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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Libraries improve wellbeing - social, cultural, economic and educational

The Carnegie UK Trust has produced some excellent new resources showing how important public libraries are, improving the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Too often councillors seeking to make cuts have closed local libraries or reduced opening hours. And our The Cuts Don't Work report shows there are more and deeper cuts to come.

So campaigns to support libraries should be able to make good use of the leaflets and posters which highlight in a clear, graphical way how libraries impact on wellbeing through four main policy areas: social, economic, cultural and education policy.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The cuts don't work - we need Food for Good in hospitals

14 July 2014

Today’s Herald has an exclusive report on criticism of the quality of food in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde hospitals.

The health board are to be praised for allowing a restaurateur David Maguire access to all areas when he volunteered to examine the meals and the preparation process in detail.

However, despite the claimed “increasingly positive feedback” from patients, the board must be wincing from his comments that: “What passes for food in the NHS bears no resemblance to anything that I have encountered...On occasions it looked like food. It rarely had the texture of food. It reminded me of the worst components that I have encountered at school meals.”

He summed up: “I am astonished that anyone eats any of it.”

No-one expects the NHS to serve the kind of food you would get in a top quality restaurant but people in hospital deserve to have, indeed need to have edible meals as part of their recovery. Mr Maguire offered his services after a column in the Herald last year by the paper’s writer Anne Johnstone who was being treated for leukaemia and was appalled at the food dished up to patients at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.

UNISON Scotland has long campaigned for fresh, nutritious, locally sourced food in schools and hospitals, highlighted in our Food for Good Charter. We noted that the Scottish Government’s recent discussion document “Becoming a Good Food Nation” called for, among other things, the public sector to lead by example with the NHS, local authorities and Scottish Government signing up to offer fresh, seasonal, local and sustainable produce.

We pointed out on this blog that if we’re serious about creating a real Good Food Nation, such an initiative, broadly reflecting our Charter, should come under public health. And of course, the cuts facing the health service, along with all public services, place enormous pressure on hard-pressed catering staff.

The Herald leader, acknowledging mass catering is very different from restaurant food preparation, points out: “..part of the problem is that the catering budget was cut by almost £1million in 2012 and the board now spends barely £4 per day per patient in some of its hospitals.” We agree with them that cutting back on the quality of food is a false economy. Glasgow is certainly not the only area undergoing cuts and our recent ‘The Cuts Don’t Work’ report shows ‘austerity’ measures leading to even deeper cuts in the next few years.

What kind of Scotland, what kind of health service, what kind of food for hospital patients do we want? Only so much can be done to drive up quality in the face of cuts if resources, equipment, and the times hospital kitchens are open all place big restrictions on what catering staff - who want to feed the patients well - can achieve.

Friday, 11 July 2014

How to tackle inequality

The New Economics Foundation has published a report on how to tackle inequality. It hits many of the same themes in our recent publication on health inequalities.

There are five key elements in their plan:

1. Make high-quality childcare available to all

The first five years of a person’s life are to social and cognitive development, yet the UK still has an eye-wateringly expensive childcare system that puts high quality care out of reach to those on low incomes. NEF proposes state support to cap the costs of care at 15% family income, and a vast improvement in the pay, working conditions, training and status of childcare workers.

2. Tackle polarised pay

The economy may be growing overall, but the share of wealth going into employee pay packets is shrinking. Average real wages have been falling continuously for decades, while executive pay rockets skyward. In-work poverty has got so bad that the largest group of people claiming benefits are from families with at least one working adult. NEF proposes a department of labour tasked with rebuilding the link between the UKs overall economic prosperity and wages. Actions include raising the minimum wage, capping wage ratios and stronger collective bargaining.

3. Create good jobs around the country

Our jobs market is not only geographically skewed towards London and the South East – it is hollow in the middle, as positions are increasingly divided between low-paid jobs in care, retail and hospitality and highly-paid jobs in sectors such finance, law and IT.

4. Transform jobs into careers with better training

It is often implied that inequality is the result of the unwillingness of those at the bottom to work hard and climb the ladder. But as young people – graduates and non-graduates alike – are increasingly sucked into dead-end jobs with scant opportunity for progression, the reality is that, for many, this ladder does not exist. We need a major investment drive in training and skills development, at all levels of industry from junior to management (which the UK scores famously poorly on). This could involve promoting pooled training investment by sector and channelling state support towards apprenticeships that lead to progression.

5. Fairer taxes

When you take account of direct and indirect taxes, those on low incomes in the UK are being hit too hard, while billions of pounds each year are being lost through tax avoidance and evasion at the top.

While we might not agree with every detailed proposal in this report, it confirms a growing consensus around key actions to tackle inequality.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Privatisation demolished

"Privatisation isn't working. We were promised a shareholding democracy, competition, falling costs and better services. A generation on, most people's experience has been the opposite. From energy to water, rail to public services, the reality has been private monopolies, perverse subsidies, exorbitant prices, woeful under-investment, profiteering and corporate capture."

