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Friday, 24 December 2010

Ross Martin: Curtain up on Political Panto

Published in the Scotsman, 24/12/10

"As Scotland continues to feel the effects of an increasingly harsh winter, with economic growth in the deep freeze, we might be reassured if we saw signals that our politicians are stoking the furnace of recovery; that they are burning with democratic desire in preparation for the forthcoming Scottish election; that they stockpiled fresh policy fuel to energise our economic engines. So what positive smoke signals can we discern amidst the freezing fog?

Given the public's propensity towards reality TV, with I'm a Celebrity and Strictly part of a real resurgence of viewing figures, it might be argued that politicians who indulge, and are indulged in return, are simply representing the electorate by seeking their 15 seconds of fame, or alternatively just skating on thin electoral ice. Did the chalk-on-board screech of Lembit Opik's performance grate with you? How did Ann Widdecombe's manoeuvres go down, demonstrating all the grace of a nuclear sub grounded in a Scottish loch? And what of the season's longest-running reality "show"? How has the Sheridan court battle been for you? Enlightening? Entertaining? Enhancing?

As an increasing number of our politicians (current, former and possibly future) finally succumb to the cult of celebrity, we might imagine those responsible for domestic social policy strutting their stuff under the stage lights. If so, how would they fare? Can we picture our MSPs performing on the stage, waltzing around the dance floor or even munching through a bush tucker challenge in the jungle?

However, as there is a fine tradition of pantomime here in Scotland, a strong case for MSPs treading the stage boards can indeed be made. Let's face it, pantomime is essentially an opportunity for the audience to suspend reality, something well-practised in the Holyrood chamber, and for the actors, an opportunity to pretend that life's not that hard. So, in the festive spirit, let us imagine which of our Scottish politicians might tread the boards and what panto character they might play.

First up, it's got to be Cinderella, played by Auntie Annabel Goldie herself.

Still sweeping up the ash from when the Thatcherite flame was snuffed out by the bleak political winter of '97, will she ever get to the ball and find a true partner, or will her ugly sisters, played by Tory MSPs Murdo Fraser and Jackson Carlaw, win the day? Her cousin, dashing Dave Cameron, has already found his true love in the UK coalition, but the plot, such as it is, will focus on whether our Annabel will find her political prince this May.

Perhaps a pair of red shoes would do the trick, as used to great effect by our very own Dorothy, Margo MacDonald. Margo simply needs to click her heels and she is right back home in the corridors of power, using all the magic that the parliament's electoral arithmetic Wizard has granted her, to strike a Capital City Supplement deal.

In the wonderful world of Holyrood, during the production known as the Scottish Budget, other MSPs should learn this very basic lesson in parliamentary arithmetic of working together for the greater good of the areas they represent. Will MSPs find enlightenment on the electoral yellow brick road? We must hope they find a strong heart to lead for their local community, demonstrate the brains to secure a better deal for their patch and display the courage to set aside their party whips and work together for the greater good of their town, city or region.

If the land of Oz is an unusual panto, we must not forget Jack and the Beanstalk. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat Scottish leader, was certainly responsible for germinating some of the beans that grew into the UK Coalition tree, having been an integral part of previous partnerships in Scotland that paved the way for Westminster. In this production the question is can Tavish/Jack now reap the electoral reward for planting those maturing cross-fertilising political seeds, or will he get chopped down by an angry Scottish electorate? Who knows?

Now, Christmas wouldn't be the same without Snow White, and there would be fierce competition for this glamorous role at Holyrood. It would perhaps be inappropriate for me to nominate any MSP for this role, so I'll let you choose your own favourite. As for seven political dwarves, well, perhaps I can leave you the terrifyingly difficult ordeal of identifying this lot. No mean task at Holyrood.

But what's that noise? Look, he's behind you: There's Iain "Aladdin" Gray, Labour's Holyrood leader, rubbing his policy lamp for all it's worth, looking to unleash the magic that he insists saw his party successfully defend its ground in this year's election, when all his dreams came true. The problem is, however, that he may not have any wishes left to use in next year's manifesto.

And he must fear that the electorate is going to put the anti-Tory Genie that boosted his support back into his bottle, given that they have no chance of winning next year.

