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.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Scottish Conservatives Energy Review

The Scottish Conservatives have published their new energy policy review.

The focus of the policy is to cut the number of planned onshore wind farms in Scotland and cut their subsidy by fifty per cent to limit household bills. The Scottish Conservatives also believe in a balanced energy mix, with less emphasis on the further development of onshore wind turbines and instead better support for alternative renewables, increasing unconventional gas exploration and new nuclear power stations to replace Hunterston B and Torness.

The Scottish Conservatives are also calling for:
  • Evidence-led development and a clearer legislative and taxation regime to encourage the exploration of shale gas and coal bed methane.
  • Efficiency measures to help lower domestic and commercial demand for energy, such as changes to planning laws to improve the energy efficiency of many older buildings.
  • More support for wave, tidal, hydro and Carbon Capture Storage schemes.
  • A system similar to that of Denmark where a valuation authority has been set up to rule in cases where someone believes the price of their home has been affected by the building of turbines.
  • The Scottish Government to commission an independent study into the health impacts of wind turbines.
  • Councils to enforce planning guidance that wind farm developments should be a distance of 2km from residential areas.
  • A “zoning exercise” to produce new guidance for the Scottish Government and councils on what areas onshore and offshore renewable projects should be sited.
There are a number of positive aspects of this energy review. In particular support for a balanced energy policy is welcome. In other areas it is a bit of the proverbial curates egg.
  • While the focus on wind farms was presumably aimed at the media headline, it does make the Tories look a bit nimbyish. Despite that they make valid points about the over reliance on onshore wind in the current Scottish Government energy strategy.
  • The subsidy argument is less strong given that applies to other forms of generation, most notably nuclear. Messing around with the subsidy won't give any confidence to the start up companies they want to support.
  • Support for local authorities in the planning process is welcome, although the two kilometre rule is a bit arbitrary. Support for the Danish approach of grid management is interesting as unlike the UK this is a nationalised service. Tory support for public ownership is very welcome!
  • At least the recognition that fuel poverty is a huge problem in Scotland. Although a bit light on solutions. Price is an important factor and, as they recognise, so is energy efficiency. The third element in fuel poverty is income and welfare cuts will be very damaging to this element and not surprisingly is absent from the paper.
  • Support for CCS is welcome, but their colleagues at Westminster have cut the budget and, as we have reported, there is strong evidence that they are not serious about supporting a demonstration project in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK.
  • The paper is probably over optimistic on unconventional gas reserves, but then most of the estimates are guesswork. They are right that progress should be evidence led and the paper is not quite as 'dash for gas' as the Chancellor's line.
  • There is a welcome recognition of the important role nuclear power has played in baseload generation in Scotland. However, replacing both of Scotland's nuclear plants would retain our current imbalance compared with England.
In summary, this paper is a mixed bag but certainly worth a read. A useful contribution to the energy debate in Scotland.

Cross posted on Utilities Scotland.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Welfare cuts

I was speaking at an Edinburgh Trades Union Council event last night on the impact of welfare cuts. Part of a series of meetings to take forward the STUC's 'A Just Scotland' initiative.

For the decade up to the 2008 crash there were measurable improvements in welfare support for children and pensioners. Child poverty in particular was reduced, even faster in Scotland than in England as the recent Rowntree report on poverty in Scotland highlighted. This did not, as the Tories would have you believe, result in a welfare budget that was spiralling out of control. In fact as a percentage of public spending, welfare spend had reduced compared to 1997.

However, this was not a sufficient response to poverty in Scotland or across the UK, certainly for the working poor. It still leaves today;

• 780,000 (15%) of Scots in relative poverty and 490,000 (10%) absolute poverty;

• 658,000 households (28%) living in fuel poverty;

• 90,000 under 25 year olds unemployed. That’s doubled since 2008;

• for the rest part-time and self-employment is masking the true levels of unemployment;

• The number of low-income, working families has increased from 125,000 to 150,000

The consequence of this is growing inequality with a 14 year life expectancy gap between those living in the most deprived and least deprived areas of Scotland.

Putting the wider impact of austerity economics aside, it is about to get much worse. Major welfare cuts are to be imposed at time of weak job prospects and underemployment, especially for young people.

