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Best Value in Local Government: Next Steps
UNISON Scotland Response

See consultation document at
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/bestvalue/docs02/next-00.asp

INTRODUCTION

1. UNISON Scotland very much welcomes the opportunity to respond to this important set of proposals by the Scottish Executive. We are Scotland's largest trade union representing over 80,000 directly employed local government employees. In addition many thousands of our members are employed by joint boards, the voluntary sector and organisations with links to local government.

2. UNISON Scotland is pleased that the Executive has accepted in principle all the recommendations of the Task Force. We particularly welcome the explicit commitment to repeal the existing CCT legislation, which has been divisive and damaging.

3. UNISON Scotland applauds the commitment in Paragraph 8 of the document to recognise staff and trade unions as important stakeholders in the best value process, and we welcome the encouragement to Scottish Councils to engage fully with their staff and to promote equal opportunities.

4. We note the reference to Community Planning, and accept that Best Value solutions will emerge from a process which involves all stakeholders, including service users and trade unions. We welcome the emphasis on social inclusion and believe this must take into account the standard of the local environment, economy, participation that local people have in the decision making process when it comes to prioritising the agenda. In particular:

Environment, ranging from al aspects of the area. Standard of open spaces (parks etc), street maintenance, cleanliness of the area and facilities that the local people have access to.

Economy, sustainability of all aspects of the local area for future years to come not just short-term budget savings with no real sustainability. Ensuring that future generations have access to high quality training and apprenticeships etc. Recognising that secure employment also encourages further development with a settled community.

Participation, any body that is formed as part of best value must remain accountable to all local people through recognised formulae of democracy.

5. We believe that the development of three-year budgeting, as outlined in paragraph 13 of the document, is crucial to the successful implementation of Best value. Not only does it allow Councils to plan realistically, it is a measure of the increasing trust between the Executive and Scotland's Councils and as such is welcomed. We believe that Councils must have scope to reach local solutions to local problems, and to budget for this over a realistic time period. UNISON Scotland does not believe that local authorities and their staff can be continue to be forced into self financing best value through prolonged cuts in budgets. The figure of 2% savings built into best value cannot be sustained by authorities already starved of decent funding. In order to implement continuous improvements the council may have to spend to save. Best value shouldn't be seen by either staff, trade unions or indeed the authority as mere cost cutting exercises.

6. UNISON Scotland is, however, disappointed at the assertion in paragraph 18 that the most vital element of best value is the Reporting Framework. Clearly, transparency and accountability are important, but we believe that the real benefits of Best Value lie in culture change, in empowerment of staff, in achieving synergies and in finding innovative solutions to difficult problems. None of these is easily measurable, and we are disappointed that the Executive focuses on quantitative rather than qualitative data as the measure of Best Value.

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

7 In Paragraph 28, the Executive invites views on the nature and content of the Best Value duty to replace the existing section 122A VFM duty. UNISON Scotland believes that the concept of customer-focused continuous improvement, developed in line with the views of all stakeholders, adequately describes the process of Best Value. However, we also wish to emphasise the qualitative and cultural aspects of the process (see Para 6, above) and believe there should be further consultation to ensure that this aspect of Best Value becomes part of the statutory duty which replaces the narrow VFM definition. We also believe the process should take into account the staff and resources necessary to provide the services.

8 In Paragraph 31, the Executive puts forward two options for the appropriate forum for agreeing future guidance. UNISON Scotland strongly favours using the Local Government Forum, consisting of COSLA, STUC and SE. We are, however, firmly of the view that guidance should be just that: Best Value does not lend itself to centralised instruction and control.

9 In Paragraph 35, the Executive asks for views on the desirability of a common framework underpinning Best Value across the public sector in Scotland, and whether that might require a statutory base. A key issue here is identifying what is meant by the public sector. UNISON Scotland believes that this is an opportunity to bring key public services back into the local government ‘family' by extending the Best Value duty to Joint Boards, Water Authorities, careers companies, leisure trusts, further education colleges and all the other sectors which have been separated from Councils over the years. We strongly support the inclusion of these bodies in any legislation which underpins Best Value in Scotland. We would support a common framework as this would allow for agreed conditions to apply across all Councils, and would reduce the power of Councils who wished to interpret best value to suit themselves.

