Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Borders council in the transfer market again!

Borders social care services - designed to serve some of the most vulnerable members of society - are set to become the latest segment of our local government set-up to be dismantled by councillors who seem more than keen on the concept of arms length companies and transferring assets to autonomous bodies.

As we have already pointed out in these columns, there was little hesitation when it came to selling off 6,700 Borders council houses for half their book value in 2003. Then the council could not wait to get rid of sports and leisure facilities to a Trust. And the arrangements which will see libraries, museums and halls leaving direct council control are all but done and dusted.

Now it is the turn of the Social Work department to feel the heat of reform following a £20,000 consultants' report which warns: "Doing nothing is not an option".

This week our councillors have been digesting the contents of the report together with a confidential business case recommending the transfer of over 1,000 staff and an annual budget close to £18 million to an arms length company known as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP).

The services involved relate principally to older people. Because so many Borders residents are living longer there is expected to be an eleven per cent increase in the demands of the over-65s by 2019. But impoverished Scottish Borders Council needs to reduce its social work budget by £5.6 million during the same time frame.

A list of valued services up for transfer includes residential homes for the elderly, day care, home care, extra care housing, night support and the Bordercare alarm system. Day services for those with learning difficulties and for individuals with mental health issues and physical disabilities will also switch to the LLP.

The report promises that staff would transfer to the new company on the same terms and conditions they have with the council, but work practices would be likely to change. What those changes might involve has not been outlined in the published report.

Care & Health Solutions, the Wolverhampton-based consultants commissioned by the council, have already been involved in a number of similar LLP projects, notably in Aberdeen and the south of England. Their report for Borders councillors is accompanied with a warning of the risks involved in adopting the LLP model.

"If the organisation should fail or if the council wanted out that risk is mitigated by the fact that the council owns the company", the report says. Should the LLP fail to perform satisfactorily or should it run into financial trouble then it could easily be brought back under full council control or "a controlled transfer to the private market".

No doubt critics of this latest cost-cutting exercise will warn of 'privatisation by the back door' and complain about the stress and upheaval for dedicated staff as the new regime beds in. But remember, just like the housing stock, the sports facilities and the cultural services..."doing nothing is not an option".

Limited Liability Partnerships are not covered by Freedom of Information legislation, so concerned or inquisitive members of the public will be unable to ask questions about the new company once it is up and running, probably in March 2015..

However, a monitoring group of councillors will meet four times a year to asses the LLP's performance. So that's all right then.

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