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.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Work, employment, skills and training - where next for Scotland?

Labour market issues have been given very little attention in the independence debate. So today's launch of an ESRC funded research report on 'Work, Employment, Skills and Training: Where Next for Scotland?' is very welcome.

I was interviewed along with 67 other stakeholders as part of the research, so I was particularly interested in the report's findings. The complexity of the issue is illustrated by the multi-level governance with the EU, UK and Scottish Government all having a role, or in some cases shared responsibility. Given the shocking levels of productivity in the UK, it is surprising that skills utilisation in particular has not been given more attention.

Education, training and skills is probably the field least impacted by independence, because most is already devolved and Scotland has a very different system from the rest of the UK and England in particular. Professor Ewart Keep highlighted the structural focus on youth unemployment in Scotland, while in England there is little more than hand wringing. Advice and guidance services have collapsed in England, although I would argue they have been devalued in Scotland with too greater reliance on web based services. College regionalisation has come with significant cuts and it is too soon to judge its efficacy. The research also showed something of a disconnect on workforce development, particularly in 'unsexy' sectors like retail and social care. What the Scottish approach does provide is an ability to think collectively, rather than everything being left to the vagaries of the market.

Welfare to work and employability has similar challenges to the rest of the UK, with the concentration of disadvantage in geographical areas and amongst young people. While there was some support for the principles of welfare reform, the impact was actually adding to the barriers to getting people into work - not just getting them off benefits. The pressure is simply handed down to local services. There was a clear consensus in Scotland that there are problems at the bottom end of the labour market that will not be solved with benefit sanctions.

The research highlighted the importance of linking employability and health, strengthening employer engagement and more evidence of what works. There is a need to join up fragmented UK and Scottish provision and labour markets - a strong argument in my view for devolving many of these services. Not just to Holyrood, but also down to local level - recognising the risk of fragmentation of service and the loss of economy of scale. There is also a debate about how to incentivise employers either through the tax system or regulation.

On employment and the workplace, the report sets out the challenges including low pay, gender segregation and economic growth. The strength of the report is the focus on creating good jobs through job quality and design - with an understanding that employees are a source of innovation. There may be less clarity about how to make this happen, but options include using government as an exemplar and the use of procurement.

There is limited capacity in HR and organisational development and a less than cohesive employer voice, essential if the proposed social partnership model is to work effectively. Employer concerns about greater regulation and partnership in the research were more pragmatic than ideological. However, the White Paper model also requires a different model of capitalism in Scotland and there is little indication that the Scottish Government is ready for that radical journey. While there may be insufficient action on these issues in Scotland, none of this has even reached the UK government agenda! The research found that debates on the workforce in Scotland occupy a very different ideological space.


One conclusion is that whatever the outcome of the vote, much of the Scottish direction of travel is already fixed and unlikely to change. As the report says, the new model is now on the table, even if the detailed road map is missing. The Mather Commission may fill in some of the gaps.  It therefore remains open to debate if the proposals in the White Paper or greater devolution will remove the remaining barriers to progressive change.



The full report will be on the Future of the UK and Scotland website soon.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Great workplaces tackle absence better than systems

The best approach to tackling absence is to create great workplaces to work in - not rigid management systems and targets.

Today, I was speaking at a MacKay Hannah conference on ‘Tackling Absenteeism in the Public Sector in Scotland: Prevention and Health Promotion’.

Angela Cullen from Audit Scotland set the scene from their published report on Scotland's public sector workforce. This showed that the workforce has been cut by 7% since the crash, down to around one in five of the total workforce. Council staff have taken the brunt of cuts. The workforce is ageing significantly with young people the biggest losers, down by 25%. Over one third of staff are over 50 and that is the biggest growth area with potential skill and knowledge risks for public services as they come closer to retirement. They have extracted data on sickness absence from their recent report into a useful new publication on their website

Fred Best from Work 4 Wellbeing made the business case for taking measures to improve wellbeing at work. More than a glossy document and a bowl of fruit! Poor data is a problem with 18% of sickness absence reported as 'other' due to IT system limitations. A key message was the cost of presenteeism that can cost 50% more than absence - £105bn in 2010. Workplace conflict costs UK business £33bn per year, taking 20% of leadership time and losing 370m working days. Investment in wellbeing can save £4 for every £1 spent. Behind these statistics is the real human cost of ill health.

