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, 18 December 2012

Scottish public sector employment

The latest Scottish workforce statistics show a further loss of jobs in the last year. However, it's worth looking at the numbers over a longer time span to analyse the impact since the financial crash and subsequent recession. This facilitates a view of the overall impact of austerity economics on public sector employment.

In the third quarter of 2012 there were 552,100 people employed in the public sector in Scotland (581,300 including financial institutions), 22.3% of the total workforce. That’s a decrease of 8,700 (1.5%) since Q3 2011. However, if we go back to the public sector employment high point in 2008/9, we can see that a staggering 51,700 jobs have been lost in the Scottish public sector.

There is no real difference between reserved and devolved employment. Total employment in the devolved public sector has decreased from 491,700 in Q3 2011 to 486,000 in Q3 2012. That’s a cut of 5,700 (1.2%) over the year and 40,000 jobs lost since 2008.

When we dig a little deeper into these numbers it is clear than jobs have not been cut evenly across all sectors. The decrease in employment in the devolved public sector has been driven by a cut in local government employment. Council jobs decreased by 5,300 (1.9%) over the last year and 34,500 jobs have been lost in local government since the 2008 high point. Local government makes up 57.3% of workforce, but has taken 66.7% of the workforce cuts. Similarly, employment in further education colleges decreased by 900 (6%) in the last year and 2700 jobs have been lost since 2008/9.

Overall, there has been a 6.7% cut in devolved jobs since the 2008/9 high point. However, the local government workforce has been cut by 11% and FE colleges by 16%. This confirms the view that councils, colleges and their workers have taken the brunt of the cuts. This reflects the Scottish Government’s priorities for cuts.

Why does this matter? Well for a starter public services are largely delivered by staff - less staff mean fewer and poorer services. But it also has a wider economic impact. On the Treasury model 51,000 public sector job losses results in around 52,000 private sector job losses. This has been masked to a degree by underemployment, an issue I am pleased in see the Scottish Parliament Economy Committee is investigating in the New Year.

The wider impact on communities is also explained in UNISON’s Public Works campaign and in the STUC Better Way materials. I would also recommend Brian Ashcroft’s analysis at Scottish Economy Watch. He often digs below the surface of the raw data to explain the wider impact on the economy of job losses.

The main impact of these job losses has been poorer public services and a longer and deeper recession. Another example of how austerity economics is damaging Scotland. But it also tells the tale of Scottish Government priorities when implementing the ConDem cuts.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Racist crime in Scotland

I was interviewed on Good Morning Ulster this morning on the issue of rising numbers of race crimes in Scotland, and in particular, that more than one in three victims are white. The question from Ulster was, 'has Scotland become a cold place for migrants'. They were particularly interested in the increase in racist crime against English people. UNISON Scotland's role in anti-racism campaigns was the reason for my appearance - although the fact that I was born in England, added some human interest!

It is certainly the case that the number of recorded incidents against what are classified as 'White British' has been steadily rising. From 826 in 2004/5 to 1295 in 2011/12. There was also a big 22% increase in the last year. This is obviously a cause for concern as reflected in political reaction to the figures. Others, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have urged further analysis of the data to identify any underlying issues and I would agree with that.

Having said that, I don't think we should over exaggerate the position. Scotland has not suddenly become a dangerous place for those born in England. The numbers are small in relation to the numbers of English people living in Scotland. The English are Scotland's largest minority at over 400,000. Of course nearly twice that number of Scots live in England.  I believe we should be more concerned about the increase in racist crime against Scottish Gypsy Travellers. This number has increased from 130 in 2004/5 to 700 in 2011/12. This is one of the reasons for UNISON Scotland's guidance booklet published earlier this year.

The most common crimes were racially aggravated conduct - this means the racism is part of another crime. So there may be a link to law enforcement. However, we should recognise that these figures are the tip of the iceberg as race crime is always under recorded. Increasing numbers can be seen as a positive development, showing a greater willingness to report.

