Branch’s motions passed at Unite Scotland policy conference

The Unite Scotland policy conference took place on 28 and 29 October in Aviemore. Our branch put forward a motion — ‘A new dimension in Local Government procurement practices and lack of funding for council services’ — which proposed that Unite should

  • raise awareness of the state of crisis in Scottish local authorities
  • pursue alternative funding models for local authorities, such as a tourist tax
  • pursue action on council debt interest repayment
  • challenge suspect procurement models that seek to bypass local scrutiny and encourage mass outsourcing.

The motion was passed unanimously, as was a second motion in which the branch was involved in, with the Edinburgh Area Activists Committee, which calls for Unite to lobby for trade union involvement in City Deals.

Read both motions below and read a report on the conference in the Unite news centre.

The conference was well attended, with delegates from branches across Scotland and politics such as Jeremy Corbyn and the new Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

We are delighted that these motions have been passed. This is the first step for some big campaigns that seek to

  • address important issues in local government
  • claw back power for workers and citizens
  • explore measures that help to make local government sustainable and make it work for the people.

Key points from the motions

Local government in crisis

  • Employment in Scotland’s local government has reduced by more than 7% in the past 6 years: 213,200 in 2011 to around 195,000 in 2017. This is on top of an estimated 30,000 reduction in jobs from 2007 to 2011. Contrast this with the fact that private sector employment in Scotland is up 26% since 1999.
  • Councils continue to spend around 10% of their budgets on interest payments, while services to the most vulnerable in our communities continue to be cut.
  • council budgets are lower, in cash terms, than they were in 2009, while the actual costs have increased by up to 20% from 2009.
  • Procurement models that allow public sector bodies to bypass the standard tender procedure by coming on board the contract of another—such as Edinburgh’s ICT contract with CGI—encourage outsourcing and private monopolisation of important services while hiding details from public scrutiny.

City Deals and trade union involvement

  • City Deals have noble aims, however while contractors and private enterprises have been consulted on how to implement them, trade unions have been left out.
  • £3.2billion of public funding is to be injected into City Deals. This looks to be tripled by funding from other organisations. This money must be used for the benefit of the citizens.
  • The Fair Work Convention and Construction Charter should be applied to these deals to advocate for workers’ rights and ensure fair governance of public funds.

Full motions

Local government in crisis motion

From Unite City of Edinburgh Council branch

A new dimension in Local Government procurement practices and lack of funding for council services

This conference recognises that Local Government in Scotland is in a state of crisis that only clear and radical action can allay. It also notes that there is a new model of Local Government procurement being operated that risks creating monopolies in service delivery.

The Scottish Government has been continuously cutting Local Government funding for the past 5 years and council budgets are now lower, in cash terms, than they were in 2009, whilst actual costs have increased by up to 20% from 2009. Employment in Scotland’s Local Government has reduced by more than 7% in the past 6 years -213,200 in 2011 to around 195,000 in 2017. This is on top of an estimated 30,000 reduction in jobs from 2007 to 2011. Morale amongst many of those workers remaining is understandably low as more pressure is foisted on them and skills and knowledge gaps, caused by staff loss, become more evident.

Key services to our most vulnerable people are being cut and rationed, with ever more stringent eligibility criteria being applied, in an effort to spend less. On top of this councils are seeing more demand for services as a result of demographic changes (increasing young and elderly populations) and UK Government policies aimed at reducing social security expenditure affect vulnerable people.

At the same time councils continue to be compelled to spend around 10% of their budgets on interest payments to the UK Treasury and other money-lenders whilst mechanisms with potential to provide some alleviation (e.g. interest payment amnesty, tourism levy) of this crisis are denied to Scottish councils by a Scottish Government intent on reducing Local Authorities.

The City of Edinburgh Council last year signed a framework agreement with CGI (a Canadian Multinational IT firm with many public sector contracts), for digital services, that has provision for 15 other councils to take up services within this contract without the scrutiny of further procurement. Scottish Borders have already picked up this option and Glasgow is considering doing so despite a potential legal challenge from their existing IT provider SERCO.

The design of this procurement model (one council including others in its contract) sets a precedent that means that it would be possible for a single council to procure any type of service on behalf of other councils and with a single provider. This opens a door for large companies to control local services on a Scotland-wide scale. It would likely reduce costs to councils in this time of tightening budgets but equally affect the, already poor, terms and conditions of council employees and have a negative impact on the delivery of services to our communities and vulnerable people.

This conference calls on our union to initiate a joint campaign with other unions, COSLA, and individual councils to make public the precarious state of Local Government in Scotland and press the Scottish and UK Governments for action on debt interest, increasing Local Authority budget settlements and additional revenue raising powers such as a Tourism Levy.

Moreover, this conference calls on our union to investigate and challenge the legality of the Edinburgh procurement model and mount a public campaign to highlight the risks of this model.

