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.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Scottish Utilities

This weekend is the annual seminar of UNISON's Scottish utility branches covering our Energy, Water & Environment service groups. UNISON is best known for our membership in local government and health, but we are also the largest trade union in the energy and water industries in Scotland. It is also our biggest interface with the private sector.

On Friday evening I led a session on the political challenges impacting on the industry. Not surprisingly members identified the financial crisis and the consequent economic downturn as the biggest concern. The direct impact on public services of budget cuts (SEPA is facing a 10% cut this year) and the impact on consumers ability to meet increasing energy costs. Fuel poverty remains a real issue in Scotland and it is UNISON members in the energy call centres who have to deal with struggling customers.

The next biggest issue was regulation. In fact just bad regulation. Recent price determinations in water and electricity distribution simply don't do enough for Scotland's crumbling infrastructure. In electricity we also have Ofgem's ideological drive to impose locational charging and transmission loss, further discrimination against Scottish generation and the important jobs that go with it.

A very clear message from members at the sharp end of these vital industries that I will take with me to a meeting with the UK energy minister next week.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Workers (Aggravated Offences) Bill

I was in parliament yesterday primarily to support a private members bill promoted by Hugh Henry MSP that seeks to address the unacceptably high number of assaults on public service workers. UNISON Scotland undertakes an annual survey of violent incidents in the services we represent. Last year we identified 25,000 recorded incidents in Scotland. Obviously there are many more that go unrecorded.

At present we have the Emergency Workers (S) Act 2005 that covers many of our members who provide emergency services. However, there is no similar legislation covering other workers who deal with the public. The Workers (Aggravated Offences) Bill will extend the principles of the Emergency Workers (S) Act 2005, and raise criminal penalties against those who assault workers employed in professions involving face to face contact with the public.

The Bill is already supported in principle by 40 Scottish Labour, 3 SNP and 1 Green MSP. We are now working on drafting the Bill and then organising a campaign to build parliamentary support. Whilst legislation isn’t a panacea – it is an important part of a package of measures to protect workers who serve the public.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Council Services

An interesting meeting yesterday with colleagues across the UK looking at developments in the delivery of council services.

Budget cuts dominate the council landscape at present as it is here in Scotland. Our initial analysis of cuts in each Scottish council shows that most are proposing cuts in services far in excess of that justified by the grant settlement in the draft Scottish Budget Bill. This is largely due to increasing demands on councils during the recession, reductions in charge income and the council tax freeze. The accumulated cost of the Council Tax freeze will be £210m in 2010-11 and the Small Business Scheme £93m. Difficult to justify this real terms tax cut, particularly to colleagues south of the border when English Council Tax increases have averaged 2.8% per year.

The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee today published its report on council finances (see UNISON Scotland web site for our response). It is a fair summary of the challenges facing councils although perhaps not surprisingly less strong on solutions. There was a welcome recognition that a pay freeze is at best a ‘blunt tool’ and that outsourcing should not be driven by cost alone. The report like the Scottish Government places considerable weight on shared services delivering savings. The research we have undertaken would indicate that any savings are at best long term and in most cases simply displace costs. Still it employs an army of management consultants – so it is a form of job creation!

Our meeting also looked at what are euphemistically described as “Alternative Delivery Models”. In England this is usually simple privatisation and Welsh colleagues reported similar problems, most notably Cardiff. In Scotland some councils are taking a renewed look at arms length organisations, primarily as a means of tax avoidance and to dodge equal pay obligations. Glasgow and Edinburgh have made extensive use of these mechanisms and others are considering them including South Lanarkshire.

Straightforward privatisation is still much rarer in Scotland. However, the SNP/Liberal led council in Edinburgh is planning to privatise 17 services, including bin collections, street cleaning and school meals. Many councils have outsourced at least part of their social care services, often initially to the community sector, who then have to compete against private or low cost community providers. The voluntary sector is facing a race to the bottom in terms of service quality and staff conditions. This is recognised in today’s parliamentary report. Regrettably we would have hoped for a stronger action than the further discussions promised.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

SFT & Water Privatisation

In 2006 the SNP published proposals for a Scottish Futures Trust. This was essentially a means of raising public finance to fund public infrastructure as an alternative to the costly PFI schemes that the SNP and UNISON campaigned against. We welcomed the analysis of the costs of PFI but doubted that a future Scottish Government would have the borrowing and tax powers to implement the plan. In Government the SNP discovered that they didn’t have the powers and in 2008 established a Scottish Futures Trust that in both rhetoric and substance was far removed from the 2006 SNP plan. As the Herald Economics Editor put it “PFI Lite”.

Since it was established it has done nothing much, other than paying fabulous salaries to its staff. The Chief Executive, Barry White (an ex-PFI consultant) picks up a pay cheque greater than the Chief Executive of Scotland’s largest council. It is promoting the same old PFI schemes for schools and rebranding the English LIFT PFI scheme as the “Hub Initiative”.

Now it would appear the SFT sees its role as an advocate for water privatisation. According to Mr White, because the CBI said “that privatisation and mutualisation are things we should be considering” (Times 26 Jan). Well we really are getting value for that fabulous salary when the SFT is reading the same tired old CBI dogma!

