Public Services

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2008 National Delegate Conference
25 February 2008
Carried as Amended

Conference believes that changing political and economic circumstances make the case for sustained investment in quality public services delivered by well-trained and fairly rewarded public sector employees even more important.

Conference notes that when given the option, as in Scotland and Wales, voters will support policy programmes that seek to strengthen and renew public services on the basis of public service principles of equality, solidarity, democratic involvement and accountability.

Conference recognises the success of the UNISON Positively Public campaign in developing and promoting an alternative agenda for public services and believes that this work will be of even more urgent importance as we move through challenging economic times towards a general election that is expected to be closely fought.

The prospect of a weakening economy makes it even more important to ensure that public servants are enabled to meet social needs and contribute to social prosperity, rather than undermining economic growth and social cohesion by forcing down pay and cutting back services in the name of false “prudence” and “efficiency”.

Conference recognises the progress that has been achieved – in large part as a result of UNISON’s campaigning – in renewing and developing our public services over the past decade. However, in too many areas we still see low pay, under-staffing, inadequate access to training and career development, and a poor industrial relations climate in which staff feel undervalued and disempowered.

Conference is especially concerned that these problems are being exacerbated by the pressure to get services on the cheap by contracting out to external providers who can undercut agreed terms and conditions and ignore union representation – a trend which continues apace throughout our public services and risks being pushed into new sectors, from libraries to primary care, as a result of the Local Government white paper and Darzi review of the NHS.

Conference notes the growth of shared services across the public sector, and devolved nations, and is concerned that this trend is driven more by the government’s desire to make “efficiencies” than to improve service delivery.

UNISON believes that all public services should be delivered with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness but this should not be confused with the unfounded belief that larger, privatised organisations are always best placed to deliver quality services.

UNISON believes that the challenge for public services is to harness technological and organisational change in order to meet the needs of individuals and communities, particularly those that are economically and socially disadvantaged. Making services more efficient has the potential to release more resources. But this must not become an excuse for privatising services and cutting jobs.

Shared services are identified in the government’s efficiency agenda as a way of making huge savings by streamlining services. This comes on top of the £30billion Efficiency Programme target. These pressures are combining to force public bodies into rushing into large shared service contracts with private companies.

Throughout the UK, public services are being pushed toward this model.

There are examples of effective public-public shared services, such as Tayside Contracts which runs the combined construction and facilities management services for three councils. In health, they can provide national, integrated services that can counter the fragmentation taking place elsewhere. But these are also vulnerable to being sold to the private sector as long there is a background of market mechanisms, commissioning and a shortage of money.

The National Audit Office says that shared services are not making the predicted savings and the Audit Commission warns that similar kinds of partnerships in the private sector have failure rates of 60-70% and that councils have relied unduly on the language of the spirit of partnership and wrongly believed that contractors would pursue shared goals. They go on to recommend that councils reform in-house provision or pursue public-public partnerships rather than resort to the private sector.

Conference believes that the only route to a more prosperous and democratic society will be on the basis of:

1)increased public investment in universal services to meet social needs;

2)an engaged, well-trained, and fairly rewarded public service workforce backed up by independent union representation;

3)strong, integrated, public sector organisations, democratically accountable and responsive to communities;

4)procurement and commissioning that extends and enforces high employment standards, accountability and transparency.

Conference therefore calls upon the National Executive Council, regions and branches to:

a)highlight and campaign around an alternative agenda for public services as the necessary foundation of a fair, cohesive, democratic and prosperous society through the continuing development of the positively public campaign;

b)build alliances including working with and supporting local Trade Union Councils. With users and communities at national, regional and local levels to develop and promote a shared agenda for quality public services;

c)ensure that UNISON members are equipped to engage effectively, as employees and as citizens, with new local decision-making structures;

d)campaign for a halt to the blanket shared services programme whilst a thorough investigation of actual costs and benefits is undertaken;

e)pool information on shared services and the companies providing them using UNISON’s Bargaining Information System;

f)collect information on and review the impact of public-private partnerships;

g)develop a cross service group organising strategy for shared services;

h)campaign for workforce protections and take account of the complexity of the new organisations being created;

i)provide support to branches and regions that are facing shared service models;