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.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Volunteering and the cuts

I was at Scotland’s annual voluntary sector event ‘The Gathering’ today, speaking at a session on volunteering.

A number of speakers highlighted changes in volunteering in recent years together with the different types of volunteers. While many people are still prepared to volunteer there are huge challenges for the sector.

I reflected on some of those in my contribution. UNISON has some 4000 volunteer activists in Scotland who represent our 160,000 members. While unions have professional staff like me, the backbone of the trade union movement is still built on volunteers.

The pressures on volunteering are similar in trade unions as elsewhere. Longer hours, presenteeism and cuts in real wages make it difficult to find the time or the energy to undertake voluntary activity if you do a full time job. On the other hand the loss of 51,000 public sector jobs in Scotland since the crash, means there are plenty of workers who have finished work early who have the skills and the time to volunteer. Volunteering is often a valuable way of making the psychological transition.

While the Big Society has rightly been seen for the sham it is in Scotland, we should be aware of the challenges when volunteering and paid work exists side by side. Particularly since the development of a more commercial approach in some parts of voluntary sector in response to procurement practice.

There are protocols between the trade union movement and the voluntary sector in Scotland that recognise this tension. These are set out in the Volunteering Charter agreed in 2011 between Volunteering Development Scotland and the STUC. This charter recognises the value of volunteering and sets out common principles including mutuality.

The practical measures include recognition that volunteering is undertaken by choice. A principle that is being undermined by UK Government workfare measures. Volunteers should not normally be paid other than reasonable expenses and should complement not displace paid staff or undercut their pay. They should also not be used to reduce contract costs, instead they should be used to supplement the service through additionality. A number of contributions and the straw poll indicated that many in the sector fear that volunteers are likely to used to plug the gap caused by spending cuts.

Volunteers should also be supported, trained, and operate in a safe working environment in the same way as paid staff. There should also be machinery for the resolution of any problems between paid staff and volunteers and not be used to undertake the work of paid staff during industrial disputes.

A discussion with a number of colleagues in the sector confirmed my view that these principles are under great pressure and perhaps now is the time to review the Charter.

So there are clearly pressures and opportunities to develop volunteering in Scotland. But those same pressures mean that we must manage the relationship between volunteering and paid work carefully if volunteers are to be nurtured not exploited.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Public safety risk exposed


Before the current horsemeat scandal broke we were getting feedback from members in Environmental Health departments that staffing cuts were undermining their work in protecting the public. We therefore sought to ascertain the facts through Freedom of Information requests and two surveys of UNISON members.

Today, we publish the results and they confirm cuts to local council environmental health departments and to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are putting public health at risk.

The total number of qualified Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) employed by 30 of Scotland’s 32 councils, has gone down by 13% between 2008/9 (519) and 20011/12 (450). There has been an even bigger drop in other staff carrying out an enforcement role in environmental health departments, 507 down to 423 in the same period or 17%. In addition the number of meat inspectors has more than halved in Scotland since 2003, down from 170 to 75, a shocking statistic in the light of the current horsemeat scandal.

When we asked the staff how they would describe the cuts, 56% of staff said that their team has seen “major” cuts, with a further 10% describing cuts as “severe”, and more than 95% expecting further cutbacks and job losses in the next couple of years.

As is often the case with this type of survey it is the additional comments that say as much as the raw statistics.

One member working on food safety in an environmental health department said: “We have not submitted any samples for food in ten months!” Another said, “There are far too few staff for the amount of food premises and other additional jobs required to be carried out by EHOs."

As we have been warning for some time our members can see departments depleted, with the loss of experienced staff, ‘lighter touch’ regulation, fewer proactive inspections, preventive and educational work. Other essential services, particularly health and safety are being cut back drastically.

While in the current climate the focus is not unreasonably on food safety, we should also not forget the health and safety function EHO’s undertake. As one member put it:

“I have major fears about the changes to health and safety inspections having inspected a lot of businesses in the last 7 years. About 75% of them did not have risk assessments or any awareness of the need to do them. Most knew nothing about accident reporting regulations.”

