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, 23 June 2015

Inflation busting registration fees for health workers

At a time of pay restraint it is not acceptable for regulators to impose inflation busting fee increases on health and care workers.

I was giving evidence today at the Scottish Parliament Health Committee on secondary legislation that increases registration fees for a range of health and care professions UNISON represents. The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) increased fees by 5% last year and indicated that they would not increase them again for two years. However, they have now come back for a further 12.5% increase after a perfunctory consultation while Westminster was in election purdah.

They claim this is because of a levy from the regulatory overview body, the PCA. However, only 30% of the increase relates to that with the balance reflecting new accommodation and IT systems. This looks opportunistic, particularly when there has no detailed costing was provided. The HCPC also generated a big operating surplus last year and is substantially increasing its reserves.

Needless to say health and care workers are not getting a 12.5% pay rise! The HCPC argue that they are the lowest cost regulator, but comparing paramedics, OTs and ODPs to doctors and dentists was, to put it mildly, insensitive. A UNISON survey of registrants indicates that many staff do not think they get value for money and that the HCPC could do more to reduce unnecessary hearing costs.

Scottish Labour MSP, Richard Simpson moved a motion of annulment, a very rare procedure in the Scottish Parliament. He made a very strong case pointing to the absence of an Equality Impact Assessment on what is a predominately female workforce. He also drew attention to the huge increase in the Chief Executive's pay, up by £26,000, more than the annual pay of many registrants. Also that the fee for Scottish social workers, regulated in Scotland, is only a third of the cost of their English counterparts who are regulated by the HCPC.

Predictably, SNP MSPs voted against the annulment as this increase is supported by the Scottish Government. We will look forward to the minister supporting a 12.5% pay rise next year!

In fairness MSPs did so with no great enthusiasm, they welcomed the fact that this debate took place and that the regulator was put under scrutiny for probably the first time. There is a case for wider reform of UK regulatory bodies and they might find it more difficult if they return for another increase next year.

Putting the increase under the spotlight was probably the best we could have achieved this year. Health and care workers have no choice but to pay these increases, so they look to their MSPs and MPs to scrutinise these costs vigorously.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wind farm subsidy - right policy, wrong timing

The UK government decision to exclude new onshore wind farms from a subsidy scheme a year earlier than planned, is the right energy policy, but wrong on timing.

The subsidies, which are paid for by consumers, will end from 1 April 2016 although there will be a grace period for projects which already have planning permission. In a statement to the House of Commons, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said that taking into account the early closure of the Renewable Obligation for onshore wind, the UK will have 11.6GW of onshore wind supported by the mechanism, alongside 0.75GW supported by contracts for difference. This is within their medium range of expectations.

Scottish Renewables said the move was "neither fair nor reasonable" and they claim Scotland could lose £3bn in investment. Chief executive Niall Stuart said it was "bad for jobs, bad for investment and can only hinder Scotland and the UK's efforts to meet binding climate change targets".

Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser said: "The latest figures show that with all the wind projects already constructed, those under construction or given consent we have already met the SNPs 100% target for renewable electricity. What Scotland now urgently needs is a balanced energy policy with wind as part of the mix, but only one component rather than being the primary focus."

It's hard to disagree with that analysis of the need for a balanced energy policy. Onshore wind is too large an element of the current mix in Scotland. However, it ignores the impact of stop start energy policy on investment. Once a plan has been set, in this case subsidy for new projects until 2017, government should leave the industry with that certainty.

For that reason I agree with Scottish energy minister Fergus Ewing's view that Decc’s decision will "cause huge uncertainty for investors not only onshore but across the renewables sector as a whole". That doesn't change my view on the Scottish Government's unbalanced energy policy, but he is right on timing.

There will be much political sound and fury, followed by the possibility of legal challenge. Companies who have invested in plans on the basis of the 2017 end of the Renewables Obligation may well be able to argue that they had a reasonable expectation that the subsidy regime would be in place. There may be some wriggle room by defining the grace period flexibly.

So, while the UK government is right in terms of energy mix, they are wrong to bring the date forward. Energy policy has to be for the long term, this is another example of the short-termism that has bedevilled the industry.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Scotland's world leading climate legislation needs world leading action

This is a crucial year for the planet as world leaders meet in Paris in December to thrash out a new international agreement on climate change. As Lord Stern, and others, warned last month, pledges made to date in advance of the UN talks will not be enough to keep global warming rises below the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. Scotland, with its claimed world-leading legislation, must step up its efforts to ensure future targets are met.

