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.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Education reform - a tricky balancing act

The Scottish Government’s education reforms are an attempt to balance their centralising tendencies with local democracy and give headteachers’ greater responsibility for their schools, without excessive bureaucracy.

The document published yesterday is the Scottish Government’s response to the consultation on education governance. It sets out the next steps in their reform of education and schools in particular. While there will be some immediate actions over the summer, the details will be the subject of a further consultation before decisions are taken in the autumn. Legislation will follow early in 2018.

This is significantly later than planned and has already been criticised as a further delay. In fairness, there have been a few other things going on and complex reforms need to be properly considered and planned. The shambles of Police Scotland reminds us of the risks in making changes without proper planning.


The main criticism of the original consultation was that it signaled further centralisation and the undermining of local democratic accountability. The seven new regional bodies are to be called Regional Improvement Collaboratives, using the Welsh model, and helpfully these don't involve taking over all local authority support services. While the paper is light on detail, it appears to focus on teaching collaboration, sharing best practice etc. Support services will remain with councils, although they will have a statutory duty to collaborate and pool resources.

The new Regional Directors will be appointed by the Scottish Government, enabling them to direct policy through a national framework. This gives a further indication that the Scottish Government has moved away from outright centralisation, towards what I have described in my recent Reid Foundation paper as a hybrid model. This uses quangos or other mechanisms to direct policy while leaving the administrative delivery to local government. COSLA has  expressed its concern over this dilution in the local authority role. A COSLA Spokesman said: 

 “There can be no getting away from the fact that the Scottish Government is trying to give the impression that Scotland’s councils still have a role to play in the delivery of education when the reality is that they do not; the simple truth is that there will be no meaningful local democratic accountability for education in Scotland.”

While most funding will remain within local authorities, there will be a national funding formula supporting a new statutory ‘Headteachers’ Charter’. It remains to be seen how much local flexibility will remain to address local circumstances.

There is a welcome recognition that there is a wider education team other than teachers. The paper states:

“We will recognise the contribution of the whole school workforce by working with them to introduce professional standards for these staff, including classroom assistants, to recognise the importance of the whole education team.”

Given the scale of job cuts to this group of staff any recognition is welcome, and the paper makes special mention of the need to support young people with additional support needs, something UNISON has highlighted. Other education staff that have learning roles or support teaching will be professionally registered with the new Education Workforce Council that will also take over the functions of the GTCS. UNISON will have a number of issues with this regarding fees, training, professional standards and how we can ensure that the roles of our members in education are not ignored in this wide ranging body.

The paper indicates that headteachers’ will select and manage staff in their school. The HR function will remain in local authorities, which wisely avoids a lot of bureaucracy, but we will need more detail on how this will work in practice. For example, what does this mean for grievance, disciplinary and other procedural agreements? Retaining national bargaining over terms and conditions is a helpful reassurance, although there is also local bargaining over the terms and conditions of the wider workforce.

The paper may also have implications for UNISON members in the Care Inspectorate, through the shared inspection model and the requirement on the SQA to strengthen its consultation and engagement processes.

The paper promotes greater parent, pupil and community engagement in schools, which is an important element of any education system. However, there is a risk that schools could be isolated in the new structures losing the whole system approach. As COSLA puts it:

“The Scottish system has worked tirelessly towards a co-ordinated approach – health, social work, the third sector and others rally around a child and provide them with the help both they and their family need.  Schools are only one facet of this.  If the Scottish Government continue down this path of isolating education, the whole system approach is lost and it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society who will suffer as a result.”

The primary aim of these reforms is to close the attainment gap. Schools and early years provision clearly have an important role in this, but the solution involves action to tackle inequality in Scotland. Headteachers are not well placed to address this and it is unclear from the paper how this partnership approach will work in practice to avoid isolating schools.

Overall, the government has certainly listened to the consultation responses and attempted to create a something of a balance between their centralising instinct and local democracy. The paper sets out a high level response and a realistic timetable. The debate will be over how these proposals achieve the stated objective and how they will operate in practice. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

How is Additional Support For Learning Working in Practice?

The Education and Skills Committee at the Scottish parliament has published a new report on how Additional Support for Learning (ASN) is really working in our schools. The report reflects many of the concerns raised by UNISON members in our recent report Hard Lessons.