Health and safety should be about preventing accidents. For example, the legionnaire’s outbreak in Edinburgh again followed a cut in inspections.   However, EHO’s simply don’t have the time to do preventative work. What we are seeing in relation to horsemeat today will be replicated in other areas, unless we stop the cuts and the obsession with light touch regulation.

I will finish with one final quote that for me says it all:

“I have spent time with parents whose child has been desperately ill with Ecoli poisoning. It is awful and preventable. We can help prevent this and other tragic things happening. But this will become less and less often. A rise in public health related illness and injury will happen. But possibly more gradually than most think. Un-noticed maybe. But it will happen.”

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

In praise of Anas Sarwar's speech - well sort of!


Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar made a set piece speech earlier this week that has been attacked from the fringe left and the right. It is worth reading in full rather than relying on some of the commentary that doesn't do it justice.  

I am someone who is likely to consider his words with a critical eye. I didn’t support Anas as Deputy Leader largely because he was a Vice-Chair of Progress, although he has subsequently resigned that post. I am also not a great fan of professional politicians, although in fairness he did at least do a real world job. His strengths are presentational rather than ideological, so a policy speech focusing on political principles is interesting. 

So what did he say? The introduction covered some common Miliband themes of social justice and inequality, broken politics, attacking the banks, energy companies and tax dodging. While not new, these are themes even the right recognises are dangerous for them. Hence Cameron is at least talking tough on tax dodging and energy prices. 

His pitch for Scottish Labour’s principles of Community, Solidarity, Fairness, Equality
and Social Justice won’t find many opponents within the party, although many of us would add a few more. He wisely targeted the references to universal provision, learning lessons from the less well crafted Johann Lamont speech on the subject. As I commented at the time, the reaction from some quarters to that speech was hysterical as she no more condemned universal provision than the SNP have adopted it. The legal aid debacle has demonstrated that. However, while I understand the differentiation strategy over universalism, I still believe it does more damage than good.
 

But for me the most interesting part of the speech was when he, at least partially, tackled the issue Johann ignored – taxation. While his focus was on geographical redistribution he also pointed to a gap in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, which he argued had, “No progressive argument in favour of those with the broadest shoulders sharing the biggest burden. How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution?” 

So overall it wasn’t the speech that I would have written and of course it doesn’t go far enough. But it was none the less a significant move in the right, or left, direction. For a former Vice-Chair of Progress to even talk about wealth redistribution is real progress with a small ‘p’. It is a recognition that faced with the most reactionary government for a generation; this is the territory we need to be on. Anas Sarwar may not be a conviction politician, but he appears to at least recognise that Scottish Labour needs more than managerialism to motivate members and capture the support of Scottish voters. 

I won’t spend much time commenting on the predictable reaction to the speech from the fringe, exemplified by Robin McAlpine’s rant at the Reid Foundation. The key is in the last line of his post, “Or stay where you are”. This reflects the fringe left view that if Labour moved to the murky middle they can capture the left vote in Scotland. That isn’t going to happen and in real world politics you have to build broad alliances to achieve change.
 
In that context, if I can adapt Mark Antony’s words - I come to broadly praise Anas’s speech, not to bury him.    

Action on climate change


I was giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Regeneration Committee this morning on the Draft Report on Proposals and Policies (RPP2) for tackling climate change in Scotland. A more readable summary has been prepared by SPICE.

Recent international reports have highlighted the world’s high carbon emission trajectory and the impact has been evidenced through the record Arctic ice melt in 2012, the hottest decade on record for global temperatures, and a growing body of evidence linking extreme weather events to climate change. In Scotland we have world leading climate change legislation. However, delivery needs to match the rhetoric and these latest proposals and polices fall short of what is required. 

There is an over reliance on proposals over policies, as well as on the EU increasing its climate change target. As the Stop Climate Change Coalition (SCCS) emphasised at the time of the Bill’s passage through Parliament, we need to make a strong start otherwise the task becomes too great and future government’s will argue they are unable to meet the targets. This means we need more action in the form of proposals not vague policies. Unless all proposals described are fully implemented and the EU changes its level of ambition, Scotland will meet just one annual target between now and 2027. 

