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Behind the headlines

This page is where we will regularly post background information about some of the stories hitting the headlines.

It is the criticism and complaints that tend to get the media coverage, and there are many organisations out there whose sole purpose seems to be ‘council bashing’.

However, there are always ‘two sides to every story’, and we are anxious to ensure that County Council policies and aspects of its spending are not misrepresented.

The aim of this page is to help give residents a clearer picture of what really lies behind the headlines.

It also designed to assist journalists many of whom may be approaching a story about the County Council for the first time and are relying for their background on inaccurate statements and claims.




Statement to local media in response to claims by the Don’t Cut Us Out campaign

A spokesman for West Sussex County Council said: "It is disappointing that Don’t Cut Us Out has chosen both to mislead the public about the scale of the budgetary problems being faced by West Sussex County Council nor to outline the solutions we are putting into place to still try to support the most vulnerable in our society.

"We are responding to the Government’s determination to reduce the national deficit, which has meant that local government is having to reduce budgets.

"For us, this has involved making changes in the way we deliver services, which will mean working more closely with our partners in the health service to deliver a more integrated system that is also more personalised towards the person.

"While it is true that West Sussex County Council removed a subsidy in 2012 that had historically been issued to some, but not all of the District and Borough Lifeline providers, we were faced with a £2m cut in housing related support.

"We felt compelled to pass this on, however we agreed to delay this reduction for eight months to allow them time to remodel their provision of subsidised alarms.

"The Crawley Lifeline system supported relatively few people and there was a waiting list of about two years. Crawley did have the option of funding the service itself – or of subsidising those customers affected by the withdrawal.

"Two years prior to this WSCC also introduced a system so we could support more people using time-limited interventions.

"We spend £500,000 a year on funding new telecare units across the county, which equates to 2,500 frail and elderly people a year who receive a fully funded package for 13 weeks.

"The vast majority decide to retain the service at the end of the free period. This also supports more people than Lifeline.

"The reference to "a County Council care home managed by the private sector" is also wrong. The County Council never owned the Orchid View care home, which at the time was owned by Southern Cross.

"DCUO have failed to understand council finance. It would take a council tax rise of 8.6 per-cent a year for the next four years to raise £141 million, while to reduce the cuts by 63% in order to generate £112.1m would require a rise of seven per-cent every year for four years.

"Both are way above the two per-cent level, which the government insists will trigger a local referendum to agree the rise.

"They have also failed to appreciate that our reserves are largely in place to meet existing commitments and to pay for specific projects. This money cannot be used to run day to day services without serious financial implications for the finances of the council.

"Having a sound level of reserves has also allowed the council to cope with unexpected emergencies such as the 2012 flooding which allowed us to invest £8.5 million in Operation Watershed to pay for vital drainage schemes and road repairs. Taxpayers would not thank us if there was an emergency, and we had no money to cope with it.

"The Meals on Wheels contract with the Royal Voluntary Service has always involved volunteers carrying out safe and well checks. They were not being asked to take on tasks previously undertaken by social workers.

"Care services have never been "outsourced" to Bupa or Southern Cross, though some of our residents are customers of Bupa’s services and live in their care homes. WSCC transferred its care homes to Shaw Healthcare 11 years ago to ensure best use of scarce public funds. Southern Cross no longer exists as a going concern.

"WSCC is not privatising social care. We need to make the best use of public funds and will be commissioning more services from the private sector, but we will also continue to provide adult social care services. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about buying services from the private sector.

"Adults’ Services will continue to be the biggest budget holder in West Sussex County Council."


Staff sickness

A local paper, which obtained staff sickness figures using Freedom of Information, linked absence from work because of stress to pothole levels. This report was completely inaccurate as extracts from this letter sent to the paper by the Cabinet Member responsible for HR issues explains.

"It is completely inaccurate to link the numbers of staff who took sick leave for stress to potholes. There is no evidence to support this, and the information has been taken out of context.

