Tuesday, 6 May 2014

UNISON Lobby of 6th May Council Meeting - Agilisys Contract Debate

Members of North Somerset UNISON plus Amber the dog lobbied North Somerset Council's meeting this evening when councillors met to agree going into negotiations with Agilisys to look at further jobs and services being transferred. 

Here are some photos from our lobby

A UNISON rep spoke at the meeting and we had also submitted a list of questions to councillors ahead of the meeting, which were referred to in great detail during the meeting, particularly by Councillor Tony Lake, who made an attempt to answer some of the questions, which had obviously caused some worries for his fellow Conservative councillors.

Councillor Lake wanted to stress that the Agilisys contract is performing well, that like for like it has made £2 million in savings (this is reference to our comment that the cost has risen since 2010 and the council's argument that more services have been added such as the Town Hall Gateway), that Agilisys will give them £5 million in rental income (of course they will if the council transfer 120 full-time equivalent posts to them and extend their contract to 15 years), and that Agilisys have created over 100 new jobs (many of them part-time and low paid).

A number of opposition councillors - Mike Bell, Tom Leimdorfer, Donald Davies and Richard Tucker got up to express their concerns about giving Agilisys more services, including how the council will manage the risk of Agilisys being taken over or going bust, the length of the contract, control and transparency, should the council transfer admin staff from children's and adults services, and how can the council be sure if they're delivering value for money if they're only talking to Agilisys and not looking at other options - other providers, other councils and in-house.

Conservative councillor Mary Blatchford got up to tell the whole council meeting that she couldn't get any documents on her council Ipad - Agilisys are responsible for the council's ICT.

The councillors were asked to vote on a report which included the following recommendations:

That Council:
(i) approves those areas of savings and increased income targets identified within the first phase of the contract dialogue with Agilisys;
(ii) instructs officers to proceed with the second phase of contract dialogue between May 2014 and August 2014 in order to bring further proposals to September 2014 Council.

Green Party Councillor Tom Leimdorfer proposed an amendment to recommendation (ii) to insert after contract dialogue "alongside a properly resourced alternative in-house service improvement plan". After Nigel Ashton's comment that he thought the council should be looking at all options, the amendment was revised to "and look at other options including an in-house service plan" - this amendment was approved by Nigel Ashton and passed at the council meeting. 

When the minutes of the meeting are approved recommendation (ii) should read: "instructs officers to proceed with the second phase of contract dialogue, and look at other options including an in-house service plan, between May 2014 and August 2014 in order to bring further proposals to September 2014 Council."

This is a victory for Councillor Leimdorfer and a victory for UNISON. But the fight is still on and we must ensure we keep campaigning over the next few months, and get an even better turnout at the council meeting on 23rd September when they meet to approve any service transfer to Agilisys.

Here's the list of question which we submitted to councillors ahead of the meeting: UNISON submission on Agilisys Contract and Transformation Programme. Some of these questions were given to us by UNISON members at the members meetings we've been holding over the last month or so. We will ensure that these questions are answered as the councillors scrutinise the proposals over the next few months.

Here's our speech from tonight's meeting:

Tonight you are being asked to approve the start of a process which could lead to further jobs and services being transferred to the Agilisys contract. UNISON has provided councillors with a paper ahead of this meeting, which outlines a number of questions we think you need to ask about this contract. I want to talk about a few of them tonight.

The Support Services contract was awarded to Agilisys in 2010 amidst extravagant claims about how much money it would save the council over its 10 year period. At the time the annual cost of Support Services was £10.3 million, and Agilisys said that they would reduce that to £8.5 million by 2014, but the Scrutiny report of the 25th March made it clear that the cost is now actually £10.6 million - £2 million above what Agilisys promised. The council’s accounts also show that you have paid Agilisys £14 million per year over each of the last 3 years. While Agilisys' accounts show that their profits have risen since taking on the contract and in 2013 they paid their shareholders a £7 million dividend.

You are now being told that if you give Agilisys more services and extend the contract by another 5 years that Agilisys will deliver greater savings for the council. But given that costs have increased over the last 3 years despite Agilisys' promises, how can you be sure that this won't happen again regardless of what Agilisys agree to now? And realistically how are Agilisys going to be able to cut costs, while also making a profit, except by reducing the numbers of staff delivering services, reducing staff pay and conditions, and reducing the quality of services?

When you signed the contract with Agilisys back in 2010 you gave up your control over £10 million of your annual budget. Every year since then as you've made more and more cuts part of your budget has been untouchable, and greater cuts to other services have been made as a result. You are now proposing to relinquish even more control by extending the Agilisys contract to a 15 year term and giving them additional services, possibly totalling £15 million a year up to 2025 - that's 10% of the council's current annual budget for services, and could be an even greater proportion of your budget by the time we get to the end of that very long 15 years.

But although the council can transfer jobs and services to Agilisys you cannot transfer your legal responsibility for those services - that remains with the council. If anything goes wrong it is North Somerset Council who will face court proceedings, it is the council whose reputation suffers, and it will be councillors who will ultimately feel the impact at the ballot box.

The jobs and services which you are proposing to transfer are administrative and front office roles – these staff are the backbone of the council - anyone who has ever worked in any sort of office environment knows how crucial admin staff are. Their work is essential in order to allow frontline staff such as social workers to do their jobs. They are often the main point of contact for North Somerset residents, and have a huge knowledge of council services and procedures. They are the cogs that keep council departments running smoothly. If you transfer the cogs, the council machine is likely to grind to a halt.

Committing yourself to a 15 year contract with Agilisys will also impact on your "ability to quickly refocus your resources in order to respond to changing needs, demands and priorities." Austerity is predicted to last until 2020, but in the next few years local authorities will have massively increased responsibilities for adult social care as a result of social care reform. By transferring jobs and services outside the council you are outsourcing capacity and knowledge and thereby weakening the council and making it less resilient for the future. If you commit to a 15 year contract with Agilisys, you're going to need a very accurate crystal ball with the ability to predict every change in policy over the next 10 years so that you can write every eventuality into the contract, otherwise the contract will have to be constantly renegotiated with all the costs involved in that.

Tonight we are asking councillors to amend the Agilisys contract report to include the requirement for an in-house service improvement plan, which at the very least will act as a comparator to Agilisys' offer and ensure value for money. But we also think that this will show councillors the benefits of keeping services in house, where you can ensure that capacity and expertise is kept within the council, that limited resources are focused on delivering services, rather than monitoring contracts, that risk is minimised, and that you have maximum control and flexibility over services. We are also requesting that you amend the report to ask that work is done on looking at the costs and benefits of bringing all support services back in house. We think that now is the time for councillors to regain control over the services that you are legally responsible for.

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