Monday, 18 April 2016

Testing times, hard choices

I don’t often write on the Soapbox about my day job. I spend so much time and energy talking about it offline that my readers who know me in the non-cyberspace context are probably fed up of hearing me bang on about it.

But every now and then, the day job overlaps with the concerns of the Soapbox, and sometimes I have stuff to say that is very uncomfortable indeed.

This is a story about Bradford Metropolitan District Council, who have just approved a programme to slash A MILLION POUNDS from the budget they provide for advice services across their district. That’s 27% of their advice budget axed in one fell swoop.

It may not be a very ‘poety’ subject to blog about, but I REALLY believe in advice services. I have a legal qualification, and during the day I work as an adviser with some of the most complex, most vulnerable households in Yorkshire. These are the people who are going to suffer the most from a cut like this. People who don’t have the resources to hire solicitors to represent them when trouble comes in their lives. People who very often don’t have the level of education necessary to represent themselves in court, or pick their way through the maze of the benefits system. People who lack the confidence (or the bloody-mindedness) to stand up to mistreatment at work. People with disabilities. With learning difficulties. People at the end of their tether. People, in short, who would get Royally Shafted By The System if it wasn’t for the fact that there are advice agencies that they can go to, for free, to access help with getting their lives on track, and legal representation to help them fight for their rights.

Advice agencies have had a hard time of it in recent years, thanks to the Tory-driven austerity agenda. The Legal Aid cuts which took effect in 2013 have decimated the services which used to provide advice to the vulnerable. Many agencies (including big national agencies like Citizens’ Advice Bureaux) have relied on local authority funding to keep afloat in the face of government cuts. Others have had to make large-scale redundancies, or even close altogether.

The massive cuts to the advice service budget in Bradford are inevitably going to be a hammer blow to a region which is one of the most deprived in the UK, with a high proportion of residents who do not have English as their first language and so face even bigger difficulties accessing help when they need it. Organisations will close. Committed and experienced advisers will be made redundant. The chances are that because of it, there will be families who lose their homes. Employers who will get away with discrimination and bullying. Victims of crime who will never get redress for what they have suffered.

What has this got to do with poetry, I hear you ask?

Well – leaving aside the obvious answer that poetry is born out of the stuff of human misfortune – I bet quite a few of my readers are followers of the Ilkley Literature Festival. A number of you will have been to events there. Some of you may even have performed there. A year ago you will have got the same string of emails as I did, warning the Festival’s supporters that Bradford Metropolitan District Council were proposing to end their regular block grant to the Festival, and urging all its supporters to sign their petition asking the Council to protect the Festival’s funding.

The petition succeeded. Ilkley Literature Festival kept its Council grant. But when that is set alongside a 27% cut to the advice service budget, am I alone in feeling that there may be a case of distorted priorities here?

Yes, the arts are important. I stand by what I said in an earlier Soapbox article about how in a time of recession, the value of communal participation in the arts goes way beyond mere pounds and pence. I’m also all too well aware that certain vested interests are not all that keen on the voices of grassroots arts practitioners, particularly when they use those voices as a vehicle to question, challenge and protest what is being done. And I don’t envy the choices that had to be made by Council officials looking at ever diminishing budgets, and knowing that the axe had to fall somewhere. When we're talking £11,000 versus a million, it’s unlikely this was an “either/or” decision.

But I still can’t help being uncomfortable that Ilkley Literature Festival kept its funding, when advice agencies have lost theirs. When friends and colleagues of mine are being made redundant, and vulnerable households can no longer turn to them for support and advice.

The thing is, Ilkley Literature Festival is massive. It takes place in “the rich bit” of Bradford MDC’s administrative area. It has private funding from trusts, corporate sponsorship, and donations from benefactors. If it had lost its Council funding, the Festival would have survived. Yes, it might have had to tighten its belt, to think about a slightly less ambitious programme for a year or two – but as I’ve argued before, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ilkley Literature Festival should not believe itself entitled to anything. Other festivals don’t – I write relatively fresh from seeing what a great programme the York Literature Festival managed this year without any local authority funding and with no Arts Council grant. It would not have been a disaster had Bradford MDC withdrawn Ilkley Literature Festival’s funding; it would have just meant that its fundraisers had to get a bit cleverer.

But it is a disaster that Bradford’s advice agencies are going to be making people redundant, and withdrawing services that the most vulnerable in the community rely on. If we poets are going to get angry about anything, let’s get cross about that, for heaven’s sake.

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