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, 30 August 2016

Audit Scotland Report: Scotland’s Colleges 2016

Audit Scotland has published a report on the changes in the college sector and an attempt to assess the impact of the changes. The report repeats their call for the Scottish Government to make clear how and when they will report on progress made on the benefits they claimed would come from college mergers. Until the measures to be used are clear all we are left with to make judgement in the sector are accounting terms.
Even on purely financial terms we still have no official figures on the costs of harmonising staff terms and conditions. This lack of basic data does not help efforts to resolve the current pay dispute.

What do we know?

Total student numbers have decreased by 41% and part–time numbers have reduced by 48% and, as we predicted and others predicted most of the reductions are in numbers of women and people aged over 25. While there is an overall gender balance across FE there are significant differences across courses so there is no sign of an end to the gender segregation in the workforce which contributes to the gender pay gap.
The completion rate for students had been rising but dropped back to 64% last year. An indication that the 9% decrease in staff numbers following the mergers is having an impact on the support levels students get.
While Audit Scotland state that the “financial health” of the sector is relatively stable they raised concerns about the lack of long-term financial plans to meet the costs of national bargaining, estate maintenance and student funding. Though it appears to us the the plan to deal with national bargaining is to short change our members on pay.

The key recommendations are

The Scottish Government and the SFC should:

• specify how they will measure and publicly report progress in delivering all of the benefits that were expected from regionalisation and mergers, in line with our recommendation from last year, which was endorsed by the Public Audit Committee
• publish information on the costs and savings achieved through the merger process, in line with our recommendation from last year, which was endorsed by the Public Audit Committee
• work with colleges to determine the current condition of the college estate and prepare a plan to ensure that it is fit for purpose
• use the Scottish Government’s end-to-end review of the skills agencies in Scotland to re-examine, clarify and set out the role of the SFC, particularly in relation to college governance
• identify and implement a better approach to allocating depreciation budgets to colleges.

The SFC should:

• require colleges to report how they have spent depreciation cash funding in their accounts, including a breakdown of the spending
• explore with colleges a way to better assess demand for college courses across Scotland
• publish information about leaver destination at national, regional and college levels.
Colleges should:
• develop long-term (a minimum of five years) financial strategies. These should be underpinned by medium-term (between three and five years) financial plans that link to workforce plans and take account of significant financial pressures such as national collective bargaining, estate development and maintenance and student support funding
• implement a more systematic approach to workforce planning to ensure that they have the appropriate resources and skills to achieve their strategic goals
• make agendas, supporting papers and minutes (subject to confidentiality issues) for board and committee meetings publicly available within appropriate time frames.

Glasgow Colleges' Regional Board should:

• put in place the arrangements necessary to become fully operational.

The Scottish Government has started a process of much needed reform in the way our colleges are run. They now need to focus on the delivery. Passing a Bill is the start, not the end, of their involvement in a process of change.

Monday, 29 August 2016

A modern police force needs a balanced workforce

The Scottish Conservative’s obsession with police numbers misunderstands the importance of getting the right skill mix in a modern police force. For a party that claims to be concerned about efficiency for the taxpayer, it also ignores the statutory duty of Best Value.

Saturday’s Scotsman ran a story on the pressure Scottish Tories are putting on the Justice Minister to set out how Police Scotland will ‘cope’ with a reduction in frontline staff. The irony of this question is that ‘frontline staff’ have been reducing because of the policy the Scottish Tories pushed the SNP into adopting. Tory austerity cuts on the Scottish budget have also impacted on the Police Scotland budget and police officers have been backfilling police civilian staff posts.

No one has been more critical of this daft SNP policy than UNISON Scotland. However, we welcomed the absence of a commitment to police officer numbers in this year’s SNP manifesto. If we look at the actual answer given by the Justice Minister, it is a broadly sensible response. He said:

“As at 30 June 2016, there were 17,242 full time equivalent police officers in Scotland – 1,008 more than on 31 March 2007. The Scottish Government budget for 2016-17 made a commitment to retain police officer numbers at 1,000 higher than in 2007 while at the same time working with the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) to consider the implications of changing demands on Scottish policing. That work is currently on-going and no conclusions have been reached on implications for the future shape and size of the police workforce. We are committed to ensuring that the police have more specialists, such as experts in cyber-crime and counter-fraud and that the service has the right mix and numbers of staff for the future.”

Why is this largely sensible?

Firstly, it is a statutory duty on Police Scotland and the SPA to adopt Best Value principles. In this briefing we set out what this means. What it doesn’t mean is continuing to take police officers off operational duties to replace specialist, properly trained, police civilian staff – at typically twice the cost.

Secondly, a modern police force needs more specialists to cope with new forms of crime, as the Justice Minister’s response indicates. This was highlighted in Saturday’s Guardian, which reported that the volume of cybercrime now matches the number of traditional crimes. It is estimated that the £193bn cost is far in excess of the value of physical goods nicked from homes, cars and workplaces. Yet we devote relatively few resources to fighting it.

Thirdly, a key recommendation from the Christie Commission on public service reform was a shift to outcomes. Specifying staff targets is an input that does not directly link to the necessary outcome. Political parties are still wedded to grand statements about inputs in their manifestos. They, and we the public need, to be weaned off this populist approach to policymaking because it doesn’t deliver better public services.