The main driver is the introduction of Universal Credit. Seven in and out of work benefits are to be combined including; Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, Support for Mortgage Interest.

The UK government claims this will simplify the benefit system. In my view sticking benefits together is not simplifying. This is an all or nothing reform. If something goes wrong it could cut the sole source of income to vulnerable people and the complexity of the IT systems makes that distinct possibility. To that you can add:

• monthly payment in arrears;

• A household payment not individuals that will leave vulnerable women particularly exposed;

• Digital by default for groups that have limited computer access.

And all that’s before straight cash cuts by:

• increasing benefits in line with CPI, a lower measure that will impact on 200,000 children, 300,000 adults;

• uprating by only 1% a measure that alone will drive a further 200,000 children into poverty across the UK;

• switch from DLA to Personal Independence Payments with 20% budget cut;

• 60,000 Scots will lose some of current DLA mobility component;

• families with two children will lose £1079 by the end of 2015. The Labour Party has also added up cuts to child tax credits, the three-year freeze on child benefit, the 1% cap on the rise in statutory maternity pay and the abolition of the maternity grant - into a £1700 'Toddlers Tax'.

Let's also not forget the economic consequences. There are 570,000 benefit recipients in Scotland. These cuts mean £2.5bn taken out of Scottish economy. Money that would be spent locally supporting businesses and jobs.

Then we have the rhetoric – strivers and skivers.

This seeks to play to a perception of public opinion. As recent NatCen research shows the public is sceptical about impact on recipients, believing that some are more deserving than others. Many of these perceptions are actually wrong. For example most people support welfare for children although 68% think they are in poverty because their parents are addicts. More worrying for the ConDem's they still see the Government, not individuals, as being responsible for welfare. These perceptions appear to apply to the company delivering the Welfare to Work programme. According to a piece on GMS recently they described clients as ‘lying and thieving’.

The reality is somewhat different from public perception:

• the biggest losers from the 1% uprating are people who are employed;

• benefits for unemployed constitute only 4% of the welfare budget. Only 8% claim for more than a year;

• 60% of the welfare budget goes on pensioners.

Then we have that other myth, welfare fraud. That actually costs only 70p out of every £100. Compare that to the £120bn tax dodging by the rich.

It is also argued that we have a culture of worklessness that welfare reform will tackle. This is another myth the JRF Study in Glasgow & Middlesborough shows. There was no evidence at all as two generations of claimants are rare (0.3%) and not surprising children don’t want to follow their parents down this route. Oh and by the way, only one-third of incapacity benefit claimants were long term.

The architect of all this is Ian Duncan Smith. Some will remember him coming to Easterhouse eleven years when he was the Tory Party leader to meet Bob Holman and learn about poverty. He said and did some interesting things for a Tory, driving compassionate Conservatism. I would recommend Bob's interview in Holyrood Magazine to see what he thinks of IDS today!

Poverty is as real for those in work and if this is the route out of poverty then work has to pay. However, real wages are falling while the combined worth of the country's 1,000 wealthiest people is £414bn, up 4.7%.

I have focused in this post on the impact of UK Government policy, because I believe the impact is not fully understood. One in four Scots could be in poverty by end of decade. However, finally I will look forward.

The Scottish Government has done some small and useful things to mitigate the worst effects including; passported benefits, covered the Council Tax Benefit cuts for one year, the Scottish Welfare Fund and extra funding for advice agencies. Perhaps more worrying for them is that two-thirds of Scots think they are responsible for welfare benefits! But we need a more radical approach at all levels. At its basic level it's simply about raising incomes creating the sort of fairer and more equal society that underpins the Just Scotland approach to constitutional change.

The problem is not devising a constitutional arrangement. You could envisage an independent or devolved set of powers and then produce a wonderful vision of the sort of welfare system many of us would wish to see - largely on the Nordic model. The problem is political will. There is no indication that any of our political parties are yet ready to have the necessary conversation with the voters about the taxation system needed to sustain a Nordic model of welfare.

To be positive all is not lost on this issue in Scotland or even in the UK. The Scottish Government has taken some small actions as I have set out above. I will also pay credit to Ed Miliband for challenging the Tories on welfare cuts when there were those in the Party, armed with polls and focus groups, arguing that Labour should duck the issue. As TUC research has indicated public opinion is also changing and that can only move in our direction as the cuts bite. Remember, there is much worse to come as Cameron and Osborne seek to dismantle the state and reduce welfare to the most basic of safety nets.

