Welcome to my Blog

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

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Libraries and Books

A new experience for me today. I find myself supporting the views of David Gray, principal of Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools, Edinburgh. Now normally I would have little in common with private school teachers, but his piece in today's Scotsman is spot on.

Firstly, he makes the case for the school library. "As places, they have retained an aura of reverence and quiet study, and for young people in good schools, they are at the heart of intellectual thought and reflection."

Secondly, he makes the case for books. "There is also incipient evidence that the reader of the screen does not assimilate information as accurately or as effectively as in applying his (or possibly her David!)  mind to a book which always involves steady, persistent concentration, a key to effective assimilation, analysis and evaluation."

This must be right and that is why we need to come together to defend our libraries. Many councils are looking to cut back their library provision. In particular there has been a move towards reduced opening times and employing less qualified staff. In a UNISON survey more than 40% members reported cuts in service and two-thirds felt staffing levels were inadequate. Nearly 90% indicated public support for the service, but nearly two-thirds felt that the service was not valued by their local authority.

Since the start of the recession libraries across Scotland are reporting increases in visits and lending issues. 30 million visits last year, bucking the trend. Libraries have diversified with the introduction of downloadable audio files and e-books, but the value of the book should not be underestimated.
You can love Scottish libraries by signing this online petition today.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Taking Scotland Forward

Whatever stance you take on the First Minister, it has to be admitted that he does the 'vision thing' very well. His speech today setting out the Scottish Government's vision for the next five years was  full of vision, even if the detail was a little sparse.

The comparison with what the Con-dem coalition is doing in England was good. We need a different vision and we got it. However, he did try to give the impression that we are already exempt. "budgets slashed, priorities changed" is happening in every council, health board and quango in Scotland, not just 'elsewhere on these isles".
Constitutional issues "are a priority", but not such a priority that it will be addressed before "well into the second half" of this parliament. Points on the Scotland Bill will generally be supported - except Corporation Tax.

The social wage/social contract line is generally fine and worthy of further development. I particularly liked the attack on Thatcher's "no such thing as society" and the reference to 'the market" and "crazed ideology". However, not at all sure "people understand that public spending must be restrained". Elements perhaps of Thatcher's economics that the FM has praised in the past? There is a better way First Minister!

The juxtaposition between the wage freeze and the Council Tax freeze was not very clever as the STUC has pointed out. In may be politically popular but this is a regressive tax cut that does little for our low paid members.

The £250m Scottish Futures Fund is being stretched very thin over five different initiatives. All welcome but I hope this isn't more presentational spin. Core budgets being cut at the delivery end while ministers parade a series of new announcements. All administrations have been guilty of this in the past.

Good lines on sectarianism, bigotry and booze. These are certainly not compatible with the Scotland we all want. Investment in housing would be welcome, but this had one of the biggest cuts in the current budget. Jobs, emerging markets and the low carbon economy is a good vision, delivery will be more difficult in the current world economic environment.

Overall, good on vision, but something of the proverbial curates egg on the detail. 

More on pensions

A follow up to yesterday's blog on pensions following the publication this morning of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee report on public service pensions. I was interviewed on Radio Scotland this morning on this issue.

We should welcome the PAC's warning that the Treasury has not tested the impact of the changes underlying their cost projections on public service pensions. Changes could lead to additional spending elsewhere including demand for means tested benefits.

In 2008 we reached agreements with the Scottish and UK governments on the future funding of public service pensions. The new UK government has unilaterally slapped an unaffordable 50% increase in employee contributions at a time of pay cuts and rising inflation. We warned that this will lead to further opt-outs from pensions, placing new burdens on welfare benefits.

The PAC report also says that officials appeared to define affordability on the basis of public perception. You would have hoped, that in the Treasury at least, Lord Hutton’s report buried once and for all the myth of gold plated pensions. But the UK government clearly thought this was an opportunity to grab more cash from low paid public service workers. This is on top of cuts to pension benefits by 15% as a result of the switch of index from RPI to CPI and plans to make everyone work longer.

