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, 30 September 2012

Welcome to the new world of Scottish policing

If Stephen House was not aware of the political sensitivities in his new job as Chief Constable, it was brought sharply into focus at his first press conference. When asked how many police staff jobs would have to go to meet the savings target, he gave an honest answer of up to 3000. Hardly surprising as this number is taken from ACPOS papers he would have seen and in evidence to the Scottish Parliament. His problem is that the Scottish Government has described these numbers as exaggerated in response to UNISON highlighting them. You can therefore imagine the St Andrew’s House spin doctors going into overdrive before his next interview! 

The first batch of these job losses are revealed in Paul Hutcheon’s article in today’s Sunday Herald. Far from simply removing headquarters duplication this paper reveals wholesale cuts in front line roles. The posts to go include police station front offices, forensic, custody staff and control room operators. Most of them are to be replaced by police officers taken off their current operational roles, at twice or sometimes more than three times the salary. As the new centralised police force will have a duty of best value, this will take some squaring.

His next interview with Newsnight Scotland got him into further deep water with the spin doctors. He confirmed, absolutely honestly, that he was under a political target to maintain police numbers at 17234. As police officers make up 75% of the budget and civilians only 15%, that means almost all the cuts have to fall on civilian staff. The 10% procurement budget has limited scope for further cuts. When you have to lose almost half the civilian staff posts, job substitution is inevitable. It is somewhat ironic that in the week The Sweeney makes a return to our cinema screens, Scotland’s police will be heading right back to that era.

Then we have the big lie. SNP MSPs have been told to say there will be no political interference, and as the Sunday Herald article repeats, "It will be for the new chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority to determine the balance between police officers and police staff in the new service." Oh no it won’t. If the SPA has to save £1.7bn and it cannot touch police officers, it can’t decide any balance. It can only put round pegs into square holes and hope for the best. We can only give credit to the Chief Constable for also making the implications of the political target very clear in his interview.

I don’t begrudge Stephen House his impressive new salary. As his first week shows, he will earn it. Sadly, he is also learning that straightforward honest answers to questions don’t always match with his political master’s spin. Welcome to the new world of Scottish policing!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Universalism and the budget

Having spent some time pouring over the Scottish Budget, as is my less than joyous task at this time of year, I was left pondering how we are going to cope with what could be ten or more years of this. Then Johann Lamont‘s speech sparked a debate on this very issue.

My initial reaction was somewhat less hysterical than some. On the nationalist left this is death of all Scottish Labour used to stand for, Blairites taking over the party and such like. On the right it is class warfare alighting on “the poorest pay for tax breaks for the rich” elements of her speech. I am not convinced it is either and, unlike some commentators, I have also read the full speech.

The problem is relatively easy to define. If you talk to staff working in public services they will tell you that most public service organisations have struggled through the first few years of cuts by salami slicing services, avoiding difficult political decisions. The Scottish Government has done the same, with the added advantage of being able to dump all the tricky implementation decisions down the line to councils, health boards and quangos. And of course the biggest cut has been taken by public service workers through the pay freeze.

So something clearly has to happen, we cannot simply muddle along like this. Far from abandoning everything Scottish Labour supposedly stands for what she actually announced was a look at the budget to “develop a costed analysis of available policy options at this time of financial austerity”. It is also worth pointing out that Scottish Labour elected a leader not a dictator. Leaders have a duty to lead and to promote a strategy, but Scottish Labour’s policy is decided by a democratic process, so any debate has some time to run.

However, the speech does involve a clear attack on some aspects of universalism. Now I believe very firmly in universal services funded through progressive taxation. The Scandinavian model if you like. Labour has not been nearly radical enough in explaining that you cant have Scandinavian levels of service on US levels of taxation. But before we drift into fantasy politics, let’s remember that the SNP economic policy is rooted in Laffer curve economics.

The main advantage of universal services is that they can reach everyone on the same terms. The main objection to universal services is their cost. Targeting is often presented as being more efficient, less money is spent to better effect, or as Johann has argued, the poor pay for the rich. However, there are problems with targeting because recipients have to be identified; administration is complex and expensive to run. There are often boundary problems caused by trying to include some people while excluding others. Targeting and means testing sometimes fail to reach people in need.

