Hollowed out public services

Do we want hollowed out public services, asks Green MSP Alison Johnstone 

There is scarcely day goes past without some council or another announcing significant job cuts. In Edinburgh, the estimated number of posts to go is around 2,000, out of a total of just over 15,000, over the next 2-3 years.  Almost 500 have already gone. 

Those who defend the cuts point to more dramatic reductions in England, where some councils have cut staff numbers by a third.  But that will come as scant consolation to workers facing redundancy.

And it also begs the question of what kind of public services we want.  While I recognise that the purpose of posts can come and go and priorities can change, cuts of this scale cannot conceivably happen without frontline services being affected. 

So the risk is that the council is left without the required expertise to carry out vital work – a hollowed out council. 

This is already starting to happen in Edinburgh.  This week the city’s Transport Committee voted, in spite of Green councillor opposition, to spend £62,000 of the school crossing patrol budget on outside consultants to review the lollipop service, on the basis that the in-house capacity was not there. 

This in spite of a council budget commitment to reduce spending on consultants by £2 million next year. 

This same week, councillors on Finance Committee are being asked to approve £100,000 for a consultant for 6 months to oversee the staff transformation programme, until such time as someone is appointed to do the job.  That is the equivalent of £200,000 a year or quite a bit more than the First Minister of Scotland gets paid. 

And Finance Committee also has a report on re-engaging staff who have just left the council through a voluntary package and who seek re-employment later.  The report says that there will be a one year time bar on re-employing staff, either as staff directly or through an agency.  However, that time-bar will not apply to consultancy, which raises the spectre of staff leaving on a Friday and coming back in on Monday, as a consultant, to do the same job, at two or three times the cost. 

To be frank, if a staff member is so vital as to be needed as a consultant, the council should be retaining him or her as a staff member in the first place. 

So I don’t want hollowed out councils where we pay through the nose for consultancy fees. And nor, I believe, do people who use public services.