The contributions issue in particular is an unwelcome agenda item for the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, because this is a devolved issue. The message is the same to both governments -  public service workers are being asked to pay more, work longer and get less. That’s not acceptable and will be resisted.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


Big focus on pensions for me this week as I am running a series of training courses for our new branch Pensions Champions. Nearly a hundred have signed up for courses across Scotland.

The main aim of the course is to get our branch leads up to scratch on the big pension issues. The key focus is on the Con-Dem coalition's attack on public service pensions that can be summed up as - pay more, work longer, get less. But let's not forget the proposed changes to the state retirement pension. Sounds good on paper, but it is as yet unclear what will happen to the contracting out arrangements. If these go to pay for the £140, then that will be a further tax on employees and employers. In the public and voluntary sector we can do without even more cost pressures.

In the public service schemes the main concern is the planned 50% increase in pension contributions. Members on the course this week confirmed our concern that this will result in a major opt out of the scheme. Members simply cannot afford that sort of increase when they are facing real term pay cuts and rising inflation. The consequences will be more pensioner poverty and greater reliance on welfare benefits. 

Whilst the initiative for these changes comes from the UK government, implementation will largely fall on the Scottish Parliament because public service scheme regulation is a devolved matter. Something that was clearly not well understood by commentators and politicians during the election debates.  Latest on these issues can be found in the new edition of our Scottish Pensions Bulletin.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Scotland Bill

The Scotland Bill has been somewhat delayed at Westminster, firstly because of the Libya debate and then the Scottish elections. The First Minister has called for the devolution of Corporation Tax, control over the Crown Estate, and immediate borrowing powers. Yesterday, he upped the ante by calling for a fresh raft of powers to be included in the Bill including control of excise duty on alcohol and cigarettes, create a new digital Scottish TV channel, and a guaranteed seat at the European table.

On Corporation Tax my view is no. I know Northern Ireland is supposed to be getting this power, but there are special circumstances and I wonder if it will actually happen. Using Corporation Tax to entice companies across the border will inevitably lead to a race to the bottom and there is no evidence that it promotes growth. And how are we going to pay for what will undoubtedly be a tax cut? Further cuts in public services.

Control over the Crown Estate is a yes. There are obvious synergies with existing devolved powers. However, we cannot expect to simply draw down income streams from UK powers without compensatory cuts in the block budget. Nice if we could but the Treasury is not daft.

Borrowing powers is a definite yes. Calman could have been stronger on this but the draft Bill is much weaker. Artificial limits and Treasury controls should go. Plus we should be able to raise bonds. This could be particularly useful for Scottish Water investment and the ideas in the Hydro Nation consultation.

Excise duties is a maybe. It would get over one of the strongest objections to the minimum pricing proposals that were defeated in the last session. Increasing the price of booze is sound, but lining the pockets of Tesco et al isn't. However, a steady stream of booze filled white vans up and down the M74 isn't very attractive either.

Broadcasting is a yes. There is no reason left for this not to be devolved. It shouldn't mean insular news and programmes. We have a long tradition of internationalism and viewers would quickly object to parochial TV and radio.

A seat at the European table is also a yes, compatible with the access that other devolved/federal institutions have. A Europe of the regions is something we should promote.

In UNISON Scotland's evidence to the Calman Commission we argued that the test for new powers should be subsidiarity. On that test many of the First Minister's are reasonable - but not all.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Youth Underclass

The Prince's Trust youth charity has released a report today warning that poverty is creating a "youth underclass" in Scotland. The survey, carried out by YouGov revealed that 12% of young people in Scotland feel "people like them don't succeed in life", while 19% said they believe "few" or "none" of their goals are achievable. It also showed those growing up in poverty were more likely to feel this way - which the charity said highlights an "aspiration gap" between the UK's richest and poorest people.

Let me add a few hard Scottish statistics to the survey:

  • The gap between the bottom 20% and the average in learning outcomes has not narrowed in the last ten years.
  • The percentage of children leaving school directly into unemployment has risen to 22% for the bottom 20% of the young population of Scotland.
  • Youth unemployment has risen from 13% to 20% in the last 3 years and over 70% of that group are long term unemployed.
  • Half of all young people in Scottish prisons have been in care. This rises to 80% when looking only at those convicted of violent offences. Despite just 1% of all Scottish children having been in care.

This report from the Princes Trust is helpful in highlighting this issue and should act as a warning shot that we don't want to create another 'lost generation', as happened during the Thatcher years. In fairness to Iain Gray (and not many are at present!) this was something that he tried to get into the policy lite election debate.  However, my concern is over the Trust's emphasis on "an aspiration gap between the UK's richest and poorest people."

The key issue is not 'aspiration', it's poverty and inequality. The poorest tenth of the Scottish population now have, between them, 2% of Scotland's total income. In contrast, the richest tenth have around 29% and that has grown from 25% in the last ten years. If we look at the long term trends, Scotland was becoming a slightly more equal society during the 50's and 60's, but this started to go in the wrong direction in the Thatcher years and hasn't stopped since.
So what should we as a nation do to address this issue? 
In the short term we can stop cutting the public services that are trying to at least mitigate the impact of poverty on young people. Council youth services rarely have a statutory basis and as a consequence have been early targets for cuts. The same is true of the services provided by the voluntary sector in this field. Many aspects of child care are also grossly underfunded.
The medium term challenge is preventative spending in early years. Susan Deacon's report is particularly helpful in this regard. The NSPCC have also highlighted the risk of relentless intergenerational deprivation. If we put as much effort into early intervention as we have into criminal justice and anti-social behaviour - the results could be transformational.
In the longer term we have to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. Not just because it is right to help those at disadvantage. Not just because it it will avoid the huge cost on the public purse of this failure demand. But most of all because more equal societies do better on every measure including economic growth. So it is in all our interests, rich and poor, to face up to this and make equality the guiding light of public policy in Scotland.






Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Street

Interesting experiment by Nick Robinson and the BBC with their programme The Street that Cut Everything.

The street was in Preston, but it could be pretty much any street in any town or city except for one thing. The residents of this street agreed to take part in a unique experiment. They agreed to live without all the services their council tax pays for - all, that is, except for schools for their children and the emergency services - and to let the BBC film how they got along or, more often, how they did not.

Many of the residents started from the premise that they paid too much Council Tax. However, when the 'invisible' services started to be withdrawn they soon realised how much we take these services for granted. They quickly worked out that the Council Tax they saved would not pay for private alternatives and so they had to do much for themselves. For a short period they managed to do some of this, but at a big cost in time and personal cash.

The other interesting factor was that while it did generate more community spirit in the street, it also resulted in real tensions, with neighbours quickly in real disputes. This reflects wider views as shown in an Ipsos Mori poll that showed 54% of people think that the big society is a good idea in principle but won’t work in practice, and as many as 57% also think it’s just an excuse for the government to save money by cutting back on public services. Like The Street, the poll also showed that most people have no clear view on the role of the state – they believe ‘people’ should get more involved, although they personally are too busy, and almost as many think it is up to the government anyway.

We did something similar to this last year with what we called 'A Day in the Life'. We followed one of my team, a young mum, for a day with a camera and noted all the public services she used. We were all surprised how many she came into contact with. See for yourself. We then did some calculations of what these services would cost if you had to buy them individually. Some examples are in the associated briefing. Schooling, security, private health care and refuse collection alone would bankrupt most citizens.

The key message from all this? Collective provision works. It not only binds us together as a community but it makes economic sense as well. Public Works!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Energy prices

Recent reports indicate millions of homes in Scotland face even higher fuel bills this winter. Customers are already paying an extra £1.50 a week following a 7% rise in their bills from last month. Suppliers like Scottish Gas are preparing the ground for a second round of price increases.

THE squeeze on beleaguered workers is set to get worse after the Bank of England warned that gas and electricity bills could rise by as much as £200 a year to record levels. This could push even CPI inflation to 5% later this year. uSwitch.com, the price comparison and switching service, said the Bank’s predictions would mean annual fuel bills would hit an all-time high of £1279.

At the same time consumers should be aware of misleading sales techniques. Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) has been found guilty of tricking people into switching from their existing energy firms. It had claimed they were paying too much to their current suppliers when this was not the case.

It is thought to be the first time that one of the big six energy firms has been prosecuted for using dishonest sales techniques but the problem of doorstep trickery has plagued gas and electricity consumers since the industry was privatised in the 1990s.

Audrey Gallacher, of Consumer Focus, said the firm's behaviour had involved "deliberate and wilful mis-selling. Misleading doorstep energy sales have been a nightmare for consumers for years, leaving many switching to a worse energy deal. This verdict has revealed a deliberate tactic by SSE, not the behaviour of a rogue salesperson."

UNISON members in energy companies deal with the confusion caused by the so called energy market every day. Others are pressurised into sales techniques they are not comfortable with. Reform is long overdue.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Post election finances

We spent some time today looking at the key challenges for UNISON members arising from the Scottish Parliament election result. The key concern remains finance.

The Scottish budget is already facing a cumulative loss, in real terms, of £39bn over the 15 year period before we return to 2009 spending levels. The CPPR analysis of the SNP manifesto shows additional commitments totalling over £1bn in the next four years. This includes the growing cost of the planned 5 year Council Tax freeze that according to Professor David Bell is likely to cost £535m. That is a £250m shortfall on the SNP manifesto estimate. Put another way by the CPPR, the Council tax freeze will cost 3,300 public sector jobs.

These commitments are apparently to be financed by further ‘efficiency’ savings. In addition, in common with the other political parties, they largely ignore the additional demand pressures (demographic change, recession etc) that will add to the pressures on the Scottish budget. NESTA estimates that additional demands in health, social care and justice alone will amount to more than £27bn over the same time period.

The attraction of the efficiency savings approach is that the responsibility for making cuts fall on delivery bodies (councils, health boards etc) where our members are largely employed. The CPPR report sums this up well:

“At present it looks like whoever forms the next Scottish Government will be passing on much of the accountability and responsibility for making these decisions to other bodies. This would appear to be in the hope that, by avoiding taking the lead in such unpleasant deeds, national politicians will also avoid taking the blame.”

Capital funding shortfalls are likely to be a growing concern and The Scottish Futures Trust will drive forward with PFI schemes including the Hub Initiative and NPDT model. This will add to the growing burden of PFI costs. 

The main ‘efficiency’ saving that contributes to plugging the financial gap set out above has been the public service pay freeze. This has been coupled with attacks on terms and conditions in several UNISON service groups. It is likely that pay restraint will continue to be a feature of the Scottish Government’s ‘efficiency’ agenda, possibly coupled with their commitment on no compulsory redundancies, in those services they have direct control over. The CPPR estimates that public service workers who retain their jobs are likely to suffer a 6-12% reduction in the spending power of their pay up to 2014-15.

These financial issues would be similar whoever won the election.  All the more reason for a greater focus than we got in the election on the alternatives. There is a better way than simply implementing the Con-Dem cuts.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Veolia and water privatisation

The world’s largest water and sewage service provider is Veolia. This firm is also the biggest advocate for water privatisation worldwide. It is important for Scotland because it would love to get its hands on Scottish Water. Building on their less than successful foothold with a PFI sewage scheme bought from Thames Water. There is a good analysis of Veolia's variable record at Powerbase.

The US consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch has published a report Veolia Environnement: A Profile of the World’s Largest Water Service CorporationThis report shows how the public backlash against Veolia’s attempts to dominate the water services market has undermined the company’s revenues with an 11% drop in operating income in its water division.

Veolia has focused its water and sewage activities over the next three years to expand its presence in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, customers across the globe suffer water shortages, skyrocketing rates and irregular billing practices under Veolia Environnement’s service. Some communities, such as Paris, France have ended their relationships with Veolia early, realising the potential cost savings under public operation.

If there is anyone left in Scotland who thinks water privatisation is a good idea - read this report.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

May Day

The May Day celebrations in Glasgow got a real boost this year with a range of events running up to the traditional march and rally. Theatre, comedy and music all featured in a packed, and well supported, programme.

Today's march was one of the best attended for many a year, aided by the great weather that made us wish we were marching to the Green. Until you recalled the wetter years!

Great turnout by UNISON branches in the city. Particularly the revitalised Strathclyde Police and Fire branch (see below). Great family day out with a serious political point as well.