Public services across the UK need proper funding and a respect for local democracy. Labour needs to create a clear vision out of the current crop of policy announcements.
I was in London today for UNISON's Public Services Summit. As Dave Prentis said, radical policies are not about left wing rhetoric, but about creating a civilised society. Labour has to be brave in addressing the key issues around public services to create the fairer society that will motivate members to vote in the next election.
John Cruddas MP talked about the scale of the crisis facing the UK and the challenges facing Labour. He outlined the recent policy ideas announced by Ed Miliband and signposted more on housing, economic growth, employment rights, care sector and social justice. Lots of reviews and some good ideas, the trick will be to pull them into a coherent vision. As John said, it is incumbent on Labour to create hope from despair.
On public services he focused on preventative spending - very similar to the cross party agenda in Scotland. He also talked about devolution to cities and communities in England, unpacking the centralised state. A topical debate in Scotland too - although somewhat less consensus!
John Trickett MP followed up on this theme in the afternoon session with an outspoken attack on the ConDem privatisation dogma. He made the key point that contracts are rarely evaluated on the whole life cost - promised savings are not delivered in practice. Most of the big outsourcers also hide their profits offshore. A particularly relevant point in Scotland as our Procurement Reform Bill reaches its final stage tomorrow. John was very strong on how the next UK Labour government should ensure social value in procurement, including the right of community challenge to current contracts. The concern of English colleagues was that this all looks like pretty complex procurement law rather than a clear policy direction against privatisation.
It's appropriate on the 15th anniversary of the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 to recognise the challenge in creating a UK view of public services. This also came up at a CLP meeting I was addressing last night, in the context of creating Scottish Labour manifesto for the UK general election next year.
The challenge is that almost all UNISON members in Scotland work in public services that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This means that the very different Scottish approach to the delivery of health, education and the full range of council services will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. Depending of course on the outcome of the independence referendum in September 2014!
That doesn't mean that the UK General Election in 2015 isn't important to Scotland. As in the rest of the UK, austerity economics and the ConDem spending cuts have cut a swathe through Scotland's public services. 50,000 public service jobs have been lost in Scotland, mostly in local government and the services communities rely on have suffered as a consequence. Just one example of this is the delivery of social care to the most vulnerable members of society. Council cuts have led to a race to the bottom in care provision with hard pressed staff, often paid below the living wage, having too little time to care properly. In the UNISON report 'Scotland, It's Time to Care', staff tell their own, often harrowing, stories of what is rapidly becoming a national disgrace.
Cuts in welfare benefits are also devastating families and communities across Scotland. The cumulative impact of the welfare cuts over the six years from 2010-11 to 2015-16 means the Scottish welfare bill being reduced by around £6 billion. At least £1 billion of that relates directly to children.That's a personal tragedy for many families, but it's also a big hit on local economies - particularly in areas of greatest disadvantage.
The impact of ConDem cuts in Scotland also hits the disposable income of workers and their families. Scottish workers have suffered the same real term cuts in pay as their UK colleagues and one in five still earn below the living wage. Councils have plugged the cuts and the Scottish Government's self imposed Council Tax freeze, by raising charges from 40% of Council Tax Funding to 57%. The shift from funding via taxation to charging at the point of use also bears down most heavily on the low paid. Essentials, such as energy and transport costs, that more heavily impact on people in Scotland, have also increased above the headline inflation level.
We are regularly told by politicians that Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world - yet we run food banks and a fifth of the workforce don’t earn enough to live on. Scots also die earlier and have poor healthy life expectancy. The root cause of this is the failure to tackle our unequal society. Devolution has certainly mitigated some of the worse excesses of ConDem policies in the rest of the UK. However, the impact of austerity doesn't stop at Hadrian's Wall and Scotland's public services also need a change of direction at Westminster.