How the budget could fix public services

But new UNISON research shows that public service workers are overwhelmingly pessimistic about chancellor Jeremy Hunt doing the right thing next week

Jeremy Hunt
                                                                    Jeremy Hunt. Image © Richard Townshend

The budget takes place next Wednesday and is the Westminster government’s opportunity to take big decisions that would benefit people’s lives, such as investing in public services, improving wages, making the tax system fairer and tackling out-of-control energy bills.

But new UNISON research shows that an overwhelming 94.5% of public service workers are not optimistic that it will do any of those things.

This is against a backdrop of almost nine in every 10 public service workers (88.1%) finding it harder to pay their household bills than they did six months ago.

This financial strain is forcing them to make some incredibly difficult choices: 86% of those surveyed are cutting costs to make ends meet – of whom more than one in 10 (10.5%) have had to use, or plan to use, a foodbank.

As well as making cuts, one in five has also taken steps to increase their income, of whom two thirds work overtime, over a third are already working two jobs and a further 24.1% plan to find a second job; 6.5% of respondents have even taken on a third job.

The need to find better-paid work is a major factor in the staffing crisis in public services, the survey shows, with a third of those surveyed planning to leave the public sector altogether for a job elsewhere.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea commented today: “It’s difficult to see how one of the richest politicians in the UK [the chancellor is worth an estimated £14 million] can deliver the policies that ordinary people who work in and rely on public services need.

“So, here at UNISON we asked the experts – those workers on the frontline in their communities – what policies would improve their lives and boost the economy.”

Abbi, a probation service officer in Llanelli, says that “working full time, two average incomes just doesn’t cover the cost of living anymore.” She would like to see the government put money into tackling poverty, helping with housing costs and bringing down the cost of essentials, like childcare.

Similarly, Kate, a staff nurse in Leicester, would prioritise making sure that working people are able to pay for the essentials.

Three quarters of frontline workers say that an above-inflation pay rise wouldn’t just benefit them, but would boost the whole economy.

Michaela, a teaching assistant in Cornwall, says a pay increase above inflation would mean she and her colleagues could “live without relying on food banks, can be warm in their own homes, not worry about their pay running out in the middle of the month and not having to constantly live hand to mouth. We could live, not just exist.”

Jayne, a legal assistant in Essex, says that an above inflation pay rise would “mean I could eat and put the heating on.”

Jacqueline, a social care support worker in Goole, East Yorkshire, says she would focus on making society fairer, stopping companies from making vast profits when their employees are low paid, and closing tax loopholes so no one avoids paying their due.

Similarly, Derick, a medical librarian working for the NHS in Birmingham, says that if he were chancellor, he would increase the windfall tax on excess profits and close tax loopholes like non-dom status. He would increase income taxes on people earning over £125k and use this to increase the NHS budget and give public sector workers a proper pay rise.

“Public service workers are clear,” said Ms McAnea. “The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough money to go round, but that it is being concentrated in the pockets of big businesses and the wealthiest households.

“95% of public service workers think the chancellor should prioritise cracking down on tax avoidance in next week’s budget, and 92.9% want to see higher windfall taxes on oil and gas giants.”

She concluded: “The choices made next week will have a significant impact on everyone who works for and relies on public services, so we’ll be following the announcements carefully. We hope that the chancellor will listen to public service workers who can see the damage that this government has done to local services and economies – if not, then watch this space for opportunities to take action.”

Notes: figures and quotes are from a UNISON survey of 23,644 public service workers, working in education, local government, health/NHS, social care, police and justice, energy, water, environment, and transport.