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.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Scottish Labour Conference 2

Day 2 in Oban and with the ongoing weather I discover why the label on my suit says 'dry clean only'!

The morning session featured the debate on UNISON's contemporary motion on public services and the CSR. It sets out an alternative economic strategy and puts Scottish Labour firmly on the side of the vast majority of Scots who oppose the Con-Dems ideological attack on public service provision.

The debate on reserved issues included a strong speech from our young member's delegate, Keiron Green. He outlined the impact on his school and the wider community in Moray of the planned air base closures. This was followed by the debate on Education with Pat Rowland highlighting the importance of nursery education. More action and less glossy documents was her message to the Scottish Government.

The afternoon session started with Iain Gray's speech. This was full of substance with the theme being that in tough times you have to make hard choices, but those choices will be driven by Scottish Labour values. Iain is often characterised as the grey man. Nothing of that today. It was a thoughtful speech with several important announcements, light on spin, strong on values and he showed that he can be passionate about what matters.

The day ended with the health debate kicked off by UNISON's Katrina Murray. There were good local examples of health and social care challenges from UNISON delegates including Morag Houston, Matt McLaughlin and Alan Cowan. The proposed National Care Service deserves serious consideration at a time when social care procurement is driving a race to the bottom in standards through privatisation. It was good to hear Iain Gray and Jackie Baillie both acknowledge this in their speeches.

There was a good buzz around the fringe. We had a lively discussion at our joint lunchtime event with APSE on how councils should respond to the financial situation. In the evening delegates were very positive about conference. At the trade union reception both Iain Gray and Ann McKechin's contributions showed a good grasp of the issues of concern to workers. Our Workplace Agenda features strongly in the policy programme agreed at conference this weekend.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Scottish Labour Conference

Day 1 at the Scottish Labour Party conference in a very wet and windy Oban.

The day started with a debate on justice policy. I got up to second a motion supporting Hugh Henry's Protection of Workers Bill. This was an opportunity to highlight our recent survey that revealed nearly 30,000 recorded violent incidents in Scotland's public sector. Effective legislation is part of the solution but the Scottish Government claims the Bill is not necessary because the common law provisions are working well. However, they can produce no evidence to support this claim and our experience is that the system is not protecting our members. Staff who serve the public are entitled to better protection from the justice system.

George McIrvine from our Police Committee made a thoughtful contribution on police cuts. He set out the roles Police Staffs undertake and highlighted the waste of deploying police officers in administrative roles. Extra police officers are useless if they are sitting behind a desk performing functions they are not qualified to do.

The keynote speech of the day was UK Leader Ed Milliband MP. Ed gave an excellent performance that set out a new direction for Labour under his leadership, a clear break from New Labour. Incidentally the New Labour brand name is being excised from Scottish Labour publications - not that the ideology ever really caught on here. More importantly he set out an alternative economic strategy to the Con-Dem coalition.

Iain Gray launched the Living Wage campaign with a commitment to a wage of at least £7.15 per hour across the public sector. He also understands the importance of using public sector procurement to achieve a living wage in the private sector as well. Less welcome was talk of pay freezes. We recognise that money will be tight next year but expecting low paid workers to meet the cost of the bankers folly does not meet any measure of fairness that I know of.

The local government debate began with CoSLA Labour Leader Jim McCabe dismissing the Concordat. He described the recent negotiations with John Swinney as deceitful. As usual Jim rarely misses his mark! Gray Allen from our Falkirk Branch made an entertaining contribution, giving a front line workers perspective of the Con-Dem attack on local services.

Our lunch time fringe meeting on climate change was well attended, despite the rain. Some excellent presentations and thoughtful contributions from the floor promoting the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland manifesto. Many of these proposals appear in the Scottish Labour policy programme and Iain Gray and Sarah Boyack both paid credit to the effectiveness of the SCCS lobby on the Climate Change Act.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Corporate greed

More evidence of corporate greed this morning in the latest IDS survey of top bosses pay.

The report shows basic pay for FTSE 100 chief executives rose by 3.6 per cent in the year to June. But that was topped up with bonuses, share awards and performance-related payments. Blue-chip bosses enjoyed average bonuses of more than £700,000, up 34 per cent on the previous year, bringing the average total remuneration package to £4.9million. They already earn more than 200 times the average wage.

These are the very same people who write letters to the press urging cuts in public spending and the consequential pay freezes and increases in pension contributions for the low paid. The one thing these bosses do really well is hypocrisy!

