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, 16 January 2017

Getting it right in schools

Reorganising education governance is simply a distraction from the real issues facing our schools as highlighted in UNISON Scotland’s survey of school staffs. That’s also the conclusion of a wide range of published responses to the Scottish Government’s governance consultation.


UNISON Scotland’s response to the consultation highlights the OECD report on Scottish education, which identifies successes and challenges in the Scottish education system and offers recommendations to drive continued improvement. The report points out that it’s time “for a bold approach that moves beyond system management in a new dynamic nearer to teacher and learning”. Instead we are seeing a continued focus on systems and governance.


Current education structures provide democratic accountability through local government. Parent councils and parent forums also exist to give parents a voice in their children’s schools. Local authorities also provide a balance allowing economies of scale for HR services, purchasing and specialist support. Where there are difficulties for head teachers accessing the support they need the issues are about staff shortages and budget cuts not the structures involved. Managing more bureaucracy under central direction is the last thing schools need.


If the government needs an example of this, then we give them one today in our publication ‘Hard Lessons’. In probably one of the biggest surveys of school support staff ever in Scotland, staff report heavier workloads, jobs cuts, lack of educational supplies, and dirtier schools. This is while pupil numbers and education support needs are increasing.


There are 6707 more pupils since 2010 in Scottish schools, but there 1841 less support staff and 1389 less teachers. This report confirms the enormous stress this puts on support staff.


54% of support staff say budgets have been cut, 40% carry out unpaid work to meet workloads, 60% say morale is low, and 80% say workloads are heavier. And services like school libraries are closing. Many report stress from the lack of training and support they receive for the tasks they are asked to carry out – like administering medicines or caring for pupils with challenging behaviour.


The report reveals a dedicated workforce committed to supporting children to reach their potential. Staff skip breaks and work late to meet their pupil’s needs. But they are exhausted, undervalued and under enormous pressure.


Any serious attempt to improve educational attainment has to start well before children get to school - that’s why early learning is so important. In UNISON Scotland’s submission to the Scottish Government’s ‘Blueprint 2020’ for early leaning and childcare, we place an emphasis on quality provision.


We need to make sure that we learn the lessons of the adult care sector where we now have a fragmented service, which is costly and hard for users to navigate, with varying quality of service and a race to the bottom for staff terms and conditions. The voucher schemes proposed in the consultation have a high risk of creating a service based on low paid and unqualified staff.  It risks creating a two tier system where those who can afford to pay more on top of the vouchers will have access to better nurseries than those on low incomes. Vouchers also add extra complexity and administrative costs to the system. Vouchers will do the opposite of closing the attainment gap.


The Scottish Government’s ambition to close the attainment gap is entirely right. However, simply moving the deck chairs didn’t work for the Titanic and it won’t work for schools. The focus should instead be on tackling the issues identified in today’s UNISON report and invest in preventative spending like early learning.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

A new approach to public service reform

Since the publication of the Christie Commission report five years ago, public sector reform has been largely piecemeal and driven by austerity cuts. The debate can also drift into a contest between localism and centralism. In a paper for the Reid Foundation, I argue for a holistic approach to reform with services built upwards from integrated local delivery, while recognising that in a small country there is an important role for the centre.

The paper starts by making the case for public services as the measure of a civilised society, but also as the basis of a more equitable society and a stronger economy. I then describe the many challenges facing Scotland’s public services – primarily financial, but also the impact of our deeply unequal society and demographic change.

The public service workforce has often been an afterthought in service reform. This is a serious oversight given that workers, directly or indirectly employed, are central to service delivery. I describe the impact of austerity on the workforce and how a new approach, built around a national workforce framework, could avoid unnecessary duplication and support integration.

Scotland’s approach to public service reform has taken a different route to the rest of the UK since devolution. I describe the various initiatives including the Christie Commission report and its patchy implementation. Reforms elsewhere are also covered, along with ideas generated by academics and think tanks across the UK and in Europe.

A new approach to public service reform has to be based on a set of underlying principles. I suggest nine principles (see infographic) that all reform proposals should be tested against.

How we finance public services is a crucial issue. This involves difficult discussions around taxation, now that we have significant devolved powers. It includes a better understanding of what we mean by universalism and the importance of preventative spending. Local taxation also needs radical reform, not further tinkering. We also need a new approach to funding capital investment, away from ruinously expensive PPP schemes.

