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.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Thoughts on the Labour Leadership election

The Labour Party leadership ballot papers dropped on the doorstep this week. Hold the front page, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn! Not that I welcomed this ballot paper. This election is entirely  unnecessary - foisted on the party by MPs in the Westminster bubble, who should have been fighting the Tories rather than the leader elected less than a year ago.

On Tuesday, I was speaking at a Scotlandfest event in Edinburgh that discussed what Keir Hardie would have made of the leadership ballot. As those who have read my chapter in the book 'What Would Keir Hardy Say?', will know that I am bit sceptical of those who seek to put modern day words into the mouth of historical figures. So, I wasn't terribly impressed with Owen Smith's piece in the Daily Record, quite apart from the fact that Hardie wouldn't be spinning in his grave for anything - he was cremated!

The discussion did cover an important feature of the leadership ballot. Yes, Hardie did see the importance of the parliamentary road to socialism, but he was also an agitator who understood the importance building a social movement behind the parliamentary action. He would have revelled in the Corbyn rallies and the sheer enthusiasm of the audiences.

In my view it's not an either/or, Labour has to do both. Becoming the largest political party in Europe is a staggering achievement, but I accept that Jeremy has more to do when in comes to converting that into an electoral machine. Owen Smith has tried to learn the lessons of last year's campaign by saying some substantial and radical things. However, he still looks and sounds like a professional politician and has failed to really enthuse even his own supporters. 

On Thursday Jeremy was in Scotland, setting out some pretty solid policy ideas. They do need to be developed, but the claim that he is policy light, has little substance. I was speaking at his policy launch, explaining the impact of austerity on Scotland's public services. Jeremy set out how we should tackle austerity in language that public service workers understand. He could not have been clearer when he said:

"We need to challenge not just austerity, but the failed economic model that has undermined our treasured public services and created a more unequal, and more brutal society."

He also gets devolution, and has laid out an ambitious programme for democratic reform across the UK. He understands that real constitutional reform addresses the sources of power in society - not just playing with the institutions.

Then there were substantial economic commitments. Doubling capital investment, democratic control of the energy sector, 60,000 council houses and a real industrial strategy. He gets the concerns of workers over insecure jobs and low pay with a commitment to end 'the cheapskate economy', restoring workers rights.

The leadership ballot has thrown up some silly season stories. Dave Anderson's very tentative musings on relationships with the SNP at Westminster were picked up somewhat hysterically by Kez Dugdale, no doubt influenced by her position on the leadership. She would do well to remember that her comrades in Edinburgh Council are in coalition with the SNP. The simple fact is that when the electorate deal you a hand you have to play with it. Jeremy dealt with the issue very clearly on Thursday, but the criticism of this from Neal Lawson of Compass, simply demonstrates political naivety and the London-centric focus of Compass. Talk of progressive alliances implies pre-election deals and that isn't going to happen.

The real gain for Scotland from a Jeremy Corbyn leadership is a leader who is prepared to campaign for a new economic model that ensures that no-one and nowhere is left behind. If he can achieve that at a UK level, then Scotland can decide its own priorities. 

The difference with Jeremy and most other political leaders I have met, is that he really believes in the case he is making. He is not tacking for a particular audience or a short term political strategy. His record speaks for itself. Authenticity may not be everything the Labour Party needs - but it is a start.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Food safety needs a credible inspection regime

Food safety matters. We need to cut through the jargon in corporate strategies and stand up for properly resourced and independent inspection of the food we eat.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has published its corporate strategy for the period up to April 2019. The document claims that "to put the consumer at the heart of what we do, we need to understand what matters to consumers in relation to food. Consumers have told us that trust is essential for FSS, so we need to earn and keep that trust."

They helpfully, if alarmingly, remind us that food safety is a significant health issue in Scotland. They estimate that there are approximately 43,000 cases of foodborne infectious intestinal disease (IID) annually, leading to 5,800 GP visits and 500 hospital admissions. Just one example is Campylobacter, with between 55‐75% of all reported cases of Campylobacter infection in Scotland associated with a chicken source. A significant proportion of fresh chicken on retail sale in the UK is contaminated with the pathogen.

The FSS is directly responsible for official meat controls and provides guidance to local authorities who are supposed to deliver other inspections. The strategy seeks to reassure us that "protecting public health remains our key objective."

So far so good. However, later in the paper we are told that, "We will review these programmes so that they are proportionate and do not place undue burdens either on the industries we regulate or on taxpayers."

