Welcome to my Blog

It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Electoral alliances - progressive or not

As the general election campaign kicks off, my newsfeed is full of stories about alliances, rather than the policy issues that matter.

The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was quick off the mark, indicating her support for a progressive alliance against the Tories, if the numbers stacked up. Of course this needs to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt and she well knows that such a call is damaging to Labour in England. A successful UK progressive alliance is not in the SNP's strategic interest, and they certainly don't want a left wing Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The case for independence needs a right wing, hard Brexit Tory government, to encourage left wing Scots to despair of the U.K.

Jeremy Corbyn was quick to dismiss this notion, not that this will stop the Tories and the media playing the 'in Sturgeon's pocket' card if the polls narrow. He argues that the SNP is not a progressive party. Objectively, this is a bit harsh, even if understandable in an election context. The SNP is a progressive party on many social policy issues, it's in economic policy that their progressive claims are blunted. A binary election on unionist/nationalist lines suits the Tories and the SNP, as Brian Monteith argued clearly in the Scotsman yesterday.

Then we have Compass, who argue that progressive parties shouldn't stand candidates if it ensures the regressive right win. I'm afraid this simply demonstrates how out of touch with reality Compass has become in recently years. There is neither practical support from the parties, any clear idea as to how this could be achieved, or what the programme might be. For completion, the same applies to the Women's Equality Party standing against 'misogynist' MPs. The NHS Party is even dafter, given the clear dividers between Labour and the Tories on the NHS in England.

The next 'alliance' we are asked to support, comes from Blair (although he has slightly backtracked) and Mandelson who together with 'Open Europe' have adopted a 20:20 strategy. 20 seats have been marked out for attack, as well as a list of 20 Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs who have been advocates of the closest relationship with the EU. This 'alliance' is less clear how these MPs will act progressively in parliament if elected. In fact there is little in this alliance that looks in any way progressive.

Alliances are not just a general election issue, they arise in the context of the council elections. Nicola Sturgeon has been attacked for hypocrisy in not ruling out coalitions with the Tories. Scottish Labour has also been under pressure to take a harder line on coalitions than they did in 2012.

Here the issues are more complex. The proportional representation voting system in Scottish local government, makes it very difficult to achieve an overall majority. This means coalitions, or at least understandings, are a necessary evil. The issue for parties that claim to be anti-austerity is how do you do a deal with the Tories, even if it is of the Tory lite variety? All too often councillors focus on the baubles of office rather than a credible policy programme for their communities.

At national or local level, pre-election alliances 'progressive' or otherwise are simply a non-starter. Of course, after an election, politicians have to handle the electoral cards they are dealt with by the electorate. But as Ken Loach said at the STUC this morning, 'I'm getting old so let's go for broke. We have one chance for a big change - don't lose it'. 

Time spent on 'progressive alliances' is simply a distraction from the important issues in this election. Forget it and focus on what really matters.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Council elections - keep it local

As the local government election short campaign gets under way – let’s keep it local.


Local government elections will be held for every seat in Scotland on Thursday 4 May. The first reminder is to make sure you are registered to vote. Changes to the system means that a lot of people have been missing from the register. If you haven’t received a polling card by now, you are probably not registered. It’s easy to do this online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, but it has to be completed by 17 April.


The second reminder is that these are local elections. The councillor you elect will make important decisions about local services including schools, social care, roads, libraries and much more. While I am not naive enough to believe that national issues don’t impact on local elections, I get very irritated when leaflets arrive through the door with the local issues relegated to an afterthought. – I bin them.


UNISON Scotland has published its manifesto for the election. There are some general themes around fair funding and the importance of keeping services local, as well as more detailed ideas around individual services. We will be highlighting some of these, and the people who deliver them, during the campaign because we all tend to take these services for granted.


I take some comfort from a poll we commissioned from Survation this month that voters do care about local services. Public services are the top priority for voters (70%); and half of all voters chose the public sector as the best to deliver our public services, only 19% chose the private sector and 13% chose charities. This included Conservative voters with only 31% saying the private sector and 10% saying charities are the best place to deliver public services.

That’s a clear message to council candidates from all parties that people in Scotland want high quality services, delivered by public sector staff. That doesn’t preclude other service providers, but in-house staff should be the primary means of delivering public services that are accountable to the public.  

There was also support for keeping services local, with the council being the most trusted deliverer of local services. Voters also wanted more of their taxes spent locally. They also recognised that the cuts have had a serious impact on the quality of public services. Hardly surprising when nine out of ten jobs lost in Scotland’s public sector since the austerity cuts have gone from local government.

