Public Sector Workforce (Update)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 28 November 2023.

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Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

1. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the public sector workforce reductions predicted by the finance secretary on Sunday. (S6T-01660)

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

The United Kingdom Government’s autumn statement is one of austerity for public services. In his budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose to ignore provision of much-needed funding for such services, other than the £10.8 million of consequentials for health.

We have had two years of high inflation

, because of which public sector pay deals have exceeded our planned expenditure. We welcome the recent report from Audit Scotland on the Scottish Government’s workforce challenges and we recognise the issues that it has set out. Growth in the public sector workforce is due to a range of factors, and we are committed to providing high-quality public services. However, our financial position necessitates our considering reform of the way in which public bodies deliver such services.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance will set out a further update in the draft Scottish budget for 2024-25.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The Deputy First Minister’s comments in the media over the weekend will have caused anxiety and nervousness among public servants across Scotland, just as winter costs start to bite. They deserve clarity and candour from the Government.

What level of detail is contained in the Scottish Government’s plans to reduce head count? Will those plans be laid before Parliament in detail? What areas of focus will there be for such reductions, given that the national health service’s head count will be protected? Will the minister guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies? Will he agree to meet trade union representatives, as the GMB union has called on him to do?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

We are in this situation because of a range of factors. Clearly, the impact of inflation has been significant, but we are also here because of decisions that have been taken by the UK Government. As the Deputy First Minister has already stated, we are committed to protecting the health service and we want to avoid compulsory redundancies. Of course, we are committed to engaging constructively with all our partners across the public sector in order to achieve those aims and ambitions.

With regard to a further update, as I said in my original answer, the Deputy First Minister will provide more information as part of the Scottish budget process.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The ministers’ answers were phrased to represent a range of factors doing a huge amount of work. The reality is that the announcement brings into question the Government’s competence and shows its lack of workforce planning. As the minister knows, since 2019, civil service head count in devolved areas has increased by almost 40 per cent, which represents more than 7,000 posts. That is at a time when the NHS’s head count grew by just 11 per cent and the Scottish Government’s core head count increased by 2,000—by a third.

Throughout the Covid pandemic, the Government was adamant that Covid money was being used only for non-recurring items, but was that the case? Given the coincidence, was that money being used to grow head-count numbers? More importantly, is it not grossly incompetent, if not outright cruel, to create positions only to have to remove them just months later?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

What is “incompetent” is the UK Government’s handling of the UK economy, and what are “cruel” are its budget decisions. The reality is that, as was the case with every aspect of public finances, decisions on spending of public money during the Covid pandemic were set out in a transparent process through the annual budget process and, of course, in the published audited accounts.

I recognise that we are in an exceptionally challenging set of circumstances, but they are not unique to Scotland. Indeed, our colleagues in Wales are wrestling with similar challenges, which is a reflection of the broader macroeconomic factors and the decisions of the UK Government.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The minister is well aware that the Finance and Public Administration Committee has spent a great deal of its time on public sector reform and how that might happen. What principles does he believe should underpin such reform?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

That is an important question. We have committed to a 10-year programme of public service reform, but underpinning that is a desire to ensure that we deliver more efficient person-centred services, and that we put prevention at the heart of them. We recognise that that is a shared ambition, and we are committed to working constructively with partners across the public sector to deliver it.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

That was a woeful set of explanations from the minister.

For years, the Scottish Fiscal Commission and Audit Scotland have warned the Scottish Government about the black hole in our public finances, but it has kept on recruiting people into the public services. It should be apologising to the people whose jobs are now under threat—not looking to blame Westminster. We need a proper explanation from the minister. When will we get it?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

As I set out in my original answer, further information will be provided as part of the budget process. However, we cannot escape the circumstances that we have found ourselves in over the past two years, which include exceptionally high inflation that has necessitated public sector pay deals that have put unanticipated additional pressure on the public finances.

We are now having to contend with the return of the UK Government austerity agenda—one that has an excess of the austerity that was pursued by George Osborne and by Mr Rennie’s party when it was in the Government.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Can the minister say anything about last week’s Office for Budget Responsibility forecast? Could the autumn statement have done more to help Scotland’s finances and protect jobs?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

John Mason is right to highlight the OBR’s grim set of forecasts, which underline the significant external factors that I mentioned, as well as the mismanagement of the UK economy by the UK Government. We want a public spending settlement that recognises the importance of investment, of protecting jobs and of supporting public service reform, which the UK Government has failed to recognise in its spending plans.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can squeeze in another brief supplementary question.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

The minister is giving us a very bad impression of himself as someone who has sloping shoulder syndrome, blaming everybody but himself for the situation that we are in.

Does he understand and accept that if the Government does not fully fund the council tax freeze that the First Minister announced—without any consultation of anybody—there will be dire consequences for local government jobs and services?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

We have committed to funding the council tax freeze fully. That is why we are engaging constructively with our partners in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. What is creating particular challenges in the current context, ahead of setting our own budget next month, is the fact that we have had such a paltry and pathetic settlement from the UK Government—a settlement that is not commensurate with the challenges that we face.