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.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Air Traffic Control in the Highlands and Islands.

The public procurement of cutting edge technology is risky at the best of times. For a small public sector airport company to embark on such a programme during a pandemic, which is devastating the airline industry, is very risky.

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) are planning to radically change their Air Traffic Management System (ATMS), removing Air Traffic Control operations from several airports in the Highlands and Islands and centralising them in Inverness. Instead of having air traffic controllers on-site, they will be based in Inverness relying on communications technology to manage aeroplane movements.

I was commissioned by the trade union Prospect to undertake a procurement analysis of the proposal, which they have recently published

In this report, I draw attention to the many technology procurement failures in Scotland and the lessons that should be learned. These include sufficient capacity and capability, early stakeholder engagement, over-reliance on suppliers, avoiding optimism bias and cost creep. These are all identifiable concerns in the ATMS programme. 

While there is significant interest worldwide in the use of Remote Towers to deliver air traffic control services, there is limited practical experience using multiple Remote Towers in the way proposed here. A range of concerns have been identified with the operation of Remote Towers including, the breakdown of data transmission systems, cyber-security, weather assessment, impact on human performance and managing the need for ratings for more than one tower in a single shift.

While the proposal will cost more, it will shift employment from fragile island communities, something that was supposed to be addressed by the Islands (S) Act. The programme will take at least £18m of economic benefit from island economies – a proportionate loss to the Glasgow economy would equate to the loss of some 800 jobs. HIAL has only recently appointed consultants to draft an islands assessment, a process which should be undertaken before decisions are made.

All the island local authorities oppose the ATMS programme. As they put it, “HIAL are putting their own priorities and dogma way above the needs of their customers and partners. Taxpayers money is being spent on a needless vanity project. It is utterly unacceptable in this day and age for a publicly funded body to behave in this high handed way’.

The ATMS programme was developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a massive impact on air travel with a 97% reduction in flights and an estimated £20 billion in lost revenue. Industry analysts all agree that a global recovery in air travel will take many years, if at all given behaviour changes. At the very least, such a significant difference in the operating environment needs to be the subject of a full, transparent, programme review. The Scottish Government should be rethinking their support for the project.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Building Stronger Communities

The COVID-19 Pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong communities, supporting and looking out for each other. However, strong communities do not happen by accident; they need to be nurtured and supported. In a paper published today by the Reid Foundation, I set out nine ways we can build stronger communities through a comprehensive programme of action.

Austerity has undermined many of the local institutions that bind our communities together. Cuts to our libraries, community learning, youth work, day centres and grants to voluntary organisations have all contributed to a weakening of local communities. These cuts impact adversely and more acutely on the most disadvantaged individuals, communities and groups.

That is why social infrastructure is vitally important to strong communities. Social infrastructure relates to the physical conditions that determine whether personal relationships can flourish. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbours. When degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. The paper looks at a wide range of initiatives that can strengthen social infrastructure including, good housing, libraries, leisure facilities, voluntary organisations, community ownership and the role of planning. Social media can be part of social infrastructure but it depends on connectivity which can be limited and unequal in many communities.

A strong local economy is an important element of strong communities. Scotland’s high streets and town centres were struggling even before the pandemic with five stores a week closing. We need to rethink our town centres as places where people live and work, not just shop, although that will remain important. Community Wealth Building should be at the core of the measures needed to rebuild local economies, based on wellbeing and inclusion.

Stronger communities also have to be sustainable communities, based on more local (particularly food) production, community energy, developing a sharing economy, better public transport and support for active travel. Place also impacts on health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. Sufficient social infrastructure helps tackle isolation and improves physical and mental health. This includes how we design communities and create integrated local health and care services.

Providing better services is not enough to create stronger communities - citizens also have to be actively engaged. So, local democracy should sit alongside measures to decentralise powers and democratise the economy. A fairer Scotland where we care about each other, where people can pool their resources, demand accountability, build institutions and influence the decisions that affect them. This must include the decentralisation of power with national government to focus on setting frameworks, leaving the delivery of services to local democratic control. Local integrated services should be based around community hubs in recognisable communities of place. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of local services and the workers who deliver them - we should ‘Build Back Better’ based on the principle of subsidiarity.

