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.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Labour Party National (UK) Policy Forum

The National (UK) Policy Forum gathered this weekend in Leeds. Representing the Scottish Labour Party is always a challenge at these events because devolution means that we only have a direct interest in a few reserved matters. The Scottish Policy Forum process will start this Autumn to develop policy on developed matters.

The main purpose of the weekend was to look at the draft consultation papers, which will shortly go out for views from members.

Being the Labour Party, we love a constitutional row, and the NPF managed to spend more than an hour squabbling over how the vacant chair's post should be elected. In essence, the NPF was only given a few days notice of the election and the NEC Officers ruled that there has to be at least 7 days notice. So the election is deferred. It wasn't an edifying sight with some pretty uncomradely behaviour. It is beyond me why this couldn't have been resolved beforehand. Some proper rules and standing orders for the NPF in the UK rule book might help.

Jeremy eventually got to address the meeting. He pointed to us having largest party membership in Europe as a strength and a resource of knowledge to help develop our policy offer for the next election. He didn't duck Brexit, clearly setting out Labour's position that any deal must protect jobs and workers rights. His focus was on key Labour issues like homelessness, linking that to the English council elections and the funding of local government. An issue we are also facing in Scotland.

He used the collapse of Carrillion to make the case for greater public ownership and against outsourcing in the public sector. Confirming a real Living Wage of £10 per hour. Investment in  English housing, education etc would also give Scotland's Parliament the resources to end austerity. The speech didn't break much new ground, but was well received by delegates keen to get onto the substantive business of the NPF.

I went to the 'Future of work' session, which is mostly reserved. The draft consultation is largely based on the 20 point plan on employment rights published before the 2017 manifesto. Barry Gardiner, the Shadow Trade minister identified the implications of dodgy trade deals, including a race to the bottom in workers rights and deregulation. I highlighted the impact of such deals on devolved issues, drawing on the work in Scotland on procurement and Fair Work. I felt the paper could say more about the inadequacies of the Taylor review and the U.K. Government's response. We are well past the stage of nudging bad employers into fair work practices. The paper also says nothing about how Labour should respond to the ageing workforce.

In the second breakout session I went to the work, pensions and inequality discussion. The focus of this consultation is tackling in-work poverty and working age inequalities. The last Labour government did a lot to address child and pensioner poverty, so this focus is welcome. My contribution focused on making the case for tackling inequality, something we as socialists take for granted, but is not well understood more widely. I also think we need to do more work on understanding the interaction between wages and benefits in tackling in work poverty for working families. Finally, a plea for a clear policy on occupational pensions. We need to reform the system and bring greater value into pension provision that is being ripped off by investment managers.

The final plenary session on Saturday was on health inequalities, although inevitably it was largely about the dire state of the English NHS.  John Ashworth gave a very clear exposition of the problems and the direction of travel for Labour's response. He specifically rejected a Royal Commission as a trap. If you want properly funded and publicly delivered NHS, you need to vote in a Labour government.

Sunday started with Katy Clark giving us an overview of the party democracy review. The focus for the NPF is the third stage of the review that ends on 28 June on how the party makes policy. There was a recognition that the NPF process does bring together all parts of the party and gives an opportunity to develop policy over a longer time period. However, the Party doesn't use technology well and members who do know about the process, don't often get feedback on the ideas they have submitted. We also have to recognise that the Party has to have a narrative on the issues of the day that can't wait for the conclusion of a two year process. That inevitably means that NPF members can feel marginalised. Policy Commissions have a range of practical difficulties, for example, I am on a policy commission that is 90% devolved. There was a call for more regional events and better moderation of the Your Britain website.

The third breakout session I attended was on a Greener Britain. Other than energy generation, most of these issues are devolved. But as the shadow minister Alan Whitehead pointed out, we need to join up all aspects of this policy. For example, if we don't decarbonise energy generation, we will be powering electric cars with dirty energy. Alan is also strong on linking industrial policy to environmental policy, something that the Scottish Government could be better at. BiFab being an example of crisis management, rather than linking up into a long term policy for a just transition. Large scale incineration is clearly a concern in several parts of England and somewhat dominated the discussion. The UK government is particularly weak on recycling and air pollution.

And finally, it was the Brexit plenary. Keir Starmer set out Labour's current position in opposing a hard Tory Brexit, which is not an attempt to refight the referendum, based on his six tests. In particular, no deregulation or undermining workers rights. He also understood the devolution issues, with a particular focus on Northern Ireland. 

