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.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Chief Constable's resignation is an opportunity to look afresh at Police Scotland

The resignation of Sir Stephen House in itself isn’t a solution to the problems facing Police Scotland.

The Chief Constable of Police Scotland has decided to leave his post in December, some nine months earlier than planned. This follows a number of high profile incidents in which the force has been criticised including; the three-day delay in responding to the M9 crash, routine arming of officers, stop and search policies and alleged spying on journalists.

UNISON Scotland’s response to Stephen House’s resignation was to wish him well in the future. While we sometimes disagreed, he was a decent chief constable who engaged fully with staff trade unions. We should also recognise that there have been positive innovations at police Scotland that don't attract media attention.

My own view is that he was a traditional chief constable, both at Strathclyde and then Police Scotland, firmly in the command and control school of leadership. Senior police officers brought up in this traditional leadership model often find it difficult to adapt to the more collaborative style of leadership that is largely the norm elsewhere in the public sector. Heroic leaders quickly find that to achieve anything in public service you have to work with other agencies, and that requires strong collaborative skills.

Command and control is also a problem when you have a police force the size of Police Scotland. Unlike some of the smaller forces it replaced, it is hugely challenging for any leader to be connected to what is going on at the sharp end. Scotland isn't a homogenous community and therefore they're will always been a conflict between the apparent efficiencies of centralisation, consistency of approach and local needs.

He was also in the traditional school of policing when it came to UNISON’s key issue, police civilianisation. I can recall us both giving evidence to the Justice Committee when he was still the Strathclyde CC, when he almost went as far as saying he would prefer all police staff to be constables. In fairness, at Police Scotland, when the consequences of the daft 1,000 extra officers policy became apparent, he became less dogmatic on this point. The best police leaders in the UK understand that a balanced staffing policy is the best approach, not just on grounds of cost, but also to ensure the force has the right mix of specialist skills.

The opportunity to correct this policy was when Police Scotland was created. However, the then Justice Secretary failed to grasp the opportunity. That was a political failure and not the responsibility of Stephen House. He was lumbered with an unworkable staffing policy in the context of having to make £1.1bn of cuts.

The primary problems facing any Chief Constable of Police Scotland are structural and political. The sheer size of the force means that it’s a cumbersome beast; prone to one size fits all solutions. While it probably isn’t practical to dismantle Police Scotland, it should be possible to design a model that devolves much greater control to communities.

The structure of Police Scotland scrutinised by the Scottish Police Authority was always going to be difficult, as we warned at the outset. We should scrap the SPA and create a national joint police board. If the funding is also routed through local authorities, we could recover the £26m of VAT that now goes to the Treasury.

The political problems are well illustrated by some of the recent operational incidents, which happened a long way from the control of the chief constable. However, a national force brings with it national scrutiny, both political and media. The structure also gives the Justice Secretary a much greater opportunity to dabble. The current Justice secretary has a different approach to his predecessor, but the political reality is that he also becomes accountable for every operational failure. The ‘not me guv’ response has its limitations.

Stephen House’s early departure, along with the SPA Chair, may not address most of the problems facing Police Scotland. However, it is an opportunity to take a long hard look at Police Scotland and make some sensible changes that will mitigate at least some of the consequences of national policing.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Trade Union Bill and Scotland

The Trade Union Bill is an unwarranted interference in devolved public services and will wreck the modern approach to industrial relations in Scotland.

Today's STUC conference was a first opportunity for the movement in Scotland to give detailed consideration to the UK government's latest attack on employment rights. The Bill, through minimum ballot thresholds and restrictive procedures, seriously curtails the possibility of legitimate strike action and even protest. It also attacks the ability of unions to represent their members (via facility time) and raise subscriptions (through employer check-off/DOCAS) from members. Unions are also to be burdened with more 'Red Tape' and be charged for it, from a government that claims to want to reduce regulation! There is a useful TUC Briefing and activist pack that sets out the provisions.

