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.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Scottish Water

The Water Industry Commission for Scotland has published their annual report today.

It shows that water bills in Scotland are £20 less than the average for England, despite the additional costs the industry faces north of the border. At the same time, customer service levels have improved markedly, leakage has been cut by around 36%, and more than £5.5 billion has been invested in maintaining current assets, and improving drinking water quality and environmental performance.

All of this demonstrates the success of Scotland's public service model. Not that you would know that by reading the report. The pro-privatisation WIC Chief Executive makes constant references to Scottish Water as 'the company'. It isn't - it's a public service and an essential one at that.


Cuts and unemployment

Very revealing Treasury leak in today's Guardian on the impact cuts will have on unemployment.

They reveal that: "Unpublished estimates of the impact of the biggest squeeze on public spending since the second world war show that the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000 jobs to go in the public sector and between 600,000 and 700,000 to disappear in the private sector by 2015... A slide from the final version of a presentation for last week's budget, seen by the Guardian, says: '100-120,000 public sector jobs and 120-140,000 private sector jobs assumed to be lost per annum for five years through cuts."

This confirms the argument we and a growing number of economic commentators in Scotland have been making, that the private sector will be affected both through the loss of government contracts and from the knock-on impact of lower public spending. Our estimate of 0.75 private sector jobs for every 1 public sector job loss now appears to be an underestimate. The Treasury model clearly assumes at least 1 for 1, something that was previously described as 'scaremongering'.

Perhaps not surprisingly the Chancellor decided not to reveal these facts in this budget. Obviously 'openess and transparency' doesn't run to telling the real truth about the misery spending cuts will have on workers in the public and private sector.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Canadian experience

We have just published our quarterly Revitalise bulletin that looks at developments in public service reform across Scotland and beyond. In this issue we feature on Canada because their  deficit reduction 'miracle' appears to be the new blue print for the ConDems cuts agenda. Canadian budget officials also gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Finance Committee inquiry. In fairness they did not regard their reduction as a 'miracle', explaining that it just involved some hard choices about service cuts.

The Canadian 'miracle' does not hold up to close inspection unless you think its fair to create hospital waiting lists, push people into poverty and raise the costs of higher education in order to afford tax cuts for the wealthy. In a similar way to the current media hype about the deficit in the UK, the Canadian Right created deficit hysteria in the 90s. Conrad Black's National Post newspaper led the way with page after page about the need for tax cuts. The same Conrad Black was convicted in Illinois in 2007 and sentenced to serve 78 months in federal prison for fraud and obstructing justice.

Canada did cut its budget deficit from 66% of GDP in 1993 to a surplus in 1998. While the media talks of successful deficit reduction, the cuts in Canada had massive social costs. Canada now has one of the least generous unemployment schemes in the OECD with less than half of unemployed workers qualifying for benefits.

The promised national childcare and early learning programme was cut before it was even implemented. At least 265 000 public service jobs were lost in Canada. Waiting lists for non emergency treatment grew. As is already being discussed here, tuition fees for higher education increased at an average annual inflation rate of 9.6%. In Alberta education spending was cut by 12.4% and healthcare by 18% and social services by 19.3%.

The cuts also had a lasting economic impact, so despite the Canadian economy growing in the late 1990s unemployment remained high: 8.7% in 2000 and average hourly and weekly wages stood still. The income gap between rich and poor grew faster than most of the other 30 developed nations when previously it had been average.

The reward for this pain was tax cuts. These though benefit the rich substantially more than everyone else while cuts in services hit those on low incomes. A tax cut of $20 a week hardly compensates for a 10% increase in the cost of sending your child to University.

It is therefore no surprise that the ConDems are so keen on the Canadian model. Rich bankers created the mess and the poor will pay the very high price of cleaning it up.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Scottish Gypsy Travellers

I attended a round table discussion today hosted by Amnesty International to address the struggles of the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community. Branches have raised this issue at UNISON Scottish Council and the STUC debated the issue at this year's congress.