Francis O'Grady emphasised the importance of finding a solution that brings people together, given the close referendum result. She focused on the trade impact on jobs as well as employment standards. All options should be on the table including the single market and the customs union. CETA type options leaves us open to corporate interests in rigged courts. Rebecca Long-Bailey focused on the economic implications, including jobs and skills. Barry Gardiner emphasised the risks of dodgy trade deals.

Firming up Labour's position on Brexit has practical and political challenges. Practical in the sense that the Tories are struggling to develop a coherent government negotiating position, and therefore scrutiny is challenging. Political, in the sense that Labour has to find a balance between respecting the referendum result and protecting the country from the consequences of a hard Brexit. While like most NPF members I support a soft Brexit, I believe that more policy work needs to be done on how the options for our future relations with the EU impact on our manifesto commitments.

This was my first full NPF meeting. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of the contributions from delegates and the work that had been done by the policy commissions. Even in policy areas which are devolved, it was useful to hear how these issues are being addressed in England. 

I hope this report gives a flavour of the discussions and members will be able to engage in detail with the consultation papers shortly. If I can help facilitate local discussions with affiliates or CLPs, please feel free to get in touch.



Dave Watson
d.watson@unison.co.uk


Friday, 16 February 2018

Time to look again at policing in Scotland

The latest instalment in the sorry story that is Police Scotland has played out with the resignation of  the latest chief constable. Now is the time to step back and take a longer term view of the governance of Police Scotland.

From the outset UNISON Scotland set out a range of concerns over the structure and governance of Police Scotland, and even when the Scottish Government decided to plough on with the merger, we suggested some practical ways a national force could be governed better. Proposals that had the added advantage of retaining millions of pounds of revenue funding that went out of Police Scotland and into the Treasury's pocket, due to the botched VAT fiasco. 

I am tempted just to say, I told you so. While I am entitled to a bit of job satisfaction, there are wider issues that still need to be addressed.

The new Chair of the Scottish Police Authority, Susan Deacon, is in my view entitled to say it's time to draw a line under the Gormley episode. Whatever prurient interest there may be in the allegations, the public interest case is limited. The simple fact is that his position was untenable and it is right that we move on. However, I do accept the point made by Moi Ali and others that there is a case for looking again at professional regulation.

I do think the minister went beyond his remit in the discussions with the former SPA Chair over the chief constable's return to work. However, it is hard to blame him for asking some pretty relevant questions, the answers to which should have been immediately forthcoming. It is frankly incredible that the SPA appears not have considered a range of issues that even a junior HR manager would have identified.

The problem for Police Scotland and the SPA is that this is just the latest in a long line of problems. Operational decisions have been criticised included the raids on sex workers in Edinburgh, stop and search tactics and the routine arming of police officers. Right from the outset there were territorial squabbles between the SPA and Police Scotland that have never been properly resolved. There was no final business case for the merger and force has been beset by financial problems throughout its troubled existence.

On top of all that the Scottish Government imposed the police officer number targets that resulted in police officers replacing specialist civilian staff, often at twice the cost. The statutory duty of Best Value was abandoned to political expediency.

The structure was designed to allow the minister and his civil servants to dabble in the service and the governance arrangements were muddled. It would take a particularly skilled set of chief officials to manage their way through this minefield. Neither the SPA or Police Scotland have been blessed with such appointments. 

In my experience of chief constables, over some 35 years of representing police staffs, is that they fall into two broad categories. The traditional command and control coppers who regard scrutiny and good governance principles as an evil necessity, to be ignored as far as possible. Then there are those who recognise the value of listening to staff who deliver the service and local politicians who understand their communities. Sadly, they are the exception, but Scotland had at least a few of those before Police Scotland. Skills that were unlikely to be recognised when appointing to a highly centralised service that has insufficient local governance.

So, where do we go from here? Five years on, having lost two chief constables and countless others in leadership positions, it is time for a review. That review has to start by setting out clear governance structures at the top - including the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the SPA and Police Scotland. If we are to retain a national police force (not a given in my view), it has to have a much strengthened local accountability structures, with matching devolved management. Finally, it has to be built on sound finances and modernised using Best Value principles.

I do think the appointment of Susan Deacon was a bit of inspired thinking. She has the intellectual, governance and political skills required. However, putting a competent person into an incompetent structure is rarely enough. If a cabinet reshuffle brings a new minister - that would be a good opportunity for a rethink. If not, then parliament should intervene.