Action in the public sector and the energy industry will be particularly significant for UNISON Scotland members.

We are pleased that the Scottish Government is now introducing a statutory duty for public bodies to report on climate change duties, something UNISON Scotland urged at the outset. However, it is disappointing that the delay has meant the loss of several years in establishing a consistent and reliable reporting regime. The new reporting format could also be stronger as set out in our submission to the consultation.

As we also warned, voluntary reporting has fallen considerably short of what is needed. Some local authorities have not reported at all, others report in different year, or choose what categories of emissions to report on (even in different years). This means aggregation of emissions data and comparison from one to another is not reliable.

Reporting is of course only the first step - public bodies need to take action. One way they could do this is by supporting trade union Green Representatives. The current public sector duty is far too 'top down', relying on outdated heroic leadership models. We need to win over the workplace and Green Reps can be part of that. Where it has been tried, it has also helped spread the message into local communities.

Another issue the public sector can help with, particularly through pension fund investment and planning, is the carbon bubble. A carbon bubble is inflating because the value of fossil fuel companies continues to be based upon the assumption that all their known fossil fuel reserves will be burned. Yet the scientific reality is that to avoid catastrophic climate change, we cannot afford to burn more than one third (perhaps less) of all known fossil fuel reserves. This risk is not even being assessed in Scotland yet.

Then there is procurement. UNISON Scotland and the 'Ten Asks' coalition have set out a number of ideas to strengthen the procurement regulations on environmental issues. With some £11bn being spent in the private sector this could have a big reach.

The public sector reporting delay has coincided with four years of missed emissions reduction targets. In March, the UK Committee on Climate Change said for the fourth time that more action is needed in Scotland to meet future targets, particularly in low-carbon heat, energy efficiency, the public sector, transport, and agriculture and land use sectors.

The Scottish Government's own reporting is better than the UK government and more transparent, but actions can still be a vague and data fudged. For example, carbon assessment is only done on direct spending like bridges and roads, instead of also looking at the consequences such as car use on these links.

To meet long term targets in a country like Scotland we need to make transformational changes in sectors like agriculture. A quarter of emissions come from agriculture. Land management practices like fertiliser use should be linked to subsidies and greater effort made to meet forestry planting targets.

In the energy sector we should ensure that environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand. For example, energy subsidies for renewables and other forms of energy are paid for by consumers irrespective of ability to pay. Renewable heat projects and community energy are at a small scale and need national incentives to promote at the scale required. Community energy needs to be made easier with council involvement, loan guarantees and expert help.

The big shift is needed in transport, even if that is possibly the most difficult. There is a nervousness in government about public reaction to this, but there is growing evidence that the public gets it. Climate challenge fund projects may not have resulted in much emission reduction, but has been helpful in raising awareness. We need to think about reducing the need to travel, creating sustainable communities without any need for commuting. The real lesson from countries like Denmark is that they join up their thinking on these issues and produce integrated solutions.

An obvious concern for our members will be the impact on jobs. Many are right to be sceptical about just transition arrangements as renewables have delivered fewer jobs than promised, particularly in manufacturing and the supply chain. Despite industry claims, fracking is unlikely to provide more than a handful of jobs, certainly compared to energy efficiency. The new Fair Work Convention could take a sectoral approach to education and skills as well as just transition.

In Scotland we have ambitious targets to tackle climate change, but not always the joined up thinking and vital action to achieve those targets. World leading legislation needs world leading action.

 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Time for a political consensus on local taxation

The funding of local government in Scotland has been a difficult issue for political parties. At best proposals have been sticking plaster solutions because change is viewed as being politically challenging. However, we simply cannot go on as we are with short-term fixes that damage services and undermine local democratic accountability.

Today, I was giving evidence to the Commission on Local Tax Reform, a welcome cross party initiative co-chaired by the local government minister and the President of CoSLA.

In our submission we cover the piecemeal attempts at reform and highlight the damage that quick fixes like the Council Tax freeze are doing to local services. Increasing charges is a regressive substitute for progressive taxation.

