Thursday, 30 June 2011

Fairness and Common Sense

Labour leader - Ed Miliband - came off the fence earlier in the week - and urged the trade union's to call off their strikes over public sector pensions.

But there's been little sign of him today on the airwaves.

Which is a bit suprising - because the changes being proposed are based on a report by Lord Hutton - one of Ed Miliband's cabinet minster colleagues in the last Labour  government.

Maybe the Labour leader will have something to say later in the day - or maybe he's appearing at one of the trade union marches - which are taking place around the country.

In any event it would be good to hear what he has to say about one - or indeed any - of the key issues involved in the dispute.

For example, does Ed Miliband support the retention of 'final salary' pension schemes? 

John Hutton knows where he stands on that point - on the side of fairness and common sense.

So the Labour leader should have no difficulty in making it clear - where he stands as well.

More Moonlighting MPs

No sooner have I finished praising Jack Straw - than along comes the Private Eye and bursts my bubble.

Here's a recent entry about the veteran Labour MP - taken from the latest edition of the satirical magazine.

"In the same week as Milburn's outburst, his former cabinet colleague Jack Staw wrote a Times feature callingon the European Union to 'embrace Turkey ....... it is myopic in the extreme for its leaders to appear to be turning away from the strongest, richest and most powerful democratic state in the Middle East.


Straw omitted to mention that two months ago he and his wife enjoyed a four-day trip to Istanbul and Akara paid for by the Turkish government (total cost £2,910) and that while he was there the Turks also gave him £2,000 for a speech on foreign policy."

How utterly depressing.

Yet another Labour MP and former cabinet minister - hawking himself around the world - while moonlighting from his day job.

No wonder people sometimes get cynical - about the workings of Westminster and its  politicians.

New Kid on the Block

Aberdeen City Council has a new leader - 26 year old Callum McCaig - who has become the youngest council leader in Scotland.

No I don't know anything about Councillor McCaig - except that he entered local politics only four years ago - at the even more tender age of 22.

So he's some a long way - in a very short space of time.

And in an area of public life that is normally dominated by people who are - how can I put this delicately - much longer in the tooth than Councillor Callum McCaig.

But it just goes to prove the old footballing adage - 'if you're good enough, you're old enough'.

So I would just like to wish Councillor Mc Caig well - because local politics can be a rough old business - and he'll need all the luck he can get.

How the Other Half Live

The newspapers reported yesterday that the BBC's former deputy director general - Mark Byford - received a redundancy payment worth almost £950,000.

A leaked copy of the BBC's annual accounts - which will be published next month - apparently show that the Corporation more than £1.3 million - to make two senior executives redundant.

Now I'll eat my hat if the people involved are not back in gainful, well-paid employment very soon - if that hasn't happened already.

So why do such senior people - get paid such ridiculous sums of money to leave their jobs?

The reason is that the system is bonkers - completely skewed in favour of the most senior staff - right across the public sector not just at the BBC.

The practice of basing these payments on people's final salaries - means that it's like winning the lottery to be made redundant or retired early.

The foot soldiers at the bottom of the pile can only dream of such generosity - and of course it's a very poor deal for the taxpayer.

The second person to leave the BBC - as part of this generous deal - served less than two years as the £310,000-a-year director - of marketing, communications and audiences.

Nonetheless the official was still paid just under £390,000 - to leave the BBC last November.

Mr Byford's pension arrangements - would make most people's eyes water.

On top of his £950,000 pay-off - which may be tax free - Mr Byford is also set to enjoy a pension pot reckoned to be one of the largest in the public sector, at nearly £4  million.

The newspapers report that Mr Byford will be eligible to begin drawing his pension in 2013 -  when he turns 55 - much earlier than most ordinary mortals, of course. 

The former DDG's pension is estimated at £220,000 a year - though this sum will be reduced is he starts collecting it at age 55 - as opposed to age 60.

As they say - 'it's tough at the top'. 

Labour Veteran Gets Result

Jack Straw's campaign to stop frivolous car accidents claims - see post dated 28 June 2011 - seems to have scored an early success.

Because AXA - one of the UK's leading motor insurers - broke ranks the other day.

With an announcement that it would end the practice of introducing customers to personal injury lawyers - in return for a referral fee.

The move will put pressure on AXA's rivals - Royal Sun Alliance, Aviva, Direct Line and Churchill - to follow suit.

A spokesperson for AXA said:

"The industry needs to be tidied up, but it will not tidy itself up. This has to be stopped; this dysfunctional market cannot be allowed to continue."

So there you are - one up for Jack Straw.

One time leader of the National Union of Students (NUS) - but a venerable Labour war-horse these days.

How refreshing to see an MP setting party politicking aside - and focusing on something or real concern to local consitutuents.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

To Have and To Hold

Tomorrow lots of public service workers in England and Wales will be going on strike - in a dispute over pensions.

Now this row affects different groups of workers in different ways.

At the moment some groups are better off than others - because some groups have much better pension arrangements that others.

So don't be fooled into thinking that this is an egalitarian fight for equal rights - or a battle to help the low paid - nothing could be further from the truth.

For some of the unions involved it is about 'to have and hold' - the much more favourable conditions enjoyed by the members that they represent.

So I thought I'd ask myself a few questions - about some of the key issues at stake in the dispute.

Do I support the retention of 'final salary' pension schemes?

No I don't - because they favour the better paid.

Do I support teachers and civil servants being allowed to retire at 60?

No I don't - because they are already much better paid than genuinely low paid workers who have to work on to at least 65.

Do I support an increase in the normal age of retirement?

Yes, I do - so long as it applies equally to everyone.

Do I support an increase in pension contributions for public service workers to help meet the costs of their pension schemes?

Yes, I do - but only for employees more than £20,000 a year because thay have been doing much better than their lower paid colleagues for many years.

Do I support a cap on the practice of paying tax free pension lump sums?

Yes, I do - lump sum payments should be limited to a maximum of £50,000 - at present these amounts are hugely inflated because of the 'final salary' scheme approach - and the payments involved are beyond the dreams of most workers.

As an impertinent question (1)

Dr Jacob Bronowski - the acclaimed author and presenter of the iconic BBC series 'Ascent of Man' - is one of my heroes.

As we as being a very learned person - able to talk with authority on just about any subject under the sun - Dr Bronowski was a down to earth kind of chap.

