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 email@example.com - For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.
Monday, 22 December 2014
In the annual staff survey two-thirds of NHS staff in Scotland say they can't do their job properly because of staffing shortages. Just a quarter of nurses and less than a fifth of ambulance personnel felt there were sufficient staff to allow them to work well. Even senior managers believe the service is too stretched, with just 38% saying there are enough staff.
Of particular concern, the survey revealed 43% of NHS employees do not feel it is safe for them to speak up if they are concerned about quality or safety issues. 15% indicated they had been bullied or harassed by colleagues in the previous year.
These concerns are reinforced in three UNISON Scotland surveys.
Health and care staff involved in care integration said that while they support care integration, its delivery was being compromised by budget cuts. 68% believe it would get worse, not better next year.
In a separate survey Occupational Therapists had a similar message. An overwhelming majority (82%) reported increased workloads, 60% reported having to cope with reduced members of staff and almost half (48%) reported funding cuts.
Finally, hospital porters reported they are also under pressure and their workloads are going up while the value of their wages are going down. The report also concludes that their training is patchy and there are reports of lack of equipment to allow them to do their job properly.
The NHS budget may have had a degree of ring fencing from budget cuts, but that doesn't mean that the service isn't under real financial pressure. These voices from NHS Scotland staff make that very clear.
Saturday, 20 December 2014
Herald columnist Catriona Stewart has written an absolutely brilliant love letter to libraries in today's paper.
She explains how public libraries helped her with her studies and a particular act of kindness from a librarian in the Mitchell Library. This eulogy continues to take in great libraries from Coatbridge to New York and beyond. Wherever you are libraries are a constant.
I particularly liked this:
"In a world where taking and selling are prime, librarians stand out. They exist only to give: to give the gift of knowledge and information and reading, which is the ultimate gift. If you are a reader the kingdom and everything in it is yours; librarians are the Ordnance Survey."
As the trade union that represents library staff, we could not have put it better.
This should be required reading for Scottish Ministers and councillors who are considering cutting the already depleted public library service.
Friday, 12 December 2014
There are some big changes to our pensions next year. The Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme changes next April and the UK government is allowing transfers out as a lump sum. In addition, new governance arrangements should ensure that the £24bn in Scottish funds are invested more effectively for the benefit of members.
I was at UNISON's annual pensions seminar today that brings together pensions champions from local government funds across the UK. While the Scottish scheme is separate from its England and Wales counterpart, there are a number of common concerns.
There are huge variations in the performance of funds across the UK. We simply don't know the true cost of investments and there is not even an agreed set of key metrics so we can compare funds. One speaker gave an insiders explanation of how asset managers try to hide the true costs. He gave us a frighteningly long list! I particularly liked (not) private equity firms who charge the firms they invest in to put one of their staff on the board, which of course reduces the financial performance of the company and therefore the return to pension funds. There are also a range of conflict of interests in the value chain that again add to costs.
Some firms are trying to put Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA) around cost data, which just demonstrates that they have something to hide. We should be saying, we will not appoint asset managers that want to hide costs. They are anyway subject to FoI in the LGPS. Evidence from the transparent Dutch market shows that a 40% reduction in fees is possible. The published data the Dutch have is amazing and has been the key to driving down costs. Trustees should be asking their Custodian Fund Accountant, who have most of the data
There was a useful explanation from the Law Commission in England (the law on this point similar in Scotland) of fiduciary duty and what factors you can take into account in ethical investment decisions. In my experience, trustees are given a very narrow interpretation of this because fund managers are not keen. In fairness, the case law is based on some bad factual cases. The Law Commission report shows how you can ethically invest legally using due process. Many decisions can be given a financial gloss and even non-financial factors can be taken into account if you follow the process outlined in their guidance. They also recommend some changes to local government investment regulations that we will need to look at. In particular, confirming that funds should be invested in the interests of the members - not what the councillors think is in the best interests of the council!
A key issue is again getting quality data. We should be tagging unethical firms on the investment database so that the fund is notified anytime asset managers invest in them. A number of speakers in the final panel highlighted how effective activist share action can be in promoting ethical investment. Also on issues like executive pay that has spiralled out of control in many firms. The TUC has developed trade union voting and engagement guidelines and organisations like Share Action are also running effective campaigns.
From next April, all members in funded schemes will be able to take their pension pots from age 55. What many people don't realise is that they will pay tax at their marginal rate on 75% of their pot. We will need to watch out for pension scams and develop rigorous procedures to ensure members get proper advice. There is also a risk that some funds could suffer negative cash flows. The government says they don't expect many to do this in quality schemes like the LGPS. Although interestingly the government hasn't allowed members in pay as you go schemes like the NHS to take out their pot, because that would be a cost to the government!
The coming year is going to be a busy one for union pension representatives at every level.
Thursday, 11 December 2014
More than 40,000 jobs in Scottish local government are at risk over the next five years if austerity economics continue.