A core element of our case for reform is that property is a significant form of wealth and must be taxed in order to reduce inequality. The well-off already own bigger and more houses than the rest of us. If this form of wealth is untaxed it becomes an even more attractive form of investment. This means that more people buy houses, not as a place to live but as an investment. This will add to our already dire housing shortages, increasing prices for both renters and ordinary buyers.

We set out five principles for reform:

• Local authorities should raise and control more of their own revenue. This will enable them to respond to and be more accountable to the communities they represent. About 85% of funding is currently determined centrally

• Councils should be able to set their own business rates, this will allow them to raise money to pay for services and devise their own criteria to support the type of businesses they want to encourage.

• A property tax is the best fit for local government as it is clearly linked to the authority. It cannot be moved or hidden making it cheap and easy for the local authority to administer.

• Central government funding should acknowledge local decision making and funds should be minimally ring-fenced.

Taxation should be broadly progressive, reducing the tax incidence of people with a lower ability-to-pay. It doesn't mean every tax has to be progressive, but overall, those on higher incomes should pay more.

Our submission also evaluates the options for reform.

We oppose a Local Income Tax primarily because it would be another tax on workers income and ignores the wealth that resides in property. It would have to be administered and set centrally, undermining local democracy. There are also a range of practical problems in collecting and allocating a national tax to local authority areas. It could add as much as 6p to income tax.

Land Value Tax is a superficially attractive option, not least because it is a property tax and might be progressive in taxing the rich. However, this idea has been around for 150 years and their are good practical reasons why it really hasn't taken off. The biggest problem is valuing land while ignoring what is built on it. Most of us have a vague idea what our house is worth, but not a clue of the land value. In order to send out bills and ensure they are paid you also need to know exactly who owns all the land, where the borders are and where to send the bill to. The Scottish Government is working on a register of landowners but has a timescale of ten years to complete this work. We cannot wait at least another ten years for a new tax. If LVT is part of the solution it is as a central tax that could address issues like land banking, or possibly as a replacement for business rates, but not the Council Tax.

That leaves our preferred option of a Local Property Tax levied on a percentage of actual property values. The Burt Review found that using actual property values rather than banding was more progressive because it would get rid of the ‘cliff edge' where those on either side of a band with a small difference in property values have very different bills. On the other hand banding could reduce appeals. In 2007 he recommended it be set at 1% for same yield as the Council Tax and while this would have created one-third losers, half would be gainers. Any future bills must based on up to date property valuations and regular revaluations to prevent the current situation building up again.

The new tax would need to have effective mechanisms to protect those on low incomes. Exempting properties below a certain value is one possible way to do this as is the introduction of an appropriate benefit to ensure local authorities received funding, but still protects those on lower wages/benefits. Pensioners with high value properties and low incomes should also be allowed to defer payments, leaving a bill to be paid which would come out of their estate.

Local taxation is one of the most difficult problems for the Scottish Parliament to resolve. No one party wants to be responsible for a new tax. No one wants to pay higher bills, particularly when real wages are not increasing and other costs are rising. Those who get higher bills will campaign loudly against them, winners will quietly carry on.

Difficult though it is, we cannot continue like this. The Burt Report was essentially a technical report and of its time. This Commission needs to be much more political, making the case for taxation and local democracy. That's why we welcome this Commission and hope it leads to a political consensus that we can all move ahead with.

 

Monday, 8 June 2015

More unnecessary spending cuts

Osborne's latest budget announcement is driven more by his ideological desire to cut the state than any concern for deficit reduction.
 
The UK government has decided to cut a further £3bn from this year’s UK departmental budgets. The Scottish Government said the consequential cut to the 2015/16 Scottish budget was £176.8m, although the Treasury has reduced that number today to £107m. Scotland has already suffered an overall revenue budget cut of 9% and the capital budget has been cut by 25% since 2010.

The next stage of cuts will probably be confirmed in the emergency summer budget on 8 July. On current plans the UK government will slash a further £30bn, with big cuts in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, to stabilise in 2018 and rebound in 2019. The Barnett consequentials of this will depend on where they cut in England.

The IFS published a pre-budget analysis of the spending challenges this will create for the UK government last week. They point to underlying pressures that are increasing spending in other areas including debt interest, NI contributions and pensions. You also have to add Conservative manifesto spending commitments on the NHS, extension of free childcare, the new tax-free childcare scheme, the removal of the cap on higher education student numbers and the Dilnot social care funding reforms.
 