I am often asked in media interviews what our members reaction is to likely pay freezes next year. Our members recognise that money will be very tight but they get really angry when the bankers who got us into this mess are preparing to pay themselves bonuses of up to £7bn. That's twice the likely cut in total public expenditure in Scotland over the next four years.

With fair taxation and clamping down on tax avoidance we could more than wipe out the deficit.

All in this together? I think not!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

National Inspection Day

Today is National Inspection Day, part of the European Health and Safety Week, when all Safety Representatives are asked to inspect their workplaces. UNISON Scotland has over 4000 Safety Representatives, so that should be a lot of inspection activity leading to safer workplaces.

The TUC has published a handy quick guide to inspections and a poster.

This year's campaign day is all the more important due to the the report produced by Lord Young attacking the very basis of workplace safety.  We did not vote to die at work and this report will not reduce workplace illness, injury or death. Nearly 1,500 workers are killed in work-related incidents, up to 50,000 more due to work-related illness, and millions suffer ill-health at work every year. Proportionally more in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Far from health and safety being a burden on business, it is a positive bonus to employers as the best fully understand.  The real burden of poor health and safety in terms of injury, illness and death is massive and is borne mainly by workers, their families and the state in benefits and health care costs. There are far too few inspections and they are likely to get fewer with 35% cuts announced for the HSE in the UK spending review.

The report is clearly an ideological, unevidenced attack on workers conditions and far from being about ‘Common Sense’ it aims to dismantle universal protection for all workers’ health, safety and welfare. The real impact of the UK government's plans are to cut health and safety protection and leave bad employers free to injure workers, make them ill, and kill them without

Monday, 25 October 2010

Better Way Demo

Excellent turn out on Saturday for the Better Way demonstration and rally in Edinburgh. We may not have the resources of the big business lobby but we do have the people. Thousands of people from trade unions, faith and community organisations marching along Princes Street to  shout that there is an alternative to cuts and economic misery.

There was a particularly strong turnout from UNISON branches. Members came from all over Scotland, many having an early start to get there. Events like this are important milestones in the campaign and they are valuable in building solidarity. That's our real strength and we are going to need all of that strength in the months ahead.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Assaults on Staff

I was speaking at our health and safety seminar today. An annual gathering of safety representatives to update them on current developments and to agree priorities for the coming year.

We used the seminar to launch our annual survey of violence at work in Scotland. Sadly the survey revealed an increase of over 3000 assaults when compared with last year, with more than 28,000 assaults on staff  recorded for the year 2009-10.

Any act of violence on a member of staff going about their business of providing vital public services is completely unacceptable. To have over 28,000 in a year is shocking, especially when these are just the recorded incidents. This shows that many employers, particularly in local government, have to do more to protect their staff. Where rigorous monitoring and active preventative measures are in place, this has resulted in improvements for the health and safety of our members. But some employers are clearly failing to monitor violent assaults effectively, and as a result are failing to do enough to protect their staff. 

We had one council who couldn't find their figures and others that could only produce long lists of incidents that they clearly haven't analysed. The Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives published guidelines in February titled “Managing Occupational Violence in the Workplace”. Not enough councils have reviewed their policies to reflect that guidance.

These figures also emphasise the need for the Protection of Workers (Scotland) Bill introduced by Hugh Henry MSP.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Stiglitz on defict reduction

In light of the CSR I would recommend reading Joseph Stiglitz's comment piece in the Guardian earler this week. Probably the most credible economist in the world saying that the UK economy needs a stimulus, not the deficit reduction slash and burn we got yesterday.

The concluding para of this piece says it all:

"Britain is embarking on a highly risky experiment. More likely than not, it will add one more data point to the well- established result that austerity in the midst of a downturn lowers GDP and increases unemployment, and excessive austerity can have long-lasting effects. If Britain were wealthier, or if the prospects of success were greater, it might be a risk worth taking. But it is a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford."

The Nobel prize winning economist has agreed to join the Scottish Government's Council of Economic Advisors. He is a massive improvement on the current Chair of that group Sir George Mathewson, arguably one of the authors of the banking collapse, and certainly a man with little credibility left.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

UK Spending Review

George Osborne's CSR announcement was every bit as bad as we expected. A clear ideological drive to cut public services, using the budget deficit as a smokescreen.