Today's 'The National' newspaper carries a story quoting my estimate of the likely job losses in Scottish councils. It's a headline because the current budget round is highlighting the massive scale of cuts each council is having to consider next year. The numbers are frighteningly huge in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, but proportionately the story is the same across the country.
So before anyone accuses me of scaremongering, I would point out that our estimates in the past have sadly been pretty accurate. I also suspect 40,000 may, if anything, be an underestimate. We know that nearly 40,000 jobs have gone from Scottish local government since the crash. We also know from the OBR and IFS analysis of the Autumn Statement that some 60% of the cuts planned by the ConDems at UK level are still to come. Given that there is to be no real change in the Barnett formula, you don't need to be a mathematician to see that our numbers add up.
Of course the Scottish Government could stop dumping the largest share of the cuts onto local government. However, that seems unlikely because that would require them to reduce health spending and politicians aren't that brave in the run up to elections. Even if it is council cuts that contribute towards the bed blocking that are causing so many problems in our NHS. They could also use the income tax powers they have and the new ones. However, as we also know from today's Audit Scotland report that only one civil servant is allocated to work on income tax, that seem pretty unlikely as well.
While we welcome the attempt to find a cross party consensus on local government finance through another commission, the Council Tax freeze continues. That's £2.5bn which could have been used to save services, rather than give handouts to wealthy households. On top of that we have the small business bonus that has cost a fortune without a scrap of evidence that it has created any jobs. We also need to remember that even if we do fix local government finance that is only a small proportion of council revenue.
Councils also have choices to make. Edinburgh's plan looks like another exercise in shifting the deck chairs around the Titanic. The loss of experienced staff, including middle managers, is becoming a real problem and one that even Audit Scotland has commented on in past reports. In many councils, inexperienced and quite junior staff are being asked to make decisions that could have serious consequences for councils and individual service users.
Today in Glasgow, staff and service users are protesting at the decision of Glasgow City Council to slash and burn mental health services in the city, currently provided by GAMH. It is rank hypocrisy for the council leader to announce his council's commitment to promote the living wage through procurement on one day, when the next day his council is planning to shift a service from a good living wage wage employer to another that doesn't. Quite apart from the blatant breach of the statutory requirements under s52 of the Local Government in Scotland Act.
So, while councils and the Scottish Government can rightly be accused of poor choices, the core problem is austerity economics as delivered by George Osborne. As I outlined last week in a commentary on the Autumn Statement, this is not just taking public services back to the 1930's - it is also damaging the unbalanced economic recovery. If we don't change course after the 2015 General Election, 40,000 jobs may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
A budget package in December may not be Autumn, but it certainly had a real chill for those least able to afford its consequences.
This was a classic Osborne budget statement. Massive real cuts, sugar coated by handing back a few pennies in the form of announcements on the NHS and infrastructure. Yes, Scotland will get £129m of Barnett consequentials from the NHS announcements, but this goes nowhere near making up for the real cuts ahead. This chart from the Office of Budget Responsibility makes it perfectly clear where public spending is going.
Public spending in the UK will be the lowest for 80 years, not quite the dark ages, but back to the dark years of the Great Recession. Danny Alexander told us yesterday that there were 'smallish' cuts to come. Today, we got the truth from the OBR, who say:
"Between 2009-10 and 2019-20, spending on public services, administration and grants by central government is projected to fall from 21.2 per cent to 12.6 per cent of GDP and from £5,650 to £3,880 per head in 2014-15 prices. Around 40 per cent of these cuts would have been delivered during this Parliament, with around 60 per cent to come during the next. The implied squeeze on local authority spending is similarly severe."
This is also an entirely home grown consequence of the failure of austerity economics. The OBR also tell us that real earnings will not return to pre-crisis levels over the next five years after a continuous fall since the crash. Pay freezes, low paid new jobs, low incomes of the involuntary self-employed are behind the apparently improving unemployment figures. This is the reason why tax revenues have not grown sufficiently, and public borrowing has increased despite draconian public spending cuts. This infographic from the JRF shows just how the low paid have taken the brunt of pay cuts. And it's public sector workers who take the biggest cuts yet again.
Osborne told us proudly that he has halved the deficit. But in 2010 he told us that it would have gone by next year. Instead he has borrowed more than Labour as this chart shows.
In any case the budget deficit is the wrong target. The UK's main deficit is in investment and equality. We need a massive programme of public investment in social care, public transport, housing, child care and education, which will tackle the investment and decent work deficit. Then we need labour market policies to ensure that the fall in labour’s share of national income in the past decades is reversed, and the recovery is wage-led rather than debt-led. Household debt will grow faster than previously forecast until it’s larger than before the recession. In simple terms, take care of full employment, decent pay for women and men, equality, and sustainability, and the budget will take care of itself.
If you were in any doubt about the political strategy behind the Autumn Statement, have a look at this distributional analysis.
