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For richer lives

The pledge to invest more in our public services has resonated with the public but we now need to go even further, writes Heather Wakefield Bliss it was indeed to wake to Labour’s 2017 manifesto – and more blissful yet to...


The pledge to invest more in our public services has resonated with the public but we now need to go even further, writes Heather Wakefield

Bliss it was indeed to wake to Labour’s 2017 manifesto – and more blissful yet to see the positive public reaction to it reflected in the election result. Seven years of coalition and Conservative cuts, privatisation and fragmentation have wreaked havoc on our public services and the manifesto represented – at long last – a real Labour “plan to change all this”.

Fundamental to that plan is the vision of “a country where we invest our wealth to give everybody equal life chances and ‘richer lives’, as well as the critical recognition that “a successful economy depends on the services that support us all”. Investment in public services is a theme running through the manifesto and business must rightly pay their fair share to ensure proper funding and decent employment for public service workers.

Putting public services at the heart of a successful economy and richer lives is hugely welcome, as is the long overdue recognition of the devastating impact of cuts and privatisation on public service jobs, training, pay and conditions and the professional autonomy of public service workers. But in order to create the opportunities for those richer lives the party talks about, more thinking is needed about the public services we have now and what we want for the future.

Are our services fit for purpose? Are needs perceived, rather than real? How can we tackle the diverse issues facing diverse communities? To whom are public services accountable? How do they fit together? And are they designed to solve problems, rather than prevent them? Who delivers them – and what do they need to do the best possible job? How do we best invest in our social infrastructure – as well as industry, transport and communications – to benefit the wider economy and public services?

The answers to these questions are inter-related of course. But let’s start with public service workers. Two-thirds of public servants are women – and they make up three-quarters of the workforce in local government, education and the NHS. Women predominate in many outsourced services too – especially social care, catering and cleaning, where BAME women are most likely to be found. Many work part-time. Zero-hours contracts and breaches of the national living wage are rife in social care.

As well as 20 per cent pay cuts arising from the coalition and Conservative governments’ pay cap, those in the public sector have suffered widespread cuts to conditions – especially in local government – and may have little access to training and career progression. The gender pay gap is widening as cuts mean that equal pay is overlooked, while carers’ leave, childcare provision and real rights for part-time workers are a rarity. Here was a place where the manifesto fell down in failing to recognise the fundamental importance of our public services for women’s employment and the action needed to meet the needs of a female workforce and for them to do the best by their service users.

The National Investment Bank and Transformation Fund could – and should – be used to invest in and transform the public services women work in and use. The Women’s Budget Group has shown that investment of 2 per cent of GDP in high quality social care would create twice as many jobs overall as the same investment in construction, while still generating extra jobs building new care facilities and having a more beneficial multiplier effect across the economy. More women could enter the labour market and elderly and vulnerable people would have a better service.

Next, to the ‘prevention or cure’ part of Labour’s offer. Our public services have been underfunded and under siege for so long that meeting critical need and dealing with the damage wreaked by austerity have become the only game in town. We in the Labour party need to rise to the challenge: How can we reframe and invest in our public services to prevent illness, discrimination, poverty, violence and crime, rather than deal with the – often terrible – aftermath?

Fragmentation of services is a long-recognised but still real problem. Current public service ‘silos’ are real and unhelpful. Departmentalism within national governments  and policy-making, along with rigid, compartmentalised delivery bodies – national and local – and the fragmentation caused by outsourcing, mean that the complex, inter-related needs are often not addressed. This prevents the best possible outcomes and means regular frustration and dissatisfaction for users.

‘Total Place’, sustainable transformation partnerships and a myriad of other bolt-on initiatives have attempted to deal with this problem, largely without success. Labour must take a more radical approach and ask how more seamless, user-focused services can best be delivered. Taking local government areas and exploring local delivery within national standards within them might be an option. There will be others.

Labour’s proposals for national care and education services are welcome if they represent the establishment of universal access to services, national standards of service delivery and employment and appropriate regulation and governance, but not if they create further, distant and unaccountable silos. Conservative notions of underfunded ‘devolution’ are certainly not the answer, but neither is further centralisation without effective local means of delivery.

Unequal treatment of different parts of the public sector must be tackled too if services are to be run smoothly and seamlessly. The 40 per cent average cut to council budgets, the loss of 760,000 council jobs and the attacks on the pay and conditions of local government workers, already the poorest in the public sector, sit uneasily alongside the more favourable (albeit inexcusably damaging) treatment of other parts of the public sector. According to ONS, the workforce in the NHS and central government have grown since 2010 – albeit slightly – while councils struggle to deliver vital local services with decimated workforces.

No-one working in our public services is overpaid and there is no argument whatsoever for reducing anyone’s pay and conditions, but a council cleaner or catering worker earns almost £1,000 a year less than her NHS counterpart, an NHS nursery nurse almost £2,500 more than her council equivalent. The bottom rate of pay for councils and school workers is £7.78 – almost £1 an hour less than equivalent rates in central government departments. Such inequality is inherently unjust, ignores the critical nature of interdependent local services and prevents more effective service delivery. Labour must look at means of pay determination and funding which would provide for pay parity for the same or similar work across public services, including outsourced jobs and maintain equal pay for work of equal value to eliminate the gender pay gap.

Then there is the important issue of democracy and governance. Service users and residents currently have very little opportunity to exert any influence at all over the what, when, how and why of public service delivery. Within public bodies, there is little genuine involvement of the workforce and trade unions when decisions are made on how services can best be delivered either. So the voices of those who generally know best – users and workers – go unheard. This is an issue which Labour must tackle. Local government is hardly a beacon of democracy either.

The recent findings of the Fawcett/LGIU Local Government Commission highlight the shocking fact that two thirds of councillors are men – generally white and over 60. Fewer than 20 per cent of council leaders and just 33 per of chief executives are women and BAME and disabled people are, shockingly, even more under-represented. Similar patterns and the absence of any real democracy in other parts of the public sector, should provoke real thought about how we can best deliver Labour’s public service vision through a transformed democracy.

The manifesto provided an exciting and rich foundation for what should now be a widespread discussion about how we make Labour’s promises mean something new for our public services. Let’s have discussions within constituency Labour parties, with local communities and business. Let’s also ensure that the views of equality organisations, black and ethnic minority communities, women, LGBT people and those with disabilities are central to that discussion. Homeless people and those who are unemployed or on benefits must also have their say. Together let’s transform our public realm once and for all – for the many, not the few.


Heather Wakefield

Heather Wakefield is head of local government, police and justice at Unison. She writes here in a personal capacity.


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