Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

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.

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