Fears over use of private firms by Staffordshire County Council
FINANCE leaders have defended their savings strategy amid claims too many council services are being handed to private companies.
Staffordshire County Council made savings of £34 million last year and is planning to save another £36 million in 2012/13.
New figures show the authority's 'transformation' programme, which includes a series of major outsourcing projects, delivered £17.5 million savings – more than half of the amount saved in 2011/12.
But concerns have been raised that the authority is stripping the democratic accountability of its councillors by handing a series of services to private firms and charities.
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Councillor Ian Parry, pictured, cabinet member for finance, said: "Our mantra has always been that we will not shut or close something that people want until something the same, or better, is there to replace it.
"But we are not always the best people to provide services. It may be the third sector, a charity or the private sector, or a mixture of them.
"We'll maintain the quality of a service and ensure the best value for taxpayers.
"What people often fail to recognise is that we remain accountable for services even when they are being provided on our behalf."
The council is pressing ahead with plans to transfer up to 5,000 school support staff to a new venture led by a private firm from next year.
Everything from music tuition and special needs support to grounds maintenance and school meals will be run by the private sector partner, which will be able to run the services at its discretion to make a profit.
The council is to privatise six nurseries, including those at children's centres in Knutton, Biddulph and Stafford, to help save £1.5 million-a-year.
About 1,000 council social workers were transferred to an NHS-led trust, which has taken on responsibility for helping vulnerable residents gain their independence.
General home care services have also been out-sourced.
And the benefits assessment service is also due to be handed over to smaller district and borough councils to help save £400,000 a year.
Steve Elsey, branch secretary of Unison Staffordshire, said: "A while ago, I made the comment that I'm sure the chief executive would like the county council to simply consist of a chief executive, his PA and the elected members.
"It started out as a joke, but it is looking more like it could be their long-term aim to strip the council down to the bare minimum and basically do away with the public sector.
"There is difficulty in holding the private sector to account."
Mr Elsey said the union has "grave concerns" about the job security of educational support staff involved in the impending transfer.
Biddulph councillor Christina Jebb, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said: "Staff are having to get used to an entirely different way of working and it can be a difficult situation, particularly if you're stuck in the middle of it.
"But I do accept changes do need to happen."
Mrs Jebb also questioned the authority's decision not to take a seat on the board of the NHS-led trust delivering home care using £137 million of the county council's budget.
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