Gypsy Travellers probably first came to Scotland in the 12th century and there are around 25,000 living in Scotland today. Some 20% of these living in caravans or similar culturally appropriate accommodation. They suffer from widespread racial discrimination, a shortage of permanent and transit sites and find it virtually impossible to secure legal representation for civil matters.

In 2001 the Scottish Parliament's Equal Opportunities Committee made 37 recommendations to address the community's concerns. However, few if any have been implemented. There are plenty of fine words in Scottish Government and council statements - but little action.

We discussed a range of possible campaign actions that focus on raising public awareness of the challenges facing Scottish Gypsy Travellers coupled with practical measures to address housing and human rights. A range of organisations have come together so far, and we want to pull together a broader coalition of civic society organisations around an agreed Charter. The harassment and discrimination this community faces daily, truly is Scotland's hidden shame.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Budget hangover

Scotland is waking up to a pretty severe hangover from yesterday's budget. Apart from the personal impact on the low paid in particular, there will be a big impact on public services.

Translating the UK budget cuts into Scottish expenditure can only be estimated until the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn, when the Barnett consequentials for Scotland will be calculated. The best estimate from yesterday’s figures is that this will mean a cut in the block grant of around £4.75bn by 2014 – a real terms cut of 16%. This is less than the headline 25% cut in non-protected departmental allocations, because of the proportion of devolved spending that is in protected departments, primarily health. However, we should recognise that protected in real terms means in accordance with the Treasury inflation allowance. This is 1.5% this year, when real inflation is currently 5.1%. The UK government is maintaining an inflation target of 2% for next year, so this is likely to mean a real terms cut in spending, even in protected departments.

Government budget allocations are also only part of the story. The real cuts at council and health board level will be much greater. They start by factoring in unavoidable commitments including:

• Real inflation exceeding Treasury allowance (particularly energy)
• Increased demand on services
• Reduction in income
• Concordat and other service growth (e.g. class sizes)
• Impact of council tax freeze
• Strengthening balances
• Part year impact of cuts

I took part in a BBC radio phone in programme this morning. From the those calling in there was a growing realisation of the impact this will have on the Scottish economy. For every one job lost in the public sector between .70 and 1 job could be lost in the private sector. This will seriously slow up growth, or at worst cause a double dip recession. Either way misery for many workers and their families.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Emergency UK Budget

We are all in this together according to the Chancellor. However, when you look at the detail some are more "in this" than others.

The VAT increase, cuts in welfare benefits, public sector pay and service cuts, all hit the lowest paid and the disadvantaged hardest. An increase in tax allowances is small compensation. In contrast the Chancellor (or more accurately his Liberal coalition partners) has bottled the capital gains tax tax loophole and done nothing to plug the other tax dodging scams. The Council Tax freeze in England will have the same impact as it has had in Scotland - a tax cut for the better off.

Plenty of corporate welfare as all the evidence shows that Corporation Tax cuts go straight into the bottom line. And the bankers, yet again, getting off lightly with a modest bank levy that will cost them a fraction of the effective public sector insurance scheme's value. The share price recovery no doubt reflects the champagne corks popping in the city - bonuses all round again boys. What we need is a ‘Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions that could raise £30bn, making a significant dent in the country’s deficit.

The real kick in this budget are the planned spending cuts. It looks as if we will have to await the autumn spending review to calculate the full Barnett consequentials for Scotland. However £17bn of cuts at UK level means real misery. Adding 500,000 public service workers to the dole between now and 2015 will cost around £10 billion in lost tax and increased benefit payments. This would almost entirely cancel out the reduction in the pay bill, as well as dealing a massive blow to local economies and communities.

The real aim of this budget is not to cut the deficit. It's about cutting back the role of public services and restricting benefits to a modest safety net. An ideological drive to create a Conservative dreamland. In reality it will restrict growth and cause misery for millions. 

Thursday, 17 June 2010

What no CBI press release?

