Welcome to my Blog

It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Election 2017 - what side are you on?

Election slogans are generally meaningless, but in this election they clearly differentiate the offer. Comrades, left and right, should focus on that.

Today’s Scottish Labour manifesto will set out clearly why Labour is “For the many, not the few’. On workers rights, public services, tax and much else - Labour offers a positive vision of what a different country could look like. In contrast, ‘Strong and stable’ reflects the absence of vision in the Tory manifesto, which seeks to reward the rich and divide communities on age, Brexit, immigration and flags.

From a left perspective, I have to admit a greater irritation with some comrades than normal in this election. A discussion with a friend, who has belonged to an array of fringe left parties, particularly irked me last week. His reaction to the UK Labour manifesto was, ‘I suppose it’s not that bad’.  Really comrade, is that the best you can do?

Reclaiming the railways, Royal Mail, energy and water (in England) into public ownership. A huge investment in public services that will provide a major boost to devolved services devastated by austerity.

As Dave Prentis put it yesterday’s Observer, “Every Labour government in my lifetime – no matter my disagreements with individual leaders or policies – has improved the lives of the majority of the British people and delivered better public services than the ones they inherited.”

Dave also said, “Every Labour government has secured greater rights at work and made our country a fairer place”. It is on that point that I particularly despaired of my friend’s response. This Labour manifesto includes 20 commitments on workers rights that ticks most of the boxes on any trade union shopping list, including:
  •      Employment rights on day one
  •      No more zero hours contracts
  •      Extending collective bargaining and workplace access
  •      Ending the public sector pay cap
  •      Raising the minimum wage to £10
  •      Excessive pay levy

There is much more, as Gregor Gall (A left academic not slow to criticise Labour) highlights. This is a manifesto that would make the workplace a much fairer place and make a real start it tackling the low pay and insecure work culture that is wrecking our economy. Yes comrades, it’s time to get a grip.

Some comrades to my right also irritate me. This is well summed up by Peter Frost’s feature in the Morning Star, who gives us a timely reminder that Jeremy is not the first Labour leader to be vilified, even if this time the establishment has sunk to a new low. Even supposedly pro-Labour sites like Labour List have run several pieces about internal issues post-election. Yes comrades, it’s time you also got a grip. As Peter says, “I know what side I am on. I even know what side Kuenssberg is on. The simple question is what side are you on — and what are you going to do about it?

Labour’s Scottish and UK manifestos are not going back to the 1970’s, a much-maligned decade by the way. Even social democrat’s like Will Hutton concede, “It confronts the way contemporary capitalism is stratifying the labour market into a new mass precariat and conferring enormous rewards at the top, while crucial public services are being starved of resources or compromised by putting the profit motive first.”

Let’s not forget that this snap election was called because the economy is about to get even worse, exacerbated by the Tory approach to Brexit. After eight years of BofE stimulus - the economy is stagnant, real incomes are falling and inequality is rising. The financial markets are disconnected from the real economy and our public services are hanging on by a thread.


So comrades’ left and right, get a grip, the stakes are too high to waste on carping and squabbles. This election is a pivotal struggle for the sort of country we want to live in – it’s time to remember what side you are on.


Friday, 12 May 2017

Freedom of Information - from ambition to action

Freedom of Information is an essential part of a thriving and effective democracy. Scotland needs to move from the ambition of support for open government, to putting the legislative and practical measures in place to strengthen it. 

Today, I was speaking at the Scottish Public Information Forum in Edinburgh, reconvened by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.

Margaret Keyse the Acting Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) outlined the work of the SIC. 
There were 540 new appeals last year, 231 decision notices and dealt with 1554 enquires. Nearly 70,000 requests were made to Scottish public authorities, and that is probably an underestimate. There is a high general public awareness of FoI and support for the law, although that awareness is limited.

They have regularly highlighted their concerns about the limited scope of FoI in Scotland. Recently, in a special report, the SIC argued that it is time for a substantial rethink on pro-active publication of information. Monitoring of the Model Publication Schemes shows that public authorities generally have them and are good at giving advice and assistance, but 79% don't publish open data. There are some big changes ahead. Not least European developments including a possible two tier approach to FoI and the General Data Protection Regulations that will come in before Brexit.

