the 200-odd attendees want to happen when the council votes on next year’s budget.

Frank Dobson, Camden’s Labour MP, said cryptically, and more than once, that ‘it is very hard to ask a councillor to break the law.’ And later: ‘It’s a decision that each individual councillor and their family has to make for themselves.’ The bat signal he was sending out to anyone who cared to tune in was that councillors could (though as a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party he couldn’t possibly say so) refuse to do central government’s dirty work and instead set an illegal budget or delay setting one at all, which would lead to individual councillors being surcharged, and disqualified from office if they failed to pay, as happened in Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s.

Heckles of ‘Not any more’ came from the gallery. Dobson and others in the chamber may have been dreaming of 1921, when George Lansbury led Poplar councillors to prison, but it’s harder to be a local hero these days. Under Section 50 of the Local Government Finance Act (1992), councils are required to set a balanced budget. In practice this means that if the ruling group of a local authority refuses to set a legal budget, it will fall to the opposition, and if the opposition group can’t pass an alternative, it will fall to an unelected officer. And why shouldn’t it?

The councillors who spoke on Monday were vehement that things would be worse if they didn’t take responsibility but couldn’t explain why they should be the ones to impose cuts that none of them believe in and none of them were elected last May to make. The government wasn’t elected to make them either, but they’d be the last people to worry about something like that. In Oliver Twist, after being convicted at Bow Street magistrate’s court, ‘the Dodger suffered himself to be led off by the collar; threatening, till he got into the yard, to make a parliamentary business of it; and then grinning in the officer’s face, with great glee and self-approval.’

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