Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Health and Care Workers Covenant

 The pandemic has seen many key workers going far beyond their contract of employment to keep services running. That is particularly the case for health and care workers who have worked incredibly hard, at no small risk to themselves, to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those affected. It is time we recognised this commitment through a Health and Care Workers Covenant and that employers take action to minimise the impact on workers and their families.

Research shows that people who work in jobs like care, which are often called a calling, tend to have higher levels of resilience against the negative effects of overwork and stress and are less likely to experience burnout. However, that resilience can come at a price, both individually and for their friends and families. In a recent article, the authors argue that the families of workers in such roles also suffer massively. Called people can struggle to switch off after work and are less able to manage a balance between work and private life. Divorces and difficult relationships with children are not uncommon, as are exhausted family members. That is bad enough for the individual workers, but families shouldn't pay the price of their loved ones’ self-sacrifice.

Too many employers in the health and care sector have an operating model that depends on these workers going the extra mile. And we as a society also expect these workers to go beyond their contracts, particularly during the pandemic. They have delivered for us in challenging circumstances through governments' faltering actions and often without proper protective equipment and other safety measures. Employers have a duty of care to address this. I have recently been working with one social care organisation who have recognised this and taken a range of actions. But others take this level of commitment for granted.

NHS workers have had to deal with much larger numbers of critically ill patients than normal. Often in a far from an ideal situation, knowing this may lead to poor outcomes for their patients. This is having an impact on their mental health. A recent study of staff working in critical care during the pandemic showed they report more than twice the rate of probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found in military veterans who’ve recently experienced combat. The authors of this study argue that there might be some lessons we can learn from PTSD in military veterans to help NHS workers cope during the pandemic. Both during the trauma and in the recovery period.

The link to the military is one made by a number of Socialist Health Association Scotland members who raised the idea of a Health and Care Workers Covenant. This is modelled on the existing Armed Forces Covenant while recognising the important differences between the groups of workers. Not least gender, insecure work and the wider range of employers and unpaid carers. Their proposal, published today, outlines and promotes the concept of a covenant. The elements could include commitments on pay and conditions, training, safety equipment, and occupational health. It should also engage the wider community as some business have already done with staff discounts. It should be taken forward as a partnership involving government, local authorities, trade unions, care providers, carer representatives and others.


It is important to emphasise that a Health and Care Workers Covenant is not a substitute for collective bargaining and strong trade union organisation. This remains the best way to protect and improve the pay and conditions of these workers. The implementation of the Fair Work Convention recommendations, as supported by the Review of Adult Social Care, would be an important starting point. 

We need to pay workers with something more than just gratitude, and a covenant is an additional way of society recognising the sacrifices these workers and their families make for us all.


Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Future of Adult Social Care

The Independent Review of Adult Social Care in Scotland published its report today. It makes a wide range of recommendations that might address the long-standing need to reform this sector.



Most of us would agree with Derek Feeley's summary of the challenge: "This is a time to be bold and radical. Scotland needs a National Care Service to deliver the high quality, human rights-based services people need to live fulfilling lives, whatever their circumstances. Scotland has groundbreaking legislation on social care but there is a gap, sometimes a chasm, between the intent and the lived experiences of those who access support. We have a system that gets unwarranted local variation, crisis intervention, a focus on inputs, a reliance on the market, and an undervalued workforce."

The headline is creating a National Care Service, something many of us have supported for a long time. A national framework setting consistent standards on ethical commissioning, care standards and workforce issues should be the aim, with delivery as local as possible. There will be a concern that the report gets the balance between the national and the local wrong. If you put a senior civil servant in charge of a review, you shouldn't be surprised if he recommends a high degree of centralisation. Democratic local government is to be replaced by what looks like clear direction and funding from Edinburgh of the reformed IJBs. Social care should not exist in isolation from a wide range of other local services, and there is a real risk that those links will be lost. 

The report's support for reducing the use of institutional care, early intervention, technology, human rights, and involving people and families is uncontroversial. It also rightly recognises the role of unpaid carers and recommends bringing support for them within the National Care Service scope. However, it does perhaps fall into the trap of listing interesting local initiatives, without clearly explaining how we systemically ensure that best practice is rolled out in a way that reflects local circumstances. A national approach to improvement and innovation is fine, so long as it doesn't become the one size fits all approach that centralisation inevitably entails.

The chapter on commissioning signals a welcome move away from the market towards collaboration in the procurement and commissioning of services.  The trade-off is that providers have to be accountable for new standards of accountability, quality, staff wellbeing and transparency. However, the report is light on how this is to be delivered in practice, particularly in those sections that duck issues of ownership and the culture that for-profit services bring to the process. Sharing the 'unease' about care homes being run on a profit-making basis is pretty weak, and it is unclear what an 'actively managed market' means in practice. There are other ways to shift the balance of ownership than outright nationalisation. It also avoids tackling the sheer number of providers in the system and the duplication that this brings. 

