Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Eliminating fuel poverty requires more than a process

As the statutory target to eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland has come and gone, will a new strategy do any better?

The Scottish Government has published a consultation paper on a new fuel poverty strategy for Scotland. The consultation looks at the existing approach and legislative framework and sets out proposals for a new Fuel Poverty Strategy in Spring next year. Targets will be enshrined in a Warm Homes Bill later in 2018.

The number of households in fuel poverty fell slightly in the latest Scottish House Condition survey thanks to falling fuel prices. However, still almost one third of homes suffer under the current definition and the numbers are likely to rise again with the latest fuel price increases.


 The new definition excludes housing costs and is intended to focus attention on low income households, rather than the 47% of the current fuel poor who are not income poor. There will still be challenges in reaching the standard heating regime because households self-disconnect, due to low incomes. Cuts in social security will exacerbate this. While the new definition is certainly more complex, it does target efforts on the right group. Although with insecure work, varied incomes are more common and many households are likely to fall in and out of the definition.

There are three main elements to tackling fuel poverty - the price of fuel, energy efficiency/use and household income. The first is largely reserved, although energy policy is a factor. Energy efficiency is devolved and household income has devolved and reserved elements, including social security.

This means the strategy rightly has a focus on energy efficiency. Ambitions are fine, but investment is better. The Scottish Government cut funding to £45m in 2007/08; largely because they thought the problem had been resolved. It has now recovered to £129m, although this is well below the £200m Energy Action Scotland warned was needed to meet the 2016 target.

There are some particular challenges in Scotland. Not only are we a cold country, but fuel costs in rural areas are significantly higher. Typically, £2,200 in remote rural areas, compared to £1,400 in the UK as a whole. There are particular challenges in island communities. We also have large areas off the gas grid, which matters for heating.

It is also important that we retain efficient area based schemes that strengthen communities, rather than just micro targeting individual households. The proxies used to identify fuel poor households generally work, but need to be flexibly applied to reflect local needs.

The consultation paper is again strong on ambition. Objectives like 'Households are able to enjoy a warm home' is hard to disagree with. Achieving this apparently requires plenty of partnership working and linking in to other strategies. While this is probably true, it does feel rather process driven - hard targets, programmes and investment are in short supply.

A number of the organisations currently working in 'partnership' complain about short term funding. They build up expertise and services and then the funding comes to an end. Publicity, online and telephone services have their place, but for hard to reach households it requires an advisor in the household. There has been an improvement in skilling staff like social workers and community nurses, since some of the early schemes UNISON did with the Keeping Scotland Warm partnership. However, we could do more in signposting people towards specialist advice. Local authority services are under particular pressure due to cuts.

The new statutory target is to eliminate fuel poverty (new definition) by 2040, with a review at 2030. There is considerable scepticism of the description of this as 'ambitious', given the long timescale. We should have learned a thing or two during the past 16 years, to make another 23 year target a bit excessive.


The problem is that achieving this target depends on a range of variables, particularly fuel prices and incomes. None of these are likely to be addressed without a serious political commitment to eliminate poverty more generally.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

School Infrastructure: Minister's Response to the Parliamentary Report

The Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart has now responded to the Education committee’s report into school infrastructure following the Cole Report. The Cole report was the result of an investigation into the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs primary school and the subsequent closure of 17 other schools.

UNISON evidence to the committee is available here. The remit of the Cole inquiry included

Reasons for the wall collapse
Use of private finance for the building work
The Council’s role in providing quality assurance of buildings

The Education Committee made a range of recommendations and the Minister has now responded laying out the Scottish Government plans going forward: He writes that the government will soon produce new procurement guidance for all public bodies and the Scottish Futures Trust. This new guidance will also include guidance on how public bodies can be “intelligent customers”.

Sadly they have not accepted the committee's recommendation that the route to quality assurance is through ensuring that public bodies employ a Clerk of Works for every capital project. The minister states that there are a range of methods but that guidance will identify "the critical value that a Clerk of Works role can bring to a projects but will also identify the conditions where a Clerk of Works may not be the optimal approach" There is also a plan for new research to support a review of what “reasonable inquiry” means and how local authorities can undertake them in their role as "intelligent customers".