No airs and graces - not puffed up and full of his own importance - physically he resembled a little hobbit, small in stature, but with a lively, indomitable and generous spirit.

And Dr Bronowski had some advice for viewers who watched his TV programme - which has stayed with me to this day.

'Ask an impertinent question', he would say - with visible passion and conviction.

Before going on to explain that the sum of human knowledge - has only grown down the ages.

Because of people challenging and questioning a preceived wisdom - or orthodoxy - of the day.

It's a bit like the the old adage - 'there are no stupid questions'.

So here goes:

'Why should teachers and civil servants be able to retire at 60 - when the retirement age for most other public service workers is 65?'

Zero Tolerance

Hearts Football Club have finally bowed to the inevitable by suspending one of their players - Craig Thomson - who was recently placed on the sex offenders register.

Now this is a very sad for the young man involved - because it could mean the end of his footballing career.

But it comes nowhere near the trauma suffered by two underage teenage girls - whom he was convicted of trying to lure and groom for sex - via the internet.

Seems tio me that young man with that kind of history has no place as a role model for teenage boys and girls - and harsh though it is - he has brought the whole thing on himself.

The only surprise is that it took Hearts FC so long to take decisive action.

But it's another example of people power in action - because the views of the fans have undoubtedly influenced the club and its commercial sponsors.

While I'm on the subject I read recently that another young man - was given eight years in jail for carrying out a sex attack on a two year old baby - which suffered terrible physical injuries.

Now I don't know about anyone else - but in four or five years this individual will be back out in the streets - the way the prison regime is run.

And I for one would take some convincing - that someone who is prepared to attack a defenceless baby - won't do so again.

In which case how does five or four - or even eight - years in prison protect the public?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Stop the Shilly Shallying

News reports today confirm that John Scott - chief executive of Glasgow's Commonwealth Games project has resigned - after failing to declare an 'offer' he received from a potential supplier.

Now on the face of things John Scott appears to have acted honourably - which is almost unheard of these days, of course.

In the blink of an eye, Mr Scott has admitted his error of judgement - and left his £180,000 a year post - with immediate effect.

But why all the secrecy about the circumstances surrounding his resignation?

What exactly was the offer - and who made the offer to Mr Scott?

Because it might just be the case that the authorities should be taking action - against the potential supplier as well.

Apparently there are strict rules governing gifts and gratuities - which is what you would expect - given the all too obvious conflicts of interest involved.

So let's stop all this shilly shallying.

The good citizens of Glasgow deserve to know - what's really been going on.

Chum Clubs and Moribund Branches

In an effort to breathe new life into Labour - Ed Miliband - has directed one of his loyal lieutenants to come up with an honest assessment - about the state of the  party.

Peter Hain has been charged with the task - and his views make uncomfortable reading for anyone interested in democracy - because he warns that 'many local parties are moribund'.

In some areas of the country - Hain observes - the party 'barely functions'.

Before adding that the number of affiliated union members has fallen significantly - while party structures have hardly changed since the First World War.

Now this strikes me as straight talking - facing up to reality.

The solution - according to Hain - is to open things up and find ways of making Labour more attractive and relevant to people's everyday lives.

And what's true for the Labour party is even more true for the trade unions - which in many areas have become 'chum clubs'.

The truth is that in many local trade union branches the same faces - sharing the same politics - have been running the show for years and years.

Which is a real problem - in the old days they would have been called 'rotten boroughs'.

Because the trade unions like to portray themselves as representative organisations - that  accurately reflect the views of a wider membership - yet in reality it's often just a handful of people making vital decisions.

The problem manifests itself in trade union ballots - where tiny numbers take part in official elections - and the majority of members often vote with their feet - by not voting at all in strike ballots.

Now it's not easy to get more people involved - as I know from personal experience - but at least the Labour party is trying to face up to the challenge.

Whereas the trade unions still have their heads - firmly stuck in the sand.

Athens of the North

While writing the other day about the problems facing Greece - epitomised by its super-modern yet apparently cost-free underground system - I was struck by a weird thought.

Because the fair city of Edinburgh - Scotland's vibrant, lively, but tram-free capital - was once known as the 'Athens of the North'.

So maybe our respective countries have something to learn from each other - about transport scandals.

In Scotland's case £500 million down the drain - without even a single tram to show for all that public money.

While in Athens goodness knows how many 'gazillions' have been lost - on an underground transport network that relies on an honesty box - to recover its massive operating costs.

If there is a public inquiry set up to get to the bottom of these two madcap transport schemes - I offer my time and services free of charge.

But I also propose that councillors and council officials are barred from participating - except as potential witnesses, of course.

Car Insurance Scam

Car insurance has been hitting the headlines - with Labour's former Justice Secretary - Jack Straw - demanding firm government action over frivolous claims.

Apparently while the number of road accidents has dropped significantly since the mid 1990's - the cost of car insurance premiums keep going up and up.

For example, in 2009 the number of road accidents - involving personal injury - was 31% down on the five year average between 1994-98.

Yet the cost of claims has doubled in 10 years - from £7bn to £14bn - and as a result insurance premiums have shot up - by 30% in the past year alone.

So Jack Straw has a good point - which he is raising as an individual MP.

Quite why the problem didn't appear on the Labour government's radar - over a 13 year period - is another question altogether.

But to give credit where credit's due - Jack Straw's actually raising a significant issue from the backbenches.

And he has also highlighted a real scandal - whereby insurance companies (and at least one police force) have been 'selling on' people's personal details - which is a clear breach of data protection legislation.

So Jack is doing his best to make a difference - instead of going into a giant sulk about losing his ministerial privileges.

The present government should now follow Jack Staw's lead - because no one wants to see frivolous claims driving up the costs of driving a car.

Monday, 27 June 2011

What's a Greek Urn?

Question: What's a Greek urn?

Answer: About 10 drachmas an hour!

Now if I remember correctly - that's an old Morecambe and Wise joke.

Which doesn't work any any longer, of course, because Greece is a member of the Eurozone - even if it is only holding on by the skin of its teeth. 

News of the crisis in Greece is dominated by television - and images of angry demonstrators squaring up to the police.

But there's a real dearth of analysis to explain what's really going on - and why the country finds itself in such a mess.

