Transfer of staff plan is backed

CIVIC leaders have reaffirmed their proposals to outsource core council services and dozens of staff to a private firm.

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

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

It is being done because there are fears there will not 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 decision was taken at the end of May by the council’s cabinet committee. Yet it was called in by the scrutiny co-ordinating committee.

Scrutiny members were concerned there was not a clear business plan and they were not told how much money the proposals aimed to save. There were also concerns that there were other alternatives.

But cabinet members backed their original decision to go down the procurement route and tender contracts will now be drawn up.

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

Mayor Drummond said: “We all know the need to make savings in every area of service.

“In this area in particular there are going to be added pressures and there is a lot of uncertainty about what, if anything, the local authority will end up doing. We have always said we want to protect jobs and protect jobs in Hartlepool.”

He added that the council will now go out to tender to see what deal they can get.

Mayor Drummond said: “I would suggest that we reaffirm our original decision and that we go out to test the market and see what comes out of it.”

The revenues and benefits team deals 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.

A report detailing the procurement response will go back to cabinet before a final decision is taken.

Labour councillor Ged Hall said: “We have to reassure staff that the idea of keeping jobs and jobs in Hartlepool is our first priority, whatever arrangements we come to.”

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

l Mayor on Wednesday: Page 27.