12 November 2019

Government digs in over decision to put tenant services to tender

| Dominic Giannini
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Deb Pippin

Tenants’ Union executive officer Deb Pippen. Photo: File.

The ACT Government is under fire for its decision to put the Tenants Advisory Service (TAS) to an open tender despite admitting that the Tenants’ Union, which runs TAS, has been operating it well.

The Tenants’ Union provides assistance to renters in private residential, community housing properties and campus residences across the Territory by offering free tenancy advice, advocacy and referrals to “improve the status of tenants and represent the collective interests of tenants in law and policymaking”.

The government has defended its decision to put out the tender saying that the procurement process is to test the open market and was made with the best intentions.

Tenants’ Union executive officer Deborah Pippen says the organisation was blindsided by the decision, only finding out about the tender on 28 August in a meeting with the government.

Ms Pippin said she thought the meeting was about the fact that they had not signed a future funding agreement or received funds for July to December.

“There was no prior reference to any intention to go to tender, or any discussions about our funding agreement,” she said.

Speaking to Region Media, she said a standard review of the service in 2017/18 found no issues and no concerns were raised in last week’s Committee hearings.

“As the review of our service noted, in providing services regarding private tenancy law, the TU is unique and specialised,” she said. “It is regarded as the ‘go-to’ service across the community sector for anything to do with private tenancy matters.”

The TAS is funded by the government, receiving $450,000 in 2018/19. TAS had a request for a funding increase of 15 per cent (or $67, 000) rejected back in February

The Tenants Union says the decision threatens the independence of the organisation. In a statement, it says that while its service is highly valued by the ACT community, its current staff level of five employees has had to deal with a 140 per cent increase in the rental market over the last decade, which has eclipsed 143,000 people.

“Instead of working with us to meet the increasing needs of Canberra’s renters, the government is proposing to open up a race to the bottom. This tender process will potentially pit community services against each other, threaten service quality, and force down working conditions for employees,” the statement says.

ACT Greens Housing spokesperson Caroline Le Couteur says the government hasn’t given a compelling reason for its actions and has labelled the whole process a waste of time.

“I asked questions of the minister about this last week at annual reports and he said there haven’t been any complaints or issues with the tenants’ union service … his reasoning was simply that it could go out to the open market [because] it hadn’t gone out to the open market for some time and therefore as a matter of policy it should go out to the open market,” she said.

Caroline Le Couteur

Caroline Le Couteur: going to tender creates unnecessary uncertainty for service providers such as the Tenants’ Union.

“We have a real concern about unnecessarily putting NGO services out to the open market. All it does is create a lot of uncertainty to the service providers and costs everybody a lot of money if a service has to spend a significant amount of resources justifying its own existence.

“We are concerned that this may be just what’s happening with the Tenants’ Union, and there does not seem to be a compelling reason for the government to be doing what it’s doing.”

Ms Le Couteur says her main concern lies with the staff and their ability to deliver services during a time of uncertainty.

“They are basically in the situation that they have to reapply to do their own job,” she said.

“[The government] has started this process and at the very least [we] want them to commit to finishing it on time, unlike so many other tender processes.”

Ms Le Couteur says she wants the government to commit to an early resolution of the process in which the Tenants’ Union is fairly considered, staff are looked after and there is no gap in operations.

The stoush between the Tenants’ Union and the government is happening against a backdrop of new tenancy laws having just taken effect on 1 November.

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If the government wasn’t testing the market for a service provided on its behalf, then there would be the reasonable and expected level of outrage from plenty of people.

They try to do what on paper is the ‘right thing’ in ensuring that taxpayers money is efficiently spent and then cop an earful too….. for all their faults (and there are plenty), I don’t get the outrage here.

Probably outsource the service to a real estate company.

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