Difficulties feared as secretaries are lost

REDUNDANCIES of two top council secretaries raised a myriad of concerns with councillors last week.

Members of the Horsham District Council Personnel Committee agreed the structure of a new secretarial team for the council leader, chairman and directors, but urged caution as experienced staff will be replaced by juniors and possibly lead to a breach of confidentiality.

Current chairman Claire Vickers (Con, Southwater) described the role as ‘difficult’ and a depleted team would mean less support for her and future chairmen.

There are currently five secretaries - one for the chief executive, one for the leader and chairman and three for the directors.

Under the agreed plans there will be a team of one part-time and two full-time and secretaries reporting to the chief executive and directors.

The change will enable the council to set up a rolling two-year secretarial assistant apprenticeship and save £58,200 each year, but members raised many concerns which they want to monitor in the coming months.

Two secretaries have already volunteered to take redundancy costing the council £118,000 including access to pensions.

Leader of the opposition David Holmes (LDem, Horsham Park) added: “I think we should be aware that when we have voluntary redundancies we are very often going to lose expertise and we should note the risks associated with that.

“There’s also an issue of confidentiality here. When I send an email to the chief executive, I might expect his secretary to see it, but not a whole team to see it.

“These are emails from the outside world, from developers and so on.”

The change would also mean reorganising the office space inside the council building.

Brian Donnelly (Con, Pulborough and Coldwaltham) said: “These things always cause massive problems in reorganisation of offices.

“One idea I’ve heard is that the cabinet office would go. I know these new people must have offices, but it must not be at the expense of other offices.”

He added that it was important the Leader of the council and also the leader of the opposition retained their own offices.

Tricia Youtan (Con, Itchingfield, Slinfold and Warnham) said: “Having been a chairman’s secretary, I am slightly concerned because I have seen at director level discussions that some work is more important than someone else’s. Each director should have their own personal assistant.”

Chief executive Tom Crowley tried to ease members’ concerns highlighting the positives.

He said: “The report also means we can make a better job at dove-tailing diaries so that council events tie in with the chairman’s programme of events.

“It would help raise profile of the chairman and also help the status of some of these events.

“As part of the consultation with the staff two employees stepped forward for voluntary redundancy.

“It’s important that if these proposals are accepted we make them with minimum disruption and with maximum skills transferred.

“Obviously in any organisation there are conflicting interests, but on a day-to-day basis it would be for me, as the chief executive, to determine which work would be a priority.

“I am pretty confident it will work.”

Mrs Vickers said: “I welcome anything that would raise the profile of the role of chairman, but for the next chairman and the one coming after that, they will not have the back-up of expertise.

“It’s a difficult role and you need support. I am reassured by your comments about the transitional arrangements.”

After their debate members agreed the change but asked officers to inform them if the new arrangement was not working, otherwise the committee would review it in a year.