Isles MSP Tavish Scott has welcomed the SIC’s decision to scrap unpopular plans to charge senior pupils board for staying at the Janet Courtney Hostel, but called on the local authority to examine the legality of proposals before publishing them in future.
Today, councillors unanimously backed head of children’s services Helen Budge’s recommendation to abandon the idea after “detailed legal analysis” concluded that it would only be possible to charge for pupils’ boarding in “very specific circumstances”.
Over 400 people signed up to a Facebook page objecting to the means-tested £25 a week charge, which was to have been imposed on the parents of many S5 and S6 pupils who stay at the hostel when attending the Anderson High School.
Some members claimed the U-turn signalled a willingness to listen to public dissent, but others rejected that, pointing out that the local authority’s hand had been forced by legal considerations.
Mrs Budge explained to councillors that, after the practicalities were examined, staff realised that it would not be possible to levy board on fifth year pupils who were Christmas leavers until January, substantially reducing the amount the charges would have raised.
Instead, the £22,750-a-year savings will be found by cutting half of a secondary teaching post, a suggestion Hayfield staff were commended for by several councillors.
But Mr Scott voiced his disappointment that the proposed charges had caused needless anxiety among islands residents.
“Since the idea of charging was offered to the council at the beginning of February, many families have been worried and stressed about this additional financial burden,” he said. “This could and should have been avoided.
“I would encourage the council to look into the legalities of their proposals before putting them into the public domain. We all know cuts must be made but they must be legal and fair above all else.”
That sentiment was echoed in the council chamber by North Isles member Gary Cleaver, who questioned why legal advice had not been sought at the outset.
Councillor Cecil Smith pointed out that members had faced some “rough conversations” with unhappy members of the public “from Unst to Fair Isle” since the proposal was published in February.
Mrs Budge apologised for those “rough conversations”, saying she had also been party to similar exchanges. She explained that hostel charging was one of some 50 reviews her department was asked to carry out following the budget meeting, and the policy’s full implications only became clear once more detailed research was conducted.
Councillor Michael Stout was pleased that the “unfair” charge was being overturned, and said it was perhaps an opportunity to demonstrate that this will be a council which listens to public concerns over certain cuts. Davie Sandison said it might help to address an “undercurrent of town against country that needs to be nipped in the bud”.
But Allan Wishart rejected any notion that the charges were being withdrawn because of the “earache” councillors and officials had been getting. Claiming as much risked sending the wrong message to the public when huge cutbacks are required, he suggested.
Councillor George Smith said it was “inevitable” that more reports of this nature would be coming before members due to the sheer volume of reviews being carried out by officials.