It isn’t that nothing has been done about these issues in Scotland. There are many good initiatives highlighted in the paper that individually address many of the key issues. The problem is that many are small scale and process-oriented. What we need is a real focus on communities as the building block of society and a comprehensive programme of integrated support.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Build back a better economy

Economic forecasts on the economic impact of the pandemic vary. However, they are all pretty bleak, and this emphasises the need for an effective recovery package.

There is growing support for an investment-led recovery from the pandemic based around building a more equal and green economy. I think John McDonnell is overly semantic with his criticism of the ‘Build Back Better’ campaign slogan, but he is right that this doesn’t mean going back to the old normal, and we should seek to ‘Claim the Future’. In this post, I look at some of the better ideas.

The Scottish Government’s advisory group report on economic recovery calls for a review of the fiscal framework and investment-led recovery, including ownership stakes in companies. As the STUC says, the implementation plan does not match up to the scale of the crisis, either in the scale of the investment needed and the need for a bolder Job Guarantee Scheme. This has also been the focus of Scottish Labour’s economic campaign. From a different constitutional perspective, George Kerevan wasn’t impressed either.

The Scottish Government package reflects the even weaker UK Government recovery plan. A recent Fraser of Allander study shows that than half of Scottish firms plan to make staff redundant once the UK Government's furlough scheme comes to an end. As Unite’s Steve Turner writes“Failing to protect jobs now will never be forgiven nor forgotten.”

A report for the STUC by Transition Economics shows potential for a £13 billion green stimulus package to create 150,000 jobs in Scotland. However, we must improve on past failures, as the STUC report, ‘Scotland’s Renewable Jobs Crisis and Covid-19’, found that despite previous promises of 130,000 jobs by 2020, direct employment in 2018 was 23,100, down from 23,400 in 2014. 

The Climate Emergency Response Group (CERG) has suggested eight policy packages for a green recovery in Scotland. These include a mix of short-term job creation with long-term investment while improving skills and supporting household incomes.

There is a similar UK plan from the New Economics Foundation in their report ‘Building a Green Stimulus for COVID-19’. Importantly, the projects they select are not just environmentally sustainable; they will also create large numbers of jobs rapidly. Being ‘green’ is not enough to get out of this crisis. 

The Resolution Foundation has proposed a £200bn package for the UK, which is around 10% of GDP. This would be much greater than the very modest UK Government plans, and more in line with other countries. They propose investing in some very targeted ways, including:

·      A £17bn a year job support package – including extending the Job Retention Scheme for hard-hit sectors; a new Job Protection Scheme to subsidise the wages of workers returning to work in those sectors; and, job guarantees for young people.
·      A £30bn ‘High Street Voucher’ scheme – worth £500 per adult and £250 per child – to be spent in hard-hit sectors of the economy, such as face-to-face retail, hospitality and leisure.
·      An Income-Contingent Loan System – capping repayments on crisis loans at five per cent of turnover so that firms can invest and grow coming out of this crisis.
·      Trebling down on the ‘levelling up’ agenda by increasing capital investment by £14bn (rather than £5bn) in the current fiscal year.
·      Supporting low-income families with a £10 billion boost to Universal Credit.

This, like the CERG proposals, looks like a very balanced package of measures, which targets resources on areas most affected by the pandemic.

The Carnegie Trust’s six propositions for Building Back Better is a good mix of economic and social change. They support measuring national wellbeing (not just GDP), investing in digital exclusion, fair work and financial resilience. As you would expect, they emphasise the importance of local solutions, including Community Wealth Building and establishing the principle of subsidiarity in law. I have never been enthusiastic about their Enabling State concept, not least because I can remember the infamous Nicolas Ridley plan. I agree that social infrastructure is key, and I will expand on this in a paper later this month for the Reid Foundation

Community asset ownership has not always been the success they claim, and initiatives tend to thrive in areas with high levels of social capital. Democratically accountable councils can be enablers, not gatekeepers, with the necessary powers and resources. One of the problems with driving a local economic recovery is poor data. The What Works Centre has published a useful guide to data sources. 

There will be predictable responses to these ideas of who is going to pay for it. It is tempting just say what is the alternative? We know what austerity economics did last time, and now we have the ability to borrow at record low rates for investment, even if you don’t buy into Modern Monetary Economics

If you believe we have to supplement this with other financial solutions, then look at the case for a wealth tax, or more controversially, a suggestion in a Social Market Foundation paper for a capital gains tax on primary residences. IFS researchers have shown that inherited wealth is on course to be a much more important determinant of lifetime resources for today’s young than it was for previous generations. 

