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.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Action on energy prices is another damp squib

As widely predicted, UK government action on energy bills has turned out to be another damp squib. Ministers passed the buck yet again to Ofgem who have published plans for a ‘fairer and more competitive’ market. As if we haven’t heard that before! 

As the Editor of Utility Week put it“If the government is convinced that an absolute energy price cap for 17 million UK households is both expedient and desirable, it should take responsibility for delivering it – and sooner rather than later. The industry is not going to tie a noose around its own neck.”

Despite the abundance of energy supply in the UK, we still pay more than the European average. This Ofgem infographic shows how energy bills are broken down.


We are told the solution is more switching in an allegedly competitive market. However, there has been a warning that more small energy firms could go bust this winter because of increasing price volatility. David Bird of Co-operative Energy said that the regulator needed to set financial stress tests for new market entrants, to reduce the risk of firms folding and customers being left in the lurch.

On a more positive note it looks as if there may be some action on charges for pre-payment meters. 

Santander has recently highlighted how much of our declining pay packets go on largely unavoidable household bills. It looked at bills for gas, electricity, water, etc – and found they have risen far ahead of average wage rises. Since 2006, average pay packets in Britain have gone up by 19%, while the average gas bill has risen by 73% and electricity by 72%.

These are very large real rises, and all the grimmer for families and pensioners on very tight budgets – not to mention public sector workers suffering years of pay restraint. These are must pay bills that leave families with harsh choices about what to cut elsewhere.

This bitter pill is made all the less easy to swallow when the boss of one of Scotland’s biggest energy companies has been given a 72% pay rise, soon after arguing against consumers having their bills capped to save them £100 a year. The company also increased the price of its standard variable tariff by 6.9%.

Alistair Phillips-Davies, the chief executive of SSE will be paid £2.92m in 2017 after receiving the maximum possible bonuses for leading a “robust performance” by the supplier last year. The pay rise is even bigger than the 40% rise awarded to the chief executive of the Scottish Gas owner, Centrica.

Former energy minister Brian Wilson is not as convinced as the First Minister that ScottishPower is “an exemplar to our world-leading energy sector” as she opened their new HQ in Glasgow. He argues: “Such testimonials should be tested rather than asserted. Neither ScottishPower nor SSE have built a single power station since privatisation. Scotland has been turned from exporter of electricity to importer. These companies have been the biggest beneficiaries of onshore wind subsidies – without building a single turbine in Scotland. I’m not sure that is such an “exemplar” record, even leaving aside what customers think of them.”

Then we can add energy networks into the mix. They have been accused of exploiting consumers to enjoy a £7.5bn windfall of unjustified “sky high” profits.  Citizen’s Advice reckon the companies that transmit electricity and gas around the UK, including National Grid, were reaping average profit margins of 19% from their monopolies. That compares with the 4% margin that big six suppliers make selling power and gas to householders. They have called for a one-off £285 rebate to every household. Don’t hold your breath on this one, but the companies can expect a tougher price controls next time around.

In a useful analysis of the issues the HofC library argues that the key issue for Parliament will be how to make consumer markets such as energy work effectively. Can consumers be encouraged to find the best deal or does Government need to be more active? 


The simple truth is that markets have failed, not least because consumers have better things to do than spend hours battling the complexity of energy pricing. Government intervention is long overdue.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Taylor Report consolidates a race to the bottom in employment rights

The Taylor report into ‘Employment Practices in the Modern Economy’ does little to help workers being exploited in the workplace. 

The appointment of Matthew Taylor was always likely to be a safe choice for the Prime Minister in conducting this review. The report is very New Labour - progressive in ambition, but nothing too radical in practice. A classic bit of 'nudge' capitalism. 

The problem with this approach is that while good employers may respond to the nudge, the specific problems he was asked to consider are exploited by the cowboys. They need a regulatory kick up the backside, rather than a nudge.

