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 Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Scottish wages hard hit by Brexit

A new analysis published today by the LSE Centre for Economic Performance shows that real wages have taken a hit since Brexit and Scotland is amongst the hardest hit areas of the UK.

The EU referendum outcome increased prices by 1.7%, which means that real wages in June 2017 were 1.7% lower than they otherwise would have been. This decline is equivalent to a £448 cut in annual pay for the average worker.

Put another way, this means the increase in inflation due to the Brexit vote has cost the average worker almost one week’s wages (4.4 working days’ wages, to be precise). Unless Brexit increases real wages in future years, this pay cut will be permanent. 


Households’ overall import exposure is similar throughout the income distribution. Poorer households spend relatively more on food and drinks, which have high import shares, but also on rent, which has a very low import share. Likewise, richer households spend relatively more on some high import share products such as fuels, but also spend a higher proportion of their budget on domestically produced services such as hotels and restaurant meals. 


Although the inflation effect differs little across income deciles, there are stark differences across regions. In general, the north of England is harder hit than the south. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are the worst affected areas. Compared with the UK average, the increase in inflation due to the vote is 0.18 percentage points higher in Scotland, 0.21 percentage points higher in Wales and 0.47 percentage points higher in Northern Ireland. 


This reinforces the need for the Chancellor on Wednesday to ensure that Scotland, and the UK, gets a pay rise.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Britain needs a pay rise

Today is the seventh month in a row that prices have gone up faster than wages. The Chancellor needs to wake up next week – Britain needs a pay rise.

As this chart from the Resolution Foundation shows, it's the public sector that is taking the big hit.



More than 300,000 people on low incomes have been given a pay boost by the UK government’s “national living wage”. Despite scaremongering from some employers that the move to raise minimum salary levels would result in massive job losses, unemployment is at a 40 year low. However, the number of people earning below the voluntary real living wage reached a record high, rising from 6 million to 6.2 million. This is the amount needed to achieve an acceptable standard of living. That’s why he needs to move the living wage for all workers (including the u/25s) towards £10 per hour.

The Chancellor should also take note of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice which has highlighted that the modest economic recovery since 2010, does not reflect the lived experience of the majority of people in society. One single finding from new IPPR analysis demonstrates that rising GDP no longer guarantees better pay in the economy. 

As this chart shows, between 2010 and 2016, official GDP per employee has risen by 3.5 per cent, yet real wages are 1.1 per cent lower when adjusted for consumer price inflation (CPI). If inflation is calculated to include housing costs (using the RPI measure), real wages are down 7.2 per cent.  



A key factor has been low productivity. A less than virtuous circle has been created by low wages, leading to less investment despite record low interest rates. 

The position is probably much worse than the official figures describe. The economist Simon Wren-Lewis points to a mismatch between the ‘official’ and ‘lived’ economy.    That’s because the official measure of real GDP uses an index of output prices to deflate nominal GDP into a ‘real terms’ measure. Output prices are those received by domestic producers, and they exclude things like taxes, retail and wholesale imports and profit margins. 

However, the official measure of real earnings is deflated using an index of consumer prices which have trended well above output prices, and to a degree not seen prior to 2010. The result is that rising living costs, as seen in consumer bills, have consistently exceeded the narrower definition of inflation that is used to measure official GDP growth. And they have done so to an extent that is historically unprecedented.

This has a long-term impact on inequality, which also damages the economy. The Oxfam research reportDouble Trouble, investigates the relationship between economic inequality and poverty in the UK and examines the trends in relative income poverty rates and income inequality over the period 1961 to 2015/16. They found a positive correlation between income inequality and relative income poverty in the UK over recent decades. 

This reinforces the growing body of evidence that high and rising economic inequality is harmful for growth and that tackling poverty alone is not enough to reduce economic disparities and poverty in the long run. The evidence also shows that redistribution is not damaging for economic growth, as even the IMF now concede. A point the UK and Scottish governments should consider in tax and wealth policies.

In next week’s budget the Chancellor needs to recognise that a low wage, low productivity Britain isn’t the way forward for the economy. A real term pay increase for public sector workers, coupled with a £10 minimum wage, is an important starting point in breaking this downward cycle of decline. 

Stepping up the pace on care integration

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has published a report on the forthcoming budget. UNISON Scotland gave written and verbal evidence to the inquiry.

The report highlights their ongoing concern over the absence of budget transparency, with specific reference to the new health and care integration authorities. There is no real breakdown of the £8.9bn spent by the IAs overall and they will not set their individual budgets until July next year, well into the financial year. The report gives several examples of how it is impossible to identify spending plans for specific services, with organisations forced to resort to freedom of information requests.


