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.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Higher education and independence

Higher education is already largely devolved. However, there are many uncertainties for higher education in the independence debate, not least what impact it will have on funding. Universities are a very important part of the Scottish economy and they operate in a global marketplace.

I was speaking today at the ESRC seminar on Higher Education and Independence. I outlined UNISON's approach to the constitutional debate as set out in our publications, Fairer Scotland and Fairer Scotland - Devolution.

I focused on a number of issues that concern staff working the the sector. In the main they revolve around funding for universities. Important sources of income for Scottish universities come from students from the rest of the UK who at present pay tuition fees at similar levels to those in the other parts of the UK. The Scottish Government claims they will be able to continue to levy these fees, despite EU rules that forbid direct discrimination against other EU countries. This of course assumes that Scotland will be a member of the EU. I don't doubt that Scotland will be an accession country, the issue is on what terms. The rebate would certainly be lost and that would have an impact on public spending that funds free education.

Not surprisingly this was one of the hot topics at today's seminar. Mike Russell was not convincing on this point, but he fairly pointed out that Scotland is only in this difficulty because of the marketisation of education in England. On the other hand speakers did point out that marketisation is not absent from Scottish universities in terms of overseas students and loans.

UNISON is a strong supporter of free tuition. However, we have to recognise that it has not improved access to higher education for those from disadvantaged areas. When student support is taken into account, students from disadvantaged backgrounds face similar levels of debt to students in England when they graduate. Universities can do more here, but it is also a reflection of our unequal society.

The other income concern relates to research funding. At present Scotland does proportionately well from the UK research spending allocation. Scotland has 8% of UK GDP, but get 13% of research funding pot. There is also a question mark over UK charities research funding that is equally important to Scottish universities. We should also remember that pressure on research funding globally is not limited to constitutional change. Alastair Carmichael also made some strong points on the benefits of the integrated UK research framework. It is national government's that fund research, international funding collaborations are not funded on the scale of the UK system.

A plus for Scottish universities from independence may be an immigration policy that reflects Scotland's needs, rather than the south-east of England. That may enable Scotland to attract even more overseas students on top of the 40,000 who already come here. Alastair Carmichael attempted to rain on that claim at today's seminar, but in my view not very convincingly. Scottish universities have already suffered from UK policy changes. For example, there has been a halving of students from India.

There are over 21,000 non-academic staff in Scottish universities and large numbers of atypical workers. At present the core pay and conditions are negotiated at UK level, so independence may require a new bargaining structure in Scotland. Nothing new in that for us, but we would be opposed to local bargaining as a replacement. Any view of pay is of course coloured by the current dispute. The 1% offer contrasts unfavourably with the big pay increases senior staff in universities are awarding themselves. If Scottish universities want to be taken seriously about inequality, they should start by addressing pay inequality in their own institutions.

Other workforce issues of concern to our members include the use of zero hours contracts and casualisation; the 14% gender pay gap; and low pay including the Scottish Living Wage. The funding issues above clearly have an impact on how these issues will be addressed if Scotland votes for independence, although there are currently significant reserves and the workforce costs are falling as a percentage of income. Funding hasn't been a barrier to top staff pay!

University governance has rightly been a focus of recent reports and legislation in Scotland. University leaders try to posit a conflict between good governance and accountability with institutional autonomy. Scottish universities should not be captured by a managerial elite and stronger governance is needed to stop the drift in that direction.

That leaves the issue of pensions. Our members are covered by several pension schemes at present. For those in the LGPS, independence will have little impact as it is already a separate Scottish scheme. For those in the USS there is a concern about having to split the scheme or tackle the deficit immediately due to EU rules. Bigger pension schemes are generally more effective so this would be an issue for a separate scheme even if transitional arrangements could be agreed with the EU over the deficit. Obviously, this is only an issue if Scotland and the UK is in the EU!

This series of seminars funded by ESRC are hugely important to the constitutional debate. They offer one of the few opportunities for objective analysis in the current debate. I would particularly recommend the film the project has made that captures the views of young people. It is very powerful.

HE may be devolved, but that doesn't mean constitutional change won't impact on the sector. However, learning is delivered by people not robots. So don't forget the workers!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Energy savings and exposing the switching sites

This is Big Energy Saving Week – an intensive information campaign that will urge people across the country to take advantage of cost-cutting schemes that could save them hundreds of pounds a year.