The UK government is consulting over an online sales tax (Amazon Tax), which could raise £2bn. While this looks like a good idea in principle, there are concerns as Prem Sikka highlights. A key issue is that this money should go to councils, not Treasury or Scottish Government coffers. 

The economic recovery from the pandemic requires a new way of economic thinking. Only 6% of the public want a return to the pre-pandemic economy. We need to create an economy that puts the wellbeing of society over individual success and challenges what is valued and rewarded by the economy.

Friday, 24 July 2020

More lessons from the pandemic - Scottish Care Service

Today, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has published the second in their series of papers on 'Reconstructing Scotland after COVID-19'. As with the first paper, they seek to put forward policies that are especially relevant to the impact of the pandemic and the way existing state and society have responded. This paper has five sections that examine public ownership, social care, education, employment relations law, and union membership.

Professor Andy Cumbers highlights how the pandemic has brought home the abject failures of the UK’s private, market-based economic model. This has been recognised in recent polling, which shows growing support for public ownership during the pandemic. He sets out five important principles for a better run system of publicly-owned and controlled services, building on the ideas in his recent book, 'Reclaiming Public ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy', which I reviewed in May. 

The EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan, argues that the impact of Covid 19 has laid bare the fault lines in our society around inequality and poverty, with those children already suffering from disadvantage having that divide deepened. If tackling the attainment gap is really a Scottish Government priority, he asks, "Why aren’t we employing every qualified teacher in the country so that we can cut class sizes to provide more individual support; why aren’t we enlisting an army of support staff to provide additional support; why aren’t we paying retired teachers to act as mentors and tutors to disadvantaged pupils?"

Stephen Deans from Unite makes the case for a new economy built on the promotion of collective bargaining and strong social safety nets so that nobody falls through the cracks and everyone is properly valued. While the Fair Work initiative has helped, this largely voluntary process lacks teeth and relies too much on employer goodwill. He argues that all aspects of employment law, including health and safety, should be devolved. 

Professor Gregor Gall highlights the significant growth in union membership before the pandemic and the growth in some sectors during the crisis. However, he recognises that unemployment in other sectors will act as a levelling point. He highlights the proposals in the IER 'Manifesto for Labour Law', which would assist union recruitment and strengthen collective bargaining.

My own contribution covers the crisis in social care and the growing support for a National or Scottish Care Service. This is not a social care version of the NHS. Instead, it should be a national framework approach that ends the current marketisation of social care. It could set consistent standards, contracts and charges for services not covered by free personal care. Most importantly, it would include a statutory workforce forum to set minimum terms and conditions, organise effective workforce planning and put a new focus on training and professionalism.

While there is a broad consensus on the concept there are still a number of issues that require more work. I outline these in the paper, including the governance model, local democratic accountability, staffing integration, common ownership, and of course funding. The creation of a Scottish Care Service is an idea which has come of age during the pandemic. Turning it from a concept into a practical solution requires more work and some difficult conversations. If we are to ‘Build Back Better', an integrated health and care service, with national standards and local delivery should be the highest priority. 

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Build Back Better

In April I wrote about the longer-term lessons to be learned from the pandemic and the importance of thinking about these now, rather than allowing others to capture the narrative - as they did after 2008 with austerity economics. Under the broad 'Build Back Better' banner, there have been encouraging contributions to this debate in Scotland. 

This has not gone unnoticed. As the BBC Business Editor, Douglas Fraser noted recently, “The battle has begun for the post-Covid legacy, deciding what's going to change. The left and progressives are first to engage. Think tanks are on manoeuvres.”

First up there is the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s, ‘Reconstructing Scotland after the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis: learning the lessons of the pandemic’. This is a series of contributions covering Universal Basic Income, public transport, climate change, education, Freedom of Information and valuing civil servants. I wrote the section on health and social care, in which I set out how the ‘new normal’ must effectively tackle health inequalities with radical action on income support, household debt, social security, housing, public services and the environment. In addition, the need to reform social care is now obvious to all, starting with valuing those who deliver our health and care services. 

The importance of tackling health inequalities is reinforced by Dr Gerry McCartney. Writing for the Poverty Alliance, he said, “As we discuss the policies to protect and improve the nations’ health post-pandemic, equity will be at the heart of it. We have the opportunity to build the economy back better for everyone, to ensure we all have the income we need to live to a decent standard and reduce inequalities for the future.”   

