E. coli warning over council cuts by spending watchdog

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Media captionThere is a warning that environmental health services are reaching a tipping point

Councils could struggle to tackle any future outbreak of E. coli food poisoning, a watchdog has warned.

Cuts mean local authorities would not have the "people with expertise" to deal with any increase in demand for environmental health services, the Wales Audit Office said.

The watchdog said current obligations were being met despite budget savings.

But food hygiene and pest control could become stretched because their spending is not protected, auditors warned.

'Tipping point'

It is the first in a series of reports by the Wales Audit Office (WAO) focusing on the delivery of individual local government services at a time of financial cutbacks.

It said councils needed to "make new strategic choices" as environmental health services were "reaching a tipping point".

Nick Selwyn, one of the report's authors, said: "If there was a significant increase in demand for these services, councils would find it very hard to deal with that and they would struggle."

Environmental health staff had been cut by 16.4% at Welsh councils since 2011-12, compared to around 7% of all council staff.

Mr Selwyn said if there was a repeat of the 2005 E. coli outbreak in south Wales - in which a five-year-old boy died and around 160 people fell ill - councils would find it "quite hard to manage" due to a lack of staff numbers or those with the relevant expertise.

Image copyright Jones family photo
Image caption Mason Jones, five, died after eating infected meat in a 2005 E. coli outbreak in south Wales

The 22 local authorities were accused of "salami slicing" the relevant budgets, which have been cut by 4.3% over the last three years.

The report said such an approach meant very few safeguards were in place to ensure future obligations were met.

It said this "represents a risk to the health and well-being of all those living in and visiting Wales".

Darren Millar, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the situation did not seem to be "sustainable" and needed to be addressed "before public health is jeopardised".

Julie Barratt, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Wales, said: "It is a matter of deep concern that such a vital service, one that through its actions saves the NHS money, protects the integrity of Welsh businesses and makes a huge difference to people's lives is now at the point where further cuts will make it unsustainable."

Responding on behalf of the Welsh Local Government Association, Vale of Glamorgan council leader Neil Moore said the report showed the need for a debate on the funding of local authority services.

"Over 60% of the local government budget is tied up in protected services like education and social care, and this is forcing councils to make further savings in those smaller services that have already borne the brunt of public sector austerity in Wales," he said.

"The spend on environmental health services is less than half of one percent of total local government spend, yet these low cost but high value services make an essential contribution to protecting the public's safety."

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