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 Kay Sillars k.sillars@unison.co.uk - For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Scottish public services tackling climate change

UNISON Scotland has long argued that public services must lead by example in action on climate change.

In today’s Herald newspaper Paul Wedgwood of the Carbon Trust praises the world-leading legally binding climate targets in Scotland’s Climate Change Act.
And he says: “Action and leadership by the public sector will be the key to unlocking the scale of transformation required to create a sustainable Scotland by 2050.”
Yet he highlights that, of the recommended measures in carbon management plans developed by the Carbon Trust with 150 public sector bodies, two thirds have still to be implemented.

Health and care integration

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) has published a useful guide to the Public Bodies (Joint Working) Bill that legislates for health and care integration.

The briefing also summarises the evidence submitted on the Bill including a wide range of concerns that are reflected in UNISON's own evidence.

My recent blog post sets out our main concerns including the extensive ministerial powers and the absence of a credible approach to staffing issues.

The case for taxation

The supporters of austerity economics constantly talk about hard choices and the need to create a low tax economy. This is intended to drive us to a US style small state with only safety net public services.

The Reid Foundation has helpfully modelled an alternative approach to tax that emphasises growing the tax base, not simply increasing tax rates. Ed Miliband has discussed a similar approach under the heading of 'predistribution'. There has been a predictable right-wing reaction to this from the usual suspects in Scotland.

Robin McAlpine has set out a useful rebuttal of their criticism in today's Scotsman. He argues "And yet the reality is that we have a chronic low-pay economy which destabilises the tax base and leaves the public paying billions of pounds to subsidise in-work poverty. Only one in five Scots earns between £25,000 and £35,000. Three out of five earn less; half less than £21,000. The Reid Foundation has modelled what would happen to Scotland’s finances if we had a labour market comparable to other economies at our state of development. If we moved even relatively modest numbers of people out of low pay into medium pay and reduced unemployment we could increase the tax take by over 30 per cent without raising tax rates at all."

This argument supports UNISON campaigns such as the Scottish Living Wage and our own briefing on wages, inflation and the economy.

The classic Neo-Liberal response on tax is to present it as a form of theft. This is then used as some sort of moral justification for tax dodging. There is a very good rebuttal briefing of this written by Richard Murphy. The essence of his argument is that tax and property rights go hand in hand. There is no alternative, unless you want to live in Somalia at the barrel of a gun. So if property rights are legitimate, so is tax.

It's only two sides of A4 and is well worth a read.

OBR Forecasts and why it matters

The UK Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) was created in 2010 to give an 'objective' assessment of the state of public finances. This requires them to forecast economic trends that could impact on public finances such as inflation, wage rises and tax. It is therefore very important to UNISON members these forecasts are as accurate as any look into the future can be. Sadly, their track record is not impressive so far.

In this context the Reid Foundation has published a helpful paper, written by Jim Cuthbert, on OBR forecasts from a Scottish perspective. The paper highlights a number of areas where the OBR has got its forecasts wrong and why.

I would add one more example to Jim's list, wage forecasts. I blogged in this in June:

"I recently came across this interesting assumption in the Office of Budgetary Responsibility’s budget forecast: “Whole economy wages are expected to grow by 1.4 per cent this year and around 2.7 per cent in 2014, rising gradually to 4.0 per cent in 2016”. This means the Chancellor’s revenues are dependent on a pretty dramatic increase in real wages as the table below shows. Hard to see where that revenue is coming from given continued pay cuts in the public sector."

The importance of this forecast is that the Treasury uses it for expenditure assumptions including pensions. If the forecast is on the high side, as most would say it was, then pensions are made to look more expensive than they really are. Sounds familiar?

Either way pay negotiators might want to include this forecast in pay claims. If it's good enough for the Treasury.........

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Measuring Performance

The biggest area of agreement at yesterday’s Educational Attainment and Inequality seminar was that it is difficult to get enough of the right data to really understand what is going on in Scottish education. More importantly, harder to decide what action is needed to tackle the fact that children’s parent’s income still has such a big impact on their educational attainment. We all know that academics always agree that’s what’s needed is more research but what here they were calling for better access to that data that already exists.

The public sector in Scotland is a great collector of information, what it’s not so good at is sharing the data to enable external organisations to use it for research or scrutiny. While obviously the rights to privacy of citizens need to be protected, better use of all these records would help improve public services and scrutiny of government strategies. Speakers remarked yesterday that 2011 census data for Scotland has been very slow to emerge in comparison with the rest of the UK. This holds back planning in the public sector as well as academic research.

Scotland Performs was launched with much fanfare in 2008. The Scottish Government promised

“Visitors to the Scotland Performs website will be presented with highly visual and easy to understand pages. They will have quick access to information about the quality of life in Scotland, and where thing are getting better and where things are getting worse.

The finance secretary John Swinney said:
"Scotland Performs is about responsibility and accountability.”