Common Weal is championingResilience Economics’ – arguing the answer is not more ‘greed and acquisition’, but rather ‘sufficiency and security’. I think there is much to welcome in this approach and said so in a post on their news analysis site. In particular, putting the climate emergency at the core of the recovery. This concept also stresses the importance of wellbeing and foundational economics, which should emphasise decentralisation and stronger communities.

The STUC has published provisional research from Transition Economics which shows how a £13bn stimulus package could deliver a green recovery. Their analysis shows that almost 150,000 good quality jobs could be created at the same time as making a real impact on emissions and strengthening Scotland’s renewables supply chain.

The importance of climate change has been highlighted by business leaders in a letter to the PM calling for a green recovery from the pandemic. Meryam Omi from Legal & General warned: “The government is understandably focusing on the present crisis, but they must heed the dangers of reacting too late to threats and remember one of the gravest in the world - the climate emergency.”

More broadly, a coalition of 80 organisations including charities, unions and churches has written to the First Minister calling for a radical economic recovery programme that prioritises people and planet over profit. They are asking for the Scottish Government to prioritise essential public services and claims national policies should promote more equal wealth distribution, with minimum income guarantees.

There isn’t one magic idea that underpins ‘Build Back Better’, but there are recognised approaches that can guide us. These approaches have to be relevant to lessons learned during the pandemic and be based on progressive values. The response to the last crisis was a disaster for Scotland. There are at least some positive signs that we have the ideas to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Case for Economic Democracy

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economy will be significant, and we will need new ideas to address the consequences. While written before the pandemic, Andy Cumbers’ (University of Glasgow) new bookThe Case for Economic Democracy’ is an important contribution to the ‘Build Back Better’ debate.

While there have been predictable calls from the lunatic economic fringe (like the Tax Dodgers Alliance) for a return to austerity, it is encouraging that such calls are not reflected, at least in the short-term, in the mainstream right-wing thinks tanks. There is a broad consensus that while interest rates remain at record low levels, governments can afford to borrow more and maintain that debt. 

Others argue for more radical approaches to government debt, and the TUC and Labour have started to work up plans to work our way out of recession. History also teaches us that it is possible to build back positively from recessions.

I was particularly struck by the chart below from a briefing I was on from the Resolution Foundation, which shows how even the high levels of spending during the pandemic are only a blip in historical debt terms.

Avoiding ‘Austerity Mark 2’ is a key starting point for building a better economy, but it is not enough. Andy Cumbers explains the context of the inter-related economic, ecological and political crises:

“Economically, there are widening inequalities between rich and poor, and a growing chasm between the elite billionaire class and the rest of us. Linked to this unequal and imbalanced system of global capitalism, we face an environmental catastrophe with global warming brought on by two centuries of rampant industrialization and ill-considered economic growth.”

He makes the point that we think of democracy in political rather than economic terms. Yet, who controls our economy and makes the key decisions is fundamental to our lives.  His book discusses the steps needed to move from an economy driven by narrow self-interest and greed, towards a more democratic economy, capable of serving the common good.

He starts with an analysis of the roots of the economic crisis and the history of economic democracy. He makes the link between the familiar ‘crisis of democracy’ commentary and the underlying link to global capitalism – championed not only by Thatcher, but accepted by centre-left governments as well. Aspects of this failure have been highlighted during the pandemic, but there remains a real risk that we will return to ‘business as usual’. 

Economic democracy is often conflated with industrial democracy, and while that is an important part of the solution, this book takes a wider view, exploring how we create a democratic economy as a more socially and ecologically sustainable alternative.

His central case rests on three pillars: 
  1. Individual economic rights. Individuals being able to exercise their democratic rights by participating in decision-making processes. This applies equally to the economy as it does to other areas of polity and society. 
  2. Diverse forms of collective ownership. Securing individual rights requires much greater collective and democratic ownership of firms, resources and property. This requires a mixed (markets and planning) economy of diverse collective ownership.
  3. Creating deliberative and knowledgeable publics. The need to widen and deepen public engagement and participation in decision making to cultivate a more democratic and deliberative political economy. 

Finally, what I like about this series of books, is not just the cogent analysis, but you get a chapter on how to put the ideas into practice. 