And to finish our merry-go-round of Christmas favourites, let us imagine First Minister Alex Salmond as the Widow Twankey, Aladdin's pantomime dame of a mum. Like Twankey tea is "oor Eck" - who some might see as a pantomime villain and hiss whenever he appears - is past his best, it has been said. But he may yet play the part of telling the election story through audience interaction and brew up another stunning election victory. So, the lead role could be Eck's again, or will the electoral gods conspire to effect a result that ushers in a new political cast of players? If so who might these new panto talents be?

Finance minister John Swinney is an obvious Peter Pan, youthful, charming and yet wielding a mean little dagger. Just ask Glasgow Council's Labour leader. But, he's not the one to watch this time around. That role goes to his real-life political partner Nicola Sturgeon playing the part of Wendy. Look, there she goes, sprinkling pixie dust over those pirates in the press gang. Supportive, yet forceful, Nicola has had another good year, soaring above criticism, but will her dream of the top prize really come true?

And who would play cunning old Captain Hook? Enter stage left, none other than that seasoned veteran of the political play, Labour MP Brian Donohoe, scourge of the Scottish Parliament and all things nationalist. There he is, brandishing his amendment to the Scotland Bill, seeking to destabilise the good ship Holyrood by removing its balance, or to you dear voter, the parliament's proportionality.

So, the performance of our MSPs in the panto knockabout that is Holyrood does shed light on the coming election. We did start this winter season with a shock ministerial resignation, when transport minister Stewart Stevenson - after a week of Oh, yes he will, Oh, no he won't - fell on his sword, in a clash of his principle and others' political pragmatism. True grit he had in spades, but even he couldn't plough a clear road through the political storm that hit that week.

This could be seen as a sign that the parliament is growing up, but others may believe our MSPs have still to prove that they are worthy of applause rather than the hissing and booing traditional of pantomime audiences. They will hope that, despite the jokes and slapstick along the way, they are seen as serious people, helping the voters face up to the reality of the economic crisis, and leading us to the happy ending and curtain calls when Scotland becomes a land of stability and sustainable growth?

But hold on, what's that noise? Tick-tock, tick-tock. The electoral croc approaches, as a reminder to our parliamentarians that they are on borrowed time.

If the student fees fiasco, or the disgrace that was the alcohol debate is anything to go by, then alarm bells should indeed be ringing. Just like their pantomime alter egos, our MSPs, whichever groups form the next Scottish Government, will have to front up on opening night and face their audience. Now, that really will be a pantomime worth watching".

Ross is the Centre's Policy Director

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Joint Letter to the Auditor General for Scotland


Image Courtesy of Planetware.com

Today a joint letter has been sent to the Auditor General for Scotland calling on Audit Scotland to conduct an urgent investigation into the background to the additional Forth Bridge and the alternatives to it before any contracts are let. It calls on Ministers to ensure that any contracts are in the public interest.

The full letter states:

"Dear Mr Black,

As you will be aware, the Forth Crossing Bill is likely to be passed by the Scottish Parliament today, and it will empower Ministers to let contracts for the construction of an additional road bridge over the Forth. This project, should it go ahead, will be the most expensive single capital project ever supervised by a devolved administration, or indeed any Ministers in Scotland, with a final cost currently estimated at over £2bn. We believe it will be essential for Audit Scotland to look urgently into the background of this project and the alternatives to it.

In 2008, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority assessed the cost of repairing the existing bridge at up to £122m [1], even assuming the current dehumidification work is unsuccessful. It should however be noted that this ongoing dehumidification work "is producing the expected slow and steady fall in the relative humidity within the cable" [2], and that a contract is currently being advertised to examine progress in this area during 2012-13 [3]. A decision to proceed with contracts for the additional Forth Crossing prior to the results of this exercise therefore looks premature.

Furthermore, the Scottish Budget is under the gravest pressure since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, with a reduction in overall spending of £1.3bn in 2011-12 compared to the previous year. [4] Further reductions in the Scottish Block Grant are expected during the course of the next Parliament, just as capital sums of up to £400m per annum are projected to be spent on the additional Forth Crossing should it go ahead.