This nudge approach is reflected in the key recommendations:
  • Dropping ‘worker’ status for that of ‘dependent contractor’, in an attempt to distinguish more clearly between those who are genuinely self-employed and those who are not. These may attract additional protections.
  • Platform based services e.g. Deliveroo, Uber, must be able to show that that they are paying their average worker 1.2 times the national minimum wage.
  • Responsible corporate governance, better management and stronger employment relations is apparently better than regulation.
  • No recommendation that tribunal fees should be scrapped, although some tinkering with the system including naming and shaming employers who don’t pay awards. More helpful is a free preliminary hearing on employment status and reversal of the burden of proof.
  • Zero-hours and agency workers should have a right to request fixed hours or a direct contract of employment after twelve months.
  • Reintroduces ‘rolled up’ holidays acting as a disincentive to take holidays. Time off becomes a luxury for those who can afford it.
If you are suffering from exploitative employment practices you might well feel pretty underwhelmed by these recommendations. This isn't just limited to the gig economy, it also applies to many in the private/voluntary home care sector. For the Prime Minister, post-Grenfell, to use phrases like  ‘overbearing red tape’ shows she has learned nothing about the importance of effective regulation.

On the specifics, we don’t need a new category of employment status. The courts have already been able to determine bogus self-employment when they see it. What we need is effective enforcement of legal rights. As Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey MP put it “If it looks like a job and smells like a job the chances are that it is a job”.

On platform working, Taylor appears more concerned about cash wages for low paid workers eking out their wages at the weekend, than multi-national companies engaged in large scale tax dodging. Perhaps unsurprising when his panel included investors in these companies!

By introducing a complex averaging reporting system for wages, he is effectively saying that companies shouldn’t have to pay the national minimum wage for every hour worked. No prizes for guessing who is going to get the lower paid shifts.

The recommendations are built on the premise that the UK’s flexible labour market has been a great success. One of the most disappointing aspects of the Taylor report is the lack of evidence to support his assumptions. From the Chief Executive of the RSA I would have expected better.

One of those assumptions is the failure to recognise that business investment per capita has almost ground to a halt. The flexible labour market encourages the substitution of cheap labour for capital, hence the dismal levels of productivity. This chart by the TUC’s Geoff Tily from OECD data, shows just how far the UK fell between 2007 and 2015. 


After some modest recovery the OECD are now forecasting a return to the bottom of the league. Taylor is, in effect, supporting this approach. The other consequence is increasing household debt.


All our experience shows that employers, particularly those in the gig economy, will not be ‘nudged’ into best practice because the Government asks them to, or it’s the right thing to do. It is only legislation, with effective enforcement and strong collective bargaining, which will make any difference.

The Taylor Report is a huge missed opportunity. It demonstrates a failure to understand the lives of workers on the fringes of decent employment. It consolidates a race to the bottom in employment practice.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Regulation is not 'Red Tape'


If the Grenfell tragedy teaches us anything, it must be that regulation is not 'Red Tape', it is an essential safeguard for a civilised society. Scotland has escaped some of the worst examples of deregulation, but we shouldn't be too quick to pat ourselves on the back.

The circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire will be subject to a judge-led inquiry and it is clear that regulations and enforcement will be one of the issues to be considered. In Scotland, a change to building regulations in 2005 made it mandatory for builders to ensure that any external cladding "inhibited" fire spreading. The new regulations were introduced following a fatal fire in an Irvine tower block in 1999. The Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 contains the mandatory regulation: "Every building must be designed and constructed in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire within the building, or from an external source, the spread of fire on the external walls of the building is inhibited."

This is the primary reason why no social housing tower blocks in Scotland have been found to have the type of cladding used at Grenfell. However, effective regulation is only part of the story, we also have to ensure we enforce those regulations. On this, Scotland is not doing so well.

A recent UNISON Scotland survey reveals that building control staff are short-staffed, overworked, stressed and long overdue a pay rise. Key findings from the survey show:

- Almost half (48%) said there have been budget cuts this year while one in five (20%) said the cuts had been severe.
- There are 56 less staff working in the Building Standards departments now than in 2010.
- The overwhelming majority (89%) feel their workload has got heavier in the last few years.
- Almost half (47%) felt they should spend a lot more time on site visits while just 13% felt they had the right balance between site visits and office time.
- 48% described morale as low, with over three quarters (78%) saying they don’t expect it to improve as a result of budget cuts, increased workload and lack of a pay rise.

The report reveals a dedicated workforce committed to ensuring that buildings meet the standards required, but who are under enormous pressure. They feel exhausted, undervalued and are struggling to deal with the demands placed upon them. Previous UNISON surveys of other regulatory staff, covering, food, consumer rights, planning and the environment, highlight similar concerns.

The former UK coalition and Conservative governments promised a “bonfire of red tape” with a “one-in-two-out” rule governing new regulation. In Scotland, there is a more measured approach in the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act, but much of the language around this legislation was similar.  Too much emphasis on supporting business and not enough on compliance. 