Some of these solutions are controversial, even on the left. For example, he argues that Universal Basic Income could create real economic freedoms and social empowerment, as well as raising the wages of traditionally low paid jobs and strengthening collective bargaining. Not a view shared by Iain Macwhirter (Universal Basic Poverty) this week! Others, like reducing the working week, are gaining wider support as a consequence of the pandemic.

Democratic ownership, in both public sector and cooperative forms, is another solution that should gain traction as a consequence of the pandemic. The privatisation of social care is just one example of how privatisation has been exposed. The bailouts of tax dodging companies are another. Andy draws on some of his previous work in the energy sector for other examples.

Broader forms of participatory decision making like Participatory Budgeting (PB) are welcomed while recognising that they remain on the margins of political decision making. He argues they can widen engagement to groups that have not previously participated using examples from Brazil, Ireland and Iceland. Scottish experience, so far, has struggled to avoid capture by articulate, higher-income groups.

Like me, you probably won’t agree with every idea in this book, but the central concepts are important. The good news is that polls show the form of global capitalism that currently exploits and alienates both us and the natural environment has never been less popular. This book argues for a project that enables individual economic rights and ambitions alongside collective ownership and radical democracy. That sounds like ‘building back better’ to me.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Return to work planning - some issues to consider

I have been helping one medium size organisation with its HR challenges in recent months, and this week, we were looking at plans for a return to work for the majority of staff who have been furloughed.

We were all too aware that the pandemic has been anything but the claimed ‘great leveller’. This is also true for the tentative return to work planning.  Those of us on the Zoom call have been able to relocate their screen-based work to home. However, as this morning’s commuter pictures from London show, others are now cramming into overcrowded buses and trains, to do mostly low paid work. This is what inequality looks like.

While the Scottish guidance is still discouraging a return to work, it is likely that the disconnect with the guidance in England will be short-lived. As the First Minister has said: Scottish businesses would be able to reopen "as soon as they can safely do so" and predicted that they would not need to wait for "long periods of time".

My starting point is always the legal basics. That begins with the employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and, as is sometimes forgotten, other people who might be affected by their business. While this is a UK wide statutory duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act, there are also common law duties. 

In Scotland, the law of delict imposes on employers a duty to promulgate and operate a reasonably safe system of work. Failure can result in civil legal action - commonly known as personal injury claims. A similar duty can also be implied in the contract of employment, and therefore a material breach can result in unfair (constructive) dismissal claims. In short, there are criminal and civil legal consequences of not delivering a safe system of work, and the pandemic does not remove these requirements.

The weakness of these provisions is that they are mainly ‘after the fact’ remedies. The HSE Management Regulations attempt to address this with principles of protection that set out a hierarchy of prevention and control. Importantly, employees can stop work immediately and proceed to a place of safety if they are exposed to serious and imminent danger. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides workers with the right to withdraw from and refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe. It is automatically unfair to dismiss employees who use these ‘stop the job’ provisions. 

In addition to legal consequences, employers will want to adopt return to work strategies that reflect their values and broader workforce policies. They will also be aware of reputational risk. Something Wetherspoons, Britannia Hotels, First Direct and Virgin have struggled with during this crisis! Today’s Guardian carries a horror story about Irish meat plants, with one worker saying; “If the disease was in the animals, they’d have closed the place. But for workers, the factories can do what they want.”

In a practical sense, these duties are delivered by undertaking risk assessments to identify potential health and safety hazards. Employers are required to act on the assessment and minimise risks in the workplace. The employer I have been advising has well-established risk assessments processes, but we needed to think about what additional issues needed to be addressed in the circumstances of a return to work. Risk assessments should be prepared in consultation with Workplace Safety Representatives who understand the practicalities of the workplace better than anyone. 

The first decision to be taken is should workers be asked to return to the workplace. I found the three key tests published by the CIPD a helpful starting point – essential, safe and mutually agreed.

  • Is it essential? If people can continue to work from home, they must continue to do that for the foreseeable future. If they cannot work from home, take the time needed to put safety measures and clear employee guidance and consultation in place. 
  • Is it sufficiently safe? Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. Use gradual returns to work to test health and safety measures in practice and ensure they can work with larger numbers before encouraging more of their workforce back.  
  • Is it mutually agreed? It’s vital that there is a clear dialogue between employers, workers and their trade unions so concerns, such as commuting by public transport, can be raised and individuals needs and worries are taken into account.  