I entirely agree with some of Johann’s examples. The Council Tax freeze is clearly regressive, and the police on the beat target is just political spin. But on prescription charges our members who work in health centres can describe how people asked them which prescription they can do without. Tuition fees can discourage students from working class families from going to university.

There is also a political trap here. The right hates universal services because they build a broad based support for public services. They favour targeting as the first stage in undermining middle class support for public services, so we end up with a US style small state. The NHS has broad support because we all use it, while social housing has lower levels of support because it is seen as a service for the poor and disadvantaged, and is often spatially segregated as well. Targeting services at low-income groups risks creating a two-tier system - services for poor people tend to become poor services. A better model harnesses the power of more affluent service users to maximise the quality of services while ensuring that they do not overly dominate access.

We should also remember that we don’t have universal services or a small state at present. We have a mixed economy and political judgements are made about universal and targeted on a case by case basis. So it is perfectly reasonable to examine this balance at any one time. As the Christie Commission report showed we haven’t got the outcomes right since devolution and there is a case for targeting services at the areas most at need. That doesn’t mean abandoning universalism, but it does mean making sensible judgements about resource allocation.

The political strategy therefore needs to be factored in. The risk with Johann’s approach is that Labour falls back into the managerialism that dominated the last Labour administration in Scotland - or being viewed as simply implementing ConDem policies, rather than campaigning against them. Differentiation is not enough. I fear political strategy is not always Scottish Labour’s strong point.

So I am not going to join in with the chorus of easy condemnation. But that doesn’t mean I accept all the analysis or the possible solutions. However, it is entirely reasonable to open a debate on these issues and for those who disagree to put forward credible alternatives.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Draft Scottish Budget

As jobs go being the Cabinet Secretary for Finance isn’t easy. Running a devolved budget when the UK Government is slashing public spending is probably one of the most thankless tasks around. So no one was expecting very much when John Swinney presented the Scottish Government’s draft budget yesterday. And we were not disappointed.

While John Swinney does exhibit some dangerous neo-liberal economic tendencies, his belief in the Laffer curve for instance, he clearly doesn’t believe that cutting spending in the teeth of the longest and deepest recession since the 1930’s is a good idea. In that he is of course correct and in very good company. Not Arthur Laffer on this occasion!

So he didn’t have much to play with and he tried to argue that what he did have was going to boost the economy. Some shift from revenue to capital, small boosts to enterprise and tourism budgets, renewable energy projects and the like. None of which are likely to offset the overall effect of an 18% cut in public spending since 2009/10. There are some welcome increases in housing and college budgets, but this is only a partial replacement for over cutting in these areas last year. Other small projects are mainly cosmetic, giving ministers something to announce, probably several times, in the coming year.

At least the budget does have a narrative, unlike some other budget responses. Willie Rennie’s best shot was to privatise Scottish Water at the bargain price of £1.5bn. As the assets are probably worth over £20bn, this is selling off the family silver big time. Even this paltry sum would go out of Scotland to his pal in the Treasury. He was joined in this lunacy by CBI Scotland who argued for more privatisation, on a day when we had further scandalous revelations about G4S’s behaviour in Scotland.

The media coverage has focused on his pay policy. “George Osborne in a kilt”, as one of my trade union colleagues put it. It is certainly the case that he has largely followed the Treasury lead on pay in recent years. When John Swinney describes 1% as modest, no one can accuse him of exaggeration! In fairness he can point to the limited no compulsory redundancy guarantee and the Scottish Living Wage, but the social wage argument is very weak. A regressive Council Tax freeze is a poor use of resources. The living wage point would also be stronger if he did more on procurement.

The problem is that his pay policy only covers a small number of public sector workers. The largest groups are either covered by UK pay bodies, like the NHS, or local government. That’s why his budget allocation for local government is more important to those workers than his pay policy. CoSLA, with some justification, argues that local government is taking the bulk of the spending cuts and this impacts on their ability to pay even the ‘modest’ pay policy. For example, low paid council workers haven’t even been paid the paltry £250 in the past two years. There is no redundancy guarantee here either.