The conference started with a session on the Bill's provisions and followed on with sessions on organising approaches, industrial relations and legal issues. I contributed in the panel session and covered Scottish legal issues, our approach to industrial relations and campaigning.

At this early stage of the legislative process (Bill has only had its First Reading) we should start by examining the scope for a different political/legal approach in Scotland. It is difficult to get this legislation into Holyrood because employment law is reserved. There is a specific reservation in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998, 'Employment rights and duties and industrial relations'. The Bill largely amends TULRCA 1992 which is included in the list of legislation covered.

Unsurprisingly, the UK Government's delegated powers memorandum says the Bill is reserved and therefore no Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) is required. There is no consideration of the interplay with very different Scots contract and criminal law. In my view that is challengeable and we should seek to persuade the Scottish Government and Parliament to claim that there should be an LCM. This would create an opportunity for different approach in Scotland.

Some aspects of the Bill such as strike ballots, Certification Officer etc are all clearly reserved. However, the provisions on facility time and DOCAS are more about public administration which is devolved. This is reinforced by the policy justification which focuses on public spending and the fact that these provisions only apply to the public sector.

There is also scope for challenges under the Human Rights Act. The ECJ has given member states a wide 'margin of appreciation' given the different industrial relations systems in Europe. However, some of the proposals are so extreme that they may not be regarded as 'proportionate', the key ECHR test. In addition, the Scottish Government and public bodies have human rights obligations which justify them resisting this legislation.

We also need to consider the Bill in the context of Scottish industrial relations. As the recent 'Working Together' review showed, there is a distinctly different industrial relations culture in Scotland and this is being taken forward in the Fair Work Convention. This is particularly the case in the public sector - the target of this UK legislation.

We know from polling that Scottish public opinion is more strongly against many of the Bill's provisions and that is reflected in political positions, with all but one MP in Scotland opposing the Bill. The idea that a UK Government can direct the detail of industrial relations in a Scottish council, health board etc is simply wrong post-devolution.

It's not just trade unions who can see the damage the Bill will do to industrial relations. It could result in more small disputes, wildcat strikes, other forms of protest. As ballots will only have a four month life span, this may result in more intensive disputes that will be all the more difficult to resolve.

The Bill also strengthens the case for devolving employment law. We argued this case before this Bill and we do so because of the different approach in Scotland, not just because don't like the current UK Government.

Finally, we must take our arguments against the Bill to our members and the wider public. The UK Government's case isn't even consistent. For example, DOCAS is used for many purposes, some encouraged by government such a payroll giving, credit unions, sports clubs etc.

We should build support on the threat to wider employment practice as well as the Bill's provisions. This is because the Trade Union Bill is aimed at weakening workers ability to resist bad employers.

The New York Times report on Amazon has sparked a lot of interest on poor employment practice The Herald followed it up with a story of one Fife worker's experience at Amazon. Will Hutton in Sunday's Observer analysed the role of corporations concluding, 'once firms cherished their employees, now they are disposable'. Or as Ian Bell in The Herald put it, 'A vanishingly small minority is waging a war for control over the majority'.

Issues like widening corporate pay, work intensification, insecure work and low pay are increasingly becoming understood by a wide range of employees, not just lowest paid. In many ways the shock over the Amazon story was that it all happened to white collar staff in a HQ setting.

This isn't just bad for workers, it's bad for the economy. The Tory party is in hock to the hedge funds and corporations that promote a failed economic model. As Will Hutton points out, growth, productivity and investment has crashed during the twenty years of this corporate dominance. Professor Keith Ewing today aptly described this as a 'global virus'.

There will be a lot of discussion in the coming months on how the trade union movement should respond to the Bill. A number of campaign events have already been organised. Legal arguments can inform political argument, while recognising it's not the full answer. Imaginative action on a number of levels will be required. A starting point is to examine the legal and political options, emphasise the different Scottish industrial relations culture, and campaign on our arguments including the wider context about world of work.

