Kevin Poulter, employment lawyer at London firm Bircham Dyson Bell, reacts to the Council’s action
I was disappointed to read about 400 employees at North London Barnet Council deciding to take strike action this week.
The employees – from departments including planning, highways and the crematorium – will cause inconvenience for the council, local services and the public.
And in reality, just over 10 per cent of the council’s workforce is backing the strike.
The reasons for the action, supported by the employees’ union, is the planned outsourcing of several departments to private sector providers, as the council attempts to cut this year’s budget by £29.1m to £255m.
Is the reason the union is backing the action to pursue a wider agenda, rather than protecting or pursuing the individual employee’s best interests?
But the outsourcing of council services doesn’t necessarily mean job cuts. I fear that the union may be misleading its members over this point. Often it is clear that the services will still be required, but will need to be more cost-effective.
Barnet Council has, in fact, offered employees affected by the outsourcing a guarantee that they will remain in the local councils pension scheme, and that their terms and conditions will be protected for 12 months.
In short, there will be no change to the employment terms apart from the name of the employer.
Maybe it is this last point that is causing the problem. Is the reason the union is backing the action to pursue a wider agenda, rather than protecting or pursuing the individual employee’s best interests?
The reality is that many local authority tenders are won by national and even international service providers such as Serco, Capita and Kier. Each of those has an administration and support network far more sophisticated than many councils.
In some cases, the staff benefits packages may even be better. So the outsourcing of services to the private sector shouldn’t necessarily be feared by council employees. A new employer might prove to be a good thing after all.
Rather than the unions resisting and fighting the inevitable, they should instead be looking ahead to working and negotiating with the private sector to protect and further the interests of their members.
This is also a good opportunity to educate union members about the realities of the private sector, and the benefits that can come with it. (I’ve never heard of a council offering a profit or share scheme, for example.)
Unison’s London regional secretary, Linda Perks, suggested that the cash being spent on the procurement process should be “invested in local people and in keeping vital services running”.
I agree. I hope that some of the council’s outsourced services pass to local businesses. I also hope that those services are kept running – and that there will be no more strikes.