Based on past experience this sounds like code for further deregulation of meat inspection. Until recently the FSS was part of the U.K. Food Standards Agency. They have just published a document: “Regulating Our future”, in which they announce an intention to introduce a free ride for businesses who’ve passed an assessment visit sometime in the last few years or allow approved companies to provide assurance of food hygiene standards alongside local authorities. In short, the FSA are going to reduce meat and other food inspection and hand over responsibility to industry. 

In fact, FSS are already going down this road with white meat by replacing independent FSS poultry meat inspectors with plant employed poultry inspection assistants. When inspection probably costs little more than a penny a bird, this is short-sighted in the extreme.

The FSA have used 'proportionate' and 'undue burdens' in the past as justification for deregulation and we must be suspicious that the FSS review is heading in the same direction. The meat industry is a powerful lobby and their need to maximise profit has often triumphed over consumer protection.

We should be equally concerned over the capacity of local authorities to meet their obligations in relation to food safety. Environmental health departments have been the subject of significant cuts in recent years and many are struggling to undertake regular inspections of food premises. The review could also impact on their roles.

As always with corporate strategies you need to look beyond the fine words and look at the actions. The review of regulatory programmes is one to watch carefully.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Fracking bribes won't work

In a desperate attempt to sell more dirty energy to a sceptical public, the UKGovernment is proposing cash bribes to households impacted by fracking.

INEOS has announced the first delivery of US shale gas to its Grangemouth petrochemical plant next month and used this as an opportunity to, yet again, make the case for exploiting indigenous supplies. Unlike the USA there is no commercial shale gas production in the UK as yet, although approval has been given for a site in North Yorkshire. In Scotland, development was halted by the 2015 moratorium, while expert reports are prepared.

The UK government has launched a consultation on plans to distribute payments to the communities affected by the drilling. They are proposing a Shale Wealth Fund, which would distribute 10% of all shale gas tax revenues to local communities. Unlike traditional planning gain, the UK government proposed that payments could be made to households directly - a straightforward cash bribe.

The problem for the government is that even cash bribes might not deliver public support for such a controversial technology. Surveys undertaken by the Department for Energy and Climate Change in April, showed public support for fracking stood at only 19%, while 31% were explicitly opposed.

In a more recent YouGov poll since the government announcement, only a third of those surveyed said they would support fracking in their local area “if individual households received a direct payment in exchange” of up to £10,000. More than 43% said they were opposed, 26% of them "strongly". Another quarter said they didn’t know whether they supported it or not. The greatest opposition is in Scotland where 51% are opposed. Clearly the INEOS 'summer offensive' hasn't had much impact!

Liz Hutchins for FoE said: “The government are desperate to show support for shale gas exploration, and recent headlines that offered cash payments were meant to bolster, not diminish, support. But when you look at the details of the scheme, any cash for households would only be after shale exploration, and would be derived from taxation on profits. It all seems a pretty unlikely and distant proposition. What we do know is that the more people learn about fracking and what it could mean for their health and environment, the more opposed they could be. And it's clear from this survey that they haven't been fooled by the government's latest bribe.”

Joseph Dutton from the University of Exeter is even sceptical that significant household payments can be delivered. He argues: "that the ultimate value of the fund and therefore the payments it would distribute is wholly dependent on the tax regime in place when production begins, and the revenue a company derives from a shale gas site once costs are taken into account. Until actual gas production begins, it’s impossible to estimate how much tax the operating company will pay – or even if the shale industry would be a success in the UK at all."

He also makes the point that as the price of oil and gas has plummeted in the last two years, the economic case for developing potentially expensive shale gas deposits has weakened.

The Ferret has highlighted further concerns over another unconventional gas technology, underground coal gasification (UCG). A new report says plans to set fire to coal under the seabed at up to 19 sites around the UK (including east central Scotland) would cause massive climate pollution, groundwater contamination and toxic waste. Cluff Natural Resources has licences for nine potential undersea coalfields amounting to 640 square kilometres, valid until 2018-2020. Two are off the coast near Durham, two off Cumbria, two off Wales and three in the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

Friends of the Earth Scotland says: “Given what we know about this technology’s terrible history around the world, Cluff’s plans to burn coal seams off English coasts are utterly reckless. The UK Government should stop this industry now before Cluff gets his foot in the door.

So, we have had PR offensives, ministerial lobbying and now bribes to persuade us that these technologies make sense. The problem for the industry is that the public isn't convinced on safety grounds. The UK is a much more crowded space than the UK, with less room if things go wrong, as they have in the US. It also assumes that unconventional gas is economically viable. Even if it is, should we really be relying on another dirty fossil fuel when renewable alternatives are available?

For now at least, the answer on all counts is NO.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Home care workers say - We care, do you?

