Councils in Wales have been criticised for putting staff on furlough instead of redeploying them to cover services that were stopped or reduced at the height of lockdown.
Figures obtained by WalesOnline show thousands of local authority staff across Wales were put on furlough so that 80% of their wages were paid by the UK government.
Many of the local authorities used their own funds to top up the wages of staff so that they received all their wages.
When the furlough scheme was launched by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, it was stated that it was aimed at protecting jobs at businesses were unable to trade which would otherwise be forced to make staff redundant.
Mr Sunak explicitly said that he “would not expect employees paid with public money to be furloughed” however he made an exception if public sector bodies “had exhausted all options for employing them within the public sector” and would otherwise be forced to make the staff member redundant.
Local authorities in Wales have faced rising costs due to the pandemic as well as huge falls in their income as parking receipts vanished, planning applications dried up, buses emptied and other income fell.
However a leading politician has questioned if councils in Wales worked hard enough to redeploy staff to cover services that were cut at the height of lockdown and acted against the spirit of the scheme by using the scheme and claiming more money to cover the cost of temporary employees.
Many local authorities have taken on temporary staff to do contact tracing, cleaning and other work. Army reserves have also been deployed to carry out testing, ambulance cleaning and setting up field hospitals across Wales.
Andrew RT Davies, Welsh Conservative MS for South Wales Central, said: “The UK Government was clear from the outset that it expected the furlough scheme would not be used by many public sector organisations, as most public sector employees are continuing to provide essential public services or contribute to the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“However, it would seem that public bodies in Wales are using the scheme while continuing to receive funding to cover staffing, which on the surface appears to be acting against the spirit and the letter of the scheme.”
The contrast between local authorities in Wales is striking. In Cardiff, some 475 council staff were furloughed up until the end of June while several councils did not furlough any.
Ceredigion, Bridgend, Swansea, Vale of Glamorgan, Caerphillly and Torfaen all found ways to redeploy all their staff to keep services running rather than putting them on furlough.
A spokeswoman for Ceredigion Council said: “Ceredigion County Council has utilised its current workforce to ensure the delivery of public services. Over 400 staff have been redeployed to a range of teams and services over different periods within the last 13 weeks.”
Ceredigion developed its own ‘homemade’ test track and trace system during the early part of lockdown and was heralded as the area of Wales that missed coronavirus.
Last week, Carmarthenshire Council said it had furloughed 345 staff during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequently submitted a claim for £700,000 to central Government for furlough costs.
Councils that furloughed staff included
- Monmouthshire: 251 staff
- Blaenau Gwent: 140 staff
- Pembrokeshire: 371 staff
- Merthyr: 174 staff
- Cardiff: 475 staff
- Carmarthenshire: 345 staff
Newport City Council, however, only furloughed 13 members of its workforce, all of who were from the regional Gwent Music Service. A spokesman for the council added: “Fifty-one members of staff at the council are currently working in a redeployment post. The majority of staff members are working in their own role.”
Monmouthshire Council said it had furloughed 251 staff who came primarily from the leisure centres, the Borough Theatre, cultural and heritage attractions and the Outdoor Education Service.
Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council has furloughed 140 staff members, most of whom are school-based non-teaching staff such as cleaners and caterers.
In Pembrokeshire, 371 staff had been furloughed, mainly in school catering and leisure by the end of April, with almost the same number again redeployed in other roles.
At the same time, Pembrokeshire Council announced it had employed 30 young people as “additional cleaning staff” during the pandemic. Chris Powles, the council’s youth team manager, said: “Pembrokeshire Youth Service worked quickly with other PCC teams to mobilise the small army of cleaners as soon as the additional cleaning support was identified.”
The new employees were put through pre-employment checks and training to enable them to begin their casual contracts in July.
Merthyr Council confirmed 174 staff had been furloughed and 49 had been redeployed up to June.
Elsewhere, Caerphilly and Torfaen councils both said that no staff were furloughed in order to “support flexibility” and enable redeployment to services that were critical as part of the coronavirus pandemic response.
Other councils who have not furloughed staff are Swansea, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend. A spokesman for Bridgend Council said: “No staff have had to be furloughed in BCBC as our income-generating services are mostly external. Instead, approximately 700 staff have undertaken alternative duties during the pandemic, for example school staff have worked at the emergency childcare hubs, day service staff have worked in supported living and general staff have worked as contact advisors.”
Speaking after an audit committee meeting at Carmarthen Council, a council spokeswoman said 345 council staff had been furloughed but that they were funded externally and not from public funds. They included culture, leisure and school catering staff, she said, and had been on a full salary while on furlough.
“We have claimed and will continue to claim,” said the council spokeswoman. It is understood the council did not require the staff affected to be redeployed to coronavirus response roles.
Since the beginning of lockdown, the government has paid out £34billion to support jobs through the furlough scheme. But that financial support, released by chancellor Rishi Sunak, came with conditions if it was to be used by public sector bodies.
A spokesman for HMRC said: “Local authorities are eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. We would not expect staff with salaries funded with public money to be furloughed but public sector workers can be furloughed and paid with funding from the CJRS if they fit the following criteria:
- Their employer has experienced significant disruption to revenue streams due to COVID-19;
- Their employer has exhausted all options for redeploying staff elsewhere in the public sector; and
- The employee being furloughed would otherwise be made redundant.”
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On August 1, the scheme started to wind down ahead of it ending completely in October. It means employers have to contribute to furlough costs, prompting fears it could lead to major job losses across the country.
On Tuesday, it emerged that some of the biggest UK firms had cut nearly 4,500 jobs in just two days after the changes came into effect.
Mr RT Davies added: “The First Minister has adopted a very cautious approach to reopening the economy but he can’t have his cake and eat it, and it would be extremely serious if there is any sort of misuse or ”double dipping” that is contrary to the rules of the furlough scheme.
“While any business suffering a financial loss as a result of the crisis has every right to apply for this kind of support, public sector bodies accessing funds must think twice given that it will simply increase the cost to Welsh taxpayers and slow down our long-term economic recovery.”