Earlier this week, Channel 4 released a "comprehensive report" into the scale of local government spending, uncovering some genuine areas for concern (you can read the report and watch the accompanying feature here). There is no doubt that there are sensible savings available. But both the rhetoric and tone of much of the reporting is more reminiscent of the Tax Payer’s Alliance than a quality public service broadcaster. The overall impression is of C4 News doing Osborne's dirty work ahead of huge cuts to council budgets.
“Councils spend millions on sick days, redundancy payouts, and incentives to get staff to come to work including fruit baskets and M&S vouchers” (Siobhan Kennedy, Business Correspondent, Channel 4)
So begins the “shocking and troublesome” insight into “a culture of rampant and unchecked spending”. To put this in perspective, more than two million people are employed in local government. Sick pay and redundancy pay are hard won and deserved employment rights, not a sign of frivolous council largesse. Considering the size of the sector, these costs are inevitably high.
The fruit baskets and shopping vouchers, as the report goes on to explain, are in fact for “100% attendance” records over a year, not gifts for strolling in occasionally. The appropriateness of rewarding attendance is questionable, as most councils agreed, but if schemes costing only £350 to run can generate improved attendance across a council it does at least seem potentially cost effective.
The situation is particularly galling, we are told, because “councils are spending our money.” They are also spending their own money; they are taxpayers. To listen to much of the spittle-flecked discourse on public sector “fat cats” at the minute, you’d be forgiven for thinking council workers are tax exempt – something Philip Green, lauded as part of a “crack team of experts” by the report, could probably offer slightly more expertise on. As Channel 4 reported in August, Green’s tax arrangements saw his wife, Tina, receive a £1.2bn dividend from Arcadia tax free as a non-UK citizen – she is now based in Monaco.
Another common theme is the “race to the bottom” ethos: what the private sector can get away with, the public sector must too. Discussing redundancy packages, Kennedy writes regretfully:
But it costs money to make people redundant and, while there is a national statutory minimum paid to laid off people, Channel 4 News has discovered that some councils pay out rather generous redundancy and severance terms to their staff.
The national statutory minimum is, presumably, more than adequate. The report goes on to examine the differentials in public and private redundancy packages, showing public sector staff in Newham receiving packages three times larger than those in the private sector. The possibility that it might be the private sector at fault, enjoying the fruits of our “flexible” labour market, is not considered.
Throughout the report the language is hostile, inflammatory and divisive. The public sector is always ‘they’ to the hard working ‘we’ who fund their extravagances – “how have councils been spending our cash?”. Usually, they spend it on us. That’s why we pay them. They provide countless services used by millions of people. The vast majority are not highly paid, nor whisked around the world to “trampolining events”. The majority do a thankless task on modest salaries. If it were otherwise, private sector staff would be queuing up to make the switch – yet they aren’t, nor were they even in the boom years of public sector growth.
The report highlights a number of valid concerns, it is a comprehensive and thorough investigation as you would expect from Channel 4. There are areas which need much tighter controls and there a number of local government activities that are simply indefensible. For instance, the provision of private health insurance at tax payer expense. The tax payer already provides health insurance. If the NHS is good enough for those paying council staff wages, it is good enough for council staff. The sickness figures, also, paint a worrying picture. From speaking to council employees, it seems extended periods of stress leave are not altogether uncommon. One Sussex council even felt compelled to offer external counselling for the stress of “returning to work following sick leave”. This same counselling service also offered to help staff with the stress of coming out; not as homosexual, but as an asthmatic.
These are serious issues. In the long term, scrutiny and candour are essential to protecting the public sector. For a small minority of local government managers, the public purse is being used to indulge their whims and fancies, and they taint the public sector as much as any gutter-press tirade. But for every outreach worker for reticent asthma sufferers, there are thousands of employees providing tangible and essential public services. Many are now facing unemployment for a crisis they played no part in creating. They deserve better than the contemptuous barrage that Channel 4 has delivered.