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.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Tories two-faced on austerity

In this year’s Spring Statement, the Chancellor had an opportunity to address the devastating impact of eight years of austerity on public services. However, he rejected calls to announce the end of austerity. In Scotland, Ruth Davidson hailed the budget as a ‘win’ for her MPs.

Some argue that the Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. The challenge in Scotland, is trying to convince us they support better public services while saying nothing about austerity.



My local Tory MSP’s newsletter is full of his campaigns to get the Scottish Government and the local council to improve various local services. More should be spent on this, that or another public service. Absolutely right, but you won’t find a similar plea for the Chancellor to end austerity, the underlying cause of all these spending cuts.

The Scottish Conservatives at a national level are not exempt from this double-speak. I have gone back through their press releases over the past six months.

There are numerous calls for more spending on NHS Scotland. Spending on mental health services, particularly services for children, is apparently inadequate. So is spending on GP services, A&E departments, doctor training, smoking cessation, care of veterans, ambulances, drug and alcohol services, cancer services and various drug treatments. Not to mention complaining about bed cuts in several hospitals. Thanking our members for their efforts during the 70th anniversary celebrations is all well and good, but ending austerity funding would be even better.

Local government is also underfunded according to the Scottish Conservatives. It is, but austerity isn’t going to pay for their £100m ‘pothole fund’, or stop councils having to dig into their reserves, as the Tories have helpfully highlighted! It is also somewhat less than credible to argue for a cut in business rates and complain about Council tax increases – all of which would add to council cuts.

In education, they have complained about falling teacher numbers, cuts in FE colleges, while also asking for extra spending on textbooks. They want to ensure that foundation apprenticeships are a part of every single Scottish school’s offer by 2020. They have also highlighted underfunding of the early years expansion, which although true, will not be solved under the austerity policies of their party.

There are regular press releases claiming the Scottish Government is ‘soft on crime’, calling for longer sentences without any understanding that prison spending is way above the European average and a huge wasteful burden on public spending. They attack community alternatives to prison that actually work and are more cost effective. They complain about police numbers falling and the fire service budget, but not about austerity.

Of course, the Scottish Government now has the powers to address austerity. However, the Scottish Conservatives haven’t urged them to do so, instead they have opposed tax increases for the better off. If parliament had voted for their tax policies, funding for public services would be cut by £335m. 

I understand the de-toxification strategy and many of the press releases highlight legitimate concerns about public services. However, you cannot avoid the reality that services are stretched largely because of austerity. An unwillingness to say anything about that is simply hypocritical. Facing two ways might make a nice local leaflet, but it does nothing for political credibility.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival

I had the pleasure of attending the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival yesterday. Some thirty years ago I worked in Dorset, and as Chair of the local trades council, I helped to organise this event. I still cherish my numbered bottle of Martyrs Ale, brewed for the 150th anniversary event I was involved in.

I am pleased to say that the event is better supported than it has ever been - effectively the southern equivalent of the Durham Miners Gala. Extended to a weekend festival with many comrades camping in the village. The attendance of Jeremy Corbyn undoubtedly boosted numbers this weekend. His announcement that a new Labour government would reconstitute the Agricultural Wages Board was welcome and relevant.

The story of the Martyrs is unusual, not just because Dorset is not renown for its socialist heritage. In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union. Unions were lawful and growing fast, but six leaders of the union were arrested, after a complaint from a local landowner, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy. This legislation was introduced to deal with mutiny during the Napoleonic Wars.

 A massive protest swept across the country. Thousands of people marched through London and many more organised petitions and protest meetings to demand their freedom. All were pardoned in March 1836, with the support of Lord Russell who had recently become home secretary. They returned to England, although James Hammett was the only one of the six to die in the county. He is buried in the village churchyard.


The Martyrs also came from a Methodist tradition in the village, which is commemorated in the chapel.


Jeremy got a warm reception, both in the procession and during his speech.