If you believe the demonstrators, it's all down to greedy banks and foreign governments - who are finally forcing the Greeks to live within their means, but exploiting them in the process.

If you believe the tabloid press, it's the Greek economy is fundamentally corrupt - with a bloated public sector and where few people pay their taxes.

One example I came across describes a 21st century underground system in Athens - built specially for the Olympic Games - which is essentially free.

Because no one collects fares - travellers are trusted to pay the sugested fare into an 'honesty box' - which apparently doesn't raise enough money to run 'diddly squat'.

Can this really be true? 

If so, I think we should be told - the whole story.

Since the last time I witnessed such a crazy system was in the Soviet Union (as it was then) - half a lifetime ago - and we all know what happened there.   

Fairness and Socialism

Yesterday's Sunday Times enjoyed a bit of fun at the expense of UK union leaders - who are presently calling for strikes over public sector pensions.

The newspaper highlighted the fact that the key players are all very highly paid - and benefit themselves from the 'final salary' schemes they are fighting to defend.

The suggestion is that the country's union bosses are living lives that are quite out of reach - to the ordinary union members they represent.

Judges for yourselves - here are the key figures published by the Sunday Times:

Dave Prentis - Unison
Total pay including benefits - £142,312
Union pension contribution - 26% of gross salary
Property - six bedroom home in London worth up to £1.3 million

Bob Crow - RMT
Total pay including benefits - £145,548
Union pension contribution - 31%
Property - rents three bedroom housing association home in London

Mark Serwotka - PCS
Total pay including benefits - £142,876
Union pension contribution - 30%
Property four bedroom home in Surrey worth up to £592,000

Christine Blower - NUT
Totaln pay including benefits - £140,167
Union pension contribution - 28%
Property - four bedroom in London worth up to £661,000 

Now as Karl Marx once said - 'a labourer is worthy of his hire'.

But what I don't understand is why these union leaders don't support the proposed reform - from 'final salary' to 'career average' pension schemes.

Because as I've said many times - low paid workers subsidise higher paid workers under a final salary pension scheme.

To my mind that's not very fair - or very socialist.

You Heard It Here First

Last Thursday I wrote a piece for the blog site about First Minister Questions (FMQs) - which caused quite a stir.

Because Alex Salmond's announced on his feet - and right out of the blue - that he would give more time to the government's proposals for tackling sectarian behaviour in Scotland.

See post dated 23 June 2011: 'Common Sense Prevails'.

While catching up with the papers over the weekend I came across this article by Alan Cochrane - who writes for the Telegraph newspaper.

Alan is a senior member of Holyrood's press pack - who speaks his mind and calls it as he sees it - and his description of FMQs as a 'masterful piece of politicking' is spot on.

However, for those that are interested - you might like to know that Alan's article appeared in the newspaper the following day - Friday 24 June 2011.

'Alex Salmond's new-found listening skill was a masterful piece of politicking'

"Alex Salmond's postponement of the Offensive Behaviour Bill left dropped jaws and raised eyebrows all over Holyrood, writes Alan Cochrane.

Things have come to a pretty pass when we seekers after truth and justice are stymied by political leaders behaving like statesmen. Such was the case yesterday when Alex Salmond bowed to common sense and delayed till Christmas the implementation of his deeply flawed measure designed to stamp out sectarian hatred in this fair land.

We, who had come to monster his foolhardiness, stayed to salute his wisdom. Well, almost.

Up in the cheap seats, jaws dropped and eyebrows were raised as the Dear Leader explained. He had listened to the arguments – that he was rushing things in trying to get his Bill on the statute books before the football season starts – and announced that the end of the year would now be "D" (for deadline) day.

The idea that Mr Salmond listens to arguments, other than his own, is not one with which we are all that familiar. The notion that he would actually act on them has thrown our preconceived notions about life under Nat One into utter confusion.

Mind you, if our consternation was something to behold, imagine that of the hapless minister, one Roseanna Cunningham. Minutes after she had urged MSPs to rush through legislation designed to take religious hatred off our football terraces as soon as possible, if not sooner, she was taken to one side and told the game had changed. Instead of Royal Assent being sought for the Offensive Behaviour Bill by next Friday, Holyrood has until the end of the year.

Phew. It was a close run thing. It was the only logical conclusion, but logic does not always play in politicians' thought processes. That the Bill is an unenforceable crock of good intention clumsily attempting to transform unsavoury activity and language into criminal endeavour is rapidly becoming a "given" in almost every sphere, save those of the First Minister and Lord Advocate.

But to save face, rather than admitting that proscribing hatred in an act of parliament posed more difficulties than he was prepared to admit, Mr Salmond agreed with those who said our legislators need longer than a week to consider all its aspects.

It pains me to admit it, but it was a masterful piece of politicking by the First Minister. He may well have seriously undermined Miss Cunningham – a fact his spinners were determined to deny – but all serious politicians have only one answer to the question: "What are junior ministers for, if you can't let them down?"

However, that it was Mr Salmond who took the decision to delay things on political grounds suggests that Scotland's law enforcement agencies deserve no kudos. While they should have been hoisting warning flags about the content of this Bill and its timetable, both the Lord Advocate's office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland) appeared content to go along with whatever the First Minister wanted.

That is not what we pay them for. Their first duty is to the public, not their political master. At best, this is a confusing piece of legislation being rushed through without due care. At worst, it is populist grandstanding.

As well as the First Minister's change of heart, we should be grateful for the role played by three women MSPs yesterday. With her reasoned warnings about the indecent haste, Christine Grahame, the convenor of the justice committee, showed why she should have been presiding officer and why the SNP leadership had better watch out for her.

With her urgings for a consensual approach, Margo Macdonald showed why her long years in the parliamentary trenches have made her a tribune with whom to reckon and Johann Lamont's brilliant demolition of the Bill's provisions proved why its passage should be delayed if not scuppered.

All of that said, it is another woman – Roseanna Cunningham – who should have our sympathy this morning."

We'll Meet Again

I'm not into all this Friends Reunited malarkey - but maybe I'll have to reconsider my views.

Because at the weekend I met up with an old school pal - whom I haven't laid eyes on for the best part of 40 years.

And what a pleasure it was too.

He brought along a photo from our football playing days - and we tried to remember the names and eccentricities of our old team-mates - quite successfully, by and large.