The advice is free, and can be obtained from any CAB or from www.bigenergysavingweek.org.uk or the campaign phoneline 0808 808 2282. In addition, local CABs are holding information events all week in communities across Scotland. Full details of all local events are available on Citizen Advice Scotland's Big Energy Saving Week page.

Launching the campaign, Citizens Advice Scotland’s Chief Executive Margaret Lynch said:

“Fuel poverty is one of the main issues that people bring to the CAB service. The bills keep rising, but peoples’ income levels struggle to keep up. As a result many households get into debt, and others have to make the choice between eating and heating. The good news is that help is available. There are many good schemes around. Some offer financial help, others help you insulate your home so you don’t have to use as much energy."

Scottish CABs also report that complaints about methods and techniques of gas and electricity sales rocketed sevenfold last year. The findings reflect problems with mis-selling and doorstep selling in the industry, which led to substantial fines for several energy suppliers in 2013.

Another way of cutting energy bills, all be it taking the long view is community energy. Ed Davey, the Climate Change Secretary, has launched a £10m Urban Community Energy Fund to kick-start projects in England that could see one million homes supplied with electricity from “home-made” generation by 2020. Neighboring households are being encouraged to group together to apply for the funding, which could pay for solar panels, wind turbines or hydro-electric generators that could save families hundreds of pounds a year in fuel bills. Self evidently, £10m is not going to go far, so this looks like a bit of a gimmick.

Meanwhile, Co-op energy has had a long overdue pop at the energy switching websites. Ramsay Dunning, group general manager, claimed that sites “funnel” people towards companies that have agreed to pay commission if a customer is sent their way. He said, “Switching sites increase prices to customers. They are taking a lot of money out of the system now. They also have a tendency to mislead customers. Customers go to them thinking they are getting impartial advice and they are getting the whole market, every product in the market. They are not, they are getting those with commercial deals - unless they have discovered how to wind their way through the switching sites.”

This has sparked outrage from switching sites that like to portray themselves as customer champions. One of them interviewed on the BBC could not have been more evasive when asked difficult questions. Co-op energy argue that there should be an independent switching site run on a not for profit basis. An excellent proposal and credit for going where other energy companies feared to tread.

Crossposted at Utilities Scotland

Friday, 24 January 2014

Why Scottish Labour needs a new vision for 2016

Scottish Labour’s electoral recovery continues with yesterday’s Scottish Parliament by-election win in Cowdenbeath. However, in 2016 the party will need to develop a new narrative and polices to attract the voters it needs to form a government.

In 2011, Scottish Labour suffered a major electoral defeat and the hands of the SNP who mobilised a coalition of voters far in excess of those who back their raison d’ĂȘtre, independence. The response, through the Review of Labour in Scotland, made important reforms to the party’s organisation. These included the election of a Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, CLPs based on Scottish Parliament constituencies and a belated devolution of the relevant sections of the rule book. The party’s organisational focus is important, but to win in 2016 the party also has to win the battle for ideas to mobilise a similar coalition of voters as the SNP achieved in 2011.

There will always be those in Scottish Labour who will argue for a ‘steady as she goes’ policy. We are winning so let’s just carry on doing more of the same. Yes, Scottish Labour is winning. The 2012 council elections returned many more Labour councillors and they lead half of Scotland’s councils, mostly in coalitions. Recent by-election victories in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath confirm that trend. However, on closer analysis it has to be recognised that this has largely been achieved by capturing the disaffected LibDem vote - the SNP share of the vote has not fallen significantly. This means the SNP is retaining as voters that share of their vote, probably as much as one-third, who do not support independence.

To win in 2016, firstly Scottish Labour has to retain the transferring LibDems. At present they are probably voting Labour because they oppose independence, but will that still hold good when politics returns to normal after the referendum? Some are voting tactically in seats where it is a two horse race, others are looking for a new electoral home after the betrayal of Nick Clegg in entering a coalition with the Tories. That decision created even more problems for the LibDems in Scotland than in England.

Scottish Labour should also not abandon SNP voters who share many of the party’s values - not just those who don’t support independence. After the referendum there may well be an element of politics as normal for them as well – whatever the outcome. Some Scottish Labour and SNP activists can be painfully tribal, but it would be wrong to assume that this transfers down to all their voters!

