The GMB union has called for an urgent summit with the Deputy First Minister ahead of next month’s budget after she said the public sector workforce would have to shrink.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Shona Robison – who also serves as Finance Secretary – said the impact of increased pay deals and a lack of funding means there will have to be changes to the public sector workforce.
Her predecessor, Kate Forbes, announced last year the public sector workforce would have to be reduced to pre-Covid levels as she laid out a review of high level spending commitments up to 2026.
But appearing before the Finance and Public Administration Committee in June, Ms Robison appeared to back off from the policy which had been announced under Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as first minister.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Show, the Deputy First Minister said: “The size of the workforce will have to reduce, there’s no doubt about that.
“We have a position of no compulsory redundancies, that’s a position that we have held over many years, I don’t want it to change, but there is clearly a relationship between headcount and pay.
“I don’t resent at all the pay increases that we’ve had to give to public sector workers because of the levels of inflation, but we’ve always been clear that there is a relationship between headcount and pay, but we want to maintain that position of no compulsory redundancies if we can.”
The comments sparked the ire of trade unions and prompted GMB Scotland secretary Louise Gilmour to write to Ms Robison calling for an urgent meeting.
“We hear many warm words from ministers about the importance of public sector workers but actions count more than words,” she said.
“Our members in local authorities have only recently accepted a pay deal when they were given clear and firm assurance that it would not be paid for by job cuts and reduced services.
“Now, just weeks later, we are told jobs will be cut and services reduced.
“That raises serious questions not only about trust and competence but, more importantly, this Government’s commitment to protect public services.”
Ms Gilmour went on to point the finger at the Scottish Government’s proposed council tax freeze for the comments, accusing ministers of seeking a “cheap headline today” and “risking vital jobs and services tomorrow”.
She added: “The proposed council tax freeze is only another example of the short-term thinking that has placed so many of our frontline public services in such jeopardy.
“Those services need to be protected not threatened and our members need to know ministers understand that.
“Every Scot who relies on public services, and that is every one of us, needs to know that.”
The council tax came as a surprise when it was announced at an SNP conference last month, given the Scottish Government had launched a consultation on potentially increasing council tax by between 7.5% and 22.5% among the highest valued properties.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Scottish ministers have taken difficult decisions this financial year to reprioritise funding to support Cosla to meet the asks of local government unions while protecting the current workforce, but the Deputy First Minister has been clear more difficult choices lie ahead.
“Last week’s autumn statement from the UK Government delivered a worst case scenario for Scotland’s finances.
“Scotland needed a fair deal on investment for infrastructure, public services and pay deals – but was let down on every count.
“The council tax freeze next year will benefit every council taxpayer in Scotland at a time when rising prices are putting significant strain on household finances.
“The Scottish Government remains wholly committed to the Verity House Agreement, and is continuing work with Cosla on a new fiscal framework for local authorities.”
Also responding to Ms Robison’s comments, the president of local authority body Cosla stressed the need for preventative services to bring down costs to the public sector.
“Cutting frontline staff is not the answer. Investing in local government can prevent problems occurring in the first place,” said Shona Morrison, who is also an SNP councillor.
“The Verity House Agreement was designed to ensure positive working between Scottish local government and the Scottish Government, and a focus on better outcomes and person-centred services.
“Cosla is clear that the preventative agenda is the only solution, given the financial position and the difficult decisions which lie ahead.”