We will be providing some useful questions for candidates in the coming weeks. So if a candidate chaps on the door - start by asking them, not what they have been told to say by central office, but how they will be standing up for local services. Keep it local.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Predictable State Pension Age review lacks imagination

As the UK government probably planned when they appointed a safe, if boring, pair of hands in John Cridland, his review of the State Pension Age (SPA) lacks imagination.

He recommends:
• State Pension age should rise to age 68 over a two year period starting in 2037 and
ending in 2039;
• State Pension age should not increase more than one year in any ten year period,
assuming that there are no exceptional changes to the data.

In addition, he recommends ending the triple lock on pension increases. Under his recommended timetable, State Pension spending would be 6.7% of GDP in 2066/67, which is a reduction of 0.3% compared to the principal OBR projection. If the triple lock is withdrawn, spending will be further reduced to 5.9% of GDP by 2066/67.

To address the huge disparities in life expectancy, he recommends some modest changes to the benefit system, support for carers and the joy of a mid-life MOT.

The review does recognise that public sector pension schemes now follow the SPA. This is a big issue for a range of public sector workers who undertake physically or mentally demanding jobs. He makes no recommendations on this point but reminds HM Treasury that they agreed to review the link between State Pension age and public sector pension schemes, after the Government has completed each State Pension Age Review. Don't hold your breath on this one!

For many people, certainly those on higher incomes in less demanding jobs, this increase in the SPA is probably manageable. Although it does assume that life expectancy will continue to rise exponentially. However, it is already the case that fewer than half of people are in work by the time they reach state pension age. Raising the SPA to 68 or 70 is likely to increase this proportion.

His recommendations are based on average life expectancy, a statistic that conceals huge inequalities, based on location, health, working and living environments. This increase in the SPA will affect poorer and less able bodied people disproportionately. While it also affects Scotland with our lower life expectancy, I accept that the case for a lower Scottish SPA is weak. The differences in life expectancy within Scotland are far greater than those with the rest of the UK.

With more imagination, he could have given more serious consideration to a flexible retirement age that takes into account the arduousness of work and the length of a persons working life. It would be complex to manage, but society needs people to do tough jobs that contribute to reduced life expectancy. These workers are in effect subsidising the better off, healthier individuals who will live longer and take more than their fair share out of the total state pension pot.

Cridland argues that a single state pension age is, “simple and clear and provides a trigger for pension planning”. It may be simple, but real people's lives are complex. The SPA, as the current data shows, is not the same as the actual retirement age.

This report recommends increasing the SPA using the standard broad brush approach. It will leave many reliant on the reducing social security system and insecure part-time work. 

A change to retirement at 70, even if a gradual process, needs extensive support for mid and later life career changes, personal development throughout their working life and decent levels of income support. It also needs a more imaginative approach to retirement age. Sadly, imagination is the element most lacking in this report.

The full review report can be downloaded here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-pension-age-independent-review-final-report

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Let's splash the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health

The UK has one of the best safety records in the world, but far too many people are injured and die at work, and much more needs to be done about ill health at work.

I was at the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) engagement event in Glasgow today, including the launch of the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health (SPLASH)*. The aim is to link up the HSE plans with those of the Fair Work Convention and other partners. This in itself is progress, as historically HSE has had a poor focus on the different approaches in Scotland. It is the devolved NHS Scotland that picks up the cost of failure.

Two and half million days are lost because of ill health caused by work in Scotland, which costs the Scottish economy around £600m, to which we can add £500m due to injury. Those who argue that health and safety regulation is just a burden, should at least focus on the human and financial cost of inaction.

The public health focus on health inequalities is also relevant to improving health at work, something less well understood in a health and safety context. NHS Scotland research shows that some occupations and industries are associated with consistently better health outcomes; others the opposite, including caring, process and customer service occupations of particular interest to UNISON Scotland. Work is being done on a single gateway to access services, as well as links to the devolved social security service.

The GB HSE health and work strategy also recognises this link. HSE focusing on preventing work-related ill health, public health focusing on improving general health of the working population, and DWP extending employment health benefits to those currently not working. Of course there are more than a few sceptics regarding the UK government's commitment to all three, particularly the DWP!

Traditional HSE strategies have focused on communications through employers. With around a million workers in the gig economy, sector 'employers' have little commitment to their workforce and therefore new approaches are needed. Technological change is also shaping the future world of work including quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and synthetic technologies - to which I would add the people impact of excessive monitoring and control. There is a risk that we are turning people into robots, before viable automation even arrives.

The ageing workplace (it's doubled in recent years) also needs greater attention - focusing on health as well as the more obvious safety issues. Tomorrow's world may be unrecognisable from that of today - although I would argue that we should be wary of extravagant futurologist claims, based on historical experience.

A key focus is on stress at work, tackling the stigma as well as the causes. It is the biggest cause of ill health and the Scottish Government is about to publish a new 10 year mental health strategy.

