Sunday, September 17, 2006

Leaks, injunctions, strikes- all in a day's work at Southampton City Council!

My picture shows Mike Tucker(left), pictured with strikers at a previous dispute at Southampton City Council.
Picture copyright BBC News online.
Leaks, injunctions, strikes- all in a days work at Southampton City Council!

All is not well at the Civic Centre as the now infamous ‘Strategic Services Partnership’ (SSP) has run into the buffers.
This is an ambitious project to outsource the IT, human resource, council tax collection, housing and customer services functions of Southampton City Council to the private sector.
The scope of the project is considerable; it is intended that all written, email and telephone contact between residents and the council will be dealt with by the new business partner in the first instance as well as the partner being the provider for all the major internal IT requirements within the city council. It is proposed that significant numbers of Council employees are to be transferred across to managed by the new partner.
When one considers that this will include managing jobs such as the billing of council tax, schools admissions, external websites and collection of rent for council owned property, it can be seen that the ‘Strategic Service Partnership’ will be at the heart of local government in Southampton. The costs of the project are eye-wateringly large for a relatively small unitary authority such as Southampton; current projections range from circa #150 to #200 million. However when Officers originally proposed the project to Councillors from the three political parties they were confident that there would be major cost savings (up to #25million) and also a dramatic improvement in customer services for those that make demands on the council.
All is not well however.
Cost savings seem to be evaporating- last week the latest revised figure put to Councillors had slipped from #25million to less than #4million. Those that are more critical of the project are nervous that improvements to customer service may be intangible or even non-existent.
The way the Council officers have conducted negotiations has also come under attack from Councillors of all political hues, the proposed service partners, employees and the Unions (who are fiercely against the whole project).
More knowledgeable observers ague that in fact there should have been separate bids- in particular one for providing the IT function and another to deal with customer services. Some Officers feel that of the preferred bidders, some had demonstratable, proven expertise in IT, others in customer service but rarely do organizations have it in both. Was the Council correct to have narrowed down the preferred bidders to just 3 providers so early in the project? The three final bidders are Capita, BT and Serco.
Things are also getting extremely nasty with the Unions. After extensive research, I conclude that Southampton City Council is unique. It seems to be the only Local Authority that pays for a Unison Branch Secretary salary (Mr. Mike Tucker, a member of Unison United Left by the way!) and provides him with an office from taxpayer’s money. This anomaly was started by Labour when it was the ruling party in Southampton in the 1980s and is has been a condition of their support or abstention of Council budget meetings when the city entered minority control in the late 1990s that the Unison post was retained.
Cynics may note that Unison co-incidentally financially supports Labour in Southampton, helping to pay for Labour Council candidate’s election expenses, supporting the work of the local Labour MP and helping to pay for the local Labour Party office.
(N.B. for some very brief details do visit but note both Labour and Unison locally are very sensitive about this! )

As part of the project to introduce the SSP, Unison has been fully informed. As well as being invited to meetings, they have had one-to-one Officer briefings and been provided with the same papers as Councillors. As well as being marked confidential, they are also printed on pink paper to emphasize their confidentiality. The preferred bidders are all very sensitive about the detail of their bids. All three are reported to have spent over #100k to date working up proposals and are very anxious about them getting into the public domain. As well as the obvious point about the amount of shareholders money that they have invested on the project, they are worried that if they fell into another bidders hands, it could give them a significant competitive advantage not just in Southampton but also in future projects in other authorities. All the bidders are concerned that without proper explanation, their proposals may cause labour relations difficulties.
It was with dismay then that Council officers found that Unison has been leaking the details of the SSP bid. As well as speaking freely with members, Tucker has written a newsletter to members where he revealed who the preferred suppliers were and details of the project.
The Council responded by obtaining a High Court injunction gagging Tucker giving his members details of the planned privitisation. Further, Unison have commissioned a report into the project which if made available would reveal almost all the commercially sensitive information Tucker has been privy to. It would certainly seem to be in breech of an existing agreement between the two main parties, if it were published.
Last week about 200 members of Unison attended a meeting at Above Bar to hear about the project. A motion was put forward by Tucker outlining a plan of action including strikes by Unison in response to the SSP proposals was carried unanimously.
Councilors are concerned that they were not consulted over the legal action and its cost.
Opposition councilors and a few of the ruling Lib-Dem group (so far off the record) are angry that they are not being consulted over such a delicate and important issue.
Predictably Unison is incandescent at the gagging order.
The issues raised by the SSP will be discussed at what promises to be a stormy meeting of the full council on Wed 20th October. Unison plans to lobby Councillors and has already printed placards and banners urging them to drop the plans.
That is extremely unlikely.
It seems the controversy over the SSP project has some way to run yet.


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