Beacon of progressive light is off beam

A more principled procurement policy for public services is needed if we are to be seen as a caring society, says Dave Watson

Public services such education and health care provision are areas which require adequate resources. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
Public services such education and health care provision are areas which require adequate resources. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

SCOTLAND has some big challenges which we have to start discussing if we are to make our country the beacon of progressive light that so many of us say we want.

For all the talk of our world-class education system, Scottish education attainment has remained stable, Scotland’s childcare costs continue to rise, and college budget cuts are hitting women the hardest. And, free higher education or not, Scotland’s universities have the worst record in the UK for letting in students from poorer backgrounds and the worst dropout rates in the UK.

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The NHS, for all its “best in the world” status, is creaking at the seams. If you don’t think so, check out Unison’s research with NHS staff. Our care system is broken. It needs fixed. Again, if in doubt, speak to our care workers. And we have the issue of chronic low pay.

The Scottish independence referendum will clearly dominate Scottish political party conference season over the next month.

However, Scottish political parties are also deep in their policy processes for the 2015 UK General Election and the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election. It’s what this process suggests we do to meet these challenges that will ultimately tell us how progressive we are.

Our public services, in particular local government are starved of funds. We need to end the ridiculous council tax race to the bottom and get some kind of cross-party consensus on a sensible way forward for local government finances.

The Scottish Government also spends £10 billion per year tendering contracts for goods and services – including care services for our most vulnerable citizens. Companies and voluntary organisations who bid for these contracts compete on price, with governments ever keen to show taxpayers value for money.

But procurement brings with it a real power to make a difference. The decisions our government takes on policy like this tells us how progressive Scotland actually is.

Should our government spend £10bn to get the cheapest services possible? Or should it spend it to deliver ethical and caring services to our most vulnerable, and to tackle low pay and employment practices such as zero hours contracts? We could make a big difference by insisting only companies which pay their taxes and the living wage get a look-in.

Six in ten children who live in poverty have at least one parent working. And 550,000 adults (mostly women) earn less than the living wage.

It is fine saying you are against child poverty and you want to end it. The question is how?

Think of the difference we can make if we insist that companies which bid for a third of government spend must make sure their employees earn more than £7.45 per hour.

A no-brainer you would think? But this is not being proposed by the Scottish Government in the Procurement Bill making its way through parliament right now. Amongst those affected are an army of low-paid care workers who do the intimate caring for our elderly parents and grandparents and disabled people across Scotland.

They will tell you, as they tell us, that they earn less than the living wage and sometimes less than the minimum wage. Many do not get paid travel time between visits. Many are on zero hours contracts or employed by agents. They hate the fact they never seem able to give our loved ones the time they need to be cared for properly. They call it the 15-minute care service for a reason. Many will tell you this is an overestimate; that some care visits can now last no longer than seven minutes.

Is this really the Scotland we are fighting about?

What is the point in telling ourselves what a beacon of light we are, when we are willing to let so many struggle to make ends meet, especially those providing such a vital service.

Unison will be organising events during the TUC’s Fair Pay Fortnight from 24 March, to highlight low pay. Politicians of all persuasions will line up to have pictures taken and to sign up to how they too abhor low pay.

So far so good. However, the real question is what’s the point in spending two years debating which powers should lie where, when we are not even brave enough to use the ones we have to build the progressive country we all say we want?

Parties could start with a simple action – a principled procurement policy.

• Dave Watson is the Head of Bargaining and Campaigns at Unison Scotland