The Minister states that has written to all authorities indicating that they must ensure that buildings no longer come into use without the appropriate building warrants. He has reminded them of their power/responsibilities and that they risk losing their verifier status if they do not use these powers.

Building standards teams will now be tasked with promoting their role as verifiers to the public and promote the Scottish government guidance. If responses to UNISON’s survey of our members in building standards are anything to go by this is the sort of thing they keeps them away from their central role of ensuring the safety of buildings and building work. They are building professionals not marketing/pr people. The teams are already overworked. There is no indication in the ministers response of any extra funding for local authorities to enable them to meet these requirements.

The Education and Skills Committee also recommended working with stakeholders including trade unions to improve training for construction workers and ensure we have enough properly trained skilled construction workers. UNISON is disappointed that the Minister’s letter refers to meetings and discussions with SBF, SQA and CITB but not with any trade unions.

UNISON report into the impact of cuts in Building Standards teams shows how much pressure they are under to maintain a high quality service.

• Almost half (48%) said there have been budget cuts this year while one in five (20%) said the cuts had been severe.

• There are 56 less staff working in Building Standards departments now than in 2010.

• The overwhelming majority (89%) feel their workload has got heavier in the last few years.

• Almost half (47%) felt they should spend a lot more time on site visits while just 13% felt they had the right balance between site visits and office time.

• Nearly 40% work unpaid hours ‘now and again’ while over a third (37%) work unpaid hours most weeks.

• 48% described morale as low, with over three quarters (78%) saying they don’t expect it to improve as a result of budget cuts, increased workload and lack of a pay rise.


Building standards play a vital role in ensuring public safety. There needs to be adequate funding and staffing in order to ensure they can undertake that role.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Budget wash up

I set out our immediate reaction to the UK Budget in Briefing 91 on Wednesday. In the light of day, the numbers are if anything slightly worse, although a real terms revenue cut of £199m, remains the bottom line.




The SPICe briefing calculates that the DEL Resource figures (that’s revenue or day to day spending) have increased by £347m over the period to 2020 compared with the plans set out in March. DEL Capital plans have increased by £509m over the period to 2021 compared with March plans. £1,115m in Barnett consequentials derive from Financial Transactions, which must ultimately be repaid to HM Treasury.




Overall, the DEL Resource budget will increase in cash terms in 2018-19 by 0.7%, which represents a real terms fall of 0.8%. This real terms figure is also based on a pretty optimistic view of inflation and the GDP Deflator in the OBR report. With CPI currently at 3%, getting down to 1.5-2%% next year looks overly ambitious.




We can also see who gains the most from this budget and it’s not the working poor. As JRF put it:
“Today’s announcement will help to ease the initial problems that many people face when moving over to Universal Credit, but the Government has decided to push ahead with big cuts to the amount of money people will receive. By failing to end the benefits freeze, the Government will oversee almost half a million extra people in poverty by the end of this Parliament. The Government’s big spending commitments for stamp duty giveaways and tax cuts prioritised higher earning households, with little support for people who need it most”


And it looks like any pay increase will have to be funded from existing budgets.


On public spending the IFS calculates that day to day spending on public services outside of the NHS is due to fall by yet another 7% over the next five years. Even the NHS is being squeezed as this table shows.






And no, austerity isn't coming to an end any time soon. The Chancellor clearly hasn't heard of the adage, 'when in a hole stop digging!'








The one positive from the UK Budget is the VAT exemption for police and fire services that provides around £37m extra for those services, but no backdating. There was an entertaining spat between the SNP and the Tories on this issue in the Scottish Parliament, but the truth is that neither of them have much to shout about.




In short, it was UNISON that first highlighted the risk of losing this exemption when national services were first proposed. The faces and frantic scribbling at the meeting, showed that few if any officials had considered this.




We were then told it would be sorted with HMRC and the Treasury. After some time and no response, we used Freedom of Information requests to tease out what was going on. It turned out that not only had the Treasury said that the s33 exemption would not apply, but the Scottish Government had been told that before they issued the final consultation.




We then proposed a way of structuring national services, which would have retained the exemption. However, that was also ignored by both the Scottish Government and the Tories who voted the Bill through.




As I said at the FBU lobby of parliament yesterday - the result is the loss of some £140m of revenue that could be used to keep emergency services going and award our members a decent pay rise.