On food, Scotland has abandoned the visual inspection of some animals in abattoirs and Food Standards Scotland want to go further in abandoning independent meat inspection. Environmental health officers have had to scale down their inspections of food premises due to staffing cuts. Deregulation of planning has long-term consequences in both built and natural environment, even if the consequences of poor decisions or regulation can take years to emerge.


A big focus for Tory deregulation was health and safety. 137 people were killed at work last year, but this figure is dwarfed by the numbers of people dying of work-related illnesses, including at least 5,000 a year who lose their lives to asbestos-related cancers. The Hazards Campaign estimate that around 50,000 people die each year due to past poor working conditions of heart and lung diseases and work cancers,” They argue that the government’s obsession with cutting “red tape” really meant abolition of regulations which protect workers. 

Sensible regulation is something we all take for granted. We assume that someone is checking that the food we eat and the goods we buy are safe. Increasingly, that is simply not the case and sadly it will be a tragedy like Grenfell that causes governments to rethink the merits of light touch regulation. It is local government in Scotland that has borne the brunt of austerity cuts and the salami slicing of regulatory departments is not well understood.

An effective state that protects its citizens needs people in order to actually function. If there aren’t people in central government to proactively revise and update regulations and in local government to effectively enforce them, that is a state failure.

In 2015 the New Economics Foundation (NEF) concluded its major investigation into deregulation that had been unfolding behind the scenes in Whitehall for years. They called the final report ‘Threat to Democracy’ – because that is exactly what it is. NEF makes the point that regulations protect us from bad businesses (as well as, in principle at least, bad finance).  It is absolutely our democratic right to demand the ability to make those rules, and see them properly enforced.

It remains to be seen whether a chastened Government will, post-Grenfell, retain its deregulatory zeal. Last year NEF also warned that Brexit would only increase this deregulation drive. The Great Repeal Bill threatens to give ministers the power to strike swathes of social and environmental protection from the post-EU statute book.

Grenfell might at least result in a pause on further deregulation, but what we really need is for the mindset around regulation to change. In future, we need a greater appreciation of the role of those who uphold regulatory standards and ensure that both central and local governments have the resources to keep all of us safe.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Public sector pay is back in play

Public sector pay is at least back on the political agenda. Now we need to turn the rhetoric into action.

The decision of Jeremy Corbyn to put ending the public sector pay cap as a key element of Labour’s UK general election manifesto was a crucial factor in getting this issue back on the agenda. The conventional political wisdom would say focus on services, but he boldly ignored that. Even more boldly, he decided to put the issue centre stage in the Queen’s Speech debate.

We now have a number of Tory MPs and even cabinet ministers like Fallon, Gove and Boris Johnson calling for a rethink on the Tory pledge to maintain the cap until 2020. However, we need to contrast that with the cheers from many Tory MPs when the Queen’s Speech vote was declared. This was emblematic of politicians who have lost their grip on reality, particularly when a ‘magic money tree’ was discovered to bribe the DUP into the lobby.

The Scottish Government has also been having a rethink about its pay policy after SNP MPs supported the Labour amendment to scrap the UK version. Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay said: “The Scottish government will take into account inflation in the future pay policy."

Pay policy is largely devolved and the Scottish Government’s pay policy already has some important differences to its UK counterpart, most notably in its support for the Scottish Living Wage. However, for the vast majority of public sector workers in Scotland the 1% cap is the same as the Tory UK policy.

On average, public sector pay has been cut by around 14% in real terms since 2009. In recent years it is also falling behind the private sector. This matters at a time when the public sector is competing for staff in a tightening labour market. As our research on the ageing workforce shows, young people are not attracted to tough public sector jobs in care and elsewhere when they can get a less challenging job in the private sector on higher wages. Brexit will compound these problems. There are also jobs that have private sector counterparts those experienced and well trained staff can be poached, as our building control survey highlighted last week.

We shouldn’t also forget the economic case for better pay. Economic growth is declining not least because disposable incomes are falling and household debt is rising. The Resolution Foundation’s work on wages highlights this as a broader problem across all sectors, but the challenge is most acute in the public sector.



The recent parliamentary votes are in effect political skirmishing. The real test will be the UK autumn budget and the Scottish Government’s spending plans for 2018/19. If there is a change from the current revenue (not just capital) spending plans, then we will need to make the case for increasing pay as against other spending demands. There is little point in building roads if the workers are not there to maintain them, or hospital beds without the health care team to ensure they are used.

