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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Challenge Poverty Week - Early Years

Important though actions to ameliorate poverty are in the short-term, it is through preventative spending and early interventions that we will begin to eradicate poverty in Scotland. One of the most important of these interventions is through early year’s provision.

This is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland in which the Poverty Alliance and its member organisations seek to highlight the reality of life for over 900,000 people living in poverty. It is therefore a good time to look at the measures being taken to address poverty.

The Scottish government has chosen this week to publish its blueprint for the expansion of early years learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland.  The centrepiece of this plan is to almost double entitlement to free ELC to 1140 hours per year by 2020 for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds.

Five years ago, the Christie Commission used early year’s provision to illustrate the importance of early intervention. The blueprint confirms the Scottish government’s support for this concept when they say:

“It is widely acknowledged that the provision of universally accessible and high quality early learning and childcare enriches children with the skills and confidence to carry into and multiply throughout school, and is a cornerstone for closing attainment and inequality gaps”

With this statement you would assume that the plan would be to expand high quality early year’s provision that makes a real intervention in the lives of children at this crucial period in their lives.

The blueprint covers a number of key areas that might help achieve this. As ELC is delivered by people, the workforce is a key element. The blueprint states:

“It will be vital to ensure that, as part of the expansion, the skills and qualifications profile of the ELC workforce is raised, diversity is increased, and there is greater gender balance in the workforce.”

The blueprint also reminds us that we are a considerable way from achieving this in the private sector, with 80% of practitioners and 50% of supervisors in partner provider settings paid less than the Scottish Living Wage. Levels of qualifications are also poor in this sector.

To deliver the laudable aims in the blueprint we need a delivery mechanism to match. This is sadly where the plan starts to unravel. Three of the four options in the blueprint are demand led approaches, very similar to the Tory voucher scheme approach to public service delivery. The obvious risk in this approach is that it leads to a race to the bottom in quality provision and the wholesale privatisation of the sector.

This is not entirely unexpected. The SNP manifesto commitment to employ an additional 20,000 childcare workers and build 200 early years centres, always looked optimistic on a suspiciously round budget of £500m. Sadly, government budgets don’t stretch on the loaves and fishes principle!

We have some experience of a race to the bottom in the social care sector. Because of budgetary pressures, social care has suffered from a race to the bottom in poor quality care. The consequences are half a million patient days in hospitals lost to delayed discharges. Only now are we beginning the climb up from the bottom with the requirement to pay the Scottish Living Wage. Even so, most councils in Scotland are still a long way from a quality care standard as set out in UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter.

The workforce lesson is that this approach results in workers that feel so undervalued that they don’t want to work in the sector and turnover rates soar. When you add Brexit to the mix, recruiting 20,000 additional workers to the sector is going to be beyond challenging.

So, my plea would be to learn the lessons of social care and don’t replicate them in ELC. We need a fairly paid, well trained workforce that can make the early year’s interventions that can close attainment and inequality gaps. We know all too well that privatisation and inequality go hand in hand.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Why trade agreements are bad for our health

Our understanding of trade deals is limited because they have largely been a matter for the EU. Post-Brexit, we should be concerned about what's happening in Europe, as well as what sort of trade deals are being negotiated by our government worldwide.

Most people will be aware of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and the EU, but less aware of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU. Initial votes on this are imminent and the deal has many similarities with TTIP. Boris Johnson is also record as saying that CETA is a good model for future trade deals.

Yesterday, I was speaking at an event looking at the health impact of trade deals.  While the risks to the NHS are recognised, the wider impact on health policy has not been given the attention it deserves.

Even with the inclusion of health on the 'negative list' in CETA, the definitions are likely to be narrow and this still leaves open a range of other public services that impact on health. The aim of trade deals is to create a globalised market in public services and the 'negative list' approach is too weak. There is also a 'ratchet clause' in CETA that locks in privatisation, even when democratically elected governments want to bring them into public ownership.

There is no protection for public services in the investment chapter that allows private corporations to by-pass governments and domestic courts in favour of tribunals (ISDS), run by private trade lawyers. This exposes a wide range of Scottish public services to challenge because they all have elements of private provision already. Examples include Scottish Water and procurement initiatives like the Scottish Living Wage.

