Between 2003 and 2012, I was proud to serve as a councillor in West Lothian, which was recognised as UK Council of the Year in 2006. It gained this award for running good services, having a progressive and innovative approach to change and an excellent relationship with the local voluntary sector.
It was not unique – other councils were delivering similar services in productive and positive partnerships with local people and communities.
Services such as education, housing, social work, care of the elderly, youth work and street cleansing are the services that civilise our society. They educate our children, support our older and vulnerable people, keep our streets clean and safe, and house those in need.
But the deliberate and concerted policy decisions of both the Conservative and SNP Governments has had a genuinely heartbreaking impact on our public services. Councils are having eye-watering sums ripped from their day-to-day budgets year on year – 8.8 per cent between 2010 and 2017.
For my council in West Lothian, this represents cuts of more than £100m. Every other council in Scotland is facing similar cuts. This cannot go on. It is eating away at our communities and the glue that holds our society together.
Every classroom assistant lost sees the life chances of our children affected. Every youth club cancelled is another group of young people on the streets. Every social care contract squeezed is your elderly mum or dad levered into a 15-minute care visit with their carer on an ever more precarious contract.
Every charge increased leaves another group of people unable to afford a service and every job lost another family denied a wage. No Government minister, MSP or councillor of any party with any sense of decency can have stood for election to make people poorer, make workers redundant, close libraries and swimming pools, cut bus routes, impose charges and end grants to the voluntary organisations that play such a vital role in every community.
Day centres, gala days, play groups, summer holiday schemes, lunch clubs and much, much more could be affected across the country. This cannot be allowed to go on. In the run-up to the Scottish Budget, we will hear the usual blame game: it will all be someone else’s fault.
The reality is this: if the Scottish Government refuses to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to end these cuts, but goes ahead instead with plans to scrap, for example, air passenger duty, then their priorities and this public services scandal will have been exposed for all to see.
We will never close the educational attainment gap when we see janitors’ wages having to be paid from money that was supposed to help the poorest children. We will never provide quality care for vulnerable people when wage rises for care staff go unfunded, we will never end health inequalities when social work and their voluntary sector partners are having budgets frozen, cut and stopped. And we will never address the poverty in too many communities when classrooms are full to bursting, teaching staff cannot be found and social work services are unable to cope.
We must use the powers of the Parliament to end the breakdown of community cohesion – taxation and prioritising spending is key.
It is not rocket science. Let’s make a determined and conscious decision to reverse these cuts and give people hope.
Neil Findlay is a Labour MSP for Lothian