The establishment of Police Scotland was a missed opportunity to dump the police officer number target. Sadly, it wasn’t taken. With the police budget heading for a £21m overspend, we simply can’t continue to waste resources by putting square pegs in round holes. A modern police force needs a balanced workforce – not outdated rhetoric on staffing targets.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Is Food Standards Scotland about to cut food safety programmes?

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has published its corporate strategy for the period up to April 2019.

The document claims that "to put the consumer at the heart of what we do, we need
to understand what matters to consumers in relation to food. Consumers have told us that trust is essential for FSS, so we need to earn and keep that trust."

They helpfully, if alarmingly, remind us that food safety is a significant health issue in Scotland. They estimate that there are approximately 43,000 cases of foodborne infectious intestinal disease (IID) annually, leading to 5,800 GP visits and 500 hospital admissions. Just one example is Campylobacter, with between 55‐75% of all reported cases of Campylobacter infection in Scotland associated with a chicken source. A significant proportion of fresh chicken on retail sale in the UK is contaminated with the pathogen.

The FSS is directly responsible for official meat controls and provides guidance to local authorities who are supposed to deliver other inspections. The strategy seeks to reassure us that "protecting public health remains our key objective."

So far so good. However, later in the paper we are told that, "We will review these programmes so that they are proportionate and do not place undue burdens either on the industries we regulate or on taxpayers."

Based on past experience this sounds like code for further deregulation of meat inspection. Until recently the FSS was part of the U.K. Food Standards Agency. They have just published a document: “Regulating Our future”, in which they announce an intention to introduce a free ride for businesses who’ve passed an assessment visit sometime in the last few years or allow approved companies to provide assurance of food hygiene standards alongside local authorities. In short, the FSA are going to reduce meat and other food inspection and hand over responsibility to industry. 

FSS are already going down this road by replacing independent FSS poultry meat inspectors with plant employed poultry inspection assistants. When inspection probably costs little more than a penny a bird, this is short-sighted in the extreme.

The FSA have used 'proportionate' and 'undue burdens' in the past as justification for deregulation and we must be suspicious that the FSS review is heading in the same direction. The meat industry is a powerful lobby and their need to maximise profit has often triumphed over consumer protection.

We should be equally concerned over the capacity of local authorities to meet their obligations in relation to food safety. Environmental health departments have been the subject of significant cuts in recent years and many are struggling to undertake regular inspections of food premises. The review could also impact on their roles.

As always with corporate strategies you need to look beyond the fine words and look at the actions. The review of regulatory programmes is one to watch carefully.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Home care workers ask - we care, do you?

Scotland needs a quality home care service to meet the growing demand and also ensures that patients who shouldn’t be in hospital are cared for at home. While there is a welcome commitment to address this, the service at present is struggling.

I recently outlined the reasons our social care system is in crisis in an article in The Scotsman. Essentially, we have growing demand being met by a fragmented, largely outsourced workforce that has been subjected to a race to the bottom with their pay and conditions of work.

This is reinforced in a report UNISON Scotland has published today. ‘We care, do you?’ looks at the state of social care in Scotland and asks the staff who deliver the service to describe their experiences. The survey revealed:

• 9 in 10 (88%) said they were limited to specific times for client visits, with many reporting this was too short a period to properly cater to a client’s needs.
• Four in five said they believe the service has been affected by budget cuts or privatisation with carers saying the emphasis was now on “quantity rather than quality”.
• Over a quarter (26%) said they were not paid for their travelling time.
• Two thirds (66.5%) said they did not have anywhere to go between visits to have a meal, hot drink or toilet break.
• Nearly half (43%) said they worked longer than their contracted hours.

The Scottish Government is committed to paying care workers the Scottish Living Wage by 1st October this year. It remains to be seen if that will be delivered, as local authorities and providers struggle with the funding arrangements. It is important that the additional resources are distributed equitably and that the poor employers are not rewarded for past bad behaviour. It is equally important that pay is not increased at the expense of other conditions.

Fair pay and conditions are vital to recruit and retain staff. I have read several internal reports that highlight very high turnover rates amongst even the better contractors. Service users need continuity of service provision and turnover rates above 25% per annum cannot deliver this outcome.

Time to care is another key outcome. In today’s report, workers paint a picture of not having enough time to properly care for the vulnerable people who rely on them. The assertion that 15 minute care visits are only for the most minimal needs was roundly contradicted by carers, with some stating that scheduling did not account for travel time between visits.  As one worker described it:
“Sometimes I have 4 clients with all 15min scheduled time in the space of 1 hour with no travel time to each one.”

The section in today’s report on the times service users are helped out of bed and provided with breakfast makes particularly grim reading. As one worker put it:
“Earliest 7am but can still be doing breakfast at 11am, after giving the client a shower so be nearer 11.30 when they eat.”

Getting fair pay and conditions is the important starting point in resolving the social care crisis. However, it’s not enough on its own. That’s why UNISON Scotland is campaigning for local authorities to sign up to its Ethical Care Charter, which sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need home care.

It commits councils to buying home care only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide a better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it.