No doubt we will next be told that that they have found a wonderful compromise – mutualisation. In other words a rebranding of Welsh Water that provides a fa├žade of democracy as the banks would control the organisation and all services would be privatised . Don’t you just love all this innovative thinking!

The Cabinet Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that the Scottish Government’s policy is to retain Scottish Water in the public sector and that’s Scottish Labour’s policy too. Only the Tories and the Liberals favour privatisation. A clear parliamentary majority so Barry White should be focusing on justifying that inflated salary elsewhere. I didn’t much like his music either!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Minimum pricing of alcohol

Two of my meetings this week have focussed on the proposals on minimum pricing of alcohol in the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill that is being debated in the Scottish Parliament. On Tuesday UNISON’s Scottish Committee had a debate on the issue followed by last night’s Socialist Health Association Scotland AGM.

Common ground in both discussions was recognition that Scotland’s love affair with the bottle had to be tackled and radical measures are needed. 42,000 hospital discharges last year due to alcohol; a contributory factor in 1 in 20 deaths; and the fastest growing rates of liver disease and cirrhosis in the world. Half of all prisoners in Scotland’s overcrowded jails were drunk when they committed their offence.

The question is will minimum pricing protect and improve public health by reducing alcohol consumption, particularly for those most at risk?

Most health professionals at both meetings could describe the social and health consequences of alcohol abuse very clearly. They felt that the Government’s proposals are at least worth a try. Studies conducted overseas show that there is a clear link between price and consumption. Plus minimum pricing targets the cheap alcohol that tends to be bought by harmful drinkers.

Others were more sceptical, including social workers who are concerned that harmful drinker’s habits are not price sensitive and they would simply raid more of the family budget with the obvious consequences. Others argued that minimum pricing simply lines the profits of the supermarkets. There are also concerns about the impact on the Scotch whisky industry from copycat actions abroad and a question mark over the legal competence.

SHA Scotland whilst sceptical that minimum pricing will work took the view it was the only practical option on the table. They would prefer to include taxation in the mix and find a way of getting the income raised back into public services. They also welcomed the Scottish Labour initiative in establishing a Commission to look at alternatives.

UNISON Scotland’s evidence to the Health Committee argues that we should consider more radical solutions. The key issue is the availability of alcohol of which price is only part. If we adopted the Scandinavian model of state monopolies in the sale of alcohol we could enforce responsible sales policies and sensible pricing. This would promote a healthy drinking culture, rather than retailers trying to persuade customers to buy as much as possible.

Radical certainly and politically difficult, but given the scale of the problem half measures (pun intended) are not good enough.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Solidarity Society

My travel reading this week has been the latest Fabian Society publication The Solidarity Society by Tim Horton and James Gregory. This is the final report of a project to commemorate the centenary of Beatrice Webb’s famous 1909 Minority Report of the Royal commission on the Poor Law. The central thesis of the report is by applying Webb’s values to contemporary Britain we can inspire a radical vision to fight poverty. That vision should be one based on equal citizenship.

The report gives us a detailed analysis of current welfare strategies to show how much decisions about universalism and targeting matter. The best example is the universal NHS that remains popular with all socio-economic groups. In contrast social housing has been increasingly targeted on the needy and equally important, spatially segregated from the rest of society. As a consequence is less popular.

This highlights the importance of public support for welfare funding. It has to chime with the public’s perception of what’s fair and harness our collective and cooperative instincts. Universalism and reciprocity is the way to achieve this. The report then sets out a range of specific measures that constitute a new welfare contract, shifting away from simply responding to need and back towards reciprocity where people earn entitlement through participation in society.

There is a net cost in the approach that the authors address through reform of the National Insurance system. Many will of course argue that given the state of public finances this is not the time. The ONS have published figures today that shows’ public borrowing has reached 61.7% of GDP. It is worth reminding ourselves that that in 1945 we had a national debt of over 200% of GDP and yet still created the NHS and implemented Beveridge.

So why does all this matter? It matters because Cameron’s Tories have a clear strategy to divide ‘the needy’ from the majority of society. Welfare and public services are to be a safety net while the majority purchase services from the private sector. There is a close alliance between this strategy and the burgeoning number of right wing groups promoting bogus research in support of this approach.

I was pleased to see that Harriet Harman will today pledge that inequality will be a clear dividing line between Labour and the Tories. This Fabian report gives some pointers as to how we could tackle poverty and inequality with a settlement that could permanently command public support.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Nuffield Trust healthcare report

A report by an English research group claims that the NHS in England provides better value for money than elsewhere in the UK. A key reason according to the report is the focus on "targets, strong performance management, public reporting of performance by regulators and financial incentives."

Perhaps this finding is not that surprising when you look at the Board of this 'independent' research group. It is stuffed full of those very same regulators and others with a vested interest in the English NHS model. Not to mention the odd private healthcare interest who might profit from the introduction of privatisation to Scotland.

It is self evident when you read the report that the authors just don't get devolution. They regret the fact that the Treasury can't intervene in Scotland to enforce performance. The explanation that appears to have passed them by is because we have an elected parliament and our own finance function.

But the main problem with the report is the focus on crude, narrow indicators of performance that take little account of deprivation, health inequality and Scotland's geography. That is why we have higher levels of spending on the NHS in Scotland. The authors would be better employed looking at the root causes of ill health rather than play with outdated hospital statistics.