Labour’s Scottish Policy Forum holds its first meeting this weekend, starting the process that will lead to the 2016 manifesto. One of the benefits of the referendum is the policy focus on Scotland and that should help educate Scottish Labour’s policy process. Groups like the Red Paper Collective, Scottish Fabians, the socialist societies and others have already contributed ideas that we should look at carefully.

The affiliated trade unions have given some initial thought to the issues that Scottish Labour should stand on in 2016 and this week STULP has published Bringing Scotland Together – A Workplace and Community Agenda. This paper sets out 13 ideas that we believe could build the sort of voter coalition that Scottish Labour needs after the referendum dust subsides. This manifesto suggests a range of common sense policies to close inequality gaps, provide better opportunities to promote inclusion and prevent isolation amongst both young and old, bring public service staff closer to their communities, and to improve the living conditions of middle and low income Scots.

So let’s celebrate electoral success, but also recognise that we need to work on new policies and a narrative that captures the imagination of a majority of Scots by 2016.

Lies, damn lies and government statistics

It’s not been a good week for government statistics. Police crime data, NHS waiting lists and now, daftest of all, a claim that pay is going up faster than inflation.

This is of course a UK Government spin release, not an official ONS data stream. What they have done is to argue take-home wages increased by at least 2.5% once tax cuts were taken into account. That is slightly more than the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation rate of 2.4% in the year to April 2013.

This is simply a case of picking the statistics that make your case and ignoring those that don’t. Including tax cuts and not benefit cuts and taking CPI rather than RPI are the most obvious examples. Even RPI doesn’t fully reflect the increased cost of essential purchases that low paid workers have to focus on, as we have highlighted.

Labour's shadow treasury minister Cathy Jamieson got it right when she said: "These highly selective figures from the Tories do not even include the impact of things like cuts to tax credits and child benefit which have hit working families hard. Under the current government, real annual wages had fallen by £1,600 since 2010 and figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that families are on average £891 worse off as a result of tax and benefit changes since 2010".

The respected IFS also pointed out on R4 this morning that the average weekly earnings index showed wages rose, "quite a lot less quickly than inflation in the most recent months". Their own analysis suggested that, "if the recovery takes off and continues as expected, people will start to see their incomes rising by 2015... but they will be well below where they were six or seven years ago".

This is the same analysis we have seen from the Office of Budget Responsibility medium term forecasts for pay growth. Again we covered this data earlier this month.

As I set out in an article in the Scotsman, British workers have experienced the longest real wage pay squeeze since 1870. Inflation has risen faster than wages for almost 43 months. The share of the economy going on wages continues to decline. In the 1960s and 1970s, up to 61 per cent of the economy went on wages. Since the 1980s, it has never gone above 56 per cent. These small percentages make a big difference to our living standards. It is no coincidence that, for the first time, we have more in-work poverty than out-of-work poverty.

The problem for government spin doctors is that workers can read their own pay packets and supermarket bills. So they know this is just mince!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Jobs data welcome but underlying trends could impact on economic recovery

Today's improving unemployment figures are welcome, but there remains worrying underlying trends that could impact on the economic recovery.

Unemployment in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level for almost five years with the number of jobless falling by 25,000 between September and November to 176,000. The unemployment rate fell by 0.9% over the quarter to 6.4%. Employment in Scotland increased by 10,000 over the three months to November, to stand at 2,559,000. The latest figures showed an average rate of 7.1% for the whole of the UK. Just above the Bank of England's target for considering interest rate increases.

Despite this positive data we should remember that there is still along way to go. The employment rate remains below its pre-recession peak and unemployment is well above pre-crisis levels. Austerity economics has been the main factor in this dreadfully slow recovery from the recession and the personal price continues to be paid by many working people. Another indication that growth is likely to remain slow is that average weekly earnings growth, at just 0.9%, remains well below the level of inflation.

The STUC has also raised a note of caution. “Today’s release also provides reasons to be cautious about the strength of the labour market recovery. The fall in unemployment this quarter is more attributable to people leaving the labour force than to people finding jobs. The increase in full-time jobs over the last year is also disappointing with only 8,000 more created. Progress in tackling youth unemployment is painfully slow with the 16-24 rate falling by only 0.9% over the year. The Scottish employment rate remains 4.1% below its peak of July 2008 and the unemployment rate 2.4% higher. Today’s figures, while welcome, provide no cause for complacency”.

