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, 24 October 2016

Health & Safety Week - challenging authority.

Those in authority must always be challenged’. According to BBC presenter, John Humphries, that was the key lesson to be learned from the Aberfan disaster. Miners repeatedly warned the employers that the rock and shale tip was unsafe prior to the disaster that killed 116 children and 28 adults on 21 October 1966.


This could also be a motto for health and safety representatives as we start European Health and Safety Week. Up and down the country, union health and safety reps and union branches will use the week to highlight the vital importance of effective safety law.


It is particularly important this year given the threat of Brexit. A ‘Hard Brexit’ means the UK would have more freedom to opt out of EU regulation and reinvent its regulatory framework. That could mean continuing in the deregulatory direction of travel first set by the coalition government in 2010, including the 2014 report for the DWP that drew up targets for repeal. Even under softer Brexit options, the UK will lose its influence over European safety standards.


On Friday, I was launching UNISON Scotland’s annual survey of violence at work. It shows a rise of 20,000 to 40,000 violent assaults per year in the last decade (2006 to 2016), against public service workers in Scotland. With a significant increase in violent assaults against local authority workers – up by 4399, from 13,206 to 17,605. And these are only recorded incidents – the tip of the iceberg.


All workers who deal with the public are at risk, but care workers are at twice the national average risk of assault. A majority of these workers are now employed in the private and voluntary sector. Although most members surveyed said their employer encouraged the reporting of violent incidents, worryingly 83% said that their employer regarded the violence as ‘part of the job’.

This doesn’t surprise me, as I have heard the CEO of a majority care charity say just that. Leadership is important in safety and CEO’s, far removed from the reality of front line care, should know better.

This year, the theme for Health and Safety Week is “healthy workplaces for all ages – promoting a sustainable working life”. This is an opportunity to reflect on the opportunities and challenges an older workforce brings to the workplace. This is particularly true in the Scottish public sector workforce, where because of austerity; the fastest growing part of the workforce in proportional terms is 50-59 year olds.

One aspect of this was covered at a recent STUC conference on workplace dementia. More than 40,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK, 3,200 of those in Scotland. It is estimated that 18% of them continue to work after a diagnosis and therefore this is a growing workplace issue that employers and unions should be addressing.

UNISON has also published two new health and safety guides for members in preparation for this week: Resilience and Well-Being and Behavioural Safety. ‘Resilience’ is the new buzz word in health and safety.  Some employers are trying to change the way we look at health and safety. They want the focus to shift away from what managers should be doing to manage health and safety in the workplace, towards finding reasons to blame employees when something goes wrong. I bet the charity I mentioned above thinks that is a great idea!


So, let’s use European Health and Safety Week to celebrate the great work our safety representatives do every day to help keep us safe. Welcome the sensible framework of safety law that has been developed in partnership with our colleagues in Europe. And most importantly, commit to keep challenging those in authority.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Challenge Poverty Week - Early Years

Important though actions to ameliorate poverty are in the short-term, it is through preventative spending and early interventions that we will begin to eradicate poverty in Scotland. One of the most important of these interventions is through early year’s provision.

This is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland in which the Poverty Alliance and its member organisations seek to highlight the reality of life for over 900,000 people living in poverty. It is therefore a good time to look at the measures being taken to address poverty.

The Scottish government has chosen this week to publish its blueprint for the expansion of early years learning and childcare (ELC) in Scotland.  The centrepiece of this plan is to almost double entitlement to free ELC to 1140 hours per year by 2020 for all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds.

Five years ago, the Christie Commission used early year’s provision to illustrate the importance of early intervention. The blueprint confirms the Scottish government’s support for this concept when they say:

“It is widely acknowledged that the provision of universally accessible and high quality early learning and childcare enriches children with the skills and confidence to carry into and multiply throughout school, and is a cornerstone for closing attainment and inequality gaps”

With this statement you would assume that the plan would be to expand high quality early year’s provision that makes a real intervention in the lives of children at this crucial period in their lives.

The blueprint covers a number of key areas that might help achieve this. As ELC is delivered by people, the workforce is a key element. The blueprint states:

“It will be vital to ensure that, as part of the expansion, the skills and qualifications profile of the ELC workforce is raised, diversity is increased, and there is greater gender balance in the workforce.”

The blueprint also reminds us that we are a considerable way from achieving this in the private sector, with 80% of practitioners and 50% of supervisors in partner provider settings paid less than the Scottish Living Wage. Levels of qualifications are also poor in this sector.