Alison MacKinnon from SEPA focused on the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, an often forgotten aspect of FoI that came from older international information requirements. She gave an interesting insight on how they deal with requests, reminding us that EIR has a somewhat wider scope and fewer exemptions. There has been a steady increase in requests in recent years, still 40% from the public, but increasingly from consultants and industry.

Paul Holleran from the NUJ outlined developments in the media and in particular the pressure on journalists due to reduced staffing levels. A particular concern is the big reduction in investigative journalism and that may explain the reduction in requests from journalists. The malaise of fake news and cuts in journalism, at national and local level, is undermining democracy. 

Ruchir Shah from SCVO made the argument that transparency is a political weapon and reflects a global challenge to inequality. There is a risk that people are speaking in bubbles, not to each other. He described the Open Government Pioneers Project, which is about building capacity in civil society as a way of increasing transparency and open government. A global movement that Scotland is a part of.

Carole Ewart from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland described their latest project, sponsored by UNISON Scotland, looking at compliance and current practice. She argued that Scotland is some way from achieving an information rights culture and there was a need to integrate with human rights and other public policy initiatives. The Scottish Government needs to keep promises on FoI in areas like expanding the scope of FoI, cost thresholds, the previously moribund forum (SPIF) and pro-active information.

UNISON's interest in FoI includes our campaigns function and as the union that represents most FoI staff in public bodies. My own presentation made the case for extending the scope of FoI to all those who receive the public pound. I also gave some feedback from FoI staff who are struggling to cope with the demand for information at a time of staffing cuts, particularly in administrative functions. There are also capacity issues in the departments who have to provide the information. Staff also identify resistance from senior management and poor awareness of FoI amongst some senior colleagues. 

I also gave examples of poor compliance based on our own experience of making FoI requests. We are experiencing examples of public bodies simply not responding or using delaying tactics. Examples include daft points of clarification or references to online documents that don't actually include the information we asked for. Others deliberately avoid the question, by answering a question we haven't asked. We often have to go back several times before we get a proper answer. 

There was a really useful discussion on the practice of FoI in Scotland. A big theme is that we have some grand rhetoric on open government, when the reality falls far short of that language. A good example this week is the Justice Committee scrutiny of the Scottish Police Authority, holding its meetings in private. There is some evidence that organisations who receive the public pound through contracts or grant funding are discouraged on the grounds that 'don't bite the hand that feeds you'. There are many ways of getting around this, given that anyone can make a request.

There is some concern from bodies not currently covered, such as housing associations, about their capacity. There is clearly a need to improve skills in making requests as well as strengthening public bodies capacity to respond.

In these challenging political times, there has never been a greater need for open government and transparency of information. This is a field that Scotland could be a world leader, in vision and practice. Today's event shows we have much to do, but there is a willingness to make the journey.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Councils should defend local services and those who deliver them

Musical chairs around the council chamber won't alter the challenges facing local government in Scotland.

The voters have had their say and there are a lot of new councillors taking responsibility for our vital local services. The Tories made the headlines with large numbers of new councillors and they delivered a share of the vote in line with recent opinion polls. The SNP held onto their council seats, but as 2012 was a disappointing year, they expected to do much better. Their share of the vote was significantly down on current polling, even allowing for the share that goes to independents. It remains to be seen if this reflects the passing of 'Peak Nat'. The SNP's hostility and underfunding of local government, coupled with the lower turnout, may result in differential voting in local elections.



For Scottish Labour, the share of the vote was significantly higher than recent polling, although that didn't protect all those elected in the fairly good 2012 elections - well before Indyref and the binary proposition that Scottish politics has become. Ironically, many councillors who bitterly opposed PR, now have good cause to be thankful for the system. Nearly half of Scottish Labour councillors are new, a very welcome development and an opportunity for Labour to move away from an often stale administrative approach to local politics.

The post-match analysis within Labour falls back on how unionist Labour should be. The problem will always be that few Labour activists get out of bed in the morning to defend flags of the unionist or nationalist variety. Socialists want to change society and therefore Scottish Labour simply has to work in that middle ground that is not obsessed by the constitution.

