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.

Monday, 29 August 2016

A modern police force needs a balanced workforce

The Scottish Conservative’s obsession with police numbers misunderstands the importance of getting the right skill mix in a modern police force. For a party that claims to be concerned about efficiency for the taxpayer, it also ignores the statutory duty of Best Value.

Saturday’s Scotsman ran a story on the pressure Scottish Tories are putting on the Justice Minister to set out how Police Scotland will ‘cope’ with a reduction in frontline staff. The irony of this question is that ‘frontline staff’ have been reducing because of the policy the Scottish Tories pushed the SNP into adopting. Tory austerity cuts on the Scottish budget have also impacted on the Police Scotland budget and police officers have been backfilling police civilian staff posts.

No one has been more critical of this daft SNP policy than UNISON Scotland. However, we welcomed the absence of a commitment to police officer numbers in this year’s SNP manifesto. If we look at the actual answer given by the Justice Minister, it is a broadly sensible response. He said:

As at 30 June 2016, there were 17,242 full time equivalent police officers in Scotland – 1,008 more than on 31 March 2007. The Scottish Government budget for 2016-17 made a commitment to retain police officer numbers at 1,000 higher than in 2007 while at the same time working with the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) to consider the implications of changing demands on Scottish policing. That work is currently on-going and no conclusions have been reached on implications for the future shape and size of the police workforce. We are committed to ensuring that the police have more specialists, such as experts in cyber-crime and counter-fraud and that the service has the right mix and numbers of staff for the future.”

Why is this largely sensible?

Firstly, it is a statutory duty on Police Scotland and the SPA to adopt Best Value principles. In this briefing we set out what this means. What it doesn’t mean is continuing to take police officers off operational duties to replace specialist, properly trained, police civilian staff – at typically twice the cost.

Secondly, a modern police force needs more specialists to cope with new forms of crime, as the Justice Minister’s response indicates. This was highlighted in Saturday’s Guardian, which reported that the volume of cybercrime now matches the number of traditional crimes. It is estimated that the £193bn cost is far in excess of the value of physical goods nicked from homes, cars and workplaces. Yet we devote relatively few resources to fighting it.

Thirdly, a key recommendation from the Christie Commission on public service reform was a shift to outcomes. Specifying staff targets is an input that does not directly link to the necessary outcome. Political parties are still wedded to grand statements about inputs in their manifestos. They, and we the public need, to be weaned off this populist approach to policymaking because it doesn’t deliver better public services.

The establishment of Police Scotland was a missed opportunity to dump the police officer number target. Sadly, it wasn’t taken. With the police budget heading for a £21m overspend, we simply can’t continue to waste resources by putting square pegs in round holes. A modern police force needs a balanced workforce – not outdated rhetoric on staffing targets.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Thoughts on the Labour Leadership election

The Labour Party leadership ballot papers dropped on the doorstep this week. Hold the front page, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn! Not that I welcomed this ballot paper. This election is entirely  unnecessary - foisted on the party by MPs in the Westminster bubble, who should have been fighting the Tories rather than the leader elected less than a year ago.

On Tuesday, I was speaking at a Scotlandfest event in Edinburgh that discussed what Keir Hardie would have made of the leadership ballot. As those who have read my chapter in the book 'What Would Keir Hardy Say?', will know that I am bit sceptical of those who seek to put modern day words into the mouth of historical figures. So, I wasn't terribly impressed with Owen Smith's piece in the Daily Record, quite apart from the fact that Hardie wouldn't be spinning in his grave for anything - he was cremated!

The discussion did cover an important feature of the leadership ballot. Yes, Hardie did see the importance of the parliamentary road to socialism, but he was also an agitator who understood the importance building a social movement behind the parliamentary action. He would have revelled in the Corbyn rallies and the sheer enthusiasm of the audiences.

In my view it's not an either/or, Labour has to do both. Becoming the largest political party in Europe is a staggering achievement, but I accept that Jeremy has more to do when in comes to converting that into an electoral machine. Owen Smith has tried to learn the lessons of last year's campaign by saying some substantial and radical things. However, he still looks and sounds like a professional politician and has failed to really enthuse even his own supporters. 

On Thursday Jeremy was in Scotland, setting out some pretty solid policy ideas. They do need to be developed, but the claim that he is policy light, has little substance. I was speaking at his policy launch, explaining the impact of austerity on Scotland's public services. Jeremy set out how we should tackle austerity in language that public service workers understand. He could not have been clearer when he said:

"We need to challenge not just austerity, but the failed economic model that has undermined our treasured public services and created a more unequal, and more brutal society."

He also gets devolution, and has laid out an ambitious programme for democratic reform across the UK. He understands that real constitutional reform addresses the sources of power in society - not just playing with the institutions.