Most reform measures start with central government and then consider what powers to devolve. I propose an alternative approach that starts with recognisable communities and builds service delivery from the bottom up. Community hubs could physically site services together, breaking down the silo mentality that Christie identified. Service design would be done with citizens and front line staff adopting ideas from Systems Thinking, The Enabling State, Participatory Budgeting and Co-operative councils. This would then form the basis for a debate on the best structure for local government, the NHS and services delivered by national bodies, ensuring democratic accountability.

Where I differ with pure localism is in advocating an important role for central government - not in directing service delivery from the centre, but focusing on strategic outcomes. I would even go somewhat further than that. In a country the size of Scotland there is no value in unnecessary duplication and difference for the sake of it. National frameworks would allow local services to focus on service design without reinventing the wheel. A national workforce framework is a good example of this, possibly leading to the concept of a single public service worker.

The scale of the challenges facing public services in Scotland is immense. If they were challenging five years ago when the Christie Commission reported, they are even more so now. This paper argues that there is balanced approach to reform in a small country. We do that by building public services from the bottom up based on the principle of subsidiarity, with integration, democracy and transparency at the core of delivery. The role of central government should be to set the strategic direction and agree frameworks that allow the local to focus on what matters.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with all I say in what is not a short read! I also accept that the solutions need further development. However, I hope it’s a helpful contribution to the debate that attempts to identify solutions to the challenges facing our vital public services.

A major new policy paper by Dave Watson of UNISON.
The Paper will be launched at a seminar on Friday 20 January at 10am, free to attend but registration is essential.   Register online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/public-service-reform-in-scotland-launch-of-new-policy-paper-by-dave-watson-tickets-30926610324
The venue is Lecture Theatre 2, Appleton Tower, University of Edinburgh, 11 Crichton Street, EH8 9LE http://www.ed.ac.uk/maps/maps?building=appleton-tower
Registration tea/coffee 10.00/30 and event begins 10.30am-12.30pm.
Chairperson: Professor James Mitchell; Speaker: Dave Watson: Questions and discussion
The Foundation gratefully acknowledge the support given by the University Academy of Government in the organisation of the seminar

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year - looking forward to a better 2017

Happy New Year! If 2016 was another ‘anno horriblis’, lets hope 2017 is an ‘anno magnus’. As I demonstrate how I scraped through law school without properly learning Latin!

I don’t do predictions, but I do believe in a bit of environmental scanning for planning purposes. So, lets have a look at what 2017 is likely to throw at us.

There is little doubt that Brexit will continue to dominate public policy in the coming year. In January, the Supreme Court will decide if MPs will get a vote on the UK government’s Brexit strategy, assuming there is one. There is also an interesting new legal challenge on separating our membership of the EEA from the EU. All this could ensure greater scrutiny of how Brexit is to be delivered with as little damage as possible.

Minimising the damage should be the first priority - for the economy and the consequential impact on public spending. The OBR is forecasting UK growth will slow to 1.4% next year, and Scotland will probably do slightly worse, largely due to the weakness of the oil and gas sector. We can’t expect consumer spending to carry us through given poor wage growth. The rhetoric about ‘JAMs’ and ‘ordinary people’ will be lost in the reality of austerity and savage welfare cuts.

While parliament should triumph over the Royal Prerogative, it doesn’t mean that other matters should be ignored. The big challenges remain, including: low wages, climate change, obesity, over-mighty financial services, widening inequality and demographic change. Our democracy had a tough time finding answers to these challenges in 2016 – we all need to do much better this year. 

I wasn’t enthused to hear that the First Minister puts Brexit down as her priority. Only three Bills from the Scottish Government’s modest legislative programme have been introduced in nearly eight months since the election. You can only debate the imponderables of Brexit so much!

At least the Budget Bill will be introduced in January. This is the ‘best’ austerity year for the Scottish Government with a small increase in its budget. However, local government continues to take the biggest hit, albeit with some mitigation in its own hands through the council tax. The NHS will also continue to feel the pinch. Double counting the social care funding may make clever politics, but in reality you can’t spend the same pound twice.

The next two years of austerity is going to be even more difficult. That means many will be looking towards public service reform to plug some of the gap. We have an array of piecemeal reforms out for consultation, with few inspiring much enthusiasm. 

The attainment gap in schools wont be solved by moving the proverbial deckchairs about. Like so much else in Scotland, its inequality stupid! Expanding early years provision is just the sort of preventative spending we need. However, the value will be lost if we don’t deliver quality provision with properly qualified and fairly paid staff.

Social care is the right health priority, but it will take time to correct years of neglect. Shifting resources from acute to primary care is also the right approach, but hugely difficult to achieve.

In January the Reid Foundation will publish my paper on public service reform in Scotland. Five years on from the Christie Commission I have attempted to set out the challenges, analyze the plans and offer a different way ahead. I hope it will at least contribute to a debate that leads to a holistic approach to reform.