The UK Government guidance for England is slowly emerging, despite the decision to encourage a return this week. There is the official overall guidance and eight sets of sector-specific guidance. Frankly, ‘Stay Alert’ has to be the most vacuous piece of safety guidance I have heard for a long time. The inconsistencies in the English guidance are being highlighted daily, so we can only hope there will be revisions. In fairness, the sector-specific guidance is better, although even here we found some weaknesses. The TUC has described these as a ‘step in the right direction’, and they emphasise the need for specific COVID-19 risk assessments.

The HSE also has some helpful workplace safety guidance on this issue. We found the ‘face masks – face fit test’ particularly useful, given this is a piece of equipment managers and workers are not familiar with.

The TUC has issued some helpful guidance on the pandemic and return to work proposals, along with sector-specific guidance from individual trade unions. One issue highlighted by the TUC is the use of biometric and similar surface systems. The manager in one department had produced an excellent risk assessment but forgot that everyone touched the same screen at some time during the day. 

One key issue is the risk for public-facing workers. USDAW has highlighted the risks retail staff face and there have been shocking examples of people spitting and coughing at nurses and others. The case of Belly Mujinga, a ticket office worker, who died of COVID-19 after being spat on, is appalling, but also a lesson for managers on how not to handle staff concerns.

Working at home, along with other flexible practices, has been less difficult than some anticipated. I helped with a flexible working policy in the same employer last year. Many managers said it was impossible to deliver work this way, yet it is now happening every day. I also think the pandemic will change other work cultures, not least enabling more autonomous working.

Coming out of lockdown is going to be more difficult than going in. Employers and trade unions need to work together to design the safest possible workplaces. However, at this stage of the pandemic start with the questions – is it essential, can we do it safely and what does the workforce think?

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lessons to be learned from the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has immediate implications for its victims and those in health and care treating them. There are also medium and long-term implications to consider if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The immediate implications are primarily for those working in the health and care sector. Testing has been inadequate, and the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been nothing short of scandalous. Both of these also apply to a much wider group of key workers in the public and private sector who have kept essential services going. This requires a much greater effort in both supply and distribution to protect those who are literally putting their life on the line for the rest of us.

For the economy introducing “suspended animation” policies will reduce the burden on governments because there are fewer bills that it needs to subsidise. This reduction of bills will give governments more breathing room to support the paused economy for a longer period of time. That’s why mortgage holidays, rent delays and similar policies are the right approach and stand the best chance of avoiding a standard recession spiral.

The crisis has also highlighted structural issues that we need to address. The Archbishop of Canterbury put it well in his Easter address: “The next wave coming is the economic one … We have a choice there as a nation and as a society and as a world. Do we take hold of our destiny and make sure the differences are mitigated, abolished where possible – or do we just let things happen, do we let the market rule, in which case there will be enormous suffering.”

Even some of the harder headed media recognise that change has to happen. A Financial Times editorial said; “Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy; see public services as investments rather than liabilities; make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda.”

Here are some of the longer-term lessons being discussed:

·      Economy: As the Fraser of Allander survey and the OBR signals, the economic numbers are bad now, and likely to get much worse in future. It is absolutely right that governments do whatever it takes to support people and the economy through this pandemic and the job retention scheme was vital, even if other measures have many gaps in them. 

We also have to recognise that economy was in a poor shape before the pandemic hit. The reason the UK government has been pumping so much money into the health service, into wage subsidies, into support for the self-employed and for small businesses is that they were all only just managing before the crisis broke. The fundamentals of the economy are not as strong as some claim. Ultra-low interest rates have left no buffer and global supply chains exploiting marginal efficiencies have been found wanting.   

When it is over, there will be calls to tackle debt, and some will want to repeat the mistakes of the 2008 crash by instituting another round of austerity. In practice, most of the state debt we owe to each other, and we can meet obligations denominated in pound sterling. 

The conventional wisdom is that ‘monetising the debt’ is inflationary. However, there are no indications that inflation is a problem today. Lerner, an associate of Keynes, decried arbitrary government deficit and debt ratios as an inappropriate focus of economic policy. He also demonstrated that deficits do not need to be fully funded through bond sales. The UK’s experience after the second world war suggests that such high public deficit and debt levels do not in themselves prevent strong recovery or put an intolerable burden on the state. There is no rational case to inflict further damage to the economy through Austerity Mark 2.