"The staff who took sickness absence related to stress (about 3% of the total workforce) were from a variety of departments, the majority of which have no connection to road maintenance or potholes. This could have been made clear had your reporter contacted the County Council and given it an opportunity to comment.

"In addition, it should be noted that the category ‘stress’ is a broad category and captures all types of stress-related illnesses and does not necessarily indicate workplace stress, and can include stress related to non-work issues.

"The County Council has in place robust policies for managing sickness absence. Sickness is actively managed and monitored by managers on a regular basis, and where necessary appropriate actions will be taken."


Adult and Community Learning

A Twitter user recently posted that the Council had sold Adult and Community Learning to the ‘lowest bidder’. This was totally inaccurate. The service is now called Aspire Sussex Ltd and is a staff run social enterprise which is to receive County Council support over the next five years.

Potholes

A local paper reported the County Council was forced to take action after residents used social networking sites to express anger over potholes. This was inaccurate. The County Council was well aware of the pothole problem caused by the recent floods in all areas of the county and has widely publicised the measures it has been taking including putting on extra pothole patrols. It has always actively encouraged residents to report potholes direct via a smartphone app, phone or online so they can be prioritised and repaired.


Chichester Harbour Conservancy

A recent letter in some local papers stated that the County Council’s Leader voted not to cut the Council’s annual grant to the Conservancy. This was incorrect. The Conservancy, set-up by an Act of Parliament, is a precepting authority and in a response said, "As such we have the power to instruct another local authority to collect an amount of council tax on our behalf in the same way that police and parish towns work together."


Big Brother Watch

A recent report issued by this organisation led to alarming national headlines such as ‘A Town Hall Spy On Every Corner’. It involved the use by local authorities over the last 3 years of the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (known as RIPA) approved by Parliament.

West Sussex County Council responded in 2011 to a Freedom of Information Act request which showed that it had used the powers just 6 times and all were in relation to investigations by our Trading Standards department designed to protect residents. These included requesting details that could assist with an investigation into a ‘timeshare scam’ and cold callers.


Blue Badges

Recent publicity around the Blue Badge scheme has centred on the time people have had to wait for a new or replacement Blue Badge. This is because Government reforms to the application process, which are designed to cut down on fraudulent use, require us to assess a person’s mobility more thoroughly. These specialist staff are in high demand and initially we could not recruit enough of them. But due to the dedication of members of staff and the recruitment of extra staff we hope to get back to more normal service levels by the end of this summer. We apologise for any delays.


Spend on consultants

The media likes to give the impression that this is all about 'men in suits' and 'management gurus'. In fact consultants is the term used to record spending on all outside contractors. It includes specialists needed for one-off projects - for example, engineers to build bridges, architects to design buildings, or developers to implement ICT programmes. It is often cheaper to employ a short term 'consultant' rather than incur the cost of recruiting and employing a full time member of staff. Spend on outside contractors is carefully monitored and has reduced sharply over the last 3 years.


Council videos

Claims we have spent money on a 'YouTube' film unit are nonsense. We started making videos 5 years ago to promote vital public information and services. We 'publish' them on our website and other video-hosting platforms like YouTube. Production facilities have been funded by switching spend from traditional media like print and events. They are also used to make staff training and development films.


Chief Executive's bonus

Claims that the Chief Executive could be in line for a 20% bonus this year are wrong. The Leader of the Council has made clear a bonus of any amount would only be paid in the most exceptional of circumstances and in such a difficult financial climate is extremely unlikely.


Dozens of 'Fat Cat' Council Executives earn more than the Prime Minister

Comparing salaries of public servants with the Prime Minister is flawed. David Cameron has chosen not to take the full salary to which he is entitled (£198,660.) If you add in the value of his accommodation (10 Downing Street and Chequers) plus other perks his remuneration package is probably worth well over half a million pounds.


Taxpayers’ Alliance 'Rich List'

The Taxpayers’ Alliance table of 'Fat Cat' salaries publishes data that is 2 years out of date. It also rolls together salaries and employer's pension contributions and in some cases the redundancy payments that are compensation for loss of office. As a result many of the figures quoted have been vastly inflated. It is worth stressing that redundancy payments are a cost associated with reducing headcount and a short-term cost designed to lead to longer-term savings.