In Scotland, there has been some recognition of this. To address the large number of elderly patients in hospitals who don’t need to be there, ministers could have simply allocated resources to additional social care packages. However, they accepted the argument put by UNISON and the employers, that given the high level of vacancies and spiralling turnover rates, this wouldn’t work. We have to recruit and retain staff in the sector and therefore a proportion of new resources were allocated to paying the Scottish Living Wage. It is not a complete solution, buts it’s an important step in the right direction.

So, it is important to keep up the pressure on public sector pay, but also to prepare for the next budget round with the service delivery case for putting resources into pay and conditions. That will be the acid test for converting political rhetoric into action.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Tackling the causes of poverty

The shocking news that a homeless person dies every three weeks in Edinburgh highlights the extreme consequences of poverty and neglect in our society. Millions more are struggling in poverty every day, not least because of rocketing housing costs that can lead to homelessness.

It has long been claimed by the current UK government that the solution to poverty is work. However, a record three-fifths of people living in poverty now come from a household with at least one person in work.

A Cardiff University study found that Britain’s in-work poverty figure has risen to its highest documented level. The risk of poverty for adults living in homes where at least one person is employed rose by more than a quarter over a 10-year period from 2004-5 to 2014-15. The researchers reported that rocketing housing costs were also hitting hard, with those in private-rented accommodation more at risk than owner-occupied households. Dr Rod Hick said: 

“If policy does not do more to tackle rising housing costs directly, then it seems likely that these will eat up gains made elsewhere — for example, in terms of the planned increases in the minimum wage.”

One in six working Scots (around 440,000) are paid below the Scottish Living Wage, with wages and employment still lower than before the financial crash. A quarter of all children in Scotland are living in relative poverty (up four per cent in one year) and this will have long-term impacts on their health, well being and life chances. 

As well as poverty, income inequality has also risen sharply. The top 10 per cent of the population had 38 per cent more income in 2015/16 than the bottom 40 per cent combined. This compares to 15 per cent more income in 2014/15.

The latest pay data shows that average pay across the UK is more than £800 below its 2008 peak. This means we are on course for the weakest decade of pay growth since the Napoleonic era. As the Resolution Foundation has highlighted, we cant put all the blame at the door of inflation. Nominal pay growth has also been slowing recently, falling in each of the last five months’ of data. Pay packets would be shrinking even if inflation was bang on the Bank of England's target of 2 per cent.

No where is that clearer than in the public sector where after years of pay restraint workers are struggling to make ends meet. Others are leaving our public services and we are not recruiting young staff. As a consequence the workforce is growing older as our recent research shows. That is why UNISON will be redoubling its campaigns to scrap the pay cap, here in Scotland and across the UK.


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is today making the case that tackling poverty and inequality should be a priority in Scotland’s city deals. Chief executive Campbell Robb said: 

“Scotland has enjoyed a strong economic record but too many people have not shared in its success – over a million people live in poverty, which is a cost and waste our economy and society cannot afford. Scotland needs inclusive growth now to create a stronger and fairer economy. We need growth but everyone needs to the benefit from it.”

While real wage growth is crucial, we also need to ensure that quality jobs are back on the policy agenda. Today’s Great Jobs Agenda initiative from the TUC it sets out what they want the government to do to ensure that every worker has a great job with fair pay, regular hours and the opportunity to progress.

We also need to remember that high quality public services play a key role in tackling poverty. The dodgy deal with the DUP may bring some relief from austerity in Northern Ireland, but we need to campaign to ensure that the Autumn Budget does the same for the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Government has announced the creation of a ‘Poverty and Inequality Commission’. There is a legitimate concern that this a way of pushing difficult issues into the long grass – largely more process like the Social Security and Child Poverty Bills.  So it is up to civil society to ensure that the commission provides an opportunity to build momentum behind the policies needed to reduce poverty and inequality in Scotland.


On Friday this week, the UWS-Oxfam Partnership Policy Forum will provide an opportunity to consider how this might be done. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Education reform - a tricky balancing act

The Scottish Government’s education reforms are an attempt to balance their centralising tendencies with local democracy and give headteachers’ greater responsibility for their schools, without excessive bureaucracy.