While the UNISON report did not focus on ASN in particular members raised lots of concerns about the lack of proper training and support for those working with children who have additional support needs. The committee report adds to the evidence that, while there is widespread support for the policies and for the principles of GIRFEC, we are a long way from delivering on these laudable aims.

The committee was “overwhelmed” by the response to its request for written evidence and were also able to add to that evidence gained through a round table discussion which included parents, trade unions, education staff and voluntary sector groups.

Submissions gave clear evidence that while children and young people may be able to access a school building that doesn’t mean that their needs are being met within the schools. While there is a lot of discussion about teachers it is school support staff that do most of the work supporting children with additional needs. Cuts to local government budgets mean that there are a lot less staff around to do that work leaving children unsupported. Many members report stress from the lack of training and support they receive for the tasks they are asked to carry out – like administering medicines or caring for pupils with challenging behaviour. Lack of staff makes it much more difficult.

UNISON submitted written evidence to the committee and took part in the round table and we are pleased to see the influence of our contributions on the final report.

The committee reports states that:
• Parents often have to fight for the rights of their children “every step of the way” in order to get additional support for them in schools. Parents from areas of deprivation have lower chances of ensuring their children get the support they need. The Committee is concerned this could ultimately widen the attainment gap and so is calling for more funding for advocacy services amongst other recommendations.
• The Committee is also concerned a lack of support for those with additional support needs could impact on the education of children without additional support needs. This could be due to the increased pressure on teachers to support specific needs as well as teaching classes other pupils, following a reduction in additional support needs staff in schools.
• The Committee considers that the effective inclusion of children with additional support needs is integral to the success of Getting it Right for Every Child and highlights its findings to the Government in that context.

While these issues are not just about cuts to education funding it is clear that the cuts are playing a role in reducing the numbers of staff available to support children and they availability of training for staff to ensure that they are able to Get It Right For Every Child.
It is essential that this report leads to some definite action to ensure that the commitments made to children with additional support needs are met.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Freedom of Information - from ambition to action

Freedom of Information is an essential part of a thriving and effective democracy. Scotland needs to move from the rhetoric of support for open government, to putting the legislative and practical measures in place to strengthen it. 

Today, I was speaking at the Scottish Public Information Forum in Edinburgh, reconvened by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.

Margaret Keyse the Acting Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) outlined the work of the SIC. 
There were 540 new appeals last year, 231 decision notices and dealt with 1554 enquires. Nearly 70,000 requests were made to Scottish public authorities, and that is probably an underestimate. There is a high general public awareness of FoI and support for the law, although that awareness is limited.

They have regularly highlighted their concerns about the limited scope of FoI in Scotland. Recently, in a special report, the SIC argued that it is time for a substantial rethink on pro-active publication of information. Monitoring of the Model Publication Schemes shows that public authorities generally have them and are good at giving advice and assistance, but 79% don't publish open data. There are some big changes ahead. Not least European developments including a possible two tier approach to FoI and the General Data Protection Regulations that will come in before Brexit.

Alison MacKinnon from SEPA focused on the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, an often forgotten aspect of FoI that came from older international information requirements. She gave an interesting insight on how they deal with requests, reminding us that EIR has a somewhat wider scope and fewer exemptions. There has been a steady increase in requests in recent years, still 40% from the public, but increasingly from consultants and industry.

Paul Holleran from the NUJ outlined developments in the media and in particular the pressure on journalists due to reduced staffing levels. A particular concern is the big reduction in investigative journalism and that may explain the reduction in requests from journalists. The malaise of fake news and cuts in journalism, at national and local level, is undermining democracy. 

Ruchir Shah from SCVO made the argument that transparency is a political weapon and reflects a global challenge to inequality. There is a risk that people are speaking in bubbles, not to each other. He described the Open Government Pioneers Project, which is about building capacity in civil society as a way of increasing transparency and open government. A global movement that Scotland is a part of.

Carole Ewart from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland described their latest project, sponsored by UNISON Scotland, looking at compliance and current practice. She argued that Scotland is some way from achieving an information rights culture and there was a need to integrate with human rights and other public policy initiatives. The Scottish Government needs to keep promises on FoI in areas like expanding the scope of FoI, cost thresholds, the previously moribund forum (SPIF) and pro-active information.