 
£12bn of the £30bn plus cuts are to come from welfare spending. A separate IFS analysis shows just how difficult that is to achieve.  Cuts of this scale amount to almost 10% of unprotected benefits. Finding such a reduction without cutting child benefit, which Cameron has now ruled out, would mean that even more significant cuts would likely be required to spending on one or more of tax credits, housing benefit and disability & incapacity benefits.

The remaining cuts will not be evenly spread. Spending on overseas aid and the NHS in England is set to continue increasing in real terms, while schools’ spending in England per pupil is to be protected in cash terms. All this requires cuts elsewhere averaging 15.3%. Although protected spending in these areas does at least help the Barnett consequentials.
 
 
A new analysis published by the Scottish Government today highlights the flexibility the UK Government has to increase spending on public services above its current plans - by £8 billion in 2016-17 then up to £36 billion in 2019-20 - and still meet its Charter for Budget Responsibility targets. That would allow a total of £93 billion of additional UK investment over the next four years as a whole when compared to current UK Government plans, providing up to £7 billion in additional investment for devolved public spending in Scotland.
 
 
Even the OECD have cautioned against making deep cuts in 2016 and 2017 because of the impact on growth in the economy.  It said: “While there are some countries where clearly debt needs to be brought down, there are others which are in a more comfortable position to fund themselves at exceptionally low interest rates, and which could indeed simply live with their debt (allowing their debt ratio to decline through growth or windfall revenues).”

This summary shows that the Chancellor's cuts are unnecessary and he is even prepared to stifle the modest economic recovery in pursuit of his narrow ideology.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Giving social care the priority it deserves

The social care crisis in Scotland is not given the priority it deserves, but there is a growing consensus about what needs to be done.

 

I was speaking at the Care Scotland, care at home conference on Friday. The panel was asked to set out what’s wrong with home care and how we would fix it.

 

On a national and local level we need to fix the crazy commissioning system that isn’t working for anyone. It isn’t working for providers who are struggling to maintain a viable business model. It isn’t working for staff; either social workers that are trying to put packages of care together, or home care staff that are the real victims of the race to the bottom in pay and conditions. Most importantly, it isn’t working for service users, who suffer from the high turnover of staff with little continuity of care, or are stuck in a hospital bed because there are no staff to care for them at home.

 

The solution primarily needs proper funding. It’s easy to blame politicians for obsessing about the NHS, but they are often just following public opinion that rarely understands that social and NHS care are interlinked. Personally, I am coming to the view that we need an agreed national rate for home care, as we have for residential care. This would be a rate that is dependent on providers paying the Scottish Living Wage and maintaining a range of other workforce standards. One of the merits of a national rate as against a local top up is that it wouldn’t just reward the bad employers in the sector.

 

That leads me to the second issue, employment standards. Any funding agreement has to include the key elements of UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter. The new procurement guidance rightly recognises that paying the Scottish Living Wage alone is not enough because some providers will simply cut other conditions. There needs to be action on zero and nominal hour contracts, sick pay and travel time. In addition, what comes through strongly in all our surveys is the importance of giving staff time to care and proper training linked to career progression. A recent UNISON survey highlights frighteningly low levels of training. Caring should be a great job and many staff I meet recognise that. But the household bills have to be paid and so many end up stacking shelves in supermarkets instead.

 

I am pleased to say that there was a broad consensus amongst the panel at yesterday’s conference on what needs to be done. Scottish Care also launched their latest research report on this issue, which is well worth a read.

 

The media headline was all about freezing heath spending, but the key finding is that investment in better social care for older people would improve their lives and help to cut emergency hospital admissions. In 2012-13, the average emergency hospital admission for over-65s lasted for 11.8 days, at an average cost of £4,846. That amount could fund either care at home for a week for 27.7 older people or 9.28 weeks in a residential care home for one pensioner.

 

Ranald Mair, chief executive of Scottish Care, said: "If we're going to manage to keep more people out of hospital, to maintain them in their own homes and also to prevent them going into long term care at an early stage, then we actually have to invest in home care. The danger at the moment is that we're continuing to invest in hospitals and as you know, all politicians want to be the defenders of the NHS. This isn't an attack on the NHS, let me be clear. If people need to go to hospital that's where they should be. But what we know is that over 20% of admissions of older people to hospital are 'unnecessary' admissions. They're not going in because of their clinical needs, they're going in because of their circumstances and because of the lack of alternatives."