Roddy Duncan from the office of the Chief Medical Officer outlined Scottish Government initiatives to create healthy working lives in a very challenging environment - ageing workforce and austerity cuts. Long term absence is a particular issue with 51% of long term absentees in Scotland being disabled. The healthy work strategy is based on premise that work is good for health and workplaces should promote health and wellbeing of the workforce.

Dame Carol Black's independent review of sickness absence was referenced by several speakers. That emphasises that worklessness is harmful for most people. Equally useful is the work of The Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives.

My presentation was on the reality of the ‘sickie culture’ in the Public Sector: policies, support and management. I started by debunking some of the myths about sickness absence in the public sector. It may be cliché that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but there are others. For me, one is the Daily Mail asking me to respond to the latest CBI claim that public sector workers have a 'sickie culture'.

The main response to the headline data is that the two sectors are not comparable workforces. The public sector is an older workforce with more women and with major occupational differences. For example, staff in the care sector are 45% more likely to be sick. Public sector staff also tend to work in larger organisations with sick pay agreements and better recording systems. One consequence is that public sector staff have more long term sickness absence but less short term absence than in the private sector. Overall, public v private is simply irrelevant to the debate, you need to look at other factors.

We do know that there is greater and growing presenteeism in public sector. A CIPD survey showed 39% in the public sector compared to 26% in the private sector. Unpaid overtime is also more common in the public sector - 1 in 4 compared to 1 in 6 workers in the private sector. All of this is reinforced in a UNISON Scotland survey we published last year.

Instead of a puerile public v private debate we need to focus on positive absence management. This is my list of measures:

• Agreed absence management policies with proper training
• Regular reviews of data at safety Committees
• Less reliance on formulas and triggers
• Measures to facilitate and promote employee health
• Involvement of quality, independent, occupational health professionals
• Minimise workplace stress
• Employee assistance programmes for personal or workplace problems.
• Maintain contact during long-term sickness absence
• Structured return-to-work plan with adequate adjustments and support.

There was some discussion about the new government occupational health assessment scheme. This is right in principle, but I suspect it will become an ATOS style tick box exercise. Sickness absence rules and targets in the public sector can be very similar - chasing short term solutions at the expense of more sustainable long-term solutions. We also need to recognise the impact of later retirement ages on particular occupational groups.

My main message was that if you are serious about tackling absence you need to focus on making workplaces great places to work in. The speaker from Investors in People described this as the soft stuff, but in their view still absolutely vital. A friendly, varied, fair and supportive working environment is more effective than any set of absence management rules.

Time to disinvest from fossil fuels

Getting the finance out of fossil fuels is an important element in tackling climate change. We are still on a trajectory to overheat the planet and fossil fuel emissions are the primary cause.

I was speaking at a meeting tonight organised by Friends of the Earth Scotland on this issue in Edinburgh. The irony is that we are funding our own destruction through our banks and pension funds. There are several reasons why these institutions should stop supporting fossil fuel  companies including:


  • Climate change. The carbon emissions of coal are higher than for any other fuel in the world. Recent estimates show that the vast majority of the world’s coal reserves will have to be left in the ground in order to avoid devastating climate change.
  • Destroying lives in the global south. Coal mining is responsible for devastating local pollution in the global south as well as the displacement of thousands of people from their homes. 
  • Carbon bubble. Banks and other financial players have created a carbon bubble in the global economy. Only a small fraction of fossil fuel resources can be burned without breaking international commitments to tackle climate change. This means most fossil fuel assets are worthless. A sudden correction of the current overvaluation of fossil fuel companies could cause a new global financial crisis.

