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.

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.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Police Scotland, Reform Scotland and reforming Scotland’s policing

Mon 25 July 2016

We don’t often say nice things about Reform Scotland. They have a tendency to favour minimal public services, the play of the free market handing things to the private sector, all a bit grimly Thatcherite for our tastes. Upon hearing that they have published a new report, reaction in these parts is more likely to be “Oh dear” rather than “Oh really”.  So when we looked at their latest publication about Policing in Scotland – it was a pleasant surprise to see that it made a great deal of sense.

The report is a prĂ©cis of the evidence Reform Scotland are submitting to the Scottish Government’s consultation on Policing priorities for Scotland. They chime admirably with many of UNISON Scotland’s own observations and criticisms of Policing in Scotland over the last three years.

We have been highly critical of the way Police Scotland has been set up and run over the last numbers of years.  Centralisation, an arbitrary target for uniformed officers and a demand for cash savings have not delivered the police service that Scotland deserves.

Reform Scotland agree with us that the (thankfully now dropped) 1000 extra officer target has done policing no favours. They are also critical of the ‘one size fits all’ model of policing priorities that UNISON members have been reporting since the setting up of Police Scotland.  They attribute at least some of this to the removal of any local authority role in the governance of Police Scotland and the weakness of the Scottish Police Authority(SPA).     

These are concerns we have expressed repeatedly –  not least the weakness of the SPA. This quango  lacks the capacity to hold Police Scotland to account in any significant sense,  with local engagement a particular failing.

Reform Scotland’s proposal is for representatives from every council to sit on the board of SPA, and councils to be involved directly funding the police. Specifically they suggest monies to come from central and local government on a more or less 50/50 basis.  At this point the proposals are starting to reach the point that civil servants in Yes Minister would describe as ‘ambitious’.  Having 32 local authorities represented with whoever else needs  to be accommodated would make for a pretty big board. And local government funding is arguably under enough uncertainty at the moment. But nonetheless whether or not these ideas represent the ideal solution, their can be little argument that Police Scotland needs a more local approach and better funding.

The other thing this report shows is that criticism of the current set up is coming from all parts of the political spectrum, and on a similar range of issues.  Time for a change.

See also UNISON Scotland website Police page:
http://www.unison-scotland.org/service-groups-and-sectors/police/

and our latest briefing on Police Best Value:
http://www.unison-scotland.org/2016/07/06/briefing-079-bargaining-police-best-value-july-2016/


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Municipal Energy - Time for radical action

Despite the best efforts of successive governments to create an energy market, it remains notoriously uncompetitive. In Europe, municipal energy is commonplace and growing - we should do the same in Scotland.

 

The so called market is dominated by the big six utility companies, whose pricing practices have been criticised by the competition watchdog. Consumer trust in the market is low and they are reluctant to switch suppliers for a better deal given the hassle of switching. In fairness, the Big Six are often unfairly criticised and new entrants have been guilty of some pretty poor practices as well. The fault is in the system.

 

The IPPR, has made a convincing case for local authorities to set up municipally-owned energy companies that can supply electricity and gas at competitive prices and don’t have to distribute profits to private shareholders. By targeting those on low incomes, they can also help tackle fuel poverty. The local authority “brand” may also encourage otherwise reluctant low-income households to switch suppliers and save money. Nottingham and Bristol have followed this model and London, under a new Labour Mayor, looks likely to follow.

 

In Scotland a slightly different model is being adopted. Our Power is a community benefit society established and owned by a number of local authorities and housing associations. It too aims to tackle fuel poverty through the supply of affordable energy, focusing on social housing tenants, and seeks to buy a minimum of 30% of its energy from renewable sources. The Scottish Government is also at least considering setting up its own energy company, although details are limited.

 

The problem with these models is that they are simply playing the failed market and are relying on the same wholesalers. An alternative approach is for councils to establish genuine energy companies that generate renewable electricity and help households to install energy efficiency measures, funded from the long-term savings in their energy bills.

The APSE research paper, 'Municipal Energy: Ensuring councils plan, manage and deliver on local energy’, found that:
  • For every £1 invested in renewable energy schemes there is a further £2.90 in cashable benefits
  • 17 jobs can be created from every £1 million in energy saving measures on building
  • Energy efficiency and renewable energy can create 10 times more jobs per unit of electricity generated than fossil fuels
  • The local government sector annual energy bill of £750 million could be reduced by up to half by leveraging in spending power and using readily available and low cost technologies existing buildings.



