Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Procurement failures

The UK Government is mired in a series of procurement scandals that go way beyond poor practice. While not on the nearly on the same scale, all is not well in Scotland either. In recent months I have completed a couple of projects that examine specific procurement programmes. Similar issues cropped up in both projects, which reflect some long-standing lessons that organisations have failed to learn.


Barely a day goes by without UK Government procurement stories being reported in the media. Some examples include:


·      Sourcing PPE from factories in China where hundreds of North Korean women have been secretly working in conditions of modern slavery. They have no days off and the North Korean state seizes 70% of their wages. It also breaches UN sanctions.

·      PPE contracts involved a £253m deal with Ayanda Capital, a London-based investment firm whose senior adviser was Andrew Mills. At the time, Mills was also an adviser to the Board of Trade. The government paid Ayanda £155m for face masks with ear loops, which could not be used by the NHS.

·      A Spanish businessman was paid more than £21m in taxpayers’ money to act as a middleman in the sale of personal protective equipment to the UK government by a Florida-based jewellery designer.

·      A contract, without a tender, paid £550,000 to the policy consultancy firm Public First for polling and focus groups. No formal contract was put in place until 5 June. The NAO found, “no documentation on the consideration of conflicts of interest, no recorded process for choosing the supplier, and no specific justification for using emergency procurement.”

·      The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) awarded a £600,000 research grant to a consortium whose members include a fire testing specialist whose research has been funded by Kingspan, the company that made some of the combustible foam used in Grenfell. As well as a fire engineer who has publicly opposed outright bans on combustible materials.


A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation into pandemic procurement concluded that normal standards of transparency were waived as departments awarded 8,600 contracts worth £18bn to tackle COVID-19. Deals worth £10.5bn were granted without competitive tender and companies recommended by MPs, peers and advisers were given priority. As the chart below shows, 58% of contracts value was awarded directly to a supplier. Even allowing for the urgency, this is well below the standards taxpayers have a right to expect from public procurement. An issue which is now the subject of a legal challenge from the Good Law Project.

In a recent report for Prospect, I highlighted a number of poor procurement practices in the plan to centralise Highlands and Islands Air Traffic Control. In that report, I listed a range of IT procurement failures in Scotland. One of those failures was Disclosure Scotland, which is continuing to spend millions of pounds to manually deal with disclosure applications more than a year after an IT system £44 million over budget went live. The Scottish Government has also had issues with PPE procurement. The alteration of use-by dates on vital PPE equipment has raised concerns that the Scottish Government is short-changing key workers by providing out-of-date equipment. 

Procurement is important because the spend generates around £10bn of economic activity for Scotland. However, too little of this spending is linked to creating jobs in Scotland, with only 100,000 jobs supported. SME’s have also long complained that they get a disproportionate amount of this spending, and the latest procurement report shows that SME’s get around 1% of total procurement spending. As Richard Leonard MSP recently said, “The SNP Government have handed billions of pounds of public money over to contracts, with little job creation and SME support in return".  


I was closely involved in the development of the Procurement Reform (S) Act 2014, which attempted to use procurement as an important lever to deliver broader government objectives, including employment standards and sustainability. Progress has been made in delivering the real Living Wage in contracts, ironically one of the most contested features of the legislation. Outwith this improvement, the latest annual report is full of process and ambition, but limited hard evidence that real progress has been made.

Public procurement properly managed is an essential lever for devolved administrations to deliver their policy priorities. UK Government's pandemic procurement has been a shambles, and in Scotland, the scorecard remains at ‘could do better’. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

New thinking on constitutional options for Scotland

With immaculate timing, Boris Johnson blunders into the devolution debate on the eve of the Scottish Conservative conference describing devolution as a "disaster north of the border". Fortunately, we have several more considered contributions to the debate in recent weeks.


The Prime Minister’s comments are, even by his own standards, bizarre. Even the UK Government's own website says, "devolution has made a real difference to the lives of people in Scotland - and recognises the wishes of the people to have more say over matters that affect them". As one veteran Scottish Tory told the BBC: "This is dire - it's totally out of touch and reflects a Westminster-centric view of 1992, not 2020”. Another said: "The anger tonight is palpable and the worst I've ever seen towards a Tory PM."


For a considered view of the constitutional question, I would recommend a paper the Jimmy Reid Foundation commissioned from Professor James Mitchell to outline and assess the constitutional options for society in Scotland from a left perspective. He argues that Scotland’s constitutional question has become stuck in a rut and the primary focus should be on the impact of proposed changes on citizens’ wellbeing. His broad international analysis points out that states and nations are artificial concepts which change and evolve; just as the UK has with its series of unions.  

The UK’s diversity has still resulted in a highly centralised state, despite Johnson’s, and in fairness some previous prime ministers’ frustrations, at not being able to direct everything from London. James Mitchell goes on to set out the need for rules on any future referendums and the need for a new constitutional convention on how they are triggered. He argues that having more options would empower voters by increasing possibilities, encourage constructive voting allowing people to vote for first preference option rather than a least disliked option; signal views across a wider range of options; and potentially identify an underlying, and otherwise hidden consensus.


This is not the same as John Major’s recent suggestion that Westminster could agree to another referendum based on two linked votes, the first to vote on the principle of negotiations, and the second on the outcome of them. Although it does indicate some moderate Tory thinking in the light of the Brexit referendum.


As someone who is neither a unionist nor a nationalist, I am naturally attracted to James Mitchell’s argument, ever hopeful (God loves an optimist!) that a consensus could be achieved. While nationalists may be buoyed by recent opinion polls, I would argue that reflects the political case for independence. An actual referendum would also highlight the economic case, which as Laurie Macfarlane has recently argued is much weaker.