With every council in no overall control, PR has delivered the sort of political balance you would expect. This week will see a variety of local agreements and some new local alliances. The media prediction of pro-union coalitions may not be realised, given Scottish Labour's strong anti-austerity coalition framework. The Tories created austerity and the SNP dumped it on local government, so neither make attractive coalition partners. However, when it comes to progressive local priorities, SNP and Labour councillors will probably be closer than they are with the Tories.

Whoever leads our councils they are going to face some difficult decisions. This year was not the worst financially, with the extra revenue from council tax bands and in some cases the basic rate, mitigating the revenue cut from the Scottish Government. Many councils plugged the remaining gap with reserves, putting off some difficult long-term decisions.

The next two years are likely to be much more difficult if the Tories are re-elected and continue with their failed policy of austerity. Councillors will be pressed by officials to make difficult structural changes to services rather than the salami slicing of recent years.

They will also be faced with service reform proposals. Some will be local, often based on tired old top down solutions like shared services. Others will come from national changes driven by the Scottish Government in areas like schools and early years. Then there is the planned review of local government. In four years time councillors might find that local government is withering on the vine, unless they learn quickly to stand up for local government.

The unhelpful Local Government Partnership should come to an end and local government should once again speak with something close to one voice through COSLA. It will be interesting to see how effective the new political dynamics within COSLA will be in standing up for local democracy.


So, congratulations to all those elected last week. I'm sorry I can't paint a rosier picture of the challenges ahead, but it's worth remembering that few councillors were elected on an austerity ticket. Even Tory leaflets called for more and better local services. Councillors should defend local services and those who deliver them.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Scotland is NOT our local

Three days to go to polling day for the council elections - just in case anyone noticed. Even before the general election was dumped on us, national issues dominated the debate.

If the parties want to debate the constitution they might at least give some consideration to the local. The debate around constitutional change in Scotland is primarily focused on what powers come from Westminster to Holyrood. In the latest Red Paper 'Progressive Federalism' publication, I argue that federalism should be based on the concept of subsidiarity - the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical level.

I recall listening to a debate at an SNP conference when a delegate proudly proclaimed, Scotland is our local’. In fairness this declaration wasn't received that rapturously and I dont think it's true even in an independent Scotland. However, it shouldn't be the starting point for debate.

Local government in Scotland is facing huge pressures. Primarily financial because while the overall Scottish budget is largely determined by Westminster, the Scottish Government decides where the axe will fall. They have chosen to cut local government disproportionately. This is in part a consequence of giving some protection to the NHS budget, but arguably also because of some antipathy towards local government. There is also the added political advantage of pushing difficult decisions away from ministerial desks the ‘not me guv’ school of politics.

Early public service reform initiatives from the SNP government were largely centralist most notably Police Scotland and the Fire and Rescue Service. Possibly due to that less than positive experience, ministers have moved to more subtle ways of centrally directing services. This is achieved through extensive ministerial powers of direction, as in health and care integration; or by using quangos to direct policy while leaving delivery local, as with community justice. The current proposals for education governance include regional boards and ministers allocating funds direct to schools. Marketisation is also making an appearance, with voucher schemes for early learning and childcare. There is to be a review of local government, although at the present rate of progress, local government is simply withering on the vine.

Local government has not always responded well to this onslaught. Many councils have simply become the passive administrators of austerity, rather than standing up for their communities, as I argue in the January issue of Scottish Left Review.

So, how might federalism offer a new start for local democracy in Scotland?

A federal Scotland should ensure that decisions are taken at the lowest practical level. While it is important to have national standards and guidance, these should not be used to stifle local innovation or local differences. Services should be designed with and for people in communities of place and interest. Co-production and asset-based approaches can contribute to this as a positive engagement not simply to manage budgetary cuts. In a practical sense this means looking at every power that is devolved to Scotland and asking the subsidiarity question can this be done locally?


In my Reid Foundation paper on public service reform I point towards an even more radical approach that starts with people and communities and consider what powers are granted up to local government and central government. In essence people locally agree to share sovereignty with local, regional and national structures, because that is the most effective way of achieving our collective public service ethos.

This leads to the question of what we mean by ‘local’ or even a recognisable community of place? Is it a street, a village, a town or a city? Again, if we apply the principle of subsidiarity, it is the lowest practical level and that is probably roughly a town and its hinterland. Cities are more difficult to break down into recognisable communities, but it can be done.