Shock horror, no CBI press release today calling for pay restraint in the public sector. No lectures on the need for private sector disciplines etc....

Whilst we are used to bare faced hypocrisy from some business leaders, even they might think today is not a good day to lecture others.  A report by Incomes Data Services says bonus levels in FTSE 100 boardrooms have increased by an average of 22.5% over the past six months to just shy of £559,000. Salaries have risen by 7% from last year.

It’s also not just the big companies who are cashing in. According to the survey, which looked at 237 directors in 180 listed companies, bosses of FTSE 250 companies have seen their total incomes (salary and bonuses) rise by 8%, and Small Cap directors’ pay went up by 5.3%.

All a far cry from real terms pay cuts in the public sector.

A period of embarrased silence from the CBI would now be appropriate. But I suspect that is expecting too much!

Refugee Week Scotland

This is Refugee Week Scotland 2010. There are over 100 events happening across Scotland that celebrate the cultural diversity refugees bring to Scotland. UNISON Scotland is a supporter of Refugee Week as part of our opposing racism programme.

For most of us a journey abroad is a matter of choice, usually a very welcome one. However, refugees are forced to travel, as they flee their country of origin to seek refuge and a new home, in Scotland. The story of many of these journeys are told by refugees and their families. The stories of children torn away from their communities, often because of violence, are particularly poignant.

The programme of events includes theatre, film and exhibitions that reflect the wide range of cultures refugees come from. Particularly important are community events that help refugees and local people come together to share experiences. We may have shared pasts - but we share a common future.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Council job cuts

More on council job cuts today following a BBC Scotland survey of local council workforce plans. Ten councils had precise plans and in total they plan to cut 10,000 jobs. If you add in the other 22 councils then the figures are close to the estimates we have produced.

I took part in a BBC Scotland debate this evening on the impact of the cuts. The key point is that job cuts are first and foremost service cuts. No staff - no service. This is beginning to get through locally, as most council meetings are facing lobbies from local communities seeking to defend their local services.

Job cuts also have a major economic impact. Workers without a job don't have the money to spend on local services. We estimate that for every £1 in council wages, nearly 70p goes back into the local economy. Even those staff in a job will be cautious about spending when they are concerned about their job.

The discussion quickly moved on to alternatives. All very reminiscent of the Thatcher years - remember "there is no alternative" (TINA). Well we do have an alternative. Cut out the real waste on Trident, consultants and PFI; plug the tax loopholes; and bring our tax rates for the rich into line with other European countries. Our message is "There is an alternative" (TIAA) and its one that local communities fighting to save their local services need to hear.

Excellent article in the Guardian by Seumas Milne on this very subject.

Protection of Workers Bill

Held a meeting yesterday with Hugh Henry MSP to discuss his Protection of Workers Bill that has recently been introduced to Parliament.

The Bill will make it an offence to assault a worker who deals with the public in the course of, or by reason of that workers employment. In essence it aims to strengthen the criminal sanctions against the growing number of people who believe it is acceptable to assault workers providing a public service. It has similar provisions to the Emergency Workers Act, whilst covering a much wider group of workers.

The principle of the Bill is very welcome and something UNISON has campaigned for since the EWA came into force. We will want to strengthen some of the provisions, to ensure that the Bill's definitions don't leave any significant loopholes.

The Bill has been supported by most Scottish Labour MSPs and very helpfully by three SNP MSPs (John Wilson, Bill Kydd and Bill Wilson), because that has allowed the Bill to proceed. The next stage is to build on this cross party support, and with the other trade unions involved, we will be launching a campaign to raise awareness of the Bill amongst members and encourage more MSPs to support the Bill.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Public sector attacks

Today has been open season on public sector workers in Scotland.

We had the launch of the CBI Scotland manifesto calling for spending cuts, on everything other than subsidies to CBI members! CBI chair Linda Urquhart has the gall to say that 'Business has responded to the recession and the public sector is now having its own.' The fact is that the private sector caused the bust - and it was actually the public sector which saved the day by bailing the bankers out.