Friday, 2 February 2018

Council funding - a step forward, but not out of the woods

The Scottish Budget dance has taken another swirl as the Bill passes its first stage. Let’s have a look at what the changes mean for local government and pay.

First a quick recap. The draft budget proposed no cash increase for local government, which meant a ‘real terms’ cut in council budgets of around £153m. This was in a year when the Scottish Government had a cash increase in its own budget from Westminster of £188m. They also announced a new pay policy, but allocated nothing in the budget to pay for it.

After the Finance Settlement was published with details of individual local authority allocations, councils spotted an ‘accounting error’, which after the government correction resulted in a number of winners and losers.

On the day of the Stage 1 debate this week, the Government announced that an agreement had been reached with the Greens to support the budget, in return for an additional £159.5m of revenue funding. No repeat of last year’s padding the numbers by mixing capital and revenue. They also improved the pay policy by extending the 3% band to those earning up to £36,500. It remains at 2% for those earning above that.

Dealing first with the revenue funding, this roughly means that councils are now getting a standstill budget in ‘real terms’. However, that does not mean there won’t be more cuts in the coming year.

That’s because ‘real terms’ means an assumption that inflation will be 1.4% next year. No one really believes this will happen, certainly not a prudent council finance director. The OBR has forecast that the CPI will be 2.4% next year and the RPI 3.3%. Pay alone, which is 55% of the budget, will be around double the government’s inflation assumption according to the pay policy.

Then there will be the usual round of ‘unavoidable commitments’. These include demographic change, which IJBs alone calculate at 2% per annum. Most IJBs are already reporting big shortfalls in their planned budgets for next year and will be looking for additional financial support. Not helped by the £66m allocated for the living wage and other new care duties only being ‘support’, not the full cost.

COSLA calculated all these demands at 2.6%, plus 3% for a realistic inflation estimate. That’s where their £545m figure comes from, which was the basis for Scottish Labour’s budget proposal.

That leaves pay. Does the revised budget meet the Scottish Government pay policy, let alone the trade union side claim?

A 3% pay increase costs councils around £210m. As pay makes up around 55% of the revenue budget, £88m of the new money is for pay. Then councils can increase the council tax by 3% raising £77m, which by the same proportions is £42m for pay. That’s a total of £130m, or a shortfall of £80m. They could of course meet the cost by spending almost all the new money on pay, but that leaves almost nothing for inflation and those unavoidable commitments.

Councils also have less flexibility in other areas. They can increase charges again, but the income is dropping off every year they do this, quite apart from the regressive nature of many charges. Councils took £79m from their reserves last year, not something they can continue to do.


In summary, the extra money is very welcome and makes a significant contribution to the draft budget shortfall. It also means that local government is suffering as badly, but not much worse (this year at least), as other departments outwith the protected spending areas. However, it still means an underfunded pay policy and service cuts.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

There is no 'fair deal' for councils

Barely a day goes by without another report on the impact of cuts on local services, as councils start the difficult process of managing yet another round of cuts.

Today, I was speaking at Scottish Labour's Highland conference in Inverness. The Highland Council's plans to cut services were all over the media this morning, a timely reminder of the problems that face councils across the country. As with most of these stories, they end with a Scottish Government spokesperson claiming that councils are getting a 'fair deal'.

Even allowing for the exigencies of government spin, this is simply not true. 

Councils have had an 8% cut in real terms since 2010/11. This isn't just down to Tory austerity, wicked though that is. Since 2013-14 council budget allocations have been cut by 6.9%, while the Scottish Government's Revenue Budget fell by 1.6%. Yes, there has been extra money for the government's priorities, but there has been a £590m cut in core funding. The money that pays for the basic local services that mark a civilised society. 

Council's have plugged the gap with a 13% increase in charges, a regressive tax that hits the poorest in society. They have also used up an unsustainable £79m of reserves along with £500m of cuts. The biggest impact has been in local employment, with 30,000 jobs gone since the crash. If councils have had such a 'fair deal', then why are 9 out of 10 austerity job cuts in local government?

The last minute budget deal last year helped, but it still left a £225m revenue cut, in a year when the when the Scottish Government budget went up. It was mitigated by £100m from the change in council tax bands and lifting the council tax freeze. However, that still left  a revenue shortfall of at least £55m. And that was just the consequences of central budget allocations. Councils faced additional unavoidable commitments like the apprenticeships levy and the cost of an ageing population.

In the current budget debate,the Scottish Government is receiving a £188m cash increase in its budget from Westminster, yet local government gets nothing. In real terms it is a £135m to £153m cut. Even if every council increased the council tax by the maximum 3% allowed, it would only generate £77m.

