Edinburgh budget response: Defending services or administering austerity?

Budget lobbyUNISON’s Tom Connolly made the following submission to Edinburgh City Council’s budget meeting today as Joint Trade Unions Staff Side Secretary.

As we come towards the end of the organisational review processes associated with the Transformation programme, we have witnessed the loss of over 1400 jobs.

We have real concerns of the current and future impact on our member’s terms and conditions, their lack of resources and excessive workloads and the negative impact that this has on the services provided to the most vulnerable and deprived.

These brutal cuts will have a damaging effect on the public of Edinburgh who rely on council services. The poorest and most deprived, the most vulnerable children, young people and families, the elderly, the disabled and all who reside in the areas of greatest deprivation in our city.

Throughout the current Transformation programme, we were told repeatedly that we need to become more lean and agile. What this means in practice is; work harder with less. This risks excessive workloads and our members’ health – we will not accept this and we will challenge any bullying or harassment of our members and ensure that the council is meeting its health and safety requirements and their duty of care obligations to our members.

On top of this we have seen our pay reduced year on year, as a result our members are not just working with less, they are working FOR less. The pay offer from the employer this year is insulting and derisory and gives an indication how undervalued they view their staff.

Our members have and always will work hard to deliver the vital services they provide to the public. However, staff are reaching breaking point and are finding themselves overstretched and unable to access the resources that they need to carry out their work safely. Services are becoming too thin and too fragile.

Was it right to cut services such as early years and community education? Services that support the city’s children and young people, disabled people, the elderly have been disproportionately reduced. Children and young people benefited greatly from the services that where offered including peer education and group work. Disabled people could attend groups during the day and this was a vital link for them, the same applies to our elderly residents and to those who benefited from the adult literacy service.

People who are isolated have been shown to suffer greatly from loneliness, they are more prone to suffer from mental health related issues including despair and depression, is this something that our city should be proud off – I don’t think so. Over recent years we have seen a constant reduction in preventative services; surely prevention was better than cure.

Our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families, and other underprivileged groups have witnessed the disappearance of the services that they need and relied on. Can you really have confidence in your pledge to give every child a good start in life and to reduce poverty, inequality, and deprivation?

Throughout the organisational review process, equality and gender Impact assessments were often carried out after decisions were made, rather than, as should be, in advance to inform the decision-making process. There is a risk that the council did not fully meet their Public Service Equality Duty.

The most disadvantaged and most vulnerable tended not to be consulted at all. We belief that this has led to poor judgements leaving the least powerful and vulnerable individuals and communities being disproportionately disadvantaged. We belief that this endemic practice must stop.

All services lost, and those continuing to be provided by the council will have been a vital safety net to someone. Like a jigsaw all the pieces are needed to compose a meaningful picture.

Our members employed in the voluntary sector, a sector that relies heavily on funding from the council, have very poor employee Terms and Conditions resulting in very low staff moral and a high turnover of staff. Some of the services provided by these organisations have been shown not to meet the standards required. We would urge elected members, executive directors, and others to reflect on the adage ‘More bang for your buck’ when considering funding.

In Edinburgh, we have witnessed problems with private care homes, and in England where many local authority services have been outsourced and failed with the result that they have had to be taken back into local authority control.

The trade unions will resist, further cuts and any attempt to outsource services and any attempt to diminish our members working terms and conditions.

We will work alongside and provide resources where and when necessary to the citizens of Edinburgh through their community groups in the campaign to protect the services they use and need.

Those who work in the public service are more than aware of what is needed to provide meaningful, dedicated and professional public services and they are prepared to go that further mile in serving the public.

Closing special schools and secure units that provide invaluable support and protection to our most vulnerable children, young people and their families, is irresponsible, especially when there is no clear or detailed plan on how their needs will be met.

We argued that there needed to be great caution taken when reducing the number of managers. Unlike the private sector, many managers will have clear and specific areas of responsibility that will carry a high level of professionalism and expertise applicable to specific service areas. We have lost a great deal of expertise and experience.

Our role is not just to protect the terms and working conditions of our members. We will defend the ethos of Public services and will ensure that we challenge the myth that ‘we are all in this together’.
It was not Public service workers or the public they serve who caused the problem in the economy but the large financial institutions. Their failures resulted in a massive bailout and the retention of their huge salaries and bonuses.

Public services on the other hand are being cut to the bone. The staff employed in the service have endured years of pay freezes’ resulting in a drop in their living standards.

The cuts to public services won’t work; Most spending cuts are a false economy – the redundancy costs and knock-on effects on employment, growth and tax revenue will make the situation worse.

On average, every redundancy creates £29,400 in additional costs to the public sector as well as undermining morale and productivity.

Most of the cost of employing a public service worker is recouped by the state through increased tax revenues and reduced benefit payments.

Economic research shows that for every pound spent on local public services, 64 pence is re-spent in local economies, supporting jobs and businesses.

We have argued that there are ways that we could ensure that the council uses its money effectively;
Monies could be saved every year by reducing the agency bill. The agency bill is still high
Reduce the number of private consultants who bring little discernible benefit. Yes – There are still consultants being used.

Trade unions play a key role in supporting and empowering staff to improve and develop services – research indicates that this already saves the taxpayer as much as £3.6bn a year in productivity gains.

A 9% cut in the Westminster Government block grant – despite a small real term rise this year- has seen the Scottish Government again, make a deliberate choice to cut its funding disproportionately to Scottish councils.

Even although local authorities will now be allowed to keep the monies raised from the unfreezing of the council tax for Bands FGH the Scottish government caveated this by limiting the increase to 3%, any amount over this would mean that the Scottish government would cut the funding more.

The Scottish government following an agreement with the Green party have agreed to allocate a further £160 million to Scottish local government, my understanding is that Edinburgh will receive around £12 million. How is this going to be spent? Will you protect services, will you pay your staff a decent wage and increase the pay offer – we wait to see.

We have already seen a huge attack on the services that our council was providing. We are all being told that we need to be more lean and agile- the reality is that things have become too lean and too fragile, staff are constantly worried about their jobs and becoming overstretched by unacceptable workloads. The most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities are left even more disadvantaged and more vulnerable.

The trade union will continue to fight against the damaging cuts to jobs and services and we will continue to lobby all politicians and senior management ensuring that our members opinions are heard and their rights to decent working conditions and pay are listened too.

We remind the council, that we will use all the power at our disposal, where and when necessary, up to and including industrial action if our member’s dignity at work is not respected and immediately call for industrial action if there is any move to introduce compulsory redundancies.

We call on the Scottish Government, council, and other public bodies to act on the strategies in UNISON Scotland’s ‘Combating Austerity’ report to mitigate the effects of austerity. These include measures like re-examining debt payments, PFI contracts, or Aberdeen’s example of issuing bonds of £370 million for infrastructure development.

The real question is will elected members show a willingness to fight to protect local public services that meet the needs of the communities or will elected members act merely as passive administrators of austerity ensuring the silent slaughter of council services?

Tom Connolly
Staff Side Secretary