Fife Council has done some of this with its £1.3 million turbine at the council’s recycling and resource recovery facility near Ladybank. This is expected to generate enough electricity to power 200 homes. They also generate clean energy from garden and food waste at the council's anaerobic digester and from landfill gas. Aberdeen has similar projects as well as the city's district heating scheme. A number of councils use solar photovoltaic panels.


 



Glasgow City Council is in the process of setting up an energy services company which will oversee the creation of renewables and low carbon projects in the city. It has mapped sites, but progress has been slow.

 

A more radical plan for the city has been proposed by Jim Metcalfe, based on research carried out by the Energy Saving Trust. This would involve the creation of a locally-owned company which would be able to reinvest profits from power generation on improving building insulation and reducing fuel poverty. The council should be leading on this, using council bonds, available at historically low levels, to finance the plan.

 

While electricity generation is important, we also need to make progress on heating homes. This is where district heating schemes come in. The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee heard in January that the £300 million government scheme to develop district heat projects needs a “regulatory investment framework” during this parliament to support future growth. District heating is a 50-80 year long investment and so you want to attract the lowest possible cost of capital to ensure the lowest cost for consumers. Councils are again in the best position to do this. In Scotland, work has begun on tapping into geo-thermal heat from disused mine workings.

Governments could help more by making energy efficiency a national infrastructure project. In Norway, the introduction of legislation to support district heating has shown a 150% increase in the installed capacity over the last 10 years. This has helped make it possible for the city of Drammen to create a district heating network that supplies several thousand homes and businesses with clean, affordable heat. This system didn’t rely on Scandinavian engineering, but the expertise of Glasgow-based Star Renewables.

 

There are a number of interesting municipal energy projects in Scotland and the rest of the U.K. However, they are patchy, small scale and not nearly radical enough. We need councils to take the lead, establishing full scale energy companies that can provide energy efficient homes with cheaper electricity and heat. They would also generate desperately needed revenues.


This would be municipal enterprise of the sort councils in the 19th Century created to revitalise our towns and cities. We now need 21st Century municipal leadership to take this forward.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Tackling poverty and inequality

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has undertaken a detailed analysis of the distribution of household income in the UK. They look at the changes to average incomes, income inequality and poverty that occurred in the latest year of data (2014–15), and put these in historical context using comparable data spanning the last 50 years.

The one great success is that the growth in pensioner incomes means they are now the least likely major demographic group to be in income poverty. Another is that more people are in work than ever before. 

The “new poor” tend to live in households where there is someone in work. Only a third of children below the government’s absolute poverty line now live in a workless household – two thirds of those classified as poor are poor despite the fact that at least one of their parents is in work. This means that the policy focus needs to shift to raising wages and social security for those in work, particularly those with families.

This was reinforced in today's employment data that shows huge increases in self-employment, which account for much of the increase in employment. This trend is not attributable to greater entrepreneurship, but to more workers signing unstable contracts with fewer rights, less pay and little job security.


The key findings of the IFS report include:

- The incomes of poor households are increasingly sensitive to what happens in the labour market. Income from employment made up half of income for the poorest fifth of households in 2014–15 (excluding pensioners), up from less than a third 20 years ago. While this is good news it does mean that the poorest are now more vulnerable to any downturn in the labour market than they would have been in the past.

- Further falls in worklessness have much less scope to reduce child poverty than in the past. The falls in worklessness that we’ve already seen, plus the fact that rates of poverty rates among working families have risen, mean that only one third of children in income poverty now live in workless households.

- Median income overall has finally moved 2% above pre-crisis (2007–08) levels, but for adults aged 31 to 59 it is at its pre-crisis level and for those aged 22 to 30 it is still 7% lower. It is highly unusual to see no growth in working-age incomes over a seven-year period.

- Inequality in workers’ weekly earnings has fallen during the recovery. This was the result of a recovery in the number of hours worked by those with low hourly wages. Between 2011–12 and 2014–15, real weekly earnings grew by 4.4% at the 10th percentile, but fell by 1.2% at the 90th percentile.

- Strong employment growth and weak earnings growth have combined to hold down inequality in recent years. Since 2011–12, falls in household worklessness and increases in the number of second earners both mainly boosted the incomes of poorer households. Meanwhile weak pay growth has held back the incomes of higher income households.

- In key respects middle income families with children now more closely resemble poor families than in the past. Half are now renters rather than owner occupiers and, while poorer families have become less reliant on benefits as employment has risen, middle- income households with children now get 30% of their income from benefits and tax credits, up from 22% 20 years ago.