What a nice guy he's turned out to be - calm, relaxed and with a good sense of humour.

Quite the opposite of his persona on the football field - where no quarter was asked and none given.

Our brief reunion was a complete accident - via a previously unknown mutual friend - not through the much more popular route of the internet.

But I think it's highly likely we'll meet up again - and it just goes to show what you miss out on - when you lose touch with people.

Who knows, maybe I'll try and track down a few others - if I can free up some time.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Trams v Gravy Trains

Regular readers should get hold of the Sunday Herald today - because it lifts the lid on the scandlous waste of public money - commonly known as the Edinburgh trams fiasco.

Not only has £500 million of public money been wasted - it turns out that the a project was really just one  big 'gravy train' - for highly paid officials and consultants.

Apparently some consultants received fees of more than £1,000 a day - for their experience and expertise.

So the 'arms-length company established by Edinburgh City Council to run the project (TIE) -has spent at least £24m on consultants - in total - to advise on aspects of the scheme.

Now that must leave a bad taste in the mouths of council workers in Edinburgh - and elsewhere - who are still fighting for equal pay.

Roll on the public inquiry into this mess.

Because as usual no one is prepared to accept responsibility for what has happened - the officials and councillors involved are all still in their jobs.

And you can be sure that all of the hightly paid consultants will have banked their handsome cheques - long ago.

Summer of Discontent

The Sunday papers report that the government is planning to 'get tough' with the unions - if a series of planned strikes turns into a real summer of discontent.

Apparently the government is planning to restrict the use of taxpayers money - to fund local union officials who work full-time on union business - but who remain employed by a local council, health board or government department. 

Now this would hit local branch secretaries and suchlike - many of whom have full-time release from their day jobs - to concentrate on union business.

But 'union business' is defined very broadly in some areas - and might include, for example,  attending a national union conference - or meetings which have nothing directly to do with the employer providing full-time release

So the government is looking to exploit the fact that much of this 'wider' union work - is really subsidised by the taxpayer - when there is an argument that the trade union should meet the cost.

The other proposal has been around for some time - the introduction of a minimum threshold for turnouts in union ballots.

Various government supporters including London Mayor - Boris Johnson - have  proposed that a 40% or even 50% threshold should be met - before a strike vote would be valid.

At the moment, both sides are just testing each other's resolve - probing for strengths and weaknesses - testing public reaction.

But once the summer is over the shadow boxing has to stop - then both the government and the unions will be playing for much higher stakes.

Ed Flexes His Muscles

Labour leader - Ed Miliband - is trying to flex his muscles by picking a fight with his own party - over elections to Labour's shadow cabinet.

The significance of this move will pass most people by - or alternatively bore them to death.

But it revolves around Labour's rules which presently require members of the shadow cabinet to be elected by Labour MPs - instead of being appointed by the party leader.

So the Labour leader does not have a free hand to appoint the people he wants - he has to play the hand dealt with him by the electorate - in this case the wider group of Westminster Labour MPs. 

As far as fights go - an arcane dispute about Labour party democracy - is not going to  set the blood racing or catch the public's imagination. 

Unlike Tony Blair's move - when he became Labour leader in 1994 - to re-write and replace Clause 4 of Labour's constitution - as a symbol of how much the party had changed.

Ed will almost certainly get his way - but to my mind it's small beer, nothing radical or challenging - the sign of a lack of ambition.

Who really cares whether Labour MPs pick the shadow cabinet - it's a dull, inward looking issue and it's all about about Labour in opposition.

Which is precisely where the party will stay - if it doesn't get its act together soon.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

'I was only obeying instructions'

I listened to the statement made by the father of Millie Dowler yesterday - after the evil scumbag who murdered his daughter - Levi Bellfield - was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail.

Bob Dowler - and his wife Sallly - felt that they and their daughter had been treated unfairly by the court process - and said so plainly.

Because the court allowed Levi Bellfield - through his lawyer - to subject Millie's parents to intrusive, irrelevant and unecessary questioning - about their private lives.

Now the justice system is clearly run by intelligent, thoughtful people - but they seem to me to lack a degree of common sense.

Presumably the court allowed such questioning - in order to be seen to give the accused a fair trial - and for justice to be seen to be done.

And presumably Bellfield's lawyer pursued this intrusive, ridiculous line of questioning - on the instructions of his client - who turned out to be a murdering, merciless sociopath.

But I don't buy this business of lawyers having to do their client's bidding - at all times - regardless of the circumstances.

To my mind the defence lawyer and the court had a wider duty - to consider the relevance and reasonableness of what was going on - and to intervene if necessary.

As things turned out Levi Bellfield refused to return to court to hear his sentence - and face his accusers.

So much for justice being seen to be done.

I can't imagine this being allowed in other countries - in America, for example - where I'm sure Levi Bellfield would have been brought into court - whether he liked it or not.

Gagged and shackled - if necessary.

That's my idea of justice in action.

Part of the Union

I wrote the other week about the importance of 'doing the right thing' - at the time I couldn't recall why these words suddenly jumped into my head.

Then I remembered - the words came from a diary I kept - many years ago when I worked with Unison .

Gradually the daily entries took on a life of their own - and like Topsy they just growed and growed.

Anyway, I gave my diary a title - 'Part of the Union' - which became a detailed record of a very turbulent yet significant time in my life.

And here's the relevant passage:

"I smiled a wry smile at how things had turned out. I marvelled at my absolute, crazy determination not to give in, despite the personal cost. I marvelled at the brass neck of friends who disappeared like snow off a dyke.

 I marvelled at the courage of others who took their place as if I had known them a lifetime. I marvelled at the words, sayings and songs, which had inspired me, made me laugh, or comforted me in times of crisis. I wrote down my top ten:

1. If you wait by the side of a river long enough, the bodies of your enemies eventually float past. Old Chinese proverb

2. The time is always right to do the right thing. Martin Luther King Jnr

3. When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat. Nelson Mandela

4. Stupid is as stupid does. Forest Gump

5. There’s no greater power than the power of saying goodbye. Madonna

6. I must be crazy to be in here with you nuts. J P McMurphy

7. You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity. Buzz Lightyear

8. Matt has all the team working qualities of a medieval Pope. Joe Di Paola

9. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Tony Blair

10. If you stop running, they can’t chase you. Mick McGahey"

It's amazing how these words and phrases come back into my writing - form time to time - but they still inspire me to this day.