UNISON's interest in FoI includes our campaigns function and as the union that represents most FoI staff in public bodies. My own presentation made the case for extending the scope of FoI to all those who receive the public pound. I also gave some feedback from FoI staff who are struggling to cope with the demand for information at a time of staffing cuts, particularly in administrative functions. There are also capacity issues in the departments who have to provide the information. Staff also identify resistance from senior management and poor awareness of FoI amongst some senior colleagues. 

I also gave examples of poor compliance based on our own experience of making FoI requests. We are experiencing examples of public bodies simply not responding or using delaying tactics. Examples include daft points of clarification or references to online documents that don't actually include the information we asked for. Others deliberately avoid the question, by answering a question we haven't asked. We often have to go back several times before we get a proper answer. 

There was a really useful discussion on the practice of FoI in Scotland. A big theme is that we have some grand rhetoric on open government, when the reality falls far short of that language. A good example this week is the Justice Committee scrutiny of the Scottish Police Authority, holding its meetings in private. There is some evidence that organisations who receive the public pound through contracts or grant funding are discouraged on the grounds that 'don't bite the hand that feeds you'. There are many ways of getting around this, given that anyone can make a request.

There is some concern from bodies not currently covered, such as housing associations, about their capacity. There is clearly a need to improve skills in making requests as well as strengthening public bodies capacity to respond.

In these challenging political times, there has never been a greater need for open government and transparency of information. This is a field that Scotland could be a world leader, in vision and practice. Today's event shows we have much to do, but there is a willingness to make the journey.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Council elections - keep it local

As the local government election short campaign gets under way – let’s keep it local.

 

Local government elections will be held for every seat in Scotland on Thursday 4 May. The first reminder is to make sure you are registered to vote. Changes to the system means that a lot of people have been missing from the register. If you haven’t received a polling card by now, you are probably not registered. It’s easy to do this online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, but it has to be completed by 17 April.

 

The second reminder is that these are local elections. The councillor you elect will make important decisions about local services including schools, social care, roads, libraries and much more. While I am not naive enough to believe that national issues don’t impact on local elections, I get very irritated when leaflets arrive through the door with the local issues relegated to an afterthought. – I bin them.

 

UNISON Scotland has published its manifesto for the election. There are some general themes around fair funding and the importance of keeping services local, as well as more detailed ideas around individual services. We will be highlighting some of these, and the people who deliver them, during the campaign because we all tend to take these services for granted.

 

I take some comfort from a poll we commissioned from Survation this month that voters do care about local services. Public services are the top priority for voters (70%); and half of all voters chose the public sector as the best to deliver our public services, only 19% chose the private sector and 13% chose charities. This included Conservative voters with only 31% saying the private sector and 10% saying charities are the best place to deliver public services.


That’s a clear message to council candidates from all parties that people in Scotland want high quality services, delivered by public sector staff. That doesn’t preclude other service providers, but in-house staff should be the primary means of delivering public services that are accountable to the public.  

There was also support for keeping services local, with the council being the most trusted deliverer of local services. Voters also wanted more of their taxes spent locally. They also recognised that the cuts have had a serious impact on the quality of public services. Hardly surprising when nine out of ten jobs lost in Scotland’s public sector since the austerity cuts have gone from local government.




We will be providing some useful questions for candidates in the coming weeks. So if a candidate chaps on the door - start by asking them, not what they have been told to say by central office, but how they will be standing up for local services. Keep it local.

Friday, 31 March 2017

It's Public Services Stupid

Public services are the top issue for the vast majority of Scottish voters.

We are publishing a full scale poll, undertaken by Survation for UNISON Scotland, that asked voters to tell us their priorities for the local government elections. Public services were the top priority followed by the economy and job security.

Public services come first say Scottish voters


The results were clear over 70% of those who took part place public services as one of the three most important issues facing them and their families ahead of the upcoming election. The economy was second chosen by just over fifty percent (51%) of respondents and job security and availability came in third with 40%. There was very little variation when results were broken down by party affiliation with public services coming highest among all party voters. Jobs came second for SNP voters while the economy was second for Conservative voters equal numbers of Labour voters picked jobs and the economy.

Voters were also clear about whom they believe delivers the best quality services. Half of all voters chose public sector organisations with only 19% supporting the private sector and even fewer (13%) choosing charities. Even amongst Conservative voters only 31% picked the private sector and 10% charities. UNISON hopes that candidates from all parties are now clear that the people of Scotland want high quality publically delivered services.