In practice, the cuts will be much worse because ‘real terms’ inflation will be much higher than the 1.4% assumed in the budget. The OBR forecasts are for RPI to rise 3.3% and CPI by 2.4%. There is no funding to meet the Scottish Government's new pay policy, which itself is less than the cost of living.

These are the numbers, but what about impact on services? UNISON has outlined the views of staff in eighteen ‘Damage’ reports. The common theme is that jobs are cut while demand increases, leaving staff stressed and demoralised while they attempt to keep basic services going. 

Even statutory services have been cut and preventative work dropped almost entirely. An example of this is building control. Even after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, building control staff spend little time inspecting properties, while they cope with vacancies and government bureaucracy.

These cuts have a disproportionate impact on low income families who have a greater reliance on local services. Less obvious is the impact on the economy. On Monday, the Jimmy Reid Foundation will publish a report commissioned by UNISON Scotland on this issue. It shows how local authority funding is crucial to sustain and grow economic and social benefits to local communities and society in Scotland as a whole.

We simply cannot go on like this. We need a proper reform local finance, including the use of discretionary taxation. An end to ring fencing budgets and for central government to properly fund its own initiatives that are delivered locally.

Of course we should also look at reform and the Local Governance Review announced by COSLA and the Scottish Government before Christmas is an important initiative. But that won't plug the gaping financial gap anytime soon.

Tory Austerity isn't ending short of a general election and the U.K. Government keeps digging itself a bigger hole rather than changing course. But that austerity has largely been dumped on councils in Scotland, and more. The suspicion is that's because it is far removed from ministers in Edinburgh.

Everyone who cares about democratically accountable local services should be making the case for fair funding in the current budget debate. That then provides the basis for a serious debate about strengthening local democracy.






Thursday, 11 January 2018

Protecting our pensions and saving the planet

Pensions are meant to safeguard our future, but that future is threatened by the burning of carbon in fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. It's also a poor investment, which is why there is a growing movement to divest our pensions from fossil fuel investments.

I was in London yesterday for our UK annual pensions conference, which included the launch of UNISON’s new guide on this issue. It is designed to help members of local government pension schemes push for changes in the investment of their funds. The aim is to explore alternative investment opportunities, allowing funds to sell their shares and bonds in fossil fuels and to go carbon-free.

This is an issue that UNISON Scotland has championed for several years with our ReIvest campaign partners, FoE and Common Weal. Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme funds have some £1.8bn invested in fossil fuel companies - that figure grows to £16bn across the UK.


New government regulations for fossil fuels have raised the costs of high-polluting industries and reduced their investment appeal. Equally, emerging clean and green technology has created new and lucrative business opportunities for funds. The UK government is also consulting on allowing pension schemes to dump fossil fuel investments by dropping ‘best returns’ legal rules.

In Scotland, all local authorities, including those who administer the local SLGPS funds, have a statutory duty to reduce emissions in accordance with the Climate Change (Scotland) Act. That is an additional reason for challenging investment proposals to invest in fossil fuels.

One of the strengths of this new guide is to challenge the conventional wisdom that fiduciary duty is a barrier to divestment. The law is actually quite clear, pension funds should consider any factors that have a  financial impact on the performance of their investments, including social, environmental and corporate governance factors. Trustees can take account of non- financial factors where they have good reason to think that scheme members share their view, and there is no risk of major financial harm to the fund.

The guide also sets out a range of actions anyone who is concerned about this issue can take - not just our union branches and members.


By investing in fossil fuel extraction, our local councils are attempting to take a short term profit from climate change. As public bodies, councils have a responsibility to work for the public good,  they shouldn’t be financially and politically supporting the most destructive industry on the planet. Fossil fuel investments undermine existing Scottish and local authority climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Let's protect our hard earned pensions and leave a planet fit for future generations.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

A brisk walk along the beach to clear my head from the excesses of last night, leads to reflections on 2017 and thoughts for the year ahead.


The UK general election was obviously one of two dominant issues last year. Jeremy Corbyn led a recovery in Labour's position that few predicted, based on radical policies that tuned into the concerns of the many, not the few. The other was Brexit, which continues to polarise opinion and distract from the huge challenges we face as a society. I would add the Scottish Labour leadership election which, through the election of Richard Leonard, sets a new direction for the party in Scotland.

