By Peter Allenson, Unite national officer for services
Comments by Oliver Letwin, architect of the government’s public services ‘reform’ agenda, have exposed what the Tory-led coalition really plans for public sector workers and public services. And it’s nasty stuff.
His declaration that public sector workers need “some real discipline and some fear” lifts the lid on an agenda of change through intimidation. As if public sector workers weren’t already fearful enough on account of the government’s cuts attacking jobs, working conditions and pensions.
Among all the statistics that have been flying about concerning public sector ‘inefficiencies’, one that hasn’t had much coverage is the amount of unpaid overtime worked in the public sector.
Analysis published earlier this year found that public sector workers are the most likely to do unpaid overtime, with over one in four (26.3%) regularly putting in more than seven hours of unpaid overtime a week, compared to around one in six workers in the private sector (18.9%).
Staff in the public sector put in 702 million hours of unpaid work last year, valued at over £11 billion. Clearly, public service delivery includes commitment and good-will on the part of public service workers – a ‘public service ethos’. But this is not an infinite resource and is being strained to the limit by the coalition.
Further, Letwin also asserts that “some will not survive” and that this is “inevitable and intended”. No doubt there – some public services, including schools and hospitals, will be allowed to ‘fail’. But who will ensure that public needs are still met? Are we to expect more Southern Cross-style flops where vulnerable service users are dumped by panicky investers?
The coalition’s Open Public Services white paper details an ideological intention to outsource public services. Make no mistake; the role of the state in ensuring decent public services is under threat, once fragmented it will be difficult to put back together. As the coalition starts to take apart the public sector, it is important that there is an organised and popular force to oppose them, and that workers, service users and communities know that in Labour they have a party proud of public service.
Labour can, and should, also expose the economically questionable arguments advanced by the government. As a Unite report published earlier this year demonstrated, the coalition’s agenda lacks an evidence base and threatens working conditions and the quality of public services. Analysis by the FT has questioned claims that the private sector is better or cheaper than its public equivalent, and there are also examples of some councils bringing services back in-house to improve efficiency, motivate staff and increase service quality.
Good quality public services depend on the commitment of staff. David Cameron may have paid lip service to a ‘public service ethos’ in the past, but the Tories’ mask has slipped. Oliver Letwin and the coalition may not value public services and their workers, but the people of this country do. Now is the time to defend them.