Written evidence from UNISON (EDE 08)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution
UNISON is the UK's largest trade union with nearly 1.4 million members. Our members work in the public services, for private contractors providing public services and in the essential utilities. They include frontline staff and managers working full or part time in local authorities, the NHS, the police service, universities, colleges and schools, the electricity, gas and water industries, transport and the voluntary sector. As a democratically mandated membership body we regularly engage with government and parliamentarians to protect and improve the pay and conditions of our members and the wider quality of life of their families and the broader community.
Since 2010, the United Kingdom has experienced a decade of austerity, the first coalition government in a generation and referendums on our voting system, the future relationship between our individual nations and the future relationship with the international community. The post Brexit political situation merely heightened the constitutional debate in a “disunited kingdom” of growing civic nationalism and regionalisation, the unsettled will for political change and the growing plurality of politics, which will have long-lasting implications for government and governance. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is the single greatest challenge the country has faced since the Second World War. In local government, additional responsibilities and a huge loss of income have left councils facing a multi-billion pound in-year funding gap. At the same time, the importance of local government has never been so evident or widely recognised by the public, as councils across the country have effectively supported and protected our communities. It is clear that when restrictions are lifted, and the crisis is over, things cannot return to how they were beforehand.
Despite promises from many politicians, the debate on fiscal and legislative devolution has not always been as fast moving across the UK as it could have been. UNISON continues to maintain a position of principled support for the ability of regions and nations to take a decision individually regarding a settlement within their area. However, it will be essential to ensure that the sense of unity expressed by the country in its determination to stop the spread of COVID-19 is replicated in the attitude of all towards what kind of public services we want to see delivered, how we pay for them and by whom and in what tier of government decisions are taken in relation to them.
In England, the lack of a standard definition of the powers/funding/focus for combined authorities or regional/metro mayors has severely undermined the success of the model and directly affects the level of support it receives in the community. Inconsistencies in arrangements see some areas combining the role of mayor with that of the police and crime commissioner – whilst some others have a role in the delivery of local health services, yet others do not. The Scotland Act 2016, however, provided additional enhanced powers to the Scottish Parliament in areas of elections to the Parliament and local councils, taxation and welfare and social security, borrowing for capital investment, and devolved bargaining in the public services.
Any devolution arrangements in the future need to demonstrate the following principles:
There is potential for public policy decisions around devolution to lead towards a weakening of national collective bargaining. Whilst attempts by the 2010-15 Coalition Government to introduce regional pay in the public sector did not progress beyond the development stage, it is possible that a future government may use the arrangements to undermine national bargaining by arguing that it should be for the “city regions” or other devolved areas to set their own rates. Despite there being no current suggestion that any existing areas with devolution arrangements have requested national bargaining to be suspended, specific safeguards should be introduced to ensure the continuation of national bargaining within the public sector whilst avoiding an expansion of a two-tier workforce. While UNISON plays a lead role on the Scottish Joint Council for local government pay bargaining, we would be concerned at further breakdown of national bargaining to regional or city level, as it could severely undermine key public services, and help create a postcode lottery in service provision.
UNISON also recognises that there are additional dangers to service provision resulting from the rushed devolution arrangements and the inconsistency in the model used in England. Cuts by central government to expenditure on public services have been hardest felt by local government in England – and all too often the hardest hit have been those with greatest need. You will be aware how in March 2018 the National Audit Office warned that “A combination of reduced funding and higher demand has meant that a growing number of single-tier and county authorities have not managed within their service budgets and have relied on reserves to balance their books. These trends are not financially sustainable over the medium term”.
Despite the decision to cut funding being taken in Whitehall, blame for service reductions and cuts has been passed on to town halls across England. UNISON is clear that the blame for the appalling impact of austerity on our communities falls squarely on the government in Westminster and not local decision makers themselves. For example, a decade of cuts to local government means many councils are now facing a crisis in funding that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Extraordinary interventions were needed in Northamptonshire after flawed strategies to deliver the savings required by austerity failed spectacularly with appalling consequences for local services while many others – amongst them Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire – have faced severe difficulties in setting balanced budgets.
Since 2010 the Government has placed further restrictions on the abilities of local councils to raise their own revenue. Laws requiring referendums on council tax increases above a certain amount are simply rate-capping with a fig leaf of democracy. It should be for individual councils and regional government to set their local tax levels and for local people to determine if they deem any increases to be “excessive” through the ballot box, rather than the Secretary of State decreeing what constitutes “excessive” from the centre.
Lord Gary Porter, the Conservative former Chair of the Local Government Association, has said “Councils can no longer be expected to run our vital local services on a shoestring”. Local and regional government simply cannot take any more cuts whilst their hands are tied on local income generation. The Government must find a way to sustainably fund councils and regional government and put an end to the crisis in public services. Devolution in England cannot continue whilst central government fails to adequately fund public services.
Future public spending settlements need to provide additional resources to local and regional public services. Firstly, Government must ensure that there is no funding gap. Secondly, future public spending arrangements must recognise the additional costs that arise for local and regional government from inflation, population growth and demand for local services. Finally, Government must begin to address the damage and unmet needs resulting from a decade of austerity and highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, UNISON recommends that:
UNISON would welcome the opportunity to discuss this submission further with members of the Committee.