It was a slightly uneasy feeling walking into the Civic Centre for the annual budget setting meeting of Borough Council last night. There was a large number of demonstrators, many of them from the teaching profession, objecting to the administration's proposal to withdraw £517k of funding from the Hounslow Language Service with a view to transferring responsibility to where it should more properly rest, with the schools themselves which are centrally funded to a far more generous extent than are local authorities.
The economic case was fairly much unarguable. Government funding to schools had been increased by 7.5%, whilst funding to the London Borough of Hounslow had grown by just 1%. The reserves held by Hounslow's schools total £11.5m, whilst those held by the whole of the rest of the local authority put together amount to just £9m. Nonetheless the Head Teachers and Deputy Heads who had lobbied us had been persuaded by the usual dishonest and pernicious political suspects (and I have to say there is a small but vociferous minority amongst their number who require little persuading) that twenty teachers were about to lose their jobs, hundreds of children who do not speak English as a first language were going to suffer, and so on.
"You call it dishonesty, we call it politics," as Councillor Ruth Cadbury once smirkingly observed at a Borough Council debate on the morality or otherwise of wilfully deceiving the public in pursuit of political gain, defining at a stroke the essential difference which exists between her and her party's approach to political engagement and ours.
I don't like being demonstrated against. I feel much more at home standing amongst the crowd, persuader rather than persuaded. What made it particularly difficult was those who had been whipped up to come along and demonstrate were wholly decent people, polite as they engaged me as I entered the Civic Centre, respectful and dignified throughout the Borough Council meeting itself. I look forward to being able to meet some of these people in a few months' time, when the realisation comes to them that they have been had, and to speak them about their ongoing concerns and issues and how we as an administration can help address them.
The demonstration brought back memories to me of 2002, when the then New Labour administration had let it be known that it proposed to cream off no less than £3m from the allocation that had been intended for Education (this was before the days of Direct Schools Grant, which now ring-fences the government contribution to Schools) to spend on other priorities. After much marching, campaigning and demonstrating by members of the community the New Labour administration "changed its mind", having "listened to the people" and "only" filched £1m from the Education pot. The demonstrators went home happy!
In my honest opinion our presentation of this year's budget lacked the political guile that had accompanied that particular piece of skullduggery back in 2002. Perhaps because we are honest by nature, we expect others to be equally so and as such we hand our opponents, who are not bound by such constraints, an automatic advantage.
Neither I nor any other member of the Community Group spoke at last night's Borough Council. There were reasons for this which I will not go into here. In the event we delivered five votes for the recommendation and one abstention. All six of us had taken a carefully thought-out and responsible decision on the strength of the information available to us.
After a dismal two and a half years the Labour opposition had a little flash of glory last night albeit, typically, on the back of a campaign of misinformation and then tempered quickly by news which came across from London towards the end of the meeting (of which more soon). But one must not deprive them of their moment.
I will be revisiting the question of the Hounslow Language Service on this blog in a few months' time. If my decision to support last night's recommendation is proved to have been mistaken I will admit as much. If it proves to have been correct I will be asking the Leader of the Labour Group for an apology for his party's shameless scaremongering.