Keeping it local for a better Scotland


Trust and accountability are important issues in a democracy. The polling figures indicate that people trust publically delivered services and believe them to be more accountable than private of charitable delivery: 71% of respondents believed public sector organisations are accountable for the services they deliver while for charities and the private sector the scores were 52% and 44%. Our survey reveals low levels of trust towards politicians and the media. Only 27% of respondents stated that they trust Holyrood politicians as sources of information about public services and 42% stated that they distrusted them. Only 20% trust the media with 47% stating that they distrust the media. Trade unions remain a relatively trusted source of information with 32% only topped by “friends and family” and academics. Friends and family are by far the most trusted source of information on public services (72%), academics achieved 56%. Academics were only distrusted by 11% of respondents.

Fairer funding for a better Scotland


Budget cuts are having a serious impact on local services: only 6% of respondents believed that services have improved in recent years and a further 30% that they had stayed the same while 59% felt they had declined. When asked where they blame lay 26% blamed local councils, 35% the government and 36% blamed both. SNP voters were the least likely to blame council alone but even then it was still 23%, with 36% of Conservative voters blaming the council and 30% of Labour voters. Nearly half of respondents want more of their taxes to be spent in their local areas and councils were the body most trusted to deliver local services with 41% picking the council and only 8% the government and 12% private companies. The poll summary is available here and tables here.

The poll clearly shows that people value public services, that they want them delivered in the public sector and that they want them delivered local by their council. UNISON agrees.



Thursday, 30 March 2017

EU nationals and the services they deliver

As the UK government triggers our exit from the European Union, a key initial focus for UNISON is the impact on members who are EU nationals and the public services that rely on them.

One of the many difficulties in dealing with this issue is the paucity of accurate data on the number of EU nationals working in Scotland. The data that exists doesn’t capture all of those working in Scotland or are based on statistically small samples for estimates.  As an NIESR report last year highlighted, the numbers are likely to be significantly larger than the official statistics.

The Scottish Government has just published a paper based on the Annual Population Survey. It found that in 2015 there were around 181,000 non-UK EU nationals living in Scotland representing 3.4% of the total population. This is lower than for the UK as a whole, where non- UK EU nationals represent 4.9% of the total UK population. 30% of these are under 16. 47% of all EU nationals in Scotland are Polish nationals.

Just over half live in three city areas: Edinburgh (21.8%), Glasgow (17.6%) and Aberdeen (12.7%). This compares to just a quarter of the total population of Scotland living in these cities.

This means 115,000 EU nationals are in employment (75.9%). 28.6% of these work in ‘distribution, hotels and restaurants’ followed by 19,600 (17.1%) in ‘public admin, education and health’ - services within UNISON’s sphere of influence.



Over one-third have degree level qualifications or higher. However, they are significantly less likely to be working in high or medium skilled jobs (56%), commensurate with their qualifications, than the Scottish workforce as a whole (79%). The median gross hourly earnings for EU national working full-time in Scotland in 2015 was £9.00 compared to £12.20 for full-time UK nationals. EU nationals have had consistently lower hourly earnings than UK nationals, on average around £3.15 less than UK nationals since 2007.

The next stage is to ensure that our members and the services they deliver are protected. 

The Cavendish Coalition brings together 34 health and social care organisations working across the UK (including UNISON) to make certain that the health and social care system is able to retain and continue attracting the staff it needs – domestically, from Europe and globally, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. They have written to the UK government and the First Minister of Scotland, setting out three priorities:

  1. Permanent leave to remain for EEA nationals in the health and social care sector: To provide certainty for individuals and employers providing services to our people and communities, we are calling on the Government to quickly confirm the right to permanent residence of all people from the EEA working in social care and health care across the UK. We have also highlighted the need for a streamlined and inexpensive process for claiming leave to remain which does not create additional administrative burden on employers.
  2. Sufficient transitional arrangements for EEA nationals leave to remain. In order to ensure a stable pipeline of staff, we are urging any ‘cut-off’ date at which EEA nationals resident in the UK would be eligible to apply for permanent leave to remain to be late as practicable. For the stability of workforce supply, there should also be sufficient advance notice of any ‘cut off’ date to enable health and social care employers and candidates to make preparations and informed choices. 
  3. An immigration system which supports health and social care provision: Efforts to increase domestic workforce supply are vitally important and the Cavendish Coalition is committed to increasing local opportunities for UK citizens to train and work in the health and social care sectors. Increasing domestic supply will, however, take time. Both during the negotiating period and in the years after the UK leaves the EU, providing high quality and sustainable health and social care services will depend on workers from within and outside the EEA.



