Union accuses Derbyshire County Council of 'selling off' low-paid workers

Union officials fear job cuts and worse working conditions could be on the way for hundreds of low-paid council caretakers and cleaners outsourced by Derbyshire to Suffolk.
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Derbyshire County Council agreed a deal with Suffolk County Council in September to form a joint venture company to oversee its caretakers and cleaners – of which there are around 900.

The new firm is called Vertas (Derbyshire) Limited.

Trade union Unison claims the new firm will not recognise it in pay negotiations or uphold already-agreed pay increases.

Derbyshire County Council's has come under fire from Unison for its proposalsDerbyshire County Council's has come under fire from Unison for its proposals
Derbyshire County Council's has come under fire from Unison for its proposals

It fears job cuts and worsening employment conditions are the only ways for the new firm to produce the profits and cost savings it is aimed to achieve.

The union has called for the transfer, postponed from April to September due to the pandemic, to be halted pending a full review with ‘proper answers’.

It says an independent report carried out by the Association for Public Service Excellence questioned whether the proposal ‘complies with regulations that put a duty on councils to obtain ‘best value’.

Unison also claims it has raised concerns with Derbyshire over the past three months but had no response.

Approving the move last year, county council leader Coun Barry Lewis had called the decision ‘modern and “athletic’.

The around 900 staff form part of the 1,500 strong property division at the authority and largely work in the county’s schools and would continue to do so. Its budget is £12.6 million.

Keith Libetta, Unison East Midlands regional organiser, said: “This report raises real concerns which the council must address in order to reassure the people of Derbyshire this proposal is in their interests.

“There are serious concerns for the future of the 900 staff who are effectively being sold off by the council, which appears to be washing its hands of any responsibility for them.

“This proposal appears to be a way for the council to gain income by sacrificing the rights and conditions of current employees.

"They are the ones who ultimately will be paying the cost.

“The transfer of staff and the creation of the joint venture company should be halted until a full review of this decision is completed and proper answers to the important questions raised in the report are provided.”

During the latest full meeting of the council, Coun Steve Marshall-Clarke said he feared the move ‘would not benefit staff’.

He claimed staff ‘have had no opportunity to raise concerns’ and he asked for proposals to be put on hold pending negotiations and consultation.

Coun Angelique Foster, cabinet member for corporate services, said she was not sure where councillors have heard about a lack of communication regarding caretakers and cleaners moving to the joint firm.

She continued: “All staff have been given updates regularly, a process which has continued through lockdown and that staff induction and health and safety training has started.”

Coun Foster also claimed the union has been involved and that the joint venture has made changes on the back of the union’s involvement.

The council had never ruled out redundancies as part of the move, but said last September that it would ‘make every effort to avoid job losses’.

A full business case was due back at the council in January to shed light on how much money the move would cost and save but this did not happen.

Last September, Coun Foster, cabinet member for council services, dubbed the work of the authority’s hundreds of caretakers and cleaners as ‘non-core business’.

Meanwhile, council deputy leader, Coun Simon Spencer, said that the council had to ensure it was getting ‘the best value for money for the taxpayer’.

However, a council spokesman did not counter fears over job losses or the potential worsening of working conditions.

They said: “As a council we have a duty to make sure our services are the best possible value for money for council tax payers, and we believe that this arrangement will do just that.

"We will have a 49 per cent share in the joint venture with Suffolk County Council and equal voting rights.

“Setting up this joint venture keeps our cleaning and caretaking service within the public sector and is the best possible option for our customers and our employees, who will transfer to the new company with their employment rights protected.

“Suffolk has a great track record of managing these services in similar councils, leading to better services for schools and more secure jobs for the workforce.

“We have had regular meetings with our employees and the trade unions during this process and will continue to do so.

“Unison has not shared its report with us but we are more than happy to discuss this with them at our next regular meeting.”