Another worry is productivity, as highlighted in the analysis by Duncan Weldon at Left Foot Forward. Output has fallen by 4.4% since early 2008 and is around 15% below the previous trend. Despite the severity of the recession unemployment rose much less than many feared, it is assumed because employers cut wages and hours rather than jobs. This means we could expect weak job growth as growth returns.

However, this hasn't happened leaving what economists call the productivity puzzle – output is still 2% below its peak but the number of people in work is higher. This means we have all generally become less productive at our jobs over the last five years or there was been some sort of change in the composition of the labour market. Needless to say, the latter is more likely to be correct. Whilst more people in are in work, they are more likely to be lower productivity jobs than in they were in 2008. Like low wage growth this does not bode well for the speed of economic recovery.

So while today's figures are heading in the right direction, we should be wary about how changes to the composition of the workforce will impact on the recovery. That has to be based on quality jobs, paying higher wages.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Poor pension investment decisions reflect bad governance

Scottish local government pension funds can be a force for good, but clearly not under the current governance arrangements.

Yesterday’s Sunday Herald published the result of an investigation by Rob Edwards into the investments made by Scottish local government pension funds. This shows they are supporting more than 100 big corporations blamed for damaging the climate, causing cancer and profiting from conflict.

While it is called the Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), one third of the membership comes from quangos, private and voluntary sector organisations. This means that among the groups backing major climate polluters is the Government's Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa). Among those funding big tobacco are health groups, cancer hospices, schools and universities. Two public pension schemes are putting millions of pounds into an electronics company that makes controls for US military drones accused of illegally killing more than 400 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

As I was quoted in yesterday’s article, “it is simply absurd to invest huge sums of public and workers’ money in companies whose aims are incompatible with public policy objectives.” And huge sums they are. The combined Scottish LGPS pension funds have assets in excess on £24bn.

The classic defence of these investments was trotted out in yesterday’s article. We have a ‘fiduciary duty’ to get the best return on investment. Actually the ‘fiduciary duty’ is somewhat less than clear in the LGPS. All other pension funds in the UK and in the EU, in line with the IORP Directive, invest in the sole interests of scheme members and resolve any potential conflicts of interest in scheme members’ favour. Is that how the councillors who make these investment decisions at present view their fiduciary duty – or is it to their council?

Some have interpreted the Cowan v Scargill mine workers pension decision to mean that a fiduciary has an unqualified duty to invest funds in the most profitable investment available. That is a narrow interpretation of that exceptional case and drives a short term view of investment that may not be in the long term interest of the beneficiaries. As UK government minister Ed Davey MP put it:

"As a government, we do want to see ESG issues considered in a rounded way in order to encourage responsible investment decisions... Fiduciary duties placed on pension fund trustees can be about more than maximising the bottom line. These duties require pension fund trustees to consider the best interests of the scheme beneficiaries and we want everyone to understand that."
The confusion over fiduciary duty and poor investment decisions is yet another example of the bigger problem with LGPS governance that is supposed to be addressed by the Public Service Pensions Act. However, the governance sections of that Act are also confused, leading to a further round of consultation in England and here in Scotland.

The new pension governance structures should give member representatives greater influence over investment decisions together with better training and awareness for all those involved. They clearly need it!

Friday, 17 January 2014

Minimum wage - is Osborne a convert to predistribution?

While I would always welcome a convert to the case for increasing wages, I suspect George Osborne is less a repenting sinner, he is more likely eyeing an opportunity to cut the benefits bill.

George Osborne’s hint that the minimum wage might go up to £7 has been a popular news story this morning. I have done three interviews already including the BBC. Callers to the Call Kaye programme also took a fairly cynical view of Gideon’s motives.

So what has driven the Chancellor to this position? Put simply, it’s a no brainer. He wants to cut the benefits bill without, if he can help it, cutting pensioner benefits because they vote. As more than half of benefit claimants are in work, raising wages means he saves around £6bn a year. In the run up to the election this is also popular. 8 out of 10 voters in the latest poll support an increase in the minimum wage, and that includes 7 out of 10 Tory voters.

