Saturday, 19 September 2015

700 council jobs axed..well,er no!

DOUG COLLIE on the long running numbers game featuring Scottish Borders Council and the Government's statisticians

The publication of Scotland's latest public sector employment statistics this week revealed a potentially sickening blow for the Borders economy with figures for the second quarter of 2015 recording a 700 fall in the council payroll headcount at Newtown St Boswells in the space of a year.

So the editorial team at Not Just Sheep & Rugby was initially shocked (if not saddened) to see the 13 per cent reduction in Scottish Borders Council's staffing level appeared to have gone completely unnoticed by politicians and the local media.

 It was surely time for a task force to be parachuted in to help those affected find alternative work, to offer counselling to the people finding it difficult to cope with unemployment, and to form an overseas mission to sell the Borders to potential investors.

The picture was equally gloomy on the so-called Full Time Equivalent (FTE) front with the total down by 500 to 3,900 or 11.9% in just 12 months. Such a cull of well paid local government salaries and wages must have stripped millions of pounds from the spending power of the Central Borders. Cue shop closures and empty passenger trains on the newly opened railway to Edinburgh.

A quick check on the national figures showed the entire public sector in Scotland had only shrunk by 1,300 (0.5%) in the equivalent period which made the Borders situation appear more desperate. So was it the controversial council tax freeze to blame for the mass exodus or had the politically multi-coloured administration discovered a large element of over manning in the various departments at council HQ?

But as the alarm bells started clanging one of our staff member with a better memory than most, and with the aid of a brand new pair of powerful reading glasses managed to solve the mystery. The moral of the story is - always read the small print.

On the face of it the Borders now has 4,700 local authority staff compared to 5,400 at this time last year. But an explanatory note at the foot of the tables of data published by the Scottish Government tells us: "SBC headcount and FTE figures do not include casual/relief employees who were paid in he reference period. This means that these figures underestimate the true headcount and FTE for SBC. This will be resolved upon receipt of revised figures from SBC".

In other words the official statistics for the Borders are worthless and meaningless. Might have been better had they not been published, but replaced with a couple of sentences telling us the council had failed to supply appropriate data.

However, this situation which appears to be unique to SBC - no other public authority in Scotland requires a special note to explain their statistics - is not new, as readers of our columns may recall.

A virtual array of different headcount totals issued by the council earlier this year left taxpayers and statisticians confused in equal measure.

In March, the Scottish Government, on its Public Sector Employment website, stated the headcount figure at SBC was 5,700.
This was at variance with a Freedom of Information response issued by the council in January when the requester was told there were 6,421 employees on the books. And then, in April, a workforce data report to councillors claimed the actual jobs total was 6,131.
A council spokesperson said at the time: “The council is currently working with the Scottish Government to review the figures and arrange for amended figures to be published.”
Six months on and the uncertainty surrounding this aspect of data collection still hangs in the air. Surely it is time to bring this highly unsatisfactory situation to an end and get the Borders back in step with the 31 other local authorities who seem capable of keeping their employment statistics in order.

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