Where is Neil Kinnock when he's needed most?

'Why should council taxpayers' money be wasted on extravagances like toilet rolls for kids?'
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The Independent Online

Democracy is such a nuisance. In America the Republican argument appears to be: "Don't bother counting the votes, that just holds the whole thing up." But a slightly subtler version of a similar approach is currently being played out in the London Borough of Hackney.

Democracy is such a nuisance. In America the Republican argument appears to be: "Don't bother counting the votes, that just holds the whole thing up." But a slightly subtler version of a similar approach is currently being played out in the London Borough of Hackney.

According to the Government, and the borough treasurer, the council has vastly "overspent". Though councils who have overspent never look the same as anyone else who has overspent. There isn't a pair of diamond ear-rings hanging from Hackney Town Hall as the caretaker squeaks: "Well I fancied cheering myself up." Or a bloke in charge of the central library who admitted at a finance meeting that he'd lost the science fiction section in a game of cards. It never seems to occur to central government that the poorer an area is, the more it may need to spend on services. Instead they think: "Balmoral Council seems to be able to get by on a council house repairs budget of ninepence so why can't you?"

So Hackney has had its government grant cut by£50m over the last three years, leading to the "overspending". In order to combat this cavalier attitude to spending, the borough treasurer announced 250 redundancies and declared that no department could buy anything at all unless it asked for permission.

The manager of one nursery was told that she couldn't buy milk or toilet-rolls as they weren't "essential." Which is fair enough. Why should council-taxpayers' money be wasted on ornamental items with no conceivable practical use such as a toilet roll for kids? Before concluding that whoever said this must be a sadist, it's worth considering what may have led to this idea. Maybe the treasurer is a veteran of the dirty protest in the H-blocks and thinks: "If the wall was good enough for me, it's good enough for them." Or there might be a plan to encourage business by abolishing toilet rolls in favour of an out-of-town complex called "World of Wipes".

No one, not even The Daily Telegraph, could describe Hackney Council as "loony left". It is run by a Labour/Tory coalition, probably the first to exist since the Second World War. So they have agreed a round of cuts amounting to £18m in next year's budget. Government appointees decided that, following this, they would allow the council to continue spending, but only on condition that they agreed to what Max Caller, the council's managing director, described as "tough choices". The first of these is to privatise rubbish collection by the end of the year.

This is exactly what happens when the banks get a grip on Third World countries, who are allowed to secure essential loans only if they make cuts and privatise. By the time this is over, the people of Hackney will all be pushing donkeys through Victoria Park, which will have been turned into a plantation providing cheap coffee for the Americans.

Or perhaps there will be an East London version of the "oil for food" system that the West agreed with Saddam. This one will be called "dustcarts for bog-rolls". Every time a dustcart is sold off to a dodgy firm from Sweden, another toddler gets a wipe. If the elected councillors don't satisfy the treasurer's demands, however, the council will be folded up and replaced with officials appointed by auditors.

One of the questions thrown up by this situation is: "Where is Neil Kinnock when he's needed?" Shouldn't he be making a speech that goes: "Obsession with the free market starts with an ideology, then becomes a dogma, and you end up with the grotesque spectacle of a Labour council, a Labour council, scuttling round with Tories issuing redundancy notices."

Another question is whether there can possibly be any point of contact between a New Labour-tron from the Treasury and any of the thousands of east-London protesters demanding the retention of services. The conversation would go something like... Alistair Darling: "I can assure you we are operating within the necessary rigour of our fiscal requirements." Protester: "Leave it aht, you give us the right 'ump, Prescott's jam jars must burn up a monkey a day." Darling: "Yes, I'll see what I can do."

But the main question for New Labour is: Where does the figure of £22m, which, it is estimated is required to save Hackney, come from? Where indeed can this figure (which, incidentally, is roughly 2 per cent of the amount granted to the Dome) possibly be found? One answer might be to cover the entire borough with a sheet of tarpaulin and erect a sign at Shoreditch that says: "You are now entering the Cockney Zone." An official from the Treasury will be round with 700 million quid, saying: "There you go darlings, get yerself down Romford Market and get yerself something nice." Other than that, Max Caller, whose salary is £150,000 a year, will have to think up his own suggestions.

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