There have been a few predictable voices telling us that it will all cost jobs and business can’t afford it. These are the same siren voices who predicted similar job losses when the minimum wage was introduced. Australia has the highest minimum wage at $16.88Aus, that’s £9.11 per hour and they haven’t had a recession for 20 years. A significant increase in the minimum wage would also boost the Scottish economy that has lost £5.5bn in the past five years due to the fall in real wages. The wider impact on poverty has been estimated as high as £20bn. Low paid workers also spend more of their income in local businesses, who would benefit from increased spending power.

A real wage rise would also help the economy from slowing again due to growing personal debt. One in six households borrowed for xmas and won’t pay it back till June. One in five are borrowing to pay the rent, often from pay day lenders. The average adult in the UK owes £26,000; with a growing proportion in short term loans and 15,000 Scots are likely to go into sequestration this year.

In fairness, a number of good employers have pointed to the advantages of raising wages - higher productivity, lower turnover and greater motivation. However, there are still those who cling to the low wage economy as the best way of increasing their profits.

Finally, what about the workers? They are suffering from real wage cuts at a time when the cost of essential goods are rising. The shift from wages into profits since the 1980’s has led to an even less equal society. If the market allows exploitation, then the state must intervene with a minimum wage that doesn’t require the rest of us to subsidise bad employers. Imagine if businesses proposed a taxpayer subsidy for shopping. They would be ridiculed. But that is exactly what is happening now through the benefits system.

Whatever the Chancellor’s motives and we are right to be sceptical, increasing the minimum wage is a no brainer. It’s good for workers, employers, the economy and the taxpayer. George, welcome to predistribution, all converts welcome!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Dash for Fracking - but not in Scotland?

The Scottish Government has indicated that is has no plans, ‘at this time’, to follow the Prime Minister’s dash for fracking. Applications will be considered by councils in Scotland on their merits, without incentives, based on the tougher planning guidance issued last year. 
The PM announced that councils in England would receive all the business rates collected from shale gas schemes – rather than the usual 50%. This doesn’t apply to Scotland because powers over fracking are devolved. He said: “Shale is important for our country. It could bring 74,000 jobs, over £3 billion of investment, give us cheaper energy for the future, and increase our energy security. I want us to get on board this change that is doing so much good and bringing so much benefit to North America. I want us to benefit from it here as well.”
Environment campaigners have criticised the announcement. WWF Scotland, said: “If we’re really serious about tackling climate change the last thing ministers should be doing is finding yet more ways to support the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.”
A report in today’s Guardian covers leaked documents from the European commission, that show that attempts to safeguard the environment with a new legally binding directive have been defeated by the UK and its allies, which include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Instead, a set of non-binding "recommendations" covering protection against water contamination and potential earthquakes will be published on 22 January. The EU's environment commissioner has said there are "clear gaps" in current safety rules.
Tory MSP, Alex Johnstone has put a question down for FMQ’s on Thursday on planning requirements. While the Scottish Government isn’t providing incentives, their stance is not against fracking in principle. The same can be said about the White Paper answers on this point. Last month Utilities Scotland pointed to the link between fracking and Ineos plans for Grangemouth.
In September last year I set out the case for not joining the dash for fracking and UNISON's Scottish Council approved a critical motion in December. My own view is that the environmental case against fracking is finely balanced and not in itself grounds for an outright ban if properly regulated. However, energy analysts don’t support the PM’s argument on lower energy prices and it’s a huge distraction from the urgent need to shift to low carbon energy sources. As always in the energy industry job claims need to be treated sceptically. Even if these jobs are created, they will displace other jobs elsewhere in the industry.
David Cameron’s green credentials were always based on pretty thin spin. They are now in tatters.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Job losses, an ageing workforce and why its going to get worse

50,000 jobs have been lost from the Scottish public sector workforce and a further 60,000 could go by 2019. Those who are left are getting older and young people are the losers.

I have been crunching the latest workforce data published before Christmas, together with other reports and forecasts on public sector staffing levels. There are three key points to make.

