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.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Keir Hardie

My pre-Christmas reading is Bob Holman's sympathetic study of Kier Hardie. Appropriate reading for Christmas as Hardie was a Christian Socialist, something Holman emphasises in a way Caroline Benn's exhaustive study doesn't. Not that Hardie wasn't contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the wealthy Christians of his day.

There is much in Kier Hardie's life that resonates today and I will select a few random examples.

With the weather I have had to issue plenty of guidance on the employment issues to UNISON branches. Hardie tells the story of his first job at the age of eight delivering bread rolls for a high class bakers, because his family was ill and his the only family income. When he was late twice in bad weather he was summoned to the master's dining room (after prayers because the master was noted for his piety)  and dismissed.  The master said "to make you more careful in future, I have decided to fine you a week's wages. And now you may go!"

This and other childhood experiences clearly had a strong influence on his political and religious views. Later as an MP he constantly criticised the continuance of poverty and inequality and, with other Labour MPs, was the driving force behind changing the Liberal Party's position on state welfare. He pointed out that charities came and went, were strong in some areas and weak in others. Something we should remember today in the context of the so called 'Big Society' reforms. 

When Hardie opposed a large pension for a Boer War commander and asked what was available for private soldiers coming back wounded. Tory MPs shouted back "The Workhouse". When we saw Tory MPs last October slapping each other on the back as the poorest in our society had their benefits slashed, you can see that Tory values haven't changed much.

Having said that, Hardy would have been pretty damming of some aspects of the Labour Party today. He frequently warned of 'the dangers' of the Commons and the importance of Labour MPs being able, from their experience, to have empathy for working class people. He would not have been impressed with the trend towards professional politicians who have little experience of working life.

Keir Hardie was a conviction politician, maybe inflexible at times, but his thinking on issues like womens rights and the environment were well ahead of his time. History has proved him right. We should acknowledge our debt to him and his ideas that remain relevant today. The recently formed Kier Hardie Society is one way of doing that and you can join by contacting Richard Leonard at GMB Scotland. Richard recently showed me round the Hardie Room at the Baird Institute in Cumnock, the town where Hardie lived most of his life and many of his papers are kept in the Institute.

If you are looking for something to spend you Xmas book voucher on, I would strongly recommend Bob Holman's book. As the President of The Kier Hardie Society, Tony Benn said, "A wonderful introduction to Labour's first and in many ways, greatest leader."

Keir Hardie

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Protection of Workers Bill

SNP, Tory and Liberal MSPs yesterday, sadly but predictably, turned their collective backs on violence at work and voted down the Protection of Workers Bill. Lots of apparent concern about the issue, but no action.

At least the Tories have been consistent opponents of this legislative approach. It fits in well with their Westminster colleagues who are devastating the Heath & Safety Executive with 35% cuts and undermining safety at work through the Young Report. At least 20,000 workers die every year in the UK as a consequence of work, but safety is not to be taken seriously by them.

The Liberals used to support this approach but have now decided to follow their UK Tory coalition partners on this as with other matters. If you read some of their replies to constituents, you would be surprised that they actually voted against. But as recent revelations in the Telegraph have shown, they share that approach in common with their Westminster colleagues.

The SNP also used to support this approach, in fact they had a manifesto commitment to extend the EWA. However, they have been unwilling to extend this coverage to other workers, many of whom suffer far greater levels of violence at work. The honourable exception are those SNP backbenchers who allowed the Bill to proceed, mostly from a trade union background, who obviously have a better understanding of workplace realities.

Overall we got much more rhetoric yesterday from a majority of MSPs. What the thousands of workers who daily face violence at work are looking for is action.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Scottish Futures Trust

The Scottish Futures Trust has sneaked out its annual report just before Christmas. When you read it, you can hardly blame them!

The headline is that it spent £3.3m last year including more than £1m on consultants and external staff. We were told that the justification for the fabulous salaries for its leading officials, was their private sector expertise that we apparently need so badly. This includes £174,000 for the Chief Executive (part-year only), more than the Chief Executive of Scotland's largest local authority.