The Scottish plan is based on the work of the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland (PHASS). It is seen as an opportunity for all those in the Scottish health and safety system to work together to improve workplace health and safety. There is a useful interactive map on the website that helps link up this network. It is a living plan that will evolve over time based on the latest evidence and practical experience, 

Initially there will be twelve action plans. The plans that will be of greatest interest to UNISON members include plans on stress, social care, driving and workforce engagement. In particular, we have huge safety challenges in social care, from lone working to violence.

There is a real willingness to join up health and safety in Scotland across devolved and reserved issues. Obviously there will some tensions with this, but as usual people can help break through institutional and political barriers. The real test is turning the strategic intention into practical action. Many of the organisations involved have big funding challenges, but hopefully the sum of the total will help bridge some of that gap.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Tory health policy with a difference

When a new Scottish Conservative health policy lands on my desk, I flick through it expecting to see the usual marketisation, ignoring health inequalities and blaming the poor for their unhealthy lifestyles.


However, this new paper, ‘Healthy Lifestyle Strategy’ from Brian Whittle MSP is somewhat different. It aims to set out a long term alternative strategy for health, welling being and sport.

So, why is it different?


For starters, the first chapter is entitled ‘Health inequality in Scotland’, and describes the difference in health inequality across Scotland and between income groups. Admittedly there is more emphasis on geography than income inequality, but this is real progress. I can remember the last Tory Chair of Greater Glasgow Health Board denying any link between inequality and health – well after the Black report had been published!


The next chapter describes two pillars of a healthy lifestyle, activity and nutrition. These are of course important and the paper argues for investment in early intervention - preventative spending as we would call it. It also recognises the importance of using procurement as lever to achieve change. Again something UNISON has long argued for.


As you might expect from a former athlete, Brian Whittle argues that activity should be at the core of health and education. He is right, although the emphasis should be on activity, not just sport. The health benefits are undeniable, but what’s different about this policy is that it recognises at least some of the barriers to participation – not just blaming the poor. It also recognises the importance of early years childcare and learning to achieving change and the need to invest in these services. Most policies in this field focus solely on teachers, but this policy also recognises the role of early years practitioners, which is very welcome.


Somewhat surprisingly the paper highlights the difference in participation opportunities between state and private education, and even highlights the fact that a third of the British Olympic Team was made up from 7% of the population that was privately educated. It also quotes extensively from the CPAG Scotland report on the hidden costs that hamper participation in extra-curricular activity. It is similarly opposed to some council charges, which have been caused by the council tax freeze.


It is of course true that many school facilities are closed out of school hours. However, some recognition that this is often caused by PFI contracts would have been welcome. UNISON Scotland’s ‘Combating Austerity’ toolkit shows how we could tackle this.


The chapter of the importance of good nutrition emphasises the role of procurement in ensuring food in our schools and hospitals is of high quality and locally sourced. Almost word for word from UNISON Scotland’s Food for Good Charter - even quoting the groundbreaking work of our members in East Ayrshire Council. No ‘nanny state’ lectures here, just maybe as Stephen Jardine argues in the Scotsman – the tide has turned in this debate.


The paper concludes with a long series of recommendations. These are very practical ideas, almost all of which we would have very little problem with. Several are not the sort of policy proposals you would expect to find in a Conservative policy paper.


It would be a fair criticism to say that the paper would have benefited from greater context on the impact of inequality on health and measures to address this including the importance of progressive taxation to create a more equal society. Practical programmes that ignore this reality are going to struggle.


So, this isn’t the ‘Spirit Level’ recognition that more equal societies are also healthier societies, but that was probably a step too far! However, it is a real step forward in Conservative thinking on this issue and should be welcomed for that.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Batten down the hatches - it's Indyref2

There is a certain irony in the Tories arguing that demands for another independence referendum will create ‘uncertainty and division’ - when to resolve internal party squabbling they started this division with the EU referendum. To complain that the SNP has ‘tunnel vision’ about independence, is like moaning that water flows downhill – it’s what that party exists for.

Opinion polls consistently show that people living in Scotland don’t want another referendum. As John Curtice puts it:

“It is the apparent lack of enthusiasm for a second referendum amongst some supporters that is the main reason why opponents of an early second ballot are apparently in the majority.”

So it is perfectly reasonable for parties to vote against this next week. The difference, lost some Labour politicians, is that it is not appropriate for Westminster to block it - as Jeremy Corbyn has made clear.

That still leaves the issue of timing and the question or questions. On timing it seems to be a matter of either 18 months or 2 years plus of purgatory for those of us not signed up to either of the flag waving hard core groups. Like many in the centre ground of this debate, I had naively hoped that the absence of elections for a few years was an opportunity to tackle some long-term issues in Scotland.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about the question. The Scottish Government wants to go for a re-run of 2014, which gives them the positive ‘Yes’ ground. This may be the environmentally friendly recycling option for all those badges, but Westminster might have other ideas – ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ anyone?

