UH-OH! They are feuding in the Camden Labour group again. This time over changes to the aid backbenchers and opposition councillors get from member support officers in a shake-up of the way things are being run at the Town Hall. These are the council officials who help councillors get through their neighbourhood constituency work, which can get quite complex and time intensive. There are little debates all around the country as to how many should be hired by local authorities. [Note: The council say the number of support officers is increasing]
But the argument inside the group is who should have best access to these support officers – all of the councillors, after all, have ward casework to get through. One source told me that the shake-up risks amplifying an us and them within the group.
But perhaps even greater angst is found in concerns about the way the process was handled with council staff being asked to apply for their own jobs. Job descriptions were altered, it is said, in a way which disadvantaged several popular officers. Good people – and possibly the main irritation lies here – have left the Town Hall in the process. That’s been suggested more than once in the last few days.
Mike Katz has sent an email to all Labour group members, I guess trying to smooth things over, but in his words you can feel the spikiness around the issue. “A number of you have expressed concern at the outcome of the Member Support Review,” he begins… “A number” generally means more than one loose cannon. It’s an email difficult to ignore.
To Labour Group
A number of you have expressed concern at the outcome of the Member Support Review, so I wanted to email on behalf of the Executive to clarify the process and position.
I know many of us have close relationships with our support officers, and for those whose officers who have been unsuccessful in applying for jobs in the new Member Support structure, this outcome will feel harsh. But I’m sure you’ll appreciate that, as with all HR processes, the council must follow rules that are fair and transparent to all. I hope this email helps explain the process here.
Collectively, we have expressed concern at the level of support we have as councillors in Member Support. We all agree that it is vital that we have first class officer support when we undertake the core task of supporting residents’ through casework. When we have discussed this as a Group (on 12 August and reported again to 8 October) we agreed that we needed more and better support in this vital task. I believe this concern was reiterated to Mike Cooke in no uncertain terms when backbenchers met with him recently. The reorganisation proposed by officers (which was reported, first to Executive and then to Group by Sarah in an email) met this criteria, by delivering more posts, all of which were at the higher grade that only some Member Support staff were previously on.
All members’ support staff were given a ring-fenced opportunity to apply for as many of the roles as they wanted. Some current members of the MS team were successful in their applications and some, were not. This process was identical to that carried out across the council for hundreds of staff; as a result of the difficult decisions we have had taken, arising from the huge cuts the Government has imposed on Camden. All those applying for the new posts in Member Support were assessed against a job description in accordance with the council’s HR procedure. If they were not able to demonstrate their ability to meet the demands of the grade they were not appointed. We owe it to our constituents to ensure that we have the best level of support in helping resolve their casework problems; this process ensured this happened. Indeed several councillors made a powerful case for having more and better staff to assist us in providing a professional frontline service in the full discussion on the 12 August.
In Camden, we pride ourselves on treating staff well and having high levels of support for employees going through a reorganisation. This was certainly the case here, with MS staff having access to pre-application and interview training, as well as there being possibilities of redeployment for those unsuccessful in their applications, as well as a right of appeal. The clear advice given by officers was that it should be left up to individual members of staff if they wanted to tell individual members the outcome of their application – which may explain why some colleagues have been asking about this and some have not. The officer advice, as reported to group in the discussion on the 12 August, was that members would not be involved in the process. Group executive did discuss the officer recommendation following the consultation; we noted that it met the criteria laid down by Group for more and better member support staff.
I’m sure everyone will understand from their experience as a lay trustee, or through working with the voluntary sector, why it is wholly in appropriate for elected members to become involved in staff management, assessment and interview decisions, except at the most senior levels. We employ our Chief Executive as head of our paid service to oversee this on our behalf for all our employees, whether we have a personal working relationship with them or not. This is only right and fair – for both staff and elected members. To do otherwise would fly in the face of established employment practice in local government and risk opening up the authority to legal action at Tribunal which we can ill-afford, given the pressure on our budgets.
I’m sorry this email is so long, but we recognise people’s concerns on this sensitive issue. I hope this has helped set out the context and given you some reassurance that this reorganisation was carried out fairly and professionally.
Cllr Mike Katz
Labour Councillor for Kilburn ward
London Borough of Camden
London WC1H 9JE