UNISON Scotland has made similar points in submissions to the Scottish Government and to parliamentary inquiries. Scotland’s care system needs EU and non-EU nationals to deliver a growing demand for health and care services.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Predictable State Pension Review lacks imagination

As the UK government probably planned when they appointed a safe, if boring, pair of hands in John Cridland, his review of the State Pension Age (SPA) lacks imagination.

He recommends:
• State Pension age should rise to age 68 over a two year period starting in 2037 and
ending in 2039;
• State Pension age should not increase more than one year in any ten year period,
assuming that there are no exceptional changes to the data.

In addition, he recommends ending the triple lock on pension increases. Under his recommended timetable, State Pension spending would be 6.7% of GDP in 2066/67, which is a reduction of 0.3% compared to the principal OBR projection. If the triple lock is withdrawn, spending will be further reduced to 5.9% of GDP by 2066/67.

To address the huge disparities in life expectancy, he recommends some modest changes to the benefit system, support for carers and the joy of a mid-life MOT.

The review does recognise that public sector pension schemes now follow the SPA. This is a big issue for a range of public sector workers who undertake physically or mentally demanding jobs. He makes no recommendations on this point but reminds HM Treasury that they agreed to review the link between State Pension age and public sector pension schemes, after the Government has completed each State Pension Age Review. Don't hold your breath on this one!

For many people, certainly those on higher incomes in less demanding jobs, this increase in the SPA is probably manageable. Although it does assume that life expectancy will continue to rise exponentially. However, it is already the case that fewer than half of people are in work by the time they reach state pension age. Raising the SPA to 68 or 70 is likely to increase this proportion.

His recommendations are based on average life expectancy, a statistic that conceals huge inequalities, based on location, health, working and living environments. This increase in the SPA will affect poorer and less able bodied people disproportionately. While it also affects Scotland with our lower life expectancy, I accept that the case for a lower Scottish SPA is weak. The differences in life expectancy within Scotland are far greater than those with the rest of the UK.

With more imagination, he could have given more serious consideration to a flexible retirement age that takes into account the arduousness of work and the length of a persons working life. It would be complex to manage, but society needs people to do tough jobs that contribute to reduced life expectancy. These workers are in effect subsidising the better off, healthier individuals who will live longer and take more than their fair share out of the total state pension pot.

Cridland argues that a single state pension age is, “simple and clear and provides a trigger for pension planning”. It may be simple, but real people's lives are complex. The SPA, as the current data shows, is not the same as the actual retirement age.

This report recommends increasing the SPA using the standard broad brush approach. It will leave many reliant on the reducing social security system and insecure part-time work. 

A change to retirement at 70, even if a gradual process, needs extensive support for mid and later life career changes, personal development throughout their working life and decent levels of income support. It also needs a more imaginative approach to retirement age. Sadly, imagination is the element most lacking in this report.


The full review report can be downloaded here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-pension-age-independent-review-final-report

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Let's splash the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health


The UK has one of the best safety records in the world, but far too many people are injured and die at work, and much more needs to be done about ill health at work.

I was at the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) engagement event in Glasgow today, including the launch of the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health (SPLASH). The aim is to link up the HSE plans with those of the Fair Work Convention and other partners. This in itself is progress, as historically HSE has had a poor focus on the different approaches in Scotland. It is the devolved NHS Scotland that picks up the cost of failure.

Two and half million days are lost because of ill health caused by work in Scotland, which costs the Scottish economy around £600m, to which we can add £500m due to injury. Those who argue that health and safety regulation is just a burden, should at least focus on the human and financial cost of inaction.


The public health focus on health inequalities is also relevant to improving health at work, something less well understood in a health and safety context. NHS Scotland research shows that some occupations and industries are associated with consistently better health outcomes; others the opposite, including caring, process and customer service occupations of particular interest to UNISON Scotland. Work is being done on a single gateway to access services, as well as links to the devolved social security service.

The GB HSE health and work strategy also recognises this link. HSE focusing on preventing work-related ill health, public health focusing on improving general health of the working population, and DWP extending employment health benefits to those currently not working. Of course there are more than a few sceptics regarding the UK government's commitment to all three, particularly the DWP!