To deliver the laudable aims in the blueprint we need a delivery mechanism to match. This is sadly where the plan starts to unravel. Three of the four options in the blueprint are demand led approaches, very similar to the Tory voucher scheme approach to public service delivery. The obvious risk in this approach is that it leads to a race to the bottom in quality provision and the wholesale privatisation of the sector.

This is not entirely unexpected. The SNP manifesto commitment to employ an additional 20,000 childcare workers and build 200 early years centres, always looked optimistic on a suspiciously round budget of £500m. Sadly, government budgets don’t stretch on the loaves and fishes principle!

We have some experience of a race to the bottom in the social care sector. Because of budgetary pressures, social care has suffered from a race to the bottom in poor quality care. The consequences are half a million patient days in hospitals lost to delayed discharges. Only now are we beginning the climb up from the bottom with the requirement to pay the Scottish Living Wage. Even so, most councils in Scotland are still a long way from a quality care standard as set out in UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter.

The workforce lesson is that this approach results in workers that feel so undervalued that they don’t want to work in the sector and turnover rates soar. When you add Brexit to the mix, recruiting 20,000 additional workers to the sector is going to be beyond challenging.

So, my plea would be to learn the lessons of social care and don’t replicate them in ELC. We need a fairly paid, well trained workforce that can make the early year’s interventions that can close attainment and inequality gaps. We know all too well that privatisation and inequality go hand in hand.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Why trade agreements are bad for our health

Our understanding of trade deals is limited because they have largely been a matter for the EU. Post-Brexit, we should be concerned about what's happening in Europe, as well as what sort of trade deals are being negotiated by our government worldwide.

Most people will be aware of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and the EU, but less aware of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU. Initial votes on this are imminent and the deal has many similarities with TTIP. Boris Johnson is also record as saying that CETA is a good model for future trade deals.

Yesterday, I was speaking at an event looking at the health impact of trade deals.  While the risks to the NHS are recognised, the wider impact on health policy has not been given the attention it deserves.

Even with the inclusion of health on the 'negative list' in CETA, the definitions are likely to be narrow and this still leaves open a range of other public services that impact on health. The aim of trade deals is to create a globalised market in public services and the 'negative list' approach is too weak. There is also a 'ratchet clause' in CETA that locks in privatisation, even when democratically elected governments want to bring them into public ownership.

There is no protection for public services in the investment chapter that allows private corporations to by-pass governments and domestic courts in favour of tribunals (ISDS), run by private trade lawyers. This exposes a wide range of Scottish public services to challenge because they all have elements of private provision already. Examples include Scottish Water and procurement initiatives like the Scottish Living Wage.

Another aim of trade deals is to reduce the supposed ‘regulatory barriers’ to trade, through ‘mutual recognition’ of regulatory standards. In effect a race to the bottom that ignores the precautionary principle in favour of lower safeguards, commonly found in the USA. In practice, this requires little direct action because ISDS creates a ‘regulatory chill’ factor that stays hand of governments.

The specific health impact of CETA and other trade deals include broadening and extending intellectual property rights which could delay the availability of cheaper generic drugs. All public procurement is covered and this could curtail buy- local food purchasing programs in Scotland as promoted in UNISON Scotland's Food for Good Charter. There is a sustainable development chapter, but like the ILO clause, these are aspirational with no effective citizens right to challenge. Regulation restrictions include licensing procedures that are “as simple as possible”, which means as weak as possible! There is also inadequate protection for public water services and on the ILO Convention right to organise, there is only a weak call on Canada to ratify.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the UK government goes for hard Brexit, trade deals will have to be negotiated across the world. So we need to take the debate away from darkened rooms of international trade lawyers and into wider public debate. This means not just saying what we don't like about them, but also to debate what a progressive trade deal might look like.

There are few international models to copy. The possible exception is the South American APP agreement. However, that is based on a unique barter arrangement that it would be difficult to replicate in Europe.

A progressive trade deal would not build in a comparative advantage that locks in poor countries to a system that makes the global South produce goods that are paid for by speculation economy in the North. To illustrate this, the average EU cow is subsidised by $800, while the average annual income in Ethiopa is $100. Neither do we want the Singapore model, where the UK seeks to out-compete the EU through lower regulation and wages.

