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Loss of staff accelerates

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The number of people leaving, or losing, local government jobs in the past year has doubled to more than 42,000 - but the toughest times are almost certainly still to come.

Since the true scale of local government funding cuts was made known just over a year ago, there have been countless announcements from councils that ‘X hundreds of jobs will go’.

This time last year, the GMB union was keeping count of the ‘jobs at risk’ notices lodged by council employees, and it quickly topped the 100,000 mark.

Quarterly publications of national statistics have since been scrutinised by a wide range of organisations.

New research by Unison has added some nuanced detail to these headline figures - and it is the detail that gives a face to the workforce reductions being seen across the country.

Unlike the Office for National Statistics data, which is often billed as jobs or people lost and includes situations such as outsourced jobs or deleted vacancies, Unison’s Freedom of Information trawl of all councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland focuses entirely on people - more precisely on the number of people made redundant or retiring early.

This shows a 161% rise between 2009-10 and 2010-11 - alarming when you consider that these figures include the six months before the spending review was announced, as well as the six months after.

Unison has carried out this FoI exercise before. Figures for 2007-8 and 2008-9 show a steady 12,000 people or so leaving councils through compulsory or voluntary redundancy, or early retirement. In 2009-10 this rose slightly to just over 16,000 before rocketing to 42,442 in the latest FoI data.

One interesting aspect of Unison’s data is the empirical backing it provides to anecdotal evidence that many councils have attempted to minimise the number of people being forced out of jobs.

In 2010-11, voluntary redundancies jumped from 32% of all departures to 41% while the number of compulsory redundancies dropped from 20% to 17%.

Andreas Ghosh, human resources director of Lewisham LBC and policy lead for workforce strategy for the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, said: “The figures make it clear the effort councils have made to minimise the impact on people. Many councils have taken the approach to seek volunteers in the first round of the budget reductions.”

As time rolls on and budget restraints continue, this approach will become less feasible. Those at an age to retire and those confident in their ability to get another job will have done so already. If the private sector jobs market continues to flag, the incentive to volunteer to leave will be reduced further.

“Many councils will continue to ask for volunteers, but it is clear there will be a larger impact on people in terms of compulsory redundancies,” said Mr Ghosh.

The research also shows which occupations are involved. Unison head of local government Heather Wakefield is worried about the focus on ‘back office’ staff. She has concerns about the implications for services and communities.

This is not news to managers in local government. Phil Coppard, chief executive of Barnsley MBC until last month, has the same worries. “Barnsley had to cut £46m over four years - most of that money would have gone back into the local economy through wages and services,” he said.

“Put that alongside the changes to benefits - which we calculate will take an extra £33m out of Barnsley’s economy - and there are serious worries about the community.”

But it is not all bad news. Mr Ghosh says the departures are not simply knee-jerk reactions to budget cuts, nor do they necessarily mean an equivalent drop in service provision.

Looking at the type of occupations affected by redundancies and early retirements, Mr Ghosh points to the large number in adult social care.

“In adult social care there have been major changes to the way the services are being delivered with a bigger focus on re-enablement,” he said.

This has meant a move away from constant home care, using a high number of care workers, he says, to “intensive up-front support” to enable people to become more self-sufficient.

Jobs pie chart for 23 Feb issue

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