SINCE the SNP won its first election in 2007, Scotland’s local authorities have been obliged to freeze council tax while finding savings as budgets fall. This has not been easily achieved and, across the country, vital services have been cut. And, all the while, councils have faced the threat of fines if they fail to maintain the tax freeze.
Things have been tough for local authorities in recent years. They are about to get tougher.
Finance Secretary John Swinney has made three key demands of Scottish councils. He wants them to continue to support the council tax freeze, maintain teacher-pupil ratios in classrooms, and integrate health and social care.
Should local authorities do as they are instructed by the Finance Secretary, they will receive a share of a £408 million pot. There are serious sums involved: Glasgow will be entitled to £45m if it meets Swinney’s demands, while Edinburgh is in line to receive £33m.
The Finance Secretary has utterly dominated council leaders in recent years. None has been willing to defy him, though their concerns about budgets are regularly aired.
But, perhaps, Swinney is about to discover that he cannot assume councils will always do his bidding.
Aberdeen City Council lawyers believe that one of the conditions laid down by Swinney is legally contentious. And that may see councillors challenge any decision to withhold money, even if they do fail to implement the measures.
The problem lies in Swinney’s demand that all social care workers should be paid the Living Wage of £8.25 per hour. This is not an unreasonable aspiration. Carers do the most valuable work. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining and the rewards are meagre.
Ensuring that social care workers receive a decent wage seems a simple case of fair play. Shouldn’t we value more those who care for the most vulnerable among us?
But local authorities, even if they believe in the principle of the Living Wage, have no power to compel contractors to pay it to employees.
Once a private company has secured a contract, it is free – with due consideration to minimum wage legislation – to set its own rates of pay. How, then, can councillors in Aberdeen – or elsewhere – meet Swinney’s demand on pay for carers?
Councillors in Aberdeen are advised by lawyers that they cannot make it a requirement of those bidding for contracts that they pay care staff at least the Living Wage. Unsurprisingly, what a private company does is a matter for it and not politicians.
Swinney is one of the most competent ministers in Holyrood but his handling of this matter is less sure-footed than expected. He is on a collision course with councillors over enforcing his Living Wage demands despite having no power to do so. It would be wrong for councils to be penalised for failing to follow Swinney’s instructions if the law prevented them from doing so.
Swinney is not an unreasonable man. The flaw in his requirement that carers receive the Living Wage is, we suspect, down to oversight rather than being an attempt to scupper councils’ chances of sharing in the £408m pot.
The Finance Secretary must pause for thought at this point. Councils have done all that he has asked of them for the past nine years. They’ve borne the brunt of cuts and maintained that council tax freeze which plays so well for the SNP at elections.
What’s required now is a period of reflection and then a new negotiation. Swinney could, of course, use brute force to see that councils do his bidding. But far preferable would be a new deal between local and central government that might actually work.