The CBI's call for more outsourcing is another example of their failed economic model being foisted on the public sector. It was deregulated free market economics that caused the banking crash and the subsequent recession. Now they want to apply that failed model on the public sector. They remind me of a gambler who believes that just one more roll of the dice and it will all come good. Problem is - it rarely does.

Then we have the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, using low paid public sector workers as his latest excuse for abandoning the Lib-Dem election pledges on public spending. His new budget quango didn't produce the right figures, so let's have a go at public sector pensions. Apparently these are 'gold plated'. Really, tell that to the average local government pensioner on a pension of less than £4000 per year.

As Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary, said today at our annual conference:

“Only a few months ago, Clegg was warning that cutting public spending now would threaten the economic recovery. Now he is saying that public sector workers should pay the price for the banker’s recession, with cuts to their pensions."

The Government should be encouraging people to save for their retirement, not attacking workers who do. If people do not save for their pension, through a decent scheme – they will end up having to rely on taxpayer funded benefits in their retirement.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

CPPR Report on Scottish NHS Spending

Today we have a report on Scottish health spending published by the The Centre for Public Policy in the Regions with the somewhat less than staggering conclusion "it was hard to measure the effect of the extra spending."

This is another attempt to grab headlines with a report of little substance from the CPPR duo of Maclaren and Armstrong. The main beneficiary appears to be the KPMG sponsors, who get free advertising for their blatant consultancy sales pitch. As if they are not already making enough cash at the taxpayers expense.

Our response warns that the report makes crude comparisons to criticise so-called productivity in Scotland like the earlier Nuffield report. Even this report accepts that the Nuffield numbers don't stack up.  More importantly it confuses health improvement with spending on the NHS. Improving public health requires a whole range of action and involves spending from other areas including income support, housing, social work, early years etc.

This kind of ill-informed report does not properly respond to the real health issues affecting Scotland and should not be used to justify slashing NHS spending.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Budget strategy and the economy

The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee has published its report on the budget strategy process. Their key concern is that  "the evidence of adequate preparation is at best patchy" and that there needs to be some longer term planning.

Sensibly the committee recognised that there are no 'magic bullets', including the siren calls from some business leaders for privatisation, as if this is somehow a free service if they provide it. The report does reflect wider enthusiasm for shared services. In principle this is a good idea, but in practice there are substantial difficulties and the cost savings are unproven and at best long term. They also recognised our concerns over the lack of effective equality impact assessments of planned cuts and the impact cuts will have on services and the wider economy.

This wider impact of cuts on the economy is beginning to get some wider coverage. Last Sunday's papers started to examine what the loss of 30,000 jobs could mean to the Scottish economy. I followed my comments there in an interview with the BBC today highlighting our research that shows that up to 70p of every £1 in public sector wages are spent in the local economy. Talking to members worried about their jobs, I know that they are already putting off spending decisions on the sort of consumer items that underpin private sector jobs.

The result could well be the sort of double-dip recession that a number of economic pundits have predicted. You don't need to be an economist to see the impact of cuts, not just on the social wage, but on the wider Scottish economy as well.

Monday, 7 June 2010

NHS Green Workplaces

I did two presentations at the NHS Scotland Event 2010 conference in Edinburgh today on Green Workplaces.

Health boards, like the rest of the public sector, will have to contribute to achieving the ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions in the Climate Change Act. Whilst this is a challenging new duty, it is also an opportunity to make savings that do not impact on patient care. As workplaces are responsible for half of all emissions, they are key to meeting emission targets.

A interesting point came out of the procurement session. Scotland is already benefiting from having a co-operative model in procurement, compared with the competitive English model with a myriad of organisations doing their own thing.

My key message was that the traditional top down model simply doesn't deliver the necessary culture change. Staff surveys show that organisations that follow this model end up with staff that do not know about the environment policy and care even less. In contrast an approach that includes genuine staff involvement can generate whole organisation support. This approach fits in well with the NHS Scotland partnership model.

