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.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Work and Poverty

"Children are not private luxuries: they are a joy in themselves and a social good." CPAG

UNISON has launched a Childcare Charter calling for the provision of high quality childcare in this we also point out that Getting it Right For Every Child cannot be separated from improving how work fits into family life. As in work poverty continues to grow we need to look at the balance between hours worked, rates of pay and the need to undertake caring responsibilities in order
Almost two thirds of children living in poverty have at least one working parent we need to look at how make sure that work does indeed guarantee freedom from poverty. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)have published a new paper Round the Clock: in work poverty and the hours question. They pose the question “How many hours should parent work (in order not to be poor)? The research is not just about how much you can earn but how you balance working hours with looking after children. The research involves an evidence review on attitudes to parental employment, a poll asking how many hours it was reasonable for parents to work and when those hours should be, taking the polling results to focus groups and also asking more about working hours expectations for lower paid parents and finally taking the results to employers to hear their views. The report also considers the policy implications of the findings.

Choices about how and when to work are made in an economic and social context. Most people think that once you have children you will have to reduce spending in some areas because you have higher costs in others. An EHRC study on working preferences in 2009 found that 57% of high income households had a stay at home parent in contrast to only 25% of those on low incomes. As the recession has progresses average earnings have decreased and so those on low pay to work longer hours to make ends meet.

One and a half to two earner households have a very low risk of poverty, part-time work does not protect couple families or lone parents from poverty.

Children in lone parent families still have a substantial risk of poverty even if their parent works full time. Almost one third of children whose parents are self employed (a growing sector of the workforce) live in poverty

Changes to the benefits and tax system (including universal credit) incentivise those on low incomes to increase working hours while endorsing the traditional breadwinner role for the better off.

Poverty reduction strategies seem to be focused in encouraging all parents to work full time. The planned and recent expansion of childcare provision is increasingly linked to parental employment rather than child development. At the same time governments are also promoting programmes encouraging positive parenting and parents spending “quality time” with children. Running across the debate is an increasing confusion between the constraints that low incomes place on peoples’ parenting choices and actual neglect/harmful activities by parents.

Only 25% of parents were content with the balance between their home and working lives, 77% reported that work cut into the time they had available to helping children with homework, taking them to clubs and putting them to bed.
When asked how they would like to strike a better balance 27% would work less hours, more than a quarter saying they would take a pay cut to do so. 22% would give up work altogether, 22% would like to work from home some of the time and 21% would like flexible hours.

The survey went on to ask what working hours were thought to be reasonable for parents per week. Interestingly there was no clear gender social class or political persuasion link to responses. For many the one full time one part time working parent is now deemed the norm. participants thought it was reasonable for a lone parent to work more hours than “the carer” parent in a two parent household. Respondents also felt it was more reasonable for lone parents to work longer hours and by the time children were 3 very few felt it was reasonable for lone parents not be in work. They did though not expect both parents in a two parent family to be in full time work at this stage.

In focus groups it was clear that most think the balance of work/childcare is deeply personal, it was also felt that debates about working parents don’t focus enough on the needs of the child which it was widely believed should be put back in the picture. Parents frequently asked why parenting was not valued despite its “societal importance and manifold rewards” As UNISON’s charter states “While childcare should enable parents to work its focus must be on what’s best for children and their development”.

Key points from the CPAG report

Affordable quality childcare is essential, this means not just nurseries but also around school hours and summer break for older children.

Children also need relaxed quality time with parents: expanded childcare is not a substitute for this.

Vital role for tax credits in supporting those working less than full time but those in full-time work should have a living wage and not require benefits to live.

Flexible working can be a double edged sword: flexibility can be good but zero hours and short notice demands for extra or just insecure weekly hours difficult when childcare has to be booked and paid for regularly and in advance. It doesn’t mean the same thing for those at the top and bottom of the wage scale. Parents need predictable hours.

Wage progression is an essential part of a poverty reduction strategy so we need more childcare support for those undertaking training.

Working more hours helps people earn more money but cannot forget the importance of decent pay rates
Value of benefits must be restored to pre 2010 levels.

In work poverty is produced by three things: levels of pay, hours worked and level of in work benefits. Need to tackle all three and ensure that parents have the time levels of income to allow them to spend time with their own children.