As Bill Butler MSP said today:
"These figures will do little to increase public confidence in this increasingly discredited quango. Instead, they have seen the SFT pay out over £2,000 a day on consultants over the past 12 months, and today's figures prove that the gravy train keeps on rolling."

There might be something to say if they actually came up with something new. Instead the Scottish Government, on the advice of the SFT, are returning to the discredited PFI model. Of course if you employ a former PFI consultant, you shouldn't be surprised if you get a one trick donkey.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Protection of Workers Bill

The Protection of Workers (S) Bill is to be debated in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow at Stage 1.

The Economy Energy and Tourism Committee is recommending that Parliament should oppose the Bill, claiming it would not extend the protection currently available to workers under the common law. But, as the committee recognised, there is no statistical evidence that this approach works. UNISON believes incidents involving uniformed staff may be taken more seriously than the lower level – but just as traumatic – incidents which involve thousands of our members and fall below the radar of current criminal law provisions.

Each year, thousands of dedicated staff providing vital services in our communities are being assaulted at work. Nearly 30,000 last year alone, and they are only the recorded incidents in the public sector. While legislation on its own is not enough, it is part of the solution and sends a clear message that violence against workers is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our society.

These workers deserve stronger legal protection and better protective measures and MSPs should not turn their backs on these staff. If you want to support the Bill you can send a message to your MSP through our website. 600 people have done that today alone. Well done and thanks for your support.

It's not part of the job - end violence against workers

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Fair taxes

The Sunday Herald asked me to write a comment piece on taxation for today's paper. Taxation is a subject that politicians hate to talk about. However, in the current financial crisis we need to have a grown up debate about the relationship between quality public services and the tax needed to finance them.

And not just any old tax. Examples of fair taxation include:

£4.7bn could be raised every year by introducing a 50% tax rate on incomes over £100,000.

£14.9bn could be raised every year by using minimum tax rates to stop reliefs being used to disproportionately subsidise incomes over £100,000.

£20-30bn could be raised every year by introducing a Major Financial Transactions Tax (or "Robin Hood Tax‟) on UK financial institutions.
Fair taxation also has a redistributive impact, creating a more equal society. As we know from the work by Wilkinson and others - more equal societies do better in almost every way.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Scotland Bill and bonds

Parliamentary scrutiny of the Scotland Bill has started with the unusual sight of a UK Treasury minister appearing before a committee of the Scottish Parliament.

One of the important gaps in the Bill is a provision that debars the Scottish Government from issuing bonds. David Gauke MP told MSPs that Holyrood could not be given the same power as local authorities to issue investment bonds because such a move could damage the UK’s credit rating.

Scottish Labour MSP Peter Peacock asked why Holyrood should be denied the right to issue bonds to fund capital projects. Mr Gauke replied: “We have a concern that if the Scottish Government was also able to issue bonds there is a risk of confusion in the gilts market. We don’t want to create any uncertainty that may damage the UK’s position."

This is clearly absurd as local authorities already have these powers and no one has suggested that these damage the UK's credit rating. Brian Adam MSP probably got closer to the truth when he said “Is stability just another word for Treasury control? Isn’t it the truth that the Treasury have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to allow devolution of any of these financial powers?”

This is an important issue on the day the Scottish Government published its consultation paper on Scottish Water. 'Building a Hydro Nation' sets out an ambitious vision for developing the role of Scottish Water and bonds would be one way of financing it. Given that the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats take every opportunity to undermine our public water service, I do wonder if there is any link to the UK Con-Dem minister's position on this?

Health spending

Interesting report from Audit Scotland today giving a financial overview of NHS Scotland. The NHS in Scotland spent £10.9bn last year, one third of the total Scottish budget and employs 160,000 people.

Whilst the NHS has a degree of protection from next year's spending cuts, this report confirms our analysis that the NHS is not exempt from cuts. Funding is at best at a standstill while demand and cost pressures continue to rise. As a consequence services will have to be cut or the NHS will have to exceed its so called 'efficiency' targets - in effect the same thing.