There will be no quick fixes, no vanguard actions by trade unions or others. Instead we need to steadily build support for a better way.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Energy and constitutional change

Before Christmas the first shots were fired in what is likely to be a lively debate over the role of energy policy in the independence referendum. The UK Energy Minister Ed Davey was in Scotland arguing in his Scotsman article:

“The Scottish energy industry is clearly a success story – but also a forceful case for a flourishing Scotland in a united kingdom that is stronger together. The reason lies in the economics of ­energy. A united kingdom offers Scotland a single market – millions more homes in demand of Scottish generation, millions more homes to spread the costs of energy infrastructure. Furthermore, Scottish generation benefits from nationwide energy networks that can support a diverse mix of generation which will become increasingly important as we bring on more ­renewables.”

At the subsequent Scotsman energy conference he claimed it is logical to assume that energy bills will rise “significantly” for Scottish families after independence if the burden of paying for the country’s renewable sector falls upon consumers in Scotland. In response the Scottish Government energy minister Fergus Ewing said UK ministers would end up accepting a continuation of the current single energy market across the UK after independence, on the grounds that, without Scottish energy feeding into the national grid, the “lights would go out” in England. To put it mildly, a pretty bold claim with not much evidence to support it. A leading academic at the conference described the claim as “exaggerated”.

The issue was examined in more detail at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum conference at the University of Strathclyde on 18 January. Academic experts set out, in a very balanced way, the constraints and opportunities constitutional change might bring. You can read the full presentations and questions on their website.

These constraints are not only within Scotland and the UK. EU energy policy is developing with the aim of a single European market through the Target Model. The Scottish Government sees this as ensuring that Scottish renewables are not discriminated against if Scotland votes for independence. There certainly are models for a single market operated by different states. The Single Electricity Market (SEM) in Ireland could be such a model for Scotland and the rest of the UK as it works reasonably well. Of course there was strong political support following the Good Friday Agreement and there was a specific economic problem with a dominant supplier. SEM has also had difficulties when one party changes its policy, as the UK government did with the carbon floor price policy. This was only resolved by Northern Ireland being exempted from the policy.

Another approach highlighted at the conference was Denmark, whose impressive renewable energy strategy was featured in the recent Nordic Horizons seminar. Greenland and the Faeroe Islands both have devolved energy powers. UNISON has argued that this approach could be followed in Scotland enabling the Scottish Government to pursue a different energy strategy while retaining a UK market. A different strategy might also follow aspects of the Danish approach with a nationalised grid and much greater community, co-operative and local government involvement in energy generation. I will be discussing this in more detail in my chapter in the next Red Paper publication and the seminar on 16 February. In the meantime, I would recommend Andrew Cumber’s new book 'Reclaiming Pubic Ownership: Making Space for Economic Democracy'. He sets out the main ideas in the latest issue of Scottish Left Review.

In yesterday’s Sunday Herald, Steven Vass breaks the story that the Scottish Government is going further than Fergus Ewing outlined before Christmas. They confirmed that plans to repatriate control over subsidy levels from Edinburgh to London in the Energy Bill would endure if Scotland voted for independence. This effectively means handing over the key levers of energy policy to another country, taking independence lite to new levels. I am quoted in the article as saying:

"The Nats are trying to steady the bus and calm down companies that are already concerned about renewable investments in the UK because of the uncertainty being created by the Government's Energy Bill and the Treasury's dash for gas. They obviously think that the best way to do that is by tying Scotland into a broader UK regime. I'm not convinced it will work. It would be entirely reasonable for an energy minister sitting in London to say to National Grid, 'This is our new energy strategy, and if that inconveniences the Jocks so be it.' There's nothing that says the UK has to use renewables to meet the emissions targets – or, more importantly, Scottish renewables. There are all sorts of alternatives, such as rigging the market to favour English nuclear stations."

Why is all this so significant to the constitutional debate? Because energy is not only a vital service that we all rely on, but it’s a vital element of the Scottish Government’s industrial strategy. That’s why energy will be a key issue for supporters of independence and extended devolution alike.

