Staff 'shocked and bemused' by council cuts

By Martin Neville

Published on Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 09:17


UNISON has written to the leader of the Isle of Wight Council leader, Cllr David Pugh, ahead of next week’s crucial budget meeting.

In his letter, Unison branch secretary Mark Chiverton says council staff continue to be shocked and bemused about the sheer scale of what has already been imposed, and continue to be exceptionally concerned about the 'devastating' effect that many of the cutbacks are having on the Island community.

The County Press has published the letter in full below:

I am writing to you in advance of next week’s full council meeting, which will decide the Isle of Wight Council budget for 2012-13. As you know, the trade unions will be meeting you on Monday in order to set out their perspectives on the latest position and the way forward but, in the meantime, I am writing to you at the request of the Unison branch executive committee to emphasise a few key points and questions as follows:

1. Although the budget position facing the Island this year has not attracted as much media publicity as the position at this time last year, the level of cuts being proposed by the council for 2012-13 is still significantly greater than on any occasion prior to last year. In this situation, council staff continue to be both shocked and bemused about the sheer scale of what has already been imposed and continue to be exceptionally concerned about the devastating effect many of these cutbacks are having, and will continue to have, on the Island community.

The Isle of Wight has always been heavily dependent on the public sector for both quality of life and employment, and I am very aware from comments received on a daily basis from Unison members throughout the council that there is a huge sense of dismay, and almost despair, about the medium to long-term future of the Island in terms both of service delivery and employment opportunity. The purported purpose of the government’s approach is that resources released by the public sector cutbacks should lead to increased employment in the private sector. So far, there is no evidence to suggest this is happening and, to date, unemployment has actually significantly increased! There is a widespread feeling the council needs to do more to take up the special circumstances facing the Island more directly with the government and an increasing frustration that the council is not sufficiently vocal or visible in this respect.

2. Although it is acknowledged some money has recently been used in an attempt to promote employment on the Island, there is considerable confusion as to the council’s precise strategy in this respect. Given the fact the council appears to have underspent in a number of areas, there are repeated questions about why, given the hundreds of job losses over the last year, this money could not have been used to sustain services and existing employment rather than being used in relation to eye-catching, but probably unsustainable, approaches to easing the unemployment situation. These, although superficially attractive, are not regarded as amounting to a genuinely sustainable strategy in terms of addressing the Island’s longer term employment needs.

3. As you know, there has been considerable unhappiness and unrest among staff over recent months about the council’s review of staff terms and conditions. It is acknowledged and welcomed that the authority retreated from some of the more draconian proposals originally put forward and that, for many staff working a '9-5 Monday to Friday' pattern, the package was eventually one to which they were prepared to reluctantly agree. However, it needs to be recognised there continues to be deep unhappiness among staff groups working unsocial hours — many of whom are low paid (eg care staff, floating bridge workers, crematorium technicians etc) and who stand to lose around 20 per cent of their already very limited take-home pay. In addition, many 'out of hours' social workers, environmental health officers etc continue to be confused and concerned about what they see as a 'one size fits all' approach, which will deliver an inferior service and, in some instances, be actually more expensive! Although talks are continuing in an effort to resolve some of these key issues, the overall damage to morale as a result of what has happened should not be underestimated.

4. There are increasing concerns in some areas that recruitment and retention of middle-range professional staff is already difficult and is likely to get worse. The Isle of Wight Council already pays lower than most mainland authorities and the current erosion of terms and conditions, combined with a three-year pay freeze and the downgrading of many posts, is exacerbating the situation. The number of agency staff still being engaged in a number of areas (particularly, but not exclusively, in social care) continues to be disturbingly high and a source of considerable comment and discontent.

5. Recent budget papers have suggested that, in those areas of social care which are being considered for possible reorganisation in terms of creating an 'arms length' arrangement or possible externalisation, staff are very positive about the proposals. Unison wishes to stress that, although these staff groups are always open to any change which has the potential to improve service delivery, they are deeply concerned and apprehensive about any approach which could lead to a full externalisation. Experience has shown such an approach in an Island context has always been disastrous in terms of staff conditions (and, in particular, ongoing pension arrangements). Even more importantly, it is not considered that such approaches have in any way improved service delivery — in fact, largely the reverse. There is great concern that such an approach could be very damaging to the 'mixed economy of care', which has served the Island well for many years.

6. There continue to be questions and concerns about the organisational and political implications of joint working with Southampton. It is considered there needs to be extreme caution about an approach which could, in due course, lead to further jobs being lost on the Island and the Isle of Wight becoming a junior partner to a larger mainland authority.

7. It is clear from a number of budget papers published in recent months there have been a number of significant underspends in some areas. Despite strenuous council denials, a number of Unison members continue to be concerned there may be an underlying strategy designed to build reserves to ensure a zero, or minimal, council tax increase in advance of the 2013 local elections.

8. You are probably aware that Unison nationally has expressed concern about the government’s approach in terms of this year’s one-off grant to local authorities if they do not increase council tax levels and which is seen as being little more than a cynical bribe. Although clearly the Island public (including Unison members) can ill afford any increase in council tax levels, a number of people have highlighted the fact that a number of Conservative councils elsewhere have refused this money as, being a one-off payment, it is likely to leave council services and budgets more vulnerable to future cuts if accepted. This is plainly a difficult dilemma for all councils and political parties but it would be useful to have more information about the thinking of the local cabinet in deciding its approach to this issue.



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