No matter where you go and who you talk to in the public sector, there are furrowed brows and sotto voce mutterings about workload, stress and job cuts.
But do the figures bear out the impression given by those employed in Scotland’s public sector?
Let’s start with the reserved public sector, that is, those jobs that belong to reserved bits of government activity in Scotland – the civil service, armed forces, public corporations, public sector bodies (sorry, I’m not sure what the distinction is) and the euphemistically termed “public sector financial institutions”. That’s RBS, HBOS and Northern Rock to thee and me.
Interestingly, since our bubble burst in the 3rd quarter of 2008 there’s not been an awful lot of change in the overall headcount. Apparently, we should only compare like for like quarters: it says so in red on the spreadsheets, so not wishing to risk being zapped or thrown in leg-irons, that is what we shall do (mostly), comparing Quarters 1 (April to June) of 2009 through to 2012.
Overall, the number employed in reserved parts of the public sector has fallen by 19,000 but this is largely accounted for by the banks who have reduced the number employed in Scotland in the various parts of their businesses by 11,100. Partly this will be down to actual job losses but perhaps also by holdings shifting back into the private sector, such as the disposal of Northern Rock.
So, the reserved public sector has only lost 7,900 jobs with 3,200 out of the civil service (that’s likely to be out of HMRC and DWP mainly), 1,400 from public bodies, 2,400 from public corporations and 800 from the armed forces.
Clearly, every job lost creates real difficulty for the individuals and families involved, as well as those relying upon the service provided by that part of the sector, and a ripple effect in local economies and communities but given how willingly the UK Government has wielded its austerity axe, it seems surprising that not more jobs have gone.
We’ve been rather sheltered from the impact of the cuts in devolved areas compared with England. This is because of the soft-shoe budget shuffle conducted by the Finance Secretary in deferring cuts and in moving revenue funding into capital expenditure but despite all his efforts, there are definitely fewer people employed in devolved parts of the public sector than there were three years ago.
The total number has fallen by 37,500 but this fall masks unevenness across different parts of the sector. In the civil service, for example, only 700 posts have gone, while the NHS is down 3,800 with the bulk – nearly 30,000 in total – being lost in local government. FE colleges, too, appear to have taken a disproportionate hit, losing 1,700 posts.
It is also important to note that these job losses do not necessarily equate with unemployment. We are talking posts rather than people and many jobs will have been lost when the incumbent took retirement and was not replaced.
Moreover, within local government, it appears to be actual council services that have borne the brunt of losses. Police and related services have lost 500 posts since 2009 and fire and related services have lost 200, with the same headcount in fire services of 5,600 being recorded since the end of 2010. Some stability then. And one of the reasons why it seems like a lot of posts have been lost in these services is because of the creation of high watermarks. In police, this was reached in 2010 with 24,900 posts with a full 1000 lost since then.
There is also real difference among local authorities. If we look all the way back to the dawn of devolution, most local authorities are still employing more people now than they did then, even taking into account losses recorded since 2008. And in some areas, the big drop in headcount cannot be explained by the cuts alone. Glasgow, for example, appears to have lost over 10,000 posts between 2009 and 2012 but this can partially be attributed to the creation of ALEOs and charitable trusts which took posts off the books.
Such a stark analysis also hides some uncomfortable truths. It is too easy to look at the growth in public sector employment – particularly in councils – throughout the first nine years of devolution as bloat. Many of these new posts were created to meet new burdens and responsibilities created by government legislation and policy initiatives. All those obligations are still there, requiring to be undertaken, yet there are now fewer people with which to meet them. This undoubtedly impacts on the quality of service delivery, particularly in areas which are intense in terms of their human resources costs, like care in the community, nursing and teaching.
By the same token, the bald statistics do not show in which service areas posts have been lost. We have no way of telling if front line services have suffered more than management – as we all suspect. But we can see that some parts of the public sector are taking more hits in terms of jobs lost than others. Indeed, overall, devolved parts appear to be losing more posts than reserved areas.
And what is most worrying is that while public sector jobs are going, the decline has been rather gradual. There are still substantial, real terms financial cuts to come, particularly in local government, over the next two years. We are likely to lose a lot more posts with shrinkage occurring at a much more rapid rate that it has to date.
*All these figures are plucked from the data tables accompanying the publication linked to above. Feel free to browse the spreadsheets as I did….