In the 24 March budget Chancellor Alistair Darling announced the first tranches of cuts to the public sector. But he did this by saying he wanted to save hundreds of millions of pounds through “improving efficiency”. What does this mean?
As with so many New Labour announcements, this efficiency drive recycled elements from previous initiatives.
For example, in December 2009 the Government launched “First Line First”. This had the same recipe as the budget — improvements in procurement, reducing sick leave, moving civil servants out of London, cutting back on consultant spend etc.
Before “First Line First” the Government had announced that in the next three financial years — apart from for those workers in multi-year deals — pay rises in the public sector will be limited to 1%.
In essence the budged offered nothing new. Except that by putting it all in the budget the Government is investing more political capital into delivering cuts.
When interviewed about the budget, Treasury Minister, Liam Byrne, was clear that part of the plan to reduce sick absence involved sacking more people; though he put this in sinister management speak and talked of “exiting” people.
The possible model that they may have in mind is that operating in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). That organisation has, in some years, sacked about 1% of its work force annually for sick absence related reasons. During the periodic crackdowns on sickness, DWP can, in some areas give 10% or more of its staff warnings for sickness; in intense crackdowns that figure can head towards 40%!
If these methods were applied to the public sector as a whole then you would expect over half a million staff on warnings, and sick-related sackings to be in the region of 60,000 a year.
Little chance perhaps of Labour taking on board the lessons learnt through the Whitehall studies (a 20-plus year health examination of civil servants). That shows there is a better way to reduce sickness. That is improve the well being of public sector workers!
The studies (which have been incorporated into Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett‘s book The Spirit Level) show that giving workers greater control over work, improving job security and improving support to workers will actually and permanently improve absence levels.
The government/DWP methods will in fact increase sick levels; hence the need for continuing crackdowns, more sackings etc. What they do not realise, or do not care about, is that work organisation (targets, over strict supervision, hierarchy etc) is the cause of the problem.
Instead of treating this pogrom against the sick on a one-by-one basis, as personal cases (as does the leadership of the PCS union in the DWP) the public sector unions have to raise and agitate for different ways of organising work.