On the basis of the current polls, we have the potential for a change of political control after the council elections in May. What wont change are the financial and other challenges facing councils. The Scottish Government’s centralising approach needs a political response from councillors of all parties. They need to become the political champions of their communities, not simply the administrators of austerity.

There are other aspects of government policies that have the potential to improve working lives. The Fair Work agenda is one such initiative, if it can move from rhetoric into action. As a major energy union UNISON will be interested to see how the Scottish government’s new energy strategy matches the benefits of renewable energy with the problem of intermittent supply – not to mention the thorny issue of fracking. Climate change and food policy may have been pushed into the long grass, but many of us will be campaigning to keep these issues up the policy agenda.

UNISON Scotland will be busy in the New Year on most of these issues. Yes, highlighting the damage austerity is doing to our public services, but also offering constructive alternatives and practical ways to mitigate the impact. We will rightly criticise poor decisions that damage our members and the services they deliver, but we also have a duty to show that there is a better way. 

My personal New Year resolutions are sadly predictable. Eat less, get more exercise and cherish my family. Hope that Fulham’s current decent form continues and perhaps even imagine a trip to Wembley in the play-offs! I did say I didn’t do predictions!

But most of all, keep an open mind to new ideas and be optimistic that a kinder, more egalitarian spirit, can be rekindled in our country. The world could be a very dangerous place in 2017. Those of us on the left need to better articulate how we can create a peaceful, sustainable and more equal world that delivers prosperity for everyone, not just the privileged few.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Draft Scottish Budget - read with care!

If you are struggling with the different interpretations of the Scottish Government’s draft budget, don't panic, it is confusing!

My briefing for UNISON branches attempts to cut through the spin and outline the impact on the services our members deliver. In this blog I will instead focus on a few key points.

Firstly, this is a real budget, not just spending plans, because it includes the revenue raising powers.
So we start with the block grant, which is being cut by 9% due to UK austerity plans between 2010-11 and 2019-20. However, in the coming year the Scottish Government has a little wriggle room because there is a small real terms increase in funding of £188m. The next two years are considerably tougher under current UK plans.

Then you add in any of use the devolved tax powers. They have decided not to increase income tax, although not cutting tax for higher rate (40p) taxpayers should generate an additional £79m. Other devolved taxes on land transactions, landfill and aggregates, generate small additional revenues.

Of course taxes can be reduced as well, and the budget confirms that they remain committed to a 50% cut in Air Passenger Duty - an unaffordable, environmentally damaging tax cut for the better off. Thankfully, not this year though because it would cost a massive £171m to implement. That's the same as this year's real term increase in NHS spending.

The most confusing spin is over the local government budget allocation. I'm afraid when our branches sit down with their councils to discuss the budget, they will find that their director of finance doesn't recognise Derek Mackay's extra £240m. Unsurprisingly, the reality is somewhere in-between his spin and that of some councils.

We should remember that the Scottish budget only determines the Scottish Government's allocation to councils - important though that is. There is a real terms cut in the local government (including grants) budget allocation of £327m. The Scottish Government argues that this is mitigated by the extra income from the council tax bands (£111m) and helpfully they have abandoned plans to expropriate that for their own priorities. While this shouldn’t appear in the Scottish budget, it is a real additional source of revenue, albeit one that will benefit better off councils with higher banded properties. Councils with disadvantaged communities will also have to fund the improvements to the council tax reduction scheme.

The government then adds in the extra £107m coming from the NHS budget for social care. This won’t impress your finance director because it is for a specific additional commitment (contractors living wage) so won’t help to mitigate grant cuts. That's not to say that it isn't very welcome and desperately needed to help stave off a staffing crisis in social care. There are some other additional pots, but again these are ring-fenced. Yes, they did claim they would stop doing that!

The government then gets very cheeky by assuming that councils will increase the council tax by the maximum 3% they are allowing - generating £70m of real extra revenue. Again, this is a matter for councils, who may reasonably point out that the government isn’t using its tax raising powers. The Scottish Government will not 'pass on austerity to the household budgets' with a national tax, but has an expectation that councils should do that locally. This looks like an exercise in political buck passing.

Branches will also find that their finance director has a long list of unavoidable commitments that also don’t appear in Derek MacKay's calculations. Not least the cost of the UK Apprenticeship Levy that the Scottish Government appears to be pocketing the revenue from. Councils can reasonably argue that they have a good record in creating apprenticeships and should get this cash reimbursed.