Traditional HSE strategies have focused on communications through employers. With around a million workers in the gig economy, sector 'employers' have little commitment to their workforce and therefore new approaches are needed. Technological change is also shaping the future world of work including quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and synthetic technologies - to which I would add the people impact of excessive monitoring and control. There is a risk that we are turning people into robots, before viable automation even arrives.

The ageing workplace (it's doubled in recent years) also needs greater attention - focusing on health as well as the more obvious safety issues. Tomorrow's world may be unrecognisable from that of today - although I would argue that we should be wary of extravagant futurologist claims, based on historical experience.

A key focus is on stress at work, tackling the stigma as well as the causes. It is the biggest cause of ill health and the Scottish Government is about to publish a new 10 year mental health strategy.

The Scottish plan is based on the work of the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland (PHASS). It is seen as an opportunity for all those in the Scottish health and safety system to work together to improve workplace health and safety. There is a useful interactive map on the website that helps link up this network. It is a living plan that will evolve over time based on the latest evidence and practical experience, 

Initially there will be twelve action plans. The plans that will be of greatest interest to UNISON members include plans on stress, social care, driving and workforce engagement. In particular, we have huge safety challenges in social care, from lone working to violence.

There is a real willingness to join up health and safety in Scotland across devolved and reserved issues. Obviously there will some tensions with this, but as usual people can help break through institutional and political barriers. The real test is turning the strategic intention into practical action. Many of the organisations involved have big funding challenges, but hopefully the sum of the total will help bridge some of that gap.



Thursday, 16 March 2017

Tough Times in Local Government

I love the language used in Audit Scotland reports: careful, understated accountant speak, a marked contrast to the often heated excitement of blogs and social media. This report is no exception: “performance and challenges” doesn’t sound scary but if you rely on local services, if your children are in school or if you work there the information in the report is very scary indeed.
Audit Scotland highlight a number of different “challenges:”

New policies and legislation mean big changes in the way things have to be done and a growing number of over 75s is driving demand for care services. All this must be achieved not with new funding to meet demand, to smooth transition but a cut of over 9% revenue funding since 2011.


Don’t worry there are plenty of people there to share the workload....


Sorry my mistake a lot less people...

To be fair some of these people work in ALEOs but we won’t know how many until Audit Scotland report back later in the year. Over a decade of ALEOs with no real national scrutiny.

But here’s a final image feel free to share it when people try to tell you there haven’t been cuts in local government budgets.

The full Audit Scotland report is available here



Tory health policy with a difference

When a new Scottish Conservative health policy lands on my desk, I flick through it expecting to see the usual marketisation, ignoring health inequalities and blaming the poor for their unhealthy lifestyles.

 

However, this new paper, ‘Healthy Lifestyle Strategy’ from Brian Whittle MSP is somewhat different. It aims to set out a long term alternative strategy for health, welling being and sport.


So, why is it different?

 

For starters, the first chapter is entitled ‘Health inequality in Scotland’, and describes the difference in health inequality across Scotland and between income groups. Admittedly there is more emphasis on geography than income inequality, but this is real progress. I can remember the last Tory Chair of Greater Glasgow Health Board denying any link between inequality and health – well after the Black report had been published!

 

The next chapter describes two pillars of a healthy lifestyle, activity and nutrition. These are of course important and the paper argues for investment in early intervention - preventative spending as we would call it. It also recognises the importance of using procurement as lever to achieve change. Again something UNISON has long argued for.

 

As you might expect from a former athlete, Brian Whittle argues that activity should be at the core of health and education. He is right, although the emphasis should be on activity, not just sport. The health benefits are undeniable, but what’s different about this policy is that it recognises at least some of the barriers to participation – not just blaming the poor. It also recognises the importance of early years childcare and learning to achieving change and the need to invest in these services. Most policies in this field focus solely on teachers, but this policy also recognises the role of early years practitioners, which is very welcome.

 

Somewhat surprisingly the paper highlights the difference in participation opportunities between state and private education, and even highlights the fact that a third of the British Olympic Team was made up from 7% of the population that was privately educated. It also quotes extensively from the CPAG Scotland report on the hidden costs that hamper participation in extra-curricular activity. It is similarly opposed to some council charges, which have been caused by the council tax freeze.