This is the introduction to a an article by Seumas Milne in the Guardian. Arguably the finest destruction of the case for privatisation for some time and well worth a read.

He argues that "Private cartels run rings round the regulators. Consumers and politicians are bamboozled by commercial secrecy and contractual complexity. Workforces have their pay and conditions slashed. Control of essential services has not only passed to corporate giants based overseas, but those companies are themselves often state-owned – they're just owned by another state."

He gives examples of how time and time again privatised services are shown to be more expensive and inefficient than their publicly owned counterparts. Railways are a very recent example and he points to East Coast and Scottish Water as good examples of public service delivery in a largely privatised service.

He is scathing about Ed Ball's halfway house, where franchises continue, but the public sector is allowed to bid to run them as well as the privateers. He says, "That sounds like an expensive dog's breakfast. Rail renationalisation has the advantage of being not just popular but entirely free – as each franchise can be brought back under public control as it expires. To resist it in those circumstances can only be about the power of corporate lobbies or market ideology."

The alternative of tougher regulation is dismissed as "trying to do by remote control what's far better done directly and won't fix the problem on its own. Experience has shown that you can't control what you don't own". He references Glasgow University's Andrew Cumber's excellent work on this point.

He argues the case for new forms of public ownership in the banking sector and utilities – energy, water, transport and communications infrastructure. It's a policy that has support from the majority of the public and reflects experience across the world where privatised services are being brought back into public ownership.

He concludes, "in Britain the power of City and corporate vested interests engorged on the profits of privatisation is a powerful obstacle to this essential shift. Pressure for a genuinely mixed economy – something previously regarded as the commonsense mainstream – is bound to grow as the costs and failures of unbridled capitalism mount. Rail can only be the first step."

These issues will be addressed in Scotland at a conference, 'Re-inventing our economy for people and the planet' to be held this September at Glasgow University. More details to follow.



Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Public service workers in the front line of the attack on wages

Tomorrow, UNISON’s local government members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be going on strike, joining with other public sector workers in their effort to secure a decent pay rise. In Scotland, local government workers have voted for industrial action by two to one in a consultative ballot and will be considering the next stage of their own pay campaign later this month.

Matt Sykes, at the Touchstone blog sets out why public service workers are taking action. He argues that it’s a wider manifestation of the anger and frustration felt by public sector workers over pay and living standards. Industrial action is the inevitable consequence when you have a government that makes announcements over pay, rather than engage in a meaningful dialogue. The declaration that pay restraint will continue until 2018 is another example of this.

UNISON’s Heather Wakefield sets out the local government case at the Public Finance blog with a damning set of statistics on pay and the long-term impact on pensions. Again, there have been no real talks and the employers have refused to join the trade unions in independent arbitration.

The TUC has published figures that show how the UK government has frozen or limited pay increases to well below the cost of living. This has left local government and other public service workers on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came into office.

Concern about the standard of living stretches into retirement. Research published by Aviva indicates that a fifth of people in Britain believe they will have to “work until they drop” because they cannot afford to retire. Money worries mean millions of over-40s are expecting to carry on working until they cannot physically continue. Others are concerned about paying their day-to-day bills without the regular income from employment coming in.

An important element of current pay claims is the Living Wage. The final report of the independent Living Wage Commission, chaired by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu says that the number of people on low pay in the UK can be slashed by over 1 million by 2020. The Commission warns that, if the government does not support the voluntary extension of coverage of the Living Wage, some working families will continue to rely on emergency measures, such as food banks and unsustainable debt, to get by. Currently 5.2 million people earn less than the Living Wage in the UK and the majority of people in poverty are now in working households.

This message is reinforced in the largest study of poverty ever conducted in the UK. The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE) project details how, over the last 30 years, the percentage of households living below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14% to 33% – despite the fact that the economy has doubled in size over the same period. These findings seriously undercut the UK government’s claim to be lifting people out of poverty through work. Cuts to welfare benefits add to the low pay misery.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual Minimum Income Standard report looks at how much people have to earn taking into account family circumstances, the cost of essentials and changes to benefits. This shows that a lone parent with one child now needs to earn more than £27,100, up from £12,000 in 2008. A couple with two children need to earn more than £20,200 each, compared to £13,900 each in 2008. Single working-age people must now earn more than £16,200, up from £13,500 in 2008.

Public service workers are at the front line of the attack on wages, while this government awards handouts to the super rich. Tomorrow is just the start of a fight back to keep workers out of poverty.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Unions are necessary to reduce inequality.. and reducing inequality is a necessity

One of the really great things about the book The Spirit Level was the way that it showed that inequality impacted badly not just on those at the bottom - but made life worse for pretty much everybody. More equal societies function better was the message.

The authors have returned with a short and fascinating pamphlet.

The central message, that declining union influence has been one of the drivers of rising inequality, isn't exactly new - or something that will have escaped the notice of union members. What is more interesting is the case the authors make about the wider role of unions; that the difference unions make goes far beyond the gains for members in terms of improved wages and conditions.