I was asked if I thought these numbers might be linked to a sense of increasing 'Scottishness' or the independence referendum. Extreme nationalism is rare in Scotland and the far right vote in Scotland is the lowest in Great Britain - despite the economic recession. The SNP's civic nationalism does contribute to that positive approach and successive Scottish governments have actively encouraged immigration. It is essential to growing the economy and to address demographic change with our ageing population and low birth rate.

So to return to the initial question. I don't believe these statistics represent any 'coldness' towards people who were not born in Scotland. Clearly racism and sectarianism is an issue in Scotland that needs to be addressed and there are a range of initiatives. However, the traditional Scottish values of hospitality remain strong and that has been my personal experience over 22 years. I won't be packing my bags anytime soon!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Demographic change

I was in Parliament today giving evidence to the Finance Committee on the consequences of demographic change.

It is clear that Scotland faces an increase in the number of older people in Scotland in the future, which will in turn create pressures on public finances. The population aged 65 and over will increase by 21% from 2010 to 2016 and 62% by 2031 and that for those aged over 85 there will be an increase in the population by 38% by 2016 and 144% by 2031.

This is usually announced as bad news, but I argued today that there are positives. Many older people are living healthier lives to a greater age which will decrease the number of years that they require care. Older people, particularly those with good pensions, have a huge spending power and businesses and policy makers should recognise the needs of ageing consumers. They also make a productive contribution through caring and volunteering in various settings and, since the abolition of the Default Retirement Age many of them are continuing to work well beyond the previous norm of 65. Scotland's population is also rising thanks mainly to younger migrants and that has some balancing impact.

The main focus of the session was on pensions. The Hutton Report shows clearly that the cost of public pensions will fall from 2% of GDP to 1.8% in 2030 and 1.4% in 2060 as a consequence of the 2007/8 reforms. In addition, other recent changes to schemes will reduce costs even more including: increased member contributions; switching from RPI to CPI will save at least 15%; and a later retirement age. As a consequence employer contributions in the Scottish LGPS are already reducing since the 2008 changes.

But cost is only one aspect of the issue. One in four workers in UK earning less than £300pw have no pension provision. At a time of wage restraint and rising costs these numbers are likely to rise as more workers opt out of good schemes just to put food on the table now. Auto enrolment will at best make a marginal difference as the amounts put in are inadequate for a decent retirement income. This will be compounded by later retirement ages as many Scottish workers calculate that they are unlikely to live long enough to collect their pension.

The committee also asked about pension investment. The Scottish LGPS has assets of over £20bn and we believe this could be used more effectively to support the Scottish economy. There are challenges in doing this, but improve governance arrangements could assist this process. This will be a high priority for the trade unions in the coming scheme review.

An ageing population is going to be a challenge for Scotland in the coming years but we should remember the positives. Good quality pension schemes for everyone are essential and affordable.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day. This is an opportunity to celebrate human rights, highlight a specific issue, and argue for the full enjoyment of all human rights by everyone everywhere.

This year, the spotlight is on the rights of all people to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making. These human rights — the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association, and to take part in government (articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) underpin democracy across the world. Not just voting in elections but the right to protest. The Arab spring and the occupy movement are just two recent examples.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission is using the day to promote Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights. This is a first in the UK and will set out how to “fill the gaps” as well as build upon good practice in human rights protection in Scotland with public bodies, civil society and others already getting involved in discussing what it would contain.

This is also a good day to remind ourselves not to take our own human rights for granted. The UK government is working on a proposed Bill of Rights for the UK, as against the universal rights that were developed after the carnage of the Second World War. I have three specific concerns about this:

Attacks on the European Court of Justice in decisions such a prisoner voting. These attacks fail to understand that the ECHR is now integrated into our system of justice. Not forgetting the irony of attacks on judges from those who preach the rule of law to others.

Judges overturning the decisions of elected representatives. Most democratic states recognise that there have to be underpinning rights that protect people against arbitrary law making. Those advocating a Bill of Rights should also recognise that in jurisdictions that adopt this model, judges tend to be much more interventionist and powerful.

That we risk only giving legal rights to the 'worthy citizen' as against the principle of equal treatment. Deportation and immigration cases illustrate this point well.

