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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Plenty of vision in government plan, but delivery is more challenging

The Scottish Government's plan for the coming year is light on legislation, but there is more meat in the administrative sections, if it can move from process into action.

I outlined the key elements of the Scottish Government's 'Plan for Scotland 2016/17' in a briefing yesterday. So let's step back and look at the plan overall.

The main purpose of the plan is to set out the government's legislative programme - it's the Scottish version of the Queen's Speech. There are 14 Bills, but most of them are technical or dealing with specific issues like Domestic Abuse. They are also largely uncontroversial and even Bills on big issues like social security and child poverty are about the process of how the government will administer new powers.

The one exception is the Air Passenger Duty Bill. When this tax is devolved, the government wants to halve it with the longer term aim of abolishing it. This plan makes a mockery of the government's climate change commitments by dumping tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It is also unaffordable in the current budget and gives a tax cut to the wealthiest in society - 50% of Scots don't even use air travel.

Other promised legislation that campaign groups will want to build on, like the Climate Change Bill and Good Food Nation Bill, have been pencilled in for later in the parliament. Overall, you wonder if the legislative programme would have been more adventurous if the SNP had secured a parliamentary majority in May. Minority government's tend to push more into administrative action, rather than risking parliamentary votes. I suspect the May draft of this plan looked somewhat different!

There are two big challenges in the administrative sections.

The first is finance. Austerity isn't going away and the next budget will have to set out taxation as well as spending plans. This plan severely limits the government's room for manoeuvre by promising no change in the basic rate of income tax. There are still plenty of opportunities to increase revenue on the fringes, but only the basic rate provides enough income to really challenge austerity and tackle the issues identified in the plan.

The second is public service reform. There is a whole section in the plan devoted to how the government wants to engage communities and decentralise. However, the actual measures are pretty modest, like 1% community budgets. On the other hand, we have centralising measures like the regionalisation of education and the ring fencing of council tax. That's before the review of health boards and councils gets under way.

There are a number of measures in the plan that could be truly transformational. The main one is increasing early years provision. Doubling the provision with 200 new centres and 20,000 extra staff is potentially huge. The problem is that £500m doesn't meet the cost, unless the plan is to do it on the cheap, with low paid staff rather than properly qualified early year's professionals.

Which leads me neatly into social care. It was precisely a race to the bottom in pay and conditions that got us into the mess we are in today. There are new resources to address this, but implementation is a bit of a guddle. Creating a fairly paid, properly trained workforce that has the time to care is absolutely crucial to getting patients out of expensive acute hospital beds. This is an opportunity to put some meat on the worthy Labour Market Strategy by creating sectoral collective bargaining structures for the care sector. This would get all the stakeholders working together to deliver the agreed outcomes.

This is crucial to another big element of the plan - shifting NHS resources into community services. This is absolutely the right policy, but very difficult politically. The slightest hint of a hospital closure or even downsizing creates a local storm. The problem for the government is that they came to power on the back of this very type of political protest. Now their financial plans for NHS Scotland look very challenging unless they can free up acute resources.

Finally, there are some other positives in the plan. The police officer numbers target has been dropped and replaced by the ‘right mix and numbers of officers and staff’. It will take some time to repair the damage and get back to a balanced workforce, but it’s a start.
There is also a commitment to improve value and reduce the cost to the public purse of PPP schemes, including ending contracts ‘where possible and appropriate’. The NHS and some local authorities are starting to get into gear on this after UNISON’s ‘Combating Austerity’ report highlighted potential savings.

Equally, the section on inclusive growth and fair work, demonstrates a clear understanding of how unequal societies damage growth. This section includes measures to mitigate the Trade Union Act and support for learning. You wouldn’t see this infographic in a UK government publication!

So, the limited legislative programme reflects the challenges of minority government. However, government doesn’t always need to legislate to achieve its policy goals. There is plenty of positive vision and process in this plan – delivery is as always more challenging.

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