On Thursday 27th October the City Council will be asked to make a decision which could lead to a wide range of services (refuse collection, building caretaking and security for example) being run under contract by large private companies. If agreed these contracts will run for 5 or maybe 7 years so this is a very big decision indeed. More services such as ‘personnel’ services are up for a similar decision in December.
Why hasn’t this received more attention? Partly because the process was initially put forward in 2009 as an ‘exploration’ of the ‘potential’ to create three ‘strategic’ partnerships. But by June 2010 this had become a ‘dialogue for procurement’ with 15 organisations. By December 2010 the LibDem/SNP coalition running the council agreed to shortlist ‘bidders’.
In theory in parallel with all this process of ‘contracting’ staff have been asked to work up an in house alternative. At the meeting on 27th October the Council will be asked either to go with the ‘in house’ solution, or to pick a ‘bidder’ and start a ‘short period’ of ‘contract refinement’.
There has been very little public consultation. As part of its heavily criticised budget consultation process one of the questions asked was whether people would support privatisation as a means of dealing with local budget deficits. Numbers participating in this exercise were small (with people at some meetings refusing to ‘vote’ on questions which were either ‘leading’ or one dimensional ). At best people answering ‘yes’ thought they were agreeing to an ‘option’ being looked at. In August 2011 the Council commissioned an IPSOS-MORI poll of Edinburgh opinion on their proposals but neither the questions asked nor the answers given have yet been made public.
Only Labour and Green candidates have opposed this at all stages. The LibDem/SNP Administration councillors have agreed all the reports so far.
Does it matter? Advocates of the proposals will say that services will improve and ‘savings‘ will be made. But let’s look at the process which is already ongoing for Homecare services for older and disabled people. The Council took a decision (opposed by my Labour colleagues) two years ago to tender out 75% of these services to private or voluntary sector providers. This process is already well underway. A few weeks ago I met a constituent who works as a carer for one of these firms. The staff had just been called in to be told ‘Good News we’ve just won a four year contract’. The bad news was that staff pay was being cut by 50p per hour. Presumably the company had bid low to get the contract and the only way to make it work and guarantee their profit was to reduce staff wages. Staff training and monitoring are areas where firms make savings. And the ultimate loser? The person being cared for and their families.
Going down this road is a choice being made by the LibDem/SNP administration. They started down this road in 2009, before the change of government at Westminster and the start of severe cuts in public spending. Nor is it a response to the problems over the trams since the money spent so far on tram works was given to the council over and above its normal allocation from Government. By June 2011 the Council had already spent £1.2m on this project and is planning to spend another £600.000 this year. On top of that a great deal of staff time and effort has been diverted into this scheme. But the Administration still has a choice – to stop sliding down this route before it is too late.
There will be a demonstration at the City Chambers on the 27th between 9am and 10am. Before that remember that everyone has at least one councillor in their multi member ward who has supported this ‘choice’ (the Tories also support it) – why not write, email or attend their surgeries?