Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Even Leaner Times To Come For Poor Scots

First published in the Morning Star: Unions and community groups are gearing up for twin demonstrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow on October 29 against another savage round of council cuts.

Glasgow faces cuts of £103 million and 3,000 jobs over two years. This follows cuts of £250m and 4,000 jobs lost since 2010, hitting learning disability and mental health services, home care, supported education for children, community work, cleaning, library services and voluntary organisations.

Unions are calling on the council to declare a “no more cuts” budget.

In Edinburgh, where the council’s income has dropped by almost 20 per cent in real terms since 2010, workers face another slashing of £140m with over 2,000 jobs to go.

Some telling figures expose the human effect of those cuts. Edinburgh has around 18,000 employees. Most of them — about 10,000 workers — require protection of vulnerable groups (PVG) clearance to do their jobs. That’s how many provide direct services to children and vulnerable adults. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that those services are at risk.

When you hear about “leaner” delivery, cutting the “back office” and more use of computer systems, just remember that figure. Ten thousand workers provide direct services to the most vulnerable.

A computer won’t put a disabled person to bed. It won’t comfort or protect an abused child. Some of the 10,000 will. Some of the 2,000 to go would have.

For the first time, redundancies are being sought in front-line child protection — a service that, despite being resourced on the edge, has delivered massive improvements in recent years.

The scale of the cuts is scary enough without the added blow of the rush to cut. Edinburgh bosses want to front-load cuts earlier than unions believe is needed, raising the spectre of compulsory redundancies.

The deadline to seek voluntary severance has passed before a restructuring has even appointed heads of service.

Nobody knows what the restructured services will look like.

So how do bosses know where redundancies need to come from? How did workers know whether to seek redundancy?

Could they afford to take the chance with the threat of compulsory redundancy on minimum terms?

Will the council just structure services around who is left?

That is not even rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. It’s just randomly throwing them overboard.

The challenge for the unions is immense. UNISON’s Edinburgh branch has a policy of balloting on action against compulsory redundancies. But building for action is tough when workers don’t know how the cuts will affect them.

Glasgow UNISON has a proud record of delivering industrial action. The strikes of care workers, pupil support staff and homeless service caseworkers (which lasted 17 weeks) are some recent examples.

Those were well-won victories but they were specific disputes on specific issues. The challenge now is how to generalise those issues across a workforce.

That’s why activists are desperately organising across Scotland to make sure members grasp the scale of the problem and the public know the devastating effect on services. The union has also set up a Scotland-wide cuts strategy group to take the campaign forward.

We need an industrial response. But we also need a political response.

The SNP government can rightly point to George Osborne’s ideological attack on public services as the cause of the problem.

But it has had choices. It has chosen to cut 40,000 council jobs. It has chosen a council tax freeze that disproportionately benefits the better off and heaps charges for services on those least able to afford them.

Even if it saw a council tax rise as electoral (or referendum) self-harm, it could at least have got on with a reform to make local taxation fairer and stop the starvation of councils.

Despite the rhetoric that Scotland is happy to pay taxes for services, the populism of the council tax freeze is powerful.

That’s why no party was looking to do much about it. While they fiddled, local government burned.

The time is long overdue for a political recognition of the problem and a political consensus on reform of local taxation. It is the only way the crisis will be addressed.

UNISON Scotland has published a report urging just that, but also pointing out how Scottish public bodies could mitigate the effects of austerity through powers they already have, or are about to get.

With a further £2 billion cut expected, it is not enough to just protest. Government and councils need to find new ways to fight off the worst excesses of the Tory onslaught.

The report suggests that with interest rates at an all-time low it is cheaper to buy out or refinance public-private partnership (PPP) and private finance initiative (PFI) contracts, saving councils up to £12bn. Pension funds could be a source of badly needed investment for infrastructure. Some councils are already using them to invest in affordable housing, but we need more.

Councils could collaborate in using bonds to finance borrowing rather than routinely using the Public Works Loan Board.

Glasgow unions are urging the council to use reserves and capitalisation to buy time to build a major campaign.

For UNISON, independence or devolution was never just about powers: it was about what we do with those powers to bring a fairer Scotland for our members and the people they serve.

That is the test for the Scottish government. If it is ready to use powers to rescue local government and to take action to mitigate austerity, it will find ready supporters in the trade union movement and in the new politics of the Labour Party.

We wait with anticipation.

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