 

It is of course true that many school facilities are closed out of school hours. However, some recognition that this is often caused by PFI contracts would have been welcome. UNISON Scotland’s ‘Combating Austerity’ toolkit shows how we could tackle this.

 

The chapter of the importance of good nutrition emphasises the role of procurement in ensuring food in our schools and hospitals is of high quality and locally sourced. Almost word for word from UNISON Scotland’s Food for Good Charter - even quoting the groundbreaking work of our members in East Ayrshire Council. No ‘nanny state’ lectures here, just maybe as Stephen Jardine argues in the Scotsman – the tide has turned in this debate.

 

The paper concludes with a long series of recommendations. These are very practical ideas, almost all of which we would have very little problem with. Several are not the sort of policy proposals you would expect to find in a Conservative policy paper.

 

It would be a fair criticism to say that the paper would have benefited from greater context on the impact of inequality on health and measures to address this including the importance of progressive taxation to create a more equal society. Practical programmes that ignore this reality are going to struggle.

 

So, this isn’t the ‘Spirit Level’ recognition that more equal societies are also healthier societies, but that was probably a step too far! However, it is a real step forward in Conservative thinking on this issue and should be welcomed for that.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

UK Budget 2017 - still no coherent economic plan

The UK Budget does little for hard pressed households in the short-term, and even less for the long-term health of the economy.

Let’s look at the issues that matter to UNISON members.

Austerity is supposed to be driven by the budget deficit, so some good news that deficit is reducing this year. However, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that it will go back up next year, instead of shrinking as planned. There is a modest short-term giveaway of around £1.7 billion in 2017-18, dominated by additional funding for local authorities in England to deliver adult social care. This is followed by a modest medium-term takeaway averaging around £750 million a year from 2019-20 onwards. So this is probably the best year we can expect for public spending for a while.

The Barnett consequential for Scotland of all this adds up to £350m. Very welcome relief, although still only a dent in the austerity cuts. It’s a bit like having your pocket picked and the thief returns part of his ill gotten gains.

Looking ahead, the OBR expects real GDP growth to moderate during the first half of 2017, as rising inflation squeezes household budgets and real consumer spending. The relatively strong start to the year implies 2.0 per cent growth in real GDP in 2017 as a whole (still very modest by historical standards), up from 1.4 per cent in November, with small downward revisions thereafter. Most experts think even these forecasts will be optimistic against most Brexit scenarios.

As always the devil is in the detail. For example, the OBR notes the decision to reduce the personal injury discount rate, which will substantially increase the size of one-off settlement payments. The Government has set aside an extra £1.2 billion a year to meet the expected costs to the public sector, notably to the NHS. Health Boards in Scotland take note!

Next, members will be concerned about wages. The OBR has made a downward revision to earnings growth of 0.1 percentage points over the forecast period, with the growth rate rising progressively from 2.6 per cent this year to 3.6 per cent in 2021. Wages are still below 2008 levels in real terms. Even this is a fantasy for public sector workers because of the UK and Scottish government’s 1% pay policy.



The OBR believes that additional employer costs such as the apprenticeship levy and pension auto-enrolment will be borne by the workforce through lower wages. Even though the latest data indicate that corporate profits have risen strongly in recent quarters. Non-oil corporate profits are estimated to have increased by just under 11 per cent in the year to the third quarter of 2016.

The headlines in the budget relate to the less favourable tax treatment of the self-employed. In fairness, there is some justification for these changes and it might make bogus self-employment marginally less attractive. However, there is no justification for the cuts in Corporation Tax, given the growth in corporate profits. Anyone who still believes in the Laffer curve should look at this chart.


So what does this mean for household incomes? According to the latest National Accounts, the headline saving ratio fell to 5.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2016 as consumer spending growth outpaced household disposable income growth. In effect the Chancellors increased revenues are being paid for out of squeezed household incomes and falling savings. Not a basis for a long term economic plan. This chart makes the point graphically.



Overall, while there is some short term public spending relief, the economy is currently being sustained by debt-driven consumption and a low exchange rate, and the Chancellor has done little to address the long-term challenges.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Apprenticeship Levy - Keeping it local

With an ageing public sector workforce, we should be encouraging apprenticeships by passing the funding from the Apprenticeship Levy onto those public service employers who deliver quality apprenticeships.