The document published yesterday is the Scottish Government’s response to the consultation on education governance. It sets out the next steps in their reform of education and schools in particular. While there will be some immediate actions over the summer, the details will be the subject of a further consultation before decisions are taken in the autumn. Legislation will follow early in 2018.

This is significantly later than planned and has already been criticised as a further delay. In fairness, there have been a few other things going on and complex reforms need to be properly considered and planned. The shambles of Police Scotland reminds us of the risks in making changes without proper planning.


The main criticism of the original consultation was that it signaled further centralisation and the undermining of local democratic accountability. The seven new regional bodies are to be called Regional Improvement Collaboratives, using the Welsh model, and helpfully these don't involve taking over all local authority support services. While the paper is light on detail, it appears to focus on teaching collaboration, sharing best practice etc. Support services will remain with councils, although they will have a statutory duty to collaborate and pool resources.

The new Regional Directors will be appointed by the Scottish Government, enabling them to direct policy through a national framework. This gives a further indication that the Scottish Government has moved away from outright centralisation, towards what I have described in my recent Reid Foundation paper as a hybrid model. This uses quangos or other mechanisms to direct policy while leaving the administrative delivery to local government. COSLA has  expressed its concern over this dilution in the local authority role. A COSLA Spokesman said: 

 “There can be no getting away from the fact that the Scottish Government is trying to give the impression that Scotland’s councils still have a role to play in the delivery of education when the reality is that they do not; the simple truth is that there will be no meaningful local democratic accountability for education in Scotland.”

While most funding will remain within local authorities, there will be a national funding formula supporting a new statutory ‘Headteachers’ Charter’. It remains to be seen how much local flexibility will remain to address local circumstances.

There is a welcome recognition that there is a wider education team other than teachers. The paper states:

“We will recognise the contribution of the whole school workforce by working with them to introduce professional standards for these staff, including classroom assistants, to recognise the importance of the whole education team.”

Given the scale of job cuts to this group of staff any recognition is welcome, and the paper makes special mention of the need to support young people with additional support needs, something UNISON has highlighted. Other education staff that have learning roles or support teaching will be professionally registered with the new Education Workforce Council that will also take over the functions of the GTCS. UNISON will have a number of issues with this regarding fees, training, professional standards and how we can ensure that the roles of our members in education are not ignored in this wide ranging body.

The paper indicates that headteachers’ will select and manage staff in their school. The HR function will remain in local authorities, which wisely avoids a lot of bureaucracy, but we will need more detail on how this will work in practice. For example, what does this mean for grievance, disciplinary and other procedural agreements? Retaining national bargaining over terms and conditions is a helpful reassurance, although there is also local bargaining over the terms and conditions of the wider workforce.

The paper may also have implications for UNISON members in the Care Inspectorate, through the shared inspection model and the requirement on the SQA to strengthen its consultation and engagement processes.

The paper promotes greater parent, pupil and community engagement in schools, which is an important element of any education system. However, there is a risk that schools could be isolated in the new structures losing the whole system approach. As COSLA puts it:

“The Scottish system has worked tirelessly towards a co-ordinated approach – health, social work, the third sector and others rally around a child and provide them with the help both they and their family need.  Schools are only one facet of this.  If the Scottish Government continue down this path of isolating education, the whole system approach is lost and it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society who will suffer as a result.”

The primary aim of these reforms is to close the attainment gap. Schools and early years provision clearly have an important role in this, but the solution involves action to tackle inequality in Scotland. Headteachers are not well placed to address this and it is unclear from the paper how this partnership approach will work in practice to avoid isolating schools.

Overall, the government has certainly listened to the consultation responses and attempted to create a something of a balance between their centralising instinct and local democracy. The paper sets out a high level response and a realistic timetable. The debate will be over how these proposals achieve the stated objective and how they will operate in practice. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

How is Additional Support For Learning Working in Practice?

The Education and Skills Committee at the Scottish parliament has published a new report on how Additional Support for Learning (ASN) is really working in our schools. The report reflects many of the concerns raised by UNISON members in our recent report Hard Lessons.

While the UNISON report did not focus on ASN in particular members raised lots of concerns about the lack of proper training and support for those working with children who have additional support needs. The committee report adds to the evidence that, while there is widespread support for the policies and for the principles of GIRFEC, we are a long way from delivering on these laudable aims.

The committee was “overwhelmed” by the response to its request for written evidence and were also able to add to that evidence gained through a round table discussion which included parents, trade unions, education staff and voluntary sector groups.