This blog post has been crossposted on Utilities Scotland.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Horsemeat scandal points to wider food safety concerns

Just about everyone has had some fun in the last week over the horsemeat burgers scandal – “Tesco's burgers, a mane part of a stable diet”, is just one of my favorites. Eating horsemeat in itself may be ‘neigh’ problem, as Christine Jardine argues in today’s Scotsman, but it does raise wider concerns about meat inspection.

With all the focus on horsemeat it has missed most people that the tests also showed that 89% samples had pig meat in them. This is clearly a serious cultural and religious issue for some communities in Scotland and for the rest of us who expect a beefburger to be precisely that. UNISON has previously identified similar concerns over chickens. Ever wondered why some cheap chicken fillets look and taste spongy? It is likely to be that they have been injected with water and pig protein to bulk them up. Check the packet to see what percentage of the chicken is actually chicken next time you buy, or ask the question in the restaurant or carry out.

Proper investment in trading standards and meat hygiene services could have meant the horsemeat burger scandal was picked up in the UK rather than relying on the Irish authorities. However, since 2000 EU officials have tried to push responsibility for abattoir hygiene onto meat plants and to reduce the role of independent meat inspectors, or even transfer their duties under some circumstances to the meat plants themselves. The UK government with its deregulation agenda has also taken hands off approach to meat inspection. Added to which cuts to these vital services are severely limiting the ability of hard-working trading standards officers and meat inspectors to protect the public.

This is now a problem we need to face up to following the announcement last year that Scotland is to have its own food standards body. Something we welcomed in principle but I cautioned that;

“Any change to the delivery module of meat inspection in Scotland should ensure it is protecting the public, not serving industry, therefore we must ensure this is not used as a backdoor to privatisation.”

Scotland has rising levels of E-Coli and our own tragic example of the consequences in the Wishaw outbreak that killed five people. There are over 3,000 reported cases of food poisoning in Scotland every year, although the true figure is thought to be much more as only ten percent of people visit their doctor when they suffer the symptoms. For most of us it can be an unpleasant experience with a day or two off work. However, for vulnerable groups it can be much more serious.

The real danger in this case is the quality and wholesomeness of meat in abattoirs. We need to avoid disease and contamination, and things like excrement making it into our food. This danger is avoided in Scotland by the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs.

Another issue that arises out of the horseburger scandal is food labeling. This is one of the many issues overseen by trading standards officers, yet services across Scotland have reduced as council budgets have dwindled. Trading standards officers work hard to ensure that products pose no risk to consumers, but as their budgets are slashed, their ability to identify problems, inspect premises and prosecute wrongdoers has become severely limited. There are similar issues with Environmental Health staff who are responsible for inspecting food premises.

The public deserve to have confidence in the products they buy; this confidence comes from trading standards services having the resources to check the labeling products and pick up offences early, and from the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs. The issue with horsemeat burgers is yet another example of why the industry should not regulate itself. It is vital that we continue the independent physical inspection of meat in Scotland.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Poverty in Scotland

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is launching today Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Scotland 2013, produced by the New Policy Institute. This is JRF’s sixth assessment of poverty in Scotland.

This research on poverty and social exclusion in Scotland highlights a huge rise in unemployment for under-25s and stark and growing health inequalities.

• Since 2008, the number of under-25s who are unemployed has almost doubled to 90,000.

• A boy born in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas has a life expectancy of 68 – 8 years below the national average and 14 years below boys born in the least deprived areas.

• Among those without dependent children, there was a rise in the number living in low-income, working families from 125,000 to 150,000

• The number of people working part-time, who want a full-time job, has risen from 70,000 in 2008 to 120,000 in 2012.

With the UK Government's emphasis on strivers and skivers, the report's finding around work are particularly interesting.

With the onset of recession in 2008, unemployment rose for all age groups. But since 2010, the only subsequent rise in unemployment has been among young adults. By mid-2012, around 90,000 under-25s were unemployed. This amounts to an unemployment rate of 21%. The rate for over 25s was 6%. Both these figures were almost identical to the equivalent for England and Wales.