Another aim of trade deals is to reduce the supposed ‘regulatory barriers’ to trade, through ‘mutual recognition’ of regulatory standards. In effect a race to the bottom that ignores the precautionary principle in favour of lower safeguards, commonly found in the USA. In practice, this requires little direct action because ISDS creates a ‘regulatory chill’ factor that stays hand of governments.

The specific health impact of CETA and other trade deals include broadening and extending intellectual property rights which could delay the availability of cheaper generic drugs. All public procurement is covered and this could curtail buy- local food purchasing programs in Scotland as promoted in UNISON Scotland's Food for Good Charter. There is a sustainable development chapter, but like the ILO clause, these are aspirational with no effective citizens right to challenge. Regulation restrictions include licensing procedures that are “as simple as possible”, which means as weak as possible! There is also inadequate protection for public water services and on the ILO Convention right to organise, there is only a weak call on Canada to ratify.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the UK government goes for hard Brexit, trade deals will have to be negotiated across the world. So we need to take the debate away from darkened rooms of international trade lawyers and into wider public debate. This means not just saying what we don't like about them, but also to debate what a progressive trade deal might look like. 

There are few international models to copy. The possible exception is the South American APP agreement. However, that is based on a unique barter arrangement that it would be difficult to replicate in Europe.

A progressive trade deal would not build in a comparative advantage that locks in poor countries to a system that makes the global South produce goods that are paid for by speculation economy in the North. To illustrate this, the average EU cow is subsidised by $800, while the average annual income in Ethiopa is $100. Neither do we want the Singapore model, where the UK seeks to out-compete the EU through lower regulation and wages.

It ought to be possible to negotiate trade deals that include enforceable environmental and human rights commitments that control transnational corporations, with a citizen rights to challenge. Warm words in a trade deal are not enough - there has to be an effective remedy for everyone, not just the corporations. A progressive trade deal would encourage the  transfer of skills and technologies, not monopolise them. Trade should contribute to social goals, not limit them. From a health perspective they should include a health impact assessment as standard. 

We need to do much more to flesh out these ideas, before the UK government goes away and negotiates in secret. The Trade Justice Movement's, Alternative Trade Mandate 10 Point Plan is a good starting point.

The secrecy and complexity of trade agreements has resulted in very little public debate over their contents. That has to change because they impinge on almost every aspect of public policy, particularly health. The very best public health strategies are useless if they are struck down by private corporations. Modern trade deals are almost an alternative constitution. We wouldn't leave that simply to the lawyers and neither should we with trade.

You can join the campaign against CETA by emailing your MEP here. The Scottish campaign will be lobbying the SNP conference on Saturday.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Delivering on fair work and effective employee voice

Fair work and employee voice are key elements of an economic strategy for Scotland. There is even a welcome cross party consensus developing.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Economy Committee today on the issue of fair work and employee voice. UNISON welcomes the Scottish Government’s recognition, through the Fair Work Convention and Labour Market Strategy, that a more progressive relationship between employers and their representatives can increase productivity and growth in a way that is inclusive and fair. 

The principle is becoming almost a cross party consensus, given Theresa May's recent rhetoric and establishing an inquiry led by Matthew Taylor. Even George Osborne recognised that subsidising low wage employers made no sense, hence his 'living wage'. Botched implementation, but the principle was right. Labour's 2020 Workplace Initiative has the potential to be even more radical.

Poor work drives negative outcomes way beyond the labour market. Insecure work, long hours and low pay impacts on families and communities and is a key driver of inequality. More than half of households in poverty in Scotland are in work. We know from international evidence that unequal societies do worse on every measure.

At today's session I suggested three stages to help deliver fair work.

As a first stage we should identify poor employment practice. That means naming, shaming and prosecuting employers who don’t meet the legal minimum standards such as the National Minimum Wage. It also means speaking out against poor employment practice such as exploitative zero/notional hour contracts.

The second stage is to promote good employment practice. I would point to NHS Scotland’s PIN policies and staff governance framework as a model approach. These go beyond collective agreements and offer practical guidance on a wide range of issues.

The Scottish Living Wage is an obvious example of positive employment practice and good progress has been made in extending accreditation in Scotland. Particularly in the hard to reach SME sector. While the Business Pledge is not unhelpful, we should be wary of ‘badges’ that don’t come with rigorous accreditation and monitoring. 