It's only a short procession, but the numbers yesterday meant it took some time to organise.





It was a grand event and one I was personally pleased to make a return to.









Friday, 6 July 2018

We need a radical Transport Bill, not another market dabble

The Transport Bill is an opportunity to take a radical look at integrated transport in Scotland. Sadly, the Bill as introduced falls somewhat short of this aim.


The Scottish Government has introduced a Transport Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The main provisions are summarise in the UNISON Scotland briefing.


Tackling the appalling air quality in our cities should be a government priority, given it could be contributing to around 15,000 early deaths in Scotland every year. The Bill puts the regulatory structure in place to introduce low emission zones. This is welcome, but the key challenge is to put in place real action to cut emissions. We don't need more plans about plans.


Other provisions on integrated ticketing, ending (some) double parking and another go at regulating road works are worthy measures, but they are unlikely to make a significant difference.


A key issue in the Bill will be the regulation and delivery of bus services. The Bill extends the powers of local authorities to run buses and develop bus partnership plans. The aim is to allow councils to act more flexibility to improve services, either by working with bus companies or by stepping in and running services themselves.


Local buses are the most frequently used mode of public transport in Scotland. With 393 million passengers on local bus services, more journeys are made by local bus than by rail. However, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of journeys, down from 487 million in 2007. There has been a 10% reduction in past five years, which is double the reduction in Great Britain as a whole. Part of the reason has to be that bus travel is 65% more expensive in 2018 than in 2008, at a time when real household incomes have been falling. There has also been a 16% reduction in the number of buses in operation.


So something is going seriously wrong in Scotland.


While bus passengers are losing out the companies are not. They have just raised prices to cope with the decline in services and in any case 43% of bus company revenue comes directly from local or central government through grants and concessionary travel reimbursement.


Bus companies argue that they offer competition. However, the Competition Commission’s 2011 report into local bus services said, “head to head competition between bus operators is uncommon", because of “customer conduct”. The worst, most irrational thing these difficult customers did was to ignore the choice of operators the free market had to offer, opting instead “to board the first bus to their destination that arrives at their bus stop" - there's a shock!


While the Bill talks about the role of local authorities, the companies view it as an opportunity. That's because the Bill will allow private operators to cherry pick the profitable routes, leaving councils to pick up the bill for the rest. Ironically, the Scottish Government is following the English Tory policy in the Bus Services Act last year.


In contrast, the public want government to go in the opposite direction. A recent poll shows clear public support for buses to be run by public operators - only 15% of Scots believe they should be run by private companies. Interestingly, almost half of Tory voters support public ownership.


So, we don't need local partnerships, we need local public ownership. Publicly owned Lothian Buses is the best operator in Scotland, even getting the middle classes onto the bus. Levels of customer satisfaction for Lothian Buses are the highest in the industry and the publicly owned company recently returned £5.5 million to the public purse.


This is one of the models we could adopt in Scotland, together with other non-profit initiatives like co-operatives. As the Co-operative Party's 'People's Bus' campaign shows, across the UK, co-operative, social enterprise and other forms of not-for-profit bus operators are proving that it’s possible to run bus services that are affordable and responsive to the needs of local people. Most recently in David Cameron's constituency of Whitney.




If we are really serious about cutting vehicle emissions, how about free transit? This is an idea being piloted in Germany by “the end of this year at the latest”. Five cities across western Germany are involved, including former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. It won't be easy, but has some links to a new industrial strategy given the demand it would create for electric or hydrogen buses.

It is difficult to accurately cost free local transit because a key element would be funding increased demand. Based on current funding and demand, it could be somewhere between £200m and £300m per annum and that doesn't take account of the savings from not having to pay for dividends and expensive borrowing. Not an impossible ask by any means and we should account for the preventative spending benefits from the emission reductions.

Scotland needs a more integrated public transport system that results in a meaningful shift away from car use. Re-regulating buses and more public and community ownership would be helpful in doing this. In addition, we need green travel plans at work, with incentives for lower energy transport, cycling, car-share, public transport, walking and the use of lower emissions vehicles.

We need a radical transport policy, not another dabble with market mechanisms.



Saturday, 30 June 2018

Happy Birthday to our National Health Service

Happy Birthday to our National Health Service, one of Labour’s finest achievements in government. A brilliant socialist concept that shows the benefits of collective action to tackle the challenges facing our society.

There are a range of celebrations in the coming week to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS. I was pleased to be speaking at one of those today in Glasgow, organised with the new Scottish Labour Westminster candidate for Glasgow North, Pam Duncan-Clancy. One of a great group of UNISON women who will be contesting the next UK general election in Scotland.  



Some people, including NHS staff, can be a bit cynical about NHS anniversary celebrations. While they welcome the praise and celebrate the NHS they have dedicated their careers to, they wish politicians would also be thinking of those warm words when they are allocating budgets and funding their pay and conditions. A bit like Firefighters after Grenfell - warm words from the Prime Minister after she had slashed the fire budgets in the name of austerity.

None the less we should welcome these celebrations and I argued today that NHS 70 offers two broad opportunities.

Firstly, to remind everyone of the importance of the NHS - something we can take for granted. For most of us it has literally been there from the cradle to the grave. In a column in the Guardian this week – Emma Brockes coming back from the USA, compared the two approaches. She said:

"For all its faults and in spite of terrible under-investment, the very fact of the welfare state when seen from the US is nothing short of a miracle. I used to take it for granted, but that has gone. We are not supposed to think of the world in terms of us and them, yet it is impossible, moving between the two countries, not to see the welfare state, the NHS, and the philosophy that underpins them, as the greatest bulwarks between society in the UK and life as it is lived in the US. I know which side I’m on."

Most people in Scotland don't get to experience that comparison. However, on the train the other day I listened to two young women discussing an American medical drama - The Resident. This drama highlights the shocking profit driven approaches of a big US hospital. They concluded 'thank god we have the NHS'.

Well apologies to those of a religious persuasion, but the NHS isn't an act of God. It was campaigned for by organisations like the Socialist Health Association and delivered by a visionary health minister in a radical Labour Government. And it has been Labour government’s that have funded it better than any others.



We only have to look at the shambles of marketisation in NHS England to see how easy it is to drift into privatisation. So, we should also thank the Labour health ministers Susan Deacon and Malcolm Chisholm who took Scotland in a different direction in the early years of devolution.

Secondly, while we should celebrate achievements - should take the opportunity to recognise the challenges and look forward. These are set out in the SHA Scotland paper launched today, and Professor David Conway outlined these at today’s event. 


 It is important to emphasise that while the NHS does a lot of preventative work it is largely about patching and mending us when we get ill. So, preventing ill health requires action outwith the NHS.

With the exception of Asthma, you are more likely to suffer every other illness the lower your income group. That points to the fundamental challenge facing health of the nation - inequality. The research in the book the Spirit Level showed us how unequal societies are also unhealthy societies. Interestingly, it also showed that even the relatively affluent members of society also do worse in unequal societies.

And the NHS points the way towards the collective action we need to take to seriously tackle inequality. The NHS commands widespread support because we all use it. Even the rich understand that while they can buy a luxury room in a private hospital, it will be an NHS paramedic or the staff in an A&E dept who will save their lives in an emergency.

In Glasgow in the 19th century the council delivered many of the great projects that did so much to improve health in the city. It wasn't just hospitals. It was clean water from Loch Katrine and many other public health measures that made the difference. You can imagine one of those rich merchants saying to another on the council, why should I pay for these things. The answer was that disease knows no boundaries, even the rich couldn't inoculate themselves. 

It's that collective approach, yes socialism, that should drive our thinking as we move forward. In housing, social care, the economy and the broader welfare state. 

I may not make the 100th anniversary of the NHS, but if I do, I hope that we will have addressed the 21st century challenges, which will reduce the demand on the NHS. By creating a more equal society that will honour the socialist giants, like Nye Bevan, on whose shoulders we stand.



Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Pensions reform offers no easy options, but scale matters

Scotland’s largest pension scheme is considering major changes in the way it’s £42bn worth of assets are administered.

The Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme (SLGPS) Advisory Board is asking employers and trade unions to compare the current structure against three options that, by degrees, consolidate the functions of the scheme’s 11 constituent funds by collaboration, pooling and merger. Today’s launch seminar in Edinburgh heard from speakers outlining the options and experts who advised the Board on the available options.

Current SLGPS governance structure 

There is an international movement towards greater scale in pension management that makes the status quo very difficult to sustain. This was set out very clearly by Iain Clacher, from the University of Leeds at today’s seminar. With greater scale in pensions come economies of scale, which reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and this ultimately secures the pension benefits of members. Every basis point (0.01%) shaved off costs equates to £3.5m. 





UNISON's own research reinforces the benefits of scale. While UNISON would normally champion the cause of localism, there are very few local factors in pension management that make local control the determining factor. 

Given the case for scale the status quo does not look like a viable option. Some scale could be achieved through collaboration. This has been tried by Lothian and Falkirk, but it offers only modest gains in scale while retaining complex governance arrangements. 

The English model of pooling assets provides scale, although the funds retain their responsibilities for administering the scheme. Governance is a problem with this model and UNISON colleagues in England and Wales have significant concerns. 

The most radical option would result in a full merger of funds, which would have the advantages of scale. However, governance would need to be centralised either on a joint board or NDPB model. There would also be significant implementation challenges. 

This is not a straightforward or easy decision. However, pension funds are consolidating across the world for good reasons. When I meet fellow union pension negotiators across the world, they are astonished that we voluntarily retain such small funds.


Scale gives greater investment clout, tackles fee transparency, enables in-house expertise to invest in new areas like infrastructure, and reduces duplication and cost. It’s not a decision that we can afford to duck.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Time for coordinated workforce planning

Workforce planning in Scottish local government is largely a local and ad-hoc approach, which is simply inadequate for the challenges created by austerity and will not cope with future demand. It is time to develop a more coordinated approach.

Today, I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Local Government Committee inquiry into workforce planning. Workforce planning is the process that organisations use to make sure that they have the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time. 


With nine out of ten austerity job losses in Scotland in councils, the impact of job cuts on the workforce has been huge. This is highlighted in UNISON Scotland's damage series of reports in which staff describe the daily stress and plate spinning, which is how they do their best to keep services going.

Added to this we have an ageing workforce, with around 40% of the public sector workforce in Scotland likely to retire within ten years. That has huge consequences for service delivery, particularly in local government. We already have experienced staff retiring, leaving junior staff, often without the necessary skills or knowledge, to muddle through.


In this context you would have hoped that workforce planning would be high on the agenda. In practice workforce planning in Scottish local government is generally very limited, at best local and largely ad-hoc. There is some national discussion with specific professions, or when a recruitment crisis highlights specific difficulties, such as planning. There is little strategic engagement with workforce representatives across the sector.

A current example of short-term thinking is the planned closure of the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. This would leave Scotland with one MPA programme. I was in Wales recently and was impressed by their approach, while in Scotland we appear to be relying on others. Where is the next generation of public service leaders going to come from if we close down quality teaching and research programmes?

There are some local plans as well as guidance from CIPD, Audit Scotland and the Improvement Service. However, there is little national coordination, with silo working the most common approach. There have been some early attempts at a national approach in the care sector. Even here with a looming crisis, we are only at the early stages of a challenging process, given the fragmented nature of the service. 

Effective workforce planning requires access to good workforce data. Our experience of collating data shows that councils often struggle to produce even the most basic workforce data. In some councils the data is only held at departmental level and because every council has a different structure, it is very difficult to put together a national picture.

A new approach to workforce planning is required across the public sector, including local government. Service integration means that this can no longer be undertaken in silos. Here are six steps we could take:





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Thursday, 14 June 2018

Democracy matters - The Local Governance Review


Modern Scotland needs a major devolution of power, placing responsibilities and resources with citizens and communities. This means strengthening democracy through the ballot box and by giving people an active role in decision making.

In December 2017, the Scottish Government and COSLA jointly launched a Local Governance Review, which aims to make sure local communities have more say about how public services in their area are run. Last month, the Scottish Government published a suite of materials to support a highly inclusive conversation about community decision-making.

The Review brings a wide range of Scotland's public services into scope, not simply limited to local government. The first stage consultation will run until November and will focus on local engagement - how local decisions could be made more effectively. The second stage, which will have a degree of overlap, will look at how decisions are made at council level or regionally. This will bring into focus the complex structure of public service delivery in Scotland. Legislation is pencilled in for 2020 to implement any changes, although where there is local consensus change could be fast tracked under existing powers.

The commissioning partners have agreed some guiding principles and a process, but they do not, at present, share a common direction of travel for reform. The Scottish Government has been centralising services, either on a regional or national basis, together will strengthened powers of direction from the centre. Albeit with a narrative around local voice. COSLA on the other hand wants to see devolution extend further than the Scottish Parliament, down to councils and communities. Brexit is another opportunity to extend devolution locally.


The starting point for any review of local governance are the Christie Commission principles, which almost everyone remains committed to, even if the application has been a patchy in practice. The ink was barely dry on the report before services were centralised, but it sets out the case for local engagement very clearly.

There is also a growing civil society movement that makes the case for local decision making and rejects a 'one size fits all' approach to local governance. The 'Our Democracy' initiative has been holding a range of local meetings to develop some ideas and they are bringing this together at a national conference this month.

There are no shortage of ideas developed by think tanks with a good track record of supporting local governance. The IPPR, Carnegie Trust, Fabian Society, LGIU and others, have all made solid contributions to this debate. Service design could be done with citizens and front line staff adopting ideas from Systems Thinking, The Enabling State, Participatory Budgeting and Co-operative councils.There are some common themes, illustrated by practical case studies, in these reports. In short, local is best.

COSLA's Local Democracy Commission has a good analysis of why over centralisation doesn't work. They also floated some quite radical ideas around the structure of public services, pointing to the already highly centralised structure of local government in Scotland. We have fewer councils and councillors than any European country. There may well be a case for regionalisation of some services, but the building lock of local democracy should be smaller, not ever larger councils.

Unsurprisingly, I would also point to my own contribution to the debate in my 2017 Reid Foundation paper 'Public Service Reform in Scotland'. I argue that public services should be built from the bottom up based on nine principles that reform proposals should be tested against. Democratic accountability, subsidiarity, transparency, equality, effectiveness, fair work, integration, outcomes and a public sector ethos. I have recently developed some of these ideas in a new Reid Foundation paper on municipal socialism.

The latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey confirms that there is support for greater engagement. Work done with UNISON members confirms this, although there is also some cynicism that this might be just another government consultation, or a means of papering over the cracks caused by austerity. People will only give up their valuable time for engagement if they believe it will make a difference.

The voice of staff in service design was highlighted by the Christie Commission. There has been limited progress in achieving this, although staff governance initiatives in NHS Scotland and elsewhere is a step forward. I was at a meeting in Edinburgh today when the Cabinet Secretary and the President of COSLA both confirmed that staff voice was 'crucial' to the review.

So, the review is an opportunity to contribute to the debate. It couldn't be simpler to post an idea or respond to the simple open questions in the consultation paper.

As Richard Daggers put it in his 1997 book, "The virtuous citizen must be free, but not simply free to go his or her own way. Instead the citizen is free when he or she participates in the government of his or her community". We should take the opportunity of this review to make this a reality.