Scotland's recent history of capital project procurement and cost management has been mixed to say the least, and we have also seen recent examples of capital contracts signed prior to an election which ensured that future administrations would pay more to cancel those contracts than to proceed with them - so-called "poison pill" contracts. The timings currently being projected for the signing of the main contracts associated with the additional Forth Crossing are in the immediate pre-election period, and it would be legitimate to question whether such timing is in the interests of good governance. Your 2008 report "Review of major capital projects in Scotland" also notes that "Once a contract is agreed, significant changes to a project are likely to be costly and disruptive, and may not represent value for money." [5]

As that report points out, three fifths of these projects run over cost, with an average over-run of 39% against the initial cost estimate. This report, which does not consider the additional Forth Crossing project, also calls on public bodies to "prepare robust business cases for every project. These should be clear about the project aims and benefits, and include assessment of: risks; the range of options to be considered; and a clear basis for assessing, reviewing and reporting".

With these facts in mind, it is in our view essential that a full comparative audit be carried out before any contracts associated with the additional bridge are signed in order to consider the cost-effectiveness of repairing the existing Forth Road Bridge as against the costs associated with the construction of a new Forth Crossing. Both options will be disruptive, and a consideration of those consequences would also be useful. Finally, in the interests of value for money, it would be useful for Audit Scotland to provide advice to Ministers on the timing for and nature of any such contracts so that the public interests here can be properly protected.

Without such a vital piece of work, the risk is that a substantial amount of public money, even assuming no increase in costs during construction, will not be spent "properly, efficiently and effectively", as Audit Scotland's remit puts it. This project and the alternatives to it will be the most significant test of the public finances, of governance, and of the audit structures of this country for decades to come, and there are risks associated with this project for all concerned if such an audit is not carried out and its advice taken seriously. It will be too late once contracts are signed. Only Audit Scotland has the capacity and skills to deliver this work, and we would therefore urge you to consider taking on this project as a matter of urgency.

Yours

Richard Dixon, WWF Scotland
Keith Geddes, former member of the Accounts Commission (2002-2008)
Patrick Harvie MSP, Co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party
Colin Howden, Director, Transform Scotland
Lawrence Marshall, former Convener of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority
Ross Martin, Policy Director, Centre for Scottish Public Policy
Duncan McLaren, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Notes

1. Information from this Scottish Parliament's Information Centre briefing, page 6:
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/research/briefings-10/SB10-05.pdf

2. See the Forth Estuary Transport Authority's February 2010 "Main Cables and Anchorages Update", page 2:
http://www.forthroadbridge.org/sites/default/files/documents/feta%2026.02.10%2010.00am%20item%2007.pdf

3. For details of this contract, see:
http://www.publictenders.net/tender/84825

4. See the Scottish Parliament's Information Centre briefing, page 2:
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/research/briefings-10/SB10-67.pdf

5. Your report, page 6:
http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/central/2008/nr_080624_major_capital_projects_km.pdf

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

SFF Report into Sustainable Communities 2030

The Scotland’s Futures Forum has recently published a research project entitled “Scotland: sustainable communities in 2030”. It outlines three scenarios of what communities might look like in 2030. Watch the video below for more information.

Scotland 2030 from 00:/ on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Richard Keley: "The sliding scales that will beat pay freeze"

Published in The Scotsman, 1/12/10

Over the better part of the last week, parliament and press have paid rather more attention to what we now know the Scottish budget cannot do for the next couple of years than what the budget for the next year does actually contains.
This is unfortunate , because there are many aspects of this budget that require examination, either because they suggest interesting developments, such as the health monies to be spent on social care, or because they are not quite what they seem – such as the widely broadcast pay "freeze" for all public service employees earning more than £21,000 a year.

Some form of action on pay is clearly a central part of the budget, as pay represents approximately 60 per cent of the total public service spend, a proportion of budget that rises to over 80 per cent in the police service.

When John Swinney, the finance secretary, made his announcements on public service pay, the official record indicates there was '(Applause]'. Clearly these announcements were popular with some MSPs. So just which measures were so popular?

The Cabinet Secretary stated his aim: "…to maintain public sector jobs and services by constraining pay and to support those who are on the lowest incomes". A number of measures were announced that are intended to achieve this, including a continuing freeze on ministerial pay, reductions in senior civil service numbers, reductions in executive pay in some government influenced public bodies and a pay freeze – or, more technically "…a 0 per cent basic award – for all staff in 2011-12, with the exception that staff who earn less than £21,000 will receive a minimum increase of £250…" There is also a commitment to introduce a "living wage" of £7.15 per hour for all employees under Scottish Government authority (calculated as a little under £13,500 annually].