Good employment practice should also recognise the needs of all workers. Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. The ability to work without prejudice is a fundamental right, regardless of your background, gender, colour, disability or sexual orientation. Everyone should also be able to work without suffering harm. Each year in the UK, up to 50,000 people are killed by work and around two million people are either made ill or more ill because of their work.

The third stage is to deliver on fair work policies. UNISON Scotland supports the devolution of employment law, which would remove some of the constraints on government action. However, action can be taken using devolved powers including:

Public procurement. The new statutory guidance on workforce matters is an important step forward, but it needs to be properly implemented. 

Sectoral Bargaining.  There is a strong relationship between collective bargaining coverage and low wage work. The Scottish Government could promote sectoral collective bargaining in areas where it has the most leverage, including social care and childcare. These are sectors with many poor working practices. For example the recent 'Early Start' report identifies that 80% of childcare staff in the private and voluntary sector are paid less than Scottish Living Wage.

National Workforce Framework. The Christie Commission highlighted the necessity for a joined up vision for the public sector workforce. A National Workforce Framework could prevent wasted effort reinventing the wheel on issues like staff transfer, pensions, secondment and common procedures. This could include a staff governance framework, similar to that adopted by NHS Scotland, and a common approach to training and development .

This three stage approach means government should take a robust stance on poor practice and set out what good practice looks like with sufficient practical guidance. Then adopt a series of practical steps to ensure Fair Work is delivered using the levers available to the public sector. Ambition is good, but it must be followed by practical action to deliver Fair Work.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Workplace dementia

More than 40,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK, 3,200 of those in Scotland. It is estimated that 18% of them continue to work after a diagnosis and therefore this is a growing workplace issue that employers and unions should be addressing.

Today, I was speaking at a seminar organised by the STUC, Age Scotland and Alzheimer’s Scotland, aimed at raising the profile of the issue and building alliances to improve awareness and action.

The number of people with dementia is forecast to increase to over 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. Not least because of the increase in the retirement age and poor UK state and occupational pension provision - a greater number of people are expected to work later in life.

As the lead negotiator for the largest pension scheme in Scotland, the most common question members asked me was, ‘how I can retire early?’ Now, they are just as likely to ask about working on past the normal retirement age.

This driven by many factors in addition to increasing the normal retirement age. In local government many members have short service – the average is ten years. Contrary to the media myth of the 'gold plated pension' the average pension in payment is only £3705 per year. Many women in particular need to work on to build up a decent pension after career breaks and a number of men come into the public service workforce later in their career. We also have an ageing public service workforce with 50 to 59 year olds the biggest growing proportion.

To help us address this issue, we have a very useful guide from the Alzheimer's Society, which UNISON contributed to. This guide sets out practical advice about how to spot the signs and symptoms of the illness. It also explains how to support people with dementia - giving them choice and control of their lives, and allowing them to continue to contribute their skills and experience to the organisation.

This can not only make a difference to affected staff, but bring benefits to the whole organisation. The business case includes improving staff retention and providing a more inclusive service - which itself, evidence suggests, can enhance productivity and performance.

A dementia diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean a person can no longer do their job. However, dementia is a progressive condition and over time it will increasingly impair a person’s ability to work. By becoming dementia friendly, organisations will further develop a culture that understands and supports all staff and enables them to work in a way that suits them and meets the organisation’s needs.

Union reps should use the guide to make themselves aware of the symptoms of dementia. Only 48% of people with dementia in the UK are diagnosed and people with early onset dementia can face particular delays receiving a diagnosis. There is a perception that only retired older persons suffer from dementia, so this might not be the first thing a steward thinks of when representing a member.

There's also the question of legal compliance. People with a disability are protected under the Equality Act 2010, and generally this will include people living with dementia. This means that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff with dementia so that they are not disadvantaged at work. Adjustments could include clear signage and labelling, creating quiet spaces, and installing soundproofing or putting up visual barriers to minimise distractions. They might also entail a review of current job specification, reallocation of duties, a change of working hours, or redeployment to another role.

An older workforce will bring a number of challenges and opportunities and dementia is one of those. Unions and employers need to address these issues urgently. Organisational culture takes a long time to shift, so raising awareness and then training for managers and union reps should be an early priority.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Let's have a proper reform of the council tax - not another sticking plaster

We understand that the Council Tax is a difficult issue for politicians, but this latest sticking plaster isn't the solution.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government Committee this morning on the secondary legislation implementing the Scottish Government’s latest tweak to the Council Tax. These involve increasing the higher bands, ending the freeze and changes to the reduction scheme. More details in my briefing.

Increasing the multipliers for the top bands is a modest progressive move. However, it still leaves those in a £212,001 home paying the same bill as those in a million pound one. The Commission on Local Tax Reform indicated that the tax on highest value homes would need to be 15 times that of the lowest value homes in order to achieve proportionality. The current system means a £400K house pays three times as much as a £40K house - not ten times. This means that like VAT, it takes up a bigger proportion of low income households than high.

This chart compares the impact of the Commission’s proposals with the Scottish Government’s plan.

The government also needs to clarify how it expects water charges to be treated under the new bands.

In addition, there is to be no revaluation, so the new bandings will be based on 1991 property values. That simply isn’t credible when 57% of properties are in the wrong band. No one doubts that revaluation is politically challenging, even if there are likely to be equal numbers of gainers and losers. It could also introduce transitional provisions. The question is, just how long does the government intend to avoid revaluation before biting the bullet?

A bigger problem is that the Scottish government has decided to take the additional revenues, estimated at £100m, to allocate to their priorities – a new form of ring-fencing. Similarly, they have capped increases to the Council Tax at 3%. Both of these measures undermine local democracy.

Any improvements in the council tax reduction scheme will be welcomed by low income households. However, this cost used to be met by central government, not councils, who lose £333.2m through the system. This means the plan appears to impact on the income of councils with the most low income people. These people may well also find that any savings made on their council tax bills will not make up for cuts in the services they use or extra charges for those services. Charges now make up almost 7% of council budgets while council tax revenue has shrunk to around 15%.

All of these changes need to be effectively communicated to the public; otherwise it will be front line staff that take the flak for the confusion.

Setting up a fair property tax and rate that reflects the real values of properties is what will make the system fairer. We also need to design a system for those who struggle to meet their property tax obligations because of low incomes, which doesn’t unfairly impact on the budgets of local authorities with disproportionate numbers of low income citizens and deferment opportunities for the small group of property rich, cash poor pensioners.

While we welcome the end of the council tax freeze and improved bandings - we simply cannot go on with short-term fixes that damage services and undermine local democratic accountability.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Impact of Brexit of Scotland's health and care sector

At this morning’s Holyrood Brexit and Health seminar, I was asked what my immediate response to the Brexit vote was. Well of course I was elated at the thought of the promised £350m extra spending on the NHS. I had quickly calculated the Barnett consequentials and drafted UNISON’s shopping list to the health minister. Then I woke up and realised that this pig had not flown by my window!

In the real world, health is like so many other sectors, avidly awaiting any semblance of a strategy from the UK government. It remains unclear if this is because of civil service unpreparedness or cabinet divisions. However, it shouldn’t stop us in Scotland, identifying the risks and the opportunities and preparing our own position.

An early priority should be the economy. There are some positive signs of recovery except for the currency, and crucially for health, the public finances. We should be concerned that the Autumn Statement does not use Brexit as an excuse for a new round of austerity in order to achieve the ideological goal of reducing the state. In the alternative, if the Chancellor accepts the need to boost the economy, we should be increasing revenue spending as well as capital. NHS Scotland needs revenue funding more than it needs capital.

The big issue that focused most minds at today’s seminar is migration.  A right to stay for EU nationals is crucial to health sector. It may be legally possible to deport people, but there would be huge political and practical difficulties. I suspect the UK government’s unwillingness to make a declaration on this, is more to avoid a pre-Brexit migration surge than as a realistic bargaining chip.

There are various estimates of how many EU nationals work in the health and care sector in Scotland, but none are reliable. Audit Scotland’s report today on the social care sector used a 2008 survey that showed 6.1% of the social care workforce in Scottish care homes for older people were EU – non-UK workers, and a further 7.3% were employed under work permits. Most of those employed from within the EU came from Poland and the Czech Republic and those from outside the EU were from the Philippines, India and China. The NHS staff survey on ethnicity is published annually, but is voluntary and equally unreliable.

What we do know is that staffing levels are already under pressure. NHS Scotland had 2207 nurse vacancies in March of this year and the social care sector is struggling to recruit and retain staff.  If we are struggling with EU nationals, we need to ask how we will recruit the additional 65,000 additional health and care staff the sector will need in Scotland by 2022.

Recruiting more care staff from the indigenous workforce is going to be challenging given the numbers involved. We will need to really value care workers for the great job they do. That means fair pay, training, and time to care. We also need to break down gender segregation in the sector. Unless significant numbers of male staff are attracted to the sector, something like one-third of all female school leavers will need to work in care – and that simply isn’t going to happen.

While these are the immediate concerns, we should start to plan for other issues that will impact on the health sector. These include the common EU standards in professional regulation and employment law, particularly the working time directive. There may also be some opportunities in Brexit to address the limitations European procurement law has had on the sector, in particular, state aid and the posted workers directive.

There are wider public health impacts of EU environment and food regulation. Not to mention the loss of research funding and opportunities for collaboration over research. We should also be concerned about a UK approach to trade deals given the lack of expertise and ideological approaches. If we think the EU has made a mess of TTIP, CETA etc. – imagine what ministers like Liam Fox will do! Private healthcare predators could have a field day in a post-Brexit environment.

In conclusion, Brexit creates a wide range of potential issues for the health and care sector. The threats are obvious, although we shouldn’t lose sight of opportunities. Most people at today’s seminar recognised that we should move on from despair at the outcome and focus on what we need to do to protect these crucial services.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Household income and inequality

As a new Oxfam report has highlighted, the richest 1% of Britain’s population owns almost more than 20 times the total wealth of the poorest 20%. Or put another way, 634,000 of the wealthiest people are worth 20 times as much as the poorest 13 million. This makes Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

This 'us and them' society is illustrated by a story in today's Guardian. The disgraced former owner of BHS, Dominic Chappell, owes more than £500,000 to the taxman on the profits he made. HMRC has started legal proceedings to recover the money. However, Chappell has put the business that owes the tax, Swiss Rock Limited, into liquidation, meaning he could walk away without paying the bill. Truly, only the 'little people' pay taxes.

We also have some more detailed data on disposable income, helpfully analysed by SPICe in their latest briefing. Disposable income per person in Scotland is currently £17,905. This is just below the UK figure of £17,965. Scotland has the 5th highest GDHI per person of all UK regions. Between 2013 and 2014 Scottish GDHI per person grew by 0.2% in cash terms. This is lower than the increase across the whole of the UK (0.5%).

Taking a longer time frame is interesting. Between 1997 and 2014 Scottish GDHI per person increased by 28% (£3,740) in real terms with the UK seeing a 27% (£3,830) increase over the same period. The gap between Scottish and UK GDHI per person has decreased from a peak of 8.6% in 2000 to 5.1% in 2014. This is one statistic that we can't put down to the oil price crash.

Unsurprisingly, London has the highest disparity between the highest and lowest GDHI per person in the UK. Scotland in comparison is a more equal society, at least in terms of disposable income. However, there are significant inequalities within Scotland. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire has the highest level in disposable household income at £20,547, followed closely by Edinburgh. Glasgow City is the lowest at £14,757. East and North Ayrshire saw the largest increase in GDHI per person last year while East and West Dunbartonshire saw the largest decrease.

The GDHI figure is broken down into primary income ( wages, assets etc) and secondary (benefits, pensions and gifts). Scotland has the sixth highest level of primary income of the U.K. regions and accounts for 7.8% of all primary income in the UK, but 8.3% of total UK population. Only London, south-east and east of England outperform their population share. Scotland has the highest proportion of income from wages of total income and the second lowest proportion of rental income and self-employment. Since 2008 all types of primary income have decreased in real terms in Scotland, but financial assets have declined the fastest, probably due to low interest rates.

Scotland accounted for 8.4% of the total income from benefits which is almost exactly the same as Scotland’s population share of the UK (8.3%) and are fourth from bottom in this 'dependency' league table. Interestingly it is areas like, Lochaber, Skye and South Ayrshire that have the highest secondary incomes. This is probably due to pension income and reminds us where the bulk of the welfare budget is actually spent.

So, this data shows that income inequality in the UK remains a huge issue for concern. Scotland is a more equal country, but still has big geographical differences. The question for policy makers is how should these disparities be tackled. Unequal countries do worse on almost every count, so we should focus on progressive taxation and stronger public services to bridge the gap.