Local battles are part of wider war
COUNCIL workers, local residents and trades unionists lobbied Barnet council's meeting on December 3, in Whetstone. The night was cold, but the turn out was high, and so, with the help of hot coffee, mince pies and suitably topical words sung to familiar carols, were the spirits of everyone taking part. The singing gave way to boos when leading councillors arrived.
Fresh from its experience losing £27 million in Icelandic banks, Tory-controlled Barnet is intent on handing over as much as it can of local services to private business.
Despite the protest outside, the council's cabinet committee rubber stamped the latest Future Shape report. At a cost of £250,000, for the next six months the administration will look at the feasibility of privatising large parts of the council services. They had claimed that they would look at all the options for improving council services but they have really only had in mind one option: large-scale outsourcing.
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Tory councillors rubbished the unions, painting them as dinosaurs, only interested in protecting well-paid jobs and privileges. But everyone knows that unlike some of the affluent councillors, council workers are not highly-paid, and though they do want to defend what conditions they have won, they also want to defend the services in which they work and on which they and theri families may also depend.
They, and the people they serve, also know that dedicated in-house staff with good morale are more likely to provide decent services than are private profiteers, using casual workers under pressure to cut corners.
The public has seen the results of privatisation - from unsafe railways to dirty hospitals. Private companies are responsible to shareholders. They are used to wrapping their affairs in business confidentiality. Public bodies like local councils are meant to be accountable to the public. But many people in Barnet are saying they only found out about the council's privatisation plans through the local unions' campaigning. Barnet Trades Union Council, relaunched this year, has held street stalls and a 300-strong public meeting to alert and mobilise people.
Tory council leader Mike Freer said he did not know how many members of public knew about the December 3 meeting. Mind you, Cllr.Freer has also said he did not know the council had money in Icelandic banks till he read about them collapsing. Maybe this hands-off approach is in preparation for handing over contracts and local services. But Barnet Tories are not short of chutzpah, from Brian Gordon's famous fancy-dress performance as "Nelson Mandela" to Brian Coleman, accusing unions of protecting privilege, while as Greater London Assembly member he claimed £10,334 taxi expenses in one year.
Barnet Tories are not special, though. If they are exuding an unseemly confidence, it could be because what they are doing in Barnet is part of a wider pattern, amounting to a nationwide campaign. Like a military campaign it is proceeding by stealth, with people other than top level being kept in the dark or only informed at the last minute on a "need to know" basis. But, as you might expect, big business interests are in on the action.
In Somerset, IBM set up a company called Southwest One, to take over services within Somerset County Council, Taunton Borough Council, and the Avon and Somerset Police Authority. Some 1,400 staff found themselves employed by Southwest One, initially on the same terms and conditions as before, but the company has undertaken to make savings of tens of millions of pounds. How will this be done without hitting jobs and services?
Trade unionists watching this front believe the name Southwest One is an indication that something like this in intended to unfold across other areas.
Besides Barnet, another Tory borough which has sallied into action against its workers was Hammersmith and Fulham, which has already privatised some services. The council issued dismissal notices to 4,200 staff, requiring them to reapply for their jobs under new terms and conditions. It wanted to push through cuts in maternity leave, bereavement leave and compassionate leave and introduces compulsory Saturday, Sunday and evening working without any extra pay. Following union opposition the council withdrew its sacking notice at the end of November, but if this attack was halted, the intention behind it has not vanished
The latest battleground is Essex. Here it appears it is not even elected councillors who are leading the way. A report from the Essex county branch of public service union Unison warns
"A secret group of Essex County Council officers has put its services up for sale. All services have been included, and the council is prepared to pay a private company £5.4 billion of Essex taxpayer’s money to do so. Neither councillors nor the cabinet have ever voted on these proposals.
The official notice advertising the contract asks private companies to provide “any and all council services”, and is likely to start from August 2009. They have said that “these services will include but are not limited to corporate and back office functions, environmental services, social care and school related services.”
The union says: "The Audit Commission (which regulates councils) states that they should only use this type of contracting if they have already looked at improving services in-house and a range of other options. Essex have failed to do so, and this suggests that this policy is being driven by dogma and political ambition. It is rumoured that council leader Lord Hanningfield is looking to make his name, so he will be a minister for Local Government if the Conservatives win the next general election.
"UNISON believes that the council has broken the law and is in breach of a number of statutory regulations. UNISON has not been consulted about this process, and we are deeply concerned that this will be a repeat of the disaster of Excelcare. In that privatisation, Essex had to intervene shortly after the start of the contract when the lives of vulnerable service users were put at risk in Greenways.
"The contract will run for at least 8 years, and possibly up to 12 years, and is part of an attempt to save £200 million over 3 years, although Essex already has £200 million in their own reserves. These savings can only be achieved by cutting jobs and putting services at risk".
UNISON is setting up a campaign committee in Essex consisting of union activists and other representatives of the local community, including church groups. It says it has called in expert consultants to do a detailed analysis of the proposals, and has submitted a Freedom of Information request demanding the secret plans be made public. The union has also alerted government ministers to what it describes as " potentially unlawful proposals".
Trade unionists and anyone else who wants to get involved in publicity and campaigning are invited to contact the union: