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.

Friday, 20 October 2017

100 public service workers assaulted every day in Scotland


42,400 recorded incidents of violence towards public sector workers in Scotland last year is a shocking figure – over 100 incidents every day. What's even more shocking is that this is just the tip of the iceberg with huge levels of under reporting.

I was at UNISON Scotland's annual safety conference in Stirling today, presenting the findings of our annual survey on violence at work. We ask employers for the total number of assaults which have been reported in the latest year for which they have information. The aggregated returns for 2017 show 42,421 assaults - an increase of 1,255 compared with 41,166 in our 2016 survey.

Local Government assaults have risen to 22,006 - an increase of 4,401 over the previous total 17,605. In Health Boards there has been an increase of 2,054 from 17,116 in 2016 to 19,170 in the 2017 survey.

Our first survey of public sector employers in 2006 reported just over 20,000 violent incidents in the NHS and local government - so the total had already more than doubled in the decade to last year - and it continues to increase. This increase is partially due to greater awareness and better reporting, but we still have significant under reporting.

Astonishingly, the two services that consistently fail to provide proper data is police and fire. They don't have proper systems and therefore can't easily produce data. If you are not monitoring violence, you can't be doing anything about it.

A big concern articulated by safety representatives today, is the failure to record incidents. Sometimes that's because members are reluctant to report incidents involving cared for persons. In other cases managers are not recording incidents, a particular problem in schools. The absence of near miss reports is particularly telling.

The numbers also show inconsistencies between similar employers that can only be explained by inadequate systems or management culture. There is a particular problem with education and social care. In education, it's more about culture. In social care it's also about lone working and the absence of work bases for staff. There is a real concern that so called 'agile working' is adding to the problem.

While the statutory sector has made significant progress in recent years, the same is not true of the voluntary sector where you all too often hear the refrain, 'it's just part of the job'.  We have therefore recently published an action toolkit called ‘Not Part of the Job’ to help community and voluntary sector employers who want to address this issue. There are some deep seated attitudes in the sector at a senior level, which will take some time to tackle.

One of the reasons we do an annual survey is to raise awareness on this issue, but that is only part of the solution. The next stage is to put adequate reporting and monitoring systems in place. There has been good progress on systems, with a growth in on-line processes that make it easier to analyse data, although there are challenges for some groups of staff. Finally, employers should be introducing measures to minimise the risk of violence, including better training.

In addition to the common law we have the Emergency Workers (S) Act that gives some additional legal protection for a limited group of workers. A Labour MP is introducing similar legislation at Westminster for England and Wales. Useful though this legislation is, typically 300 convictions a year in Scotland, it has limited scope. Most victims of violence are not covered by this legislation and the Crown Office has very limited data on how they use the common law to protect workers.

The massive scale of the problem of violence against public sector workers, including those in the community and voluntary sector, has slowly begun to emerge over the last decade. It is now time for action by employers and stronger legislation, regulation and oversight by government to end the epidemic.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Big decisions on energy policy, but we must be bolder

There is no shortage of activity on energy policy and we haven’t even heard the outcome of the Scottish Government’s energy strategy consultation.

Let’s start with fracking. The Scottish Government has announced that the existing moratorium would continue ‘indefinitely’, which is an effective ban given their planning powers. This follows a similar ban on underground coal gasification. It will be the subject of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, but that should be a formality, as only the Tories support fracking. 

Claudia Beamish MSP still has her members bill which would put in place a stronger legislative ban. The problem with using planning powers is that the moratorium could be overturned very easily, unlike legislation. I suspect the government has decided to go down the moratorium route to avoid compensation claims from INEOS, who now have drilling licences that they can’t use. However, as the minister said, fracking, “cannot and will not take place in Scotland” - and that is the practical effect.

The overwhelming majority of people in Scotland will welcome this decision. A staggering 99% of the 60,000 respondents to the consultation supported a ban. Apart from INEOS, we had a grand rant from Jim Sillars, who claimed that people didn’t know about the consultation. Well, 60,000 respondents would indicate that claim is mince, not to mention the noise campaign groups having been making on the issue. Jim also expects trade unions to put pressure on the government to rethink the ban at the STUC. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that Jim, most unions are opposed to fracking. 


And you won’t win us over with nonsense claims about how fracking will end fuel poverty. Scotland’s geology means so little fracked gas could be extracted that its use would be for industrial, not domestic heating. Even if it could be extracted in any quantity, the cost would be prohibitive. That is why the investment is drying up for drilling in England and the companies are going to the UK Government with their begging bowl.

The next big announcement by the FM was the establishment of a state owned national energy company. Details on this are a bit scarce, but the announcement points, at least initially, to a retail operation. This is not exactly an original idea, with operations like Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Our Power Energy run by housing associations and the People’s Energy Company based in Musselburgh. 

A national energy company is something UNISON supported in its response to the energy strategy consultation. However, we envisaged a more radical option that involves generation and transmission as well as retail. We also support a big role for municipal energy - generating electricity, managing distribution grids, running energy efficiency schemes as well as retail sales. This is very common across Europe and seriously challenges the ownership model in Scotland, something the Scottish Government has been unwilling to do. The big energy companies’ reaction to the announcement last week, indicates that some modest retail competition doesn’t worry them very much. 

The UK Government’s stop-start efforts to introduce a price cap on energy bills, has once more run into trouble. The minister claimed the cap would be in place this winter, a suggestion that was promptly contradicted by Ofgem. The legislation could take a year and then many months more for Ofgem to implement it. Shambles doesn’t even begin to describe this. 

All the usual suspects have been dragged out to tell us how wonderful the market is - all we need to do is get into switching supplier. Meanwhile, in the real-world consumers are increasingly supporting real public ownership options as set out the Labour manifesto. The TUC joined that call at its recent Congress, unanimously backing a motion that supports returning the energy sector to public ownership and democratic control. The motion also called for a mass programme of energy conservation and efficiency, a just transition strategy and investigating the long-term risks to pension funds from investment in fossil fuels.

The last few weeks have seen some important energy policy decisions that could help reshape our energy strategy. However, that will only happen if we are bolder and resist tinkering around the edges.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Improving the governance of public bodies

Scotland's public services are administered by some 200 public bodies. Most of these are run by boards that make the key decisions on the majority of public spending in our country. This means we should pay close attention to the governance of public boards.

In 2010 Audit Scotland published a report on the role of boards that made a number of recommendations. Holyrood's Public Audit Committee has recently conducted an inquiry into the same issue and have published their findings in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary.

Some of the key points they make include:
  • Encouraging board members to provide an effective challenge to board chairs and chief executives, preventinggroup thinkon our boards. As the recent SPA issue has highlighted, corporate responsibility should not be a means of silencing difficultvoices;
  • The committee questions whether the involvement of a senior independent director on a board, as is the case in some parts of the private sector, could be a useful, additional check and balance on the performance of the board chair/ chief executive. Board's also need to establish a fully effective and transparent means of assessing the performance of all board members;
  • It is essential that the public appointments process attracts the best possible candidates, who should not be discouraged by the complex process. The current system may reward those who are most adept at repeating public sector jargon;
  • New legislation should give greater consideration to governance arrangements. Some of the problems have stemmed from poor initial decisions on governance arrangements;
  • There is considerable variance in the governance arrangements across boards and not always a clear rationale for such differences; 
  • Boards also take differing approaches to transparency such as holding meetings in public or private. The committee's view is that boards should be as transparent as possible and should meet in public unless there are justifiable reasons for meeting in private.



I contributed to an informal evidence session during the inquiry and the recommendations are very welcome. The membership of boards has become very 'samey', with the usual suspects dominating appointments. I have heard more than one board Chair use the phrase 'a safe pair of hands'. This isn't likely to to provide the sort of challenge the Committee is referring to.

Workforce representation can provide a real challenge. The Fair Work Convention report recommended there should be a worker representative on every Scottish public body. Some have non-executive directors with a workforce interest. While these appointments offer an expertise that might otherwise be ignored, they are not a substitute for an employee director. However, such directors need to be supported and accountable, otherwise they can become isolated and less effective.

There is a tendency to use the shambles that is the SPA to highlight all that is wrong with public boards. The treatment of Moi Ali was both shocking and a 'good' example of the issues highlighted by the committee. However, we should remember that the structure of governance between Police Scotland and the SPA underpins many of the problems. There was a clear failure to recognise the governance problems this would cause when the legislation was going through parliament.

While the SPA is the most well known example, it isn't the only one. I can think of a number of NDPB boards that provide very weak governance. FE colleges are one as the severance packages row has illustrated. Food Standards Scotland is another, with the food industry having too great an influence. Most boards could do better on transparency.

In fairness it has to be said many of these governance failures are not unique to public boards. There has been a failure of governance in private and voluntary sector boards on pay and workforce issues. In addition, you can only appoint from applicants and many people of working age simply do not have the time to participate. On my way to giving evidence to the committee I bumped into an ex-steward who is now a senior manager in a private company that makes a big play of corporate governance. He told me that serving on public and voluntary sector boards used to be encouraged - now it is barely tolerated.


The Audit Committee recognises that some progress has been made in recent years, particularly over gender balance. Government now needs to focus on strengthening other aspects of governance. This report is a good starting point.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Funding, not more quangos will improve care integration

The implementation of health and care integration won’t be achieved on the cheap. While there should be long-term savings and better care from a shift to community services, it will take time to realise that ambition.

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has been holding an inquiry into the budget for next year. We don’t have much idea how big the pot will be until the UK Autumn Budget and the Scottish Government decides on its own tax policies. However, that still allows some scope for an examination of the principles that underpin the budget.

The Integrated Joint Boards (IJB) are now responsible for some £8.3bn of expenditure – a substantial part of the Scottish budget and supplemented by local taxation. In evidence to the committee the IJB finance officers highlighted that resources are not keeping up with demands. They said:

There is emerging evidence which indicates that the current level of resources is less than that required to meet current cost and demand pressures. In practical terms this means that the required shift in the balance of care will take longer to achieve. A number of Integration Authorities have modelled the level of additional resources required to meet cost and demand pressures, with estimates between 3% (for 2018/19) and 14% (over two years) of existing budget.”


The clear message to the committee was that increased demand, largely due to demographic change, means that they don’t even receive a standstill budget. Transformational change comes with a much bigger price tag.

Measures to reduce unplanned admissions to hospitals and cut delayed discharges can be successful. A number of IJB performance reports demonstrate progress. Not least in Glasgow, which claims continuing decreases in delayed discharges with acute bed days lost falling from 38,152 (13/14) to 15,557 (16/17). However, the picture continues to vary across the country. As I said while giving oral evidence to the committee; unplanned admissions will continue until a full social care service is in place – hospitals don’t turn patients away.

I did notice a definite pitch from IJB directors and finance leads for direct funding and greater control. We should remember that IJBs don’t employ staff and get their budgets from health boards and councils. Their complaint is that funding ‘doesn’t lose its identity’ in this system and they have matrix performance monitoring. Concerns over double counting of health and care funding are valid, as are the constraints of ring-fencing.

It was entirely predictable when you create a system that co-ordinates services that sooner or later the leaders want to create an empire that they have more control over. This leads to a demand for stand-alone bodies – in effect a whole new set of local quangos. 

This demand should be resisted. The change that is required in care cannot be achieved by IJBs in isolation. One of the points I picked up from trade union colleagues in Norway was that separating the management of acute and community services made it that much more difficult to achieve resource transfers. The same applies to councils, who run range of other services that impact on health; like housing, planning, libraries and leisure services. You don’t join up services by fragmenting them even more.

From a staff perspective, such direct control would involve a massive transfer of health and care workers to new organisations. A move that will be resisted by all the trade unions for good reason. Such a transfer would take many years and the harmonisation negotiations would be a complete nightmare. It would require a massive funding pot and divert staff and management effort for years.


It is clear that transformational change in the health and care system requires a significant increase in funding. While there are still some organisational and cultural barriers to integration, more local quangos are not the solution.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Why John McDonnell's PFI pledge is welcome and affordable

John McDonnell caused a stir yesterday with his pledge to bring Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts back in house. Commentators who bandy about huge sums of money to pay for this commitment are missing the point.

The shadow chancellor said in his conference speech that Labour had already pledged not to sign any new PFI deals. He then added: “We will go further. I can tell you today, it’s what you’ve been calling for. We’ll bring existing PFI contracts back in-house.




Unsurprisingly, this was immediately welcomed by UNISON, who campaigned against PFI from the outset, whichever government (Tory, Labour and SNP) used the scheme. Dave Prentis tweeted, “At long last! Our party sees sense on PFI”.

Let’s start by understanding what a PFI scheme is. Instead of borrowing in the normal way, public bodies contract with a consortium of private companies known as a Special Purpose Vehicle, to design, build and operate a public asset - typically schools, hospitals, roads and waste treatment works. The Tories invented the idea, Labour developed it and the SNP use it in Scotland to this day – albeit renamed as NPD or Hubcos. Instead of meeting the borrowing and running costs directly, public bodies pay an annual fee to the contractors.

The scheme has been criticised on many grounds and in the early years the main driver was keeping capital projects off the public sector off the balance sheet. Particularly important in Scotland because of the block grant and led to the saying ‘it’s the only game in town’.

The main problem with PFI is that the private sector can’t borrow as cheaply as the public sector, and of course take a profit. Government can now borrow very cheaply indeed and this had led to calls to refinance such projects. PFI schemes are notoriously secretive, but we know that they are paying interest rates of 7%+, at a time when public bodies could issue bonds at a little over 1%.


UNISON Scotland set out in our ‘Combating Austerity’ plan how this can be done and save millions of pounds of austerity cuts in the process. The Public Accounts Committee at Westminster, hardly a bastion of socialist economics, also highlighted how such refinancing had been achieved in England. Sadly, while some projects have been brought back in-house in Scotland, progress has been glacial, as our progress report this summer shows.

An important forerunner to any contract renegotiations should be stricter monitoring of contracts and restructuring the existing provisions. A number of public bodies in Scotland are beginning to take this seriously, but again more could be done. At UK level John McDonnell could help by committing to changing some of the Treasury rules that make refinancing more difficult than it might be.

That’s why the commitment from Scottish Labour leadership candidate Richard Leonard is so welcome. He said: “Scotland has a huge liability to PFI and the Scottish Government’s Non-Profit Distributing scheme. The Scottish Government could and should set up a debt disposal department dedicated to raising funds to buy out the total outstanding £28.8bn PFI and NPD debt on operational contracts. Doing this could save the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds. If I’m Labour leader I’ll be pressing them on this issue and as a Labour First Minister it will be a priority.”


McDonnell’s actual commitment is fairly modest and doesn’t commit Labour to a massive increase in public spending. That’s because the public sector is already paying over the top for these schemes, so bringing them in-house would actually be a saving to the public purse. As well as giving public bodies control over vital public assets.