As several previous reports have highlighted rising unemployment does not tell the full story. The total number of people in part-time work rose by 60,000, whereas the number of people in full-time work fell by 120,000. Moreover, almost the entire rise in part-time work is among people who say they want a full-time job, from 70,000 to 120,000. Additionally, the number of people in self-employment has risen from 265,000 to 300,000. Over the same period, the number of people in employee jobs fell by almost 100,000. All the rise is among those 'working for themselves', often people now doing similar work to that which they were previously employed by someone else to do. All too often not at the same number of hours.

This is a very useful contribution to our understanding of the labour market in Scotland and the impact on levels of poverty.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Great Green Danes

Nordic Horizons held their latest event, Great Green Danes, in the Scottish Parliament last night, hosted by Jenny Marra MSP. The subject was renewable energy in Denmark. The main speaker was Soren Hermansen from Samso, a small island with a 4000 population, but a big reputation for renewable energy. Samso energy academy attracts 6,000 visitors a year, many out of season boosting tourism as well.

While Samso is rightly hailed as a community initiative, its origins are actually more top down. It was a Danish Government energy island competition that started the project before it was picked up by Soren. He had a big job to win over his fellow islanders to the concept of a 100% renewable island. He started with the windmill tradition on the island, but the focus was on jobs, the economy and the simple survival of the island that was suffering from de-population.

In 2003 they built what was biggest offshore wind farm in world. Much of the output is exported to compensate for transport fuel emissions. Half the investment came from the local authority and the rest from individual local investors and a small co-op.
Onshore renewables include a district heating system, solar panels and 11 onshore wind turbines. Energy efficiency is also a big part of the mix. They buy hydro power from Norway on the fairly rare low wind days. They have achieved a 140% Co2 emission reduction allowing for mainland export. You can read more at www.energiakademiet.dk

The next speaker was Drew Ratter from Viking Energy on Shetland. He highlighted the differences between Scotland and Denmark including low community ownership, grid access, regulatory and other barriers. They are building 103 large (3mw) turbines in a 50/50 joint venture between SSE and the charitable trust. The project is at this scale because of the costs of the 200 mile sub-sea cable needed to connect Shetland to the grid.

The last speaker was Martin Mathers from ScottishPower Renewables (personal capacity) who had undertaken a comparative study of the Danish experience with a proposed project on Colonsay that didn’t get off the ground. Denmark was putting up wind turbines in the 1980’s and he highlighted many of the differences between the two countries over the past 30 years. He pointed out that ScottishPower had tried community joint ventures, but found reluctance by communities to take risk.

In the discussion there was a predictable attack on planners from one MSP. A bit rich given that as an MSP he is responsible for the laws and regulations that planners have to enforce. Other speakers also highlighted the local political pressures placed on planners as well as having to balance national and local objections to many schemes. The anti-wind farm lobby is not exactly slow in coming forward, whatever we might think of their arguments.

The strength of Nordic Horizons is that the aim is not just to hear fine presentations, but to consider what we might learn from our Scandinavian cousins. Some of the lessons from Denmark’s energy policy include:

• Strong political vision over the long term with commensurate policy and planning provisions.

• Feed in tariffs to create the incentive.

• A state owned grid that will usually connect up communities. The cost is repaid through a public service obligation payment in energy bills.

• A clear focus on energy efficiency.

• Ability and willingness of local government to get involved. A utilities culture largely lost in the UK.

• Smaller local authorities to support real communities of place might help.

As Drew Ratter put it, we could do with some Tom Johnston style state direction!

There will be a full recording of the session and the presentations on the Nordic Horizons website. Well worth a look.

(cross posted on Utilities Scotland)

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Pensions and National Insurance

UK government plans for a "simple" flat-rate state pension have been announced. Instead of a basic pension of £107 a week plus various top-ups, recipients will get £144 in today's money from 2017 at the earliest. The government said this was fairer for the self-employed and many mothers.

The government's White Paper shows that there are short-term gainers but also longer-term losers from the policy. Further revelations quickly showed that they had not been telling the full story. For example, an analysis by the House of Commons Library found that 430,000 women born between April 1952 and April 1953, who will retire before the new scheme takes effect in four years, could be £1,900 a year (£36.55 a week) worse off than a man of the same age.

