LOOK, let’s get one thing straight – it’s the season of goodwill and I have nothing against Wycombe District Council. It’s a well-run authority and most of its members are pretty decent.
But, I know I’m going to annoy loads of people by continuing to moan at this council’s sense of priorities – and in particular the fact it sent me a Christmas card.
Now, sending me the festive greeting through the post was a nice thoughtful gesture. And I did appreciate it. But WDC spent around £238 in total on these cards, which seems a bit wrong when councillors have been wringing their hands of late and telling us they had to make cuts to benefits.
As has been chronicled here before, between 4,000 to 4,500 council tax benefit claimants will lose £300 per year from April under a decision taken last week. WDC was put in a difficult position because the Government withdrew funding due to welfare reforms – apparently meaning either benefits had to be cut or council tax had to increase.
The council held a consultation and the public appears to have chosen these cuts rather than a tax rise. I know this is a popular view because readers overwhelmingly supported it on a poll on our website, while some of my colleagues also believe a chop in benefits is the best way.
But the main reason many people want this is because they believe the benefits system is flawed. They reckon there are loads of claimants out there who don’t deserve to get anything from the council.
They may, of course, be right, and there is little doubt there are scroungers out there exploiting society’s goodwill.
However, there is also no doubt there are many other worthy benefit cases.
What annoys me about this part of the debate is that it is irrelevant. Councillors haven’t chosen to condemn the system, but have simply pointed to economics.
Scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Ron Gaffney said, during a debate on the issue: “I feel pretty sick about doing this but we have absolutely no choice in the matter.
“At the end of the day something has to be done, I think this is probably the best option.”
As I’ve said before, I’d support the council if it voted to apply more vigorous checks on claimants, and indeed if it barred many from the benefits on grounds of suitability. But this is a sweeping decision that hits everyone apart from the old and disabled, irrespective of merit, and will surely have a sorry impact on some of the most vulnerable in society.
And for what? To save Band D taxpayers £13 per year each household. I’ve already said I’d be happy to pay that, and a few readers have said they’d join me in stumping up the cash. WDC says we can give it to their discretionary fund which is there to help the hardest hit.
I was considering doing this but then I thought of the festive Christmas card from our council which could have equally chosen to send an electronic greeting for a fraction of the cost.
WDC tells us it printed 236 cards, on behalf of the council chairman. It was done in house, second class stamps were used, and the cards were also signed by the chief executive and leader.
I’m not accusing them of being extravagant. However... if they are so hard-up that they have to take benefit claimants’ cash away, something has to give. I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge, but I’d rather protect the Tiny Tims of this world than post Christmas cards.
£238 may be a drop in the ocean as far as this is concerned, but it would be a start. Next, I suggest they suspend all but the most vital civic functions and cut back on the pomp and ceremony, which is nice, but isn’t crucial.
People have to come first for councils before anything else, before Christmas cards and official gatherings. If times are that hard, then a new set of priorities must be introduced.
Either that, or they should tell us the benefit system is totally rubbish in the first place and isn’t worth supporting. I’d prefer that to them telling us they have no other choice. There are lots of choices, councillors – they are just not ones you’d like to make.
But I know they’ll all be angry at me for saying this at Yuletide. So, just to show I’m a good sport, here’s a free Christmas gift for councillors to hang up in the town hall – a Steve Cohen dartboard. They can enjoy free recreation at my expense during meeting breaks.
My dartboard replaces the Christmas card I should, by rights, be sending back to them. And next year, councillors, please reciprocate by – instead of sending me a card – giving back the benefits to the people who really need them.