Submissions gave clear evidence that while children and young people may be able to access a school building that doesn’t mean that their needs are being met within the schools. While there is a lot of discussion about teachers it is school support staff that do most of the work supporting children with additional needs. Cuts to local government budgets mean that there are a lot less staff around to do that work leaving children unsupported. Many members report stress from the lack of training and support they receive for the tasks they are asked to carry out – like administering medicines or caring for pupils with challenging behaviour. Lack of staff makes it much more difficult.

UNISON submitted written evidence to the committee and took part in the round table and we are pleased to see the influence of our contributions on the final report.

The committee reports states that:
• Parents often have to fight for the rights of their children “every step of the way” in order to get additional support for them in schools. Parents from areas of deprivation have lower chances of ensuring their children get the support they need. The Committee is concerned this could ultimately widen the attainment gap and so is calling for more funding for advocacy services amongst other recommendations.
• The Committee is also concerned a lack of support for those with additional support needs could impact on the education of children without additional support needs. This could be due to the increased pressure on teachers to support specific needs as well as teaching classes other pupils, following a reduction in additional support needs staff in schools.
• The Committee considers that the effective inclusion of children with additional support needs is integral to the success of Getting it Right for Every Child and highlights its findings to the Government in that context.

While these issues are not just about cuts to education funding it is clear that the cuts are playing a role in reducing the numbers of staff available to support children and they availability of training for staff to ensure that they are able to Get It Right For Every Child.
It is essential that this report leads to some definite action to ensure that the commitments made to children with additional support needs are met.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Freedom of Information - from ambition to action

Freedom of Information is an essential part of a thriving and effective democracy. Scotland needs to move from the rhetoric of support for open government, to putting the legislative and practical measures in place to strengthen it. 

Today, I was speaking at the Scottish Public Information Forum in Edinburgh, reconvened by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.

Margaret Keyse the Acting Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) outlined the work of the SIC. 
There were 540 new appeals last year, 231 decision notices and dealt with 1554 enquires. Nearly 70,000 requests were made to Scottish public authorities, and that is probably an underestimate. There is a high general public awareness of FoI and support for the law, although that awareness is limited.

They have regularly highlighted their concerns about the limited scope of FoI in Scotland. Recently, in a special report, the SIC argued that it is time for a substantial rethink on pro-active publication of information. Monitoring of the Model Publication Schemes shows that public authorities generally have them and are good at giving advice and assistance, but 79% don't publish open data. There are some big changes ahead. Not least European developments including a possible two tier approach to FoI and the General Data Protection Regulations that will come in before Brexit.

Alison MacKinnon from SEPA focused on the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, an often forgotten aspect of FoI that came from older international information requirements. She gave an interesting insight on how they deal with requests, reminding us that EIR has a somewhat wider scope and fewer exemptions. There has been a steady increase in requests in recent years, still 40% from the public, but increasingly from consultants and industry.

Paul Holleran from the NUJ outlined developments in the media and in particular the pressure on journalists due to reduced staffing levels. A particular concern is the big reduction in investigative journalism and that may explain the reduction in requests from journalists. The malaise of fake news and cuts in journalism, at national and local level, is undermining democracy. 

Ruchir Shah from SCVO made the argument that transparency is a political weapon and reflects a global challenge to inequality. There is a risk that people are speaking in bubbles, not to each other. He described the Open Government Pioneers Project, which is about building capacity in civil society as a way of increasing transparency and open government. A global movement that Scotland is a part of.

Carole Ewart from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland described their latest project, sponsored by UNISON Scotland, looking at compliance and current practice. She argued that Scotland is some way from achieving an information rights culture and there was a need to integrate with human rights and other public policy initiatives. The Scottish Government needs to keep promises on FoI in areas like expanding the scope of FoI, cost thresholds, the previously moribund forum (SPIF) and pro-active information.

UNISON's interest in FoI includes our campaigns function and as the union that represents most FoI staff in public bodies. My own presentation made the case for extending the scope of FoI to all those who receive the public pound. I also gave some feedback from FoI staff who are struggling to cope with the demand for information at a time of staffing cuts, particularly in administrative functions. There are also capacity issues in the departments who have to provide the information. Staff also identify resistance from senior management and poor awareness of FoI amongst some senior colleagues. 