Scotland needs a quality home care service to meet the growing demand and also ensures that patients who shouldn’t be in hospital are cared for at home. While there is a welcome commitment to address this, the service at present is struggling.

I recently outlined the reasons our social care system is in crisis in an article in The Scotsman. Essentially, we have growing demand being met by a fragmented, largely outsourced workforce that has been subjected to a race to the bottom with their pay and conditions of work.

This is reinforced in a report UNISON Scotland has published today. ‘We care, do you?’ looks at the state of social care in Scotland and asks the staff who deliver the service to describe their experiences. The survey revealed:

• 9 in 10 (88%) said they were limited to specific times for client visits, with many reporting this was too short a period to properly cater to a client’s needs.
• Four in five said they believe the service has been affected by budget cuts or privatisation with carers saying the emphasis was now on “quantity rather than quality”.
• Over a quarter (26%) said they were not paid for their travelling time.
• Two thirds (66.5%) said they did not have anywhere to go between visits to have a meal, hot drink or toilet break.
• Nearly half (43%) said they worked longer than their contracted hours.

The Scottish Government is committed to paying care workers the Scottish Living Wage by 1st October this year. It remains to be seen if that will be delivered, as local authorities and providers struggle with the funding arrangements. It is important that the additional resources are distributed equitably and that the poor employers are not rewarded for past bad behaviour. It is equally important that pay is not increased at the expense of other conditions.

Fair pay and conditions are vital to recruit and retain staff. I have read several internal reports that highlight very high turnover rates amongst even the better contractors. Service users need continuity of service provision and turnover rates above 25% per annum cannot deliver this outcome.

Time to care is another key outcome. In today’s report, workers paint a picture of not having enough time to properly care for the vulnerable people who rely on them. The assertion that 15 minute care visits are only for the most minimal needs was roundly contradicted by carers, with some stating that scheduling did not account for travel time between visits.  As one worker described it:
“Sometimes I have 4 clients with all 15min scheduled time in the space of 1 hour with no travel time to each one.”

The section in today’s report on the times service users are helped out of bed and provided with breakfast makes particularly grim reading. As one worker put it:
“Earliest 7am but can still be doing breakfast at 11am, after giving the client a shower so be nearer 11.30 when they eat.”

Getting fair pay and conditions is the important starting point in resolving the social care crisis. However, it’s not enough on its own. That’s why UNISON Scotland is campaigning for local authorities to sign up to its Ethical Care Charter, which sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need home care.

It commits councils to buying home care only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage, so they can provide a better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Municipal energy - time for radical action

Despite the best efforts of successive governments to create an energy market, it remains notoriously uncompetitive. In Europe, municipal energy is commonplace and growing - we should do the same in Scotland.


The so called market is dominated by the big six utility companies, whose pricing practices have been criticised by the competition watchdog. Consumer trust in the market is low and they are reluctant to switch suppliers for a better deal given the hassle of switching. In fairness, the Big Six are often unfairly criticised and new entrants have been guilty of some pretty poor practices as well. The fault is in the system.


The IPPR, has made a convincing case for local authorities to set up municipally-owned energy companies that can supply electricity and gas at competitive prices and don’t have to distribute profits to private shareholders. By targeting those on low incomes, they can also help tackle fuel poverty. The local authority “brand” may also encourage otherwise reluctant low-income households to switch suppliers and save money. Nottingham and Bristol have followed this model and London, under a new Labour Mayor, looks likely to follow.


In Scotland a slightly different model is being adopted. Our Power is a community benefit society established and owned by a number of local authorities and housing associations. It too aims to tackle fuel poverty through the supply of affordable energy, focusing on social housing tenants, and seeks to buy a minimum of 30% of its energy from renewable sources. The Scottish Government is also at least considering setting up its own energy company, although details are limited.


The problem with these models is that they are simply playing the failed market and are relying on the same wholesalers. An alternative approach is for councils to establish genuine energy companies that generate renewable electricity and help households to install energy efficiency measures, funded from the long-term savings in their energy bills.

The APSE research paper, 'Municipal Energy: Ensuring councils plan, manage and deliver on local energy’, found that:
  • For every £1 invested in renewable energy schemes there is a further £2.90 in cashable benefits
  • 17 jobs can be created from every £1 million in energy saving measures on building
  • Energy efficiency and renewable energy can create 10 times more jobs per unit of electricity generated than fossil fuels
  • The local government sector annual energy bill of £750 million could be reduced by up to half by leveraging in spending power and using readily available and low cost technologies existing buildings.