- Mothers’ earnings are increasingly important for households with children. For middle-income children the fraction of household income coming from women’s earnings rose from less than a fifth in 1994–95 to more than a quarter in 2014–15; and it doubled from 7% to 15% for the poorest fifth.

These findings should inform anti-poverty polices in Scotland, at an important time when more powers to tackle poverty are being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Today, the Scottish Government announced is to bring forward legislation to tackle the deep-rooted causes of child poverty. The new Child Poverty Bill will to set out a new approach to tackling poverty and inequality that the Government claims will provide a clear way forward for delivering their ambition to eradicate child poverty.

The Scottish Government has previously rejected the UK Government’s decision to abandon income-based child poverty targets, and is seeking to develop Scottish legislation after the UK Government repealed large parts of the existing UK-wide legislation.

A consultation setting out proposals for the Bill will be published over the summer, building on the existing work in the Child Poverty Strategy.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Scottish universities in good shape, but the future looks challenging

Audit Scotland has taken a look at Scotland's higher education sector. It finds that it is financially healthy but faces future challenges, and tough choices are likely if public funding is to deliver government policy ambitions.

Scotland has more world-class universities per head of population than any other country in the world except Luxembourg. There are 19 universities in four groupings:

- the ‘Ancient’ universities – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews
- the ‘Chartered’ (1960s) universities – Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Stirling, Strathclyde
- the ‘Modern’ universities – Abertay, Edinburgh Napier, Glasgow Caledonian, Highlands and Islands, - Queen Margaret, Robert Gordon, West of Scotland
- the Small Specialist Institutions (the ‘SSIs’) and Other – Glasgow School of Art, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Scotland’s Rural College, the Open University in Scotland.

The report finds that Scottish universities play an important role economically and socially and have a strong international reputation. The Scottish Government budget includes £1.1 billion funding for universities in 2014/15, and £623 million funding for individual university students. Scottish Funding Council (SFC) funding to universities has reduced by six per cent in real terms since 2010/11 while funding for university student support increased by approximately 37 per cent in real terms over the same period. 

The sector supported 144,549 jobs and contributed an estimated £7.2 billion to the Scottish Economy in 2013/14. The report argues that the SFC needs to do more to ensure that its funding to universities makes the maximum contribution to achieving government policy ambitions. It should review its strategies for key areas, such as research and innovation, to ensure funding is used to best effect. Never the less, in the most recent UK-wide assessment of research quality, 77% of the research submitted by Scottish universities was judged to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

The Scottish higher education sector is currently in good financial health with an income of £3.5 billion that generated a surplus of £146 million. However the report says this masks underlying risks within the sector. Surpluses and reserves are concentrated in a small number of universities and some are heavily reliant on Scottish Government funding at a time when it is reducing. 

Universities need to continue generating surpluses and reserves and making efficiency savings to fund capital costs and subsidise some of their activities. They are placing increasing reliance on generating income from fee-paying students from the rest of the UK, which may not be there post-Brexit, and outside the European Union (EU). For example, the SFC assesses the cost of providing teaching for Scottish and EU students and pays on average, £5,179 in 2014/15, and £6,999 when the tuition fee element is included. This appears to be well below the actual cost.

A good example of cost pressures is the estate - 22% of the overall higher education estate in Scotland is in poor or very poor condition. The report concludes that there are risks that universities with lower surpluses and reserves will not be able to continue to fund capital improvements at the level they require. In addition, from 2015/16, the actuarial deficit in the USS pension scheme (£8.2bn) will be placed on university balance sheets.

In 2014/15, there were 232,570 students studying at Scottish universities, 66 per cent of whom were Scottish. Overall student numbers have increased by 5% over the last ten years and the student population is becoming increasingly international. It has become more difficult in recent years for Scottish and EU students to gain a place at a Scottish university as applications have increased at a greater rate than increases in the number of places that the SFC funds for Scottish and EU students. The report also finds that the current funding approach to improving access to university for students from college and deprived backgrounds is under pressure. The Scottish Government's support for widening access needs to be backed up with cash.

The media headlines focused on the finding that it has become more difficult in recent years for Scottish and EU undergraduate students to gain a place at a Scottish university. However, the future funding challenges highlighted in the report are significant and will need to be addressed if the Scottish model is to survive.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Future Energy Scenarios

Keeping the lights on at a reasonable price and meeting decarbonisation targets is a complex  business and not without controversy. 

The Future Energy Scenarios (FES), launched today, is National Grid's view of plausible and credible pathways to 2050. This drives planning and investment decisions in the system. It's also probably the best look at where the energy industry is going in the foreseeable future.