So despite the best spinning efforts there is little in this budget for jobs and growth. Further public sector jobs will be lost in the coming year and for every one of those there is a consequential private sector job loss. Real wage cuts, for the third successive year, will further dent consumer confidence. These cuts are the primary reason this recession has been so long and so deep.

We can and should criticise the Scottish Government for some poor choices in the allocation of this budget. However, never forget that the root cause is the ideological attack on public services by the ConDem coalition. Yesterday’s budget is another reason to be marching in Glasgow on 20 October.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Care integration - 5 reasons to be wary

I have been involved in several meetings this week on health and care integration, I have previously blogged on some of the reasons we should take a close interest in this issue and UNISON has now published our submission to the Scottish Government consultation.

Rather than going over that ground, I am going to highlight five reasons to be wary based on these discussions and what I have seen of other submissions on the Scottish Government proposals.

One. The key issue, not just for local authorities, has been democratic accountability. The new partnerships could have a huge impact on wider council and health board services including service and hospital closures and individual charging. These may be the correct outcomes, but those making these decisions need to be democratically accountable to the local community. In these plans the governance model is weak and holds out the prospect of central direction.

Two. There are really only two models being proposed. Almost every submission I have seen argues for local flexibility to reflect local needs. Yet the consultation reads like an attempt to impose a centralised model on local communities with performance management from the centre. This is a trend I have highlighted in other posts.

Three. Health and care services are delivered by people. Carers and paid workers in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. Yet the consultation paper and questions are almost entirely silent on workforce issues. The UNISON submission highlights the importance of a staff governance framework and other issues. While the new partnerships are not intended to be employers in their own right, the budgetary and governance issues open up a complex array of employment law issues.

Four. There is a lot of talk about engagement with the third and private sector. But in my view there is a role confusion here. Voluntary organisations and users clearly have a role in the design of services. However, the loudest voices here are the delivery providers in the Third sector who have a clear commercial interest. The procurement aspect, coupled with budget cuts, is driving a race to the bottom in care. Staff in voluntary sector are particularly badly treated and, as the best in the sector recognise, is impacting on quality of care. Sadly others simply see it as the best selling point for the third sector.

Five. Self-directed care is the new buzz word and clearly is important for certain groups. But as Lord Sutherland said at the Holyrood conference, "it is really a middle class thing". Most service users, particularly the elderly, don't want to self direct anything. Plus as we have already seen, it can be used as cover for budget cuts and the closure of community service provision. The NHS is already having to pick up the pieces and it is being used as a Trojan horse to further privatise care provision.

Almost everyone agrees that integration is a good idea. However, there is no evidence that top down structural change of the type being proposed will work. Instead we need to look at what is working locally and allow democratically accountable services to develop a model that suits each community.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Freedom of Information

Scotland's Freedom of Information Commissioner publishes her first annual report today. There was some trepidation when Kevin Dunion left the post that his replacement may not be as fearless a champion of the public's right to know. However, these concerns were misplaced as Rosemary Agnew has already shown a willingness to tackle difficult issues. It is almost always a sign that you are doing your job when the Scottish Government is dragging you to the Court of Session!

Entertaining though the spat over the mere existence of legal advice on EU accession is, the underlying concerns are there for all to see in her annual report. Despite the Commissioners measured tones, it is clear that she is receiving more complaints about failure to disclose, often on technical grounds. As this morning's Scotsman leader says, Holyrood started well on FoI. The Scottish legislation was stronger than the equivalent English Act and this reflected a desire to do things differently in the new legislature.

Sadly in recent years, the Scottish Government in particular, has wriggled at every opportunity to avoid politically embarrassing disclosures. Even wasted huge amounts of taxpayers cash on appeals, simply to delay disclosure to a politically more convenient time. I have noticed this drift in our own FoI requests. Another weakness has been the poor application of the review system. Senior civil servants who are clearly simply going through the motions, rather than properly questioning their colleagues decisions. This is obvious from the absence of qualitative reasons for their decisions.