"By making this information easy to access, and by showing exactly whether we as a country are doing well or need to do more, everyone in Scotland will have the ability to judge for themselves how Scotland is performing."

Scotland Performs has not lived up to this promise. The site is does not have easy to understand pages, does not provide “quick access to information” nor is there evidence of it being a strategic planning tool. Scotland Performs has surface similarities to Virginia Performs. The Virginia site offers both easy to read graphics and explanations/discussions of issues and extensive data for those seeking wider information or wishing to do their own analysis. Sites like Virginia Performs and Baltimore’s website (https://data.baltimorecity.gov/) give access to data that require freedom of information requests in Scotland, including the amounts of individual procurement contracts.

Better access to the data that the public sector holds rather than expensive consultants would really help us work out where we need to go to ensure a fairer Scotland.

Money advice services

A two-year action research project funded by the Money Advice Service and the Improvement Service sets out the first comprehensive overview of the provision of money advice services across Scotland’s councils in over a decade.

The report highlights the prime role that local authorities play within the money advice sector – both in terms of direct provision and through services commissioned and paid for by councils for delivery by other partners, principally Citizens Advice Bureaux. The estimated value of local authorities’ investment in money advice services is in the region of £20m per annum. £8.2m is spent in-house and £11.8m is outsourced. There are around 180 FTE in-house staff. 19 councils have a mix of services, 11 outsource completely and 2 operate solely in-house.

The research highlights a series of challenges confronting the money advice sector, including rising demand. The major drivers of increased demand for money advice services include:-

• the ongoing impact of the recession /’credit crunch’;
• the consequences of the rise of payday lending and other less affordable forms of credit provision;
• the significant levels of poverty and inequalities that continue to exist across Scotland; and
welfare reform.

The report includes a number of recommendations; some concerning ‘system-wide’ issues and some focused on improvement areas that individual Councils may wish to focus on.

The Executive Summary can be viewed here.

Scotland's violence against women strategy

The Scottish Government is developing, Scotland’s Strategy to Address Violence Against Women. Workshops have been held and a project group established.

They are now in the process of producing the first draft of the strategy that will be out for consultation by the end of this year. The aim is to publish by next summer. 

An update on progress with the strategy and a useful summary of other initiatives and events can be viewed here.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Sharing Profits and Power

This report from the IPPR think tank makes the case for an economy built on shared rewards and more democratic workplaces rather than management prerogative, shareholder power and trickle-down economics.

The financial crash of 2008 brought the underlying weaknesses of British capitalism out into the light. Our over-dependence on the finance sector has driven a focus on short-term maximization of profits and weakened incentives for investment and innovation in some parts of the British economy. While many British firms are highly productive and innovative, too many rely on a low-quality growth model based on weak regulation, low skills and low wages.

This paper draws on examples from the UK, US and Europe and shows how the financial and democratic participation of employees in the running of their company can improve its performance. Britain lacks many of the institutions that elsewhere have traditionally enabled employees to take greater responsibility for improving company performance and to share in the rewards.

The recommendations fall under three broad headings:

•Sharing profits and financial rewards, including profit-sharing and employee ownership
•Creating democratic workplaces, including establishing a ‘responsibility to participate’ for employees and opening up the books of Britain’s leading public companies
•Employees and corporate governance, including a focus on day-to-day involvement as more effective and engaging than token and irregular employee representation on the board.

Well worth a read.

Tackling Inequality on a Shrinking Budget

Local government budgets have been slashed but demands for their services are growing. Across the UK they are responding to in a range of ways: cutting jobs, privatisation, shutting down services and salami slicing. Camden Council is attempting to develop an approach which places tackling inequality at the centre of its decision making. The council set up an equality task force which included amongst others councillors (Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservative), academics and child poverty campaigners. Sadly they council did not invite anyone from the recognised trade unions to take part. Having people who actually deliver services would have provided valuable insight for their report. The remit was to explore the reasons for inequality in Camden, consider the role of the council and its partners in tackling inequality, recommend solutions and make a “strong contribution” to national debates on the role of local public services and tackling inequality.

The task force reported on:
• What the council will do
• What it wants local partners to contribute
• What council should call on the government to do

Their key recommendations are that the council should focus on:

• Housing, including the concept of a living rent to go along side the living wage
• Increased participation in work, education and training for those aged 14-19: highlighting need for pre-apprenticeship and pre traineeship support
• Increased job opportunities for mothers to work: this means tackling the lack of quality, part-time, flexible jobs and exceptionally high childcare costs: Government restrictions on use of Direct schools puts their grant integrated children’s centres (with employment services, universal 25 hours childcare for three and four year olds), commissioning of borough wide play provision and drop in services at risk.
• Council’s role as an employer and using procurement to improve employment for non council staff
• Looking at the property portfolio to release funds for reinvestment in housing and housing repairs and make up for funding cuts
• plan Economic Growth Fund; the council spends over £900million on goods and should make better use of this spend to reduce inequality
• Explore options for residents to deliver public services

No wrong door borough: they suggest that all points of contact with citizens have staff who are equipped to handle the issues people bring even if out of daily remit.