FES uses four scenarios to model changes to the edgy system. They start with the optimistic 'Gone Green' which assumes high prosperity and high green ambition, with carbon targets met through investment and innovation. Then 'Slow Progression' which assumes a still ambitious, but a less prosperous economy, with compromises on carbon targets and less investment. Next is 'Consumer Power', still a prosperous economy but one driven by consumer desire for innovation, with high levels of distributed generation and storage. The worst scenario is 'No Progression' in which business as usual prevails with low growth and limited innovation.



Scenarios are not about predicting the future. Just as well, because the track record of energy scenarios since the 1970's is not great. They are about giving us some numbers under different economic and policy circumstances. More a planning tool than a crystal ball.

Given past forecasts, it is surprising that all the scenarios now assume a continued reduction in electricity demand until around 2025. Partly due to the slow climb out of recession, but also due to more efficient appliances and the collapse of heavy industry. However, demand starts to rise again under the more prosperous scenarios. Gas demand, after an initial fall, looks likely to maintain a significant part of the mix. The prosperous scenarios assume moving away from carbon intensive sources and/or more local generation.

There is a little more regional analysis this year, something National Grid is weak on. They map the regional sources of generation and identify some regional differences in demand.

The key message for me from this year's FES is that energy supply is becoming increasingly diverse. Fossil fuels will continue to decline with an extra 5GW closing by 2016. Potentially 18GW of additional storage could be available by 2040. The constraints appear to be more market and regulatory than technological, although this is still more about short term storage than addressing seasonal imbalances. They assume a big increase in imported electricity and gas, from 4GW at present to 23GW by 2040. 54% of gas could come from alternative sources by 2040, including shale, biomethane and bio-substitute natural gas.

More action is needed in the next decade if the UK is too achieve the 2050 carbon reduction target.  None of the scenarios indicate that the UK will meet the 2020 target of 15% of energy coming from renewable sources. Progress is reliant on key technologies, nuclear, renewables and CCS. It can be done without one of these, but becomes more challenging. In practice two of them are looking dodgy and renewables suffer from investor uncertainty. However, it is heating and transport that needs to do much more.

Gas is seen as vital to facilitate decarbonisation. It's flexibility can be used to balance the system and they assume there will be 11GW of CCS enabled gas plant by 2040. It will still be important in heating homes, with 70% of households still using gas in 2030. Hopefully district heating will play a bigger role, although heat pump take up so far is slower than anticipated. While shale gas has been delayed, they are still assuming it will play an important role, in particular under the consumer power scenario. The was some scepticism about this amongst today's audience, many of whom doubt the economic viability, never mind political and environmental factors.

With the greatest minds in the energy industry present at the conference, only a handful, on a show of hands, thought we would meet 2050 decarbonisation targets! That doesn't mean it isn't desirable, but it does reflect scepticism about government taking the necessary actions. It certainly looks challenging. National Grid are rightly also concerned about security of supply and keeping energy bills down, so balancing objectives is an additional complexity.

The external speaker, Professor Jim Watson, emphasised the importance of doing more on energy efficiency, something we should be aware of in Scotland as we will miss the statutory fuel poverty elimination target this year. He was also not convinced that shale gas will be economically viable or the case for gas bridging the gap on carbon reduction. Relying on CCS when the UK government has pulled the plug on funding seems pretty optimistic as well. He also made the important point that we need to look more carefully at the distributional impact of scenarios on different income groups. National Grid can be a bit fixated on technology rather than people.

Some wonder if there is a disconnect between the scenarios and the market mechanisms that will be needed to deliver them - my own view is that they never will. National Grid take the view that they will change to meet demand. Unsurprisingly, they are not keen on an independent system operator as recommended by the Commons Energy Committee. They don't think there is a significant conflict of interest, or if there is, they can manage them. They claim their scenarios are not driven by commercial interest of National Grid, but they do use them for their business planning.

The elephant in the room today was of course Brexit. How it will impact on the energy industry depends on your view of the economic and political impact of leaving the EU. If you think it will mean lower/higher growth and less/more green ambition, then this will impact on the energy scenarios. In particular, the big assumptions of additional electricity import capacity may depend on staying in the EU energy system. With the U.K. voice gone from the table, it remains to be seen what impact that will have on EU policy. Maybe less market oriented?

While some of the assumptions made in FES may be controversial, it remains the the most comprehensive study of future energy planning for the UK. There is lots of detail in the documents that can downloaded. Perhaps one to dip into, rather than a bedtime read!