Divestment has been used effectively throughout history to place social and economic pressure on an industry or government that is causing harm. By publicly withdrawing financial support, fossil fuel divestment addresses the root of the problem - the unchecked expansion of fossil fuel companies on an endless quest for profit.

The meeting heard about campaigns at universities, including Edinburgh. Another example comes from the USA  where students on more than 300 US campuses have launched divestment campaigns.

The campaign has not been helped by last week's budget. The nuclear and renewable energy industries have made a last-ditch attempt to stop George Osborne from freezing a tax on fossil fuels, warning the move could jeopardise investment in low-carbon energy schemes. It will also make it harder for Britain to attract the £100bn plus that is needed by 2020 in low-carbon energy.

As a pensions negotiator I focused on the challenges a disinvestment campaign faces.

In Scotland's biggest pension scheme (Local Government) we have very weak governance and the result can be seen in Rob Edwards (who chaired the meeting) recent investigation for the Sunday Herald. Public bodies who have a statutory duty to cut emissions are investing £millions in polluting companies. We have a very weak culture of shareholder activism in the UK, compared with Europe or the USA. There is also a shortage of information and training for Trustees. I outlined some of measures UNISON is taking to address this issue.

With more than 5% of our pension funds being invested in companies that damage the environment it is clear that we still have much to do. However, there is a clear determination from a variety of groups to work together on this issue.






Saturday, 22 March 2014

World Water Day. It's Scotland's Water and it's not for sale

Today is World Water Day. An opportunity to focus on this essential service that we take for granted, but many people worldwide still don't have access to. We should also remember that there are still those waiting for an opportunity to privatise Scotland's water.

Most of us take clean water for granted, but a sixth of the world’s population aren’t so lucky. Over a billion people worldwide cannot reach or afford clean water. Nearly two million children die every year because they do not have regular, safe water to drink, while the lives of many more people are blighted by the illness and preventable diseases that result from unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Water should be regarded as a human right. This week the European Commission (EC) published its official response to the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) that asks “to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European law. Water is not a commercial product”.

Sadly, the reaction of the EC falls short of what 1.9 million people across Europe asked for. In particular, there is no proposal for legislation recognising the human right to water. The Commission has also not committed to explicitly exclude these services from the trade negotiations such as on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in this Communication.

There are some positive aspects of the Commission response. For example the recognition that the provision of water services is generally the responsibility of local authorities that are closest to citizens. This confirms the trend towards remunicipalisation across Europe which according to the EC is the safest way for water to be kept out of the internal market rules. There is also a commitment to promote universal access to water and sanitation in development policies, including the promotion public-public partnerships.

Campaigns against water privatisation have had remarkable success across the globe. Major water multinationals such as French groups Suez and Veolia have retreated from much of their business in developing countries as a result of campaigns. They have also suffered the humiliation of losing their home city, Paris, to a new municipal service in 2010. Paris has inspired other towns and cities in France and elsewhere in Europe, including Berlin and Budapest, to terminate private water contracts. The Reclaiming Public Water Network estimates that more than 85 cities have switched from private to public in the past decade. Globally, more than 90% of water services are in public hands.

Private companies in England are now celebrating their 25th year of lucrative exploitation of their natural monopolies. Extracting profits of around £2 billion a year above the cost of a public service funded through low-cost public debt. This means renationalisation would save the average household £83 per year, cutting bills by more than 20%. The most recent poll on the issue found more than 70% of people favour renationalisation of the water sector – almost exactly the same as the proportion which opposed privatisation 25 years ago.

All of this should make us exceptional grateful that Scottish Water is still a public service.  That policy is supported by the SNP and Scottish Labour, while the Tories and LibDem's propose privatisation. Somewhat surprisingly given SNP policy, there is no mention of Scottish Water in the White Paper - Scotland's Future. No commitment to retain it as a public service should Scotland vote for independence later this year.

Scottish Water has been told it can raise its prices by 1.6% per year, well below inflation, while spending £3.5bn on improving infrastructure in the water and sewerage networks.

Customer Forum for Water in Scotland chairman Peter Peacock said this "is in stark contrast to what customers have seen from other utilities, and recognises the circumstances of many customers facing difficult economic pressures right now."