Firstly, the workforce continues to shrink in total and as a proportion of the Scottish workforce. The public sector as a percentage of the total Scottish workforce has fallen to 21.5% (547,300 headcount), barely one in five of the workforce. 49,500 jobs have been lost in the public sector across Scotland since the financial crash; 4,400 in the last year. That has an inevitable impact on the quantity and quality of public services, as well as the local economy. Public sector workers spend in their community and this, together with the wage freeze, is a major cause of the slow economic recovery. The big numbers have come from local government, although proportionately colleges have been hardest hit.

Secondly, the workforce is getting older. In 2013, the average age was 44 years and four months compared with 43 years and nine months in 2009. The biggest losers are young people, with those aged under 20 falling by 25%. Those aged between 50-59 actually increased by 5%. This is creating a retirement and skills blip that is likely to get worse if job losses continue under austerity economics, as recruitment freezes keep young people out of public service. Older workers on small average pensions are less likely to retire early because they will need to work on due to living costs and the later pension retirement age. They are also more expensive to release under early departure schemes that are anyway declining. The big job losses have actually come from natural wastage.

Thirdly, a further 60,000 jobs could be lost over the next five years. This year and next the numbers will be less severe, but after that they are forecast to increase dramatically. This number is extrapolated from the OBR and IFS forecasts for the UK, taking into account job losses already inflicted on Scotland. It is always difficult to be precise with this sort of calculation, but previous forecasts have not been far off the mark. It could actually be worse, because future cuts are likely to be concentrated in revenue spending as the CPPR paper highlights, and that is before any deliberate shift of spending from capital to revenue as the Scottish Government favours.

All of this creates very special problems for the workers who are left behind, as they try to keep the plates spinning on deteriorating Scottish public services.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Why Britain needs a pay rise

Britain needs a pay rise and I set out why in an article in today’s Scotsman newspaper.

British workers have experienced the longest real wage pay squeeze since 1870. Inflation has risen faster than wages for almost 43 months. The share of the economy going on wages continues to decline. In the 1960s and 1970s, up to 61 per cent of the economy went on wages. Since the 1980s, it has never gone above 56 per cent. These small percentages make a big difference to our living standards. It is no coincidence that, for the first time, we have more in-work poverty than out-of-work poverty.
But while it is the rich who get the pleasure, there is more and more evidence that we are less and less willing to give the poor the blame. Opinion polls show strong support for a rise in the minimum wage, even among Tory voters. 

It’s also important for the local economy. Low paid workers in particular spend more of their earnings in local businesses. If Osborne was really interested in cutting the deficit, he might recognise that it’s the taxpayer that is subsidising bad employers through the welfare system.

I wrote the Scotsman article before Xmas. Since then there has been a flurry of new research supporting these arguments and in particular, highlighting the risk of creating another short lived debt fuelled economic ‘recovery’. I have summarised this in a post on our Public Works blog.

As I say in today’s article, it all comes down to the kind of country we want to live in. There is a better way and we need shout a lot louder about it in 2014.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Welcome free school meals but don't forget the current service

There was a welcome announcement by the Scottish Government yesterday on the extension of universal free school meals to all children in Primary 1, 2 and 3. I was a signatory, on behalf of UNISON Scotland, to the call by a range of education organisations for the Government to use the Barnett consequentials of the similar decision in England in this way. UNISON Scotland has a long-standing commitment to universal free school meals for all children.

The pilot trials show that universal provision significantly improves the take up of school meals, even amongst those already entitled to them, due to a positive peer effect. It also boosts learning and attainment and helps tackle health inequality. A study undertaken at Dundee University concluded that the current system of means testing, “fails to deliver welfare to the poorest in society”. While it clearly does have a positive impact on family budgets, I regard this as a secondary consideration because there may be other, possibly better, ways of using the budget in this regard.

School meals are therefore a service that benefits from universality. I accept that is not the case for all services as we have always had a mixed economy. Of course, despite the spin, neither does the Scottish Government, as they don’t apply the principle consistently. Access to justice being a good example of universality being abandoned when it suits them.

A point lost in yesterday’s debate is the state of the current school meals service. UNISON Scotland surveyed members working in catering only recently and found that 54% say there have been major or severe cuts in the last 3-4 years. A total of 49% expect further major or even severe cuts to their service. Top concerns are increased workload, reduced staffing and the impact of cuts on the service. Many believe service levels are only being maintained because staff are working beyond the call of duty, under high pressure, with heavy workloads. This is also reflected in the 23 improvement notices served on school kitchens across Scotland last year. 