So where do we go from here? The Scottish Parliament has an opportunity with the Freedom of Information Bill to make a stand and rehabilitate FoI in Scotland. They should take the initiative and introduce further amendments to the Government’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill. As the Campaign FoI Scotland has argued the biggest loophole in the legislation’s coverage is the exemption of non-public bodies, such as private contractors, large voluntary organisations, housing associations and arms-length  organisations (ALEOs). In essence if you accept the public pound, you have to accept public transparency.

 I emphasise that this also applies to the commercial end of the voluntary sector. Their pressure appears to be driving an ambiguous response from SCVO. They should be standing up for FoI in the interests of the wider voluntary sector. Not the narrow commercial interests of a few big care providers.

As Carole Ewart, Co-convener of the CFoIS told the Finance Committee:
“In Scotland we should focus on whether people’s right to know is as effective in 2012, as it was in 2002 when the law was passed, and 2005 when it came into force. Clearly the answer is No. Private companies and other third-party bodies are increasingly being used by the public sector to deliver public services. There are over 130 arms-length organisations in Scotland today. If these bodies are not covered by Freedom of Information  (FoI) law, then we are all effectively debarred from asking them how they spend our money.”

The Scottish Information Commissioner also supports extended coverage, and commissioned an opinion poll that showed 83% of people support extending FoI coverage to private companies who build and maintain schools and hospitals, and 82% support extension to housing associations.

Strong Freedom of Information law is the hallmark of a strong democracy. It's also a measure of good government. Scotland is falling behind, but we have an opportunity to recover, if MSPs have the bottle to grasp the nettle.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Wages and the economy

There is a focus on wages in the media today following Ed Balls performance at the TUC, John Swinney on Scottish pay policy and the launch of the Scottish Youth Parliament’s Fair Wages campaign.

Ed Balls rightly got booed by delegates at the TUC after a UNISON delegate asked him about public sector pay. As UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis, said “if Mr Balls really understood the impact of three years of falling wages on struggling families he too would be calling for an end to the pay freeze."

Scottish unions met Ed Balls earlier this year on this very subject and UNISON Scotland tabled a critical motion at the Scottish Labour Party conference. While Ed Balls may get the fairness point, that is overridden by his political strategy. He wants to sound tough and credible on the economy and public spending. There are shades of his mentor here in the early years of the last Labour UK government. 

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it is a flawed political strategy because it undermines Labour support amongst a key voting group. Secondly, the economics are flawed, as cuts in real wages are a major cause of the current recession. A point I will return to.

As for John Swinney’s pay policy, including a “modest” 1% increase, no one can accuse John of being overstated! As I am quoted in the Herald this morning, "He did use the phrase modest, and I suppose 1% does come into that category. The truth is that the Scottish Government position has mirrored the UK position on public sector pay at every stage."
The Scottish Government does claim a social wage somehow tops this up. The no compulsory redundancy commitment is a serious element of that, but a regressive Council Tax freeze is not. Plus the pay policy and the redundancy pledge hasn’t been applied to the largest group of workers in local government. They didn’t get even the paltry £250 underpinning last year.

Let’s return to the economic argument for wages I put to Ed Balls earlier this year. I did say to him, rather pointedly, “that I thought he understood economics, but I now have my doubts”.  The facts are that since the start of the 1980s, the share of the economy going to wages has shrunk. Those with the highest salaries have done better than those below them and as a consequence average workers now get a smaller section of a smaller pie. The latest TUC research puts this wage gap at £7000 per year.
As the TUC paper says this is not just unfair, but bad for the economy as it holds back growth.

“Companies need customers with cash in their pockets. That is why the UK economy is scraping along the bottom. Employees are cutting back as their living standards are squeezed. And the public sector, far from making up the gap, is slashing spending too. But this wages squeeze was a prime – or should we say sub-prime – cause of the crash. Excess profits and bonuses went into the finance system rather than new investment. Workers deprived of proper pay borrowed to make up the difference. And when bankers stopped considering risk before lending, we had started the inevitable slide to the global crash.”

I will end this blog on a positive note. The Scottish Youth Parliament today launches their Fair Wages campaign that supports the Scottish Living Wage. An important part of this is to extend the living wage into the wider workplace and government procurement will be an important part of that. Young people in Scotland get it - sadly politicians have some catching up to do.

