Fife Council paves the way for the privatisation of residential care homes

Fife Council has paved the way for the privatisation of all of its residential care homes in what opponents have described as “an affront to democracy.”

The cash-saving measure means the council has back-tracked on its £40 million care home replacement programme.

The decision was announced following a heated debate in the council chamber of Fife House on an emotive issue for carers, staff and families.

The overwhelming majority of those who took part in the consultation had rejected the privatisation plans.

Residents in all 10 of the region’s homes will be cared for by the private or not-for-profit sectors in the future, despite the council indicating last year that at least two new facilities to be built in Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline as replacements for Matthew Fyfe, Appin House and Raith Gates, would remain publicly run.

More than 76% of the 606 people responding in relation to the Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline homes said they should be run by the council, while more than 75% of the 633 who responded in relation to the other seven homes — Alan McLure, Jenny Gray, Ladywalk, Methilhaven, Northeden, South Parks and Valley House — also said these should be kept in-house.

Members of the SNP/Lib Dem administration voted for their own motion, which stated it was “not feasible” to keep funding in-house residential care.

Out-voted six votes to five, the four Labour and one Independent councillor questioned the legality of the show of hands during the social work and health committee.

Labour group leader Alex Rowley said, “Six councillors in this chamber today are making a decision to privatise homes. That is an affront to democracy and something I intend to challenge because I question the legality of six councillors being able to make a decision to privatise homes.”

In favour of allowing other providers to take on the care of those currently in council homes were committee chairman Tim Brett and fellow Lib Dem councillors Elizabeth Riches and Marilyn Whitehead, as well as Fiona Grant, Ian Chisholm and Ann Bain for the SNP.

The SNP’s Carol Lindsay had stepped down from the committee and was replaced at the last minute by Mr Chisholm. Meanwhile, apologies were made for Labour councillor Pat Callaghan.

Also present for Labour were Kay Morrison and Betty Campbell. Councillor Tom Adams and Mr Rowley said such an important decision should be made by the full council, not a depleted committee with 11 councillors.

Two administration motions were voted through, the second of which asked for the committee’s agreement to look to other providers, note the results of the consultation, note the council’s challenging financial position and “The willingness of some care staff to accept a reduction in some aspects of their terms and conditions of employment.”

The first, which was also voted through after being described as “incompetent” by Labour, asked councillors to confirm the “unanimous view” of the cross-party review group — subsequently unanimously confirmed by full council — that a programme of replacing local authority residential care places should commence.

Ms Morrison said the motion was not consistent with the view of the group or the decision of the council as it was agreed any replacement programme should be in-house and the motion was not specific.
Not competent

Mr Rowley said, “It’s not legally competent. What was agreed was that the council wants to replace its homes in-house and that’s not what is being suggested today. You’re suggesting the opposite.”

Mr Brett asked democratic services team leader David Henderson to clarify the legality of the motion.

Mr Henderson said such a change could be made providing there was a “material change in circumstances.” The committee chairman said the financial crisis facing public spending constituted a change in material circumstances.

“As we are all aware, the situation now is significantly different,” said Mr Brett. “I’m not hiding from the fact there was a clear message from the consultation — that people wanted us to retain our own homes. I accept that, but I don’t feel that’s tenable.”

Mr Brett added, “There is absolutely no suggestion we are going to disperse people currently in homes to other homes throughout Fife. We need to keep people close to their families and friends.”

He conceded it had not been made clear that the option of all 10 homes being run by the private or not-for-profit sector had been on the table.

Last year, the proposal appeared to have been thrown out.

However, he said the option of the new Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline homes being run by providers other than the council had always been up for consultation. I accept that only became clear today,” he said.

“We wanted to ensure we were treating all parts of Fife the same, albeit we expect Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline will go ahead quicker because we have sites and plans.

“We actually were consulting on them. I would simply say I believe the private sector would be able to build homes quicker and cheaper given the other pressures on the council.”

Mr Rodger said it would have been possible to reduce the £40m outlay for the replacement programme given that the potential cost of the Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline homes had been reduced by about a third since the initial estimate.

Councillors heard this was because the specifications had been reduced to meet minimum Care Commission standards.

The Independent councillor said the decision put jobs at risk and created anxiety for residents and families.

He said, “Yourself, Councillor Brett, said you were proud of the staff, but not that proud to keep it in-house. We have something in the region of £29m in reserves and about £20m of that will be used probably to fuel redundancies, and I find that terrible in this day and age.”

A Fife campaigner against cuts said the privatisation decision undermined the credibility of any future consultations by the council.

Maureen Closs, from the Campaign Against Charges and Cuts (CACC), said, “The fact they totally ignored the consultation results makes a mockery of the idea of a consultation coming out of Fife Council. No one will ever trust them again.

“Fife Council is now clearly showing it is abdicating responsibility for disabled and older people. We’ve already had shopping deliveries put into private hands and more than 50% of home care is delivered by private agencies.

“For me, this is not about budget constraints, it’s about the crisis of the recession being used as an opportunity to privatise.”

Labour MSP Claire Baker said, “The SNP’s decision to effectively end provision of care homes is frankly cold-hearted and irresponsible.

“The focus should be on how the council can improve its provision of elderly care, not give up on it.

“Staff, residents and families have been worried for months about the future of care homes — this decision only makes things worse.

“These vulnerable elderly people need our care. The council has shown complete disregard for them-people in Fife deserve better.”