Tomorrow, John Swinney brings his final budget to Holyrood before next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. For PCS members, we not only watch the overall spending impact on services, but the all too real impact of the Deputy First Minister’s pay policy on our members pay.
The SNP government prides itself on its anti-austerity message, but it is easy to say that you are against austerity. Even, in the later days of his Scottish Labour stewardship, the ill-fated Jim Murphy attempted to convince us that he opposed austerity cuts.
The UK government is clear that public sector workers are to shoulder another four years of austerity pay cap at 1% each year 2016-2020. These same loyal public servants have already suffered a 20% drop in their living standards by persistent pay freezes and pay capping by the last government. Over a decade for hundreds of thousands of dedicated staff delivering the beleaguered services on which we, the public depend. That’s the Tories for you though!
The dilemma then for Swinney and SNP Scottish Ministers in this pre-Christmas budget is maintaining their party position as the unified anti-austerity opposition to the Westminster Tory cuts, against how they slice the cake and how they treat their own workforce, when they have the devolved power to do things differently in Scotland.
Year on year, nice-guy Swinney apologises and then imposes the same austerity pay on his workforce. To date, PCS has managed to mitigate the worst effects by negotiating protection for the lowest paid through the Scottish living wage; a clear minimum increase for those earning under £21,000 and by holding employers to the no compulsory redundancy guarantee agreed between our union and Ministers.
For too long though, Scottish public sector pay headlines have merely been UK government pay with a skimpy tartan cover. After five years of pay caps, job cuts and increasing stress at work, this is no longer a viable line. PCS members are facing real hardship in the heart of the Scottish Government. And it is not just me saying that. PCS Scotland has collected testimonies on the effects of Scottish pay restraint on members day to day lifestyles and livelihoods, which we will be presenting in full to MSPs on 17 December.
One PCS member observed that “things have went(sic) up in price but with our wages not being increased, I have struggled to make ends meet… I have started shopping at a cheaper store and also have to count every penny for shopping as some weeks I can only afford £15 for food”.
Another told us that they have to borrow from relatives to support their family as with a mortgage and no meaningful pay rise over the years they are now in a debt management programme and fearing bankruptcy and homelessness. We learned of members not able to afford dental care or new spectacles, not having holidays away from home, resorting to buying second had clothes from charity shops and not being able to accept invitations to nights out as they can no longer afford to pay their way.
Take away food, gym membership, pet insurance, books, cinema, restaurants, broadband and mobile phones are now luxuries that some of our members list as no longer affordable. Children’s school trips, hobbies and swimming lessons are curtailed as bills and credit card debt servicing take priority in their family budget.
A PCS survey amongst Scottish Government employees uncovered the reality of staff requiring to access pay day loans and foodbanks in order to make ends meet.
In 2013, Mr Swinney told PCS union that “austerity pay cannot last forever”.
Of course, the Scottish block grant has been cut again. Tough choices lie ahead.
Austerity pay, however, is a political choice. No devolved government to date has dared to utilise the 3% tax varying powers instilled in the first Scotland Act in 1999. We now have new tax powers coming to Scotland. If we are serious about challenging austerity then we need to find ways of paying the workforce enough salary not just so they can make ends meet, but also so that they can begin to spend and build up our economy again.
However difficult, the burden of cuts this should not continuously be deducted from staff pay. The often harrowing testimonies show that many civil servants are already scraping the bones from month to month. If Scottish Ministers want to truly challenge Tory austerity policies and show that the value their own workforce, then they must now work with PCS and other unions to rebuild our broken pay systems.
Let’s put an end to widespread practices that overwhelmingly benefiting higher paid male employees, such as the £4.5 million for recruitment and retention. Instead, fix the broken pay systems, pay people the proper rate for the job and ensure they are fairly rewarded for the work they do. Let us also ensure that the lowest paid workers, such as those in a three-year long dispute at the National Museums of Scotland are not left behind. They should be in receipt of the same weekend working allowance as their colleagues.
Public sector workers need a commitment now and a plan over the next four years to raise them out of austerity pay, not more of the vindictive Tory pay restraint handed down to them.
It’s over to you, John.