Union leader’s fury as council sell-off goes ahead

THE head of one of Britain’s biggest trade unions is on a collision course with Suffolk County Council after it voted in favour of proposals to spin off – or “divest” almost all the services it runs.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis sent a stinging rebuke to the authority just hours after some of his members had made their feelings known before the meeting.

Members of the county council voted 52-11 to approve moves towards introducing the new strategic direction.

Eventually that could lead to all council services being sold off or transferred to businesses, charities, or “social enterprise bodies”.

The council could be left as a rump of just a few hundred contract managers. Mr Prentis said: “This is not the way to run council services. There will be no democratic accountability. It is a disgrace that the council has not asked the public, or council workers, what they think.

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“Leaving vital services like child protection, home care and support for young people to the vagaries of the market is very dangerous.

“Services will be sold off to the lowest bidder, starting a race to the bottom. People using local services, and those working to provide them, will pay the price.

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“UNISON will be working with the local community to challenge these damaging plans.”

The council did agree to “engage” with local communities and discuss its “New Strategic Direction” again at its next full meeting in December.

However the move was robustly defended by council leader Jeremy Pembroke.

He said: “The question is: how do we improve outcomes for people in Suffolk while receiving a smaller revenue grant from the Government?

“We need to be bold, imaginative and to recognise the benefit in enabling services to be delivered from outside the authority.”

But Liberal Democrat deputy leader David Wood feared the changes were being introduced too quickly.

He said: “What consultation have we had with staff? What are we doing to allay their concerns?”

Green group leader Andrew Stringer proposed an amendment calling for further discussion at December’s meeting.

He said this would give the public a chance to comment on the proposed changes.

The administration accepted the amendment with a slight alteration.

The meeting effectively gives the authority the green light to continue making its plans for the future.

The exact extent of the council’s budget cuts will not become clear until after the Government publishes its comprehensive spending assessment at the end of next month.

The authority is expected to face cuts of 25% – and in its non-schools budget the cuts could be more than 30%.

That has prompted fears that up to 4,000 of the 12,000 non-schools jobs at the county could ultimately be under threat over a period of years.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Pembroke said: “This decision was made with consideration to the financial deficit in the public sector and the coalition Government’s priority to reduce the deficit and the size of the state.

“The coalition requires lesser government and a bigger society, and Suffolk County Council has responded to this change.”

He added: “Now that full council has debated the issue and agreed with the future model for the county council, we can begin to talk with the people of Suffolk so they can be involved in the shaping of services for the future.”

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