I also gave examples of poor compliance based on our own experience of making FoI requests. We are experiencing examples of public bodies simply not responding or using delaying tactics. Examples include daft points of clarification or references to online documents that don't actually include the information we asked for. Others deliberately avoid the question, by answering a question we haven't asked. We often have to go back several times before we get a proper answer. 

There was a really useful discussion on the practice of FoI in Scotland. A big theme is that we have some grand rhetoric on open government, when the reality falls far short of that language. A good example this week is the Justice Committee scrutiny of the Scottish Police Authority, holding its meetings in private. There is some evidence that organisations who receive the public pound through contracts or grant funding are discouraged on the grounds that 'don't bite the hand that feeds you'. There are many ways of getting around this, given that anyone can make a request.

There is some concern from bodies not currently covered, such as housing associations, about their capacity. There is clearly a need to improve skills in making requests as well as strengthening public bodies capacity to respond.

In these challenging political times, there has never been a greater need for open government and transparency of information. This is a field that Scotland could be a world leader, in vision and practice. Today's event shows we have much to do, but there is a willingness to make the journey.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Council elections - keep it local

As the local government election short campaign gets under way – let’s keep it local.

 

Local government elections will be held for every seat in Scotland on Thursday 4 May. The first reminder is to make sure you are registered to vote. Changes to the system means that a lot of people have been missing from the register. If you haven’t received a polling card by now, you are probably not registered. It’s easy to do this online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, but it has to be completed by 17 April.

 

The second reminder is that these are local elections. The councillor you elect will make important decisions about local services including schools, social care, roads, libraries and much more. While I am not naive enough to believe that national issues don’t impact on local elections, I get very irritated when leaflets arrive through the door with the local issues relegated to an afterthought. – I bin them.

 

UNISON Scotland has published its manifesto for the election. There are some general themes around fair funding and the importance of keeping services local, as well as more detailed ideas around individual services. We will be highlighting some of these, and the people who deliver them, during the campaign because we all tend to take these services for granted.

 

I take some comfort from a poll we commissioned from Survation this month that voters do care about local services. Public services are the top priority for voters (70%); and half of all voters chose the public sector as the best to deliver our public services, only 19% chose the private sector and 13% chose charities. This included Conservative voters with only 31% saying the private sector and 10% saying charities are the best place to deliver public services.


That’s a clear message to council candidates from all parties that people in Scotland want high quality services, delivered by public sector staff. That doesn’t preclude other service providers, but in-house staff should be the primary means of delivering public services that are accountable to the public.  

There was also support for keeping services local, with the council being the most trusted deliverer of local services. Voters also wanted more of their taxes spent locally. They also recognised that the cuts have had a serious impact on the quality of public services. Hardly surprising when nine out of ten jobs lost in Scotland’s public sector since the austerity cuts have gone from local government.




We will be providing some useful questions for candidates in the coming weeks. So if a candidate chaps on the door - start by asking them, not what they have been told to say by central office, but how they will be standing up for local services. Keep it local.

Friday, 31 March 2017

It's Public Services Stupid

Public services are the top issue for the vast majority of Scottish voters.

We are publishing a full scale poll, undertaken by Survation for UNISON Scotland, that asked voters to tell us their priorities for the local government elections. Public services were the top priority followed by the economy and job security.

Public services come first say Scottish voters


The results were clear over 70% of those who took part place public services as one of the three most important issues facing them and their families ahead of the upcoming election. The economy was second chosen by just over fifty percent (51%) of respondents and job security and availability came in third with 40%. There was very little variation when results were broken down by party affiliation with public services coming highest among all party voters. Jobs came second for SNP voters while the economy was second for Conservative voters equal numbers of Labour voters picked jobs and the economy.

Voters were also clear about whom they believe delivers the best quality services. Half of all voters chose public sector organisations with only 19% supporting the private sector and even fewer (13%) choosing charities. Even amongst Conservative voters only 31% picked the private sector and 10% charities. UNISON hopes that candidates from all parties are now clear that the people of Scotland want high quality publically delivered services.

Keeping it local for a better Scotland


Trust and accountability are important issues in a democracy. The polling figures indicate that people trust publically delivered services and believe them to be more accountable than private of charitable delivery: 71% of respondents believed public sector organisations are accountable for the services they deliver while for charities and the private sector the scores were 52% and 44%. Our survey reveals low levels of trust towards politicians and the media. Only 27% of respondents stated that they trust Holyrood politicians as sources of information about public services and 42% stated that they distrusted them. Only 20% trust the media with 47% stating that they distrust the media. Trade unions remain a relatively trusted source of information with 32% only topped by “friends and family” and academics. Friends and family are by far the most trusted source of information on public services (72%), academics achieved 56%. Academics were only distrusted by 11% of respondents.