Some health boards are already balancing their budgets by using non-recurring income to meet recurring expenditure. Not a sustainable medium term financial strategy for any organisation. Boards are planning to make savings totalling £274m this year, that's £72m (36%) more than last year. With capital spending going down the prospects for savings from service redesign will be constrained.

The increasing demands and cost pressures come from:
  • Increasing elderly population leading to more long term conditions, GP visits and pressure on acute beds.
  • Drug costs rising above inflation. Estimates vary from 4% to 11%
  • Whilst a pay freeze will reduce some staff costs the consultant and GMS contract continues to exceed allocations. Locum doctor costs have doubled since 1997.
  • The VAT increase from January will cost NHS Scotland an additional £23.3m.
  • PFI contracts are a fixed cost that don't reflect funding changes. They already cost £136m per year and the Scottish Government has announced a return to this wasteful method of funding.
  • Universal service provisions including free prescriptions, personal and nursing care and eye tests have rising demand costs.
Sadly, as is usual with Audit Scotland, some of their recommendations offer more of the failed top down approaches. More information should be collected, better productivity measures, shared services, leadership etc. No recognition is given to the service redesign initiatives that come from the bottom up using systems thinking principles. These are particularly effective in the NHS with its partnership industrial relations model and commitment to no compulsory redundancy. The report implicitly criticises this commitment without recognising that it is the framework that allows innovative solutions to come from staff who best understand the service.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Perks and PRP

A good piece of investigative reporting in the Sunday Herald highlighted the provision of new 'Executive' cars for the Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police and his deputy. A new Audi and a BMW at a likely cost of £91,000. At the same time this force is cutting a travel scheme for displaced low paid police staffs. You couldn't make it up!

In addition the force has decided to pay out bonuses to 600 police officers worth around £252. This is despite the Scottish Government deciding to suspend bonus payments in their new pay policy.

And they are not the only ones. Managers at Scottish Enterprise got five-figure bonuses as part of a bonus pot for staff for 2009-10. The bonuses at Scottish Enterprise were handed out at a time when the quango was engaged in a £20 million efficiency drive that saw nearly 400 redundancies.

We are often asked to comment on these payments and I remind people that these bonus payments, executive cars etc. were all introduced as part of a move to mirror private sector remuneration practice. There is no evidence that performance pay works anywhere and it certainly runs counter to public service values. At a time when services are being cut, this sort of practice undermines all our efforts to promote public services. Some senior managers need to wake up and recognise that fact.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Human Rights Day

Today is International Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly's adoption and proclamation, on 10 December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights. from this came the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and our UK and Scottish provisions.

This year the United Nations calls on us to celebrate human rights defenders who act to end discrimination. These defenders speak out against discrimination, exclusion, oppression and violence. In Scotland, human rights defenders can be found in our local communities and in our public services. A wide range of public service staff are human rights defenders, striving to protect and promote the dignity of those they serve.

Scotland's Human Rights Commissioner gives us some practical examples of applying human rights law in an article in today's Herald. “If someone is left in what amounts to degrading treatment, and cuts have been made without assessing the impact on their human rights, local authorities are likely to face challenges..... Public bodies need to be able to demonstrate that they have assessed the impact on vulnerable people in the community, that decision-making is proportionate and that individuals have been consulted. As awareness of the Human Rights Act increases, it is more likely that public authorities will be held to account and asked to justify that they were acting lawfully.” he said.

Another group whose human rights are often abused are Scottish gypsy travellers. UNISON Scotland is planning to produce a guidance booklet aimed particular at our members who interface with this community. I have circulated a publication brief today inviting bids to undertake this work for us. If you might be interested and want a copy of the brief, please contact me.

Human rights are also crucial to trade unions and EPSU are highlighting one such example today. Trade union leader Brother Carlo “Caloy” Rodriguez was assinated on 12 November 2010. He was the President of the Water District Union in the Laguna district of the Philippines. He was a strong advocate for the basic human and labour rights of the people and, in particular, against the privatisation of water services in the Philippines.