The principles are apparently fairness, reform and growth. It doesn't look fair when the poorest in society will be the hardest hit by cuts in services and welfare benefits. The bankers bonuses are barely scratched and corporate tax dodging goes unpunished. How taking half a million workers away from services is going to 'improve' them, remained unexplained by the Chancellor.

It was all classic spin. Announce huge cuts then offer a few sweeties to sugar the pill.

In Scotland the Barnett consequentials are every bit as serious as expected. In practice the impact will be greater because councils and health boards have additional costs over and above these allocations. Councils and health boards have to live in the real world where inflation is more than double the nominal Treasury assumption.

We calculate that some 60,000 public sector and 65,000 private sector jobs could go in Scotland because of these cuts, They could cost the Treasury around £500m in lost tax revenue and £640m in increased benefit payments - adding to the annual deficit and almost entirely canceling out the saving to the public sector pay-bill.

For those public sector workers who stay in employment they face a pay freeze and a 3% increase in pension contributions. This at a time when their pension benefits will be cut by 15% as a consequence of the proposed shift of the uprating index from RPI to CPI.

Now that is a double whammy!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Pension Fat Cats

I see from the Herald that I and the STUC appear to have upset the Institute of Directors on pensions. The IoD are the 'Fat Cats' union and in response to their attacks on the pensions of low paid workers I said, “The Institute of Directors is simply anxious to keep its members’ incomes bloated at the expense of cuts for ordinary workers.”

This is apparently "deceitful". Well let's look at the facts. The TUC's latest survey looked at the pension arrangements of 329 directors at 102 top firms. It found that:
  • The average director's pension pot (transfer value) has risen by £400,000 in the past year to £3.8m.
  • The average accrued pension of nearly £228,000 is worth 26 times the average occupational pension of £8,736.
  • Most directors' pensions schemes build up pensions at least twice as fast as those of their staff - usually at a rate of 1/30th a year compared to 1/60th or 1/80th for ordinary staff.
  • Directors in defined contribution schemes received average contributions from their employers of £134,760 a year, worth 19% of their salaries - three times the average contribution rate made for employees.

As the TUC's General Secretary, Brendan Barber put it;

"Employers often tell us that decent staff pension schemes are no longer affordable. Directors' representatives are in the vanguard of those attacking public sector pensions. Yet greed is still good in the nation's top boardrooms, where directors continue to reward themselves with seven-figure pension pots."
Judge for yourself who is being deceitful here!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Just Transition

I spoke at the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland fringe meeting at the SNP conference yesterday evening. This is part of a series of fringe meetings at the party conferences to promote the SCCS manifesto for next year's Scottish elections. The meeting was chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney MSP.

My contribution was on the need for a 'Just Transition' to a low carbon economy.

There is a broad agreement across the political parties on the benefits a low carbon economy could bring to Scotland. However, without a just transition there could be some economic dislocation as workers in high carbon industries are impacted, leading to a potential loss in public support for the measures we have to take to cut emissions.

The Scottish Government recognised this in the 2009 Joint Communique with the STUC that covers the need for a just transition strategy that addresses the economic, employment and social impact of moving to a low carbon economy. The SCCS manifesto proposal to deliver on this commitment, supported by the STUC, is the establishment of a Scottish Forum for a Just Transition. This would be a partnership body that would advise on the necessary training for new skills, promote Green Workplaces and maximise the employment opportunities.

I gave a couple of practical examples of current Scottish Government initiatives that contribute towards a just transition including the Energy Efficiency Action Plan and the forthcoming Scottish Water Bill.

Just transition is the key to winning support for tackling climate change. We need to highlight the opportunities to build the economy and create quality employment. But this won't happen by accident. We need to put practical measures in place now.

Friday, 15 October 2010

SNP Conference

In Perth today for the SNP conference. We held the UNISON/APSE fringe meeting last night on the subject of the future of public services. As always it generated a wide ranging debate amongst a good audience. 

I took the meeting through the ideas generated by the IBR report. Common ground with most of the audience on the need for an alternative economic strategy and keeping Scottish Water in public ownership. Less consensus on the Council Tax freeze following the First Minister's announcement earlier in the day. UNISON believes that a continued freeze is not viable in the current financial climate. Even less on local government pay with the leader of the SNP group at CoSLA sharing the platform!

