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Open Letter to Blackpool Council's Chief Executive, Neil Jack - Essential Car User allowance

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Dear Neil,

I am writing to you as Unison Branch Secretary in relation to the Council’s proposal to withdraw the Essential Car User (ECU) allowance from all employees currently in receipt of it. From our brief conversation following the Scrutiny Committee meeting on Friday, I am encouraged that you would like to meet to further discuss the issue. However, I must also reply to your previous correspondence in order to respond to your points and to clarify UNISON’s position.

Firstly, I must say that I am very disappointed at the Council’s approach to the issue of Essential Car User allowance. Unfortunately, its position can now be simplified to that of having budgeted for a cut of £265K to be achieved by abolishing the allowance, and that the budget is now reliant on making this cut. The Council has refused to look at this again and are suggesting that, if UNISON do not agree with the proposal, then we should propose an alternative cut which will harm staff and/or services. We do not consider this to be meaningful consultation. As you know, UNISON are in the business of trying to make the working conditions of employees better, not worse. Nor are we in the position of implementing failed Tory austerity, imposed on Blackpool by this and previous governments. Further, we now have the prospect of a Labour Council threatening redundancies or ‘dismissal and re-engagement’ if staff do not agree to these cuts to their terms and conditions.

Dialogue Between UNISON and the Council:

UNISON has, over the last year, sought to engage constructively, despite the Council having implemented an ECU criteria, which had not been agreed with the trade unions. That review saw many employees, whose jobs clearly require the use of a car, lose their ECU allowance. Since then, we have discussed the issue with the Leader and yourself. As part of those discussions, we agreed that we would both look at some new criteria. Yet, at no point has the Council proposed any reasonable alternatives since the review took place.

The Council’s Proposal to Remove ECU:

At our meeting on November the 29th, you informed us of your proposal to remove the Essential Car User allowance, and to place all those employees currently in receipt of it on the casual mileage rate. You suggested that the removal of ECU would make a saving of £265k. Knowing that both sides were in the process of discussing new criteria, the Council has now declared that those savings must be made before any such criteria can been agreed. This is a clear change in your position. Further, it is asking the trade union where it thinks the axe should fall. That is not the responsibility of any trade union, and we will not allow ourselves to be put in such a position.

If the Council had wanted to make the required savings, and to act in good faith, it would have put the ECU negotiations to one side and not included it in its savings target. The Authority was well aware of the likely level of cuts for 2018/19, and has changed its budgeting process to one covering several years to take account of anticipated cuts to funding. UNISON does not accept, therefore, that “things have now moved on”, as you state in your correspondence. The fact that the Council has gone ahead and decided to make £265k worth of savings by potentially withdrawing the allowance, suggests, to any reasonable person, that it has been consulting in bad faith.

UNISON’s Proposed Criteria:

In January, after UNISON had consulted with its affected members, we submitted our proposal for new ECU criteria. We consider it to be a sensible way of identifying those employees who need a car for their role. In fact, it is based on similar criteria in another local authority in Lancashire. Disappointingly, the Council has, as stated above, responded by saying that it will not consider it until UNISON identifies savings totalling £265k.

UNISON members are angry and disappointed by this whole situation because, for the past few years, it is only the hard work of staff which has kept essential public services running for the people of Blackpool, despite ever decreasing resources. Staff already contribute their fair share and have seen the real value of their pay fall by 21% since 2009. Many have also agreed to take unpaid leave and seen increased car parking charges in recent years.

‘Impact on Service Delivery’:

Under this heading in your letter, you suggest that there is an obligation on staff to ‘perform their role effectively’, and that, if employees did choose to not use their car for work, they themselves would have to “ensure that this does not impact on service to vulnerable residents.” I must remind you that it is the Council’s suggestion to make this change. Therefore, UNISON will not accept any suggestion that staff, who may have ECU status withdrawn, and would, therefore, no longer be required to use their car for work, are to blame for not performing the “full duties of their role effectively.” Any difficulties caused by a significant increase in the use of taxis, buses, trains, or overnight stays, will be as a consequence of the Council’s decision to remove the allowance. Staff will continue to work as effectively and efficiently as they can with different modes of transport. As it will be the Council’s responsibility for prompting staff to no longer use their own vehicles, senior management should be aware that they will have to address any inefficiencies and added cost implications.

UNISON would request from the Council what contingency plans have been put in place to deal with any potential withdrawal of the use of employees’ vehicles. How much impact, in terms of greater inefficiency, does the Authority think it will have on its service users? In terms of costings, how much will it cost for the anticipated use of taxis, buses, trains, and overnight stays? In addition, what arrangements have been put in place to ensure that affected departments have the petty cash available to pay for those different modes of transport up front, rather than it coming out of the pockets of its staff?

Alternative Savings:

You state that the withdrawal of the ECU allowance was one option being considered. UNISON would like to know what the proposed alternative savings are. As wage costs are a now significantly reduced portion of Council expenditure, I assume that those alternatives do not exclusively involve cuts to staffing.

Pay Claim:

We are aware of the proposed NJC Pay Award for 2018 and 2019, which will add a further budget pressure. However, that offer was made as a result of Labour members of the Local Government Association voting in favour of it so it seems reasonable to assume that they would have known that any extra funding would have to come from existing Council monies.

Summary:

UNISON believes and expects that, as an NJC Council, Blackpool should maintain NJC terms and conditions contained in the Green Book, which clearly contains the Essential Car User allowance. And, further, it is clear that ECU staff are those whose duties are of such a nature that it is essential for them to have a motor car at their disposal whenever required. This is, and has always been, the basis of UNISON’s position. If the job needs a car, then the Essential Car User allowance should be paid.

Again, it is worth reiterating how disappointing it is for a Labour Council to use the threat of redundancies or ‘dismissal and re-engagement’ to seek to force staff to accept detrimental changes to their working conditions. It is also worth noting that the proposed budget, as is, results in 50 redundancies, 20 staff on fixed term contracts leaving plus a further 40 vacancies being deleted. Despite the sacrifices, staff have made, there are still job losses. UNISON are not in the business of seeking to worsen terms and conditions or make cuts and should point out that it is the Council who have a team of financially qualified staff to model other savings but notwithstanding that UNISON is of course looking at the Council’s budget.

UNISON will consult widely with members on any proposal made by the Council as to any next steps.

In the meantime, I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the issues involved.

Yours Sincerely

Dave Dickinson

Branch Secretary
UNISON Blackpool Local Government Branch

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