There is a lack of transparency in order to inform independent assessment of these plans. RPP2 actually provides less information than RPP1.  It no longer distinguishes between UK, EU and Scottish policies as clearly as did previously, nor does it provide estimates of costs for proposals. In the current financial environment that is obviously important as is a full account of the costs and benefits by sector. 

The plans simply don’t provide a credible route to reducing emissions at the rate required, let alone build a low carbon economy. It is hard to identify an increase in policy effort in RPP2.  Certainly the ‘step change’ in effort advised by the UK Climate Change Committee is not apparent. For example, in the transport sector there is an actual reduction in effort and no Scottish Government polices to address the issue. 

Councils are of course facing a very difficult time as they are bearing the brunt of the spending cuts and their workforce is being slashed by a much higher proportion than other public services. Despite this they are key players and many are doing excellent work in specific areas.  However, it is not easy to make an overall assessment of progress across their full remit and their duties under the Scottish Climate Change Act due to lack of consistent data on activities and emissions savings. Again this is something we warned would happen without mandatory annual reporting. 

On the ground I have to say that there is only limited evidence of the culture change required. As we warned the guidance is vague and over reliant on heroic leadership models. Green Workplace initiatives that build support for cultural change from the bottom up are the exception and councils with a good record on this like South Lanarkshire are rare. Procurement was to be an important driver, but the Scottish Government has dropped ‘sustainable’ from its Procurement Bill and that sends out the wrong message.

Planning should play an important part in meeting climate change targets but hard pressed planning officers are juggling to many other competing priorities. Development plans should have an explicit statement to show how they will contribute to the reduction of emissions.

While local authorities want to play their part in reducing emissions their capacity to do so is being undermined by the cuts. There are examples of positive action but there is not enough sharing of good practice and reporting is inconsistent. Top down leadership models hamper the engagement of staff. Today's report by the Sustainable Scotland Network highlights some of these problems and makes sensible, if modest, recommendations for change. 

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Regulatory cuts and the meat scandal

Sunday newspapers doing what they do best today, giving us some in depth analysis and breaking new ground with the week's news stories.

The standout story comes from Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald. Three key regulatory statistics form the basis for the story:
  • The number of meat inspectors in Scotland has fallen by more than 50%, from 170 in 2003 to 75 today.
  • The number of samples taken by Scottish local authorities to test for food safety has fallen from more than 16,000 in 2008-09 to 10,200 in 2011-12
  • Over the last four years there has been a 21% drop in the number of specialist food safety officers employed by local authorities and an 11% fall in the number of environmental health officers.
Then an expert to give us an overiew in this case Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling He argued that the horsemeat fiasco was a "sentinel event" with widespread implications. "We need to protect public health better. Declines in meat inspector numbers and local authority food safety officers, along with reduced food sampling, must contribute to a weakening of public health standards and the possibility of criminal abuses in the food system." He also criticised Government ministers for trying to heap the blame on food processors when it was their responsibility to safeguard public health, saying: "We need to revive, not marginalise, environmental health and food safety and raise standards of protection for consumers."

And my own contribution. "Unison's Scottish organiser, Dave Watson, accused governments of forgetting the lessons learned from the BSE crisis in the 1990s about controlling the meat industry. He said: "Only strong, independent inspection can properly protect the public from industry malpractice. The current scandal follows cuts in meat inspection and environmental health services, proving that 'light touch' regulation has been a disaster for consumers."

On a UK basis, the Observer today gives us an update on the latest developments and an excellent piece by Will Hutton pointing to how the meat scandal shows all that is rotten about the free marketeers.

"As an effective regulator, it (FSA) was disliked by "wealth-generating" supermarkets and food companies. Its 1,700 inspectors were agents of the state terrifying honest-to-God entrepreneurs with unannounced spot checks and enforced "gold-plated" food labelling. Regulation should be "light touch".

This is a point we made last year and again at the outset of the scandal. The meat industry has been lobbying for self-regulation for years. Now it has come back to bite them they are falling over themselves to reassure us. As Hutton puts it:

"Paterson, beneath the ideological bluster, is as innocent about business as Bambi. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health."