In simple terms this Bill is about destroying trade unions at the behest of the UK government's corporate funders. The Tories are saying you shouldn't belong to a union and if you do we will make it virtually impossible for you to take collective and political action to defend your job, pay and conditions. The public sector is being targeted because unions campaign against their planned destruction of public services, but they will come for the private and voluntary sector next. It's time for us to mobilise the majority to wrest control back from the minority.



Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's campaign helps, but Scottish Labour's solutions have to be home grown

Congratulations to Kez Dugdale and Alex Rowley on winning the Scottish Labour leadership elections. The challenges haven’t gone away, but this is the right leadership team to start rebuilding Scottish Labour.

The Scottish Labour leadership elections drifted to a conclusion, somewhat under the radar as Corbynmania dominates the political scene. There were no huge ideological differences between the candidates. When even Jim Murphy recognised that Scottish Labour can only win from the left, the scope for a different strategy is limited! Instead members recognised that Kez carried less political baggage and offered a fresh approach. She may be light on political ideology, but she isn’t just a political spin machine either. She has demonstrated that opposition matters, by forcing important issues onto the political agenda that the Scottish Government would rather have buried. Most importantly, I think she will be more of a team leader, building a consensus, rather than relying on a presidential approach

The deputy election was somewhat more ideological with Alex Rowley making an explicitly left pitch, coming out from the shadows of Gordon Brown, where the media still likes to place him. Alex is a thoughtful politician who has shown in debate and his written contributions that he has thought through different approaches.

Of course the hard work starts now. Kez’s election pitch shows that she gets the need to show what Scottish Labour stands for, as I argued in June. This means going big and bold in vision and policy terms, stretching the SNP on the left, without tribalism and knee jerk opposition. There are also some big and difficult organisational issues to be addressed. Local government is the tricky one, as well as the degree of autonomy Scottish Labour wants within the UK Labour Party.

The support Jeremy Corbyn is attracting, in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK, actually helps with this agenda. In policy terms, it creates a degree of space to develop a policy position that works for Scottish Labour without as many tensions with the UK party. Organisationally, Jeremy doesn’t appear to have thought through Scottish Labour, but neither have his opponents. As he demonstrated during the referendum, he takes the position that it’s up to the Scottish Labour to decide these matters – and that’s fine.

The real gain from the Corbyn campaign is the enthusiasm and hope it has generated. From the outset his opponents have looked tired and cautious, saying very little and not even saying that well. Their focus has become the mechanisms of the election – who can beat Jeremy – rather than making the positive pitch members are looking for. All the big beasts have been wheeled out to tell us that this will be a repeat of 1982 and Labour effectively has to accept the right wing media narrative.

In contrast Jeremy talks about trying to change the conversation on issues such as welfare. As he said; “If all that your average voter hears is politicians saying they’re going to be tough on welfare, newspapers calling everyone who legitimately claims benefits a scrounger and programmes like Benefits Street demonising those that claim benefits, is it surprising that that is then reflected in polls?”

Changing the conversation is pretty difficult, but it’s a message that is winning support because simply tacking ever rightwards is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm in a left of centre political party. If we are not about changing society, what is the point of the Labour Party?

That still leaves the constitutional issue. Craig McAngus at the LSE blog shows that that at least half of those who are most left-wing in Scotland are disappointed by the outcome of the referendum. Ideology alone won’t win back these voters, Scottish Labour also has to have an answer on the constitution.

Jeremy was the first of the UK leadership candidates to understand the damage the Better Together campaign did to Scottish Labour. His interview in the Herald today also shows that he understands that support for the union and unionism is not the same thing. The union is only credible if it has a positive political purpose, for socialists it is not an end in itself.

So, Scottish Labour should embrace the energy Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has generated, and the space it could help create.  However, the solutions to the challenges facing the new leadership team will have to be found here in Scotland.