The committee also highlighted one of UNISON’s concerns over the budget, the double counting of social care funding in both NHS Scotland and local government. There also remains a misalignment of budget timescales between councils and health boards.

The lack of transparency means it is also difficult to see how integration funds are contributing to the nine national health and wellbeing outcomes. In evidence to the committee most IAs emphasised the difficulty in achieving linkages with expenditure. This is supposed to be a statutory duty!

There has been an informal push by some IAs towards direct funding. We set out UNISON’s objections to this in an earlier blog post.

The report welcomes the announcement about ending the 1% pay cap and rightly seeks assurances on funding the increase. They also highlight the cost of extending the living wage to sleepover provision. 

The report also calls for long-term budget planning, recognising that the short-term nature of the UK budget setting process hinders this approach. Delivering transformational change by shifting resources to care in the community will not be achieved in the current time frames. Support for investment in preventative spending also requires a longer time frame. Audit Scotland have produced a useful video clip that illustrates the challenges.

The report also highlights UNISON Scotland’s concerns over the potential cut to sports and leisure facilities if the Barclay Review is implemented without additional funding to councils.


Overall the committee is disappointed over the slow progress in integrating health and care services and the lack of transparency in budget allocations. They believe key outcomes such as shifting resources have been allowed to drift and clear leadership is required to deliver this.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Health impact of shift working

The health impact of shift working is not well understood. We need more research and better risk assessment to protect workers.


The numbers of staff working shifts is increasing and there has been a marked increase in those working night shifts. While traditionally more men than women have worked shifts, that is changing with most of the new shift workers being women. Scotland has always had a higher proportion of shift workers than the rest of the UK and a range of UNISON’s public service workers are involved including the emergency services, hospitals, social care and in the energy sector.


I was in Stirling today, outlining the health implications to our police branch stewards and discussing how we can help members by designing work better to address these issues.


The research on this issue has identified a number of risk factors associated with shift workers. They are more likely to be obese, suffer from diabetes, smoke (particularly women) and eat less healthily. Interestingly, they are also more likely not to drink alcohol. While there is a statistical correlation between shift workers and these conditions, it is less clear what the causal link is. Shift workers are also more likely to be in lower income groups, who generally have poorer health.


Likely explanations focus on the disruption to circadian rhythms, the body’s internal clock. This can disrupt the workings of the hormone Melatonin, which can lead to poor sleep. We know that the lack of good quality sleep has been linked to obesity, depression, diabetes and heart disease.


A particularly worrying study showed that women working on night shifts for more than 30 years are twice at risk of breast cancer. This is thought to be linked to less Melatonin, which has cancer protective qualities and increased Oestrogen that has the opposite effect.


Another issue is a 40% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disorders. The causal reasons are unclear, but again the disruption to the circadian rhythm, damage to family and social life, stress and poor diet are obvious contributing factors.


So what can be done to limit the risks?


One health site gives the unhelpful advice of ‘get another job’! Although impractical and drastic, it may well be good advice for the over 40’s and those who have worked on shifts for many years. Some behavioural solutions help, such as establishing a stable sleep environment and schedule. Eating small health snacks on shift rather than a large meal, together with exercise and limiting stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks.


We should also be revisiting risk assessments with employers. This involves evaluating shift schedule design - avoiding split shifts, excessive 12 hour shifts and rotating shifts forward. There should be at least 48 hours between shift changes to allow the body to adjust. Occupational health should identify and treat workers who have sleep disorders and ensure more regular health checks from age 40 and those who have worked shifts for more than ten years.


Finally, we need more research to understand the causal links between shift work and ill health. In the meantime there needs to be better awareness of the risks and the actions workers and employers can take to minimise the risks.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Raising the standard of residential care

We need to put dignity and respect at the heart of the residential care system. That means better care for residents and supporting the workers who care for them.

I was in the Scottish Parliament today promoting UNISON's new Residential Care Charter. It follows on from our Ethical Care Charter, which has raised standards of care for people living in their own homes. UNISON’s residential care charter calls for:
  • Time to care – to allow staff to properly care for the vulnerable people they look after
  • Proper training and support for staff
  • Decent pay for quality work
  • Adopt measures to protect and support residents, including adequate staff ratios and thorough risk assessments



This summer the Scottish Government published new Health and Social Care Standards, which will be implemented April 2018. They set out what we should expect when using health, social care or social work services in Scotland. The Standards are underpinned by five principles: dignity and respect, compassion, be included, responsive care, and support and wellbeing. The principles themselves are not standards or outcomes but rather reflect the way that everyone should expect to be treated.

