Council plans to privatise service

PLANS to outsource core council services and dozens of staff to a private firm have moved a step closer.

Hartlepool Borough Council could transfer 65 staff from its revenues and benefits departments to a private sector firm in a bid to safeguard their jobs.

Mayor Stuart Drummond said there are fears there won’t be enough work at the council to guarantee jobs in the future and it could lead to new jobs if the successful firm wins other contracts.

The council needs to slash £14m from its £92m revenue budget over the next three years, and these proposals would help bridge the deficit.

But Labour councillor Robbie Payne told a meeting of the council’s cabinet that it showed “appalling leadership”.

The revenues and benefits team, which provide customer service in person and by telephone, deal with the billing and collection of council tax, business rates and housing benefits.

Proposed changes to the national benefits system could see all housing benefit claims processed by the Department for Work and Pensions or private firms from 2013.

There are 12 firms on an approved Government list competing for the contract, but the council is under no obligation to sign a deal if enough savings cannot be made.

The council’s cabinet committee agreed to go down the procurement route and the next step is to draw up tender contracts.

The authorities ICT contract is already outsourced to Northgate, but that would also be included in the new deal.

Mayor Drummond said: “Outsourcing is not something that we would want to do as a matter of course but we have to take a responsible look at where this is going in the future.

“We are left with little choice but to start the process of procurement.

“We are entering this on our own terms. We have to be strong and protect jobs in Hartlepool for the length of the contract.

“If they can generate more jobs in Hartlepool then that is an added bonus.”

A range of options had been considered including keeping the services in-house, working with another local authority or with a private firm.

Coun Payne said: “I am amazed and astounded that the leader of the council can go down a major policy route without a business case for it.

“I think it is appalling leadership actually.”

Mayor Drummond responded: “If I can sit here in six months time having guaranteed a large amount of staff their jobs for x-amount of years then that is extremely good and strong leadership.

“We are entering this with our eyes wide open.”

Coun Payne then walked out of the meeting before the vote was taken, but the remaining members unanimously backed the plans.

Edwin Jeffries, joint branch secretary of Hartlepool’s Unison branch, said: “Our preference is for this to be done in house. Our job is to protect jobs.

“We have not seen a business case for this, we are very concerned about it.”