At this level we can introduce better integration of services and meaningful engagement with citizens. In a column in The Scotsman, I describe a number of initiatives that could create a new culture of engagement. These include the Co-operative Councils Network, the Carnegie Trust’s ‘Enabling Stateand Participatory Budgeting. None of these ideas offers a perfect solution, but they do point to a more meaningful collective engagement of citizens than traditional consultation mechanisms.

This is not a clarion call for pure localism. In a country the size of Scotland we cannot justify duplication and difference for the sake of it. There is a role for central government to set outcomes and possibly even minimum standards, while avoiding prescription and central direction. They could agree frameworks (workforce matters is a good example) that allow the local to focus on what matters.


So, even if constitutional issues are uppermost in your mind when you vote on Thursday, they should still have a local dimension. We need to go much further than simply shifting more powers from Westminster to Holyrood. We should turn the  traditional hand me downapproach on its head. It starts with the local, building up to the nation state. In our geographically, economically and culturally diverse country - Scotland is certainly NOT our local.


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Electoral alliances - progressive or not

As the general election campaign kicks off, my newsfeed is full of stories about alliances, rather than the policy issues that matter.

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was quick off the mark, indicating her support for a progressive alliance against the Tories, if the numbers stacked up. Of course this needs to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt and she well knows that such a call is damaging to Labour in England. A successful UK progressive alliance is not in the SNP's strategic interest, and they certainly don't want a left wing Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The case for independence needs a right wing, hard Brexit Tory government, to encourage left wing Scots to despair of the U.K.

Jeremy Corbyn was quick to dismiss this notion, not that this will stop the Tories and the media playing the 'in Sturgeon's pocket' card if the polls narrow. He argues that the SNP is not a progressive party. Objectively, this is a bit harsh, even if understandable in an election context. The SNP is a progressive party on many social policy issues, it's in economic policy that their progressive claims are blunted. A binary election on unionist/nationalist lines suits the Tories and the SNP, as Brian Monteith argued clearly in the Scotsman yesterday.

Then we have Compass, who argue that progressive parties shouldn't stand candidates if it ensures the regressive right win. I'm afraid this simply demonstrates how out of touch with reality Compass has become in recently years. There is neither practical support from the parties, any clear idea as to how this could be achieved, or what the programme might be. For completion, the same applies to the Women's Equality Party standing against 'misogynist' MPs. The NHS Party is even dafter, given the clear dividers between Labour and the Tories on the NHS in England.

The next 'alliance' we are asked to support, comes from Blair (although he has slightly backtracked) and Mandelson who together with 'Open Europe' have adopted a 20:20 strategy. 20 seats have been marked out for attack, as well as a list of 20 Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs who have been advocates of the closest relationship with the EU. This 'alliance' is less clear how these MPs will act progressively in parliament if elected. In fact there is little in this alliance that looks in any way progressive.

Alliances are not just a general election issue, they arise in the context of the council elections. Nicola Sturgeon has been attacked for hypocrisy in not ruling out coalitions with the Tories. Scottish Labour has also been under pressure to take a harder line on coalitions than they did in 2012.

Here the issues are more complex. The proportional representation voting system in Scottish local government, makes it very difficult to achieve an overall majority. This means coalitions, or at least understandings, are a necessary evil. The issue for parties that claim to be anti-austerity is how do you do a deal with the Tories, even if it is of the Tory lite variety? All too often councillors focus on the baubles of office rather than a credible policy programme for their communities.

At national or local level, pre-election alliances 'progressive' or otherwise are simply a non-starter. Of course, after an election, politicians have to handle the electoral cards they are dealt with by the electorate. But as Ken Loach said at the STUC this morning, 'I'm getting old so let's go for broke. We have one chance for a big change - don't lose it'. 

Time spent on 'progressive alliances' is simply a distraction from the important issues in this election. Forget it and focus on what really matters.



Thursday, 6 April 2017

Council elections - keep it local


As the local government election short campaign gets under way – let’s keep it local.

 

Local government elections will be held for every seat in Scotland on Thursday 4 May. The first reminder is to make sure you are registered to vote. Changes to the system means that a lot of people have been missing from the register. If you haven’t received a polling card by now, you are probably not registered. It’s easy to do this online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, but it has to be completed by 17 April.