UNISON would also support a much larger expansion of quality childcare provision than that announced yesterday, welcome though it is. The strange decision to use a devolved power to illustrate the possibilities of independence inevitably creates a political rammie over spending priorities. However, I am not convinced that the case is made that one is necessarily more effective in tackling poverty than the other - so spreading the jam is not an unreasonable policy. Equally, the argument that further childcare provision is dependent on tax powers is very weak. If we followed that principle, Holyrood would do nothing to promote employment because the tax revenue doesn’t directly come to Scotland. 

So while we should welcome yesterday’s announcement for school meals and childcare, let’s remember current services are under considerable pressure and struggling to deliver a quality service. While politicians love to announce new services – the existing provision has to be maintained as well.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year. Well we must live in hope!

For Scotland there will be no shortage of events. The Commonwealth Games, 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the Ryder Cup and First World War centenary commemorations, all in the one year. Oh, and the small matter of a referendum on Independence.

While Scottish politics will be dominated by the referendum, I would argue for a different focus. That's because whatever the referendum outcome, it will make little immediate difference to the lives of most Scots suffering under the yoke of austerity economics. Challenging that should be our main focus.

Workers have experienced the longest real wage pay squeeze since 1870 - with inflation rising faster than wages for almost 43 months. This means that any perceived recovery cannot last if it relies on consumers using their savings or going into debt. One in six of us borrowed this year to buy food and presents at Christmas and most of us will take until June to pay it off.

Osborne might think a quick housing boom will get him past the 2015 election, but that's typical of the short term thinking that our unbalanced, finance driven economy crashed on. I see that one bank has even resuscitated the Leveraged Super Senior Synthetic Collateralised Debt Obligations. Yes, a bit much for New Year's Day, but in essence it's one of those dodgy financial instruments that caused the financial crash. Bankers, bailed out by the rest of us, have learned nothing!

Britain needs a pay rise and astonishingly, even the CBI agrees. In the 1960's up to 61% of the economy went on wages - since the 1980s it has never gone above 56%. This may look like a small percentage, but it makes a big difference to our living standards. Its no coincidence that for the first time we have more in-work poverty than out-of-work poverty. So in 2014, we must relentlessly make the case for fair wages and UNISON's 'Worth It' campaign will be an important part of that effort.

Another Osborne objective is to cut our public services - back to 1948 levels as the recent OBR forecast highlighted. Permanent austerity was always the real policy aim, with deficit reduction simply an excuse. Again, we are beginning to win the argument, as this week's You Gov poll shows. That poll also found just 2 per cent of people said they have benefited from growth while only 18 per cent expect to see their living standard increase in 2014.

I would also like to see us do more with devolved powers in 2014, as well as make the case for extended devolution. The Procurement Reform Bill is an opportunity to put the £11bn of public procurement to better use - expanding the living wage, raising employment standards and tackling climate change. We could also sort out local government finance, end the disgraceful way we care for elderly people and take a proper look at public service reform, including a national workforce strategy.

It won't be high on many people's priorities, but let's not forget the European elections. There are so many areas of public policy that are driven from the EU that we ignore this at our peril.

Finally, that referendum. As I have written elsewhere, I think there has been some positive aspects to the debate amongst the dross. The work funded by ESRC and others has provided a better understanding of social and economic policy that has a value well beyond the referendum.

On the current offer, I remain an independence sceptic. I understand the politics of the independence lite strategy, but it risks a response of, why bother. The consequences of the currency plan, energy markets and other policy areas, where little is going to change, are that we end up with the worst of both worlds. Directed by a larger neighbour, without any democratic influence.

However, that doesn't excuse the status quo. The No campaign has focused on the many weaknesses in the White Paper offer, but it has failed to make the positive case. I am a socialist, I don't believe in the status quo. Our profoundly unequal society has to be challenged for the good of everyone in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Constitutional change isn't the only way to address these issues, but it can be part of the solution. If the status quo is all that's on offer, I may be prepared to forgo my scepticism.

2014 will undoubtedly be a big and challenging year in so many ways. Let's keep a focus on what really matters - enjoy the big events and welcome those who visit our country, but also relentlessly campaign for a fairer Scotland.