County staff call for mass protest

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FEARS that ‘unrealistic’ budget cuts of more than £46million could have a detrimental impact on council staff and services throughout Northumberland have sparked plans for a mass rally at County Hall.

The Northumberland Public Service Alliance, formed by trade union Unison and sister unions, intends to lobby Northumberland County Council’s full council meeting on Wednesday to highlight the potential threats to public services, if at least 1,000 jobs are lost in the ‘savage’ savings.

It comes at a time when sensitive negotiations are taking place between unions and senior politicians about terms and conditions of employment.

And union staff have threatened the protest will take a ‘two-pronged attack’ if these discussions break down.

Tony Martin, Unison regional organiser, said: “Cutting these vital Northumberland County Council services will be felt deeply and widely, affecting all of those living in Northumberland.

“Unison believes there are alternatives to the cuts and that the voice of residents and public sector workers of Northumberland needs to be listened to. People are now becoming aware of the major impact these savage cuts to council services will have on them, their local services and their area.”

Next week’s lobby action is to promote the joint trade union message to councillors that there is an alternative to the proposed cuts and to consider seriously the impact on public services that the reduction of at least 1,000 posts across the county will have.

On top of this, the unions are contesting changes to the severance scheme, which they say is ‘unacceptable’.

A rallying letter from Unison’s Northumberland County Branch calls for county councillors to send ‘a clear message’ to the Government protesting that the suggested savings programme over the next four years is ‘unrealistic’ and will have a ‘negative impact’ on both employees of the authority and Northumberland residents.

It adds: “The time has come to challenge these cuts in services and preserve a future not just for ourselves but for our children. Too many of our young people under the age of 25 are unemployed within Northumberland. We are now beginning to see too many of our colleagues receiving their redundancy notices and facing a very bleak future, we need to stand together and challenge these cuts together.”

The protest will take place at around 2pm at the Viking statue beside County Hall, Morpeth, and it is hoped there will be speakers to discuss the impact of the cuts alongside the overall strategy behind the campaign, before breaking at 2.40pm to go into the council chambers.

All union members, as well as members of the public, are being urged to join the protest. But, as warned, the rally could step up another gear if discussions between the unions and senior politicians over job evaluation and single status break down.

A number of conditions have been tabled by the authority as part of a move to single status. This will see a harmonisation of the terms and conditions of service for employees, removing unfairness in rewards.

But the unions have strongly objected to a number of these, including a proposed cap on overtime and annual leave, withdrawal of flexi-time, inclusion of weekends into a five-day working week and standard working hours to be between 6am and 7pm.

Union staff have warned that if the county council seeks to impose such conditions without any agreement from the unions, members could be balloted and industrial action could be taken.

An outcome on the next stage is expected today.

Joyce Guthrie, joint Unison branch secretary at the county council, said: “Initially, the lobby was to make the public more aware of the potential service reduction through a loss of potentially 1,000 jobs across the county, which could possibly result in 200 compulsory redundancies.

“It is going to have a detrimental effect on services across Northumberland. We feel that the general public don’t realise the impact of this.”

But she added: “We are in the middle of really serious negotiations about single status. Hopefully, we can reach a solution but if not, action could be taken and it could be a two-pronged attack.

“We need to get as a many people as possible to the lobby next Wednesday to debate what is going on.”

The situation has caused alarm bells at County Hall, with one member of staff branding it ‘absolutely disgusting’.

Our source, who did not want to be named, said: “It is just doom and gloom here. We are supposed to be grateful that we have got a job but an awful lot of people are really concerned about the effect this might have. Most are totally de-motivated.

“And none of the staff have actually had any meetings about what is going on.

“We have just found out through the unions. Meetings with area officers started this week. I know it is life and life changes but it has just been one thing after another with the council. I don’t think they actually ask staff, they just go ahead with it.”

Another county council source, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that staff were ‘incandescent with rage’ about the possible withdrawal of flexi-time and said the news was ‘disheartening’.

Leader of the council Coun Jeff Reid said: “As far as the lobbying is concerned I haven’t got a problem. It is a free country. I am sure it will be good-humoured and orderly.”

Of the negotiations he added: “We are in a very delicate situation. Negotiations are on the table but there is a lot of water to go under a lot of bridges before things are concluded.”