Who is set to clean up from going private?

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The council claims outsourcing will save millions but before the vote Sheila Gilmore urges us all to read the small print

NEXT Thursday, city councillors will be asked to decide whether a whole range of your local services should soon be run by private contractors.

Refuse collections, street cleaning, catering, building cleaning and janitorial services could be run by contractors holding a five to seven-year contract. A decision on outsourcing other services, such as council tax administration and payroll services, is due in December, just before Christmas.

These firms will look to profit from services we use day in, day out by streamlining them and finding efficiencies. Most have long expected a radical shake-up of services as the council attempts to fill the funding black hole created by a five-year council tax freeze.

In parallel to the consultation with private companies, the council has been tasked with looking at an in-house alternative, achieving improvements with less funding, making efficiency savings as well as a thorough shake-up of staff and departments.

Finding a way to maintain and improve services with less funding from taxpayers is difficult, but desirable. The question is whether this money is regarded as “savings”, which could help improve services, or “profits”, which go to the shareholders of a private company.

But with contracts worth tens of millions potentially being dished out, why hasn’t the issue received more attention? One of the reasons lies in the window dressing and jargon the council has used in order to avoid spelling out what the changes mean for council taxpayers and service users.

In 2009, the council claimed it simply wanted to “explore the potential to create strategic partnerships with outside providers”. By June 2010 this had become a “dialogue for procurement” of services with 15 organisations.

By December 2010, the LibDem SNP council administration agreed to shortlist “bidders” for the services.

Next week, councillors will be asked to choose between the in-house option or outsourcing to a preferred external bidder. However, what residents really want to know is if their rubbish will be collected, and if there will be grit on the roads should we have another treacherous winter.

There has been very little consultation with Edinburgh residents. In August 2011, the council commissioned an Ipsos-Mori poll of Edinburgh opinion on the proposals, but to date neither the questions nor the answers have been published in full.

Only Labour and Green councillors have opposed the plans at all stages. The LibDem SNP administration councillors have agreed all the reports so far. Will they now agree to the final steps being taken?

It is at this point we must ask as service users, taxpayers, and residents, will we allow the same administration to hand out substantial contracts after the way they dealt with the tram contracts? Does it matter? Advocates of the proposals will say that services will improve and “savings” will be made.

But let’s look at the process that is already ongoing for homecare services for older and disabled people.

The council took a decision –opposed by my Labour colleagues – two years ago to tender out 75 per cent of these services to private or voluntary sector providers.

A few weeks ago I met a constituent who works as a carer for one of these firms. The staff had just been called in to be told “Good news, we’ve just won a four-year contract”. The bad news was that staff pay was being cut by 50p per hour. Staff training and monitoring are areas where firms make savings. And the ultimate losers? The people being cared for and their families.

The LibDem SNP administration made a choice to start down this road in February 2009, well before the change of government at Westminster and the start of severe cuts in public spending. Nor is this a response to the tram problem, since the money spent up to 2009 on tram works was given to the council over and above its normal allocation from government. But it still has a choice to stop sliding further down this route before it is too late.

Now is the time to contact your councillors and ask them: “Do they know what will be contracted out? Who will they be contracting to? And how will they be voting?”

• Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East

Union provides platform for debate

UNISON is holding a debate on the proposed changes to council services this evening, at 7pm, at Edinburgh University’s Appleton Tower.

Representatives from the council will be taking part in a public debate with anti-privatisation campaigners ahead of the decision on whether to hire private firms to run services such as refuse collection. The union, to which a large number of council workers belong, is also urging council staff and members of the public to rally outside the City Chambers on October 27, between 8.30am and 10am, as councillors debate the future of the city’s services at the monthly full council meeting.