I could not have put it better myself.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Workfare schemes ruled unlawful

I was on the BBC ‘Call Kaye’ programme this morning to discuss the Court of Appeal ruling that the UK Government’s “Back to Work” schemes are unlawful and the regulations must be quashed. The ruling is a big setback for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who have driven the controversial reforms.


Predictably the Tax ‘Dodgers’ Alliance also turned up to tell us that this was a wonderful scheme in the interests of taxpayers and the unemployed. As a business funded organisation the provision of free labour was obviously just a bonus!

Well it isn’t a wonderful scheme and these are the main reasons why:

• In the broadest sense of the phrase this is forced labour. The Community Action Programme, Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme (the clue is in the name) are mandatory schemes and jobseekers will lose their jobseeker’s allowance if they do not participate.

• Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) is paid to support people whilst they seek employment. It is not payment for work, not least because the hourly rate would be as little as £1.78 per hour.

• The UK government’s own international research shows it doesn’t work when unemployment is so high. Youth unemployment in Scotland has doubled. Their study said, “Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.” There is also no evidence that these placements turn into significant real jobs.

• In practice it’s simply job substitution, often for large profitable retailers. Better employers have pulled out because they don’t want to be associated with it. Glazing firm CR Smith are quoted in today’s Herald, "If we are to give people, and particularly young people, a meaningful work experience, it should be through a proper paid job. The sense of reward that comes, in part, from being paid for your efforts is fundamentally important to anyone's motivation to strive to do more." Very well put.

• Substituting forced free labour for waged workers damages the economy.

• The schemes do not simply apply to the long term unemployed, so the argument that it gives the unemployed some sort of focus doesn’t apply. People who rightly feel they are being exploited are not being motivated. And by the way, the scheme doesn’t apply to ‘benefit scroungers’ because they are debarred from these schemes as they are not seeking work.

So let’s get the facts right. Full credit to Public Interest Lawyers for supporting the pursuers in this case. And to the callers on this morning’s programme, who told us of their own experiences of being exploited on these schemes.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Fiscal Commission Report


There have been some heavyweight salvos this week in the constitutional debate. From the YES corner we have Crawford Beveridge and his team drawn from the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers. This is without doubt a weighty contribution, full of decent analysis; if not a lot of repetition in case we missed the key messages!  

The first report of the Fiscal Commission Working Group sets out a macroeconomic framework centred on three pillars: 

·         Monetary Policy – including the choice of currency and the framework for setting interest rates and the money supply to promote (‘price’) stability and minimise short-term volatility;

·         Financial Stability – including the use of prudential regulation, supervision and resolution tools to ensure stability in the financial system; and,

·         Fiscal Policy – including the setting of taxes, government spending and borrowing within an overarching framework of fiscal sustainability. 

A key message is that under independence Scotland would control the levers that would give the country the flexibility to respond to the prevailing economic conditions. A positive example of this is immigration policy, although the implications for border controls are not explored in this paper. 

This report sets out a very similar monetary approach to that outlined by John Swinney by keeping the pound within a Sterling zone and UK co-ordination of financial supervision. This includes “separating the link between the balance sheet of financial institutions and government”. The lessons from the “arc of prosperity” have clearly been learnt!   

The fiscal recommendations are also similar, although it says more about the public spending implications of fiscal policy. It describes a fiscally conservative approach in the early years of independence in order to establish Scotland’s credibility as an independent nation. This very much reminds me of Gordon Brown’s approach as UK Chancellor in 1997. 

The report recommends that, “in addition to boosting economic growth, the Government should explore and prioritise opportunities to address inequalities and to promote intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability”. That’s a fine objective, but the report goes on to link fiscal policy to the UK through a, “fiscal sustainability agreement with overall objectives for ensuring that net debt and government borrowing do not diverge significantly.” 

On public spending the report recognises that the balance of Scotland’s relative fiscal strength depends heavily on revenue from the North Sea. Estimates of this revenue vary widely and are subject to worldwide price volatility. The Fiscal Commission recommends establishing a stabilisation fund from oil revenues that exceed current budget requirements to smooth out and future financial shocks. While this is a prudent measure as part of their fiscal framework it does limit the ability of the Scottish Government to tackle structural inequality. In fact the framework they propose would significantly constrain the ability of the Scottish Government to adopt an alternative economic strategy such as A Better Way advocated by the STUC. In essence it foresees a fiscally conservative approach that places market credibility above other considerations.  