UNISON’s Childcare Charter is available here

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Pensions and infrastructure investment

Scottish pension funds should be used as a force for good as well as delivering high quality pensions for our members.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government Committee this morning on the use of pension funds for infrastructure investment. The Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme has some £26bn to invest. Half of this is invested in overseas equities, investment that comes with significant and often hidden management costs that are poorly understood.

In 2013 I wrote a report With assistance from the SFHA on the use of pension funds to build houses and there has been some take up of the idea in Scotland and the rest of the UK. I argued today that the same principle could apply to other forms of infrastructure investment including transport and energy generation. The best investments are those that have a low risk revenue stream.

I was asked what are the barriers to greater infrastructure investment?

The first is a small 'c' conservatism in pension funds generally. Managers prefer to invest in what they understand and don't like change. This is closely linked to a lack of expertise. They understand equities and commercial property, they don't have much experience in housing or infrastructure generally. If there is a will, there is a simple solution - recruit the in-house expertise.

Another barrier is the claimed impact of fiduciary duty. Again there is a conservative interpretation of the legal position that is holding back infrastructure investment and results in pension funds investing in wholly inappropriate and unethical investments for a public body. Our funds invest in tobacco, arms and fossil fuel companies. The LGA recently commissioned counsel opinion on this issue and this quote sums up the position well:

"the precise choice of investment may be influenced by wider social, ethical or environmental considerations, so long as that does not risk material financial detriment to the fund."

It is perfectly possible to invest in infrastructure and ethical investment within this framework and pension funds across the UK are doing this better than many Scottish local government funds. The risks involved in some of these unethical investments are not sufficiently well understood. Funds are also weak on shareholder engagement and they could use that leverage to promote trade union, government and council policies more effectively.

Another barrier is the investment regulations. I argued today that they are over prescriptive, specifying limits to specific forms of investment. A better approach might be to have a broad duty and a code of practice.

That leaves how our funds are structured. We have eleven funds in Scotland and that leads to duplication of cost and little sharing of expertise. Bigger funds are generally more effective in securing better returns on investment and would enable funds to develop greater in-house expertise. It doesn't necessarily have to mean merger, but we can and should collaborate much more.

This month sees the start of new governance arrangements for the Scottish LGPS. The new Scheme Advisory Board meets for the first time tomorrow and these issues are in the draft work plan. We also have representatives appointed to the new Pension Boards in each of the eleven funds. It will take time, but this should lead to much greater transparency and challenge to vested interests.

Pension funds are a hugely important and under used resourced in Scotland. The new governance arrangements are an opportunity to move in a new direction. But we will need to work hard to break down entrenched positions. Today's parliamentary scrutiny is helpful in moving this along.

 

Friday, 24 April 2015

Building better public services

Public service reform should be built from the bottom up through local democracy rather than centralisation. However, no reforms will be effective unless they are fully funded.

I have written a number of articles recently on the broad issue of public service reform. In this blog post I will attempt to knit them together to illustrate a theme around local democracy and fair funding.

In the journal 'Scottish Policy Now' I set out an overview of progress with the Christie Commission recommendations on the future delivery of public service. While there has been progress, I argue that on local design, preventative spending and workforce strategy; Scotland is missing out on real opportunities.

In a column in The Scotsman, I focused on a specific Christie recommendation - the importance of engaging staff and service users in the design of public services. Four years on, we still have centralisation, ring-fencing and top down targets. I also point to the systems thinking author John Seddon's latest book that clearly sets out the evidence for a different approach. If managers and politicians actually followed through a citizen's request through their systems they would be horrified. Some of these issues are also highlighted in UNISON Scotland's latest survey of staff working in transactional services.

Local government has borne the brunt of austerity in Scotland an issue I explored in an article in the Morning Star this week. Four out of five jobs lost have been in councils and ConDem austerity has been exacerbated by the regressive Council Tax freeze. While finance is vital, my main theme was that councils must act as strong local voices. All too often they are the passive administrators of cuts.

Finally, we return to funding public services. I contributed a chapter to the latest Red Paper publication on the implications of Devo-Max for Scotland's public services. I understand the case for independence, I might even have voted for it myself, but Devo-Max or Full Fiscal Accountability would be a disaster for public services in Scotland. I explain what Devo-Max is and the main criticisms of it. Put simply, devolved administrations want relatively stable income and expenditure. UNISON and other unions said this long before the oil price crash sharply illustrated the point. Since I wrote this chapter, the IFS has updated their calculations based on the SNP manifesto proposals and they would deliver huge cuts in public services and jobs. Barnett may not be perfect, but abandoning it is a huge gamble.