 

This is Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017, which focuses on the benefits apprenticeships bring to businesses, individuals and the Scottish economy - an opportunity to encourage more employers to offer quality apprenticeships. Events and activities involving employers, apprentices, colleges, local authorities and training providers are taking place across the country to celebrate the success of apprenticeships.



 

The UK wide Apprenticeship Levy is to be implemented from April 2017 and collected by the HMRC from large employers. Employers in England, including public sector bodies, will be able to directly access funding. However, in Scotland the money goes into the Scottish Government's budget - around £230m per annum.

 

Public sector employers in Scotland are important providers of quality apprenticeships. In a recent UNISON Scotland survey 81 per cent of apprentices described their training as excellent or good, even though almost half (46%) felt there should be a greater degree of off-the-job training. That is not to say there are not issues that need to be addressed. More than one in three (35%) rated their chances of achieving a job upon completion of their course as ‘don’t know’ or ‘unlikely’. Gender segregation also remains a huge issue. While the percentage of women employed in apprenticeships varied across councils, a strong pattern exists of women taking up apprenticeships in administration or care, while being almost completely absent from ‘craft’ apprenticeships.

 

Councils spend at least £25m on providing hundreds of valuable opportunities for young people such as modern apprenticeships, craft apprenticeships, graduate trainees, probationer teachers, formal work experience as employers that all contribute to the Developing Scotlands Young Workforce (DYW) Programme, jointly led by the Scottish Government and local government as partners.  This major programme aims to reduce youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021.

 

However, in Scotland the apprenticeship levy resource is not being passed on to these providers. COSLA has estimated that, based on last years pay bill for councils, the Apprenticeship Levy could potentially cost local authorities £24m as employers. That could rise to almost £50m across the public sector in Scotland.

 

Originally, local government understood that it would have its Levy funding returned in full in the next financial year by the Scottish Government.  Then councils were told that they were not to receive any of their own funding back from the Scottish Government. This decision undermines the DYW Programme and efforts to reduce youth unemployment in Scotland by putting in danger the future of valuable local initiatives provided by councils and other public service employers for young people. 

 

The bottom line is that apprentice recruitment is not happening at a sufficient rate to either: alter the ageing demographic of the workforce in public services; or replace the numbers leaving the workforce through voluntary redundancy or early retirement.

 

By centralising funding, the Scottish Government is discouraging public service employers from taking on apprentices. It is time to think again and return this funding to those local employers who want to develop quality apprenticeship programmes.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Food for Good is the way to better meals

Meals are delivered in our schools and hospitals very cheaply, but often at the expense of local sourcing and quality. UNISON Scotland's Food for Good Charter points to a better way.

BBC Scotland has been running a series of stories about the cost of food in public sector meal delivery. Using FoI requests they headlined 94p for a meal in NHS Grampian. The figures also found that some hospitals were sourcing 50% of their food from abroad. Waste levels were generally below 10%.

The most recent Scottish Care Experience Survey said: "Food is an area where a substantial percentage of people reported a negative experience, however they were more positive about the drinks they had received." It said 18% were not happy with the food they had received and 7% were not happy with the drinks.

The BBC also investigated school meals. They found that school children are eating chicken produced 6,000 miles away in Thailand. Scottish government ministers have repeatedly called for supermarkets and shops to buy local, while Scottish councils are spending millions importing food which could be sourced in Scotland. Glasgow alone spends £1.3m a year on imports.


Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: "I think we are doing quite well but we could do better. Almost half of the £150m spent on procuring food in the public sector is sourced locally. 48% is Scottish food and the amount sourced in Scotland had increased by 41% over the past seven years since Recipe for Success."

So, probably the best we can say is that we are doing better, but still have some way to go.

In 2013 UNISON Scotland did a similar survey to the BBC and updated our Food for Good CharterIt sets out key ways in which food in schools and hospitals, nurseries, care homes, prisons and other public services should be fresh, local, healthy and sustainable, taking account of local and global social justice factors.



We also asked the staff who make the meals what they thought. They said food quality has gone down due to cost-cutting and that pressures on staff have inevitable consequences. One member said: “Food budget is cut and we don’t provide a good enough portion and the quality of food has been downgraded for price.”

If we want to get serious about improving the quality of food served in our schools and hospitals, we have to invest in the kitchens, the food and the staff who make the meals.