That's what a public service can achieve compared with privatised utilities. Yet there are still many who would privatise Scottish Water. On World Water Day we should remain vigilant to protect our public service. It's Scotland's water and it's not for sale.

Friday, 21 March 2014

A fresh vision for devolution

Scottish Labour's Devolution Commission and the accompanying policy paper provides what has been long missing from the No campaign - a fresh vision for devolution. A vision that provides new powers, but just as important, a start towards setting the agenda for what Scottish Labour would do with new powers - powers for a purpose.

Two thirds of voters want more responsibility for Holyrood and that includes many of those who might vote for independence in September. It would be a disaster for the No campaign if it became a vote between independence and the status quo. However, a failure to reflect the views of most Scots on more devolved powers will be equally damaging if Scotland does vote No in September.

Those who have condemned the report generally support independence and so will never be satisfied with anything short of that. Others, like Reform Scotland, produced proposals that are either unworkable or addressing a right wing agenda that Scottish Labour wants no part of.

Probably the most important recommendations cover devolving additional powers that match existing responsibilities, enabling joined up policy approaches. This includes responsibility for work programmes, housing benefit and attendance allowance. The latter will resolve the loss of revenue to Scotland from free care for the elderly and enable us to address the challenges of an ageing population. Housing benefit would allow the Scottish Parliament to abolish the Bedroom Tax.

Equally welcome are proposals which would allow Holyrood to run the domestic rail network and put a much needed focus on health and safety. The administration of Employment Tribunals would enable us to address the shocking 79% reduction in cases since the introduction of fees that denies justice to thousands. Consumer advocacy is also a sensible devolution as is the enforcement of equalities legislation, something that is being undermined by the current UK government. Moving skills and careers from a poorly performing quango to local authorities is precisely what UNISON recommended at the last reorganisation.

There are other powers that UNISON will continue to argue could be devolved under the principle of subsidiarity and to enable joined up government, including energy, some immigration powers and public service pensions. However, strengthening the Calman proposal on partnership working between parliaments where there is shared responsibility is a sensible move.

Scottish Labour has rightly opposed full fiscal autonomy, particularly business taxes that will lead to a race to the bottom that will only benefit tax dodging companies. Assigning taxes such as VAT is pointless if parliament has no control over the level of tax. Raising 40% of the budget from own resources is not insignificant, particularly when you look at sub-central governments across Europe and the wider OECD. It will put Scotland higher than the Nordic nations, Germany and the USA.

The weakest part of the paper is around income tax. Varying the top rate is a neat political point, but the Scottish Parliament should have the power to adjust thresholds to better reflect the income spread in Scotland. Partly because we should use tax to redistribute income, but also to protect Scotland from the Tory plan to dismantle public services in England. 

There is rightly a big recognition in the report of the constitutional role of local government. Devolution should not stop at Holyrood and the Scottish Government has presided over a growing centralisation of public services. 'Scotland is our local' may be the view of some in the SNP, but it should not be the approach followed by Scottish Labour. Some of the proposals in the paper need a bit more work, not to say clarity. However, that is rightly the role of the Scottish Policy Forum as they develop a new policy programme, informing the manifesto for 2016.

The report presented to today's Scottish Labour Conference doesn't go as far with new powers as I would go. It's a similar compromise to the White Paper or any other political party proposals. However, it is much more radical on non-fiscal powers than many commentators have noticed. Of course, we should also remember that powers are only part of the story. There has to be the political vision to use them to create a fairer Scotland. The 'Together We Can' paper is a good start on that political journey. If nothing else, we now have a positive case for further devolution to measure against the case for independence.



Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Budget aimed at the Tory faithful - not the real economy

Shiny new coins did nothing to cover up the Chancellor’s blatant attempt to shore up the core Tory vote next year.

The budget giveaways were relentlessly targeted on the comfortably off, rather than those who have been hit the hardest by austerity economics. Changes in tax thresholds may take some out of tax, but they are actually pretty regressive, as this analysis and chart from the Resolution Foundation shows. The much vaunted hard working families would gain more if this cash was used for increased tax credits.