The top 10% will vote Tory come what may to protect their tax cuts that are threatened by Labour. The big losers are again at the bottom, the 'dog end voters in the outlying regions' as one Tory MP put it. Osborne’s economic policies have been deliberately designed to shift money from the poorest to the richest. Research from the London School of Economics has found that the changes he has introduced to benefits and income tax have seen the poorest five per cent lose income while the top one per cent have gained.
Austerity economics have been a massive failure as the numbers behind today's statement show all too clearly. A short term housing bubble is the only fig leaf he has left to get past next year's election But there is also a challenge for the opposition parties and Labour in particular. There has to be a clear dividing line on economic policy. Austerity is the Tories cover for their real political goal of reducing the size and role of the state - it should not feature in the policy of a party with a democratic socialist mission.
Monday, 1 December 2014
Politicians can be so fixated by the benefits of free trade that they are missing the real dangers of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
TTIP is a series of trade negotiations being carried out mostly in secret between the EU and US. In my view TTIP is primarily about reducing the regulatory barriers to trade for big business, things like food safety law, environmental legislation, banking and labour regulations. It is, as John Hilary, of War on Want, said: "An assault on European and US societies by transnational corporations."
I was giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament's European and External Relations Committee last week on TTIP. It's not often in parliament that I find myself on the same side as the NFU, but that just demonstrates how broad the coalition concerned about TTIP is.
There is an argument, put forward by an academic lawyer at the committee, that we are worrying too much. There can be no provisions in the treaty that are outside EU competences and the EU has no powers to direct how, for example, our health service is organised. With respect, this academic view of the law is simply naive.
There are plenty of examples of states signing up to similar treaties only to find corporations challenging their democratic decisions. Australia over tobacco control and Slovakia over health insurance, highlights just two in the health sector. There are over 500 of these cases being heard across the world at present. It's not just the actual legal action that matters. The threat of legal action can result in 'regulatory chill' with risk adverse law officers worrying about any radical action that might result in a legal challenge. Scotland's recent Procurement Act and the living wage was one recent example of this effect. That Act also has provisions to tackle aggressive tax avoidance. Just imagine the plane loads of US corporate lawyers flying in to Edinburgh if TTIP was in place!
Effective challenges to the EU also have to come from the member state and for Scotland that means the UK. In England they are creating a US style privatised health service, so would they really complain to the EU to save Scotland's very different approach?
Some MSPs pursued the idea of a 'good TTIP' with us. I'm afraid that I don't hold out much hope for that. There are already very few trade barriers between the U.S. and the UK, so it's deregulation and privatising public services that interests rapacious American corporations. From a UK perspective there is little economic evidence of the benefits. When officials claim gains in the range of £4bn to £10bn, you know they are just making the numbers up. Even these figures take no account of job displacement and a further shift from wages to capital.
At a minimum TTIP a would have to unequivocally exclude public services, possibly using the positive list approach to avoid definitional problems over what a public service is. There should be no common regulatory standards, because the US ones are generally too low. Enforcement procedures that are in TTIP a should include all the ILO standards, particularly the ones that the U.S. hasn't signed up to, such a collective rights.
But the biggest issue is removing any Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS). These mechanisms give judicial protection only to foreign corporations and allow their massive legal departments to tramp all over democratically elected governments. In this way they would be able to reduce our food safety rules, privatise the NHS, challenge the Scottish Living Wage and weaken environmental regulations on issues like fracking.
If a 'good TTIP' like this was on the table, I strongly suspect the US would just walk away. That's fine, because that is just what the EU should be doing now.
Thursday, 20 November 2014
However they dress up the rhetoric, economic orthodoxy is convincing too many politicians of all parties that there is no choice but to accept austerity economics. They should know better, as a number of commentators are pointing out.
Professor John Weeks from University of London has provided an excellent economic history lesson to explain why austerity doesn't add up. When Osborne became chancellor the UK public debt was £974 billion (63% of GDP), and at the end of this September, four years and five months later, the debt was £1451 billion (80% of GDP). This increase of £475 billion exceeded the so-called ballooning of debt under Gordon Brown that, through a massive recession, rose by £440 billion.
In fact Osborne has put on more debt during his years of "sound fiscal policy" and much-touted recovery that Brown did during an economic collapse. In contrast Gordon Brown's fiscal stimulus stopped the rise in public borrowing in late 2009. Increased spending stopped borrowing from rising, because that spending arrested the fall in the economy that had created the need for more borrowing. In contrast Osborne has been incapable of bringing borrowing down. This is because his expenditure cuts undermine growth. Slow growth means slow revenue recovery, hardly rocket science even for Osborne.
Steve Keen from Kingston University warns that we are heading for another financial crisis, but not for the global economic reasons Cameron is using as his latest excuse. Cameron is panicking about a rising level of government debt, when at 91% of GDP, it’s 80 percentage points below the level of private debt. If Cameron thinks reducing government spending when private credit is contracting is good economic policy, then he’s ignoring the biggest car crash in economic history – the European Union, where government austerity turned the crisis into a second Great Depression.
