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, 22 April 2021

Manifesto 2021 - National Recovery Plan

After more than two years of consultation and engagement, it was good to see the Scottish Labour election manifesto launched today. I have been working part-time managing the process leading up to the publication, so it is personal closure for me.

Drafting a manifesto is not the same as writing a book. That can be a solitary experience, even allowing for the research. A Labour manifesto, unlike some other parties, is not the product of a policy team disappearing into a darkened room to think beautiful thoughts. It is supported by a democratic structure and a series of consultation papers and engagement with members, affiliates and external stakeholders. There were literally hundreds of submissions, meetings and engagement events. The final document is also the product of teamwork with colleagues and elected representatives from all sections of the Scottish Labour Party.

I have been involved in many manifestos over the years, but this has been a very different experience. The pandemic not only meant the process shifted online, but it also impacted the structure and content. Most manifestos are largely done and dusted long before the short campaign starts. However, this year the lessons from the pandemic were an important influence on the final document. It also changed the focus from a parliamentary term to the immediate actions necessary to address the recovery from the pandemic. As one journalist pointed out, ‘recovery’ gets 193 mentions in the manifesto!

That is why the manifesto has two parts. Scottish Labour's National Recovery Plan sets out the immediate actions, and a second part outlines the policies that will address the underlying issues facing Scotland. I am personally agnostic on the constitutional arguments that bedevil Scottish politics. As I am not a nationalist or a unionist, it is just another policy option. What I am not agnostic about is the need to focus on the recovery from the pandemic. When 10,000 people have died, thousands more have lost their job, and 25,000 are ringing the mental health helpline; we need to forget about flags and focus on what really matters.

It is a lengthy document, which I am not going to attempt to summarise. However, it includes many radical policies that I have written extensively about in recent years, including:
  • Creating good quality sustainable jobs to avoid a lost generation of young people.
  • The concept of Good Work that goes much further than the current Fair Work initiative and will be properly enforced through procurement.
  • A real focus on health inequalities, Scotland’s most enduring and deadly problem.
  • Investing in a National Care Service with a new deal for the workforce and local democratic accountability.
  • Preventative spending in areas like housing, fuel poverty, early years and the environment.
  • Tackling climate change, moving from rhetoric to action with a Just Transition.
  • Ending the centralism of recent years through the principle of subsidiarity and investing in the social infrastructure that helps build stronger communities.
A few personal interest favourites include supporting working-class history and protecting our battlefields and other historical sites. Sadly, I couldn’t sneak the reintroduction of steam engines past ASLEF!

I recognise that few people read manifestos from cover to cover. The contents and word search mean you can dip into the sections that interest you. However, in my less than objective view, it’s worth a read.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Understanding opinion polls

 I was doing a session on public affairs at a company staff conference last week, and in the Q&A, I was asked about using opinion polls. The questioner referenced a Twitter exchange I had over a poll commissioned by Scotland in the Union and published in the Daily Record

In fairness to those responding, you would get a similar reaction from Unionists to a poll published in The National.

I have commissioned many polls over the years from different polling companies. The decision to publish a poll by a newspaper will be influenced by that newspaper's editorial line. So, it's no surprise that the Daily Record chose to run this story about a poll rather than The National. However, they didn't commission the poll, so they had no influence over its results.

So, what about those commissioning the poll. Well, they do have some control over the questions asked. The Scotsman reported on another question commissioned by the same organisation. The question read: “If there was a referendum tomorrow with the question 'should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?', how would you vote?”. 47% said to remain, 37% said leave. In effect, this is the reverse of the 2014 question giving the unionist camp a positive position. This very clearly illustrates the importance of how the question is worded. Asking the 2014 question generally delivers a 50:50 outcome, as John Curtice's analysis shows.

While both questions are legitimate, they are clearly not comparable, and I doubt John Curtice would include it in his poll of polls. Polling companies, in my experience, will allow some leeway over questions, not least because they will publish the question so people can make their own minds up. What they won't allow is an overly leading question, and what they certainly won't allow is any interference with the polling methods and analysis. 

For campaigning purposes polls can be very useful. They can demonstrate public support for your campaign, something always likely to catch the attention of the politicians you are attempting to persuade. It may be tempting to try on a leading question, but its unlikely to be credible. The best advice is to stick to a positive but reasonably balanced series of questions, which give you a range of options when publishing. 

I'll leave polling analysis to the experts. I was at a Fraser of Allander Institute event for University of Strathclyde Alumni as well last week, second rate though we may be according to Andrew Neil!  John Curtice was giving the lecture and emphasised that a single poll is only a snapshot in time. I'll leave you with his summary slide. 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

On the Corona Frontline - European perspectives on social care

A new report based on in-depth case studies of social care workers in nine European countries offers a unique perspective on the situation of elderly care workers during the pandemic. I wrote the Scotland case study, and it was fascinating to see how the different care systems across Europe responded to the pressures caused by COVID-19.


Even though the coronavirus pandemic has had different impacts on European countries, one common denominator is that the virus has hit the elderly hard, particularly those caring for older persons. This placed Europe’s care workers on the coronavirus frontline. The overview report, written by Lisa Pelling, head of the Swedish think tank Arena Idé identifies some common themes across Europe, including:
  • Shortages of personal protective equipment and lack of clear guidelines for when and how it should be used.
  • Pre-existing staff shortages worsened further during the crisis, increasing the already unbearable workload of care workers. 
  • Care workers suffered from increased physical and mental pressure, and there are reports of a dramatic increase in the incidence of burnouts, depressions and substance abuse.
  • Although they were forced to work harder and more overtime than ever before, elderly care workers were left with precarious working conditions, many on zero-hour contracts and paid by the hour. When they too fell ill, many countries left them without adequate sick pay.
  • Trade unions representing elderly care workers have made a decisive difference, both for the workers and older people. 
The report makes several recommendations covering the pandemic and the broader reform of social care. These include basic safety provisions, raising employment standards, and an end to social care underfunding. 