So, the UK Budget wash up remains pretty grim - over to the finance secretary for the draft Scottish Budget on 14 December. Not an easy task as I explain in the Scotsman, and not made any easier by Wednesday’s smoke and mirrors.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Scottish wages hard hit by Brexit

A new analysis published today by the LSE Centre for Economic Performance shows that real wages have taken a hit since Brexit and Scotland is amongst the hardest hit areas of the UK.

The EU referendum outcome increased prices by 1.7%, which means that real wages in June 2017 were 1.7% lower than they otherwise would have been. This decline is equivalent to a £448 cut in annual pay for the average worker.

Put another way, this means the increase in inflation due to the Brexit vote has cost the average worker almost one week’s wages (4.4 working days’ wages, to be precise). Unless Brexit increases real wages in future years, this pay cut will be permanent. 


Households’ overall import exposure is similar throughout the income distribution. Poorer households spend relatively more on food and drinks, which have high import shares, but also on rent, which has a very low import share. Likewise, richer households spend relatively more on some high import share products such as fuels, but also spend a higher proportion of their budget on domestically produced services such as hotels and restaurant meals. 


Although the inflation effect differs little across income deciles, there are stark differences across regions. In general, the north of England is harder hit than the south. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are the worst affected areas. Compared with the UK average, the increase in inflation due to the vote is 0.18 percentage points higher in Scotland, 0.21 percentage points higher in Wales and 0.47 percentage points higher in Northern Ireland. 


This reinforces the need for the Chancellor on Wednesday to ensure that Scotland, and the UK, gets a pay rise.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Britain needs a pay rise

Today is the seventh month in a row that prices have gone up faster than wages. The Chancellor needs to wake up next week – Britain needs a pay rise.

As this chart from the Resolution Foundation shows, it's the public sector that is taking the big hit.



More than 300,000 people on low incomes have been given a pay boost by the UK government’s “national living wage”. Despite scaremongering from some employers that the move to raise minimum salary levels would result in massive job losses, unemployment is at a 40 year low. However, the number of people earning below the voluntary real living wage reached a record high, rising from 6 million to 6.2 million. This is the amount needed to achieve an acceptable standard of living. That’s why he needs to move the living wage for all workers (including the u/25s) towards £10 per hour.

The Chancellor should also take note of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice which has highlighted that the modest economic recovery since 2010, does not reflect the lived experience of the majority of people in society. One single finding from new IPPR analysis demonstrates that rising GDP no longer guarantees better pay in the economy. 

As this chart shows, between 2010 and 2016, official GDP per employee has risen by 3.5 per cent, yet real wages are 1.1 per cent lower when adjusted for consumer price inflation (CPI). If inflation is calculated to include housing costs (using the RPI measure), real wages are down 7.2 per cent.  



A key factor has been low productivity. A less than virtuous circle has been created by low wages, leading to less investment despite record low interest rates. 

The position is probably much worse than the official figures describe. The economist Simon Wren-Lewis points to a mismatch between the ‘official’ and ‘lived’ economy.    That’s because the official measure of real GDP uses an index of output prices to deflate nominal GDP into a ‘real terms’ measure. Output prices are those received by domestic producers, and they exclude things like taxes, retail and wholesale imports and profit margins. 

However, the official measure of real earnings is deflated using an index of consumer prices which have trended well above output prices, and to a degree not seen prior to 2010. The result is that rising living costs, as seen in consumer bills, have consistently exceeded the narrower definition of inflation that is used to measure official GDP growth. And they have done so to an extent that is historically unprecedented.

This has a long-term impact on inequality, which also damages the economy. The Oxfam research reportDouble Trouble, investigates the relationship between economic inequality and poverty in the UK and examines the trends in relative income poverty rates and income inequality over the period 1961 to 2015/16. They found a positive correlation between income inequality and relative income poverty in the UK over recent decades. 

This reinforces the growing body of evidence that high and rising economic inequality is harmful for growth and that tackling poverty alone is not enough to reduce economic disparities and poverty in the long run. The evidence also shows that redistribution is not damaging for economic growth, as even the IMF now concede. A point the UK and Scottish governments should consider in tax and wealth policies.

In next week’s budget the Chancellor needs to recognise that a low wage, low productivity Britain isn’t the way forward for the economy. A real term pay increase for public sector workers, coupled with a £10 minimum wage, is an important starting point in breaking this downward cycle of decline. 