Martin Wolf in the Financial Times (£) also questions Cameron's concerns about the global economy. He points to the difficulties caused by the fiscal austerity that his government recommends have become particularly evident in Japan and the eurozone. He argues that these stagnant high-income economies are the weakest links in the world economy. To understand why, he says we need to analyse today’s most important economic illness: chronic demand deficiency syndrome.
He points to three reasons for this. Firstly the post-crisis overhang of private debt and the damage to confidence caused by the sudden disintegration of the financial system. Secondly, and almost the opposite, economies suffer not just from a post-crisis balance-sheet recession, but from an inability to generate credit-driven demand on the pre-crisis scale. Thirdly, slowdown in potential growth, due to some combination of demographic changes, slowing rises in productivity and weak investment. But he says that this last set of explanations feeds directly into the second. If growth of potential supply is expected to slow, consumption and investment will be weak. That will generate feeble growth in demand.
Of course Osborne is less concerned about the effectiveness of austerity economics, than his long term plan to reduce the role of the state. Austerity is just an excuse for his ideological goals. What is more worrying, as John Weeks points out, is Ed Ball's conversion to austerity. Is it that the political strategy of being fiscally tough outweighs economic common sense? What he should do is go back and read his own Bloomberg lectures. I once told him that I thought he understood economics then, but it's not too late to change course and adopt a different more progressive political and economic strategy.
Thursday, 6 November 2014
The survey was sent to all staff in LBHF and all staff working in shared services in the other two boroughs (RBKC and WCC). There was a great deal of agreement among staff the key challenges were solving the different processes technologies and cultures which make shared working difficult and a huge feeling of uncertainty about what the future held.
Uncertainty: most respondents picked “neither agree nor disagree” when asked whether shared services had enabled cost savings and service improvements. It was generally felt that costs savings were the overarching priority for sharing services. LBHF staff felt more strongly than the other boroughs that shared services “does not improve individual borough’s ability to serve own residents”.
Personal development: while staff felt that sharing best practice and working shared teams offered personal development opportunities there were serious levels of concern about job security. This may though be a general, and not unrealistic, concern felt by all workers across local government considering the level of budget cuts they face.
Staff are pretty evenly split between those who would like to see more joint working and those who want to see it end, and 16% who didn’t know. Finance and corporate services were most keen to return to single borough operations.
Another issue is the “enduring variance in terms and conditions between and within teams”. This creates “difficult working environment”. The report states that there is a risk that “the good will of staff is being stretched too far”.
The technological issues are significant, there are three IT systems leaving an admin heavy workload this often leads to the recruitment of temporary staff to process transactional backlogs: Hardly the best way to spend money.
As with other shared services projects there are real issues about individual borough accountability and the ability of boroughs to design and deliver on their individual visions for the future of their areas.
The report is of course full of typical business jargon, but if you go past that it highlights the challenges members face as more of these plans are evolving in Scottish Authorities. It is important that when meeting with mangers and elected members that we can highlight what has happened elsewhere to avoid costly mistakes being repeated.
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
NHS in Scotland is facing significant pressures at the same time as having to make major changes to services to meet future needs. That's the key message from the latest Audit Scotland report on NHS finances.
This infographic sums up the pressures.
They also found evidence that NHS boards are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with these pressures. NHS boards’ revenue budgets increased by just over one per cent in real terms in 2013/14, and smaller real terms increases are planned from 2014/15 onwards. Cost pressures, such as the growing costs of drugs and other health technologies exacerbate this tight financial situation. This table shows that while spending overall has increased in cash terms, spending per head of population has decreased since 2009/10.
While resources are falling in real terms, the demands on the NHS are increasing. This is as a result of demographic change, particularly the growing population of elderly and very elderly people; the number of people with long-term health conditions; and people’s rising expectations of healthcare. Audit Scotland conclude that it will be challenging for the NHS to make the scale of changes required over the next few years to meet the 2020 Vision strategy. In particular, progress has been slow in moving more care into the community - a process not helped by council budget cuts. They point to pinch points in the complex health and care system with only three boards meeting the delayed discharge targets. It remains to be seen if health and care integration will tackle these.
While all NHS boards met their financial targets, several required additional funding from the Scottish Government or relied on non-recurring savings to break even. NHS Highland, NHS Orkney and NHS 24 had particular difficulties. Five boards are relying on non-recurring savings to meet efficiency targets. A classic indication of NHS cost pressures is the backlog of maintenance required to ensure that hospitals and other buildings are fit for purpose. In 2012, the Scottish Government forecast that the cost of this backlog would decrease by £174 million by 2013, from £948 million to £774 million. The actual reduction was £90 million, to £858 million.
The NHS capital budget available to boards fell by 21% between 2012/13 and 2013/14, from £605.5 million to £481.3 million. In a separate announcement the Scottish Government has announced a big PPP/PFI programme. This expensive form of finance is funded from revenue.
In addition, despite significant efforts, the NHS did not meet some key waiting time targets in 2013/14. The report highlights a range of pressures including a significant increase in outpatient appointments. Audit Scotland argue that the current level of focus on meeting waiting time targets may not be sustainable when combined with additional pressures of increasing demand and tightening budgets.