Looking back on my blog statistics for last year, posts on local government finance topped the number of reads. While the reason and content varied, the substance was the same - Tory austerity has largely been dumped on local government in Scotland.  Partly because it is one step removed from ministers, but also because we haven't done enough to make the case for local democracy and services. It is something we need to focus more effort on in 2018.

The next most popular batch of posts was, perhaps surprisingly, on health and safety themes. In particular, research I did on shift working and before that the ageing workforce, clearly tapped into a wider audience. The impact of technology, automation and life expectancy are workplace issues we should give more consideration to. The basic income pilots in Scotland are one response and I suspect I will be spending considerable time on our pension schemes in 2018.

Election posts and the Scottish Labour leadership election came a close third. We must always be prepared for another UK general election in 2018. The Scottish Labour leadership contest means we are a bit behind organisationally, and we will need to catch up early in the new year. However, being a truly mass membership party is a good starting point and the party needs to change to reflect that new reality. The review led by Katy Clark should help to focus minds on the key issues, although it is a matter for the Scottish Labour Party to take forward change here.

The potential of a break in the annual cycle of elections in Scotland is an opportunity to be more creative in policy development. Public service reform is likely to be high on the agenda this year and I hope to find time to develop the ideas I outlined in my Reid Foundation paper on this issue. I will also be doing some work on the local governance review, which is an opportunity to breathe some new life into local democracy. The Scottish Parliament was created 20 years ago and while I am not going to join those who denigrate its achievements, I agree that it is time for our parliament to be bolder, particularly over tackling inequality.

The early part of the year will be dominated by the budget and austerity will continue to blight our economy and public services. Local government and pay will be our focus. On pay, the new government pay policy, while progress in the right direction, still falls short of what we were looking for. Equally important, a paper policy is of little use if it is not fully funded.

I fear the rest of the year will be dominated by Brexit as the UK government attempts to balance their internal conflicts and the hugely difficult negotiations, without any sense of direction. Something that even the newest shop steward understands is a vital element of any negotiation.

I have no time for those who want to dance on a pin in defining Labour's position, or use it as a proxy for attacking the leadership. However, the consequences for Scotland of Brexit are potentially severe and probably not yet fully understood. We should also not forget the opportunities for Scotland, both in terms of devolved powers and in those areas were EU regulation has been a barrier. All this requires some very tricky balancing acts.

Some of my personal goals for 2017 were not achieved - not least I am no lighter and Fulham's performances on the football pitch mirror inconsistency in other areas of public life. However, I am if nothing an optimist, in my view the essential quality every socialist needs.

So here's wishing everyone a prosperous 2018 - I hope a year in which we make further strides in creating a society that works for the many not the few.




Friday, 22 December 2017

Councils are not getting a 'good deal'

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance Derek Mackay says he has delivered a “good deal” for Scottish councils in the local government budget settlement. Well that’s a relief! Or it would be if it was true.

Lots of numbers are bandied about in relation to the local government budget. I dealt with the most common confusion over a ‘real terms’ increase in a previous blog post. So, let’s try and decipher what’s going on in local government.

Let’s start with the trends over recent years. Looking at the comparable, post police and fire transfer, years between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the local government revenue budget fell by 6.9%, whereas the Scottish government Revenue Budget fell by only 1.6%. This chart shows the trend in detail:



The most damming statistic relates to jobs. If local government has had such a ‘good deal’ then why are nine out of ten austerity job losses in councils?

For the coming year the allocation of £9.63 billion is a “flat cash” settlement, but it isn’t a like for like comparison with the previous year. Next year’s funding includes new Scottish Government policy commitments such as starting to implement the expansion of Early Years and Childcare and ring fencing teachers’ pay and classroom ratios. These add up to a total of £153 million and once they are deducted from the “flat cash” settlement, there is a cut of £153 million for core local government services. 

This table shows how this is calculated. 


Even if every council raised the Council Tax by 3%, it only raises £77m. Certainly not enough to plug this gap. The finance minister’s claim that this would deliver a real terms increase, does not stack up.

We focus on revenue because that’s what pays for core services and of course pay. SPICe has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government's pay policy, this would cost around £150m (gross) in 2018-19. I think this is a little on the low side, but it’s difficult to be precise because of poor workforce data. In fairness, in real terms councils have 1% factored in for pay, so the gap is around £90m. 

We should also remember that because of the allocation formula the pain is not equally spread across councils. This chart shows the variations.



The bottom line is that the finance minister has been told to protect half the budget. That means that the other half takes a disproportionate hit. Most of that is local government, so however you try and spin it, councils are not getting a ‘good deal’.