Union's legal challenge may scupper council budget cuts

Some of the biggest council public sector cuts in Britain could be undone by a pioneering legal challenge by a Somerset union.

Somerset’s branch of Unison has prepared papers and is taking legal advice alleging “abuse of process” by the County Council, which plans to make spending cuts of £43 million and axe hundreds of jobs.

If it is successful, it could spark a series of challenges across Britain, possibly blocking the biggest cuts seen for a generation.

The complaint centres on the union’s claim that the council failed to carry out proper equality assessments before the full council made the decision to cut £43m from its budget and lose about 700 jobs on November 10.

The council has an obligation to produce the assessments to see whether certain groups are unfairly affected by the changes.

It must do so before the decision-making process is complete, but argues that the process will not be complete until next February when the budget is officially set.

But the council insists the assessments have been under way for some time.

Councillor Ken Maddock, leader of the council, announced in September that it is has debts of £350m and he is looking to plug its £75m spending gap in three years in a move which could see up to 1,500 jobs disappear.

Among services which will be affected are those for children with special educational needs, while people receiving more than 20 hours of home care per week will be asked to fund the extra hours themselves or be asked to consider moving into care homes.

Up to eight of 18 household waste recycling sites would close and the November meeting also agreed to kill off the £159,000 arts development budget despite passionate pleas for a rethink from art-lovers across the county.

Library services are also under review, and a consultation is under way, as is required by law. The union has been told that up to 47 library staff could me made redundant under the plans.

Nigel Behan, Somerset county branch secretary of Unison said yesterday: “The branch has taken legal advice in relation to mounting a challenge to the council’s decision on November 10 on the basis of abuse of process, and the possibility of taking this to a judicial review.

The branch also notes with concern that Somerset County Council is being hailed by the coalition Government as an example of the way in which councils across the UK might reduce their budgets, with the loss of jobs, services and community infrastructure, having paid no evident regard to the impact on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of their communities.

For these reasons, and for the sake of employees and the public who will be profoundly affected by their actions, it is imperative to instigate a challenge to Somerset County Council without delay.”

Councillor Harvey Siggs, cabinet member for Highways and Human Resources, said:

We are looking at the impact of the proposals in the budget which will be formally set in February. Early next week we will be publishing details on our website of the impact of the savings proposals put forward so far and will continue to publish details as further decisions are made.

It is worth pointing out that we still haven’t had full details of how much money we will receive from Government and so we have to be flexible throughout this area.”

From the Western Daily Press

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