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.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Burial charges illustrate impact of council cuts

Burial charges again illustrate how council charges are being used to plug the Council Tax freeze and cuts in local government funding.

A Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) report published today said the number of people asking for help with funeral costs had risen by 35% from 2014. This updates a previous UNISON Scotland report on charges that highlighted burial costs.

The report said that the basic cost of funerals had risen in all but two local authorities, and on average has increased by 10% from 2014. On average, a burial in Scotland now costs £1,273.

Council funeral charges have been rising by an average of 7% since 2004.

They also highlight 'Huge disparities' between councils. Moray and South Lanarkshire have not seen any rise in their prices at all, while Aberdeenshire has increased the cost of a burial by 42% since 2014. That translates to a £420 rise on the cost to families planning a funeral.

The 'postcode lottery' argument is less convincing as it can be down to a variety of local factors. Some cost driven and others due to legitimate political choices. One person's postcode lottery is another's local democracy. We should also remember that burial is only one factor in rising funeral costs.

However, the main point is valid. Burial costs are simply another example of increasing charges to plug council finances. Charges are almost always regressive, with little reference to ability to pay.

 

 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Inflation busting registration fees for health workers

At a time of pay restraint it is not acceptable for regulators to impose inflation busting fee increases on health and care workers.

I was giving evidence today at the Scottish Parliament Health Committee on secondary legislation that increases registration fees for a range of health and care professions UNISON represents. The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) increased fees by 5% last year and indicated that they would not increase them again for two years. However, they have now come back for a further 12.5% increase after a perfunctory consultation while Westminster was in election purdah.

They claim this is because of a levy from the regulatory overview body, the PCA. However, only 30% of the increase relates to that with the balance reflecting new accommodation and IT systems. This looks opportunistic, particularly when there has no detailed costing was provided. The HCPC also generated a big operating surplus last year and is substantially increasing its reserves.

Needless to say health and care workers are not getting a 12.5% pay rise! The HCPC argue that they are the lowest cost regulator, but comparing paramedics, OTs and ODPs to doctors and dentists was, to put it mildly, insensitive. A UNISON survey of registrants indicates that many staff do not think they get value for money and that the HCPC could do more to reduce unnecessary hearing costs.

Scottish Labour MSP, Richard Simpson moved a motion of annulment, a very rare procedure in the Scottish Parliament. He made a very strong case pointing to the absence of an Equality Impact Assessment on what is a predominately female workforce. He also drew attention to the huge increase in the Chief Executive's pay, up by £26,000, more than the annual pay of many registrants. Also that the fee for Scottish social workers, regulated in Scotland, is only a third of the cost of their English counterparts who are regulated by the HCPC.

Predictably, SNP MSPs voted against the annulment as this increase is supported by the Scottish Government. We will look forward to the minister supporting a 12.5% pay rise next year!

In fairness MSPs did so with no great enthusiasm, they welcomed the fact that this debate took place and that the regulator was put under scrutiny for probably the first time. There is a case for wider reform of UK regulatory bodies and they might find it more difficult if they return for another increase next year.

Putting the increase under the spotlight was probably the best we could have achieved this year. Health and care workers have no choice but to pay these increases, so they look to their MSPs and MPs to scrutinise these costs vigorously.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Time for a political consensus on local taxation

The funding of local government in Scotland has been a difficult issue for political parties. At best proposals have been sticking plaster solutions because change is viewed as being politically challenging. However, we simply cannot go on as we are with short-term fixes that damage services and undermine local democratic accountability.

Today, I was giving evidence to the Commission on Local Tax Reform, a welcome cross party initiative co-chaired by the local government minister and the President of CoSLA.

In our submission we cover the piecemeal attempts at reform and highlight the damage that quick fixes like the Council Tax freeze are doing to local services. Increasing charges is a regressive substitute for progressive taxation.

A core element of our case for reform is that property is a significant form of wealth and must be taxed in order to reduce inequality. The well-off already own bigger and more houses than the rest of us. If this form of wealth is untaxed it becomes an even more attractive form of investment. This means that more people buy houses, not as a place to live but as an investment. This will add to our already dire housing shortages, increasing prices for both renters and ordinary buyers.

We set out five principles for reform:

• Local authorities should raise and control more of their own revenue. This will enable them to respond to and be more accountable to the communities they represent. About 85% of funding is currently determined centrally

• Councils should be able to set their own business rates, this will allow them to raise money to pay for services and devise their own criteria to support the type of businesses they want to encourage.

• A property tax is the best fit for local government as it is clearly linked to the authority. It cannot be moved or hidden making it cheap and easy for the local authority to administer.

• Central government funding should acknowledge local decision making and funds should be minimally ring-fenced.

Taxation should be broadly progressive, reducing the tax incidence of people with a lower ability-to-pay. It doesn't mean every tax has to be progressive, but overall, those on higher incomes should pay more.

Our submission also evaluates the options for reform.

We oppose a Local Income Tax primarily because it would be another tax on workers income and ignores the wealth that resides in property. It would have to be administered and set centrally, undermining local democracy. There are also a range of practical problems in collecting and allocating a national tax to local authority areas. It could add as much as 6p to income tax.