 

It’s hard to disagree with that. Investment in social care and in particular the staff who deliver care, needs to be one of our highest priorities.

 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What is Scottish Labour for?

As Scottish Labour regroups after the General Election, the temptation will be to focus on organisation and structure. Important though these are, the real question the party has to ask itself is - what is Scottish Labour for?

After the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish Labour held reviews that gave detailed consideration to internal structure, election organisation etc. Tucked away in both reviews was a mention of political purpose and strategy, but it was left to another time, it was regarded as of secondary importance. No political party has a divine right to exist; it has to have a clear political purpose. Scottish Labour needs clarity over its key purpose and then needs to find a way of expressing it in language activists can explain and voters can understand.

For me the answer is, it’s inequality stupid. 

UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. This is of course the core message of the ground-breaking study by Wilkinson and Pickett, ‘The Spirit Level’. More recently the EU’s official think tank on life at work said: “…the level of wage inequality in the EU as a whole is below that of the US. However, wage inequality in the UK, the EU’s most unequal country, is now above that of the US average. The UK, Latvia and Portugal are the three most unequal countries in Europe“. They also found that since 2008 increasing inequality has been driven by in developments within the UK. Danny Dorling’s recent myth busting in the Guardian reinforces the point.

It has been argued that Ed Miliband’s focus on inequality was one of the failings of the UK Labour election strategy. However, while there clearly were failings, tackling inequality wasn’t one of them. Even Tony Blair recognised, he was “absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality”. The problem was that Miliband’s approach was too timid (e.g. the £8 NMW) and presented badly using language that didn’t include a big enough coalition. The trick is to explain the damage inequality inflicts on everyone, not just the poor and disadvantaged.

Having explained what is wrong with our society, Scottish Labour has to show how it will fix it. That requires some big and really bold policies, such as - childcare free at the point of use; building 10,000 social houses every year; raising real wages and tackling insecure work. There are many more examples in the Red Paper on Scotland 2014.  The key is ‘big and bold’, policies that are inspirational. Not, as the current Scottish Labour policy consultation paper does, offer the sparkling promise of multiple reviews!

This is also about political positioning. Scottish Labour can only win on the left of the SNP - the Tories exist to stretch the SNP on the right. The SNP is a very broad coalition, which is why they duck difficult issues like redistribution and retreat into process. One social attitude survey question asked voters of each party, ‘do you support abolishing inheritance tax?’. SNP voters were more in favour of this proposition than Tory voters. There is a lot of SNP rhetoric about the big issues facing Scotland, lots of reviews and consultation, but less real action.

That is not to encourage Scottish Labour into more tribal rants against the SNP. Instead, Scottish Labour should acknowledge the positive actions, park the past and move on. Telling voters they made a big mistake is never a smart political strategy. For the future, it’s about Scottish Labour’s positive vision and how the broad SNP coalition is holding Scotland back.

That leaves how Scottish Labour addresses constitutional change. It is often argued that Scotland, and other parts of Europe, even England, is being subsumed in tide of nationalism. The evidence for this is actually very weak. A longitudinal study undertaken at the LSE shows that the number of people in Scotland identifying as more Scottish than British has significantly declined since 1999, while those identifying as equally Scottish and British is increasing. This chart illustrates the shift.

This doesn’t mean that Scottish voters don’t want constitutional change. They overwhelmingly want greater devolution, which is why the trade unions in particular argued for a second question in the referendum. Scottish Labour should not be a unionist party - it is a party that sees the UK as a means to an end, not an end in itself. This means being positive about greater devolution based on the principle of subsidiarity. Ironically, this is a task made easier by the loss of MPs, shifting the Party’s political focus from Westminster to Holyrood. 

Another feature of Scottish Labour’s new distinctive offer has to be devolution to local government and communities. This is again about political positioning, making the contrast with the SNP’s centralism. This requires a new approach to public service reform based on local democracy and integrated local delivery in actual communities of place. However, that means the Party has to have a political strategy for local government. Too many Labour councillors are passive administrators, rather than agents of radical political change.


In short, Scottish Labour has to break away from its establishment mentality and become insurgents again. A party of ideas, prepared to take radical and practical action on the inequality that blights so much of Scotland, damages our economy and takes everyone else down with it.