Fife Council has done some of this with its £1.3 million turbine at the council’s recycling and resource recovery facility near Ladybank. This is expected to generate enough electricity to power 200 homes. They also generate clean energy from garden and food waste at the council's anaerobic digester and from landfill gas. Aberdeen has similar projects as well as the city's district heating scheme. A number of councils use solar photovoltaic panels.


Glasgow City Council is in the process of setting up an energy services company which will oversee the creation of renewables and low carbon projects in the city. It has mapped sites, but progress has been slow.


A more radical plan for the city has been proposed by Jim Metcalfe, based on research carried out by the Energy Saving Trust. This would involve the creation of a locally-owned company which would be able to reinvest profits from power generation on improving building insulation and reducing fuel poverty. The council should be leading on this, using council bonds, available at historically low levels, to finance the plan.


While electricity generation is important, we also need to make progress on heating homes. This is where district heating schemes come in. The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee heard in January that the £300 million government scheme to develop district heat projects needs a “regulatory investment framework” during this parliament to support future growth. District heating is a 50-80 year long investment and so you want to attract the lowest possible cost of capital to ensure the lowest cost for consumers. Councils are again in the best position to do this. In Scotland, work has begun on tapping into geo-thermal heat from disused mine workings.

Governments could help more by making energy efficiency a national infrastructure project. In Norway, the introduction of legislation to support district heating has shown a 150% increase in the installed capacity over the last 10 years. This has helped make it possible for the city of Drammen to create a district heating network that supplies several thousand homes and businesses with clean, affordable heat. This system didn’t rely on Scandinavian engineering, but the expertise of Glasgow-based Star Renewables.


There are a number of interesting municipal energy projects in Scotland and the rest of the U.K. However, they are patchy, small scale and not nearly radical enough. We need councils to take the lead, establishing full scale energy companies that can provide energy efficient homes with cheaper electricity and heat. They would also generate desperately needed revenues.

This would be municipal enterprise of the sort councils in the 19th Century created to revitalise our towns and cities. We now need 21st Century municipal leadership to take this forward.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Federalism, bit like my wardrobe, coming back into fashion

I always thought my interest in federalism was a quirky minority sport. However, it is now beginning to look dangerously mainstream, given recent initiatives.

Some of this has been driven by Brexit and a drive to safeguard Scotland's relationship with the EU. Scottish Labour Leader, Kez Dugdale, has asked former Labour justice secretary Lord Falconer to “explore some potential avenues around a federalist solution”. The idea being that Scotland could retain its place both in the UK and in the EU, reflecting what the vast majority of people in Scotland voted for in two referendum results. They voted to be part of the United Kingdom and they voted to be part of the European Union.

This idea is not incompatible with the Scottish Government's approach, looking at what has become known as 'reverse Greenland'. Denmark joined the EU, but semi-autonomous Greenland didn't. If such an approach was deliverable, it would clearly require a form of federalism in the UK.

Before we get over excited, it has to be said that there are very few experts, here or in Europe, who believe this is doable. Particularly if the UK goes for a loose trade relationship with the EU based on WTO rules, rather than the Norway or Swiss model that includes free movement of people. The former would probably require a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, although some believe there are National Insurance solutions to this. 

Whatever the practical and political problems (don't mention the Spanish!), it is absolutely right that politicians should keep an open mind and pursue all options. That's why Ruth Davidson's uber unionism is the wrong approach. In contrast, one Tory who has always been prepared to think out of the box is Murdo Fraser MSP. He has supported federalism for some time, advocating various forms that would also include administrative devolution in England. As he himself admits, this would not be pure federalism in any sense, more likely ‘quasi-federalism’. However, as the UK is an asymmetric state any solution is going to be untidy.

Next up is the Constitutional Reform Group, who have drafted a new Treaty of Union based on full blooded federalism. In their model, each constituent part of the UK would agree what powers it wanted to share - similar to the 'Devo-Max' approach.

This group is also chaired by a Tory, Lord Salisbury, and includes the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Labour Northern Ireland and Wales secretary Peter Hain, the former clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane, and the former Ulster Unionist politician David Burnside. The group also claims the support of former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, and from the current chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady. Again the involvement of leading Tories is interesting, given their traditional reluctance to address constitution reform. We should also give credit to the Liberal-Democrats who have been consistent supporters of federalism.

Salisbury told the Guardian. “We are in a different world following the Brexit vote. The top-down, ad hoc approach to the structure of the United Kingdom needs to be replaced. We believe that our approach based on consent will provide a stronger union than the one that we now have and which is under challenge.”