On International Human Rights Day EPSU have asked for clarification about what the stance of the EU is with regards to the Right to Water.  Legally, the Human Rights Council resolution of September 30th following the General Assembly Resolution makes the human right to water and sanitation legally binding on all EU Member States. They have suggested that the Commission publishes a clear position on how it intends to implement the human right to water and sanitation in Member States’ and EU policy and to mainstream this human right in all policies of the EU such as on Poverty and Development. 

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Local Government Financial Settlement 2011/12

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance today announced the Local Government Financial Settlement for 2011/12. Essentially this confirms the plan outlined in the draft Scottish budget. The needs based distribution formula remains unchanged.

The settlement means a cut of 5.5% in real terms. Councils are given a classic Hobson’s choice. A cut of 2.6% if they accept the Government’s priorities, or a 6.4% cut if they don’t. If any council wanted to bridge the gap with a Council Tax rise they would need an increase of between 15% and 18%. Not an attractive political prospect for any council!

This settlement will damage essential services and the local economy. It also heralds a return to ring fencing and a major attack on local democracy. Councils are being turned into the administrative arm of central government.

A practical example of the impact is set out in a report in the Herald today on plans to cut care services. A survey of social work chiefs across the country reveals closing care homes and day centres, removing wardens from sheltered housing at weekends and creating waiting lists for homecare services are among the measures being taken to save cash.

It also builds in massive waste such as police officers backfilling police civilian staffs at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Another example of waste is the reintroduction of PFI. The Commons spending watchdog reports today that banks charged an extra £1bn to fund new schools, hospitals and roads under private finance initiatives (PFI) schemes during the credit crunch – and the government failed in its duty to negotiate better deals.

The main Scottish Government priority is the Council Tax freeze. This undermines local democracy and the shortfall is increasingly being made up by charges for services. This disproportionally hits low income households who rely on council services, yet it is the wealthiest who gain most from this real terms tax cut. The Council Tax freeze is simply not viable in the current financial climate. It supports wealthy homeowners at the expense of those who rely most on local services. The Scottish Government is keen to talk up this tax cut as part of its election strategy, but less keen to identify the services that will be cut to pay for it.

The actual financial impact on local services will be greater than this allocation implies. Councils are already planning budget cuts and job losses over and above this grant settlement due to higher inflation, reducing income, rebuilding balances and demand for services in a recession.

Overall, another dismal day for Scottish local government.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Indexing of pensions

The bad weather and the consequential cancelled meetings has at least enabled something of catch up on outstanding tasks.

One of those tasks is a UNISON Scottish Pensions Bulletin on indexing of pensions. The UK Government has announced that it plans to index future pension benefits using the CPI instead of the RPI. The Scottish Public Pensions Agency is also planning to implement this in Scotland for local government by amending the LGPS regulations. The effect of the change is likely to result to a cut in pension benefits because the CPI is historically lower than the RPI. The CPI is generally 0.8% per annum less. The Hutton review calculated that this change could cut pension benefits by at least 15%.

This change will impact on future pensions, but also retired members in receipt of public service pensions. This is the first time in recent years that a pension reform has cut benefits for those who have already completed their pension contributions. If this was a commercial contract you could sue the provider for breach of contract and we would regard the Scottish and UK governments as being in a similar breach.

UNISON’s position is that the CPI is an inadequate measure of inflation and there should be a special index for pensions that is weighted on essential costs like energy, food and care cost increases. Debt is also an issue for pensioners, so interest rates are important for them as well. Equally the effect of interest rate cuts on the income of the retired should also be taken into account.

At UK level the Government intends to use the Pensions Increase Act to enforce this cut in pension payments. Congratulations to John Robertson MP for highlighting this in EDM 1032 . There is a template letter on the UNISON UK website for anyone who wants to write to their MP on this issue.