The Fiscal Commission’s approach to monetary policy has the same shortcomings I highlighted in last Red Paper publication. There has to be a huge question mark over the willingness of the rest of the UK (rUK) to enter into their proposed Sterling zone and to share governance of the Bank of England in the way the Fiscal Commission suggests. Even if that was possible Scotland would at best be a junior partner with a minority say over a key lever of economic policy. Handing over monetary policy to rUK also limits the scope of fiscal policy. We only have to look at the Eurozone crisis debate to see the link between monetary and fiscal policy. If the key economic levers are controlled by another country, then there is less influence on monetary, and fiscal, policy than under devolution. 

The Fiscal Commission’s much vaunted flexibility under independence is looking more like a straightjacket for a future Scottish Government. It may help to make independence sound less threatening to the financial markets, but there is little for those who argue that an independent Scotland should be a radical beacon of change.


Cross posted at the Red Paper and there will be an opportunity to discuss these issues on Saturday at the Red Paper seminar. You can register here.

We're living longer - but it costs


That’s the conclusion of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee in a report that looks at the aging population in Scotland and the financial consequences. 
Scotland’s population increased to 5,295,000 in 2011 – the highest ever. Since the 2001 Census, the population has increased by 233,000 (5%). This represents the fastest growth rate between two census years in the last century. However, it is the most elderly age-groups of the population that are projected to increase most dramatically. Between 2010 and 2035 those aged 75 and over are projected to increase by 82%. 
Evidence to the committee highlighted the importance of focusing on healthy life expectancy as well as life expectancy.  The ratio of healthy life expectancy to non-healthy life expectancy is not changing much in Scotland (for men it is widening), so the increase in life expectancy is also increasing the potential costs. ADSW estimates the difference between best and worst case scenarios is over £1 billion by 2030 - the difference between an 18.4% increase in costs (excluding inflation) or a 28.7% increase between 2010 and 2030. The committee recommends that the Scottish Government, councils and health boards do more long term planning to address this issue. 
The Committee’s aim is clearly meant to be a wake up call to Government and public bodies to plan for the costs of an aging population. It therefore focuses on the negatives rather than the positives. This is something I mentioned when giving oral evidence to the committee before Christmas. Many older people are living healthier lives to a greater age which will decrease the number of years that they require care. Older people, particularly those with good pensions, have a huge spending power and businesses and policy makers should recognise the needs of ageing consumers. They also make a productive contribution through caring and volunteering in various settings and, since the abolition of the Default Retirement Age many of them are continuing to work well beyond the previous norm of 65.
The committee looked at the financial implications of this in three main areas: health and social care; housing; pensions and the labour force.
Council and health board budgets have not kept up with demographic change in the past ten years, let alone the future. For example, emergency admissions to hospitals have a targeted 10% reduction, but they are actually increasing, particularly for the o/75s. The committee found limited progress in preventative spending, joint planning or a shift in funding.
Evidence on housing highlighted the need for new build and adaption of existing stock to accommodate an aging population. For example, the overall number of pensioner households requiring adaptations will rise from 66,300 in 2008 to over 106,000 in 2033. It is unclear if this rising demand has been costed in current plans.
On pensions and the labour force the committee notes that longer life expectancy will increase the cost of public sector pension schemes. As the report quotes, I did highlight the fact that averages can hide a harsh reality for many workers in Scotland who are unlikely to reach the new retirement age. 
The Hutton Report recognised that costs would fall as a proportion of GDP. This is largely due to the 2008 reforms and further changes will reduce costs further. For example, this year the Scottish Government will save £295m on the NHS scheme.  The committee recommends that the government investigates the longer term costs. 
In summary, the report scopes a huge challenge for public finances and believes more needs to be done now. While this is a useful reminder, a focus on cost can obscure the positives of people living longer.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Meat Inspection

No apologies for returning to the issue of food safety and meat inspection. It has been in the news every day this week, followed by feature articles in today's papers.