I covered some of these issues at this time last year when Shami Chakribarti visited Scotland. She felt that Scots take a more positive view of human rights than the rest of the UK. I suspect this is based more on the absence of a ranting tabloid press than any greater understanding. However, I do believe that we can win the argument that Scots are human beings before we are citizens.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Welfare Reform Implementation

I was speaking at the Institute of Rating, Revenues and Valuation conference in Crieff yesterday. These are the professionals who are having to grapple with the consequences of the Welfare Reform Bill and I was talking about the staffing implications.

There are many challenges facing local government staff in this area of work, but the largest is implementing Universal Credit. This brings together seven different benefits with the aim of simplifying the system. Sadly, the government does not appear to understand that just sticking things together does not automatically simplify them. As they are already discovering, the complexity of the computer system alone is daunting, with out of work and in-work benefits being administered for millions of claimants.

The government believes that 80% of claimants will be able to administer their claims on-line. This is fantasy because:
• the overwhelming number of claimants don't have a computer. Even with limited library access most don't know how to use one. Not to mention poor connectivity in many parts of Scotland.
• The government is always going on about choice. But Dumfries & Galloway Council surveyed their 'customers' and only 2% wanted online access.
•Many claimants don’t have transactional bank accounts.
•Weekly payments will now be paid monthly in arrears. There will be huge issues managing family finances for the first few weeks.

The impact is not just on Housing Benefit staff who face an uncertain future. The Council Tax is being devolved and cut at the same time. Hard pressed Scottish Government and council budgets have plugged the gap for the first year, but that will become increasingly difficult in the years ahead. The social fund is to be be administered locally at a time when other welfare benefits are being cut and a single fraud investigation service created.

Add to this the local economic impact estimated at some £2.5bn in Scotland alone. This will impact on local businesses and councils who will have to provide even more services. Not to mention the voluntary advice agencies like CAB.

There are huge consequences for housing staff in councils and housing associations. Housing associations will receive £33.5m less per year with serious consequences for housing investment, already at crisis levels. For claimants the uprating shift from RPI to CPI means £50.3m less from this alone. The inevitable result will be a massive increase in arrears and bad debt. If will also impact on the Scottish Government's homeless target with CoSLA estimating an additional 3000 homeless presentations in Scotland.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) summed this up well in their evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform Committee, "we are seriously concerned about the impact that the introduction of Universal Credit will have upon the way that tenant households manage their finances and live their lives, as well as the serious business and financial challenges it will present to landlords".

As usual it will be council staff who will have to pick up the pieces. What is needed is local delivery retaining the face to face contact that is so important to these claimants. Right first time should be the approach, not leaving claimants to manage their way through the complexities of on-line systems or remote call centre operations.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hold the shovels!

Amid the failure report that was the Chancellor's 'autumn' statement there was what appears to be some good news in the form of £330m of Barnett consequentials for Scotland. Sadly, this is not quite as it seems.

To start with Scottish capital budgets have been slashed by 35% in the current spending round so at best this is simply returning a small amount of the planned cuts.

If this was additional capital funding it would be welcome, but it isn't. It's being funded by cutting departmental revenue budgets (Scotland is a department in UK terms) by 1% next year and then by 2% the year after. This means we get a one off boost at the expense of a recurring revenue cut.

It is at least arguable that at this stage of the economic cycle what we need is revenue not capital spending. Capital spending has significant leakages from Scotland. The contracts may go to firms outside Scotland and even staffed by workers who are brought up here. Materials are purchased outwith Scotland, like Chinese steel for the Forth Bridge, leaking more of the spend. Even the tax revenue is not guaranteed given tax avoidance schemes in the construction industry.

In contrast, revenue spending on public services is much more likely to be spent in the local economy and drive the demand deficit that is the major economic problem we face. The Chancellor has added to this problem with his additional cuts to welfare provision.

That leads to how the 'extra' cash should be spent. I would argue that because of the revenue cut, shovel ready projects may be the wrong spending decision. The cash should be spent on projects that deliver preventative spending, thereby reducing demand on the revenue budgets that now face a further cut.