Just after I posted this the UK Government announced that it would not be enforcing the change in the private sector. The quote from the Minister:

"We think that if the scheme rules say your pension is protected by the RPI then that should continue to be the case," Mr Webb told the World at One programme on BBC Radio 4.

"Because we want people to have confidence and trust in their pensions we will not be re-writing the rules of their pension schemes. If you joined a pension scheme, [and] when you joined it the rules said that your pension would be protected by the RPI, and the scheme does not currently have the power to change its rules, we are not going to change that."

Public sector schemes also make reference to the RPI. Confidence in them Minister?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Cinderella Services

UNISON's Scottish Council meeting this morning, our regular gathering of branches across Scotland.

UNISON's General Secretary, Dave Prentis addressed the meeting and took as his theme the Cinderella services, those public services that are essential to our communities but rarely get the attention they deserve. Everyone can identify the nurse, paramedic or refuse collector, but fewer recognise the staff that enable them to deliver their essential roles.

We have always argued against the artificial frontline/back office divide that many politicians like to use. The delivery of public services is a team effort and the 'frontline' could not operate without a range of support services. In the main these services are in any case pretty lean. I was looking at a couple of reports this week that analysed the cost of administration in the emergency services and was struck by how low administration was as a proportion of total costs. Significantly lower than my experience of similar costs in the private sector.

There was an interesting piece by Professor Richard Kerley in the latest edition of Holyrood magazine on this point. He questioned how efficient all the new systems that reduce admin and force operational staff to carry out functions that used to be done by admin staff. He used the example of 1970's TV cop dramas in which police officers are seen banging away with one finger on a typewriter. Ironically given the current Scottish Government policy we could be heading back that way.

I call this displacement cost and I have seen it in the private sector when shared services are introduced. Tasks that used to be done by low paid clerical staff are replaced by a processing centre and online systems. The result is that vital time is taken up by 'frontline' staff to undertake these functions. They do it less well and at greater cost. The Finance Director may claim a big saving, but operational departments pay the real price. If we are taking a long look at public service reform, this is one area we need to review carefully.

As an aside this was our Scottish Secretary, Matt Smith's last Scottish Council before he moves on to new challenges - he is very clear that he is not retiring. Good thing too, because Matt's contribution to the movement over some 37 years has been outstanding. We will miss him but I am sure he will continue to make an outstanding contribution to public service.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Scotland Bill

The UK coalition government has introduced the Scotland Bill that implements most of the Calman Commission recommendations on extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

The Bill will give new powers to allow the Scottish Parliament to set a new Scottish income tax from 2015, plus borrowing powers, worth £2.7bn, are to be devolved. Parliament will gain control over speed limit and drink-drive laws and control of air guns. There will also be Increased powers to run Holyrood elections. 

The new legislative powers are welcome although much less than UNISON argued for in our evidence to the Calman Commission. There remain a number of anomalies in the Scotland Act such as the Council Tax being devolved but Council Tax Benefit remaining reserved that the new Bill should have addressed. The principle of subsidiarity should apply to all powers that remain reserved to the UK Parliament.

The big transfer of powers in this Bill is the tax raising provisions. It is of course right that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for raising revenue as well as spending it. The 10p provisions are in principle right, although there are significant risks in devolving a variable yield tax without other revenue raising powers. The transitional provisions will be very important in this regard.

The new borrowing powers are also important. It is very disappointing that these are to be devolved so slowly. It is entirely illogical that local government in Scotland can have prudential borrowing powers but that the Parliament itself does not. Borrowing powers would mean that the Scottish Parliament would have much greater scope in planning and funding efficient investment in Scottish public services. This would avoid having to rely on the discredited PFI methods which have been expensively used in the past and are now to be reinvented by the Scottish Government. The Bill also places limitations on the new powers and doesn't allow the Scottish Government to issue bonds. Something I believe would be particular appropriate for Scottish Water.

Overall, whilst the Scotland Bill is to be welcomed, it is something of a missed opportunity. The product of a political compromise, when something more radical was required.