Unions march on County Hall over privatisation plans

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BANNERS of protest are flying in front of County Hall this afternoon, as unions and opposition councillors launch a fight-back against plans to privatise council services across Northumberland.

The authority’s Liberal Democrat executive is currently exploring the option of becoming a public-private partnership (PPP), in which a contract would be awarded to a firm to take over the running of everything from bin collections to administration.

Names mentioned as candidates for such a move include Capita, BT, Xerox and Fujitsu.

While the executive claims it will help achieve a target of £74million in expected savings over the next two years, workers’ union Unison has branded the move as ‘reckless’, claiming it will result in 1,000 jobs being lost.

And to make its point hit home, its members descended on Morpeth at 4pm with placards bearing a revamped version of the council’s own Love Northumberland – Caring for our Community logo, instead carrying the slogan ‘Northumberland is Not For Sale’.

“Services like front line customer contact, revenue and benefits, catering, cleaning, cleansing and vehicle and grounds maintenance, along with HR are all up for grabs with cultural services, transport and legal services also being primed for outsourcing through multimillion-pound ‘strategic partnerships’ - privatisation, to you and me”, said Joyce Guthrie, Unison joint branch secretary.

“Unison’s own studies have revealed that, at best, council claims about savings are wishful thinking. No credible evidence exists to support them. Worse still, the evidence that does exist points to failures, worse services, increased costs and huge bills to bring failed services back in-house.

“To go ahead with this, in an exercise likely to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds wasted on consultants, without learning the lessons of the last attempt at the tendering fiasco when the unitary authority was established was nothing short of reckless.

“If services are delivered in-house with no need to make a profit, how can they be delivered more cheaply while making a profit on top? Something has to give and that is usually the quality of the service or indeed the whole service - along with any decency in the pay and conditions of those delivering the service.

“You still pay your taxes but instead of the money going on the service and those who deliver it, it goes to company profits. Like the banks, these companies will become ‘too big to fail’ and will have the council over a barrel. It is time for the council to abandon these plans and concentrate on efficient and quality services in-house.”

Fellow joint branch secretary Ian Fleming said: “The union has stressed that it is always ready to fully engage with the council on better and more efficient ways of delivering quality services. However, management seem to have dismissed the idea to seriously looking at in-house options and making no real attempt to look at improving services, just a headlong drive to privatise.

“At present staff are very demoralised at how they are being and have been treated over the last few years within their job roles and now the threat that their service could be privatised fills their future with even more uncertainty”

“It seems to Unison that the council is moving at a rapid speed in order to implement their plans prior to the county council elections in 2013.”