So, the bottom line is that councils are yet again facing the biggest budget cut. In fairness, there is some scope for mitigation, but nowhere near the spin the government is putting on the figures.

We should also have a quick look at the health budget. Health boards get a cash increase of £321m, but that falls to £170m in real terms. The assumption is that inflation will be 1.5%, but health inflation is usually significantly higher.

Health branches will also find their directors of finance are less than impressed by this figure. They also have unavoidable commitments including the Apprenticeship Levy. However, the biggest issue will be the £107m directed to integration authorities to pay for the increase in the living wage. This is very welcome and a justifiable priority, but it’s not NHS spending. It is blatant double counting to include this in NHS budgets and the local government finance order.

Part of the problem with the 'Draft Budget' is that it isn't really a budget document at all. Most of the 186 pages set out a political narrative, which is not unreasonable, but adding in numbers that have nothing to do with the government's budget to spending tables, crosses a line for me. So read with care!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Time to tackle expensive PPP borrowing

The Scottish Government’s spending plans for 2017/18 is unlikely to be a cheery read when it's published on Thursday. However, when budgets are being cut, it is all the more important that government ensures that resources are not being wasted.

A good example of this is set out today in a joint Guardian/Ferret investigation into the Scottish government’s NPD model of PPP schemes in Scotland.

The report covers errors over interpreting EU rules which is expected to cost the Scottish government the equivalent of £932m in lost expenditure because it must now match the private finance spending under the NPD (PPP) programme with money borrowed from the Treasury. The scramble for matching funds is also expected to have knock-on effects on budgets.

The investigation also found that the private consortium building Scotland’s largest NPD hospital in Dumfries is expected to generate £160m in interest and finance fees on loans totalling £242m, including the £212m spent on building the hospital.

The consortium is charging an interest rate of 5.1% on borrowings of £218m. This results in the consortium earning more than £100m in interest payments from the public sector. It is also charging 11.3% on a further £24.2m in “subordinate debt”, which will earn financiers £37.5m in interest.

If Scottish ministers had instead used public borrowing they would expect interest rates from the state-run national loans fund of about 1.6%. If government argues that their borrowing consent was insufficient, then a deal could have been done with the local council who can also borrow at this rate.
A similar deal has been done by Northumbria Healthcare Foundation NHS Trust for its PPP contract at Hexham General Hospital, saving £67 million. This was funded by a loan from Northumberland County Council, which borrowed from the loans board.

This is precisely what UNISON Scotland suggested over a year ago in our ‘Combating Austerity’ report. We calculated that the austerity cuts in Scotland could be wiped out by refinancing PPP schemes in this way. Sadly, progress has been at a snail’s pace with a handful of projects being examined. Ironically, we believe Dumfries hospital may be one of those.

When jobs and services are being lost, it is absolutely vital that we chase every available saving. Effective monitoring, restructuring and refinancing PPP schemes are just some of the range of proposals we set out - and some authorities, to their credit, have acted on these. On PPP refinancing, it requires the Scottish government and their arms length agency the Scottish Futures Trust to take action.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Cutting Air Passenger Duty is the wrong budget priority

The scale and destination of the cuts to the Scottish Budget will become apparent with the publication of the Scottish government's spending plans on Thursday. This is not the time to cut taxes such as Air Passenger Duty.

This is first Scottish budget with the full devolved fiscal powers in play. The Tories, despite voting for the new powers, don't want to use them. The SNP wants to use them a little. Labour, Liberals and Greens want to take a different course to Tory austerity, by making greater use of the powers.

I may not agree with the Scottish government's cautious approach, but I understand the argument. A tax rise for most of us isn't likely to be popular, particularly when wages are depressed. However, railing against Tory austerity is simply not credible when you have the powers to take a different course and more importantly, you are actually cutting taxes for the better off.

The proposed cut in Air Passenger Duty (APD) follows a consultation, which followed predictable battle lines. The airports and airlines think it is a wonderful idea and churn out nicely rounded claims on jobs and revenue. The environment lobby responds by pointing to the extra emissions the plan will pump into the atmosphere, damaging our already overheating planet.

For me the case against a cut in APD has four pillars.

Firstly, even if it had economic merit, we can't afford it. Today's Fraser of Allander Institute report lays bare the dire state of Scotland's public finances. This leaves Derek MacKay with few options. He will claim to be protecting the NHS budget, while awarding a 'fair' settlement to local government. Needless to say, this is impossible and is achieved through some cosmetic double counting of the social care budget. 

APD yields more than £300m to the Scottish Budget. That's a significant amount of revenue, more than half of last year's cut to the local government budget and the equivalent of more than half a penny on income tax. Even cutting it by half will result in significant cuts to jobs and services.

