CASH-strapped South Tyneside Council has spent almost £4m on hiring outside consultants and agency staff in the last two financial years – despite shedding hundreds of jobs over that period.
The leader of the political opposition in the borough, independent councillor George Elsom, has branded the expenditure a “disgraceful state of affairs”.
But Coun Ed Malcolm, the council’s lead member for resources and innovation, has defended the practice, saying consultants are only used “when absolutely necessary”, adding that agency staff are only utilised on a short-term basis.
Merv Butler, South Tyneside branch secretary for the public-sector union Unison, also expressed his concern at the figures.
His union is constantly calling on the local authority to review its spending, particularly on consultants, he added.
The expenditure for 2013-14 and 2014-15 comes at a time when the authority has been required to make £40m of efficiency savings in the midst of savage cuts to its financial settlements from central government.
A breakdown of the figures, obtained by Coun Elsom from the council following a request made under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, show that in 2013-14 the council employed 238 agency staff – mostly to help its children, adults and families team – at a cost of £1.54m.
Over the same period, 42 consultants were used, again mostly in the social care sector, costing £808,000.
And in the current financial year so far, ending next month, 140 agency workers have been used, at a cost of £1.031m. A further 27 consultants have been employed this year, for a £488,000 outlay.
Coun Elsom says the money would have been better spent retaining council staff.
He said: “These figures show that, while we are making hundreds of staff redundant, we are still hiring agency workers and consultants.
“For 2013-14, we spent over £1.5m on agency workers and over £800,000 on consultants, a grand total of £2.362m, and this financial year to date, we have spent over £1m on agency workers and almost £500,000 on consultants, a grand total of £1.518m.
“That is a disgraceful state of affairs while making hundreds redundant.
“We should be looking to use this money to re-train and maintain the staff we have, instead of making them redundant.”
Coun Malcolm said: “Let me reassure people that we only use consultants when absolutely necessary.
“Furthermore, we follow a competitive tendering process, according to relevant procurement legislation, to ensure we offer the best possible value for money to our taxpayers.
“This isn’t as simple as making staff redundant and replacing them with consultants or agency staff.
“We have had to make some very difficult decisions in the face of drastic funding cuts.
“Consultants and agencies are only used to provide specialist expertise or temporary cover.
“Like all councils and large organisations, we sometimes need to draw on the additional capacity and expertise provided by consultants because it would not be cost-effective to maintain that level of expertise in-house.
“Examples include the provision of specialist social care services and education support.
“Agencies help to provide short-term and short-notice cover for services which, by their nature, need a certain level of flexibility in staffing.
“This is particularly the case as the council’s funding is being cut significantly and where service changes are being made.
“They can also be a cost-effective method of ensuring continuity of key services to the public during times of significant change.”
Mr Butler said: “It’s a very complex picture.
“We are constantly asking the council to be vigilant in terms of employing agency staff and consultants, for the very reason of the austerity cuts.
“In terms of the agency staff, the main area of spending is in social work because if staff leave, the council has a statutory duty to fill those posts, and the social work employment market has agencies. In this case, the council has no choice.
“Our view is that agency staff should not be used unless to fill a temporary gap that has to be filled.”
“We are constantly telling the council to review its spending on consultants.”