Monday 23 December 2013

Brent Council ignorant of how many of their contractors pay below London Living Wage or use Zero Hours contracts

Brent Council's commitment to paying the London Living Wage was very welcome but as pointed out in previous postings that is problematic because the Council has very few directly employed manual and service  workers now that so many of its services are contracted out. The same caveat applies to zero hours contracts, also opposed by the Council, but when some out-sourced Civic Centre security staff are employed on a zero hours basis.

The Council has urged local schools and private businesses to pay the London Living Wage and the new Public Realm contract includes a requirement that  Veolia  pay the LWW. The Council in a November press released stated:
We have also agreed to build LLW considerations into our procurement process for contracts and, over a three-year period, will review the bulk of contracts with a positive view to applying LLW.
Again this is welcome although the continued emphasis on 'best value' (often the lowest bid) introduces a tension at a time of massive funding cuts. There is increasing recognition that by lifting local wages the Council will eventually be better off as families are lifted out of poverty and thus less reliant on benefits, including Council Tax Support.

Given all this I was surprised to receive a negative response from Brent Council to my  Freedom of Information request asking for details of how many of the staff employed by the Council via contractors and sub-contractors are on zero hours contracts and paid less than the London Living Wage. After they refused the request I asked for a review and now have a response (below) - which amounts to another refusal .

What concerns me is that if the Council is concerned about the London Living Wage and poverty among Brent residents, it is surely their responsibility to ensure that those employed on their behalf have decent wages and conditions. In terms of budget planning it is also essential to know the cost of bringing those workers up to the LWW and that can only be done through  knowing how many people are involved.

If there is to be evidence based forward planning and decision making it is essential to have high quality information. I had a similar experience regarding school places when the Council refused my request for the number of pupils on Brent school waiting lists who were duplicates - i.e.the same child on waiting lists for several schools.Again essential information on assessing unmet demand and potential school expansions.

Here is the Council's ruling on my Zero Hours/London Living Wage request:
We have reviewed the decision to refuse your request for information under The Freedom of Information Act. Your request related to information that would establish how many staff who work for or on behalf of the Council through a contractor were employed on a zero hours basis and how many were paid the London Living Wage.

That request was refused as the information requested was not held by the Council. You were dissatisfied with that request on the basis that the Council had been critical of such arrangements and would not use a zero hours scheme with its own staff and had made a policy position that the London Living Wage should be paid to all Council staff as a minimum. We have now reviewed the decision to refuse the request and I can inform you of the outcome.

It is correct to say that the Council does not hold this information and as such can not readily supply it to you.  It may be possible to contact all of the contractors that the Council engages with but when the number of those contractors are considered and the time involved in obtaining the information you have requested is taken into account this would be a major exercise.

The Council would have to identify all current contracts on which staff are employed by the contractor which would, in effect, be nearly if not all of the contractors that are used. This in itself is an enormous piece of work. Once identified contact would have to be made with all of those contractors which would be hundreds of individual contacts. This again would be an enormous piece of work to accurately undertake. Collating the information would also take a significant amount of time.

Our view is that the time involved in obtaining the information would be in excess of 18 hours of officer time. Under the Act a request can be refused in the event that the cost of complying with it would exceed the cost limit set out in legislation. The applicable regulations provide that in assessing whether the cost limit has been reached officer time should be assessed at £25 per hour and the overall limit of cost being £450.

Given that the cost here would require in excess of 18 hours of officer time it is clearly over the cost limit set out in the Act. The Executive has taken the decision that any request that breaches the cost limit should be refused.
If the Council is to conduct a 3 year review as their November press release stated then this is precisely the information that will be needed.  Meanwhile, as residents, we have no way of knowing how many of the workers providing our services are on zero hours contracts with little or no pension or sick pay rights, or employed on rock bottom wages.


Alison Hopkins said...

Martin, I'm very surprised indeed that it was impossible to provide the number of duplicated applications for schools. I do rather bang on about my past in IT, but one thing I know is that piece of information ought to have been simple to get.

I am also disturbed that your FoI was refused again. Brent has a list of contractors. It's simplicity itself to generate a standard letter with standard questions asking about LLW and zero hours. And it's not just LLW and zero hours that are key: TUPEd staff must be properly protected, especially as many have given decades to the people of Brent.

I've become increasingly concerned about the use of contractors, consultants and interims by Brent and the lack of information about them. It's been raised at the Budget and Finance scrutiny, too, and is a red light for us.

Anonymous said...

This informed opinion is exactly what is needed to call the bluff of institutions which increasingly use the cost argument to refuse to produce information the public has a right to(see Private Eye passim). more please, Alison.