Worsening staff shortages see private company called in to help with lifeline Home Safeguard service for vulnerable East Devon residents for a full year

Worsening staff shortages mean a lifeline service helping elderly and vulnerable East Devon residents in emergencies will be run by a private company for a year. 

The districts council’s cabinet unanimously backed the night-time move for Home Safeguard after the number of vacant call-handler positions tripled to six.

Members previously backed handing part of the service – which receives an average of 21 calls a night – to firm Night Owl for an initial four months in September 2021.

Now officers say staff shortages are even worse, writes Local Democracy Reporter Joe Ives.

Users are given a pendant with a button for them to press in an emergency. An operator then provides over-the-phone help and, if necessary, calls emergency services.

East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) cabinet was told by officers that the staffing problem is not limited to this area – with similar posts being advertised elsewhere at higher pay grades.

A report to councillors said: “It would be inappropriate to advertise [the vacant positions]again, given the high chance of failure.

“The issue appears to centre around the unsociable nature of working permanent nights and the impact this has on private lives.”

Unlike the council’s in-house service, Night Owl staff are not based in East Devon but at offices in Chichester, Exeter and Ashburton.

Members were told the company has so far ‘delivered a consistent, high-quality and seamless service to our thousands of service users’.

Officers championed a longer-term contract as the firm ‘could walk away in four weeks and we’d have no way of delivering the service’. The time would then give the authority the chance to address its own staffing matter.

EDDC leader Councillor Paul Arnott said: “Personally I’m extremely reassured that this doesn’t represent any thin end of the wedge towards this happening in perpetuity.

“We’re dealing with circumstances at an incredibly difficult time.”

Cllr Paul Millar, who represents Exmouth Halsdon,  told the meeting: “Our neighbouring Labour authority in Exeter have kept this service in-house permanently and have recognised the value of it by advertising it at a higher grade.

“Given that this is such a unique and valued service I have to confess my deep-seated personal disappointment that the paying conditions of this role have not been more urgently reviewed.”

He added: “This kind of outsourcing has been discredited nationally, whether temporary or permanent.”

Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh ward member Cllr Steve Gazzard said he had ‘grave reservations’ about the move, adding: “I’m really not happy that we could be on the way of privatising this service.”

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