Council benefits service privatised

SENIOR councillors have agreed plans to outsource core council services and dozens of staff to a private firm.

Hartlepool Borough Council will transfer about 65 staff from its revenues and benefits departments after councillors selected a private sector firm as its preferred bidder for the contract.

The details of the seven-year contract has not yet been revealed due to the confidential contract process.

Senior officers say the aim is to secure and create jobs, maintain and improve services, make savings and retain a base in Hartlepool for the services.

The council’s cabinet committee recently agreed proposals to award the contract to the preferred bidder.

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.

Officers decided to consider outsourcing after fears there would not be enough work at the council to guarantee jobs in the future.

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.

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

The new set-up could lead to new jobs if the successful firm wins other contracts.

The contract – which is subject to due diligence and agreement of the detailed financial and legal terms –is expected to start from next April.

Out of 12 firms on an approved Government list competing for the contract, three confirmed they intended to submit a bid and two did.

Cabinet members spoke at length behind closed doors before agreeing to approve “bidder 1” as the preferred bidder.

Over the next three years the council needs to cut £15m from its £90m budget and Mayor Stuart Drummond said this will help bridge the deficit.

Speaking before cabinet went into a closed session, Mayor Drummond, said: “This is a way to make savings, protect jobs in Hartlepool, create them and maintain the current level of service delivery to the public.

“That was the aim in the first place.”

Labour councillor Ged Hall said: “There are good features and excellent features in both bids.”

Labour councillor Jonathan Brash added that he was “genuinely delighted” that both bids had protected existing staff while fellow Labour councillor Robbie Payne asked for assurances that jobs would not be outsourced.

Senior officers confirmed jobs would be based in Hartlepool.

Meanwhile, Labour councillor Chris Simmons said he was pleased both bids had opportunities for young people.

A council report said there was a clear difference in the two bids in terms of creating jobs and local economic benefits, while one bidder provided a greater overall saving over the lifetime of the contract.

Some elements of the service will still be done in-house including benefit appeals and case reviews, benefit counter fraud activity, internal bailiff and council tax recovery work.