Then there were substantial economic commitments. Doubling capital investment, democratic control of the energy sector, 60,000 council houses and a real industrial strategy. He gets the concerns of workers over insecure jobs and low pay with a commitment to end 'the cheapskate economy', restoring workers rights.

The leadership ballot has thrown up some silly season stories. Dave Anderson's very tentative musings on relationships with the SNP at Westminster were picked up somewhat hysterically by Kez Dugdale, no doubt influenced by her position on the leadership. She would do well to remember that her comrades in Edinburgh Council are in coalition with the SNP. The simple fact is that when the electorate deal you a hand you have to play with it. Jeremy dealt with the issue very clearly on Thursday, but the criticism of this from Neal Lawson of Compass, simply demonstrates political naivety and the London-centric focus of Compass. Talk of progressive alliances implies pre-election deals and that isn't going to happen.

The real gain for Scotland from a Jeremy Corbyn leadership is a leader who is prepared to campaign for a new economic model that ensures that no-one and nowhere is left behind. If he can achieve that at a UK level, then Scotland can decide its own priorities. 

The difference with Jeremy and most other political leaders I have met, is that he really believes in the case he is making. He is not tacking for a particular audience or a short term political strategy. His record speaks for itself. Authenticity may not be everything the Labour Party needs - but it is a start.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Food safety needs a credible inspection regime

Food safety matters. We need to cut through the jargon in corporate strategies and stand up for properly resourced and independent inspection of the food we eat.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has published its corporate strategy for the period up to April 2019. The document claims that "to put the consumer at the heart of what we do, we need to understand what matters to consumers in relation to food. Consumers have told us that trust is essential for FSS, so we need to earn and keep that trust."

They helpfully, if alarmingly, remind us that food safety is a significant health issue in Scotland. They estimate that there are approximately 43,000 cases of foodborne infectious intestinal disease (IID) annually, leading to 5,800 GP visits and 500 hospital admissions. Just one example is Campylobacter, with between 55‐75% of all reported cases of Campylobacter infection in Scotland associated with a chicken source. A significant proportion of fresh chicken on retail sale in the UK is contaminated with the pathogen.

The FSS is directly responsible for official meat controls and provides guidance to local authorities who are supposed to deliver other inspections. The strategy seeks to reassure us that "protecting public health remains our key objective."

So far so good. However, later in the paper we are told that, "We will review these programmes so that they are proportionate and do not place undue burdens either on the industries we regulate or on taxpayers."

Based on past experience this sounds like code for further deregulation of meat inspection. Until recently the FSS was part of the U.K. Food Standards Agency. They have just published a document: “Regulating Our future”, in which they announce an intention to introduce a free ride for businesses who’ve passed an assessment visit sometime in the last few years or allow approved companies to provide assurance of food hygiene standards alongside local authorities. In short, the FSA are going to reduce meat and other food inspection and hand over responsibility to industry. 

In fact, FSS are already going down this road with white meat by replacing independent FSS poultry meat inspectors with plant employed poultry inspection assistants. When inspection probably costs little more than a penny a bird, this is short-sighted in the extreme.

The FSA have used 'proportionate' and 'undue burdens' in the past as justification for deregulation and we must be suspicious that the FSS review is heading in the same direction. The meat industry is a powerful lobby and their need to maximise profit has often triumphed over consumer protection.

We should be equally concerned over the capacity of local authorities to meet their obligations in relation to food safety. Environmental health departments have been the subject of significant cuts in recent years and many are struggling to undertake regular inspections of food premises. The review could also impact on their roles.

As always with corporate strategies you need to look beyond the fine words and look at the actions. The review of regulatory programmes is one to watch carefully.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Fracking bribes won't work

In a desperate attempt to sell more dirty energy to a sceptical public, the UKGovernment is proposing cash bribes to households impacted by fracking.

INEOS has announced the first delivery of US shale gas to its Grangemouth petrochemical plant next month and used this as an opportunity to, yet again, make the case for exploiting indigenous supplies. Unlike the USA there is no commercial shale gas production in the UK as yet, although approval has been given for a site in North Yorkshire. In Scotland, development was halted by the 2015 moratorium, while expert reports are prepared.

The UK government has launched a consultation on plans to distribute payments to the communities affected by the drilling. They are proposing a Shale Wealth Fund, which would distribute 10% of all shale gas tax revenues to local communities. Unlike traditional planning gain, the UK government proposed that payments could be made to households directly - a straightforward cash bribe.

The problem for the government is that even cash bribes might not deliver public support for such a controversial technology. Surveys undertaken by the Department for Energy and Climate Change in April, showed public support for fracking stood at only 19%, while 31% were explicitly opposed.

In a more recent YouGov poll since the government announcement, only a third of those surveyed said they would support fracking in their local area “if individual households received a direct payment in exchange” of up to £10,000. More than 43% said they were opposed, 26% of them "strongly". Another quarter said they didn’t know whether they supported it or not. The greatest opposition is in Scotland where 51% are opposed. Clearly the INEOS 'summer offensive' hasn't had much impact!

