The isles’ largest trade union is claiming that it is being left in the dark ahead of crunch meetings which could result in hundreds of job cuts at Shetland Islands Council.
In a letter to Unison’s 970 SIC members on Friday, branch secretary Brian Smith said the council was now talking about “getting rid of” between 600 and 1,000 staff.
It has been apparent since the local authority settled on a £30 million programme of spending cuts that hundreds of jobs would come under threat. More than 50 reviews of different services are being carried out.
Mr Smith said the reviews were being conducted “all over the place, in a piecemeal way” and employee numbers were being “reduced to a minimum” throughout the council.
In an email on Tuesday, council chief executive Mark Boden informed Unison that, “what remains to be discussed with the trade unions is the detail of which staff, where, when and how they would exit their posts”.
In his letter, the Unison official said senior SIC managers and some councillors were “now stating openly” that up to a quarter of council staff may have to go to balance the books.
He wrote: “There is no detail about the actual services that the people of Shetland will receive as a result of proposed cuts in staff numbers – how will day centres run, how will youth work be delivered? Who will suffer most – children, the disabled, the old: the most vulnerable members of our society? With no information, we have no answers to these questions, and neither do the people of Shetland.”
The SIC’s political leadership has repeatedly insisted that everything possible will be done to avoid making compulsory redundancies. The stated intention is to shrink the 3,849-strong payroll primarily through retirements and not replacing staff who choose to leave. As of September, there were 2,610 “full-time equivalent” staff.
Mr Smith pointed out that at Birmingham City Council, serving a population in excess of one million, councillors are cutting 1,000 jobs and talking in apocalyptic language about it resulting in” the end” of their local government.
Shetland’s population is around one-fortieth of Birmingham’s, and Mr Smith said the comparison served to highlight just how “dire” the local authority’s predicament was.
He said Unison had long acknowledged that the SIC’s budget and its oil reserves faced “serious” problems. Council finance chief James Gray this summer warned that the reserves could vanish by 2016 if spending is not brought under control.
But unions have repeatedly warned that if cuts are made “too quickly and too severely”, it will wreak havoc on a fragile economy so heavily reliant on the public sector. It could also “serve to demoralise an already stressed and unhappy workforce”.
Representatives of the Unison, GMB and Unite unions held “secret” discussions with former chief executive Alistair Buchan between October 2011 and this spring “with a view to reaching agreement about efficiency savings”.
Mr Smith said the recently-departed Orcadian had lost confidence in those negotiations for unknown reasons – the only end product being the creation of a new working group.
The GMB and Unite unions decided to shun the group’s first meeting on regional officers’ advice – something Unison regards as “highly unfortunate” and “bad tactics”.
The local government union is unhappy that the working group will not reconvene until councillors have discussed the job cuts at a series of seminars planned this month.
Mr Smith had some harsh words to say about the council’s “directors for change” group. Led by social services director Christine Ferguson, it also includes former NHS chief executive Sandra Laurenson, drafted in as a consultant.
Directors have been instructed to find 35 per cent budget cuts “to be achieved rapidly, and without attention paid to the consequences for services and the local economy”, Mr Smith wrote.
He continued: “We understand the intention is that these proposals, with no meaningful consultation, will be presented to councillors at a series of seminars in November in the hope that they will be rubber-stamped. Indeed, one crusading director has spoken openly about redundancy notices going out at Christmas.”
The Shetland Times has asked the SIC for a response to Mr Smith’s comments. A council source stressed the November seminars were about setting priorities, not taking decisions, and said unions would be kept informed, with meetings planned on 22nd November and 6th December.