There has been a reduction in the number of hospital beds across Scotland. Between 2008/09 and 2012/13, the average number of available staffed beds in acute specialties reduced by 7% (1,144 beds); the number of acute surgical beds fell by 11% (596 beds); and the number of acute medical beds fell by 5% (313 beds). The main reason given for this reduction is the growth in day surgery.
The report highlights a range of staffing pressures, particularly amongst medical staff. NHS Scotland spent £128 million on bank and agency nursing and midwifery staff in 2013/14, an increase of 15% since 2012/13. Spending on agency staff increased by 46%, to £9.3 million. This follows a rise of 62% the previous year, reversing the trend of falls in spending on agency nurses since 2008/09. Agency staff are likely to be more expensive than bank nurses, and also pose a greater potential risk to patient safety and the quality of care.
Overall, this report gives a good overview of the financial state of NHS Scotland and its constituent boards, shorn of the usual spin. In short, it's tough now, but it's going to get a lot worse.
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
A new paper Inequality in Scotland: New Perspectives from David Bell, David Eiser and Michael McGoldrick, adds some much needed detail and policy analysis to an often simplistic debate around poverty and inequality in Scotland (and elsewhere). The paper contains a great deal of data from large scale surveys over the last thirty years attempting to identify the economic and social trends in Scotland.
There is also an analysis of the effect of policies on the distribution of income between rich and poor both those where that is the intended aim (tax and welfare) and others (housing or energy policy) which have other objectives.
Their analysis finds that the extent of distribution hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. The UK tax and benefits system still redistributes income at about the OECD average. As expected the minimum wage has been effective in raising wages at the bottom. This makes life better for lots of people. Sadly, if high earners continue to see massive increases in their wages and don’t pay a reasonable amount of tax on those earnings, income inequality will (and does) remain high. There is a detailed section on the Living Wage. Their research indicates that low pay is widespread across Scottish households with many combining a mix of high, medium and low earners. While the living wage will address individual wage inequality, household income inequality may not reduce. The picture is therefore complex. Within households the presence of a medium (or high earner) does not mean all those in the household have access to that income. Inequality exists within as well as between households. This analysis is therefore important but not really an argument against expanding the living wage to more workers.
There is a lot of debate about income tax and welfare spending in Scotland, much less discussed recently is the role of indirect taxes, which across the world are increasingly favoured by governments as an alternative to direct taxation. These increases inequalities as poorer households contribute more of their income on, for example VAT, than the rich. The same is true of energy policy as although better of people have higher bills the costs of energy takes up a much larger proportion of poorer households’ incomes.
What the report doesn’t look at all is the impact of public services on inequality and their role in reducing inequality through redistributing the cash value of services that would have to be paid for directly if not provided free at the point of use, like sending children to school, getting your refuse collected or visiting the doctor. This would have been a useful addition to the debate. The tax debate isn’t just about levels but about how we use the money that’s raised.
Friday, 17 October 2014
This is UNISON Scotland's latest report on the impact austerity economics is having on our public services and the staff who deliver them.
This info graphic outlines some the problems
Dave Watson has put the report in the context of Challenge Poverty Week in this article on the leading Blog, Left Foot Forward.
Thursday, 16 October 2014
Today is Blog Action Day and the subject for this year is inequality. Very appropriate here in Scotland as this is Challenge Poverty Week and I make no apology for returning to this issue.
Yesterday, the STUC 'Decent Work, Dignified Lives' conference had a real focus on inequality with some excellent contributions that will be available on line.
Professor David Bell and David Eiser from Stirling University gave a very clear analysis of inequality in Scotland. They argued that the trickle down economics of the Thatcher era have been successfully challenged in books like 'The Spirit Level' and the more recent work by the French economist Thomas Picketty.
There is growing wider acceptance of the damage inequality does from contributors as diverse as the ILO, The Pope, Mark Carney and the World Bank. Even the IMF now accept that redistribution doesn't have a negative impact on growth.
The determinants of inequality are even better understood. Technological change and globalisation have changed trade, corporate power and deregulated labour markets. Taxation and benefits can have intended consequences towards redistribution, but regulation can have negative unintended consequences. For example, the price of utilities has been driven up by privatisation and regulation and that has a bigger impact on the poor because essentials constitute a larger part of their income.
The consequences are that as inequality rises the level of social mobility declines. In particular, there is less mobility between generations because wealth and other advantages are simply passed on to children.
Income inequality in Scotland is similar to the rest of the UK when you take London out of the equation. While still high in the league table of inequality compared to other EU countries, our level of tax redistribution is about average. It's income before tax that pushes the UK up the league.
So what should the policy responses be?
The obvious startIng point is tax and benefits. The problem is that relatively small changes have a limited impact on equality. As highlighted above, it's income before tax that is a feature of inequality in the UK. The main impact of the benefit system is to subsidise poor employers, while tax cuts for the rich has just encouraged fat cat bosses to lobby for higher wages.