We all have an opportunity to make the point loudly on 20 October in Glasgow, when we march for a Future That Works.

Monday, 10 September 2012

UNISON Welfare Fun Day

Yesterday was UNISON Scotland's Welfare Fun Day, held at the Falkirk Wheel.

UNISON Welfare is our charity aim at helping members when they are struggling through an unexpected crisis, or if the pressures of every day life are getting too much. Recently rebranded as There for You  this charity offers a unique confidential advice and support service just for members of UNISON and their dependants. It helps thousands of members every year with financial assistance, debt advice, wellbeing breaks, support and information. UNISON is the only trade union to offer a confidential advice and support service to its members and their families in the form of a registered charity.

Sadly, there has never been a greater need for this service. Real cuts in wages coupled with an ideological attack on public services is creating an ever greater demand on the charitable sector to plug the gap. Welfare reform is adding to that burden with real cuts in support to those most in need.

It hasn't stopped Cameron and Osborne parading at the paralympics, and rightly getting booed. As Blind Team GB footballer Keryn Seal, who relies on his £70-a-week allowance to get to training said: “I find it quite incredible that the ­Government can go around handing out medals when away from the Games they are taking the DLA away. It’s all well and good backing disabled sports at the highest level and looking good for the cameras but what they are doing is going to affect hundreds of thousands of disabled people really badly."

So many thanks to the UNISON branches who supported yesterdays event and those who put a lot of effort into organising it. Not to forget those who turned up.

The Falkirk Wheel is also a great public service venue if you haven't visited it. The staff are great advert for the service. Thanks to them as well.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Latest privatisation lessons

There is a very good piece by David Walker in Guardian Professional this week that deserves greater attention.

His story refers to the collapse of the outsourcing company Mouchel. This company has a somewhat chequered history, rebranding itself in a complex story that makes due diligence all the more important. The company has been taken over by its creditors and they include the part-nationalised RBS. So we the taxpayer end up bailing them out. Sound familiar?

Why does this matter? Well you do have to wonder how this company was awarded public contracts. When last December they announced a £65m loss, any organisation that contracts with them will know immediately that cost cutting has to follow with a consequential impact on the service. Typically, many service contractors price at cost and then make their profit by cutting corners. The problem for the public service is that the in-house expertise has gone by the time they discover this reality.

The naivety of some public bodies is highlighted by the response of John Beesley, the Tory leader of Bournemouth, welcoming the banks' takeover of Mouchel: "It removes the uncertainty surrounding the future of the company". As Walker points out, "On the contrary, the banks are likely either to try to exit very quickly or dismember the company to minimise their potential losses."

Walker also highlights developments at our old friend G4S and pays tribute to the work on utility pricing by the Cuthbert’s at the Jimmy Reid Foundation. All of this highlights how companies use financial engineering to raise profits. Something UNISON has highlighted in PFI schemes over many years.

The Scottish Government’s legislative programme includes several pieces of legislation that are relevant to this issue including; Procurement, Better Regulation and Community Empowerment. Those scrutinising these proposals would do well to learn the lessons of the Mouchel debacle.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Call centre turnover

A friend of mine recently took over as HR Director of a company with a large call centre operation. She was shocked to see the staff turnover rate in this part of the business was over 100% per annum. That effectively means that on average every single worker left during the year. However, what really appalled her was that the call centre managers didn't see this as a big problem. Bums on seat was all that mattered and as long as they met their statistical targets, all was fine.

XpertHR have just published their annual survey of staff turnover. According to their research the median voluntary resignation rate in the UK was 7.9% in 2011. Or put another way an average of one employee in 11 (9.3%) resigned from their job during that calendar year. The highest resignation rates in the economy were experienced by private-sector-services employers: 11%, compared with 5.7% in manufacturing and production and 6.7% in the public sector. They argue that the considerably higher level of voluntary worker departures in private-sector services probably reflects the greater buoyancy in the labour market in this section of the economy and cuts in public services make workers there less likely to move. Overall, the median total labour turnover rate for 2011 stood at 13.2% and the average at 15.6%. Regional variations have been narrowing and Scotland is mid table at present.