Liz Hutchins for FoE said: “The government are desperate to show support for shale gas exploration, and recent headlines that offered cash payments were meant to bolster, not diminish, support. But when you look at the details of the scheme, any cash for households would only be after shale exploration, and would be derived from taxation on profits. It all seems a pretty unlikely and distant proposition. What we do know is that the more people learn about fracking and what it could mean for their health and environment, the more opposed they could be. And it's clear from this survey that they haven't been fooled by the government's latest bribe.”

Joseph Dutton from the University of Exeter is even sceptical that significant household payments can be delivered. He argues: "that the ultimate value of the fund and therefore the payments it would distribute is wholly dependent on the tax regime in place when production begins, and the revenue a company derives from a shale gas site once costs are taken into account. Until actual gas production begins, it’s impossible to estimate how much tax the operating company will pay – or even if the shale industry would be a success in the UK at all."

He also makes the point that as the price of oil and gas has plummeted in the last two years, the economic case for developing potentially expensive shale gas deposits has weakened.

The Ferret has highlighted further concerns over another unconventional gas technology, underground coal gasification (UCG). A new report says plans to set fire to coal under the seabed at up to 19 sites around the UK (including east central Scotland) would cause massive climate pollution, groundwater contamination and toxic waste. Cluff Natural Resources has licences for nine potential undersea coalfields amounting to 640 square kilometres, valid until 2018-2020. Two are off the coast near Durham, two off Cumbria, two off Wales and three in the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

Friends of the Earth Scotland says: “Given what we know about this technology’s terrible history around the world, Cluff’s plans to burn coal seams off English coasts are utterly reckless. The UK Government should stop this industry now before Cluff gets his foot in the door.

So, we have had PR offensives, ministerial lobbying and now bribes to persuade us that these technologies make sense. The problem for the industry is that the public isn't convinced on safety grounds. The UK is a much more crowded space than the UK, with less room if things go wrong, as they have in the US. It also assumes that unconventional gas is economically viable. Even if it is, should we really be relying on another dirty fossil fuel when renewable alternatives are available?

For now at least, the answer on all counts is NO.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Home care workers say - We care, do you?

Scotland needs a quality home care service to meet the growing demand and also ensures that patients who shouldn’t be in hospital are cared for at home. While there is a welcome commitment to address this, the service at present is struggling.

I recently outlined the reasons our social care system is in crisis in an article in The Scotsman. Essentially, we have growing demand being met by a fragmented, largely outsourced workforce that has been subjected to a race to the bottom with their pay and conditions of work.

This is reinforced in a report UNISON Scotland has published today. ‘We care, do you?’ looks at the state of social care in Scotland and asks the staff who deliver the service to describe their experiences. The survey revealed:

• 9 in 10 (88%) said they were limited to specific times for client visits, with many reporting this was too short a period to properly cater to a client’s needs.
• Four in five said they believe the service has been affected by budget cuts or privatisation with carers saying the emphasis was now on “quantity rather than quality”.
• Over a quarter (26%) said they were not paid for their travelling time.
• Two thirds (66.5%) said they did not have anywhere to go between visits to have a meal, hot drink or toilet break.
• Nearly half (43%) said they worked longer than their contracted hours.

The Scottish Government is committed to paying care workers the Scottish Living Wage by 1st October this year. It remains to be seen if that will be delivered, as local authorities and providers struggle with the funding arrangements. It is important that the additional resources are distributed equitably and that the poor employers are not rewarded for past bad behaviour. It is equally important that pay is not increased at the expense of other conditions.

Fair pay and conditions are vital to recruit and retain staff. I have read several internal reports that highlight very high turnover rates amongst even the better contractors. Service users need continuity of service provision and turnover rates above 25% per annum cannot deliver this outcome.

Time to care is another key outcome. In today’s report, workers paint a picture of not having enough time to properly care for the vulnerable people who rely on them. The assertion that 15 minute care visits are only for the most minimal needs was roundly contradicted by carers, with some stating that scheduling did not account for travel time between visits.  As one worker described it:
“Sometimes I have 4 clients with all 15min scheduled time in the space of 1 hour with no travel time to each one.”

The section in today’s report on the times service users are helped out of bed and provided with breakfast makes particularly grim reading. As one worker put it:
“Earliest 7am but can still be doing breakfast at 11am, after giving the client a shower so be nearer 11.30 when they eat.”

Getting fair pay and conditions is the important starting point in resolving the social care crisis. However, it’s not enough on its own. That’s why UNISON Scotland is campaigning for local authorities to sign up to its Ethical Care Charter, which sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need home care.

It commits councils to buying home care only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide a better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it.