A significant number of companies will do the right thing, and they should be supported. Consumers will remember those who have behaved badly. Nationally it has been the predictable names – Ashley, Green, Branson etc. But also, locally. Just look at community Facebook groups to see which local businesses have shown an amazing community spirit and those who haven’t.  

To ensure the economic effect of the pandemic is minimised, we must ensure there is money in the pockets of those on the lowest incomes. This will provide the greatest boost to demand. And public spending must not be targeted in any drive to reduce borrowing.

·      Private debt: Economic recovery could be undermined by household and business debt, which is vastly higher than after the second world war. Many people in Scotland and the UK are constantly a couple of weeks from going bust and have no savings cushion.  Economic growth before the banking crash was over-reliant on increasing household debt. Both have eased somewhat since the 2007-09 crisis (see chart below), but household debt, in particular, is rising again – driven this time by credit card and student debt rather than mortgages.

The UK Government recovery programme party addresses corporate debt by providing businesses with loans and generous payback conditions and other support. To achieve a sustained recovery, the government might need to have household debt partially cancelled, or at least frozen.

·      Tax avoidance: The sight of Richard Branson calling for state bailouts from his tax haven should be a defining image of this pandemic. Sadly, it is probably not as simple as saying no to the tax dodgers because jobs and supply chains who do pay taxes could also be victims. However, that doesn’t mean that taxpayer support comes without strings. It should be used to take an equity stake in these businesses and change the business greed culture. Global action would be good, but we must not wait for that to happen.

·      Employment: As the STUC and TUC have said as we clap key workers each week; ‘Public sector workers are for life, not just for a crisis’. The gratitude is also striking because it highlights just how much we under-value these same people in normal times. We now see that we can do without celebrities, but not shelf-stackers. Many of the people we rely on most – social care workers, cleaners, retail staff - are among the lowest paid and least secure workers in the country. They deserve better, and we need a different approach to wage inequality and employment security in future. The crisis has also shown that new ways of working are possible.

·      Preparedness: There can be little doubt that governments were poorly prepared for this crisis, despite past emergency planning exercises that highlighted many of the issues we face today. Clearly, we had an insufficient stock of the right types of PPE, but it has also been a failing of logistics. The NHS has centralised the buying and distribution of its core supplies on the grounds of efficiency. That may work well in normal times, but as soon as the pandemic hit that supply chain was overwhelmed. For those outside the NHS, particularly in the fragmented social care system, there was no system to support them.

The inability to follow the WHO’s instruction to “test, test, test”, points to the UK response as one of the severest failures of public administration in our history. This also points to the importance of supporting public research rather than relying solely on drug companies who will always prioritise research that delivers short-term profits. With Trump closing down public research facilities in the USA, Britain and Europe needs to step up to the plate. 

‘Unprecedented’ may be the word of the year but governments have struggled to communicate effectively. The public accepts that scientists and medics do not yet understand all aspects of this virus. But that is not an excuse for the lack of honesty and clarity around issues that politicians are responsible for. This includes basic information and some pretty appalling commentary – Priti Patel and Matt Hancock in particular. We are self-evidently not ‘all in this together’ as it is the poor and BAME citizens who are hit hardest. 

·      Health and social care: With the understandable focus on the NHS, it took some time before our already stressed social care ‘system’ came under the spotlight. It took a pandemic just to get a Scotland wide agreement to pay all social care staff straight away. As the CEO of Enable put it: “it requires commissioners to enter complex negotiations with multiple providers (with a total of around 1,000 different third sector and private sector social care providers operating in Scotland this must have been tough); and – most importantly of all – it has meant the frontline staff delivering care in our communities have had to wait many months for a backdated uplift to (hopefully) be secured and paid – all subject to the outcome of those negotiations.”

The case for a Scottish Care Service that sets a national framework while leaving delivery local is now overwhelming. Perhaps it is also time to think about some radical ways of funding social care, including Andy Burnham’s plan to tap the wealth of the older generation, so everyone contributes 15% of their assets on retirement, usually through equity release on their property.

·      Social security: Many more people from all walks of life have discovered what the poor have known for years – our social security safety net doesn’t work. Universal Credit, with its five-week waiting time for a payment isn’t fit for purpose. 