More South Lanarkshire MSPs

I had a useful meeting with another South Lanarkshire MSP recently - Michael McMahon, the Labour member for Uddingston and Bellshill.

We discussed the situation in South Lanarkshire council - regarding Single Status and Equal Pay.

Like all MSPs Michael is keen to hear from his constituents on any matters of concern - and his contact details are as follows:

E-mail: Michael.McMahon.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Phone: 01698 304501

Constituency Office: 188 Main Street, Bellshill, ML4 1AE

A regualr reader has also been in touch to say that she met recently with her own local MSP - James Kelly, the Labour member for Rutherglen - whose contact details are also listed below.

E-mail: James.Kelly.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Phone: 0141 647 0707

Consituency Office: 51 Stonelaw Road, Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire, G73 3TN

Just remember when it comes to MSPs - and politicians more generally - the proof of the pudding lies in what they actually do to support their constituents.

Simply exchanging letters with the council is a waste of time - MSPs are there to ask critical questions - to challenge issues and express an opinion.

Goodness knows - they do it often enough on every other issue under the sun.

So why not on Single Status, Freedom of Information and Equal Pay.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Whole Nine Yards

The Edinburgh Evening News is running a big campaign - unsurprisingly - over the scandal involving the  city's trams, or the lack of trams - to be more precise.

The newspaper is calling for control of the project to be taken out of Edinburgh City Council's hands - and  handed over to the Scottish government, presumably.

Now the obvious question is: 'Why would the government accept such a poisoned chalice?'

But in the circumstances I think that is probably the right call.

Because sadly local government has shown that it is simply not up to the task.

Regular readers will recall that the trams project only came about - because of political interference in the Scottish Parliament.

Where Labour and Lid Dem MSPs ganged up to force a minority SNP government to stump up £500 million - of taxpayers money to fund the doomed scheme.

Edinburgh City Council also chose to hand the project over to an arms length company or ALEO - a practice which has attracted great controversy in Scotland's largest council - Labour run Glasgow. 

So the whole thing is a mess - not just a bit of a mess - but The Whole Nine Yards of a mess. 

And the Scottish government is probably the only organisation with sufficient clout and expertise - to restore some sanity and public accountability.

In the meantime, I wouldn't spend another single penny of taxpayers' money - until the way forward is clear.

South Lanarkshire

I had a good discussion with Aileen Campbell recently - the new MSP for Clydesdale - which forms part of the South Lanarkshire Council area.

I outlined to Aileen the current position over Equal Pay and Single Status - which affects many local constituents.

If you live in the Clydesdale constituency and wish to contact Aileen - as your local MSP - you can do so in any one of the following ways:

E-mail: Aileen.Campbell.msp@scottish.parliament.uk

Phone: 01555 750 249

Constituency Office: Room 9, Kirkton Chambers, 12 Kirkton Street, Carluke, ML8 4AB

Public Money, Openness and Transparency

Regular readers will recall that I wrote to COSLA a little while back - on the subject of spending public money - see post dated 18 June 2011.

The chief executive - Rory Mair - responded by saying, in essence, that as COSLA is not covered by Scotland's FOI scheme - he would not be providing the information requested.

Now I don't find that very satisfactory or convincing - so here's what I said in my reply.

Dear Rory

Public Money, Openness and Transparency

Many thanks for your e-mail dated 8 June 2011.

Can I say, first of all, how pleased I am that you read my blog site - I know that other COSLA staff do so as well, some on a regular basis.

You asked me, in your e-mail, how COSLA can show leadership on this issue - and I am happy to answer your question directly.

To my mind, COSLA should be adopting the same standards as its 32 member councils - from whom the Convention receives almost all of its public funding via the taxpayer. Since Scotland's 32 councils all comply with the Freedom of Information Scotland Act (FOISA) 2002 - I believe it makes absolute sense for COSLA to operate to the same standards as the councils it represents and deals with on a daily basis.

In my view most council taxpayers in Scotland would support COSLA and its member councils being on a level playing field.

In addition, COSLA regularly calls for a 'parity of esteem' between local and national government - which I agree with, broadly speaking.

But the notion of a 'parity of esteem' cuts both ways, surely, and as the Scottish government is also required to observe FOISA - I think it would show leadership for COSLA to adopt the same standard of openness and transparency.

Even though COSLA is not legally obliged to observe FOISA at this point in time, which seems like an oversight to me, the Convention can clearly do so on a voluntary basis.

So in my opinion, this all boils down leadership and political will.

But what I cannot understand is your prickly and defensive attitude - because it is plainly ridiculous that the remuneration of the COSLA President and Vice Presidents should be treated like some kind of state secret - when these payments are being made from public funds.

I have to say that COSLA's attitude seems little different to the behaviour of officials in the House of Commons who tried to prevent the public from learning the truth about MPs' expenses.

I believe the Scottish taxpayer has a right to know how public money is being spent, which is the underlying principle at stake here and if there is nothing to hide, then there is clearly no need for all this secrecy.

I just find it odd that you seem to believe otherwise and that somehow COSLA should be treated differently than its key partners and stakeholders.

Kind regards



Mark

Sunshine on Leith

I was in boots the Chemist the other day - and read an incredible statistic.

Apparently 'unused medicines' cost the NHS in Scotland - £100 million every year - which is a truly staggering waste of public money.

So why don't we get a public campaign going - for people to be much more careful over their medicines and prescriptions.

Because this would save a small fortune - which could be put to a much better use.

If enough people get involved - the money that's saved could go towards extending the Edinburgh trams another 100 metres or so.

Say from St Andrew Square down to Picardy Place.

And that would be a 'win win' solution all round.

Since the the NHS would stamp out waste - and save money.

While the long-suffering citizens of Leith would finally get something to show - for all the years of disruption caused by the Edinburgh trams.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Common Sense Prevails

Alex Salmond took a leaf out of David Cameron's book today - though the SNP leader might disavow any comparisons with the Conservative leader of the Westminster government.

In any event what the First Minister did today - at First Minister's Question Time - was to show  strong leadership and a willingess to listen - combined with a healthy appetite to seek common sense solutions to intractable problems.