In my case study, I explain how health and social care are organised in Scotland and how they responded to the pandemic. It is interesting to look at how other countries deliver these services, with varying degrees of integration and the balance between public and private sector involvement.

In Scotland, social care was in crisis before the pandemic hit due to an ageing population, staffing shortages, and chronic underfunding. The pandemic has cruelly exposed these problems with excess death rates significantly higher than similar countries in Europe. Half of all deaths from COVID-19 have been in the largely privatised residential care sector, exacerbated by the transfer of patients with the virus or untested from hospitals to care homes early in the pandemic to release NHS capacity. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment, inadequate testing, minimal sick pay, and the use of agency staff have all contributed to this outcome. Care at home services have also been reduced, placing additional pressure on unpaid, informal carers.

Employment standards in social care vary considerably between sectors and employers. Care work is undervalued, not least because of discrimination against the mostly female workforce. Attempts have been made to improve pay in the sector with the requirement to pay the Scottish Living Wage, along with new registration and training standards. However, implementation has been challenging, which leaves a range of poor employment practices that have not been addressed.

The trade union response focussed on providing immediate support to members, negotiating with employers and government, and campaigning for service reform. The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges in organising a disparate workforce, and unions have relied heavily on social media. Recruitment has improved, helped by victories over wages, the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sick pay and death benefits. Unions have also campaigned for a reformed social care system, structured around a new National Care Service, which is properly funded, ends the marketisation of care, and values the workers who care for society's most vulnerable members.

I wrote the paper before the Feeley report was published, but I was able to add in a short commentary. The establishment of a National Care Service and workforce reforms have been welcomed by the trade union movement. However, the proposed structures are highly centralised, largely removing local democratic accountability, and does not do enough to rein in the marketisation of services. While the need for a significant increase in funding is recognised, the report makes no recommendations on how this should be financed.

The overview report concludes:

"The pandemic has proven that deficiencies in social care— which trade unions and their members have warned and protested about for many years—such as precarious working conditions, understaffing and underfunding, have been devastating for the ability to protect the most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic: the elderly. It is high time that we listened to them."

Thursday, 4 March 2021

UK Budget 2021 - Schizophrenic or maybe not

 Depending on who you read in today's UK budget analysis, the Chancellor has either gone full-blown John McDonnell or is returning to austerity. You would think both cannot be right, and in my view, they are not. This is a Tory Chancellor reverting to form.

Let's start with Scotland. There is £1.2bn in Barnett consequentials, which gives some flexibility in the Scottish Government budget for this year, even if it adds to long-term financial planning challenges. An important issue, particularly for those organisations that need greater funding certainty, and will make the traditional arguments over manifesto costing pretty irrelevant. 

The Budget also confirms a trend we have seen in recent years of the UK government funding projects in the devolved administrations directly, to the tune this year of £1.4bn. Union Jacks are to replace the Saltire on a wide range of projects. His speech was replete with UK rhetoric, which implies the Union Directorate in No.10 has been working overtime despite its regular leadership changes! Martin Kettle explores some of the politics behind this in the Guardian this morning. Brian Wilson did an interesting piece concerning the incompetent management of EU funds by the Scottish Government and makes the valid point that; "We need more of a power grab – so that powers reside with the level of government best placed to implement them efficiently and for the purposes intended. Scotland is not all one localism and our politics need to reflect that."

The more serious medium-term concern is the consequences for public services. The short-term spending looks huge, but it hides a plan to return to austerity pretty quickly. For example, nothing was said about the NHS and social care, which will have consequences for restarting the NHS and the pandemic backlog. It also means that the Scottish Government can no longer duck the issue of how they will fund the Feeley Review recommendations. 

Ending the Universal Credit uplift in six months will throw half a million people across the UK into poverty, including 200,000 children. It was also silent on helping 700,000 households who have fallen behind on rent and are now at risk of eviction. Freezing personal allowances will add to this concern. Having said that, personal allowances generally help the better off, so they are not the best way to help the lowest paid. The SNP's Council Tax freeze is regressive for similar reasons. We should instead be looking at other aspects of personal taxation to make it more progressive.

For the economy, the short term boost of pent up spending may get us through to next year, but as the OBR report makes clear, growth is likely to be pretty anaemic after that. The Chancellor seems to think that private investment will provide a boost, supported by his 'super deduction' to Corporation Tax. There is a good reason while this has not been tried before. This type of allowance generally rewards investment decisions that would have happened anyway. The big increase in Corporation Tax looks very Corbynesk, but it is still lower than when the Tories came into power. Corporation Tax is aimed at company profits, so should recoup a share of the profits from firms who have had a 'good' pandemic. However, these are often the very firms that are most adept at dodging tax.

One big health warning over the Budget plans. The real budget lines only apply to the coming financial year. Anything after that is just planned. Experience shows that these are likely to change, even more so in the uncertain times we live in. 

Overall, it seems clear that John McDonnell has not managed to sneak into No.11 and shift shape himself into the Chancellor. This is an austerity budget that will hit the poor hardest. Sunak has returned to form.

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.