Gregg McClymont, Labour’s spokesman on pensions, said: “Ministers have been caught red-handed hiding the truth on pensions reforms. They have been caught with their hands in pensioners’ pockets. It’s about time this Government had the decency to be honest about who will lose out under its plans.”

National Pensioners Convention general secretary Dot Gibson sums up the government approach as a "con trick," explaining that future generations of pensioners will have to pay an extra five years worth of National Insurance contributions, work longer before they can retire and end up with less than they can get today.

It is the National Insurance contribution that I want to focus on, because it has not been given as much coverage as the winners and losers.

The reforms themselves may be cost neutral but the Treasury will pick up a windfall payment of £5.9bn because 6.9m workers in final salary schemes will no longer receive discounts on their national insurance contributions. This is on top of the Treasury’s £6bn ‘tax’ grab from public service pensions.

Workers NI contributions will increase by 1.4% and employers by even more. An extra £1,200 a year for an employee paid £40,000 a year. This will put even more pressure on good quality pension schemes in the private sector and place additional costs on the public sector at time when austerity cuts look as if they will go on and on. Taking even more spending power from workers and employers will have inevitable economic consequences.

This is something we have been watching with some concern in the Scottish public service pension scheme negotiating bodies since the original consultation paper. We highlighted this at the time of the consultation, so the UK Government knows full well what it is doing. This is a stealth tax if ever there was one.

Simplifying the state pension is a good thing in principle. However, the UK Government must ensure that the losers, the lowest paid in particular, do not lose out. They must also return the NI windfall to the workers and employers to ensure that good pension schemes are not undermined and the economy damaged even more.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Transparency and the voluntary sector

There are currently a couple of legislative initiatives in the Scottish Parliament promoting greater transparency in government. The first are amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that would extend the scope of the Act to contractors who deliver public services. The other is the proposed Lobbying and Transparency Bill promoted by Neil Findlay MSP that would require lobbyists to register their activities.

While perhaps not the main targets of the legislation, they would both cover the voluntary sector. Incidentally that also includes trade unions like UNISON. Now you might expect openness and transparency to be an important principle for the voluntary sector and of course many organisations in the sector would agree. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the main voluntary sector lobby group, SCVO, is strongly opposed to these provisions. I suspect this opposition is driven, not by the vast majority of the sector, but by the semi-commercial interests whose income and activities have increasingly been dominated by public sector contracts.

I would argue that everyone has the right to lobby, but there is also the equally important right for the public to know who is lobbying to influence democratic decision making. On this basis special exemptions for particular categories of lobbyists or contractors should be avoided. The voluntary sector may not see themselves as lobbyists, but they are. The key principle is that if you chase the public pound you should be bound by the rules of public transparency.

The voluntary sector is responsible for delivering many public services and receives substantial public funds for doing so. For example, the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland (CCPS) claim that their combined membership, “manages a total annual income in excess of £1.3 billion (2010-11), a significant proportion of which relates to publicly funded service provision; employs approximately 45,000 staff and mobilises the support of over 7,000 volunteers in providing services.”

In a period of public sector cuts the distribution of public spending is a legitimate and significant matter of public concern. Lobbying for the delivery of public services is therefore an activity that should be transparent and open to public scrutiny. The SCVO have also argued that it may be necessary to involve the private sector in public services, which is by any standards politically controversial. It is difficult to see why lobbying for such a position should not be subject to disclosure.

Organisations that deliver public services have nothing to fear from a lobbying register or Freedom of Information. They are in receipt of public funding, are a vital part of our democracy and are key actors in public life. They are part of the political class, and in that sense they are part of the wider political culture, and bear some responsibility for the quality of our democracy. Organisations like SCVO (and in fairness trade unions) enjoy insider status with government, though even SCVO accept that no one body can easily speak for the diverse voluntary sector.

Lobbying disclosure should in principle apply to all those who seek to influence public policy, subject to de minimis levels. This also offers a way for all those concerned about the conduct of public affairs to contribute to greater transparency and public accountability.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Turning the safety clock back

Most readers will be familiar with the attack on workers rights in the UK government's Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. Less well known is an attempt to further undermine health and safety on top of cuts in the HSE and other measures. These have been sneaked in, without public consultation, in a Bill that has been before Parliament since last May.