The next area is labour regulation. The minimum wage does reduce inequality, primarily by improving wages at the very bottom, although it has not maintained differentials throughout the pay scales. Action on insecure employment would help, particularly access to employment justice and ending zero hours contracts. However, it is only through support for sectoral collective bargaining that we will make big strides forward in tackling inequality. Maximum wage or ratios are are also important as this week's IDS study shows - directors pay has grown from 40 times average earnings to 120 times since 2000.
The third solution gets less attention - public services 'In kind' spending. As the OECD has highlighted, income inequality in the UK is mitigated by public spending. Preventative spending on health and education, particularly for the under three's, could have a major impact - tackling intergenerational Inequality. Government action can, albeit unintentionally, also exacerbate inequality. A good example of this is government driving down the cost of social care through lower wages and insecure working conditions for care workers. Public sector buying power should instead be used to positively address inequality.
We cannot say often enough that a more equal society benefits everyone. A radical change of direction is required using a range of policy interventions. Progressive taxation, labour regulation and stronger public services would be a good start.
Monday, 13 October 2014
This is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland. There will be a series of events culminating in a march and rally In Glasgow on Saturday.
The week started with the Poverty Alliance conference today. I was contributing to the final session and my focus was on the importance of reframing the narrative in the debate around poverty.
For Cameron, it is all about the ‘strivers, not the skivers’. This is the strategy and language of despots and the far right for centuries. Find a minority to blame to distract the majority from the real problems in our society. A problem you could do something about, but choose instead to defend the vested interests of your class.
We need to reframe the narrative in opposition to welfare cuts and the political myth making that unfairly blames poverty on those struggling. The percentage of households below a minimum standard of living has doubled over the last 30 years.
We can start by pointing out that more than half of those forced to claim benefits are the very ‘strivers’ that Cameron claims to represent. 52% of working age adults in poverty were living in households where at least one adult was in employment, as were 59% of children in poverty.
This has happened because the economy has seen a big shift from wages to profits. You have to go back to the 1860’s for a pay squeeze as long as this one. If the wage bill had just kept up with inflation there would be £5bn more spending power in the Scottish economy.
As we highlight in a UNISON Scotland report published today on wages, workers are struggling to meet even basic bills. Since 2007 the average rent for a Council House has increased by 26% and in the same time the wages of a Council Worker has increased by 8.3%. In today’s report we give a voice to many of our members who describe in their own words how they are struggling to make ends meet.
Families have been plugging the gap by using savings or getting into debt. 30% of families say they have less than £500 put away, compared with just 14% in 2013. A deeply indebted economy may be a political strategy to get Cameron to the next General Election, but there will be a serious hangover after it.
Even among those suffering, the pain is not evenly spread. Women in low pay have a pay gap of 34.2% and young workers classed as low paid has more than tripled over the past four decades.
Of course there is a minority that Cameron is not blaming – the 1% who are doing very nicely thank you.
The wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain doubled to £519 billion since 2009, about two and a half times the annual deficit. Today’s IDS study of FTSE 100 Directors shows that they had a 21% pay rise last year and now earn 120 times the average full time worker. In 2000 that ratio was 40 times. NHS workers in England are striking today, just get the Government to pay their own measly 1% pay policy.
And this isn’t just about Russian oligarchs buying up mansions in Knightsbridge. It’s here in Scotland. An Edinburgh fund manager reported recently that 7 directors earned an average of £2.5m each and settled a post retirement benefit on a former director of £31m.
There are some positive signs that we are not the only people who recognise the need to reframe the debate. The Pope, Governor of the Bank of England, even the CBI have said something about low wages and the damage it is doing to our economy. We may not get the bankers to even read The Spirit Level, but even they can see that they can't hide behind electric fences all the time. They can pay to get their bins uplifted, but their neighbours rats will still get under the fence.
So, lets build on that growing awareness to build a broad coalition around a new narrative and some practical solutions. By all means let's engage with the Smith Commission to strengthen devolution, but then focus on what we can achieve at UK, Scottish and local levels. At today's conference there was a really useful discussion about how we can harness the energy of the referendum debate to deliver social justice.
My frustration with the current political debate is that we need a little less rhetoric, telling people what they want to hear, and more action. For example, everyone agrees that the living wage can be expanded through procurement, but months after the Act was passed we haven't even begun to draft the statutory guidance. Meanwhile officials come up with every excuse for not taking action.
The best engagement events during the referendum campaign were not the 'shouty' hustings, but rather the genuine conversations. Educate and agitate is an old trade union adage, but if you explain the issues to people, they are much more willing to consider and come up with different and challenging solutions.
A different narrative in the debate around poverty is possible. We can win the arguments, persuade a majority that a more equal society is better for everyone, not just the poor. I am less interested in the 45 or the 55, than getting the 99%, who would benefit on our side. If we can do that we have a movement that really can create a just Scotland.