Because Alex Salmond asked the Scottish Parliament to agree the principles of his government bill on combatting 'sectarian behaviour' - but then to delay the timetable for six months - to allow further consultation before the bill finally becomes law.

In doing so the First Minister - put party politics aside and managed to unite the Scottish Parliament - while speaking for the whole country.

No mean feat - you have to admit.

Now those who have concerns about aspects of the bill - will have the opportunity to get the details right.

Because no one is really disputing the need to take tougher action - and concentrate more resources on tackling the problem - which continues to blight Scottish football and our wider society. 

Fantasy Football and Industrial Relations

I remembered writing something about the firefighters dispute - in 2002/03 - as I posted James Undy's article from the Independent earlier today.

And would you believe I managed to find the piece.

So here's what I had to say - all those years ago - about Fantasy Football and Industrial Relations.  

Firefighters Dispute

"As fire fighters prepare to strike for the first time since 1977, people will gradually begin to focus on the justice of their claim, and how it’s being pursued. A whopping 40% rise in a single year, with no strings attached, is the industrial relations equivalent of fantasy football. Yet both sides are hurtling towards a strike that will not only cause enormous damage, but is bound to cost many lives.

Fire brigades are an emergency service, a life and limb service of last resort, but they are not alone in the public sector: doctors and nurses are the best known example; ambulance staff, paramedics and many others besides literally have people’s lives in their hands, should they completely withdraw their labour.

But they don’t, thankfully. Because their job is to respond to people in distress, to care for the weak and vulnerable and to save lives: everything else is secondary. This basic, unshakeable, unwritten principle has underpinned every public sector strike for the past twenty years.

When nurses finally lost patience and went on strike for the first time in the UK in 1988 emergency cover was never withdrawn: patients continued to be looked after and cared for in wards, casualty departments and operating theatres. Small groups of nurses took direct action and were supported by colleagues towards the start and end of the working day, cheered to the echo by the public, patients and their relatives.

Long suffering nurses had as good a case as any ever made for a substantial pay rise after years of inaction by successive governments. The point being that fire fighters are not unique in having a real grievance over pay, but their strongest weapon, public support, will evaporate when a strike begins to bite because the casualties are unsustainable.

Even at the height of the famous ambulance workers dispute in 1989, emergency cover was maintained on a ‘blue light’ basis. Routine transport jobs came to an abrupt halt, yet patients and relatives not only put up with the inconvenience, they actively supported ambulance crews in their fight for recognition of their professional skills. Local fighting funds soon overflowed with public donations.

Hotheads within the trade unions (NUPE, COHSE and GMB at the time) argued fiercely against the official line of maintaining emergency cover at all costs, even under severe provocation from senior management. But humanity and common sense prevailed in the end and the ambulance workers won a famous victory against a hostile government.

The present strike is a world away from 1977 when Marxist notions of class war dominated the trade unions. Times have changed: fire fighters are not under the jackboot of an oppressive government nor are they being attacked by greedy, rapacious employers; jobs are not at risk nor are there huge issues of principle at stake. Put simply, a strike is not justified as a weapon of last resort because other solutions are available, eminently sensible and practical proposals that put public safety first.

Fire fighters have been offered a 4% increase for 2002-2003, better than the 3.5% agreed for most other public sector workers, but a long way behind the 23.5% paid to Scotland’s teachers over three years. The FBU (Fire Brigades Union) is demanding 40% and members will be balloted on a complete shut down of an irreplaceable emergency service.

But the employers have also offered to establish an independent pay review body, with government support, to consider the case for a better longer-term deal that rewards fire fighters for their modern, professional skills. Just as ambulance workers moved towards a more highly skilled paramedic service, professionally trained and properly rewarded, fire fighters are determined to do the same. Good luck to them, but don’t use people’s lives as part of the power play!

The underlying problem is that fire fighters feel their pay levels should reflect the dangers and importance of the job, rather than the caricature of getting cats out of tall trees. This powerful argument is the reason the employers have signalled an independent review as the way to break the deadlock. The employers have also indicated their willingness to backdate and fully implement any improved offer to the original settlement date.

Against such a favourable background, FBU leaders need their heads examined if they feel negotiators can’t deliver a much better deal for union members. Choosing war-war instead of jaw-jaw will suggest the dispute is about politics, not industrial relations.

If the fire fighters opt for strike action, there will be no easy way back. Disruption to people’s lives and the economy will be enormous, not least because attitudes to public safety have also changed fundamentally since 1977. Disasters at Kings Cross, Hatfield and Clapham Common provide all the evidence needed to confirm that clapped out Green Goddesses are not up to the job of substituting for a modern emergency service.

Bob Crow, of the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), has a genuine point about the safety of his own members if the fire fighters’ go on strike. Unless the two sides reach agreement in the coming weeks, the RMT is threatening to shut down the London Underground and entire rail network.

What will be closed next: the buses, airports and public highways? Taking such irresistible logic to its proper conclusion, there is a plausible argument for shutting the whole country down on safety grounds, but at this point the fire fighters’ case finally begins to unravel and fall apart.

Modern public services need to be in place when people most need them: putting up with inconvenience is one thing; standing aside while victims of an appalling tragedy need help is not the way for responsible trade unions to behave in the 21st century.

If the FBU walks away from the principle of maintaining emergency cover, the government response may well revisit the right to strike in essential services. Workers deserve inalienable rights, but any union leader worth their salt knows that, in some cases, important rights can only be exercised with restraint. The obvious way forward is some form of compulsory arbitration since the real victims of the strike will be ordinary, everyday people: a friend’s mother or father, a colleague’s son or daughter - not employers across the negotiating table.

If the FBU and its members faced a life and death struggle in the current dispute, their tactics might be understandable. As things stand, the union seems prepared to risk lives in an important, yet conventional disagreement over pay.

Nurses, doctors and ambulance workers don’t abandon people in their hour of need; our fire fighters should learn from that example."

All in the Game

James Undy - writing in the The Independent - continues to share his insightful views on how the unions are prosecuting their public sector pensions dispute.

Seems like he's not too impressed - so far.  

So what would you do, muppet?

"An ex-union colleague texts me with a pithy request for strategic advice (well, that’s how I interpret it …) on the public sector pension dispute.