And rightly so. The horsemeat scandal has been a real wake up call to both consumers, regulators and the industry alike. Today, with no small degree of irony, the NFU pitched in with this piece in The Herald:

"The National Farmers' Union (NFU) Scotland has warned that the country's livestock farmers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the deepening crisis, which is in danger of damaging their livelihoods. Yesterday it called on the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Scottish Government to get across to the public that Scotch meat standards remain among the highest in the world."

The irony is that for years parts of the meat industry have been lobbying at EU, UK and Scottish levels for greater self-regulation. Now that they issue has blown up in their faces they want government to act!

As we highlighted yesterday the meat inspection workforce managed by the Food Standards agency has shrunk from a high point of 1700 – during the BSE and e-Coli crises in the 1990s – to around 800 today. This has been a direct consequence of the deregulatory policies of both the European Commission and UK Government to hand over more and more meat inspection duties to the meat industry and dispense with proper independent inspection.

The Scottish Government rightly decided last June to take back operational control of this devolved issue through the establishment of FSA Scotland. Something many parts of the media have overlooked, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Scottish Government have not exactly been shouting loudly about this week.

We warned then that a new food standards body for Scotland could result in watering down of standards and says it must not be used as a backdoor to privatisation. The de-regulating meat lobby has been just as busy in Scotland.

So here are three things that the FSA should do now and Scottish Ministers could also commit to as they introduce the legislation to formally establish the new body:

  1. The immediate re-introduction of daily, independent inspections of meat cutting premises,
  2. The FSA to oversee the independent inspection of food manufacturing premises –where government cuts have compromised the ability of local environmental health services to do so,
  3. The FSA to ensure that all horses killed in the UK for human consumption are tested for the drug “BUTE” and that any horse carcases tested should not be released for human consumption until the test has returned a negative result.
We need a measurable shift away from self-regulation and back to independent inspection at all stages of the food process. Perhaps now the meat lobby will recognise that this is in their interests as well as consumers. 





Friday, 8 February 2013

Budgets and infrastructure


Finance has dominated the action in Parliament this week with the Scottish Government’s budget for 2013/14 and the fallout from the Infrastructure plan update.

John Swinney made some limited concessions to parliamentary scrutiny including:

·         An increase in funding for colleges of £61 million over the spending review period. However, in the draft budget, ministers proposed a £34.6m cut to college budgets. Of the £61 million announced yesterday, there is only an initial £10 million injection which still means the sector loses £24.6 million. As those giving evidence to the Education Committee  this week pointed out, this means fewer courses and much needed places for students.

·         An additional £38 million for the housing budget, increasing funding for energy efficiency of homes and more affordable housing. Again, while welcome the additional cash it only reinstates part of earlier cuts.

·         £2 million to bring vacant town centre properties into residential use.

·         An additional £10 million for trunk road maintenance. The additional funding will be used to deliver essential road and bridge repair works identified as part of Transport Scotland’s detailed inspection programmes. Nothing for local roads that are the responsibility of councils.

Local government continues to take the largest budget cut over the spending plan period. In addition the regressive Council Tax freeze and small business bonus will continue with no increase in the funding for this measure. The total job loss in Scottish councils since the crash now exceeds 34,000.  Local government makes up 57.3% of workforce but has taken 66.7% of the workforce cuts.  This is reflected in Council budget setting that also starts this week.

The other major contributor to the budget deficit is of course continuing pay restraint. Public sector workers continue to pay the price of the bankers folly and the economy suffers through the loss of demand and consumer confidence. With bankers still defending their bonuses at Westminster this week they have clearly learnt nothing.

On capital spend the Scottish Government has published its updated Infrastructure Investment Plan. This plan totals £3.4bn reflecting a 26% cut in the capital budget from Westminster. There has been reasonable progress on a range of conventionally financed projects. However, there was particular criticism of the Scottish Government’s PFI programme.  The NPD version of PFI had raised only £20m of the £353m originally projected for 2012/13, and project starts were being delayed as a result. There is a rich irony in SNP ministers having to defend the failures of their PFI schemes after years of telling us how bad PFI was. Do governments ever learn?