Thursday, 9 October 2014
A quick look at the draft Scottish budget indicates few surprises. Yet again public sector workers take the biggest hit through their pay packets, followed by councils and police staffs.
While the headlines in the budget are around the fiscally neutral new taxes, it is the budget allocations that matter more to UNISON members. We should also remember that these are Scottish Government allocations. Public bodies will have other spending commitments to meet when they come to set their individual budgets.
Over five years the Scottish budget has been cut by around 10% in real terms with the Capital budget facing a real terms cut of 26% as a result of the UK Government’s austerity programme. For the coming year this means a 1.7% real terms cut in the budget.
The main method of meeting this budget reduction in Scotland is by a further cut in the real wages of public service workers. The new Scottish Government pay policy caps basic pay at one per cent for those staff earning above £21,000. That’s 1.4% below the rate of inflation (RPI 2.4%) and of course comes on top of years of pay cuts. There is a continued commitment to paying the Scottish Living Wage and guaranteeing a minimum increase of £300 for staff earning less than £21,000.
Other headlines of interest to UNISON members include:
· A real term increase in the NHS budget of £80m. It remains to be seen if that will cover the increased demands on health boards, highlighted in recent leaked reports.
· The local government revenue grant is cut in real terms, with the exception of additional funding previously announced for free school meals. Extra revenue is anticipated from non-domestic rates and some additional capital leaving an overall standstill budget. The Council Tax freeze continues for the eighth year with no increase in funding. Local government remains the only major spending portfolio to have a cash cut since the financial crash.
· An extra £125m for housing that should underpin the building of 4000 new social homes.
· The spending to ameliorate the impact of UK government welfare cuts remains at £81m, including £35m on the Bedroom Tax.
· Police budgets are cut in line with the planned ‘reform’ savings of £130m. Police numbers are maintained at the continued expense of civilian staff. Best value principles are ignored.
· There is a slight increase in college spending and HE remains unchanged.
· An additional £16.6 million to take forward recommendations of the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce.
· Scottish Water’s interest repayments put another £100m back into the Scottish budget
The increase in infrastructure investment will primarily be funded through a growth in PPP schemes. £2.5bn of these projects are now in the pipeline.
Overall there is little in the budget that was unexpected. Pay, local government and police take the biggest hit in the choices the Scottish Government has made in implementing the UK government’s ideological attack on public services.
The New Economics Foundation published a great analysis of why the Tories' plans benefit the rich: Those earning £10,500 or less will gain nothing from these changes. These workers (17% of the workforce) alreay pay no income tax. "Moving the top rate threshold is more obviously regressive. Anyone earning over £41,900 a year is already in approximately the top 15% of the population. At £50,000 a year or above, they will be in the top tenth of society. The median (middle) income in the UK is £27,000 a year."
Because of this, changing the higher rate threshold overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest section of society. The top 5% will gain well over £2,000 a year from the changes, while the effect across the rest of society will be minimal – people simply do not earn enough." Analysis by the IFS earlier this year suggests that 69% of the money given away would go to workers in the top half of the income distribution. Just 15% would go to workers in the bottom half.
It’s worse than that though: the majority of us who use public services will suffer as they are cut as a result of these giveaways to the rich. Charges will (and are) go up for services delivered by the public sector costing us more or leaving some to do without. Other services will be cut leaving us to do without or buy from the private sector.
John Weeks, Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London, writing in the Conversation this week shows How Cameron’s tax giveaway will end up costing you more. Private delivery of health education and pensions for example is much more efficient than in the private sector. Look at the US health systems it costs a fortune but the US has higher infant mortality than all but two EU countries (Bulgaria and Romania) and life expectancy almost three years lower than the UK. Getting your bins emptied by a private bin contactor would cost more than your council tax.
Tax giveaways make seem attractive but they cost you in the end.
Wednesday, 8 October 2014
Scotland's housing crisis needs urgent action and the staff who deliver the service agree.
UNISON Scotland has published a survey of Scotland’s housing staff today. It has exposed the reality of frontline staff trying to cope with the huge scale of Scotland’s housing crisis. 'Open the door: housing staff on the homes we have and the homes we need' – looks at the real experiences of members involved in all aspects of providing housing services: housing officers, housing assistants and lettings officers.
The majority of those surveyed (68 per cent) said funding for their service had gone down, negatively impacting on the quality of service they can provide. Three quarters of respondents said changes in welfare and benefit legislation has contributed to the problem. At its bluntest, welfare changes have made life more difficult for tenants and this in turn has created problems for housing staff.
While numbers matter, the best part of these surveys for me is the comments from staff. They tell real members stories in their own words. Here are a few examples from this survey:
"I work with homeless people. The pressure is increasing relentlessly. Demand is increasing as resources dwindle."
"[Benefit changes] have impacted massively and it will only get worse. Rent arrears have risen and you cannot take what people don’t have."
"Due to bedroom tax and direct payments of housing benefit to tenants we are seeing an increase in rent arrears and homeless rising due to more evictions."