Help for savers in the form of tax cuts and bigger ISA allowances are again targeted at the upper middle income groups. How many low paid workers can afford to save anything, let alone £15,000 a year. One in three Scots has saved nothing in the past three months. Tackling pension annuities will be popular, but it does nothing to tackle the real reasons why pensions in the UK are so expensive. There is also a risk that this is aimed at a short term cash boost to the economy, at the price of long-term pensioner poverty.

There is nothing for hard pressed public sector workers who are promised more real pay cuts and further increases in pension contributions from 2015. Also no recognition of the damage low wages generally is doing to the economy. Real wages have now been cut for 44 months, a record unmatched since records began and a loss of £1600 per year for the average worker. Ironically, wages are lower as a proportion of the economy than when we had the thrupenny bit on which the new coin is modelled.

We had the usual rhetoric on tax dodging, but little real action. A few more staff in HMRC, to replace the ones he cut, but no concerted attempt to recover the £120bn of lost revenue. He described this as a ‘small minority’ who don’t pay their taxes. There may not be many of them, but they have deep pockets. As deep as the £5m per annum City Banker who has benefited from the millionaires tax cut to the tune of £200,000 a year – and the Chancellor tells us he can’t afford £250 a year for health workers pay.

Public expenditure for Scotland was largely fixed in the autumn statement, so the grim figures in today’s paper are just confirmation of bad news in the form a further real terms cut in the DEL. The modest Barnett consequentials of £63m go nowhere near compensating for a cut by nearly 11% in real terms over the five year period to 2015-16.

The Budget has a page or so on Scotland, largely regurgitating key messages from the Treasury’s analysis papers on independence. There was more unwise gloating about cuts in oil revenue in his speech and a nod to the Scottish whisky industry with the duty freeze. Like the much vaunted GDP figures, most of that benefit will disappear out of the country and won’t reach real households in Scotland.

However, the biggest problem with the budget is how little it does for the real economy. There is an excellent analysis by the IPPR published in today’s Daily Mirror. It shows how slowly we have climbed out of recession compared with other countries and the impact that has had on jobs, wages and business output. Even the deficit is double what the Chancellor said it would be in 2010 with the consequence that austerity grinds on causing even more damage.

In summary, a political budget for the Tory faithful. Mostly middle class welfare that does little for the majority and certainly doesn’t tackle the underlying economic problems faced by Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Local action on ethical care

On World Social Work Day, Renfrewshire Council shows the way in the commissioning of homecare services by supporting the UNISON Ethical Care Charter.
I spent this morning in Paisley with our branch and Renfrewshire Council Leader Councillor Mark Macmillan and his colleagues, marking his commitment to supporting ethical care.
The Charter sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need homecare. It commits councils to buying homecare only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it.
Talking to councillors at today’s event I was struck by the impact talking to home care staff had on their decision to take this initiative. The stories that our members told in our, ‘Scotland – It’sTime to Care report struck a chord with them. It reflected what their constituents had said and what they could see with their own eyes, watching home care delivered locally. Another councillor told me how a constituent had come to his surgery and told him just how much paying the Scottish Living Wage had meant to her family.
This initiative is a classic example of how we can use the power of public procurement to do so much more than simply buy goods and services. In this case, helping low paid workers, the people they care for and the local economy. Sadly, as the Scottish Government’s response to the Procurement Bill shows – they don’t yet fully understand this point.

We will be taking this message later this week to the Scottish Labour Party conference together with SHA Scotland. Shadow health minister, Neil Findlay MSP has been at the forefront in making the case for better home care and has also established a Quality Care Commission to look at longer term solutions. With a Labour council taking action locally, Scottish Labour is showing real leadership on this issue.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn - A tribute

There have been many fine tributes today to Tony Benn, who sadly passed away this morning. Like many others, he was a personal inspiration at an early stage in my political development and he will be sorely missed by all democratic socialists.

