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Council partially outsources emergency night helpline for four months

By Philippa Davies

16th Sep 2021 | Local News

A night-time service responding to health emergencies among East Devon's elderly and vulnerable people will be partially outsourced to a private company for the next four months because of staff shortages, for a saving of just £4,000.

East Devon District Council's Home Safeguard service enables users to call an emergency helpline by pressing a button on a pendant they wear. An operator then provides over-the-phone help and, if necessary, calls emergency services.

Home Safeguard operates between 10:15 pm and 7:15 am and receives an average of 21 calls a night. But it has lost three team members recently and the remaining staff have become overstretched. Now the council is outsourcing four nights a week to a private company called Night Owl, with the in-house team covering the other three nights. The arrangement will run for four months.

Unlike the council's in-house service, Night Owl staff are not based in East Devon but at offices in Chichester, Exeter and Ashburton. Nevertheless, council officers say they have been familiarised with East Devon's needs.

Some members of the council are against the idea, and are particularly worried by a report suggesting that the change could be made permanent if the service offered by Night Owl proves acceptable and more cost-effective. Officers believe around £4,000 will be saved over the next four months.

What councillors say about the change

Speaking before the cabinet's decision on Wednesday, September 8, Councillor Paul Millar, who recently switched from being an independent to join Jake Bonetta as a Labour Party member, said: "So often this kind of policy can come at the expense of quality, working conditions and democratic accountability and, in the end, costs in the long term if our residents suffer from poor communication between the company and the council."

He said the current salary offered by the council, under £17,500 per year pro-rata, needed to be increased if it is to address its recruitment problems.

Cllr Millar added: "The core argument about saving money is not one I subscribe to. The savings are negligible.

"I don't think it should be about money at all. It should be about quality of service."

Councillor Jake Bonetta (Labour, Honiton St. Michael's) added: "I cannot support any move to take our council services out-of-house.

"Investing in our own services with better pay and better conditions is so much more valuable than potentially outsourcing permanently."

Council leader Paul Arnott (Democratic Alliance Group) said he sympathised with the criticisms and that he disliked the idea of outsourcing, but in his opinion it was a matter of necessity. He argued that without the emergency measures the service could not be maintained.

He concluded: "I know the answers don't please everybody or perhaps entirely anybody, but we will revisit this soon. That's an absolute commitment."

In a joint statement issued after the decision was agreed, Councillors Bonetta and Millar said they would work to prevent 'any future potential cabinet decision to make any unnecessary and expensive outsourcing of the highly valued Home Safeguard social service permanent'.

They said: "Labour councils in other parts of the country have proven that bringing services back in house and maintaining them there leads to cost savings, greater quality, and a more democratically accountable service to voting residents."

The issue will be discussed again by the cabinet when the contract ends next February.

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