“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
This quote, most often attributed to Keynes, is rolled out regularly in defence of changes in policy and strategy. Properly applied, it is an inarguable vindication of evidence-led policy. The problem is that is not always obvious that the “facts” have changed. Take a case in point which is in front of this week’s Finance Committee at City of Edinburgh Council.
Back in 2012 the “Capital Coalition” of Labour and SNP councillors signed up to a firm pledge that there would be no compulsory redundancies as the City Council sought to navigate through the 5 year term. It is in paragraph 3.12 of the schedule to the coalition agreement if anyone wants to check.
In 2012 we were already two years into a Tory-government led austerity programme so there would be no doubt as to the choppy waters ahead.
This week, a report to the Finance Committee seeks councillor backing to re-activate compulsory redundancies should voluntary packages fail to achieve the level of staff reduction needed to bridge an estimated £126m funding gap.
So have the facts changed? For sure, the scale of cuts needed has become steadily more daunting over the last three years. But has it been established categorically and definitively that changes of that magnitude cannot be achieved without compulsory redundancies? Not in my view. This is from the report:
“It is believed that workforce reductions of the size we need… are unlikely to be achieved without recourse to compulsory redundancies”. And “early indications suggest that… it will not be possible to achieve the necessary workforce reductions through voluntary measures alone”. [the italics are mine]
Is that it? Is a firm pledge to the electorate to be ditched on the back of evidence as flimsy as that? Is the council to introduce the uncertainty of forced job loss without being absolutely convinced that there is no alternative?
There are few people who would assert that the council owes its staff a job. It doesn’t. The council exists to provide vital, sometimes lifeline services to the city and its people. Its staff are the primary means by which it does so and to do that job well and efficiently it needs, as does any employer, to commit to managing staff well, to developing their skills and to matching those skills to the jobs that need done. It is hard to see how the sledgehammer of compulsory redundancies fits into that.
So that is why I shall be proposing, at Finance Committee, that the Council sticks by its pledge to reject compulsory redundancies. If the Council is to lead the charge at UK and Scottish Governments to ensure that councils have the powers to raise adequate funding, I shall be first in line. If the council is to look at a whole range of packages to reduce pressure on the staffing budget I shall recognise that. And if the council is to learn lessons from other bodies which have opted to deal with workforce change without forced job losses then I’ll welcome that.
But I won’t sign up to compulsory redundancies on such a weak evidence base.
My draft amendment to Finance and Resources Committee on 29 October 2015 is below:
Delete recommendation 1.4 and replace with:
1.4 Reaffirm the commitment to no compulsory redundancies as set out in paragraph 3.12 of the schedule in the Capital Coalition’s “Contract with the Capital” in 2012, noting that clear and unequivocal evidence for a change in policy has not been presented.
Add new recommendation as follows
1.6 Instructs officers to report back on a range of options for tackling the spending deficit, drawing on the recent Unison Scotland report, “Combating Austerity” and particularly looking at lessons from organisations in public, private and voluntary sectors where significant workforce change has been achieved without recourse to compulsory redundancies.
Moved by Gavin Corbett