I first met Tony Benn at a rally in London when I was 15 years old and a very keen Labour Party Young Socialist. This was one of my very first big political events and what struck me was his ability engage with the audience as if you were having a one to one conversation with him. Much has been written about his oratory, but it wasn’t the tub thumping, barnstorming style. He had that rare ability to speak in measured tones and still grip the audience.

His political analysis was often, but not always, right. If I had a disagreement with him it would usually be about strategy and tactics rather than policy. I was listening to a clip on BBC Radio Scotland this morning of him speaking in parliament in the 1980’s. He was condemning the Thatcher government for valuing an economy that put finance capitalism above the skills of workers. What today we would call rebalancing the economy. There can be few greater tributes in politics to be proved so right that even your political opponents have adopted your analysis.

I have a well thumbed copy of ‘Tony Benn - Arguments for Socialism’ edited by Chris Mullin on my bookshelf. It has remained there long after other books of that generation have gone to the Oxfam bookshop. As Chris Mullin says in the introduction, “Tony Benn is one of the most articulate exponents” of democratic socialism. While the book does indeed make an articulate case for democratic socialism, Tony himself said, “the most important socialist teacher of all is experience”. Or as Jimmy Reid put it, "He had more conversions on the road to Damascus than a Syrian long-distance lorry driver". He didn’t do dogma.

It was that experience that took him on a journey from the rise of fascism to the present day. I have heard him speak of seeing Mosley strutting through the streets of London with the black shirts. As powerful a radicalising experience for him, as it was for his father. In Scotland, that experience included the Upper Clyde work-in and the impact it had on his own approach to public ownership.

I last met Tony Benn in Glasgow last year, when he met the Executive Committee of the Keir Hardie Society (he was our President) prior to speaking to a packed Royal Concert Hall. Despite poor health, he was as sharp as ever and had a really good grasp of Scottish politics. His questions were incisive and he was great company.

What comes through in all his writing is the central place of democracy. As he put it, “To create the conditions that will allow the people to do it themselves is the central task of leadership today” - or one of my personal favourites, “we have to choose between socialism and barbarism”.

No one will ever doubt on whose side Tony Benn was on. RIP comrade, we will miss you greatly.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Welfare devolution

In the midst of a political offensive on devolution, the IPPR paper on devolution of welfare is well worth a read. Not least because it reflects trade union and Red Paper Collective arguments on this issue!

The big beasts of Westminster have been queuing up in recent weeks - to at least appear to urge Labour to be bold on devolution. All while the Devolution Commission haggles over the fine detail of their report to be presented to conference next week.

Douglas Alexander entreated his colleagues in the devolution commission to, "range widely and to act boldly. That means in considering taxation, employment and skills policy, the responsibilities of the Crown Estate, the running of elections."

Then Jim Murphy, not known as an enthusiast for greater devolution, made a speech saying, "further meaningful devolution to Scotland is compulsory". All the more surprising after his sidekick, Ken Macintosh MSP, condemned further tax raising powers, claiming an income tax deal could lead to 'independence by default'.

Then the biggest political beast of them all, Gordon Brown, weighed in this week with six changes including tax powers, he said:
"I believe there are six constitutional changes we have got to make for a better relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, to turn what I would call a unitary and centralised state of the past into a partnership of equals and one where there is power-sharing across the United Kingdom."

I would also give an honourable mention to Menzies Campbell and the second report of the Lib Dem’s own devolution commission. I don’t agree with it all, but it is a positive contribution to the debate.

The IPPR report is interesting because welfare rarely gets much of a mention in the devolution debate. The key elements of their report include:
·      There is no strong argument for devolving those benefits which are core to the UK’s social union, including job seeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and the state old age pension.
·      Devolution of some aspects of welfare would not just supplement the powers of devolved governments, but would also improve social and economic outcomes in the devolved nations and enable the formulation of more joined- up public policy.
·      Housing benefit should be devolved, given how closely it is linked to other aspects of social housing.
·      The Work Programme should be devolved to enable a joined up approach to job creation.
·      Devolution of the childcare element of the working tax-credit is an option that would also boost the expansion of childcare provision.
·      Benefits that have a direct interface with devolved social services should also be devolved. This particularly applies to attendance allowance.
·      Devolved governments should be given a general power to supplement UK levels of welfare, so that they can use cash payments as well as other policy levers to deliver social policy.


