Welcome to my Blog

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

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Workers Memorial Day

Today is International Workers Memorial Day and I have been speaking at the North Lanarkshire TUC event at the Summerlee memorial. 

Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living is the slogan for International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD). The purpose of today is to remember those who have been needlessly killed, injured, or made ill by their work. But perhaps more importantly, it is also about using this human tragedy to strengthen the campaign for safe and healthy work. 

If work is not organised properly, or risks are not managed, it can kill you, injure you or give you an illness that may be with you for the rest of your life.

The number of workers actually killed at work last year in the UK was 171. However this is less than 1 per cent of the number killed by work. Every single year, over 8,000 people die of cancers that are caused by their work. Another 4,000 die from lung disease. 800 people are killed on the roads while working and 7–8,000 deaths from heart or circulatory problems caused by work

Add these up and the figure is already well over 20,000. Many experts put the real figure as much higher. And it’s not only deaths. Last year a staggering 1.9 million people were suffering from an illness that was caused or made worse by their work.

The UK government claims that Britain is the safest place to work because it comes out near the top of the league when looking only at immediate fatalities. This is because they have closed down swathes of manufacturing and heavy engineering more than most comparable countries. If you compare deaths caused by work, or ill-health, then Britain comes 20th out of the 34 OECD nations.

All these deaths and injuries were avoidable if employers took the proper precautions

Despite these statistics health and safety is under threat. The UK Government believes that health and safety is a burden on business. Cameron described it as a “monster”. It wants to: get rid of at least half of all existing health and safety regulations, cut inspections and enforcement of the law. It is also seeking to make it more difficult to get compensation in England. We are not exempt from this risk with charges rising to access justice in the Scottish courts and the Gill and now Taylor reviews.  

Numerous reviews undertaken by or for the government, on the whole find that the health and safety system: is not a burden, is actually doing a good and much needed job, and where there is a problem, it tends to be one of perception only. However, the government ignores the reviews and continues to peddle the myths and nonsense aided and abetted by the right wing media. 

The UK Government is cutting the HSE budget by 35 per cent over the next three years. This means increasing charges and cutting services, including its valuable information line. The HSE admits that the cuts will lead to “lower level of enforcement and a consequent decrease in health and safety standards throughout Great Britain, with ensuing costs to society.” Local authority cuts are having a similar impact on their role in safety enforcement.

These are costs that are daily mitigated by trade unions. Workplaces that have trade union safety representatives and safety committees have half the serious injuries than those without. A government report said that safety representatives save society between £181m and £578m each year as a result of lost time reduction from occupational injuries and work-related illnesses of between 286,000 and 616,000 days. Yet the government is trying to cut down on the amount of time that trade union representatives can spend doing their job. 

At UNISON Scotland we support extensive legal action and recover £millions of damages for our members. But we also use every single case to highlight how the incident could have been avoided and seek to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Prevention is always better than damages.

The trade union movement believes that those who are injured, made ill, disabled, or even killed by poor health and safety at work deserve more respect. As do the families left behind. 

So on this day it has never been more important for trade unions to stand together to defend the right to work in safety. Yes, remember the dead, but fight like hell for the living!

I would also recommend this short film produced for Hartlepool TUC. And this poem by UNISON member and poet, David E.Siddon


Our blood oils the gears of industry
The silent masses that none can see.

Of corners cut that stilled our hearts beat
For the expedient, healthy, balance sheet.
What of loss of parent, partner, child or friend?
All for a share-holders annual dividend.
We are the acceptable loss, the ones that fall
Because its as far as is reasonably possible.
So expose the lie, expunge the pain
And fight that we may not die in vain.
In our struggle, brother, sister, never cease
That the silent masses may rest in peace.
Your vigilance kept down the endless years
Lest we forget what it is that oils the gears.


Friday, 27 April 2012

Delivering Public Services That Work

'Delivering Public Services That Work' is the latest book on using systems thinking in a public service context by John Seddon and his team at Vanguard.

John Seddon is a big critic of the Whitehall-inspired initiatives, backed up by think-tanks, consultants, lobbyists and politicians. The top down ideas-factory driven by ideology rather than common sense. As he describes it, present anyone in this ideas-factory with evidence of solutions being delivered on the ground and you're met by: "very interesting, but I have an unproven idea that I believe will work better".  The end result is £millions wasted on crazy schemes, that only make the consultants who drive them richer, at the expense of service delivery.

His 2008 book 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector" is one of those books that screams common sense at you. I found myself saying "I have seen that" on almost every page. His case studies, particularly on Housing Benefit, illustrate how systems all too commonly simply generate 'failure demand' - work generated because the system doesn't work. You see it so often in call centres and shared services where failure is just passed around. He argues instead that what has to happen is for the right service to be given to the right person first time. It's cheaper, public satisfaction rises and staff morale improves because they are starting and finishing the job. Not getting grief for the failure.

This new book, edited by Charlotte Pell, brings together a number of new case studies to illustrate the approach. Police, hospitals and local authorities engaging those who have real knowledge and experience of the service to design sensible systems. Putting staff back in charge, or as Pell puts it, "someone who has the authority and expertise to understand what is going on and treat customers as human beings, not as individual transactions".

John Seddon's chapter in the book entitled 'Shared Services - A No Brainer?' - should be compulsory reading for those wedded to this approach. Particularly those in Scotland who have already wasted taxpayer cash finding out that this doesn't work. He is very critical of the industrialisation inherent in shared services, arguing for, "a better approach: placing the human expertise required to solve peoples problems at the place where they meet the service provider, usually locally". 

This approach fits in much better with the Scottish model of public service delivery. It is reflected in our own recent joint publication with APSE 'The Front Line Starts Here'. Designing services from the bottom up was also championed by the Christie Commission. However, it is not yet fully understood by many public service managers and politicians whose first reaction to change is to grab a consultant from the ideas-factory school of thought. My advice is to read this book - you will certainly learn about a better way to organise public services.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Devo Left

Yesterday at the STUC we launched the Red Paper Collective folder  'Power to Scotland's People', or as I prefer, Devo Left for short. The full paper was published in the Morning Star.

The independence referendum debate so far has largely focused on process and powers. There has been little debate on what extended devolution or independence is actually for. This paper seeks to start that debate from a socialist perspective.  

There is no point having new powers if we are simply going to swop Neo-Liberal unionism for Neo-Liberal independence. As I have argued in another posting, the track record on actually using existing devolved powers to promote social justice is not strong. So would it be any different with the economy or other powers?

Under independence or extended devolution big business in Scotland remains dependent on City institutions, reflecting the long established economic and monetary union with the rest of the UK. A situation that the SNP does not even seek to change with plans to retain the pound and EU membership and therefore outsourcing much of an independent Scotland's monetary and fiscal powers. The limited aim of shifting jobs from England by cutting Corporation Tax, Scotland the tax haven, isn't much of a socialist vision!

Devo-Plus and Devo-Max are also predicated on either cutting public spending or meeting existing levels. American levels of taxation will not fund Scandinavian levels of public services, so talk of following a Nordic model is meaningless unless we grasp this essential reality.

Devo-Left argues that the the options so far miss the crucial dimension of class politics and the redistribution of income and wealth. Power for a purpose should be the driving the constitutional debate and this paper at least starts that debate.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Pensions Governance

Several meetings this week have touched on governance of pension schemes and tomorrow UNISON Scotland is supporting the Just Banking conference in Edinburgh.

In our private or not for profit sector pension schemes governance is covered by the Pension Act and the subsequent codes of practice that require, among other matters, that at least one-third of trustees are member nominated. That’s not to say that there are no problems. In the current pensions environment being a trustee can be challenging and a quick glance through the Pensions Regulator web site highlights how pension governance can go very wrong.

In the public sector many members are in pay-as-you-go schemes that don’t have funds and therefore governance is a matter of regulation. However, the biggest pension scheme in Scotland is the Local Government Pension Scheme (Scotland) (LGPS) with assets of nearly £20bn administered by 11 funds. While it is called the ‘local government’ scheme almost a third of members are employed by organisations outwith councils, including private, voluntary and other statutory bodies. These funds look and operate in a similar way to private sector schemes with contributions from employers and employees that are invested in order to meet scheme liabilities.

The big difference is the way the schemes are governed. The LGPS is probably the only funded scheme in the EU not to have effective and statutory member representation. In the main they are administered by a pensions committee made up almost exclusively of employer representatives i.e. councillors from the local authorities covered by the fund. The funds are also, in most cases, closely linked to the organisation of a lead council in a way that would not be acceptable in a private pension scheme.

There has been some progress in improving the governance of the LGPS in Scotland. In April 2011 guidance was issued to all funds that set out compliance standards against which funds are to measure their governance arrangements. This came out of the 2008 agreement on the new LGPS in Scotland. However, the latest progress report indicates that even the modest requirements of this guidance have not been fully implemented by every fund.

Most funds do now at least have consultative panels that include representatives of scheme members and in the best funds these operate well, engaging members and supporting them with training and access to papers. Most funds have also made a real effort to communicate with scheme members.

The slowest progress is over having representatives of scheme members as voting members of the fund decision making structures. This is recognised across Europe as essential for good governance and transparency and as I explained above is a statutory requirement in private sector schemes in the UK. Equally, there is no provision in the legislation that members serving on these committees have to make investment decisions in the best interests of beneficiaries or address potential conflict of interests with the councils that make up the fund. UNISON believes that the current arrangements sit outside the requirements of European law, particularly Directive 2003/41/EC, known as the IORP Directive.

It is sometimes argued that because LGPS members contributions and benefits are set by law they bear no risk from poor investment and governance decisions. This is no longer the case because the UK and Scottish Government has the power to change benefits and are more likely to do this if investment income falls. In addition since 2009 member contributions are subject to ‘cost sharing’ arrangements. In practice there are fewer protections for LGPS members than those in private sector schemes. As the recent pension disputes have shown, trade union strength is the only defence scheme members have against a rapacious government hell bent on undermining quality pension schemes.

Pension fund representation is not simply a moral issue. As David Pitt-Watson said in ‘The New Capitalists’ (2006) – “Pension plan flaws often occur because plan members tend to have little or no representation in the governance of funds. Worse, secrecy makes it difficult for citizen investors to monitor what is being done in their name”. I would argue that the economic power of the LGPS in Scotland is little understood or necessarily deployed in the interests of members or the wider community. Stronger pension governance could provide the basis for a more radical approach. The work done by trade unions in other countries shows us how a different approach can work.

If the banking crisis tells us anything it demonstrates that we need to take greater control and promote more transparency over the financial system. Our pension funds need to be a part of that liberation.