And perhaps a second question? Last time both Alex Salmond and trade unions made the case for a second question on greater devolution. The Scottish Labour Party has recently adopted a more federal position and UK Labour is about to start its Peoples Constitutional Convention. This is much broader than just structures, addressing the redistribution of power and wealth.

I am not convinced a number of options on the ballot paper would work, but an either/or second question might. It would need a properly worked up proposal, which is pretty challenging in the available timeframe. It also needs to be truly radical – Calman, Smith etc were all missed opportunities, so another of these wont work.

After the Brexit vote, I argued that there might be two game changers for the Indyref swing voters – Scotland as the continuing EU state and a right-wing hard EU exit.

The first of those is unlikely and I suspect there will be some in the SNP who might want to fudge EU membership, to keep the many 2014 Yes voters who voted to leave the EU on board. The latter is still a possibility - Singapore on the Channel might stretch the solidarity case too far for many left wing 2014 No voters – particularly if the Labour right wing continues to undermine any chance of winning a UK election.

A big problem for the Yes/Leave camp is that largely middle-class EU Remainers are going to be more susceptible to the economic case against Independence. The economy remains a key issue and the SNP is going to have to answer these points a lot better than they did in 2014. This chart illustrates the point:

However, this could work both ways. As Jan Eichhorn from the University of Edinburgh argues:

“If leaving the EU became clearly associated with expectations of an economic downturn, the economic risks about Scottish independence might be re-evaluated by some. Conversely, if Brexit came to be seen as an opportunity for future economic prospects, Scottish views could shift in favour of the union.”

So, batten down the hatches for months of process haggling, followed by many more of ‘Project Fear’ v ‘Project Pollyanna’. Hold me back!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

UK Budget 2017 - still no coherent economic plan

The UK Budget does little for hard pressed households in the short-term, and even less for the long-term health of the economy.

Let’s look at the issues that matter to UNISON members.

Austerity is supposed to be driven by the budget deficit, so some good news that deficit is reducing this year. However, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that it will go back up next year, instead of shrinking as planned. There is a modest short-term giveaway of around £1.7 billion in 2017-18, dominated by additional funding for local authorities in England to deliver adult social care. This is followed by a modest medium-term takeaway averaging around £750 million a year from 2019-20 onwards. So this is probably the best year we can expect for public spending for a while.

The Barnett consequential for Scotland of all this adds up to £350m. Very welcome relief, although still only a dent in the austerity cuts. It’s a bit like having your pocket picked and the thief returns part of his ill gotten gains.

Looking ahead, the OBR expects real GDP growth to moderate during the first half of 2017, as rising inflation squeezes household budgets and real consumer spending. The relatively strong start to the year implies 2.0 per cent growth in real GDP in 2017 as a whole (still very modest by historical standards), up from 1.4 per cent in November, with small downward revisions thereafter. Most experts think even these forecasts will be optimistic against most Brexit scenarios.

As always the devil is in the detail. For example, the OBR notes the decision to reduce the personal injury discount rate, which will substantially increase the size of one-off settlement payments. The Government has set aside an extra £1.2 billion a year to meet the expected costs to the public sector, notably to the NHS. Health Boards in Scotland take note!

Next, members will be concerned about wages. The OBR has made a downward revision to earnings growth of 0.1 percentage points over the forecast period, with the growth rate rising progressively from 2.6 per cent this year to 3.6 per cent in 2021. Wages are still below 2008 levels in real terms. Even this is a fantasy for public sector workers because of the UK and Scottish government’s 1% pay policy.

The OBR believes that additional employer costs such as the apprenticeship levy and pension auto-enrolment will be borne by the workforce through lower wages. Even though the latest data indicate that corporate profits have risen strongly in recent quarters. Non-oil corporate profits are estimated to have increased by just under 11 per cent in the year to the third quarter of 2016.

The headlines in the budget relate to the less favourable tax treatment of the self-employed. In fairness, there is some justification for these changes and it might make bogus self-employment marginally less attractive. However, there is no justification for the cuts in Corporation Tax, given the growth in corporate profits. Anyone who still believes in the Laffer curve should look at this chart.

So what does this mean for household incomes? According to the latest National Accounts, the headline saving ratio fell to 5.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2016 as consumer spending growth outpaced household disposable income growth. In effect the Chancellors increased revenues are being paid for out of squeezed household incomes and falling savings. Not a basis for a long term economic plan. This chart makes the point graphically.

Overall, while there is some short term public spending relief, the economy is currently being sustained by debt-driven consumption and a low exchange rate, and the Chancellor has done little to address the long-term challenges.