While the freeze level follows the lead previously announced by the UK government, the living wage announcement is a distinctly Scottish departure. Interestingly, however, the Westminster freeze is for two years.

So, although Mr Swinney only announced a one year budget, we must assume two years of freeze is factored into figures that have not yet been released.

On the face of it this seems to provide greater protection for lower paid workers – that is, those earning under £21,000 – than it does for those above this level, whose pay will notionally be frozen. There is, however, an unmentioned and largely undiscussed aspect here: the difference between any annual settlement (which the government wants to freeze] and the annual incremental increase that many public employees have built into their salary schemes. A wide range of local government employees, all teachers, a wide range of health service workers, police officers and firefighters are all on incremental salary scales of various complex kinds.

The consequences of these arrangements are that, regardless of whether a cash increase comes from any negotiated annual settlement or a freeze, many thousands of public employees will receive a pay increase next year that may even be greater than any negotiated annual settlement might be. This was an issue which the members of the Independent Budget Review considered in their report, and commented that an ad hoc approach to such incremental payments would be inequitable. But they also recognised that such payments are part of the contractual arrangements for hundreds of thousands of staff and could not be unilaterally scrapped. They recommended early negotiations should be commenced to discuss this with the relevant trade unions.

Such incremental arrangements apply to a wide range of posts in the public services. The table illustrates the impact of this in the first two years of appointment for some typical entry level posts that have salaries starting at just over £21,000.

Such annual increases generally run at approximately the same percentage level for each year (with the exception of Year 1 of teaching and an increase after the first 31 weeks of police service training] over a number of years. The nature and length of these incremental scales varies between different sectors of public service employment and different occupational groups.

Typically for most local government posts the scale runs over five points over five years; for teachers seven points; for nurses eight points; and for police officers ten points.

For employees on such incremental scales, such annual percentage increments have generally been greater than any negotiated annual settlement agreed over the past two years, and certainly that in prospect for this coming year.

In this context, the promised minimum increase for employees paid under £21,000 for next year seems less than generous: £250 represents a 1.19 per cent increase on a salary of £20,999, although a proportion of this cohort will also be entitled to annual increments. The figures prepared for the Independent Budget Review indicate that some 47 per cent of public service employees fall under the £21,000 barrier – which of course means that 53 per cent of the public service workforce whose pay is notionally frozen can continue to benefit from annual incremental increases.

It is very complex and difficult to establish how many groups of staff employed in the public services in Scotland benefit from automatic annual progression on such incremental salary scales, progression that is only denied in exceptional circumstances. That is, if an employee remains in post over a number of years his or her pay increases, regardless of any negotiated annual settlement or freeze – just for staying another year, as some describe it.

The only major departure from this in recent years has been in the core civil service, where pay progression is performance related, and based on appraisal of the performance of the individual member over the past year. This group of staff is one of the smallest groups of public service employees in Scotland, which means the Scottish Government only has direct control over approximately 8 per cent of the pay and conditions of the public service workforce.

The government is also changing arrangements to exert more control over the wider range of public bodies that are more closely connected to the centre – what is now widely known as "the Scottish Government Family" with some success.

Estimates suggest that, of the approximately 500,000 people in devolved public service employment in Scotland somewhere in the order of 412,000 are in employment groups entitled to annual incremental salary increases. As all the data suggests, annual incremental increases alone may account for between £150 million and £200m in each year.

The actual cost figures in any one year are impossible to calculate on the current information base available. Some key features of any incremental scale are how long it is; how long is the typical tenure in any post and what is the typical turnover of staff? That is why, for example, the incremental scales for teachers and police officers tend to be longer than others – incumbents typically stay longer in their posts.

The detail of such figures is, therefore, exceptionally challenging to establish, but the broad consequences are clear. Many public service employees earning over £21,000 will not see a "freeze" as most of us would understand it.

And in the coming year, the discussion promised by Mr Swinney about "flexibility in employment" as a means of saving jobs will surely focus on annual salary increments.

Richard Kerley is a CSPP board member and professor of management at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh