Mar 2 2011 By Liam Murphy
MEMBERS of the public were forced to leave Wirral Council’s budget meeting after a series of disruptions from angry campaigners complaining about care home closures.
The meeting last night at Wallasey town hall was always expected to rubber stamp the budget approved by the Tory and Lib-Dem controlled cabinet last week, although Labour had hoped to tempt some Lib-Dems into voting against it. Among the measures brought in were a zero council tax increase, along with 1,100 jobs axed from the local authority as it deals with a budget deficit totalling almost £50m.
But angry scenes followed a demonstration outside the town hall as campaigners shouted abuse at councillors.
The meeting began with a petition presented by Brian Donaldson, who spoke movingly of his 28-year-old son, who he said "is profoundly physically and mentally handicapped" and how they use the respite services.
Mr Donaldson was appealing to councillors to re-think plans to shut care and respite homes.
However, a Liberal Democrat amendment, while recognising "the deeply-felt concerns of service users", said the overall level of support to the most vulnerable members of society would not be cut, and made no changes to the plans.
Cabinet member for social services Bob Moon told the meeting that already "the majority of respite care in Wirral is provided by the private sector".
Facing shouts from the public gallery, Cllr Moon insisted under the plans "people would have more choice and control, and more options in how they access respite care".
But Labour’s Moira McLaughlin called on Lib-Dems to back the Labour amendment which would have seen a delay in closures and said Cllr Moon’s amendment "did not address the concerns" and added: "Sharing an aspiration is not the same as meeting a need."
The meeting took some time to get under way after repeated interruptions from those protesting about the proposed cuts from the public gallery and eventually the patience of Mayor Alan Jennings ran out and he demanded the gallery be cleared and the meeting be relayed by speaker to a committee room. In a rowdy meeting which lasted late into the night, council leader Jeff Green told the meeting he was proud to be the first Conservative leader in Wirral for 24 years, and said no resident will pay extra council tax in the coming year.
He said the budget would "protect vulnerable people" and boost business and "areas people care most about will see investment".
He attacked the previous Labour government for leaving a legacy of debt, but insisted his budget would "ensure no part of Wirral is left behind".
But Labour leader Steve Foulkes described it as "an absolute disgrace", and was highly critical of the decision to eject people from the public gallery. He said: "There were protesters there to campaign for services for the most vulnerable people in our society."
He dismissed the council’s major consultation exercise last year as "an absolute joke", and said the numbers involved in Mr Donaldson’s petition, presented at the start of the meeting to protect care homes, "far outweighed" the authority’s own consultation.
He accused the Conservatives of an "ideological attack" on local government, was angry Wirral’s political leadership had not fought harder against Government cuts to its budget, and called on Lib-Dems to support their opposition to the budget.
He said he believed the budget was "unsafe" and had written to the district auditor about it.
However, the Lib-Dems had earlier released a statement claiming Labour had planned to shut care homes while in power, and many of their councillors suggested Labour’s opposition was politically opportunist.
The Lib-Dems and Tories voted against Labour’s budget amendments and agreed to press on with the cabinet’s proposals.