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.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Scotland's public sector water contract privatised. Confused? You should be!

A £350m contract to provide water and wastewater to Scotland’s public sector has been awarded to a privatised utility firm in East Anglia. Confused?

Scotland has a public water corporation, Scottish Water that is accountable to Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Water is responsible for the provision of water and waste water services to almost all domestic and non-domestic properties and for maintaining the public system.

However, there is competition in the provision of customer-facing activities such as billing, charge collection, meter-reading and complaints handling for non-domestic customers in Scotland. This means that Scottish Water levies a wholesale charge on licensed retailers for non-domestic customers. Licensed retailers can agree their own charges with customers, subject to them being no higher than a default tariff set by the Water Industry Commission Scotland (WICS). Scottish Water is also a retailer; through its own retail arm Business Stream, which provides a service to the vast majority of non-domestic customers in Scotland.

The market was created by the Water Services etc. (Scotland) Act 2005. The then Labour led administration was persuaded that this was the least they could get away with due to the provisions of the UK Competition Act 1998. The 2005 Act prohibited common carriage and household competition and put a licensing regime in place for non-domestic competition. UNISON Scotland opposed the legislation and would argue that it has simply created an unnecessary bureaucracy. The claimed savings are almost entirely down to water efficiency measures that do not require competition to implement.

As the public bodies are non-domestic customers they come under this system of retail competition and the Scottish Government, actually the then Infrastructure Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, put one big contract for public bodies out to tender last August. It could be argued that this was not the best way to organise this tender.

It appears that Anglian Water has submitted the lowest price bid in an evaluation that was 50/50 price and quality. The Scottish Government is not obliged to accept the lowest bid, but it would have to have a good reason for not doing so under the utilities procurement regulations. In fairness, the Scottish Government had few options because the system of retail water competition is the ultimate in market madness. £350m will be paid to Anglian Water in Huntingdon, only for most of that money to be repaid to Scottish Water in wholesale charges. The cost of this crazy system is picked up by the taxpayer. However, it was unwise to include savings from water efficiency measures that should be undertaken anyway to spin out the alleged benefits of the contract.

It would also be interesting to know if the evaluation panel took into consideration the risk that this bid was a loss leader to give Anglian Water a base in Scotland. This is important because contractors who do this squeeze a margin post-contract from quality.

The direct job implications are not likely to be huge, but significant for those impacted. Competition only covers the customer facing services i.e. call centre, customer service and transactional staff within Business Stream.

This procurement also highlights the importance of addressing tax dodging in procurement, an issue UNISON and other civil society organisations campaigned for during the passage of the Procurement Act. There should be pre-qualification disclosure of company taxation policies and public bodies should be able to evaluate a tender on the basis of which company pays tax or not. Assessment of bids could make use of the Fair Tax Mark.

The significance with this contract is that Anglian is one of a number of private water companies who are happy to take taxpayer funded public contracts, but less happy to pay corporation tax. A consortium called Osprey, made up of asset and pension managers in Canada and Australia, owns Anglian Water. Corporate Watch reported that Anglian paid £151 million to its private owners, but just £1 million in tax in 2012, after an operating profit of £363 million. It avoids millions in tax by routing profits through tax havens by way of taking on high-interest loans from their owners through the Channel Islands stock exchange.

Anglian Water was described as a “significant repeat offender” in an Environment Agency report on polluters and was fined for polluting five years in a row. Friends of the Earth said of the company: “Clearly, this company is a classic example of a company which sees pollution fines as a legitimate business expense and doesn't care about the environment”. It would be interesting to know just how much weight the evaluation panel gave to this in their quality weighting.

Non-domestic competition is not the only area of privatisation within Scottish Water. Last year the insider web site Utilities Scotland submitted FoI requests to ascertain the extent of privatisation in the delivery of the water and waste water capital programme. In the last four years, 92.5% of Scottish Water’s capital programme has been delivered by private contractors, 7.5% by Scottish Water staff. By any standard that is substantial privatisation. This is on top of PFI schemes run by a variety of privatised water companies.

We are also concerned about the impact the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could have for Scotland’s public service model. The greater the privatisation, the easier it will be for overseas corporate interests to challenge our public water system.

Scottish Water works well, is good value for money and water customers support the corporation staying in the public sector. While there were limited options for the Scottish Government on this occasion, we should be aware of the pressures for privatisation and the lessons to be learned for future procurement.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Creating better jobs starting with those who care for others

If we are to create better jobs in Scotland we need to recognise and take action on job security, worker control, appropriate demand, fair pay and opportunities for training and development.

I was giving evidence yesterday to the Scottish Parliament's Energy and Economy Committee's inquiry into work, wages and wellbeing. The evidence to the committee is well summarised in the Spice briefing.

While the impact of low wages and poor quality jobs on individuals and the economy are becoming better understood, it also has an impact on health. Professor Bambra's evidence to the committee argues that low quality work combines low levels of control with high psychological demand which can lead to increased levels of chronic stress, muscoskeletal conditions, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and mental illness.

There is also a strong economic case for better jobs. Well made by Professor Chris Warhurst at today's committee. The outcome of the current race to the bottom is the precariat. In some countries this can constitute as much of 25% of the workforce, whose contracts are either temporary or informal, or who arrive via employment agencies. In Scotland the numbers on zero hours contracts, particularly in the care sector, are understated because they largely ignore workers on nominal hour contracts.

This approach isn't even efficient. A study by economists at Delft University has concluded that a flexible workforce needs an expanded management bureaucracy to oversee it. Because precarity damages trust, loyalty and commitment, it demands more management and control. An entire generation of free-market workers has begun to act according to the factory adage of the old Soviet Union: “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” The researchers conclude: “Easy hire and fire is at the cost of organisational learning, knowledge accumulation and knowledge sharing, thus damaging innovation and labour productivity growth.”

In its evidence to the Low Pay Commission, UNISON has highlighted that the conditions of the economy meet all the key criteria set out by the Low Pay Commission in its 2014 report as necessary for significantly faster increases in the minimum wage. These include; rising real wages in the economy generally, stable employment and an expectation of sustained economic growth.

Other factors supporting an increase in wages are the upward trend in the scale of low pay in the economy. This will be exacerbated by Government cuts to tax credits and other benefits, particularly for workers with families. The value of the National Minimum Wage has been eroded in comparison to the Living Wage and young workers have been penalised through the lower rates and their exclusion from the new so called National 'Living Wage'. At the other end of the scale there is the growth in the income of high earnings groups that has entrenched the UK’s position as one of the most unequal countries among comparable nations that are members of both the EU and OECD.

The committee asked us for specific evidence on the care sector that constitutes nearly 8% of the Scottish workforce and is a sector largely funded by the Scottish Government. The size of the Scottish care workforce has increased to 199,670, an increase of 5.3%. 77% of these work in home care and 85% are women.

There are some very poor employers in this sector and they have been encouraged by poor procurement practice. The Procurement Act and new statutory guidance should enable us to tackle this by evaluating future bids on their workforce policies including the payment of the living wage. However, the better employers rightly say that this must be funded properly. Given the leverage of government money there is an opportunity to develop the sort of sectoral bargaining that has been so successful in raising standards and productivity in other parts of Europe.

The care sector is a good example of where the race to the bottom in job quality and wages takes us. Staff who are desperate to exit the sector, creating high turnover, losing the continuity of care that is so important.

This inquiry is a welcome look at an important and complex issue and I look forward to their conclusions. However, there are practical actions the Scottish Government could take to develop the ideas in the Working Together report and Fair Work Convention. The care sector would be a good place to start.