Scottish budget cuts will be reflected in individual budget allocations for councils, health boards and NDPB’s. In addition local employers will have unavoidable commitments that will add to the amount to be saved including inflation, demographic change and other service demands. So the full impact of these budget cuts will be even greater.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Developing a human rights agenda


I was speaking at a conference in Edinburgh today on the challenges for staff in developing a human rights agenda in Scotland. It was on the same day as the Scottish Parliament was debating 'Promoting and Protecting Human Rights - Scotland, Europe and the Wider World.'

Most of our members and their employers are covered by the Human Rights Act and this approach is embedded into devolution through the Scotland Act. It is a particular issue for members in health, social care, police and education settings.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) are promoting a National Action Plan for Scotland and their analysis of human rights in Scotland is reflected in our experience. Much more needs to be done on process including measures, awareness and capacity building. A particular problem is with impact assessment as this is rarely done well with a tick box approach being the norm. Studies done by Warwick University highlight the importance of clear guidance, shared evidence, monitoring and collective impact studies. The SHRC also have a project that is developing new guidance for public bodies. This month sees the publication of council budgets for the coming financial year. We will be looking careful at the impact assessments on these budgets. Human rights is more than simply justifying the risk of cuts on disadvantaged groups.

Another concern is the UK Government's review of the public sector equality duty. It reflects their regulatory burden approach rather than viewing impact assessment as a positive tool to improve services. More positively, I highlighted the work being done to incorporate human rights approaches into the new national police force, including the Constable’s declaration and a new ethics code. Sadly the Bill also undermined the human rights of police civilian staff in several areas.

Individual public service staff also have responsibility for human rights. However, we found very limited awareness  of human rights approaches and members tell us that they
don't generally operate in a human rights culture. It is viewed as an add on - not integrated into the organisations decision making process. There is some awareness of the FAIR approach that is viewed as a useful tool. There is also not enough training or capacity in this field and I illustrated this with our own work in producing a Scottish Gypsy Travellers guidance booklet for members.

The primary human rights constraint on staff are the spending cuts. These are pushing the boundaries of proportionate responses under human rights law - particularly in areas like care procurement, personalisation, mental health, housing, fuel poverty and of course welfare reform. With 51,700 fewer public service workers in Scotland since the crash, staff are simply too stretched to give adequate consideration to human rights approaches. Cuts are widening inequality and social exclusion.

Public service reform is also a challenge for human rights in Scotland. Contrary to the Christie recommendations we are seeing increased centralisation of services. While communities of place are important we should not forget the importance of communities of interest when protecting human rights, particularly of people from ethnic minorities.

Finally, I looked at the role of human rights in protecting workers. As a senior trade union official I am painfully aware that however robust my organising, bargaining and campaigning may be, I can go home at night in safety. There are many comrades across the world who don't operate in a human rights environment and have lost their lives doing what I do ever day. That is why we should view human rights as of international importance and not be sucked into the isolationist approach of a UK Bill of Rights.

Human rights as a policy and legal approach is of increasing importance to trade unions. It should underpin our approaches to fair pay and attacks on conditions through zero hours contracts and similar provisions. The UK government's attack on health and safety at work undermines human rights, as does privatisation with its disproportionate impact on women workers. The right to strike under Article 11 has also been the subject of some legal debate given the highly restrictive laws in the UK.

In conclusion, human rights should impact on wide range of public service staff. However, it is constrained by limited organisational development and a tick box process rather than an embedded culture. There is limited staff awareness and training and the cuts are a major constraint. More positively, there is a growing recognition of human rights as means of protecting workers.



Monday, 4 February 2013

Local taxation


We had a very good session today at the STUC looking at the options for the reform of local taxation. I presented UNISON’s thinking along with Andy Wightman arguing for Land Value Tax and Stephen Curran on Glasgow City Council’s local taxation working group’s report. 

I started with first principles. What a fair system of taxation should look like with an emphasis on tackling all forms of wealth and using progressive taxation to reduce inequality. UNISON’s principles for local taxation include; local authorities raising and control revenue; business rates returned to local authority control; a property tax as the best for fit local government and grant support allocated with a minimum ring fencing. 