The amendments proposed in S61 of the Act will stop people who are injured at work from relying on health and safety regulations that exist to protect them. It will overturn law in place since 1898 and will result in the end of employers being automatically liable to pay compensation in limited circumstances where there is really no excuse. These are the so called strict liability cases where, say, an employer failed to adequately guard a machine and someone suffered a traumatic amputation. The government has produced no evidence to justify the end of strict liability. It has instead misquoted a review of health and safety law by Professor Ragnar Lofstëd.

Equally importantly they are ending employees being able to rely on or refer to a breach of health and safety regulations within a claim for compensation: “the law says you should have done this and you didn’t”. In future the worker injured through no fault of their own will have to prove foreseeability – i.e. that the employer knew or ought to have known that a machine was unsafe. Requiring injured workers to prove that, for example, the machine that injured them was foreseeably hazardous is loading the dice against them when most machinery today is complex and there can be any number of reasons why it goes wrong. It could be down to the employer, the manufacturer, the service company or anyone who has modified it. The employer is based placed to spread the risk and does this through compulsory employers' liability insurance.

There are only about 1,000 criminal prosecutions a year by the HSE compared to 78,000 civil claims for compensation following accidents at work. By removing civil liability the government is undermining the only effective enforcement of health and safety regulations in 98.7% of cases.

These amendments fly in the face of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, the EU’s Framework Directive3 and consequent Health and Safety regulations. However, they are consistent with the ConDem coalition's clear intention to undermine health and safety. We did not vote to die at work.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Let's make them care in 2013

Happy New Year! Although as I write this it’s raining again, reflecting what was a pretty miserable year for most and few prospects for improvement in the coming year.

For all but the rich and privileged, protected by the ConDem government, the relentless impact of austerity economics continues to blight our public services and the communities that rely upon them. A government that takes three times from the working poor as it does the banks is surely morally and economically bankrupt. And let’s not forget the impact on young people, who are struggling to find a job at a decent wage or a house to buy or rent at an affordable price.

There is a better way and we need to find new methods in 2013 of making the case for it. That strategy must challenge inequality. Our success in highlighting tax dodging shows that campaigns that highlight inequality can work. We need to make the link between inequality and the impact of the wider economy, explaining how more equal societies do better on nearly every measure. As Nelson Mandela put it so well, “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

On the bargaining front it will be another challenging year. Public sector pay cuts have been the largest contributor to public spending reductions. This not only damages standards of living, but has also contributed to the length of the recession. The Scottish Living Wage has brought some respite and we need to widen its impact in 2013. Pensions is also going to keep me busy in the first half of the year, as we address the UK government’s unwarranted interference in the Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme.

Public sector reform will be another big issue in 2013. Adult health and care integration, procurement, regulation and community engagement legislation all have centralising elements to them. We need to make a strong case for local democracy in 2013, before it is lost as ministers gather more powers in Edinburgh.

The consequences of past centralisation will continue to blight Scotland in 2013. The Council Tax freeze and ring fencing will impact on the council budget setting early in the New Year. The new centralised police force comes into operation in April, saddled with the absurd police numbers target that takes police officers off the street to perform civilian roles. Disproportional spending cuts will hit colleges, along with the centralisation of what should be local educational provision.

The constitutional debate will grind on, I suspect with indifference being the reaction of most Scots until 2014. More work is needed on the devolution options this year if the No campaign is to offer a credible alternative to independence. The Yes campaign will continue to struggle if it doesn’t answer the many questions being asked and the early publication of the White Paper would help.

While we focus on Scottish issues we shouldn’t forget what is happening at Westminster. I have already mentioned the Public Service Pensions Bill and the Energy Bill will also impact on Scotland. Employment rights are to be undermined further together with health and safety laws that will lead to more death and injury at the workplace. However, the biggest issue will be the implementation of welfare reform. £Billions will be ripped out of the Scottish economy from people who least can afford it with local economies suffering the worst.
Finally, back to the weather. It would be good if governments across the world started to take climate change seriously. Emissions are rising, ice is melting, we will miss the 2C target and yet the response of our governments is to do little or nothing. George Monbiot highlights this well in today’s Guardian. But he also points to wider action that would be good New Year’s resolution for us all, “Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care.”

So let’s work that much harder to make them care this year!