This evening I participated in a ‘Question Time’ event organised by Brodies Solicitors on the subject ‘Beyond 2014 – The Future of Employment in Scotland’. I was pleased to do this event as employment considerations have been sadly missing from the constitutional debate so far.
So what might employment look like after 2014 if Scotland was independent? As with most issues we need to see what the White Paper later this year has to offer. However, there are some hints in the Scottish Government’s recent paper on the economic case for independence. They highlight the importance of integrating policy levers to end the current disjointed approach. This might enable action on a living wage, gender and worker representation on company boards and tax incentives to encourage firms to take on more workers. They point to the example of other countries in Europe that have better benefit systems that allow people to move more quickly back to work and fiscal incentives for training and skills. They also offer the prospect of some form of social partnership and bringing employment related matters under an Employment Rights Authority on the Irish model.
All this sounds promising if a little vague. Exploring mechanisms isn’t quite the firm offer trade unions would want to see. When it comes to the detail of employment rights Scottish ministers have been somewhat vague when pressed. The Yes campaign’s response to the STUC Just Scotland initiative was equally vague on labour market reform, pointing to the opportunity to take a different path from Westminster. It’s a delicate balancing act keeping your business backers on board while appealing to the workers at the same time!
On a more practical level we can draw some conclusions from our experience of employee relations since devolution. On the whole I would describe them as positive across all the administrations since 1999. The Memorandum of Understanding with the STUC has underpinned a positive level of engagement between the trade unions and government at all levels. The recent statement on the constructive contribution made by workplace unions to economic growth is a document that you would be unlikely to see emanating from the present UK government. The partnership model in NHS Scotland has been described as probably the best model in Europe in a recent academic study. The Scottish Living Wage, civil service facility time and minimising compulsory redundancy have all been positive aspects of employee relations in Scotland. Of course it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The current pension disputes and pay policy have looked pretty much the same in Scotland. Only this week I was addressing the Scottish Government’s approach to regulation that uses similar language to that the UK Government uses to justify undermining employment and safety legislation.
Of course either side can take comfort from these examples. They have been delivered under devolution, but could also reflect a different, more collective approach in an independent Scotland. UNISON’s Fairer Scotland – Devolution paper sets out the case for devolving more powers including safety, labour market regulation and equalities. While the driving principle is subsidiarity, the paper admits that there is a case for simply doing things differently. And that is ever more pressing when you have a UK Government undermining the UK’s already weak safety and employment laws.
Important though the mechanisms of employee relations are, employment depends on wider economic and social policy considerations. The questions at tonight's event reflected those concerns ranging from immigration, taxation, pensions and Europe. As I and others have highlighted elsewhere, there is a real contradiction between the low tax business model and greater social justice. Jim McColl and Nicola Sturgeon can’t both be right and this is something the Yes campaign is going to have to reconcile if they are to develop a credible case for independence. Equally, the No campaign has to offer a vision of extended devolution that addresses how Scotland can develop a more integrated approach to employment issues.
Much more work for both sides on this issue and thanks to Brodies for promoting the debate.