A number of SNP councils are considering outsourcing essential services. It was therefore helpful to have Andrew Spowart, APSE's Scottish Director on the platform to explain the work they have done on this issue. Many councillors have no experience of privatisation and are presented with inaccurate reports from management consultants claiming savings that rarely materialise in practice. I was able to refer to the recent report on Liverpool Direct, the flagship English council outsourcing, that shows that the council had been overcharged by £19m and that the council could save £23m annually by taking the work in-house.

Sadly most party conferences are largely stage managed events and the SNP conference itself is not as entertaining as it used to be. However, on the fringe and in the bars the debate and discussion is much more lively.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

More cuts impact

More bad news this morning to demonstrate the impact public spending cuts will have on Scotland, even ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review next week.

The hard numbers come from the latest unemployment statistics that show Scotland is rising faster than any other part of the UK, with 13,000 more people joining the job queues over the summer- the equivalent of 140 a day. The rate of increase of people looking for work was double the next highest UK region.

Other data comes from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce  whose latest survey found that confidence weakened across all sectors of Scottish business in the third quarter. Optimism in key sectors including manufacturing plunged to levels last seen in the first quarter of 2009, when Scotland was deep in recession. These findings indicate that many of the private sector firms, who the UK government expect to lead the recovery, fear that the medicine prescribed to cure the public sector deficit may now tip the country back into recession. A view confirmed by the Chambers spokesperson on BBC radio this morning.

The Herald comments that the recovery in Scotland is starting to feel more like a recession as firms prepare for deep cuts in public spending to take a heavy toll on the private sector. While Scotland formally exited recession in the final quarter of 2009, official data show that the economy flatlined between January and March.

I am off to the SNP conference in Perth today. We will be highlighting some of these issues at our fringe meeting this evening.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Hutton Review

The 'Independent' Public Service Pensions Commission's interim report has been published this morning. The report gives a detailed overview of public service pensions in the UK and the challenges they face. It then sets out a range of options that Lord Hutton will consider before completing his final report before April 2011.

His report does recognise the importance of public service pensions. One in 5 people in the UK have a direct interest. That is higher in Scotland and even higher if you take into account a wider group of dependents. What his report doesn't emphasise is the impact this has on the Scottish economy, including the investment impact of schemes with managed funds.

He highlights the cost of increasing life expectancy by going back as far as 1841. Whilst this may make a good headline, it isn't very informative. We also need to be careful about averages in this regard. Average male life expectancy in the 15% most economically deprived communities in Scotland is 57 years (60 for women). Therefore on average they never live to collect their 'gold plated pension' pension.

Whilst his report does make the usual comparisons with the private sector (although not with private sector bosses!), he does not support a race to the bottom and states that savings levels in the private sector are "not optimal". He might also have pointed out that it is the taxpayer that has to pick up the bill in benefits for the shortfall in employer commitment to their workers pensions.

He indicates that there are few practical short term options to make savings other than a rise in pension contributions. He concedes that the planned change to indexing from the RPI to the CPI will, at a stroke, reduce the value of benefits by around 15%. This rises to 25% when other recent changes are taken into account. He compounds scheme costs by suggesting that the discount rate is at the high end of what is appropriate. This is based on a crude comparison with private sector schemes that in our view is not justified.

The report sets out a number of pension principles against which long-term options for reform should be judged. Some of these are reasonable and includes some recognition of the consequences of reform on benefits such as pension credit. This is particularly important for most of our members who struggle to pay existing pension contributions and could result in much greater opt outs. There is a clear ideological line in the report on the importance of removing barriers to outsourcing, no doubt reflecting Lord Hutton's New Labour past. However, the obvious risk is that he promotes the very race to the bottom in pension provision that he claims to want to avoid.

He leaves the manner and level of increases to the Government. Public service workers are already paying increased contributions, they also face pay freezes and other attacks on their terms and conditions. This would be a further tax by the UK Government on workers to bail out the fat cat bankers and corporate bosses whose pension pots remain untouched. The government ought to be focusing attention on those employers who don't contribute a penny towards their workers pensions, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the long term benefits bill.

Lord Hutton's long-term options point to a move away from final salary to career average or hybrid schemes, whilst recognising that the defined contribution model is not suitable for all employees. There is also a strong hint that retirement ages will increase. However, all of this is for the final report and UNISON will need to continue to make the case for schemes that remain sustainable and affordable whilst providing a decent income for workers in retirement.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Right to strike

I appeared on a BBC radio programme this morning discussing the CBI proposals to tighten the laws on strike action. In essence they want to place additional requirements on unions to make industrial action almost impossible.