My answer – that I wouldn’t have been starting from here – is hardly original. But it’s not entirely flippant either.

In his autobiography Prezza! John Prescott recalls the Fire Brigades Union dispute of 2002/3:

FBU leaders “were coming out of the front door … effing and blinding to the press and their supporters, denouncing me – but they were also coming in the back door, where we got down quietly to working out a settlement without the public and press being aware”. In the end, a 40% pay claim was settled with a 14% increase phased over three years.

The former Deputy Prime Minister retails this with some satisfaction. What he doesn’t add in the book is that FBU General Secretary Andy Gilchrist lost the subsequent GS election.

Prescott and Gilchrist thought they were two men of the world playing a game to long established rules – like contestants in The Apprentice, bidding high then settling laughably low.

The actual firefighters, it turned out, seriously thought this was about 40%.

The problem with the old approach is that it depended first, on a limited stock of information being largely held within the negotiations; and second, on everybody understanding and accepting that it’s all a bit of a game.

But in a world of mass information availability the first is no longer possible. And the rules of the game increasingly look like dishonesty and duplicity. They’re especially baffling to private sector workers – who have a legitimate stake in how pensions are paid for, and take media reports of the tubthumping conference rhetoric at face value.

I don’t doubt UNISON when they say they want to negotiate (I do doubt PCS – like Brando in The Wild Ones, asked “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”, their approach to disputes is “Whaddaya got?”).

But I don’t believe it’s any longer credible both to engage seriously with the government and successfully play to the activist gallery. Because, like those FBU members with their 40%, those activists really want that general strike.

It was pretty gormless of Danny Alexander to keep the discredited game going with last Friday’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research – conflating and confusing negotiating bottom lines with public positioning.

But funnily enough, it was George Osborne who took the grown-up and transparent approach by announcing in the budget he was accepting all of John Hutton’s recommendations – including the principle of defined benefits, career averaging (better for women and the lower paid, not that you’d know it from union reactions) and preserving pensions already built up.

Perhaps he should have done it Apprentice-style instead – rejecting some key Hutton protections, leaving unions to claw them back then tell their members how much worse it could have been. And then, of course, to argue who was the muppet."

Public Laughing Stock

Edinburgh City Council meets today to consider a controversial report - on the mind boggling cost of running a few trams through 'Auld Reekie'.

Ironically, the project was imposed on Edinburgh by the Scottish Parliament - or to be more precise by  Labour and Liberal Democrat votes in the Scottish Parliament.

The costs have since escalated out of control - the original budget of £500 million has been swallowed up after years of disruption to Scotland's capital city - with still no end in sight.

Apparently today's council meeting will be told that it will take another £270 million - of public money - to partially complete the project - and no less than £250 million to scrap it altogether.

So either way the taxpayer loses out - and the politicians involved are now doing what they do best - blaming each other while looking for scapegoats.

Meanwhile Edinburgh is a public laughing stock - and the country has another 'white elephant' on its hands.

Whatever happens now there is no 'good' outcome - but the biggest supporters and cheerleaders who drove this doomed project - should immediately offer their resignations.

The politicians responsible - in both Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Parliament - owe us all an apology for making Scotland look ridiculous on the world stage.

A country that once built and exported giant steam trains across the world - defeated by a few trams.

Former APT&C Workers

I've received lots of enquiries about the recent Court of Session hearing in Edinburgh - involving the equal pay claims of former APT&C workers.

What everyone wants to know is: 'What happened - what was the outcome?'

Well as often happens in these big, complex cases - there was no outcome at the conclusion of the hearing.

The judges involved in the case will take some time to consider all the evidence - before issuing their detailed written decision - but it may take several weeks before this happens.

When it does - the news will be reported on the blog site.

Former APT&C Workers

A number of readers have been in touch about the hearing at the Court of Session - regarding the equal pay claims of former APT&C council workers.

The case involves Edinburgh City Council directly - but the outcome is likely to impact on lots of other cases and councils as well.

Edinburgh City Council lost the argument comprehensively at previous Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal hearings - yet is still using taxpayers money in an effort to overturn these previous decisions.

The hearing is due to take place at the Court of Session in Edinburgh - between 14 and 17 June 2011.

Here's a previous post from 20 April 2011 - explaining the background in more detail.

"Short Shrift in Edinburgh"

"A number of readers from Edinburgh have been in touch - asking why the outstanding male claims have been settled - but not the 'equal value' claims from former council workers on former APT&C grades.

The kind of jobs involved are social care workers - catering managers, previously known as cooks-in-charge - and so on.

Well the answer is that the delay is down to Edinburgh City Council's intransigence - because this ability of former APT&C workers to bring an equal pay claims was demonstrated long ago.

An Employment Tribunal in Edinburgh in the summer of 2008 decided that former APT&C workers - were able to compare their earnings against the much higher earnings of traditional male groups - such as male refuse workers and gardeners.

In fact the Employment Judge described Edinburgh City Council - as trying to defend the 'indefensible'.

But the council decided to waste even more public money by appealing that decision - to the Employment Appeal Tribunal - where it lost again.

And then the council decided to appeal even further to the Court of Session - where the case is due to be heard from 14 to 17 June 2011.

So Edinburgh City Council is responsible for the delay - no one else.

Let's hope the Court of Session gives Edinburgh's case short shrift - and follows the lead of the previous ET and EAT hearings."

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Sack Them All

No sooner do I I finish writing about Labour's careful positioning - and fondness for opportunist politics - than I read something which proves my point.

Apparently Labour announced last night - that the party will oppose the government's plans to reform the House of Lords.

Now how depressing is that - because Labour was in power for 13 long years with  huge parliamentary majorities at its back - unlike the present government.

Labour could have done exactly what the party wanted - with their noble lordships.

But Labour leaders failed to act - and the best they can come up all these years later - is to oppose the present government's plans.

Me, I'd abolish the second chamber - sack every one of our 800 plus peers - and save the country a small fortune.

The Truth Hurts

The Labour party needs to reinvent itself - according to Peter Mandelson - if it is to mount a serious challenge to David Cameron at the next general election.

I agree with Peter Mandelson on that point.

Because Labour's former Prince of Darkness is a realist about politics - and realised in the 1980s how much Labour needed to change - before the party could become electable again.

So New Labour was born - the brainchild of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson - Labour's answer to The Three Musketeers.