The TUC Green Workplaces project provides all the resources an organisation and their trade unions need to develop a really exciting project. There are good Scottish and UK case studies in most sectors. The approach is to negotiate a green workplace agreement that starts with an audit, then hold staff awareness sessions leading to genuine staff engagement. This should be focused on practical measures like energy saving and green travel plans. The TUC provides a handy 20 questions checklist to get started.

Green workplaces are more efficient, better places to work and contribute to a healthier Scotland and a safer planet.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Voter Turnout

I participated in a very useful seminar in Parliament today hosted by the Presiding Officer on increasing voter turnout and registration in elections. This follows on from the oral evidence I gave on behalf of UNISON to the Local Government Committee's inquiry.

The keynote speaker was Dr Robert Johns from the University of Strathclyde. He gave an overview of the research into voter turnout worldwide. He highlighted three main factors influencing turnout.
  • Duty voters. These can be persuaded to vote by a range of Get the Vote Out (GOTV) methods and this can improve turnout by as much as 7%. Direct contact is best but telephone/text is also effective. Interestingly, peer pressure through social networking is less effective because we tend to associate with like minded people who will have voted anyway.
  • Effort of voting. Need to make voting as easy as possible. Multiple days has little effect but Sunday voting is effective. The most effective is a total postal vote and this can increase turnout by up to 15%. It will be interesting to see how our pilot health board elections work out in this regard.
  • Benefits of voting. Voters are more likely to vote if they think their vote matters. Hence higher turnout in parliamentary than local elections. He also indicated that outsourcing reduces turnout by 1.7% for every service outsourced, because it diminishes the role of councils in the eyes of voters. Here lies the key - we have to make election contests matter to voters.
Duncan McNeil MSP highlighted the fall in registration by 6.4% in Scotland, although this rises to 16% in the most disadvantaged parts of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In my workshop we heard from Stuart Moir a Senior Community Education Worker at West Lothian Council who described the impressive work his department had done to increase voter registration amongst young people. Plus a range of other ideas from councils and voluntary organisations.

Plenty of food for thought as to how we could improve our political education to encourage the benfits of voting and then getting members into the habit of voting with GOTV techniques.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Health Cuts

Most of the focus on budget cuts so far has been on local government. However, recently that focus has shifted to the NHS with health boards planning around £200m of cuts, resulting in nearly 4000 job losses.

Like other services there is an apparent disconnect between increased funding from the Scottish Government and cuts at health board level. The explanation is largely down to increased demand, actual inflation well above the Scottish Government's assumption and in the case of some boards, the funding allocation formula.

The issue was debated today in Parliament on a Labour motion calling for the publication of workforce projections. The Cabinet Secretary responded positively by publishing the projections and announcing the establishment of a partnership group with the trade unions to scrutinise the plans. Health boards will privately be unhappy at this degree of scrutiny from the centre, but it is the right approach.

Our response starts with real concern over the scale of job cuts and the inevitable impact on the service. However, we welcomed the constructive approach to scrutinising the figures and will engage in a dialogue over these plans at national and local level. Constructive dialogue is aided by the commitment to no compulsory redundancies.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


A turbulent start for the Con-Dem coalition over the weekend with the resignation of David Laws. As a consequence we also have a quick change as Secretary of State for Scotland with Michael Moore replacing Danny Alexander.

Like most people I am heartily bored with the Torygraph dragging every last bit of value from their investment in the expenses leak. Not to mention their less than balanced presentation. However, it is a bit rich for Lib-Dem's, like the former spin doctor on TV this morning, to complain about the revelations. If you make a election pitch, as Nick Clegg did, that we are different implying that the expenses scandal was a product of the 'old politics', then you must expect a bit of scrutiny. Not least if you take up a key financial portfolio in the cabinet.

So most people will agree that it is time to move on from this issue, but equally hypocrisy will always go down badly. As the old saying goes, "people in glass houses should not throw stones".