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First 100 days - Protecting Public Services

 

Protecting Public Services

Dave Prentis

Dave Prentis is General Secretary of UNISON, the UK’s largest public services union.

The future direction of our public services is up for grabs on May 7th and despite the heat of the election campaign debate, there is a wealth of cold practical knowledge and experience available amongst public service workers about how to improve services. The solutions are in our hands and what is more there is now a natural learning environment as public services have diverged in their delivery between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, something all political parties, media organisations and think tanks frankly struggle with. There is an opportunity to build sustainable funding, introduce a new direction on procurement, increase accountability and involve the workforce, particularly in England in the first 100 days of a new progressive government, with an eye to influencing the triple 2016 devolved administration elections too.

A sustainable future for public services is vital. The major parties are committed to cutting the deficit created by the financial crisis over the next parliament, all at different speeds and with different methods. Post the Scottish Independence Referendum, political devolution has caught the imagination of politicians and the public but so far it has concentrated on devolved spending not independent revenue raising options. A further set of propositions advanced by a range of politicians and think tanks suggest that the route to sustainable and affordable public services lies in placing a greater emphasis on preventative spending, collaboration between services such as health and social care and public interventions that are more oriented towards economic growth. Whilst many of these ideas might provide some savings in the longer-term, up-front investment will be urgently needed first.

What is beyond doubt to most people working in the public services across the UK is that we have reached the ceiling on spending cuts and that public services need to be organised around the needs of those we serve and care for rather than arbitrary limits on public expenditure.

A new progressive government should take decisive action in the first 100 days and establish a new deal to repair the public finances and fund public services in the longer-term. This should include more progressive taxation, including raising income tax on high earners and a clampdown on avoidance and evasion. There is also an urgent need for a sustainable settlement for local authority finance, which must include setting sensible financial freedoms. Freedoms should include the ability to: borrow against secure income streams, such as housing and transport, which would not count against overall government borrowing as in the rest of the EU; set higher council tax, including new higher bands for higher value properties (in addition to a mansion tax); set business rates; levy small local taxes such as tourism tax; and levy fees and charges to allow full recovery of costs of services that they provide. Distribution of local government finance must be organised on the basis of local need and a commission should be established early on in the next administration to develop options for improving the way local government is financed for the longer-term. Local authorities should be the lead agency for joined-up public services along the Community Budgets and City Deals models in England and should be allowed to keep any savings released.

The evidence from the last 35 years of privatisation, outsourcing and marketisation is mixed at best, with numerous instances of service deterioration, profiteering and a race to the bottom on pay and terms and conditions of the workforce.

As such, a new approach is needed that puts services and their users above the bottom line, takes out the profit motive, saves on transaction costs and ensures stability of provision. Keeping services in-house should be the default position for all public services.

A new progressive government should introduce regulations to make better use of the new EU Public Procurement Directive, with authorities able to choose in-house models of provision, with trade union recognition, national and local collective bargaining and social criteria applied to contracts. These are known as ‘fair wage’ clauses; they are common in Europe and American cities and cover much more than just the living wage. Before any services go out to contract, the next government should ensure there is a mandatory ‘public interest case’ made that sets out the reasons and business case as to why the contracting authority wishes to outsource the service. This should be a public consultation with a duty on the contracting authority to make the case that outsourcing is in the public interest. If the case is not answered then there should be no outsourcing; if the case is answered then in-house bids should be automatically included in the tender process. In addition, public contracting should include an extension of freedom of information to public contracts with private providers and a requirement for contractors to open up their books for scrutiny so that proper accountability can be restored.

The next government will need to renew their commitment to the public sector workforce if problems with recruitment and retention are to be addressed.

Being able to guarantee safe staffing levels and ensure the very best service provision, relies on properly valued employees that work in partnership with employers and service users to shape provision around need. In recent times there have been continued attempts to make savings by pushing down pay, most vividly seen in the home care sector with zero-hours contracts and unpaid travel time sadly becoming the norm. A progressive government should deliver a new deal for the workforce within the first 100 days of taking office. This new deal should include a renewed commitment to collective bargaining and equal pay, an end to the pay cap, recognition of the professionalism of support staff across the public services and effective data collection and monitoring to support the implementation of the Public Sector Equality Duty.

The next government will need to do more to capitalise on the role of public services in securing an inclusive recovery that benefits everyone and not just a privileged few. Public services employ almost 5.4 million people across the UK¹. In 2014/15 annual expenditure on public services amounted to more than £315 billion². This spending provides a significant boost to the economy by investing in important services for the health and wellbeing of workers, their families and the wider community and prevents social problems. It also puts money into the pockets of workers so that they are able to spend and boost demand on local high streets across the UK. Despite attempts by the current Westminster government and their friends in the media to talk down public services and the broader public sector, it’s clear modern economies are interdependent. A strong private sector benefits from and depends on a vibrant and confident public sector acting in the public interest. It provides education, infrastructure and research, without which no private company could operate. The public sector ensures that we are healthy, cared for and able to live in a safe and clean environment.

Investing in our public services will be an important tool in rebalancing the economy away from low-paid and low-skilled work, towards decent jobs and a recovery that is fair and sustainable for the whole of the UK. The first 100 days of the next government will be critical for protecting and rebuilding our public services – it’s clear there is much that can, and should, be done to bolster the public service workforce and turn around the devastation wrought on public services by the Coalition government.

References
1 ONS  Public Sector Employment, Q4 2014
2 HM Treasury Budget 2015, Table C.4, Public Sector current expenditure in government departments (RDEL)

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