Another interesting contribution to the debate comes from Ben Thomson in his book ‘Scottish Home Rule’. He defines Home Rule as “a bilateral arrangement between one area within a nation state and the rest of that nation state. This is distinct from federalism, which represents an equal relationship between all constituent parts of a country”. This makes Home Rule a more practical option for the asymmetric UK, although he argues that it could provide a template for the UK to move towards federalism. The difference between Home Rule and devolution is that people in Scotland would know control over domestic matters is decided solely by them, and that this cannot be unilaterally overruled by Westminster and its Prime Minister.

As the secretary of the Keir Hardie Society, I have to regularly explain that Hardie’s support for Home Rule is not the same as independence. He came from the Liberal tradition of Home Rule, largely focused on Ireland during his lifetime. So, I welcome a modern exposition of the concept in Thomson’s book. 


Finally, Neil Findlay MSP reminds us in the media last weekend that constitutional powers have to be for a purpose – a society with social justice at its core. He makes a case for Devo-Max, the devolution of powers to the lowest possible level unless there is an overwhelming reason not to. This means that powers do not stop at Holyrood – we need to devolve power to councils, workplaces and communities.


Getting past the entrenched positions that many people take in Scotland over these issues is not easy. However, at least there is some constructive thinking on what the alternatives are. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Contrasting approaches to the crisis of care

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired several new books, which seek to analyse the impact on our healthcare systems and broader society and propose reform. I have read a number of these as background to a paper for a European wide study of the impact of the pandemic on older persons and other work. In this blog, I will share two contrasting examples of these.


The Care Manifesto (Verso Books) has been written by a group calling themselves the Care Collective. It analyses the impact of the marketisation of care, which has resulted in those most at risk from COVID-19 receiving too little support. This has allowed multinational corporations to make huge profits out of financialising and overleveraging care homes while work in the care sector was subsumed into the corporate gig economy, mostly at the expense of women as workers and carers. This has been achieved because “ideas of social welfare and community had been pushed aside for individualised notions of resilience, wellness and self-improvement, promoted through a ballooning ‘selfcare’ industry which relegates care to something we are supposed to buy for ourselves on a personal basis.”

They argue for a model of ‘universal care’, which puts care at the heart of our society from our kinship groups and communities to our states and planet. Chapters explain how this would apply to our politics, family, communities, the state and the world. It addresses care in its broadest context, rather than looking specifically at systems or structures. I thought the communities chapter was strong, chiming with a number of the themes I set out in my recent Reid Foundation paper. They propose four core features to the creation of caring communities: mutual support, public space, shared resources and local democracy.


While it is hard to disagree with most of the content, even if it is prone to assertion rather than evidence, the language is likely to jar with the general reader. As they say, “The Care Manifesto offers a queer–feminist–anti-racist– eco-socialist political vision of ‘universal care’”. Fine, but this is not likely to find its way into a political programme. Overall, it’s a concise and broad picture of what a different society could look like, but too few practical steps to really call it a manifesto.


In contrast, Madeline Bunting’s, Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care (Granta Books), is a more personal argument about the invisibility of care, and its historic under-valuing – based on extensive interviews with people caring for others. The purpose of the book is to make visible the nature of the vast web of care – its importance, extent, subtlety and complexity.  She too hopes the pandemic will see a new politics of care emerging which recognises our interdependence as families, friends, communities, nations and as a human species. 


The chapters take the reader through various aspects of care with a final section in each chapter on what we mean by key words, kindness, compassion etc. I enjoyed her story of the manager who, “advised staff to ‘populate the document’ with the ‘likes and dislikes’ of the ‘service user’ as a form of person-centred care: it amounted to getting to know someone with the help of tick boxes”. To be fair, I have seen much worse management speak in the sector.

The hospital chapter includes a story about a snap session with a consultant, which had to be followed by the nurse spending time finding out and sorting the patient’s problem; “Once he (the consultant) has gone, the work of nursing starts. Sam (the nurse) sits down, and places a hand on Derek’s arm to try and calm his anxiety. Finally, he can start to explain”. This is something every nurse can relate to. Time to care is a key issue as the pressure to free up beds is intense and becomes one of the main preoccupations of nurse managers. Hospitals are clocking up record, and potentially dangerous occupancy levels as the number of hospital beds have declined - by a quarter in Scotland since 2009. The chapter on GP services shows similar time constraints.


When it comes to time to care, the chapter on home care highlights much that is wrong with social care. Even in what looks like one of the better care organisations in the private sector, “More than half the clients left every year, and the turnover of staff was just as high. The instability necessitated continuous marketing and recruitment, requiring full-time dedicated staff, a substantial cost for this small business”. In another company, home-care visits were fifteen minutes. A new care worker was shocked, ‘I was very green and willing; they trusted me with very vulnerable people after only three hours of basic health-and-safety training. I had no training in moving and lifting, and it’s left me with historic back pain. I wasn’t paid for travel time”. Another care worker highlighted a common response that I used to see in UNISON surveys, “A lot of people literally pleaded with me to stay for a moment, just to have a cup of tea”.


This is a beautifully written book that balances traditional evidence with the stories of care workers and communities, all in language we can readily understand. She spoke to individual care workers who are expected to reconcile market principles with their own understanding of people’s needs and their responsibility, and it is those at the bottom of institutional hierarchies who felt the contradiction most keenly. It is also an overwhelmingly gendered role, which in itself says much about our society.


Bunting concludes that the marginalisation of relationships may be most graphic and disturbing in low-paid parts of the care economy, but it has infiltrated virtually every dimension of care. Paperwork has become the way to avoid blame and manage risk and marketisation, bureaucracy and technology, is diminishing the primacy of people and the care relationship. 


Two contrasting studies reach similar conclusions through different routes. Well worth a read.