The report is now working its way through the council’s decision making processes.

Until it is clearer how the strategy will be implemented and how it will impact on services and members it is difficult to comment fully on its merits. It is a shame though that there were no staff representatives on the task force. Unions are well placed to collate views of those who work in the services and understand how they operate on a days to day basis and therefore what improvements are necessary.

UNISON is a supporter of placing reducing inequality at the heart of public service delivery. Using the councils spending power and terms and conditions for staff is a really important way to tackle inequality particularly through ending low pay in the public and private sectors. It will interesting to see how the commitment develops and whether we can learn anything from it for our campaigns for a fairer scotland

Bumper Book of Government Waste

The tax cutting campaign group the Tax Payers Alliance have produced yet another one of their attacks on public spending. In their imaginatively title Big Book of Government Waste, they stick to their effective tactic of finding spending they don’t like at calling it waste. This year they have managed to reach a total of £120billion.

It’s a great laugh, mocking arts projects, awards ceremonies and councillor's lunches meanwhile, the Big Bumper Book of Private Sector Waste is still unpublished: The costs of failed privatisation, massive bonuses paid to chief execs for failure, billions wasted on PFI, private failures like Southern Cross and G4S and its Olympic security fiasco. As ever public sector workers terms and conditions are their first point of attack. Almost half of their waste total: £53billion comes from “overpaying on public sector pay and pensions”. This is not mistakenly overpaying. What they mean is that wages are too high in the public sector. So key to reducing “waste” in their eyes is reducing workers wages.

They claim that public sector workers are paid 8.2% more than private sector workers; this requires some deeper analysis though. The figures do not include bonuses or other perks which are far more prevalent in the private sector. Across the UK, particularly in England many of the lower skilled and paid jobs that were once in the public sector have been outsourced to the private sector. Outsourcing the lower paid jobs raises the average wage measure without anyone receiving any wage rise at all. This has also increased the number of low paid jobs in the private sector so decreasing the average wage point there.

Despite what the tax dodgers’ alliance claim the public sector is not where the fat cats are working. If you compare the pay of graduates, for example, in the public and private sectors then they earn less: 5.7% to be exact.

A trawl thorough their pages outlining figures from newspaper paper reports on council tea biscuit and train ticket bills can raise a smile but it’s not a serious analysis of public spending. It’s a shame that so many media outlets treat them as if they are producing high quality independent research. They are a right-wing body dedicated, not to value for money for tax payers, but to reducing the size of the public sector. They are currently campaigning to get rid of National Insurance, which no doubt suits their wealthy backers but may be a bit more tricky for the rest of us. “Behind the Mask” published by the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance shows exactly who they are. Backers include: Tony Gallacher owner of Gallacher UK who has given £3million to the Conservatives since 2001; Christopher Kelly owner of Keltruck : Sir Anthony Bamford, of JCB who has also donated £1million to the Conservatives. and Stuart Wheeler who having previously donated £5million to the Conservatives has now endorsed UKIP. Remember who they are what they are trying to do the next time you here them on the radio.

A different economy

Scotland has a problem. It's the economy.

At the moment the wealthiest households in Scotland are 273 times richer than the poorest.
There are 8 people on unemployment benefit for every full time vacancy advertised.
Only 22% of Scots feel like they can influence decisions in their local area.

Oxfam Scotland's Our Economy report is a blueprint for a new kind of economy that is the servant of the people and meets the needs of everyone in Scotland.

This report shows that for too long, we have been obsessed with economic growth, without asking about the quality of that growth, and who benefits from it. That's led to massive and growing inequality. The report will be debated in the Scottish Parliament shortly after the recess in September. Write to your MSP and urge them to support.


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Welcome to the Public Works Blog!

Welcome to UNISON Scotland's new Public Works blog.

The aim of this blog is to highlight news and analysis about public service delivery in Scotland. It will cover issues such as service cuts, jobs, public service reform, privatisation as well as the wider political and economic context.

This is an informal blog, not where we post press releases and other formal materials. Contributions should not be taken as formal statements of UNISON Scotland policy as it will cover areas where there is no settled UNISON policy or go into more detail. We want to avoid a dull corporate blog and instead promote ideas and discussion and disseminate news that might not be covered in the mainstream media. For more details of our Public Works campaign please visit our website. It’s a great resource for anyone concerned about public services in Scotland.

The main contributors are staff in UNISON Scotland’s Bargaining and Campaigns Team. However, we welcome comments and contributions from others who share the aims of our Public Works campaign. But this is our blog and we will remove any comments that are offensive, irrelevant or otherwise annoy.

We hope you find the material in this blog useful, interesting and on occasions, even entertaining!