 

The second reminder is that these are local elections. The councillor you elect will make important decisions about local services including schools, social care, roads, libraries and much more. While I am not naive enough to believe that national issues don’t impact on local elections, I get very irritated when leaflets arrive through the door with the local issues relegated to an afterthought. – I bin them.

 

UNISON Scotland has published its manifesto for the election. There are some general themes around fair funding and the importance of keeping services local, as well as more detailed ideas around individual services. We will be highlighting some of these, and the people who deliver them, during the campaign because we all tend to take these services for granted.

 

I take some comfort from a poll we commissioned from Survation this month that voters do care about local services. Public services are the top priority for voters (70%); and half of all voters chose the public sector as the best to deliver our public services, only 19% chose the private sector and 13% chose charities. This included Conservative voters with only 31% saying the private sector and 10% saying charities are the best place to deliver public services.


That’s a clear message to council candidates from all parties that people in Scotland want high quality services, delivered by public sector staff. That doesn’t preclude other service providers, but in-house staff should be the primary means of delivering public services that are accountable to the public.  

There was also support for keeping services local, with the council being the most trusted deliverer of local services. Voters also wanted more of their taxes spent locally. They also recognised that the cuts have had a serious impact on the quality of public services. Hardly surprising when nine out of ten jobs lost in Scotland’s public sector since the austerity cuts have gone from local government.




We will be providing some useful questions for candidates in the coming weeks. So if a candidate chaps on the door - start by asking them, not what they have been told to say by central office, but how they will be standing up for local services. Keep it local.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Predictable State Pension Age review lacks imagination

As the UK government probably planned when they appointed a safe, if boring, pair of hands in John Cridland, his review of the State Pension Age (SPA) lacks imagination.

He recommends:
• State Pension age should rise to age 68 over a two year period starting in 2037 and
ending in 2039;
• State Pension age should not increase more than one year in any ten year period,
assuming that there are no exceptional changes to the data.

In addition, he recommends ending the triple lock on pension increases. Under his recommended timetable, State Pension spending would be 6.7% of GDP in 2066/67, which is a reduction of 0.3% compared to the principal OBR projection. If the triple lock is withdrawn, spending will be further reduced to 5.9% of GDP by 2066/67.

To address the huge disparities in life expectancy, he recommends some modest changes to the benefit system, support for carers and the joy of a mid-life MOT.

The review does recognise that public sector pension schemes now follow the SPA. This is a big issue for a range of public sector workers who undertake physically or mentally demanding jobs. He makes no recommendations on this point but reminds HM Treasury that they agreed to review the link between State Pension age and public sector pension schemes, after the Government has completed each State Pension Age Review. Don't hold your breath on this one!

For many people, certainly those on higher incomes in less demanding jobs, this increase in the SPA is probably manageable. Although it does assume that life expectancy will continue to rise exponentially. However, it is already the case that fewer than half of people are in work by the time they reach state pension age. Raising the SPA to 68 or 70 is likely to increase this proportion.

His recommendations are based on average life expectancy, a statistic that conceals huge inequalities, based on location, health, working and living environments. This increase in the SPA will affect poorer and less able bodied people disproportionately. While it also affects Scotland with our lower life expectancy, I accept that the case for a lower Scottish SPA is weak. The differences in life expectancy within Scotland are far greater than those with the rest of the UK.

With more imagination, he could have given more serious consideration to a flexible retirement age that takes into account the arduousness of work and the length of a persons working life. It would be complex to manage, but society needs people to do tough jobs that contribute to reduced life expectancy. These workers are in effect subsidising the better off, healthier individuals who will live longer and take more than their fair share out of the total state pension pot.

Cridland argues that a single state pension age is, “simple and clear and provides a trigger for pension planning”. It may be simple, but real people's lives are complex. The SPA, as the current data shows, is not the same as the actual retirement age.

This report recommends increasing the SPA using the standard broad brush approach. It will leave many reliant on the reducing social security system and insecure part-time work. 

A change to retirement at 70, even if a gradual process, needs extensive support for mid and later life career changes, personal development throughout their working life and decent levels of income support. It also needs a more imaginative approach to retirement age. Sadly, imagination is the element most lacking in this report.


The full review report can be downloaded here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-pension-age-independent-review-final-report