So, back to my HR Director. Sadly, I was not surprised that her call centre managers didn't see this as a problem. The industry does suffer from what I have described as "spreadsheet managers". By that I mean a focus on statistics rather than people management. I recall doing a meeting of call centre workers across Glasgow where the workers could clearly recognise this management approach. They often moved jobs, not for better pay or conditions, but because of the way they were treated. For this reason call centre turnover has always been higher than average, typically 25% or higher. One survey calculated 60% of call centre workers in the UK will leave their job within two years.

Employers rarely fully understand the cost of an employee departure. The 2012 CIPD survey found that the estimated cost per hire is £8,000 for senior managers and £2,500 for other staff. There are also other potential knock-on effects when a member of staff leaves their job, such as overtime costs for other staff covering the post, temporary staff fees and indirect costs such as missed business opportunities. £6000 is therefore a more realistic cost figure. In this context the cost of 100% turnover rates is astronomic. It is estimated that turnover in the call centre industry costs £2bn per year.

Some management gurus argue that higher turnover will be the norm as we adopt portfolio careers. However, they have been arguing this for many years yet the proportion of employees in the national workforce with long periods of service (10 years or more) has remained broadly the same.

The reasons for high turnover can be complex, but they are almost always capable of being tackled. My advice to my friend was to find out why by asking the workers concerned. I suspect she will find that pay and conditions will only be part of the problem. The available research shows that the most important factor associated with intention to quit is job satisfaction. It is followed by a cluster of factors, including the presence of a high-quality workplace, the state of the psychological contract, satisfaction with work-life balance, effective supervisory leadership and excitement in the job. All of these factors are commonly found in poorly managed call centres.

The good news is that better management and creative job design can make a big difference. The result is better performance and a big saving to the organisation.  Needless to say these positive factors are more likely to be present in unionised workplaces. I have been involved in programmes that have reduced turnover to single figure percentages. The simple trick is to stop treating workers like battery hens.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Red Paper - latest pamphlet

The Red Paper collective published their latest pamphlet over the weekend.  People Power, the  Labour Movement Alternative for Radical Constitutional Change, includes a series of articles on key issues in the constitutional debate.

The Yes and No campaigns in the referendum are both captured by a view of Scotland dominated by the power of capital. This paper seeks to identify something better. If we are to have greater devolution or independence, it must be for a significant redistribution of wealth within Scotland and greater control over the economy by working people.

The Red Paper tradition in Scotland goes back to 1975. That Red Paper is remembered because Gordon Brown edited it. However, it argued for democratic devolution as part of a Labour Movement tradition for home rule within the UK, championed by Keir Hardie and others.

I was pleased to contribute to the 2005 book and the current pamphlet. This time on the fiscal implications of constitutional change. I have tried to show that it is not the mechanisms of fiscal autonomy that matter, but what we would do with these powers.

Richard Leonard spells out the realities of economic power in Scotland today. As usual, with his strong grasp of history he explains how Scotland's regional business ownership has been taken over by corporations based in London or increasingly overseas. This has profound implications for the constitutional debate, largely ignored elsewhere.

In a similar theme, John Foster argues that economic nationalism may have been a mobilising force a century ago, but questions if it can be today. There are few signs that SNP policy is aimed at challenging neo-liberal economic policy or the power of capital. He also argues that the left nationalist analysis takes Scotland's radicalism for granted. We need constitutional arrangements that support the productive economy against the power of big business and the bankers.

Pauline Bryan pulls some of these themes together by reminding us that neither an independent Scotland or the staus quo can achieve the conditions where the power of capitalism and the use of markets can be brought under democratic control. It is the politics of class, not nation, that should be the driving force in Scotland.

The pamphlet also includes some perspectives from Northern Ireland, Wales and England on devolution and regional government. The constitutional debate can be seen as parochial and the Welsh FM, Carwyn Jones, has rightly made the point that there should be a greater focus on how the UK is governed, "not by one but by four administrations, which are not in a hierarchical relationship one to another."

I hope people will find the pamphlet a useful contribution to the Labour Movement's consideration of the constitutional debate. Shifting the focus from flags, to the social and economic consequences of change and then onto a vison for the Scotland we would wish to see.