Of course all of this is fine and dandy, but powers have to be for a purpose. As I put it in my Scotsman article on procurement this week, "So far so good. However, the real question is what’s the point in spending two years debating which powers should lie where, when we are not even brave enough to use the ones we have to build the progressive country we all say we want?"

Monday, 10 March 2014

Zero-hours contracts - bad for workers, services and the economy

The growing use of zero-hours contracts (ZHC) is primarily a conduit for the exploitation of working people.  The growth in casual employment is contributing to the growth in in-work poverty, damaging public services and the economy.

Today, I was giving evidence at the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into zero-hours contracts. My evidence was largely based on our experience of the growing use of these contracts in the care sector. 

There is no recognised definition of zero-hours contracts and considerable confusion amongst workers and employers as to their legal status, as the recent CIPD survey shows. Equally, the data on how widely they are used is incomplete and the ONS is currently looking at how they can make the data more reliable. Estimates vary, but it likely to apply to at least one million workers in the UK, possibly just under 100,000 in Scotland.

In the social care sector our survey indicated around 10% of our members are on ZHC, but this is likely to be an underestimate as we have more members in council employment where ZHC are less prevalent. The SSSC workforce data says 21% are not on permanent contract, so the figure could be as high as 20,000 care workers in Scotland. Scottish Universities are another big user of ZHC with 18,500 atypical workers, more than the 16,700 permanent teaching staff.

The main issue for workers is the lack of employment rights that give legal force to basic fairness, and grant employees redress where those rights are breached. They also deny stable employment that is vital to day-to-day life such as getting a mortgage, paying the bills, and reducing the reliance on the benefits system. Employers claim the flexibility ZHC bring is good for them and workers. While this may be the case for some workers on ZHC, it is not the norm. For most it is simple exploitation. A particular problem is the requirement, stated or implied, of exclusivity even when the employer is not paying them. Even in feudal times there was a duty of mutual obligation!

But it's not only workers who lose out in the growing use of ZHC. The creation of uncertain employment means that workers are less willing to question dangerous safety practices involving themselves and others. Even more worrying in the care sector, they are less likely to report care abuse. With the growing use of personalisation, care workers tell us that they wouldn't be thanked by their employer for raising these issues. ZHC workers are also likely to be less well trained. The combination of poor employment practice means higher turnover and a loss of continuity of care.

The economy also loses because the lack of stable employment impacts on economic demand. An ILO study shows that economies with high levels of self employment are also low per capita GDP states. The growth of self employment in the UK is a feature of underemployment, not entrepreneurial zeal. 

So what's the solution?  While an outright ban might be appropriate in some areas, in practice employers would just find another way of exploiting staff. Another solution is to tightly regulate the practice to remove abuses and then agree appropriate contract provisions for each sector.

The regulations should start with a legal definition of a ZHC as a contract that fails to specify guaranteed hours; or that specifies guaranteed hours but the worker is expected to be available for work longer, sometimes called short hours or nominal working hours. There should be a right to a written notice of hours upon commencement of work and a right to equal treatment compared to fixed term and regular working hours staff, together with normal remedies for detriment when exercising statutory rights. To address exploitation there should be a right to request fixed and regular hours every six months and a right to be offered a contract after 12 weeks of continuous employment. Exclusivity clauses should be prohibited.

These are all matters that could be regulated by Westminster, although the current UK Government consultation is unlikely to go much further than an employer led code of practice. As much use as a chocolate tea cosy in addressing abuse. The Scottish Government could take action directly as an employer and also through procurement. Public bodies could do the same.

Zero-hours contracts are bad for workers, bad for the services they deliver and bad for the economy. Time for concerted action at all levels of government.