And to be fair it worked - delivering three straight general election victories in a row.

For a long time New Labour was an unstoppable force - sweeping all opposition out of the way - and made mincemeat of four Conservative leaders - John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

Before the Tories finally found themselves a winner - in David Cameron.

Lord Mandelson has warned the party that it needs to 'modernise at all levels' and that its reliance on union money should not persist.

Hear hear - union money is tribal and tainted - and comes with strings attached.

According to the Times Mandelson went on to add that the public would never be won over by a party led by: "ex-political assistants, reasearchers and trade union apparatchiks recruited from inside the Westminster bubble."

Ouch - the truth really does hurt.

But Mandelson had more to say and called on Labour leader - Ed Miliband - to be 'more innovative and courageous' before adding:

"To some in the country we appear almost too tactical. We appear too afraid that something we might say might suddenly trigger some disagreement in our party and the better thing to do is to mute what we are saying."

Now that strikes a real chord with me - the truth is that Labour have been pulling their punches - trying to gain political advantage by careful positioning.

Instead of standing up and saying what they believe in - and trying to lead from the front.  

'What else can we do?'

Here's an article by James Undy writing in The Independent - about trade union strike plans over public sector pensions.

I don't know anything about James Undy - but he clearly has some experience of trade unions at a senior level - and makes some telling points.

As for Mark Serwotka - there's no point in asking plaintive, rhetorical questions of the viewing public - i.e. 'What else can we do?'.

Union leaders always have choices - and that's why they receive a very hefty salary - for making the right choices that protect the interests of ordinary union members. 

Pensions - ramping up the rhetoric

"I was joking when I blogged that ultra-left union activists were agitating for a general strike “because the last one went so well”.

Then up popped UNISON’s General Secretary Dave Prentis talking in all apparent seriousness about the biggest action since 1926.

Citing another noble defeat, he even went on to assert that “this won’t be the miners’ strike. We are going to win”.

No insult is intended, but I do wonder if Dave P’s diverse workforces are as ready for an open-ended dispute as the close-knit and resilient mining communities. But he then rather undermined his argument by explaining that’s because they’ve got a £30 million strike fund.

As someone who’s been there as a union executive member, I learnt the hard way that once the employer knows how much money you’ve got to spend they can sit out any dispute. However you deploy it, £30 million is still less than £20 per UNISON member.

And rolling regional action is nothing new – it’s what civil servants tried in our 1987 pay dispute. It prolongs the action, certainly, but by definition it reduces its nationwide impact. And it invites unhelpful contrasts between “heartland” areas and ones where the scale and turnout are lower.

Sean O’Grady, analysing the battle for public opinion in today’s main paper, counsels retreat.

And I fear that this kind of showboating also plays into the other yawning trap now facing public sector unions - the support represented by paid time off for union officials.

Plenty of opponents are onto this now. The valid counter-argument that local representatives help smooth relations at work is hardly helped by blood-curdling talk of the coming conflagration. And boasting you’re awash with money does rather invite the riposte – well, you can use it to pay for your reps then.

As I’ve said I sympathise with union leaders who struggle to spell out the realities of life to their members. Behind the fury, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka sounded baffled and helpless when he pleaded on Sky yesterday morning “What else can we do?”.

And for the “ordinary” members it really is a lot to take. But as the half-hearted strike votes show, they’re intelligent and realistic enough to listen to a hard-headed assessment of the options if their leaders put it to them.

It’s the activists they need to face down. Staggeringly, at UNISON’s conference this week Dave Prentis will address delegates who think he’s too right wing.

But he needs to start preparing the ones who’ll listen for the inevitable compromises ahead – not ramping up the rhetoric. Unless he really does want a re-run of 1926."

Clear as Mud

What a dull and dreary speech Dave Prentis delivered yesterday - to Unison's annual delegate conference in Manchester.

Now the speech received plenty of coverage for sure - because the rhetoric is being ramped up - with all this talk of 'the mother of all strikes.

But we learned nothing new about the union's key objectives - or what it most wants to change in terms of the government's plans for pension reform.

Will Unison die in a ditch - for example - to retain 'final salary' pension schemes?

Because if so - it does nothing for the majority of ordinary, low paid union members.

If a final salary scheme is the key issue - then it's the better paid members who should be charging the barbed wire - and following their union generals into battle.

Is it the increase in pension contributions that that's the sticking point?

Who knows, but my brother's over here from Canada at the moment - he's a transport worker and nearly 10% of his earnings go into his pension pot - every year.

In other words he pays more - but receives more generous pension benefits in return for his higher contributions.

Is it the increase in retirement age that the unions can't swallow?

Who knows - but there are differential retirement ages just now - not all workers are equal.

Civil servants and MPs - for example - enjoy better arrangements than just about everyone else.

So before the unions light the blue touch paper - they should decide what they're asking the members to fight for - because at the moment's it's about as clear as mud.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Tuesday's Posts

I am out on my travels for most of Tuesday 21 June 2011 - and have started the day very early - well early for me anyway!

So today's posts are being made at the crack of dawn - so to speak - which means they appear on the blog site - as if written on Monday rather than Tuesday.

I won't bore you with the details - but I hope regular readers won't notice any difference.

Normal service will resume tomorrow - Wednesday.

Sights for Sore Eyes

As I watched the BBC's Question Time programme last week - I was struck by a weird thought.

How strange was it to see Alex Salmond sitting on the panel as First Minister - for the second time and with a majority SNP government at his back - alongside (Lord) Michael Forsyth and Labour's Margaret Curran.

Now for readers who don't know - Michael Forsyth was the Secretary of State for Scotland when Margaret Thatcher's Tory government ruled the country - like an arrogant colonial power.

An able chap in some ways - but Michael was truly detested throughout the land.

Yet years later Lord Forsyth just looks like some kind of beached whale - stranded by the ebb and flow of Scotland's political tides.

Likewise with Labour's Margaret Curran - a decent person, for sure.

But a politician who put Westminster before the Scottish Parliament - which just about sums up Labour priorites - and its lack of trust with the Scottish people.

So there was Alex Salmond - in his pomp - jousting with David Dimbelby and agreeing for the most part with Tom Hunter - a serial philanthorpist and one of Scotland's richest men.

You couldn't make it up - really.