Now standards in glossy documents are fine, but what matters is how they are implemented. One of the standards states; "I experience consistency in who provides my care and support and in how it is provided"

According to the Care Inspectorate, almost half of care settings in Scotland are facing difficulty in recruiting the right staff. 59% of care homes for older people reported having one or more staff vacancies. Many more are suffering from high staff turnover. Inspectors regularly identify that stable and consistent staff teams are an important component of high quality social care which supports people well.

Even the private sector employers organisation, Scottish Care, has recognised the need to address workforce issues, they said:

“Social care in Scotland faces a fundamental crisis. The Care Inspectorate report together with our own work at Scottish Care states quite clearly that we are at the point of services becoming unsustainable and unable to deliver given the current recruitment and workforce crisis. The entire fabric of social care will begin to disintegrate without serious intervention and this will have a profound effect on the sustainability of wider health and social care supports."

In Scotland, a residential care worker earns at least the Scottish Living wage of £8.45 an hour. This is significant progress, but workers can earn more stacking shelves in a supermarket. Our own surveys show that younger workers in particular are choosing less demanding jobs than care, which offer more money.

We are only going to change this dynamic if we value those who work in the sector. Yes, care jobs can be satisfying and worthwhile, but that doesn't pay the bills. Care with dignity should not be at the cost of a stretched and dedicated workforce.

Scottish Care has also highlighted a nursing shortage of 28% average vacancies in nursing homes, forcing providers to pay as much as £1000 for one agency nurse to do a night-shift.

Some providers are exiting the sector. Bield Housing and Care are closing 12 care homes in Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow, Borders, South Lanarkshire and West Lothian by summer 2018. Some 160 elderly people, with dependent needs  including 24 hour personal care and feeding assistance, will be evicted from the place they have called home for decades. Many are over 90 years old.

While the Care Inspectorate does some monitoring of residential care homes, their resources are limited. Councils who contract the services do very little monitoring. Earlier this year UNISON asked councils, under freedom of information, for their monitoring policies. Overall, the responses indicate that contract monitoring is limited to returns from the contractor and review meetings with them. There is very little monitoring of the actual service delivery.

Anyone who listened to the voices of care workers in parliament today will understand that the standard of care needs to improve. 


Better care comes at a price, and so we need to have a debate in Scotland about how care should be funded. That includes difficult discussions about inheritance and contribution, directly or through taxation. It is crystal clear that we cannot go on in the same old way. UNISON's Residential Care Charter can raise standards, and help recruit and retain care workers. Older people in Scotland  deserve better.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Welcome energy decisions, but we must be bolder

There is no shortage of activity on energy policy and we haven’t even heard the outcome of the Scottish Government’s energy strategy consultation.

Let’s start with fracking. The Scottish Government has announced that the existing moratorium would continue ‘indefinitely’, which is an effective ban given their planning powers. This follows a similar ban on underground coal gasification. It will be the subject of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, but that should be a formality, as only the Tories support fracking. 

Claudia Beamish MSP still has her members bill which would put in place a stronger legislative ban. The problem with using planning powers is that the moratorium could be overturned very easily, unlike legislation. I suspect the government has decided to go down the moratorium route to avoid compensation claims from INEOS, who now have drilling licences that they can’t use. However, as the minister said, fracking, “cannot and will not take place in Scotland” - and that is the practical effect.

The overwhelming majority of people in Scotland will welcome this decision. A staggering 99% of the 60,000 respondents to the consultation supported a ban. Apart from INEOS, we had a grand rant from Jim Sillars, who claimed that people didn’t know about the consultation. Well, 60,000 respondents would indicate that claim is mince, not to mention the noise campaign groups having been making on the issue. Jim also expects trade unions to put pressure on the government to rethink the ban at the STUC. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that Jim, most unions are opposed to fracking. 


And you won’t win us over with nonsense claims about how fracking will end fuel poverty. Scotland’s geology means so little fracked gas could be extracted that its use would be for industrial, not domestic heating. Even if it could be extracted in any quantity, the cost would be prohibitive. That is why the investment is drying up for drilling in England and the companies are going to the UK Government with their begging bowl.

The next big announcement by the FM was the establishment of a state owned national energy company. Details on this are a bit scarce, but the announcement points, at least initially, to a retail operation. This is not exactly an original idea, with operations like Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Our Power Energy run by housing associations and the People’s Energy Company based in Musselburgh. 