It ought to be possible to negotiate trade deals that include enforceable environmental and human rights commitments that control transnational corporations, with a citizen rights to challenge. Warm words in a trade deal are not enough - there has to be an effective remedy for everyone, not just the corporations. A progressive trade deal would encourage the  transfer of skills and technologies, not monopolise them. Trade should contribute to social goals, not limit them. From a health perspective they should include a health impact assessment as standard.

We need to do much more to flesh out these ideas, before the UK government goes away and negotiates in secret. The Trade Justice Movement's, Alternative Trade Mandate 10 Point Plan is a good starting point.

The secrecy and complexity of trade agreements has resulted in very little public debate over their contents. That has to change because they impinge on almost every aspect of public policy, particularly health. The very best public health strategies are useless if they are struck down by private corporations. Modern trade deals are almost an alternative constitution. We wouldn't leave that simply to the lawyers and neither should we with trade.

You can join the campaign against CETA by emailing your MEP here. The Scottish campaign will be lobbying the SNP conference on Saturday.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Delivering fair work and effective employee voice

Fair work and employee voice are key elements of an economic strategy for Scotland. There is even a welcome cross party consensus developing.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Economy Committee today on the issue of fair work and employee voice. UNISON welcomes the Scottish Government’s recognition, through the Fair Work Convention and Labour Market Strategy, that a more progressive relationship between employers and their representatives can increase productivity and growth in a way that is inclusive and fair. 

The principle is becoming almost a cross party consensus, given Theresa May's recent rhetoric and establishing an inquiry led by Matthew Taylor. Even George Osborne recognised that subsidising low wage employers made no sense, hence his 'living wage'. Botched implementation, but the principle was right. Labour's 2020 Workplace Initiative has the potential to be even more radical.

Poor work drives negative outcomes way beyond the labour market. Insecure work, long hours and low pay impacts on families and communities and is a key driver of inequality. More than half of households in poverty in Scotland are in work. We know from international evidence that unequal societies do worse on every measure.

At today's session I suggested three stages to help deliver fair work.

As a first stage we should identify poor employment practice. That means naming, shaming and prosecuting employers who don’t meet the legal minimum standards such as the National Minimum Wage. It also means speaking out against poor employment practice such as exploitative zero/notional hour contracts.

The second stage is to promote good employment practice. I would point to NHS Scotland’s PIN policies and staff governance framework as a model approach. These go beyond collective agreements and offer practical guidance on a wide range of issues.

The Scottish Living Wage is an obvious example of positive employment practice and good progress has been made in extending accreditation in Scotland. Particularly in the hard to reach SME sector. While the Business Pledge is not unhelpful, we should be wary of ‘badges’ that don’t come with rigorous accreditation and monitoring. 

Good employment practice should also recognise the needs of all workers. Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. The ability to work without prejudice is a fundamental right, regardless of your background, gender, colour, disability or sexual orientation. Everyone should also be able to work without suffering harm. Each year in the UK, up to 50,000 people are killed by work and around two million people are either made ill or more ill because of their work.

The third stage is to deliver on fair work policies. UNISON Scotland supports the devolution of employment law, which would remove some of the constraints on government action. However, action can be taken using devolved powers including:

Public procurement. The new statutory guidance on workforce matters is an important step forward, but it needs to be properly implemented. 

Sectoral Bargaining.  There is a strong relationship between collective bargaining coverage and low wage work. The Scottish Government could promote sectoral collective bargaining in areas where it has the most leverage, including social care and childcare. These are sectors with many poor working practices. For example the recent 'Early Start' report identifies that 80% of childcare staff in the private and voluntary sector are paid less than Scottish Living Wage.

National Workforce Framework. The Christie Commission highlighted the necessity for a joined up vision for the public sector workforce. A National Workforce Framework could prevent wasted effort reinventing the wheel on issues like staff transfer, pensions, secondment and common procedures. This could include a staff governance framework, similar to that adopted by NHS Scotland, and a common approach to training and development .

This three stage approach means government should take a robust stance on poor practice and set out what good practice looks like with sufficient practical guidance. Then adopt a series of practical steps to ensure Fair Work is delivered using the levers available to the public sector. Ambition is good, but it must be followed by practical action to deliver Fair Work.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Workplace dementia - time for action

More than 40,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK, 3,200 of those in Scotland. It is estimated that 18% of them continue to work after a diagnosis and therefore this is a growing workplace issue that employers and unions should be addressing.

Today, I was speaking at a seminar organised by the STUC, Age Scotland and Alzheimer’s Scotland, aimed at raising the profile of the issue and building alliances to improve awareness and action.

