Opposition councillors put forward amendments to the budget - all of which were voted down, including an amendment from Councillor Leimdorfer to mitigate the impact of the council's decision in January to increase the amount of council tax paid by low income working age residents from 22% to 24.5%. Councillor Bell supported the amendment and noted that the council tax freeze which North Somerset is accepting this year does not mean a council tax freeze for all residents, because those on the lowest incomes are having their council tax increased. Sadly there was no named vote on the amendments, but the budget itself was a named vote - only Labour, Lib Dem, and 2 Green and Independent councillors voted against the budget.
Questions were also asked, by Councillor Bell, about the Agilisys contract - he talked about the £39 million the council has paid to Agilisys since April 2011, that Agilisys have paid their shareholders a dividend of £7 million, and that the PWC report says the council is paying over the odds for some things. Councillor Leimdorfer asked for all councillors to be given a copy of the PWC report and a chance to debate it.
A UNISON Rep spoke at the meeting, and immediately afterwards rather than the stony faced silence that normally greets our speeches, Nigel Ashton, the Leader of the Council got up to comment on some things we'd said about the £3 million increase in reserves and using £1.4 million of them for a capital project. He was then followed by Executive member Tony Lake who wanted to make a statement on the council's refusal to pay the Living Wage. Councillor Bell then got up in our defence to tell the meeting that it is not usual practice after a public participation speaker for councillors to get up and argue against them. He's right but actually we felt quite flattered, because what we said obviously really riled them.
Here's the speech that did it:
The most striking thing for us about the medium term financial plan is the increase in your reserves, which are now projected to be £11.6 million at 31st March 2014 - that's an increase of £3 million since last year, and £3.6 million above your approved level of £8 million. This updated MTFP came only a few weeks after you decided that you could not implement the Living Wage for council and schools staff on the grounds of affordability. Bringing staff up to the Living Wage would cost £435,000 - in light of the increase in reserves, along with the at least £2 million in your contingency and transition fund which is underspent every year, this now seems very affordable indeed.
We are pleased that some of the cuts you had planned, such as School Crossing Patrols, have been granted a temporary reprieve. But we find it difficult to understand why you would take £1.4 million from your reserves for a capital project - the ICT Transformation programme, when you could be using those same reserves to mitigate some of the worst of the cuts you are proposing. You are also planning to accept the council tax freeze grant, or bribe as we like to call it, when the Audit Commission's recent report Tough Times 2013 has shown that those councils who have accepted freeze grants over the last few years have seen their incomes fall. And you are a council that has £8 million less in your base budget because of below the cap council tax increases over a number of years. And yet you are also arguing that you cannot use reserves for services because you have a further £22 million of cuts to make over the next few years and every penny is required. This all seems like a contradiction in terms.
It is also then particularly galling that the negotiations with Agilisys, regarding the transfer of more jobs and services into this contract, have apparently been prompted by Price Waterhouse Cooper's report, which according to a recent article in the Weston Mercury stated that "the Agilisys contract may not be economically viable in the future and will require renegotiation or expansion". In addition the council's reason for not releasing the full detailed KPMG report on the contract was because it would harm the commercial interests of Agilisys, who were bidding for contracts elsewhere at the time. We would like to ask councillors if they think it is the council's job to protect the commercial interests of Agilisys, or if like us they think that the council's job is to protect the interests of the residents of North Somerset and ensure they get value for money? It was and still is UNISON's view that a properly resourced in house service improvement plan would have shown you at the time and will show you now that support services could be provided quicker, better and cheaper in house, and that this would also give councillors more control over those services.
Your budget includes another 50 full-time job cuts in 2014. This comes on top of 300 full-time jobs gone over the last 3 years, but affecting many more people because so many of your staff work part-time. The budget papers also include yet to be confirmed numbers of job losses for future years, in part as a result of the PWC recommendations. The Audit Commission has shown that almost half of the cuts made by councils have been staff cuts - job losses, changes to terms and conditions, and the 3 year pay freeze broken by a below inflation 1% pay increase. Your staff cannot take any more, and if you want them to truly play their part in the recently announced Transformation Programme then you need to agree to no compulsory redundancies, and no further privatisation of services.
In our written submission to you we have asked you to debate and support a motion on the local government pay claim for 2014, which is based on bringing the lowest level of pay up to the living wage of £7.65 an hour, with an equivalent increase for all other scale points. UNISON research has shown that over half the cost of the local government pay claim can be met by increased tax and national insurance contributions, as well as decreased benefit payments. And of course we now know that your increased levels of reserves, year on year underspends on staff salaries, and savings to the staff pay bill made by redundancies means that our pay claim is easily affordable for you. In addition, while speaking on the recent flooding crisis David Cameron has said that "money is no object", while according to Eric Pickles "we are a very rich country" - both confirming what we've known all along - that the cuts to public spending have not been necessary. We urge you to debate the motion, support the local government pay claim for 2014, pay the living wage and encourage employers across North Somerset to follow your example.