"How is it possible for them to provide for the future of their housing with less staff and more homelessness. It’s not possible."
More than half of respondents (55 per cent) said they regularly work over their contracted hours while 58 per cent said staff numbers are in decline, meaning they don’t have as much time to spend with clients. Like other workers in public services, housing staff have been experiencing years of zero or minimal pay. Almost 70 per cent of workers said their standard of living had dropped in the previous three or four years, with many struggling to make ends meet.
For those who like the numbers, they paint an equally depressing picture. Scotland has 179,954 households with outstanding applications for social housing; of these some 29,500 are households on transfer lists meaning 150,000 households are waiting to enter social housing. The response to this in terms of house building is woefully inadequate. Only 10,686 dwellings were built between March 2013-14 by the private sector, 2,911 dwellings built by housing associations and 974 dwellings built by local authorities.
Allied to this are issues around the quality of housing. 349,000 homes in Scotland are affected by dampness or condensation. 647,000 households are in fuel poverty in Scotland. A total of 54 per cent of Scotland’s social housing currently falls beneath the Scottish Housing Quality Standard. 65,000 households are overcrowded in Scotland.
UNISON hasn't just outlined the inadequacy of current approaches. In our paper 'Making Homes for a Fairer Scotland' we outlined a new housing programme for Scotland. Equally importantly, we also showed how this could be funded, using some of the assets represented by public sector pension funds in our publication, 'Funding and Building the Homes Scotland Needs'. This would put these funds to a socially (and literally) constructive use in building a fairer Scotland. Alex Rowley MSP helpfully highlighted this plan in the recent debate on housing in the Scottish Parliament.
We also need to devolve Housing Benefit. Responsibility for housing policy without the main benefit makes no sense. This appears to have welcome cross party support, so should be one of the easier issues for Lord Smith's commission to agree on. We need to do this quickly before Universal Credit is rolled out in Scotland and the experienced council staff transfer or leave the service.
We have a crisis with the availability, the cost and the quality of our housing and we urgently need large scale investment to reverse Scotland’s housing crisis. Any plan for social justice in Scotland has to put housing at its core.
Monday, 6 October 2014
Health and care workers support integration, but fear it won’t deliver due to lack of resources
That’s the main message from a UNISON Scotland survey of workers in health and social care who will have to deliver the planned integration of health and care services in Scotland. The report shows that while many staff believe care integration provides an opportunity to improve services, but the impact of budget cuts mean services will get worse
Only 6% of workers involved expect conditions to improve in the next year. 68% believe the situation will get worse. 63% felt that their professionalism is or has been compromised by budget and resource limitations.
The report also includes many verbatim quotes from the workers in the front line. These paint a picture of services which are struggling to deliver.
"Clients are being restricted in activities because of funding as many other services are being withdrawn and a lot have been closed due to local government funding cut backs. This has an effect on family carers a lot of whom are elderly and can receive no respite from their home caring role.'
Staff are generally supportive of integration as an idea and can see advantages in closer working, but fear that a top down managerial model of change will make improvements more difficult
"I’m positive about working with practitioners, negative about being subject to another layer of managerial agendas."
The report builds on UNISON Scotland’s ‘It's Time to Care’ report which also outlined how tight resources are in Scotland’s residential and home care services.
A further indication of the pressures on staff comes in the latest SSSC workforce data. One in thirteen people in paid employment in Scotland now work in social work. However, the size of the workforce appears to have fallen for the third year in a row, from 192,360 in 2012, a drop of 1.4%, to 189,670 in 2013.
The private sector continues to increase its share of the labour market, employing 41% of people working in social services in Scotland. The public sector employs 32% and the voluntary sector employs 27%. This chart gives a breakdown by local authority area:
The largest types of social services are housing support/care at home, care homes for adults and day care of children; together, these account for almost 76% of the workforce. Housing support/care at home services saw the largest drop in the actual number of staff employed, from 64,290 to 61,350.
Around 79% of the workforce is employed on permanent contracts, which is the same as in 2013. Most are also full-time positions, though at least 10% of the employment appears to be on zero hours contracts or equivalent. As we know from the ‘Time to Care’ report this can have serious consequences for care standards.
I’ll leave the last word to the staff who deliver care.
"Lack of local authority care is resulting in delayed discharges within hospital wards which is placing greater strain on the NHS system. Sometimes packages of care are agreed and discharge is arranged but then there is physically not anyone to actually deliver the care"
Monday, 22 September 2014
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
When you think of human rights, access to information may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but being able to find out what public bodies are doing in our name is in fact absolutely essential.
Freedom of Information (FoI) campaigners in Scotland will focus on the connection, and how to make use of it, at a free event to mark International Right to Know Day (IR2KD) later this month.
The day, on 28 September, has been celebrated around the world for 11 years.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland says IR2KD is “rooted in the belief that the right to know is a human right - but is also a vehicle for accessing other rights, such as forming an opinion, participating in free and fair elections and in public affairs generally.”