Unions help influence the wider political climate making fairer and more redistributive tax systems more likely. More than that they help make incomes more equal before taxes. The authors outline a number of examples where strong unions have meant workers get a better share of the economic growth their efforts have produced. This includes political environments which build and support strong public services.

The message is clear - We won't build a fairer society without building stronger Trade Unions.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Flexibility and accountability in Scottish local government

The Scottish Parliament Local Government and Regeneration Committee has produced a report on their inquiry into flexibility and autonomy in local government.

The main findings include:

  • There should be no increase in the number of councils because voters are apparently more interested in how powers are exercised than ratios. Scotland has fewer councils than any other EU country per head of population.
  • There should be more delegation of powers and budgets to communities and the powers already exist to do this, although progress is patchy.
  • There should be an independent cross party commission to look at the future financing of local government. Existing restrictions imposed centrally should be relaxed allowing local authorities to determine what is appropriate for local circumstances.
  • Island authorities should have more devolved powers.
  • There should be core national standards and services, but after these have been met it should be a matter for local democracy. Even if that looks like a postcode lottery.
  • Control by the centre, whether at local or central government needs to be addressed. Unless authorities and communities perceive they have the freedom to make decisions without control being exercised at a higher level there will always be a resistance to innovation, taking risks and delivering localised services to meet differing needs.

This report gives welcome support for local democracy rather than centralisation and standardisation. UNISON has always opposed a one size fits all approach - one person's postcode lottery is another's local priority. The recommendation on removing central controls is particularly welcome.

The committee is right to point out that the powers already exist to devolve services to communities. This was also highlighted in the Christie Commission report, three years ago last weekend.

The headline recommendation is a cross party commission on council funding. UNISON called for a cross party approach to break the current policy log jam, so this is particularly welcome. This does not have to be a long drawn out process and the heavy lifting on this issue was done by the Burt Commission in 2006. Very little has changed in terms of the options.

Friday, 4 July 2014

No recovery in living standards for working people

There is no recovery in the wages and living standards of working people since the rich and powerful crashed our economy.

A number of reports have analysed the latest data on household incomes and wages. The Scottish Government's paper highlights that the number of people living in poverty in Scotland increased to 820,000 last year. The 2012-13 figure, which accounts for 16% of the population, was 110,000 more than in the previous year. The number of children in poverty rose by 30,000 to 180,000.

The figures indicated:

  • 16% of people (820,000) were living in relative poverty in 2012-13 - 110,000 more than the previous year and an increase from 14%.
  • 19% of children (180,000) were living in relative poverty in 2012-13 - 30,000 more than the previous year an increase from 15%.
  • 15% of working age adults (480,000) were living in relative poverty in 2012-13 - 70,000 more than in 2011-12.
  • 15% of pensioners (150,000) were living in relative poverty in 2012-13, 10,000 more than the previous year and an increase from 14%.
  • Typical income in Scotland in 2012-13 was £23,000, equivalent to £440 per week.

For some real stories behind the statistics you can read a survey, commissioned by UNISON's NHS Greater Glasgow branch. Nearly a third of respondents said they constantly struggled to pay household bills, with 11% falling behind on mortgages or rent. 17% were behind on council-tax bills, 15% on hire purchase payments and 20% on credit-card payments. Borrowing from family was common and 16% of workers used credit unions. 4% had used payday loans. 58% said they could not meet an emergency expense of £500.

The Scottish Parliament research unit (SPICE) has produced an interesting analysis of long term trends in Scottish household income. There is a lot of discussion about how wealthy Scotland is in the referendum debate. However, this tends to focus on GDP rather than the incomes of people that actually live in Scotland. This paper shows that the average level of disposable income per head in the UK is £16,791. Scotland comes in just below this at £16,267. However Scotland is catching up since devolution. Between 1997 and 2012 household income in Scotland increased by 27% as against 24% in the UK as a whole. Within Scotland we still have significant inequality. Glasgow City has the lowest level of disposable income with just over £14,000 per head, compared with just over £19,000 per head in Edinburgh.

Official UK figures from the ONS still show median and mean incomes in 2012-13 6% and 9% below their 2009–10 peaks respectively. This follows a period of slow income growth that began in the early 2000s. The net result is that the official measure shows both measures of average income no higher in 2012–13 than in 2001–02.

In 2012–13, 10.6 million individuals in the UK (17%) had a household income below the official absolute poverty line (e.g. below £272pw for a childless couple, net of taxes and inclusive of benefits). This is actually a poverty rate no higher than before the recession. However, when incomes are measured after deducting housing costs, the number below the poverty line (e.g. below £235pw for a childless couple) rose by about 600,000 in 2012–13 to 14.6 million (23%). This is about 2.0 million higher than in 2007–08.

Of course not everyone is suffering. The bankers in the City and their friends in the media may not have noticed growing poverty, because the share of post-tax income captured by the richest 1 per cent leapt from 8.2% to 9.8% in 2013/14.

There may be a modest economic recovery, but the official data shows that household incomes have not recovered, except for those who caused the crash. And they won't, until we see real wage growth.