A poll for the Food Foundation showed that more than 1.5 million adults in Britain say they cannot obtain enough food. Half of the parents on low incomes with children eligible for free school meals said they had not yet received any substitute meals to keep their children fed. Around 830,000 children are therefore likely to be going without daily sustenance.

The need to protect incomes has led to a call to adopt Universal Basic Income. Personally, I have been a sceptic on structural and cost grounds, although I agree that it is worth trialling in a serious way. 

What is not in doubt is the need to build a stronger safety net. Total out-of-work payments received by UK employees are on average around 34% of their previous in-work income – the third lowest among 35 OECD advanced economies. At 15% of average earnings, the main adult unemployment payment is worth less than at any time since the creation of the welfare state in 1948.

NEF has proposed a Minimum Income Guarantee to sit alongside the other support schemes. This would be a comprehensive, sufficient, non-conditional, non-means tested at the point of access, minimum income floor to catch everyone who is currently missed out by the job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme.

·      Housing market: Governments moved quickly to remind mortgage holders of existing provisions for mortgage holidays. They were much slower to intervene in the weakly regulated private rented sector, which so many now rely on. The pandemic may well have long term impacts on the housing market, including house prices and construction. 

Instead of simply patching together a housing market that was already failing, we could take the opportunity to rethink our whole approach to housing. This could include restoring the historical link between house prices/rents and local incomes; a massive programme of social house building and renovation; effective regulation of the private rented sector; and building houses for people rather than investment.

·      Food: The weakness of global supply chains and the need to take climate change action will inevitably strengthen the case for local food sourcing. This is a two-edged sword as it may well have an impact on some Scottish exports, including whisky and salmon.

·      Industrial strategy: The crisis has highlighted the absence of an effective industrial strategy. The shift to a service-based economy and the reliance on ‘just in time’ global supply chains has to end. For example, China is the only immediate high-volume source of clinical gowns, and there are similar problems with other PPE. 

Relying on a cottage industry of 3D printers is no way to run a country. We need a new industrial strategy that supports Scottish and UK ownership, and that includes using the pandemic support measures to take strategic stakes in companies. Only ten out of the top fifty Scotland’s firms are owned by shareholders in Scotland, and of these only four are in manufacturing.  We have to break the short-termism of investment companies who prioritise dividend payments at the expense of investment.

·      Community: The pandemic has highlighted the importance of strong communities, supporting and looking out for each other. In the main, people and communities across Scotland stepped up to the plate. Even the Tory Prime Minister made a point of saying that there is such a thing as society, in a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the Thatcher doctrine.

This crisis will also have a long-term impact on the economy of local communities, and we must, therefore, put a renewed focus on initiatives like Community Wealth Building. It will be the foundational economy that takes us forward – not global supply chains. 

·      Global solidarity: A new sense of community is not an excuse for isolation and protectionism. We are not alone in this crisis.  People right across the globe feel the same uncertainty, fear, despair and isolation. Pandemics do not respect national boundaries and abandoning the global south is not only morally wrong, but it is also in all our interest. As the Pope put it: “Indifference, self-centredness, division and forgetfulness are not words we want to hear at this time. We want to ban these words for ever!”

·      Climate crisis: Global emissions have crashed during the crisis giving us a glimpse of what the world might look like without fossil fuels. But hopes that we will emerge into a healthier, cleaner world will depend on the long-term political decisions made about what follows. We must ensure that the postponement of the COP26 talks is used effectively. As Nicholas Stern has said; “There is an opportunity in the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis to create a new approach to [economic] growth that is a sustainable and resilient economy in closer harmony with the natural world.” 

We should not assume that these lessons will be learned. After all, not much changed after previous events, including the 2008 banking crash. As Kevin McKenna put it: “Each of these seemed to provide opportunities to step back and evaluate the choices and behaviours which led to them. But after a respectable period of moral introspection the bacchanal resumed.” 

Hedge funds have already proudly announced the billions they have made from disaster capitalism. The Tories, despite appearances, have not turned into Corbynites. These are temporary measures to preserve capitalism.

The problem will lists like the above is that they can become a shopping list of all the ‘good’ things progressives would like to see. This pandemic has exposed many social ills, and it is those that we should address first.  Yes, they must be radical, but they must also be relevant to recent learned experience if they are to attract wide public support.

Overall, we must ensure that the lessons are learned. These include the importance of community, the impact of globalisation and the vital role of the state, local and national when nothing else stands between the people and penury or even death.