The chapter on Fair Work is one of the strongest in the report. It supports the recommendations of the Fair Work Convention's report on the social care sector. It says that priority should be given to creating national sector-level collective bargaining of terms and conditions. The importance of getting a grip on workforce planning, training and development are also very welcome. A national job evaluation exercise should address many of the inequities in the current workforce pay structures, and bring Personal Assistants into the fold is also positive. The report recognises that the SSSC cannot meet the needs of the workforce in full, and it is right that its role, along with Care Inspectorate in regulation, is reformed.

Separating need from affordability is the right approach, but it brings funding challenges that the report skirts around. It is positive that the report recognises social care as an investment rather than a drag on resources, and the report seeks to identify some of the costs and savings involved in raising standards. Having been involved in previous efforts to cost this, it is not straightforward by any means and the suggested 20% increase in real terms funding is certainly required. Some options for raising the revenue are outlined in the report, but it makes no recommendations.

Overall, the report is a bit of the proverbial curate's egg. The creation of a National Care Service, workforce and investment are all positive reforms. On the other hand, the report is vague on how we are to shift from markets to collaboration, and it fails to address ownership and fragmentation in the delivery of services. I am concerned that it looks and feels like an overly centralised approach, which replicates other initiatives in education, police and fire - few of which have been successful. When in doubt - local is best. How to fund social care was probably too big a task for a review concluded in a commendably short time period.

Nonetheless, the report is an important step forward. We now need some political leadership to move from process to delivery.


On Monday, before the report was published, I was speaking at an event looking at the future of care from a devolved nation perspective with speakers from Wales and Scotland, including Julie Morgan MS the Welsh Government Minister and Monica Lennon MSP. There are some interesting initiatives in Wales, and they are facing similar challenges. The presentations were recorded and can be viewed on the SHA Scotland website.  

Friday, 15 January 2021

Helping small businesses to build back better

I have been doing some work with a couple of smaller businesses, mostly legal and HR issues. This isn't a sector I am very familiar with having spent most of my career working in the public sector and with large companies. So, it has been interesting and provided new insights.

One owner joked that he didn't expect to be getting help from a former trade union official. It did remind me of an evidence session in Parliament when I was seated between the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the CBI. The guy from the CBI asked, light-heartedly if I would be more comfortable swapping places. I pointed out that the biggest threat to small business is big business, not unions!

One of the firms had to close, and furlough staff during the first lockdown, but they recovered well as a hobby business demand was brisk. We sorted out some of their staffing issues, but they are now struggling with Brexit. I was, of course, familiar with the queues of lorries at Dover. Still, I hadn't fully appreciated the problems involved in just sending orders to EU companies that didn't exist before Brexit. Assurances from UK Government ministers don't match up for a firm exporting around a quarter of their products to the EU. As the owner put it, orders from the USA have always been a bit of a pain, but it was an occasional pain, not a constant backache!

The other firm has suffered pretty severely during the lockdown. It has had some help from the UK and Scottish Government schemes. I had heard that these were not always easy to access, and there were delays. However, I hadn't appreciated just how difficult it could be. Particularly for small businesses who don't have the in-house administrative expertise. I also discovered that ministerial announcements don't necessarily mean that the scheme is even up and running, let alone paying out.

With this experience, I paid a bit more attention to an article by competition lawyer Michelle Meagher in the RSA Journal's latest edition. She argues that as large global companies accumulate more power, competition laws are no longer fit for purpose. She uses the analogy of a combine harvester, in which big business sucks in the land, capital and people and churns up the world as it goes. This is reinforced by limited liability, short term shareholder value maximisation and executive remuneration. All of this has led to a concentration of markets, channelling power to a few companies in each industry. Instead of protecting the public interest, competition law is aligned to the needs of the combine harvesters. She proposes three solutions around dispersing, democratising and dissolving power. It reminded me of the, admittedly more radical, arguments in Andy Cumber's book The Case for Economic Democracy.

Wearing a different hat, I discussed the FSB's manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections this week. I can remember when I might have struggled to find much that I agreed with in a small business manifesto. However, there are plenty of decent progressive ideas in this paper, which is well worth reading. Not least the call for a bigger share of public procurement


The discussion has reinforced my view that Community Wealth Building is a critical economic initiative, and that more can be done to support smaller businesses that keep wealth local. My recent experience has also taught me that the vast number of schemes aimed at helping small business, often confuse and complicate access. In my last Reid Foundation paper, the public service hubs idea could also be developed to provide a one-stop-shop for business support.

Scotland's economy is built mainly on small businesses with more than a million jobs dependent on the sector. Like so many other areas, the pandemic has highlighted long-standing problems and created new ones. If we are to build back better, we have to support small businesses to be part of the solutions.