Land Value Tax is a superficially attractive option, not least because it is a property tax and might be progressive in taxing the rich. However, this idea has been around for 150 years and their are good practical reasons why it really hasn't taken off. The biggest problem is valuing land while ignoring what is built on it. Most of us have a vague idea what our house is worth, but not a clue of the land value. In order to send out bills and ensure they are paid you also need to know exactly who owns all the land, where the borders are and where to send the bill to. The Scottish Government is working on a register of landowners but has a timescale of ten years to complete this work. We cannot wait at least another ten years for a new tax. If LVT is part of the solution it is as a central tax that could address issues like land banking, or possibly as a replacement for business rates, but not the Council Tax.

That leaves our preferred option of a Local Property Tax levied on a percentage of actual property values. The Burt Review found that using actual property values rather than banding was more progressive because it would get rid of the ‘cliff edge' where those on either side of a band with a small difference in property values have very different bills. On the other hand banding could reduce appeals. In 2007 he recommended it be set at 1% for same yield as the Council Tax and while this would have created one-third losers, half would be gainers. Any future bills must based on up to date property valuations and regular revaluations to prevent the current situation building up again.

The new tax would need to have effective mechanisms to protect those on low incomes. Exempting properties below a certain value is one possible way to do this as is the introduction of an appropriate benefit to ensure local authorities received funding, but still protects those on lower wages/benefits. Pensioners with high value properties and low incomes should also be allowed to defer payments, leaving a bill to be paid which would come out of their estate.

Local taxation is one of the most difficult problems for the Scottish Parliament to resolve. No one party wants to be responsible for a new tax. No one wants to pay higher bills, particularly when real wages are not increasing and other costs are rising. Those who get higher bills will campaign loudly against them, winners will quietly carry on.

Difficult though it is, we cannot continue like this. The Burt Report was essentially a technical report and of its time. This Commission needs to be much more political, making the case for taxation and local democracy. That's why we welcome this Commission and hope it leads to a political consensus that we can all move ahead with.

 

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Giving social care the priority it deserves

The social care crisis in Scotland is not given the priority it deserves, but there is a growing consensus about what needs to be done.

 

I was speaking at the Care Scotland, care at home conference on Friday. The panel was asked to set out what’s wrong with home care and how we would fix it.

 

On a national and local level we need to fix the crazy commissioning system that isn’t working for anyone. It isn’t working for providers who are struggling to maintain a viable business model. It isn’t working for staff; either social workers that are trying to put packages of care together, or home care staff that are the real victims of the race to the bottom in pay and conditions. Most importantly, it isn’t working for service users, who suffer from the high turnover of staff with little continuity of care, or are stuck in a hospital bed because there are no staff to care for them at home.

 

The solution primarily needs proper funding. It’s easy to blame politicians for obsessing about the NHS, but they are often just following public opinion that rarely understands that social and NHS care are interlinked. Personally, I am coming to the view that we need an agreed national rate for home care, as we have for residential care. This would be a rate that is dependent on providers paying the Scottish Living Wage and maintaining a range of other workforce standards. One of the merits of a national rate as against a local top up is that it wouldn’t just reward the bad employers in the sector.

 

That leads me to the second issue, employment standards. Any funding agreement has to include the key elements of UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter. The new procurement guidance rightly recognises that paying the Scottish Living Wage alone is not enough because some providers will simply cut other conditions. There needs to be action on zero and nominal hour contracts, sick pay and travel time. In addition, what comes through strongly in all our surveys is the importance of giving staff time to care and proper training linked to career progression. A recent UNISON survey highlights frighteningly low levels of training. Caring should be a great job and many staff I meet recognise that. But the household bills have to be paid and so many end up stacking shelves in supermarkets instead.

 

I am pleased to say that there was a broad consensus amongst the panel at yesterday’s conference on what needs to be done. Scottish Care also launched their latest research report on this issue, which is well worth a read.

 

The media headline was all about freezing heath spending, but the key finding is that investment in better social care for older people would improve their lives and help to cut emergency hospital admissions. In 2012-13, the average emergency hospital admission for over-65s lasted for 11.8 days, at an average cost of £4,846. That amount could fund either care at home for a week for 27.7 older people or 9.28 weeks in a residential care home for one pensioner.

 

Ranald Mair, chief executive of Scottish Care, said: "If we're going to manage to keep more people out of hospital, to maintain them in their own homes and also to prevent them going into long term care at an early stage, then we actually have to invest in home care. The danger at the moment is that we're continuing to invest in hospitals and as you know, all politicians want to be the defenders of the NHS. This isn't an attack on the NHS, let me be clear. If people need to go to hospital that's where they should be. But what we know is that over 20% of admissions of older people to hospital are 'unnecessary' admissions. They're not going in because of their clinical needs, they're going in because of their circumstances and because of the lack of alternatives."

 

It’s hard to disagree with that. Investment in social care and in particular the staff who deliver care, needs to be one of our highest priorities.