City Deal motion

From Unite Edinburgh Area Activists Committee

City Deals and trade union involvement

This Conferences notes that 3 City Region Deals have been agreed in Scotland (Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow), and another promised in Edinburgh, with the intention of improving local infrastructure, building homes, creating jobs and increasing economic growth.

Some £3.2bn of public sector funding is projected to be injected into these city regions over the next 10 to 20 years. This amount is expected to be tripled through private sector and other investments, such as from universities.

A new bridge over the Clyde, an oil and gas technology centre in Aberdeen, 6,000 new homes in the Highlands are amongst projects at an early stage of development. Other proposed concepts include

  • enhanced digital infrastructure
  • learning and skills hubs
  • low carbon transport
  • district heating schemes.

The city region deals have produced very noble aims and objectives for the use of billions of public funding. Initial funding is provided by local authorities—through borrowing—and the funding from Scottish and UK governments provided on a staged basis dependent on outcome achievement. Governance is provided by local authorities and other bodies through a combined management structure.

Many jobs and job creating projects are proposed in City Region Deals. Consultants have been involved in City Deal planning and businesses and universities in their implementation yet trade unions have no involvement whatsoever.

The very least that must be done is for City Deals to incorporate the principles (dimensions) of the Fair Work Convention (effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect) as a baseline for these deals and for measures such as Renfrewshire Council’s Construction Charter to be utilized, as a matter of course, in procurement and contractual arrangements for City Deal projects.

Trade union involvement in City Region Deals would be able to

  • ensure fair governance of public funds
  • encourage the creation of viable, sustainable jobs
  • enable advocacy for workers’ rights, particularly in consideration or the real living wage.

This conference calls for our union to work with other unions, the STUC and other relevant parties to lobby for trade union involvement in the setting up and management of City region deals.

Furthermore, this conference calls for all Scottish City Deals and city deal projects to adhere to the Fair Work Convention and to adopt measures at least akin to the Construction Charter.

Drop the Debt parliamentary hearing

On Tuesday 7 March 2017, Alex Rowley, Depute Leader of Scottish Labour, put our Drop the Debt research up for debate at Holyrood. The response from the Scottish Government was, in a nutshell, that they consider the issues and points we raise to be both strong and valid. However, they do not believe that the Tories at Westminster will be forthcoming, therefore they are not even going to raise the issue with the UK Government.

What this means…

We need to campaign harder, we need to pile on the pressure. Reps will be running stalls in Glasgow and in Edinburgh over the coming weeks.

Unite CEC Branch Convener, Craig Cummings, who watched the debate at Holyrood, said

This is a strong campaign that we developed locally in Edinburgh and which has now gone nationwide. The fact is that Edinburgh Council is paying out £32 million per year in interest-only on pre-devolution debt liabilities held with the UK Treasury. We are fighting on many fronts to protect jobs and services and make advances where we can. However, real terms cuts to council budgets and rip off loan repayment rates are undermining council services.

We need the Scottish Government to get behind our calls for an amnesty on interest rate repayments to the UK Treasury. At a rate of over 8%, we have sent back £500 million in interest-only to the UK Treasury on liabilities of around £350 million since devolution in 1998 and we still need to settle the principle sums. Our message is clear and simple:

We have paid what we owe. Now we must prioritise local jobs and services.

Scottish Labour backs Union calls for “debt amnesty” on Scottish councils’ pre-devolution debt liabilities

Scottish Labour has thrown its full support behind a campaign calling on the UK Government to grant a “debt amnesty” to Scottish local authorities

Ahead of attending STUC Congress in Dundee, Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray, has written to George Osborne, asking him to consider reducing the rates of interest currently being paid by local authorities on their pre-devolution debt liabilities. In 2015-16, this debt resulted in payments to the Treasury from Scottish Local authorities of £195 million.

In his letter to the Chancellor, Ian Murray said

I would urge you to give serious consideration to the request from Scottish local authorities and the Unite union to grant an amnesty on outstanding pre-devolution debt liability. This request has my full support, and that of the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale.

Unite estimates that, since 1999, Scottish local authorities have paid back over £3 billion in interest on pre-devolution debt. Given the current financial parameters within which Scotland’s local authorities are being forced to operate, payments on this scale are both unfair and unsustainable.

The new powers transferred to Scotland by the Scotland Act will greatly enhance the Scottish Parliament’s control over our public finances. However, if this is truly to represent a clean break from the past and a fresh start for Scotland, relief should be granted on pre-devolution debt liabilities that continue to impose an unwarranted burden of debt on Scottish local authorities.

The Labour Party and Scottish local authorities are prepared to take responsibility for fixing local authority finances – but this can only be done on a level playing field, not one skewed by a historic burden of debt. Agreeing to an amnesty would be morally just, fiscally responsible, and in the best interests of the people of Scotland.