10 In Paragraph 37 the Executive proposes to amend the existing duties of the Accounts Commission to have regard to a new duty of Best Value. We consider this is a sensible step if the Accounts Commission is to continue to collect and publish data on councils' performances and welcome it, providing great care is taken with the actual definition of Best Value (see Para 7, above). However, UNISON Scotland supports establishing a Scottish Quality Commission with the remit of pro-mot-ing good prac-tice and a range of recognised standard assess-ments and measures, taking into account the complexity of services provided and the need for quality. A Scot-tish Quality Commission should be accountable to the Scot-tish Parlia-ment but should not be part of a re-focused Accounts Com-mis-sion. The Accounts Com-mission has historically placed emphasis on value for money being determined by the lowest cost, rather than on quality criteria. A Scot-tish Quality Commission should have the responsibility for highlight-ing and spread-ing good practice. It should also advise and assist Coun-cils who are delivering poor per-formance and should monitor prog-ress towards putting things right. In cir-cum-stances where a Council continues to provide an inadequate ser-vice, then the ulti-mate sanction against the Council should be at the ballot box.

11 In paragraph 38 reference is made to Public Performance Reporting. We entirely agree that the public, as the service users, should have access to how the services are provided. However we have concerns about the methods currently used to obtain that information, both the Statutory Indicators, which we see as flawed because they only seek very specific information on a service, rather than the overall service provision, and the way in which the public have been engaged to respond through Citizen's Panels, etc.

12 In Paragraph 40, the Executive invites views on whether the Joint Scrutiny Forum should continue, or whether a more formalised approach would be better. We are inclined to oppose any unnecessary formalisation, and believe the existing arrangements should continue.

13 In Paragraph 43, the Executive invites views on the formulation of suitable intervention powers. UNISON Scotland is firmly of the views that powers of intervention should be a last resort. In the past, powers of intervention have, in our view, been used mischievously and maliciously and often applied on a party political basis. The advent of three-year budgeting indicates an increasing bond of trust between the Executive and Councils, but this could be negated by an insistence on general powers of intervention. We believe that the Executive should recognise the commitment to improvement demonstrated by Scotland's Councils and should not formulate any intervention powers at this time.

14 On a similar theme, Paragraph 46 asks for views on what might trigger intervention and what might be appropriate sanctions for dealing with poor performance. UNISON Scotland believes that the best sanction is a revitalised democracy which will hold under-performing Councils accountable for their actions. Thus the sanction is through the ballot box.

15 In Paragraphs 53 and 54, the Executive asks for views on criteria and mechanisms to replace CCT. UNISON Scotland believes that Best Value should be driven by innovation and quality, and that issues highlighted here, such as the transparency of tendering and the application of TUPE, should be part of the remit of the Best Value Advisory Body which will replace the Joint Forum. We do not see any part of the existing CCT legislation which should remain on the Statute Book, and would welcome the repel of Part III of the 1980 Act and Part I of the 1980 Act. UNISON Scotland does not agree with the statements made in paragraphs 50, 51, 42 and 53 that competition should be the central element of service delivery - best service should be the essential element. By reducing all factors to that of competition, the Scottish Executive risks ensuring that crude financial criteria are top of the agenda for service provision

16 Paragraphs 55 to 57 deal with extending Council's freedom to trade. UNISON Scotland very much welcomes the inclusion of workforce matters and equality issues in Part II of the 1988 Act, and also supports the concept of a General Power of Competence, which is being consulted on separately. The Executive specifically asks whether the list of public bodies described in the 1978 Order needs to be updated, or whether a more generic approach finds favour. We support the latter proposal, and believe the best way forward lies in an approach which takes account of the objective of the intended trading rather than the status of the trading partner.

17 Paragraph 59 introduces a new concept: the need for Councils to redistribute a given percentage of resources through Best Value. We are opposed to this kind of mechanistic approach to Best Value, and believe this will create financial imperatives which will undermine the spirit of co-operation and innovation that increasingly characterises Scotland's Councils. Such a requirement takes no account of cultural change. To us, it smacks of the detested Rate of Return, which has stifled initiative during the CCT era, and we do not want to see that kind of measure applied as part of Best Value.

18 Paragraph 60 seeks views on how best to deliver continuous improvement. UNISON Scotland agrees that councils must strive to improve. However, we do not see this improvement merely in terms of money saved. We seek improvements in terms of staff development, training provision, health and safety provision, family friendly policies, close adherence to legislation on discrimination, improvement in facilities for disabled service users, and social inclusion at all levels of service provision.

MATT SMITH
UNISON SCOTTISH SECRETARY

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