As always with this Chancellor good news comes at a price. But it also comes with a headache for the Scottish Government.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Lefty Englishmen

In yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday I have been described as, “officially Scotland’s leftiest Englishman”. I must have missed this awards ceremony although I have no difficulty with the accolade, even if it is probably undeserved. Firstly, I presume the award is limited to the mainstream left, as I can already hear the growling from the far left fringe for whom I am a mere bourgeois revisionist. Secondly, I was born in England (Liverpool actually) and have no problem in being classified as English – although the Watsons on my Dad’s Scottish side would not be so relaxed! Thirdly, I can think of a number of comrades who would also be justified contenders for this award - Richard Leonard, Dave Moxham, John Foster and others immediately spring to mind.

The semi-serious point in the piece is the suggestion that I have become a supporter of Devo-Plus. Wishful thinking here I’m afraid. I certainly did give a favourable review to Murdo Fraser’s piece in the Scotsman, and as I have blogged at Red Paper, the last two papers from Devo-Plus have been a useful contribution to the debate. I do think Devo-Plus have done some useful work on the mechanisms of extended devolution, but less so on the purpose. However, that is some distance from endorsing Devo-Plus and certainly their backers Reform Scotland. My critical posts on their reports prove that. Another Scotsman piece by Eddie Barnes more accurately reflects where I, and most, but not all of trade union movement in Scotland, currently are in the constitutional debate.

Perhaps more interesting than my views are the differences between English and Scottish political opinion. John Curtice and Rachel Ormston published a paper on this for ScotCen a year ago based on Scottish and British Social Attitudes surveys. They argue that people in Scotland are only a little more concerned than people in England about issues like income inequality. While I accept the differences may not be as wide as common myth would have it, the differences are significant. For example 43% of people in Scotland think the government should redistribute income, compared to 34% in England. More recent data, after the tax dodging scandals, would suggest that opinion is shifting leftwards on this point across the UK. This statistic and others in my view show significant differences. We can also look at actual voting patterns and the sort of issues people living Scotland highlight during elections.

The English are Scotland’s largest minority group and I have heard it suggested that this might explain the coming together of attitudes. The numbers have grown steadily to over 400,000 since the 1950’s, although we should remember that almost twice as many Scots have gone in the other direction. This was looked at by Murray Watson (no relative) in his book ‘Being English in Scotland’. He concluded that the English tend to adopt the more progressive social attitudes of their adopted country. Difficult for me to judge as I was a lefty Englishman before I came to Scotland 22 years ago. Maybe it’s in the genes!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

For a Fairer Scotland

Today I was at the formal launch in Glasgow of “For a Fairer Scotland” – a document which outlines UNISON Scotland's priorities in the debate on the constitution. We drafted this paper following a series of meetings with UNISON members. This is not a Think Tank paper drafted in a meeting room, it reflects the concerns of our 160,000 members who deliver public services across Scotland.

“For A Fairer Scotland” does not advocate support for either the “Yes” campaign or “Better Together”.  Instead it challenges those campaigns and others to show how their plans can match UNISON’s vision. Our approach is set out in the introduction:

“UNISON’s approach to constitutional questions is one that is driven by the interests of our members, by the sort of Scotland we want to, and deserve to, live in.  This means that for us precise constitutional arrangements are the end, not the starting point of the debate. We must first define the sort of Scotland we wish to see and then try and examine the likelihood of differing constitutional arrangements on offer to deliver on that vision.”

So we are not interested in an argument about national identity.  It’s not where the power lies, but in whose interest that power is exercised that really matters. What we are looking for is a willingness to tackle inequalities, poor health and deprivation. Unless it is explained how this is to be achieved, arguments for or against constitutional change mean very little.

Alongside this paper we have framed questions that members will be encouraged to put to all those campaigning around the referendum in the coming months. These focus on public services, rights at work, equality, jobs and the economy.

The “For a Fairer Scotland” document and the accompanying questions are both on the UNISON Scotland website at http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/scotlandsfuture/index.html