Having said that, this doesn't mean we should accept the limitations of the Smith Commission proposals. In the same Red Paper chapter I set out how we could improve public services with further devolution. Progressive federalism is right for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Labour should also be bolder on ending austerity.

The general election is obviously vital for public services, primarily to end Tory austerity. However, wider consideration of public service reform will not go away and most of those difficult decisions are made in Scotland.

 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Water is returning to public service delivery

Water privatisation is in retreat. Water and wastewater is returning to local authority ownership across the world.

The Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Multinational Observatory, Municipal Services Project (MSP) and European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) have released new research on the growing wave of cities worldwide that are taking previously privatised water supply and sanitation services back under public control, in a process called remunicipalisation.

Over the last 15 years, 235 cases of water remunicipalisation have been recorded in 37 countries, impacting on more than 100 million people. Moreover the pace of remunicipalisation is accelerating dramatically, doubling in the 2010-2015 period compared with 2000-2010.

After huge problems in the developing world, private companies have been shifting their efforts to the developed world. It is therefore interesting that recent remunicipalisation is concentrated in high-income countries, with 184 cases compared to 51 in low- and middle-income countries. The great majority have taken place in two countries: France (94), home of two of the world’s private water companies, Suez and Veolia, and the United States (58).

Transnational Institute water expert Satoko Kishimoto said: "This report shows that water privatisation, which has been promoted so heavily in recent years, is increasingly being rejected by cities worldwide after years of failed promises, poor services and high prices. The pendulum is swinging back in favour of public water, because of the strong evidence that remunicipalisation brings immediate cost savings, operational effectiveness, increased investment, higher levels of transparency and accountability."

The former Deputy Mayor of Paris Anne Le Strat, who was behind the flagship 2010 remunicipalisation of water in the French capital added; "Moreover, public water operators are now joining forces within and across countries to support and learn from each other so we can achieve the human right to water for all."

The book Our public water future: The global experience with remunicipalisation comes out as global leaders are gathering for the World Water Forum, which is dominated by private water operators and has been a key proponent of water privatisation in recent years.

The delivery of clean water and sanitation also has to be seen the context of a global water crisis with supplies running dry at an alarming rate. The world’s population continues to soar but that rise in numbers has not been matched by an accompanying increase in supplies of fresh water.

The consequences are proving to be profound. Across the globe, reports reveal huge areas in crisis today as reservoirs and aquifers dry up. More than a billion individuals, one in seven people on the planet, now lack access to safe drinking water.

We should therefore be doubly grateful that we live in a wet country with a public water service. And we want to keep it that way. Well, the public service bit at least!

 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Food safety is the priority for Scots

Scots want slaughter houses to be independently inspected by government meat safety inspectors, not handed over to the industry to regulate themselves.

UNISON has commissioned independent pollsters Ispos MORI to find out what people living in Scotland think about how we ensure the food we eat is safe. This follows a number of food scandals and the news that 73% of chickens in the UK tested positive for the presence of the campylobacter, the most common source of food poisoning.

The report shows that almost all Scots (98%) believe that official slaughter houses should be inspected to ensure they are meeting food safety and quality standards; the vast majority of Scots (95%) believe that slaughterhouses should continue to operate to official standards; three quarters of Scots also believe slaughterhouses should be inspected independently (75%), and majority of Scots (70%) also agree that standards are more likely to be met if they are carried out by government inspectors.

So that is very clear. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming view is that independent inspection is a very good thing. Sadly, governments and the meat industry are running with a different agenda. There is continued pressure from Europe to de-regulate meat inspection with the active support of the UK Government and the Food Standards Agency. The Scottish Government went along with cutting safety standards recently when they approved the visual only inspection of pigs. This means tumours and abscesses will be minced into the sausages and pies we eat. The meat industry lobby has clearly been busy in Scotland as well!

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, said the FSA had been ‘captured’ by industry interests. "This is a sad day for British food policy. A quarter of a century after the British learned of the extent of contamination of poultry, we are back again with unacceptable levels of food-borne pathogens. Then, it was salmonella. Now, it’s campylobacter."