This leads us onto the questions of powers for a purpose. The CRG plan is very much about the mechanisms of federalism, albeit with a political understanding of the additional pressures for constitutional change post-Brexit. 

The purpose of new powers is much clearer in the Red Paper Collective's recent paper 'Progressive Federalism'. In this and previous publications, the group says constitutional change must be measured against its potential to challenge the power of capital and bring the economy under democratic control. The latest publication includes a range of policies that could achieve such a goal, including my own chapter on local economies.

The UK Labour Party has demonstrated only limited interest in constitutional reform since devolution, under the dead hand of many in the PLP. However, under Jeremy Corbyn that has started to change. His joint statement, with Kez Dugdale, on internal party devolution was strong on the need to decentralise power. He also appointed Jon Trickett MP to head up a Constitutional Convention. The direction of travel was set out by Jon at the the 2015 UK Labour Party conference when he said: 
"The truth is that many people feel the UK is over-centralised. That politics is broken. That there is a closed elite circle in Britain which rules in its own interests rather than those of the wider population."

We should also not forget that federalism has economic challenges, particularly for Scotland. It may address many of the additional costs independence would bring and fixes the currency and other issues. However, it still leaves a big gap in the public finances since the oil price crash. 

What is clear from the above is that federalism can take different forms and certainly has many different motivations. However, the consistent theme is that the Westminster system is broken and the future needs to be less centralised - calling an end to top down politics. In Scotland, that also means devolution should not stop at Holyrood - Scotland isn't my idea of local.

At home, when resisting throwing out old clothes, I have been known to argue they might come back into fashion. Well, it looks like federalism might just be doing just that!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Play Nicely!

In my post-Brexit blog I urged, in the words of my old Gran, everyone to 'cool your wellies'. Sadly, some, most notably the Westminster PLP, ignored that advice. Now we are going to have another leadership election, I will invoke another of my Gran's sayings, 'Play nicely!'.

So, another leadership election, probably not what the coup plotters wanted, but that's the problem with coup's, they don't always go to plan and they can have unforeseen consequences. I have to say that I despair at Westminster as an institution. Putting politicians in a bubble for the best part of a week, separated from the real world, with largely only their colleagues to talk to, is a recipe for disaster. At least at Holyrood, MSPs go home more often. If Brexit had been a little closer to the recess, this shambles might have been avoided.

I take the view that the NEC was absolutely correct in their interpretation of the rule that ensures the incumbent is on the ballot paper. I won't offer yet another legal opinion, but it was drummed into me at law school that you start with the plain English meaning of words. In this case the reference to 'challengers' is pretty clear. In addition, it would be politically unacceptable to the membership not to have Jeremy on the ballot paper, when they elected him only 9 months ago.

I voted for Jeremy last time, although he wasn't my immediate choice. I did so because he was the only candidate who offered a credible vision for Labour and the country. The other candidates said little and did even that badly. That doesn't make me a starry eyed Corbynista (I am probably too old and cynical to be starry eyed about anything!) and I am prepared to consider other candidates. 

I do believe Jeremy has offered a policy vision that challenges the conventional wisdom and offers hope to millions whose lives have been damaged by austerity. I also accept that to win elections competent political management is required and he and his team have on occasions fallen short on that. However, this is not the cause of Labour's long term problem. These have been in the making for many years, and their architects are some of the MPs behind the anti-Corbyn campaign in their Westminster bubble. And yes, in Scotland, some of those who lost their seats and appear to have no insight into the negative role they played in Scottish Labour's problems.

Angela Eagle, who I voted for as Deputy last year, will have to do a lot better than her launch speech. Even if I accepted her analysis of Jeremy's failings, just being the 'I am not Jeremy' candidate is not enough. It all sounded so technocratic, with no Plan B about what she would actually do. “I’m not a Blairite. I’m not a Brownite. I’m not a Corbynista. I am my own woman,” tells me what she isn't - not what she is for. Even more importantly, she hasn't explained how people left behind by austerity and abandoned by an inward-looking elite political class can have some ownership over their lives.

This is what the leadership election should be about, not vacuous cliches, or personal abuse. Scotland has been more restrained, excepting the abysmal outburst from George Foulkes in the Sunday Herald. I would urge comrades to keep it that way. Robust debate is fine, gratuitous abuse is not.

Back to my Gran. It would be fair to say that my brother and I didn't always follow her advice to 'play nicely'. However, on reflection she was right. It's easier to patch up an argument and move on when you do. Something those who really care about politics and our country's future would do well to remember.

P.S. Remember, if you are a levy paying member of an affiliated trade union you can register as an affiliated supporter at no cost and get a vote in this election. http://support.labour.org.uk