Secondly, for a government that claims to be 'world leading' on climate change, this tax cut could have a damaging impact on the environment. The Scottish government's own analysis of a 50% cut in APD estimated a consequential increase in emissions of up to 60,000 tonnes CO2 per year. Air travel already accounts for 13% of Scottish greenhouse gas emissions from transport - a sector that has not contributed nearly enough to climate change action. Yes, we are making progress in reducing emissions in Scotland, but mostly on the back of the recession and the closure of Longannet power station.

Thirdly, air travel already has a privileged tax position. Airfares are not subject to VAT and aviation fuel is tax-free. Implementing fuel duty at the same rate as private fuel tax would result in £5.7 billion of revenue at UK level, adding VAT to tickets would result in £4.0 billion, and the abolition of duty free would yield £0.4 billion. This means the aviation industry already benefits from an annual tax exemption of at least £10 billion, which amounts to around £1 billion lost to Scotland. In contrast, rail fares have been increasing at three times the rate of wages, for a service that many more of us rely on every day.

Fourthly, this is a regressive tax proposal. Propensity to fly increases with income and socio-economic group, and 15% of the population of the UK take over 70% of all flights. Scotland’s lower income groups will achieve no or minimal benefit from a cut to APD, and higher earners (and corporations) will achieve a disproportionate benefit. No wonder the Tories have abandoned their manifesto commitment to oppose the APD cut!

The Scottish government's spending plans are challenging enough without the additional burden of a cut in APD . It is simply unaffordable, damaging to the environment and provides more support to an already tax privileged sector. A tax cut for the better off is a strange priority for a government that claims to be opposed to austerity.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Taking the case for federalism forward

A few months ago I wrote that federalism, a bit like my wardrobe, was coming back into fashion. Well, my wardrobe is still struggling, but yesterday Kez Dugdale took the journey towards federalism a step closer with her speech to the IPPR.

Labour, at both Scottish and UK levels, faces a potential squeeze as voters take a binary position on constitutional issues - nationalist v unionist and/or Brexit v Remain. Complicated in Scotland by the significant cross over between these camps. Neither should be the focus of a socialist party, but the choice is to ignore it and hope politics as normal will return, or face up to reality and adopt a credible position.

It is tempting just to say that the Scottish Government should get on with the day job, as Bill Jamieson does in a classic rant in today’s Scotsman. I could add that it is quite extraordinary that only one Bill has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament in the six months since the election. Nonetheless, we have to accept that voters are viewing issues through the prism of constitutional issues and as Labour’s own research shows, there is an appetite for a distinctive Labour position that is neither unionist nor nationalist.

In Scotland, there has been some criticism that Scottish Labour hasn't articulated a position after the Scottish Parliament election strategy of ignoring the constitution failed. The Deputy Leader, Alex Rowley, has been promoting a discussion, but this is often wrongly branded as some sort of leadership challenge to Kez Dugdale. Anyone who knows Alex knows full well that this is absurd. Others such as the Red Paper Collective have also been articulating the case for progressive federalism.

Yesterday, Kez attempted to set out the beginnings of a Scottish Labour response. This was deliberately done in London, which puts the initiative in the context of the U.K. Labour initiative, led by John Trickett MP, looking at power across the UK. This hasn't made the progress many of us would have wished, due to the entirely unnecessary and damaging distraction of the UK leadership contest this summer.

This is important because whichever way we cut the constitutional powers, we have to address other power relationships. The power of corporations, the City of London, the growing wages gap and broader inequality. Scotland is not immune from these power structures, even under independence.

A new Act of Union is a clever presentational way of addressing the issue, even if I can hear the groans from our law school professors! It also recognises that federalism in England, has to be a matter for those living in England. The UK is an asymmetric state which makes true federalism challenging. It’s why I personally prefer Home Rule, using its proper historical meaning.

Brexit is an opportunity to rethink devolved powers. The Smith Commission focused on fiscal arrangements, but it was too timid on other powers. I was therefore particularly pleased to see the commitment to devolving employment rights, something that has broad trade union support in Scotland.

I am personally open to a range of constitutional options in response to Brexit and the wider political crisis. Home Rule or federalism is certainly one of those and deserves to be properly articulated. It might also encourage those who support other solutions to up their game.

Yesterday, Kez signposted a way forward for that debate and the initiative should be welcomed as part of new political strategy. For those who point to gaps, I would say it was a speech, not a policy document. This approach also leaves room for a detailed discussion in the run up to next year’s party conference.