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Union fights bizarre council’s plans to “privatise the cuts”

Barnet CouncilThings are getting weird at Barnet council, even for Barnet council.

Last week, council staff announced they'd take strike action on 13 September in protest at the council's fatally-misguided plan (called One Barnet) to mass-privatise council services

Striking in protest at that daft plan isn't weird – hundreds of jobs are likely to be lost and/or compromised if and when private companies take over – but the council's response has been.

Somebody spent Tuesday night covering the walls of the council's North London Business Park offices with framed, wall-to-floor posters which told staff why they shouldn't strike.

Barnet Council's framed "open letter to staff"

The letter is a signed statement from council chief executive Nick Walkley which tells staff they have nothing to fear from a shift to private companies – that their salaries, conditions and pensions will be protected if they go. Everyone knows this is garbage, particularly in this neck of the woods, where privatisation casualties pile high.

Barnet careworkers, for example, were in dispute with a private employer called the Fremantle Trust for nearly two years because their salaries and leave allowances were slashed after their service was privatised. Outsourced Housing 21 care staff are having to accept reduced salaries and conditions as we speak. Walkley's letter to staff concedes that staff terms and conditions will only be protected for a year after any transfer to the private sector. There's not much in the letter, or Barnet's history, to thrill staff or service users.

Nonetheless, Walkley's letter appeared everywhere – flyposted around the building, and as a letter delivered to staff. (In fact, there were two letters delivered to staff. One had a paragraph saying the council would take an injunction to stop the strike action. In the second, that paragraph had gone.)

Barnet’s excellent local bloggers have much enjoyed Walkley's efforts. The barneteye's outstanding Rog T offered a Translation into English of Non-Stick Nick Walkley's Dictat to Staff and the excellent Mrs Angry observed:

"[Why Walkley] feels the need to publicise his diktats to the workforce in this ludicrous Orwellian fashion is a mystery, but it rather smells of desperation, and represents a serious misjudgement of the mood of employees deeply worried about their future employment and personal financial security.”

So – a bizarre performance from Barnet council. The upshot: Unison remains determined to strike. The realities of privatisation on the Barnet scale are too awful not to – and the council already has its rotten plans underway. It recently agreed to proceed with a majestically costly "support and customer services project" where a private company will deliver customer services, estates, finance, human resources, information systems, procurement, revenues and benefits and project management.

Unison estimates job losses of between about 190 and 250 if this goes ahead – and service devastation, given that staff are already stretched to deliver. Unison branch secretary John Burgess describes Barnet's mass-outsourcing plans as "the privatisation of cuts" – shifting services to private companies which cut jobs, salaries and offerings when the dust has settled. Nobody wants it. Nobody ever wants it. One Barnet indeed.

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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