I pointed out that we already have the tightest restrictions on strike action in the advanced world. This is simply a cynical attempt by the CBI to undermine a fundamental human right.

The proposals do nothing to improve industrial relations. No recognition that poor management cause disputes. Nothing about strengthening ACAS and the conciliation machinery. In fact they even want to reduce the consultation period for redundancy, giving even less time for negotiation.

In my long experience of negotiations and dispute resolution I have never known members to vote for strike action except as a last resort. Strikes are so rare that most union members have never been on strike. But without this sanction the bosses who run the CBI would have unfettered power to trample on the workforce.

These proposals are designed to address any strikes that might be driven by cuts in public services. The irony of course is that the cause of these cuts is the corporate greed of the big businesses that run the CBI. An organisation that is still in favour of the very light touch regulation that got us into this mess.

As the CBI refused to put anyone up to defend their proposals it was left to the Adam Smith Institute to argue their case. I was asked if I would take some advice from them. From the organisation that brought us the Poll Tax - I think not! The Institute's President once said "We propose things which people regard as on the edge of lunacy."  Well this is another proposal that meets that criteria very well.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Cuts Industry

It probably shouldn't surprise me but I never fail to be amazed at the ability of consultants and contractors to seek a business opportunity to profit from the public purse. Even during a period of cuts they relentlessly seek to divert scare public resources from service delivery to their own profit margins.

This is well illustrated as I flick through the Holyrood Magazine's Public Spending supplement. It starts with an editorial quoting various neo-liberal economists making the case for 'reform'. Apparently the cuts won't be that bad, its just the planned increases in expenditure that are being cut.  These people just don't live on the same planet as the rest of us, let alone public bodies wrestling with how to implement real cuts in services.

Then we have another neo-liberal guru (Tom Miers), who of course must be right because he has written a book. He churns out the old nonesense about the public sector 'crowding out' the private sector. Not a scrap of evidence is offered to justify this claim, but as the old adage goes, 'say it enough times......'.

Having set the scene for 'reform' we then get a series of articles and adverts from the consultants and contractors, who tell us how they can solve all our problems if only we will give them vast sums of money to install their software, reorganise etc. We are all heroically called upon to make 'a fundamental step change' or recognise that this is 'time for decisive action'. When the only action they really want is for public bodies to divert even more of their scarce resources into the pockets of these companies.

In fairness to Holyrood Magazine (unlike others) they do at least make an effort to provide some balance, including an article from me setting out our alternative approach. But you get the drift of the strategy.

This strategy reminds me of the quote attributed to the Roman writer Petronius in 210BC:
"We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."
Management consultants have clearly been around for a long time!

This was brought home to me today in a practical way when looking at a proposed reorganisation of a large public body in my organising team area. This organisation used to have centralised HR and finance functions. Some years ago, following the latest management thinking, they decentralised. Now in the face of massive cuts they are centralising again. Just about everyone in this organisation believes that in ten years time they will reorganise again in the other direction.

The losers in this process are the staff who face further uncertainty, the service users who face disruption, and the rest of us who pick up the bill. The 'heroic' consultants are laughing all the way to the bank.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Osborne and cuts

So, we are all in this together according to the Chancellor. As proof of this he is cutting £1bn from middle and high earners child benefit.

Sadly this is hugely cynical. The BBC's James Landale gives us a really good analysis of this approach. He says:

"But there will be squeals. Middle England will protest that it unfairly hits single-earner families hardest, that it acts as a disincentive to earn more, that it breaches the principle of universal benefits, that it is an attack on the family, that it is a breach of Mr Osborne's promise last year to "preserve" child benefit.

But the chancellor will not mind this. Why? Because the vocal middle-class anguish - led by vocal middle-class media types - will give him political cover for other cuts that will affect the less well off. This is only the start of a process that will see benefits and spending cut across the piece. Mr Osborne says we are all in this together and he has slaughtered one of welfare's sacred cows to prove it."

If we are really all in this together he would be clamping down on tax avoidance, increasing tax rates for the richest, introducing the Robin Hood Tax and taxing the bankers bonuses. That would bring in serious cash to the Treasury and do away with the need to cut the services we all rely on. But of course that would hit the Chancellor's millionaire pals. A few middle class squeals are a price worth paying to protect them.