Fairer funding for a better Scotland


Budget cuts are having a serious impact on local services: only 6% of respondents believed that services have improved in recent years and a further 30% that they had stayed the same while 59% felt they had declined. When asked where they blame lay 26% blamed local councils, 35% the government and 36% blamed both. SNP voters were the least likely to blame council alone but even then it was still 23%, with 36% of Conservative voters blaming the council and 30% of Labour voters. Nearly half of respondents want more of their taxes to be spent in their local areas and councils were the body most trusted to deliver local services with 41% picking the council and only 8% the government and 12% private companies. The poll summary is available here and tables here.

The poll clearly shows that people value public services, that they want them delivered in the public sector and that they want them delivered local by their council. UNISON agrees.



Thursday, 30 March 2017

EU nationals and the services they deliver

As the UK government triggers our exit from the European Union, a key initial focus for UNISON is the impact on members who are EU nationals and the public services that rely on them.

One of the many difficulties in dealing with this issue is the paucity of accurate data on the number of EU nationals working in Scotland. The data that exists doesn’t capture all of those working in Scotland or are based on statistically small samples for estimates.  As an NIESR report last year highlighted, the numbers are likely to be significantly larger than the official statistics.

The Scottish Government has just published a paper based on the Annual Population Survey. It found that in 2015 there were around 181,000 non-UK EU nationals living in Scotland representing 3.4% of the total population. This is lower than for the UK as a whole, where non- UK EU nationals represent 4.9% of the total UK population. 30% of these are under 16. 47% of all EU nationals in Scotland are Polish nationals.

Just over half live in three city areas: Edinburgh (21.8%), Glasgow (17.6%) and Aberdeen (12.7%). This compares to just a quarter of the total population of Scotland living in these cities.

This means 115,000 EU nationals are in employment (75.9%). 28.6% of these work in ‘distribution, hotels and restaurants’ followed by 19,600 (17.1%) in ‘public admin, education and health’ - services within UNISON’s sphere of influence.



Over one-third have degree level qualifications or higher. However, they are significantly less likely to be working in high or medium skilled jobs (56%), commensurate with their qualifications, than the Scottish workforce as a whole (79%). The median gross hourly earnings for EU national working full-time in Scotland in 2015 was £9.00 compared to £12.20 for full-time UK nationals. EU nationals have had consistently lower hourly earnings than UK nationals, on average around £3.15 less than UK nationals since 2007.

The next stage is to ensure that our members and the services they deliver are protected. 

The Cavendish Coalition brings together 34 health and social care organisations working across the UK (including UNISON) to make certain that the health and social care system is able to retain and continue attracting the staff it needs – domestically, from Europe and globally, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. They have written to the UK government and the First Minister of Scotland, setting out three priorities:

  1. Permanent leave to remain for EEA nationals in the health and social care sector: To provide certainty for individuals and employers providing services to our people and communities, we are calling on the Government to quickly confirm the right to permanent residence of all people from the EEA working in social care and health care across the UK. We have also highlighted the need for a streamlined and inexpensive process for claiming leave to remain which does not create additional administrative burden on employers.
  2. Sufficient transitional arrangements for EEA nationals leave to remain. In order to ensure a stable pipeline of staff, we are urging any ‘cut-off’ date at which EEA nationals resident in the UK would be eligible to apply for permanent leave to remain to be late as practicable. For the stability of workforce supply, there should also be sufficient advance notice of any ‘cut off’ date to enable health and social care employers and candidates to make preparations and informed choices. 
  3. An immigration system which supports health and social care provision: Efforts to increase domestic workforce supply are vitally important and the Cavendish Coalition is committed to increasing local opportunities for UK citizens to train and work in the health and social care sectors. Increasing domestic supply will, however, take time. Both during the negotiating period and in the years after the UK leaves the EU, providing high quality and sustainable health and social care services will depend on workers from within and outside the EEA.



UNISON Scotland has made similar points in submissions to the Scottish Government and to parliamentary inquiries. Scotland’s care system needs EU and non-EU nationals to deliver a growing demand for health and care services.