The number of people with dementia is forecast to increase to over 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. Not least because of the increase in the retirement age and poor UK state and occupational pension provision - a greater number of people are expected to work later in life.

As the lead negotiator for the largest pension scheme in Scotland, the most common question members asked me was, ‘how I can retire early?’ Now, they are just as likely to ask about working on past the normal retirement age.

This driven by many factors in addition to increasing the normal retirement age. In local government many members have short service – the average is ten years. Contrary to the media myth of the 'gold plated pension' the average pension in payment is only £3705 per year. Many women in particular need to work on to build up a decent pension after career breaks and a number of men come into the public service workforce later in their career. We also have an ageing public service workforce with 50 to 59 year olds the biggest growing proportion.

To help us address this issue, we have a very useful guide from the Alzheimer's Society, which UNISON contributed to. This guide sets out practical advice about how to spot the signs and symptoms of the illness. It also explains how to support people with dementia - giving them choice and control of their lives, and allowing them to continue to contribute their skills and experience to the organisation.

This can not only make a difference to affected staff, but bring benefits to the whole organisation. The business case includes improving staff retention and providing a more inclusive service - which itself, evidence suggests, can enhance productivity and performance.

A dementia diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean a person can no longer do their job. However, dementia is a progressive condition and over time it will increasingly impair a person’s ability to work. By becoming dementia friendly, organisations will further develop a culture that understands and supports all staff and enables them to work in a way that suits them and meets the organisation’s needs.

Union reps should use the guide to make themselves aware of the symptoms of dementia. Only 48% of people with dementia in the UK are diagnosed and people with early onset dementia can face particular delays receiving a diagnosis. There is a perception that only retired older persons suffer from dementia, so this might not be the first thing a steward thinks of when representing a member.

There's also the question of legal compliance. People with a disability are protected under the Equality Act 2010, and generally this will include people living with dementia. This means that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff with dementia so that they are not disadvantaged at work. Adjustments could include clear signage and labelling, creating quiet spaces, and installing soundproofing or putting up visual barriers to minimise distractions. They might also entail a review of current job specification, reallocation of duties, a change of working hours, or redeployment to another role.

An older workforce will bring a number of challenges and opportunities and dementia is one of those. Unions and employers need to address these issues urgently. Organisational culture takes a long time to shift, so raising awareness and then training for managers and union reps should be an early priority.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Let's have a proper reform of the council tax - not another sticking plaster

We understand that the Council Tax is a difficult issue for politicians, but this latest sticking plaster isn't the solution.

I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government Committee this morning on the secondary legislation implementing the Scottish Government’s latest tweak to the Council Tax. These involve increasing the higher bands, ending the freeze and changes to the reduction scheme. More details in my briefing.

Increasing the multipliers for the top bands is a modest progressive move. However, it still leaves those in a £212,001 home paying the same bill as those in a million pound one. The Commission on Local Tax Reform indicated that the tax on highest value homes would need to be 15 times that of the lowest value homes in order to achieve proportionality. The current system means a £400K house pays three times as much as a £40K house - not ten times. This means that like VAT, it takes up a bigger proportion of low income households than high.

This chart compares the impact of the Commission’s proposals with the Scottish Government’s plan.

The government also needs to clarify how it expects water charges to be treated under the new bands.

In addition, there is to be no revaluation, so the new bandings will be based on 1991 property values. That simply isn’t credible when 57% of properties are in the wrong band. No one doubts that revaluation is politically challenging, even if there are likely to be equal numbers of gainers and losers. It could also introduce transitional provisions. The question is, just how long does the government intend to avoid revaluation before biting the bullet?

A bigger problem is that the Scottish government has decided to take the additional revenues, estimated at £100m, to allocate to their priorities – a new form of ring-fencing. Similarly, they have capped increases to the Council Tax at 3%. Both of these measures undermine local democracy.

Any improvements in the council tax reduction scheme will be welcomed by low income households. However, this cost used to be met by central government, not councils, who lose £333.2m through the system. This means the plan appears to impact on the income of councils with the most low income people. These people may well also find that any savings made on their council tax bills will not make up for cuts in the services they use or extra charges for those services. Charges now make up almost 7% of council budgets while council tax revenue has shrunk to around 15%.

All of these changes need to be effectively communicated to the public; otherwise it will be front line staff that take the flak for the confusion.

Setting up a fair property tax and rate that reflects the real values of properties is what will make the system fairer. We also need to design a system for those who struggle to meet their property tax obligations because of low incomes, which doesn’t unfairly impact on the budgets of local authorities with disproportionate numbers of low income citizens and deferment opportunities for the small group of property rich, cash poor pensioners.

While we welcome the end of the council tax freeze and improved bandings - we simply cannot go on with short-term fixes that damage services and undermine local democratic accountability.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What next for Labour?

As the UK Labour Party conference comes to a conclusion, it’s time for everyone in the Party to remember the words of Keir Hardie; "Unity should be the first object of all of us who desire socialism.”

The one fact that has to be recognised is that Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership ballot emphatically. He won in all three parts of the selectorate and he won on a higher rate of participation. His victory was all the more remarkable given the vitriolic campaign against him in the media. Even normally progressive papers like the Guardian use value based language like ‘moderates’ to badge his opponents. I am usually the last to attack the BBC, but as the Media Reform Coalition report shows, it is justified on this occasion. Twice as much airtime was given to critical voices and BBC reporters regularly use pejorative language when describing Jeremy and his supporters. 

After the ‘coup’ failed, it was always unclear to me why the plotters continued with a leadership challenge. If as Andrew Rawnsley suggests, “it was to take the shine of the incumbent”, it failed dismally. Rawnsley, himself a Corbyn critic, explains why. Most party members, including myself, were appalled by the behaviour of the PLP at a time when we should have been attacking the Tories. Whatever the reservations about aspects of Jeremy’s leadership, we were not going to reward bad behaviour. 

There has been a lot of coverage of the role of Momentum, but much less about Progress. I am not a member of either, but I accept that Momentum is at least an open and transparent movement, something that cannot be said for Progress. Again, the BBC did not cover itself with glory with its botched documentary.

On the issue of ‘The Purge’, I have to say that I have seen no examples in Scotland of members who were suspended without due cause. However, when you look at the voting numbers there does appear to be cause for concern, particular at the turnout of registered supporters. There must be greater transparency over this matter and the application of the rules of natural justice. Suspension letters that I did see were not of the standard we would expect in any walk of life. 

Research amongst party members undertaken by Queen Mary University has highlighted some interesting views. They found that party members, old and new, shared a common vision of what the Labour Party should stand for. They also found that Party members have been longing for someone like Jeremy, long before he was on a ballot paper. 

Newer members are more likely to feel politicians are estranged from them, but the big difference is over their view of leadership.  Fewer than half (42.5%) of old members said they had been driven to join because they believed in the party leadership. More than three quarters (76.5%) of the post-May 2015 members said this had been a driving factor. Rising to 82% among those who joined during the 2015 leadership election and to virtually everyone who joined afterwards. 

As far as Scottish Labour is concerned, the most important part of conference was passing the rule changes that give significant autonomy to the party in Scotland. The SEC will be responsible for the procedures and selection of all UK parliamentary candidates in Scotland and for the management of constituency Labour parties in Scotland. Scottish Labour will also have full control over policymaking, including for the first time in reserved policy areas.

These are very big changes. It’s not an independent party because members clearly rejected that option – rightly in my view. For those who think they are minor, just look at how certain sections of the UK party hierarchy resisted them! 

A frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament, nominated by the Scottish Labour leader, will also directly represent the Scottish Labour Party on the NEC. This was not part of the joint SEC/NEC working group’s proposals, but it does regularise an arrangement that has been in place for several years and is therefore consistent with the tidying up elements of the rule changes. Personally, I am not convinced that there needs to be a seat on the NEC, given the new levels of autonomy, but I am equally unconvinced about direct elections with limited accountability. The measure only became contentious due to Kezia Dugdale’s unwise intervention in the leadership ballot - Carwyn Jones used better judgment.

So where do we go next? I thought Owen Jones struck the correct note in his ‘critical friends’ approach. Members will expect the PLP to accept Jeremy’s mandate, recognising that you can express dissent without damaging the Party. If Labour’s right wing had an obvious route to power they wouldn’t be in such a parlous state. Equally, mandatory reselection is not the way forward – the current rules are perfectly adequate. Jeremy now needs to set out a coherent vision on the big issues of the day and communicate it effectively.

As Gary Younge says; “Principle and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive, and neither side owns a monopoly on either. Political parties do need to win elections, but they are more likely to do so if they stand for something more than just power”. 

That’s a circle the Labour Party has joined up before and can do so again.