Monday, 23 June 2014

Millions spent on agency staff in wake of exit strategy

The hard-pressed council taxpayers of the Scottish Borders, whose cash helps to fund their local authority's annual staffing bill of £180 million, have been assured the recent spate of sizeable exit packages for departing workers would deliver worthwhile savings for the public purse. But have they?

In the two-year period between April 2011 and March 2013 the princely sum of £5.467 million was spent on 213 redundancies. If my dodgy arithmetic stands up to scrutiny that works out at £25,666 for every head that rolled. A significant number of packages were well above that generous average figure.

However, according to last year's audited accounts the 75 packages agreed in 2012/13 would generate annual recurring savings of £1.454 million. So it seems on the face of it the workforce and the wage bill are shrinking in line with service cuts.

In recent days the Scottish Government has released the latest statistics on local government staffing levels in each of the country's 32 local authorities. Separate totals are given for so-called full time equivalents (FTE) and the actual headcount, taking into account full-time and part-time employees.

The Scottish Borders Council headcount to the nearest 100 for the first quarter of 2014 was 5,500, exactly the same as it was in the third quarter of 2012 when posts were being axed under the so-called exit strategy. And in the last twelve months that same headcount has decreased by a mere 1.6%.

The table for FTEs shows 4,400 posts in 2012, and 4,400 again in 2014. The change in the number of FTEs in the last twelve months is given as 0 (nil) although in percentage terms the number is said to have fallen by one per cent or considerably less than 100.

Explanatory notes accompanying the figures tell us the statistics on staff numbers are based on the number of employees with an employment contract who are being paid by the councils. Agency workers are EXCLUDED from the tables.

Just as the Government released its data Scottish Borders Council responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking for details of agency staff used by the local authority since 2012 when employees with contracts were being paid off.

This set of figures reveals that from April 2012 up to the beginning of June 2014 the council spent an impressive £2,352,571.29 on staff recruited from employment agencies. The largest sums were for work in the Chief Executive's department (£800,677) and Social Work (£845,916). Other services to plug gaps in the workforce by using agency staff included Technical Services (£192,597) Vehicle Maintenance (£46,014), SB Contracts for roads contracts delivery (£167,697) and Protective Services for refuse collection, street cleaning and maintenance of public toilets (£251,656).

Unfortunately the council could not tell the FOI requester how many individual agency workers had been used in the course of running up the bill of more than £2.3 million. So did the total equal or exceed the number of employees who left with exit packages?

The council explained: "Without an examination of each transaction we cannot break down the above expenditure to agency used, number of staff or staff grading group. But most of the spend will be upon management/professional/administrative staff."

Under FOI rules a public authority can declare information exempt if the cost of researching and assembling the facts exceeds £600. In this particular case SBC claimed it would cost above the £600 fees limit to examine each invoice in detail, so the number of posts has not been disclosed..

Does all of this mean our local authority got rid of too many staff under its exit strategy, leaving too many empty desks and too many unfulfilled tasks in the process? Were those who remained in post asked to shoulder an intolerable burden of extra duties after losing so many colleagues? Should the actual number of employees at SBC be adjusted upwards when agency personnel are included? Has there been in significant reduction in staffing levels? And should spending on agency staff be deducted from the estimated savings resulting from redundancies?

Surely all of these issues and questions require detailed explanations and answers.

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