We have looked at all the options including a Local Income Tax (LIT), Land Value Tax and a fairer property tax. However, on this subject I almost always find myself drawn back to the Burt Review. This is without doubt the most thorough look at local taxation in Scotland in a generation. 

The problem with LIT is well documented as the many critical submissions to the Scottish Government’s efforts to introduce this tax show. An effective basket of taxation needs a property tax otherwise the tax burden falls disproportionately on workers. You can’t hide property or move it abroad as the richest do to avoid income tax. 

Land Value Tax is a property tax and therefore starts from the right place. However, while it taxes the owners of land there is nothing to stop the owners passing the cost onto tenants. The biggest difficulty is that two plots of land with very different properties end up with the same charge and few people will perceive this to be fair. Bills will be hard to understand as people roughly know the value of their property, but not the land value alone. We have poor data on which to base valuations and collection will be difficult from owners who can conceal their ownership through companies - breaking the link between local taxes and local democratic accountability.  

LVT undoubtedly does start to address a number of issues around land speculation, housing policy and would support land reform. There may well be a role for it at the national level, but as local tax it is far from ideal. 

Reforming the Council Tax by increasing the number of bands at the top and the bottom and increasing the multiplier between bands is a popular reform. However, on its own it still doesn’t make the tax progressive enough. It could work better if linked with regular compulsory revaluation and a reformed Council Tax Benefit. 

That leaves a Local Property Tax (LPT) as recommended by the Burt Review. It would be levied as a percentage of the capital value of the property (around 1%) thereby covering land and house value. It is more progressive than the Council Tax, avoiding the ‘cliff edge’ consequences of banding and is simple and understandable with all the benefits of a property tax. 
 
It has to be recognised that there are no easy solutions. As Derek Birrell’s study shows, there has been a political impasse across the UK in tackling this issue. The best options all involve political risk because of the significant number of losers. Both LVT and LPT would deliver more gainers than losers, but that doesn’t address the political risk factor, especially as the losers are the articulate middle classes. Even with transitional arrangements no politician has yet had the bottle to take the plunge.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Cost of austerity economics


Tom Gordon has an interesting piece in today’s Sunday Herald based on Scottish Labour research. This shows that more than £600m has been spent to pay off Scottish public sector staff in redundancy and similar payments over the past five years. Part of my response is quoted in the article, but space limitations means a fuller analysis is justified. 

My first reaction might surprise many people because £600m was smaller than I would have expected. 51,700 public sector jobs have been lost in Scotland since the crash and that is a net figure allowing for some new recruits. It would appear that this is the cost of getting rid of 34,300 staff; therefore some 20,000 staff have gone through natural wastage at no cost to the public purse. 

Labour’s Ken Macintosh is of course correct in saying that it is ‘perverse’ to spend this amount of money to fire rather than hire staff in the current economic circumstances. John Swinney is also correct in identifying the primary cause as being the UK Government. Although the Scottish Government has exacerbated the problem with decisions such as the Council Tax freeze and the police civilian staff debacle.    

The problem is primarily at UK level because the cuts are a key element of the ConDem austerity economic strategy. Contrary to assurances at the outset, the public sector jobs have not been replaced by private sector jobs and the deficit has not been reduced as they claimed. As we and others predicted it simply increased unemployment, with the consequential additional public spending, and damaged the economy even more through the loss of demand and consumer confidence. 

The other reason for the problem resting at UK level is more complex. Councils, health boards and others consider their decisions on cutting staff based on the payback to their budget. For example, councils will typically let a worker go on voluntary redundancy/early retirement if the cost can be recouped within three years. That’s fine as far their budget goes, but it ignores the wider costs to the Scottish and UK governments of adding to the ranks of the unemployed. For example, for every £1 spent by a local authority 64p is reinvested back into the local economy. This means that only a fraction of the savings made on paper from cutting staff are a real saving to the public purse. 

Of course councils and other public bodies have to balance their budgets although they could do more to challenge the consequences. They may not have to take account of the bigger picture, but the UK government can and should. They don’t because staff cuts are nothing to do with the budget deficit, and everything to do with an ideological drive to reduce the size of the state.