A national energy company is something UNISON supported in its response to the energy strategy consultation. However, we envisaged a more radical option that involves generation and transmission as well as retail. We also support a big role for municipal energy - generating electricity, managing distribution grids, running energy efficiency schemes as well as retail sales. This is very common across Europe and seriously challenges the ownership model in Scotland, something the Scottish Government has been unwilling to do. The big energy companies’ reaction to the announcement last week, indicates that some modest retail competition doesn’t worry them very much. 

The UK Government’s stop-start efforts to introduce a price cap on energy bills, has once more run into trouble. The minister claimed the cap would be in place this winter, a suggestion that was promptly contradicted by Ofgem. The legislation could take a year and then many months more for Ofgem to implement it. Shambles doesn’t even begin to describe this. 

All the usual suspects have been dragged out to tell us how wonderful the market is - all we need to do is get into switching supplier. Meanwhile, in the real-world consumers are increasingly supporting real public ownership options as set out the Labour manifesto. The TUC joined that call at its recent Congress, unanimously backing a motion that supports returning the energy sector to public ownership and democratic control. The motion also called for a mass programme of energy conservation and efficiency, a just transition strategy and investigating the long-term risks to pension funds from investment in fossil fuels.

The last few weeks have seen some important energy policy decisions that could help reshape our energy strategy. However, that will only happen if we are bolder and resist tinkering around the edges.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Improving the governance of public bodies

Scotland's public services are administered by some 200 public bodies. Most of these are run by boards that make the key decisions on the majority of public spending in our country. This means we should pay close attention to the governance of public boards.

In 2010 Audit Scotland published a report on the role of boards that made a number of recommendations. Holyrood's Public Audit Committee has recently conducted an inquiry into the same issue and have published their findings in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary.

Some of the key points they make include:
  • Encouraging board members to provide an effective challenge to board chairs and chief executives, preventing ‘group think’ on our boards. As the recent SPA issue has highlighted, corporate responsibility should not be a means of silencing difficult’ voices;
  • The committee questions whether the involvement of a senior independent director on a board, as is the case in some parts of the private sector, could be a useful, additional check and balance on the performance of the board chair/ chief executive. Board's also need to establish a fully effective and transparent means of assessing the performance of all board members;
  • It is essential that the public appointments process attracts the best possible candidates, who should not be discouraged by the complex processThe current system may reward those who are most adept at repeating public sector jargon;
  • New legislation should give greater consideration to governance arrangements. Some of the problems have stemmed from poor initial decisions on governance arrangements;
  • There is considerable variance in the governance arrangements across boards and not always a clear rationale for such differences; 
  • Boards also take differing approaches to transparency such as holding meetings in public or private. The committee's view is that boards should be as transparent as possible and should meet in public unless there are justifiable reasons for meeting in private.



I contributed to an informal evidence session during the inquiry and the recommendations are very welcome. The membership of boards has become very 'samey', with the usual suspects dominating appointments. I have heard more than one board Chair use the phrase 'a safe pair of hands'. This isn't likely to to provide the sort of challenge the Committee is referring to. 

Workforce representation can provide a real challenge. The Fair Work Convention report recommended there should be a worker representative on every Scottish public body. Some have non-executive directors with a workforce interest. While these appointments offer an expertise that might otherwise be ignored, they are not a substitute for an employee director. However, such directors need to be supported and accountable, otherwise they can become isolated and less effective.

There is a tendency to use the shambles that is the SPA to highlight all that is wrong with public boards. The treatment of Moi Ali was both shocking and a 'good' example of the issues highlighted by the committee. However, we should remember that the structure of governance between Police Scotland and the SPA underpins many of the problems. There was a clear failure to recognise the governance problems this would cause when the legislation was going through parliament.

While the SPA is the most well known example, it isn't the only one. I can think of a number of NDPB boards that provide very weak governance. FE colleges are one as the severance packages row has illustrated. Food Standards Scotland is another, with the food industry having too great an influence. Most boards could do better on transparency.

In fairness it has to be said many of these governance failures are not unique to public boards. There has been a failure of governance in private and voluntary sector boards on pay and workforce issues. In addition, you can only appoint from applicants and many people of working age simply do not have the time to participate. On my way to giving evidence to the committee I bumped into an ex-steward who is now a senior manager in a private company that makes a big play of corporate governance. He told me that serving on public and voluntary sector boards used to be encouraged - now it is barely tolerated.


The Audit Committee recognises that some progress has been made in recent years, particularly over gender balance. Government now needs to focus on strengthening other aspects of governance. This report is a good starting point.