Stepping up the pace on care integration

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has published a report on the forthcoming budget. UNISON Scotland gave written and verbal evidence to the inquiry.

The report highlights their ongoing concern over the absence of budget transparency, with specific reference to the new health and care integration authorities. There is no real breakdown of the £8.9bn spent by the IAs overall and they will not set their individual budgets until July next year, well into the financial year. The report gives several examples of how it is impossible to identify spending plans for specific services, with organisations forced to resort to freedom of information requests.


The committee also highlighted one of UNISON’s concerns over the budget, the double counting of social care funding in both NHS Scotland and local government. There also remains a misalignment of budget timescales between councils and health boards.

The lack of transparency means it is also difficult to see how integration funds are contributing to the nine national health and wellbeing outcomes. In evidence to the committee most IAs emphasised the difficulty in achieving linkages with expenditure. This is supposed to be a statutory duty!

There has been an informal push by some IAs towards direct funding. We set out UNISON’s objections to this in an earlier blog post.

The report welcomes the announcement about ending the 1% pay cap and rightly seeks assurances on funding the increase. They also highlight the cost of extending the living wage to sleepover provision. 

The report also calls for long-term budget planning, recognising that the short-term nature of the UK budget setting process hinders this approach. Delivering transformational change by shifting resources to care in the community will not be achieved in the current time frames. Support for investment in preventative spending also requires a longer time frame. Audit Scotland have produced a useful video clip that illustrates the challenges.

The report also highlights UNISON Scotland’s concerns over the potential cut to sports and leisure facilities if the Barclay Review is implemented without additional funding to councils.


Overall the committee is disappointed over the slow progress in integrating health and care services and the lack of transparency in budget allocations. They believe key outcomes such as shifting resources have been allowed to drift and clear leadership is required to deliver this.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Health impact of shift working

The health impact of shift working is not well understood. We need more research and better risk assessment to protect workers.


The numbers of staff working shifts is increasing and there has been a marked increase in those working night shifts. While traditionally more men than women have worked shifts, that is changing with most of the new shift workers being women. Scotland has always had a higher proportion of shift workers than the rest of the UK and a range of UNISON’s public service workers are involved including the emergency services, hospitals, social care and in the energy sector.


I was in Stirling today, outlining the health implications to our police branch stewards and discussing how we can help members by designing work better to address these issues.


The research on this issue has identified a number of risk factors associated with shift workers. They are more likely to be obese, suffer from diabetes, smoke (particularly women) and eat less healthily. Interestingly, they are also more likely not to drink alcohol. While there is a statistical correlation between shift workers and these conditions, it is less clear what the causal link is. Shift workers are also more likely to be in lower income groups, who generally have poorer health.


Likely explanations focus on the disruption to circadian rhythms, the body’s internal clock. This can disrupt the workings of the hormone Melatonin, which can lead to poor sleep. We know that the lack of good quality sleep has been linked to obesity, depression, diabetes and heart disease.


A particularly worrying study showed that women working on night shifts for more than 30 years are twice at risk of breast cancer. This is thought to be linked to less Melatonin, which has cancer protective qualities and increased Oestrogen that has the opposite effect.


Another issue is a 40% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disorders. The causal reasons are unclear, but again the disruption to the circadian rhythm, damage to family and social life, stress and poor diet are obvious contributing factors.


So what can be done to limit the risks?


One health site gives the unhelpful advice of ‘get another job’! Although impractical and drastic, it may well be good advice for the over 40’s and those who have worked on shifts for many years. Some behavioural solutions help, such as establishing a stable sleep environment and schedule. Eating small health snacks on shift rather than a large meal, together with exercise and limiting stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks.


We should also be revisiting risk assessments with employers. This involves evaluating shift schedule design - avoiding split shifts, excessive 12 hour shifts and rotating shifts forward. There should be at least 48 hours between shift changes to allow the body to adjust. Occupational health should identify and treat workers who have sleep disorders and ensure more regular health checks from age 40 and those who have worked shifts for more than ten years.


Finally, we need more research to understand the causal links between shift work and ill health. In the meantime there needs to be better awareness of the risks and the actions workers and employers can take to minimise the risks.