Public sector employees are overpaid in comparison to the private sector

The 2011 Hutton review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector stated: "A quarter of the public believe that public sector executives are currently paid more than their counterparts in private business, while in fact executive pay in large listed companies far outstrips that in even the largest and most complex of public bodies."


Cuts to services

Yes, of course there have been cuts to some services as the County Council copes with having to save £79 million over 3 financial years but a large percentage of the savings are being made from changes in the way we work and greater efficiencies. Here are the facts the media overlooks about what is being done to mitigate the impacts:

  1. Changes to the Eligibility Criteria for adult social care

    A difficult decision but one that brings us into line with 82 percent of English authorities and we have followed Department of Health guidance which states that if a local authority raises the eligibility criteria it should ensure preventative services are in place. There is a wide range of support, information and advice in place.

  2. We are closing day care centres

    We have moved away from multi-purpose day centres to more specialist-focused provision for people with complex or longer term needs. The change is needed because all the evidence shows that people are living longer with complex conditions such as dementia, while people with a lower level of needs can be supported through services in the wider community. The new model provides 14 day centres - 8 provided directly by the County Council and 6 by our partners Shaw Healthcare.

  3. Bus subsidies

    Reducing the subsidy paid to commercial companies to run loss-making services was again a difficult decision, but some individual passenger journeys were costing as much as £15.00 in subsidy. The review has shown that some formerly subsidised services can be operated by bus companies with either a fare increase or a reduced frequency. In the most recent decision on the latest phase of reducing subsidies, the bus companies asked for and were given more time to investigate if routes can continue commercially. The Council has also worked closely with community transport groups.

  4. Youth Services

    Much of the publicity about this service has focused on the potential closure of youth clubs and ignored the fact that the service is being re-shaped so that scarce resources are carefully targeted on the most vulnerable young people. The new Youth Support and Development Service will still include youth provision in areas of greatest need and the County Council is working hard to support the development of community led services in those areas where it is withdrawing. There are already 20 rural areas with local schemes up and running and the deadline for achieving savings has been extended to allow more time for other groups to come forward.

‘Dossier of Shame’

The County Council has also responded in full to a recent so-called ‘Dossier of Shame’ published by the ‘Don’t Cut Us Out’ campaign group.


Member’s allowances

Often inaccurately described as councillor’s pay. The allowances scheme is national and is designed to ensure that people do not suffer financially from time spent on local government duties. The sums are recommended by an independent panel, which looks at what the role entails. There is a basic allowance for all 71 West Sussex councillors with a Special Responsibility allowance for councillors such as the Leader of the Council and Cabinet Members to reflect their workload.

The County Council has frozen member’s allowances and expense rates for the lifetime of this current council, which ends in May 2013.

The amounts claimed fell from £1,288,864 in 2009/10 to £1,278,775 in 2010/11 and in 2011/12 was £1,254,417.

You can find out about the work of County Councillors in a series of films we have made in the run-up to the next elections in May 2013 by visiting the video pages of our website.


The Ombudsman

The annual report letter that all local authorities receive from the Ombudsman attracted media coverage. This is the full statement that was issued –

"It is important to stress that there were no findings of maladministration recorded against the authority and that remedy payments following complaints fell from £31,013.70 the year before to £12,364.60.

"We are continually working to improve our service to residents and we always look closely at what lessons can be learned from complaints and the Ombudsman's decisions. The vast majority of complaints are however resolved by the Council without the Ombudsman's involvement.

"The Ombudsman has said that the authority’s average response time to complaints is faster than his target and is improved from the year before.

"The six instances of delay and poor information that have been cited must be seen in the context of literally thousands of interactions that the County Council would deal with during the course of a typical year.

"A report to the Council’s Standards Committee shows that for the second year running the number of compliments (1005) about council services exceeds complaints (639)."

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