Volunteers to be included in job cull quota as council pay freeze looms

IN ADDITION to the 47.3 full-time posts to be axed by Scottish Borders Council in the next financial year as a result of budget cuts, another 150 staff are set to leave of their own volition.

In December, TheSouthern revealed that 611 employees – or 15 per cent of the non-teaching workforce – had expressed an interest in voluntarily quitting their jobs. The invitation had been extended by chief executive David Hume to give the local authority flexibility in implementing unprecedented savings, while protecting frontline services.

The reduction of the council’s headcount by nigh on 200 was flagged up on Monday by Councillor Alec Nichol, SBC’s depute leader with special responsibility for personnel. He revealed that “around 150” voluntary severances would be considered by elected members on Thursday, February 24 – two weeks after the council approves its austerity budget and, for the fourth successive year, freezes Council Tax.

Details of how SBC will achieve a funding gap in excess of £13million were given to opposition councillors and the media on Thursday.

And explicit in the spending programme, set to be ratified on February 10, is the shedding of 47.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) posts.

Social work, which has 1,335 FTEs, will lose 13.8 posts; 12 will go from the chief executive’s department (current workforce 482), six from planning and economic development (100); six from technical services (1,156) and 7.5 from education (1,714). Another two jobs will go from the 8.5 posts under the miscellaneous heading of corporate programme and projects (CPP).

Council leader David Parker said these job cuts could be achieved without recourse to compulsory redundancies.

“That is in stark contrast to many other local authorities in Scotland and England, and is testimony to our budgetary preparation, not least by choosing early in the current financial year to cut £2.4million of Scottish Government concordat spending commitments, freezing recruitment and cutting back on the use of consultants. That cash is being released from reserves and we will save the same amount in 2011/12 to ease the pain.

“Compulsory redundancy is always the most expensive way to reduce staffing and we have tried to avoid this.”

On the voluntary severance uptake, Mr Parker told us: “The fact that we have around 150 applications going forward for ratification to the council meeting on February 24 means that 450 bids have either not been supported at this time or have been withdrawn.

“But just because we have not supported an application does not mean it won’t be supported in the future ... and it is likely there will be a further round [of voluntary severances and early retirements] in 2012/13.” Meanwhile, notwithstanding the public sector freeze on cost-of-living pay increases in 2011/12 and 2012/13, already negotiated by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities with the support of the Scottish Government, Mr Parker revealed his council was in negotiations with trade unions over blocking any incremental wage hikes over the next two-and-a-half years.

Mr Parker, who will be seeking backing for the radical proposal on February 10, explained: “A significant number of our jobs have a pay scale which employees automatically move up at different times based on their contracts of employment.

“If we are successful in suspending these contractual obligations, this would create more than £4million in savings and significantly support the budget challenges we face over the next three years.

“In return, we will introduce, from April 1, an SBC living wage of £7.15 per hour and seek to give employees a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies over the period of the agreement.”

But Mr Parker warned: “If initiatives such as this are not supported, then I suspect we may be in a position in future years where we have to consider the use of compulsory redundancy.”

The proposal will see a freeze on all incremental progression across all non-teaching SBC staff earning £21,000 a year or more.

Eck Barclay, senior shop steward with Unite, welcomed the £7.15 minimum wage element of the proposal, estimating it would benefit around 600 low-paid staff, the vast majority of whom were manual-grade females working in cleaning and catering.

He expected his union would ballot its 800 members at SBC on the details of the package in March.

“The big fear for all council staff in the current financial crisis has been job security, so I think there is every likelihood of a positive response to the assurance over no compulsory job losses,” said Mr Barclay. “Employees will have to balance that against the regrettable freeze in incremental pay rises.”