This month meat inspectors have been transferred into a new Scottish Government Agency, Food Standards Scotland. During the horsemeat scandal Scottish Ministers were able to blame 'Westminster', even though the regulations on food safety are devolved. Now the physical inspection is managed by a devolved institution as well.

Meat inspectors deal with the food processing stage, but we rely on council environment health officers to inspect retail food operations. As a consequence of council cuts they are now thin on the ground and sampling and inspections have also been slashed

So, this report is a timely reminder to the Scottish Government that food safety is a priority for Scots. Scots believe the meat trade should be independently inspected and regulated, and they think that meat inspection should be carried out by government inspectors. This is too important to get wrong. We have been concerned about the lighter touch regulation which has been promoted across UK and EU meat trades. The Scottish Government’s new agency Food Standards Scotland must ensure we maintain a strong, well regulated, independent meat inspection regime.

 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

College Cuts: Plenty Of Pain But No Evidence Of Any Gain


As UNISON stated when the proposals came out college mergers have not improved further education. Audit Scotland’s review: Scotland's Colleges 2015 confirm that our concerns about the changes in further education colleges have been realised. As we stated during the consultation, any savings would come from job losses. There is no evidence of any other savings other than these job cuts. There were no measures in place to capture the costs of mergers and/or savings from the process other than staff costs. The Scottish Government promised that mergers would make £50m a year savings by reduced duplication and better engagement with employers. College funding has fallen by £26.1m between 2011-12 and 2012-13. There are still no mechanisms in place to capture this information. It is impossible to judge success without any criteria to measure it by.

Audit Scotland also state that "many of the effects of the mergers are still taking place, however, and there are continuing challenges for the sector: IT systems still have to be integrated and staff terms and conditions have yet to be standardised” Again staff are an afterthought in a process of change rather than central to it."

What we do know is that staff numbers have been cut by 9.3% and that there has been a 48% reduction in part-time students and 41% in those who are 25 and over. At a time of wider job losses cutting back on the opportunity to retrain and gain new skills and combine this with part-time work will not only harm individuals but will hold back economic recovery.

UNISON welcomed measures put forward by the Government to improve governance and accountability in our colleges so there is no celebration here that our concerns have been proved right. What we want is high quality services that meet the needs of our communities. Listening to the workers who deliver services helps get things right: prevention is after all better than cure

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Priorities for health and care integration

Given the history of health and care integration, we should be wary of raising expectations over what the new bodies will be able to achieve

All Health Boards and Local Authorities in Scotland are required to submit their Integration Schemes for Ministerial approval by today. The new Health and Social Care Partnerships across Scotland will be up and running by April 1, 2016.

The BBC is running a good feature across the UK today, on how the different administrations are tackling integration. The Scottish Government’s standard response to all questions on bed blocking and social care is that the new joint bodies will sort out all the problems. A response that should send a shudder down the spine of those appointed to lead them!

In my BBC interview I welcomed the broad approach, but urged some caution. Simply moving the managerial deck chairs around will not solve some of the big challenges facing the sector.

There is strong international evidence of what works in care integration and the common feature is that it's about people. Sadly, in this whole process that's the bit that has been given the least attention. The focus has been on structures and budgets rather than workforce issues.

The biggest challenge facing the new organisations is social care. The number of patients in hospital who shouldn’t be, is now the equivalent of the number of beds in Scotland’s newest and biggest hospital - South Glasgow. Setting new targets for delayed discharge is all well and good, but councils need to be funded to deliver the quality and capacity of social care to get these patients into community settings.

Local authorities have taken the brunt of austerity cuts in Scotland while the NHS has had a degree of protection. Demand for social care has also been rising and as a consequence most councils have commissioned a race to the bottom in outsourced home and residential care. Wages and conditions have been cut as well as the time allocated to care properly. UNISON’s Time to Care report and the subsequent survey of staff involved in care integration makes this very clear. We have now reached a position where many providers are unable to recruit and retain the quality or quantity of staff needed to deliver even a basic service.

To address this we urgently need a new procurement framework that addresses how care services are commissioned including a common workforce framework. The workforce element should include the Scottish Living Wage, ending the reliance on nominal and zero-hour contracts, proper training and most importantly, time to care. All of this requires the Scottish Government to resource the changes needed and for the rest of us to give them some political space by recognising that the NHS is only part of the care system in Scotland.

Health and care integration is right in principle, but the practice is more challenging and the first priority is to tackle our crumbling social care services.