Category Archives: Political witterings
The burd’s views on the hot potatoes of the day/week/month
Now that the dust has settled on the headlines of councils’ budgets, what does the detail tell us? Largely, that very little changes. That every year, officers and elected members engage in a highly sophisticated game of brinkmanship over cuts, only now they have brought “the people” into the process through extended and largely impotent consultation processes. Because whatever it is that those hardy members of the public who toddle along to be bombarded by financial science think they are nodding in agreement with, I’m pretty sure it isn’t that children should pay the highest price of austerity.
And that’s exactly what Glasgow City Council has done. To some extent, it is inevitable if, like most councils, a one-size fits all approach to budget cut-making is taken. If the call is for each department to bring forward their 5% cuts options, then education and social work as local authorities’ biggest spenders will indubitably end up with a bigger proportion of cuts.
Despite it continuing to be the mode for budget-making all over the country, it really won’t do. Nor will the lack of detail and trust in ability to use the ubiquitous review to save pennies. A review is local government’s equivalent of searching through all coat pockets and at the bottom of all bags, purses and wallets for change for the bus. And to think we pay these people big salaries for the privilege.
Thus, in Glasgow, its related companies – the arms length bodies which have caused no little controversy in recent years – are going to save nearly £1 million through a range of efficiencies. Glasgow City Marketing Bureau is taking its PR activity in-house and saving the taxpayer £36k per year while Glasgow Life is building on its current energy efficiency scheme with staff to save £240k this year. Funnily enough, the amount saved drops to £100k in 2014-15 and there is no sign of an accumulated, ongoing saving. Does this mean that staff won’t be exhorted quite so much to turn off the lights and the heating down next year?
Similarly, Land and Environmental Services is going to save the taxpayers £276,000 this year (and nothing next) through “efficiencies in contracts management in the supply base coupled with income generation measures”. All of which remain currently unspecified. Development and regeneration services goes one better by offering up “non essential spend efficiencies” from a “reduction in expenditure across subscriptions, printing and advertising through a review and streamlining of processes”. Though its saving of £50k this year reduces to £20k next year. Is it too radical to suggest that all non-essential spend should just cease?
Aside from tinkering around the margins of what they do, these types of services are offering up their biggest savings either through jobs going or by hiking up prices and charges. Though, of course, they don’t say that jobs will go. Corporate Services aims to find over half a million of savings this year from “corporate and service productivity reforms”; Glasgow Life will “more closely align workforce with service using better staff scheduling” to save a substantial £1.1 million over 2 years; and Land and Environmental Services will put an additional £1.3 million into the kitty through increased income generation through “a renewed focus on marketing and trading by in-house teams encompassing recycling income, Glasgow Flowers, grounds maintenance, bereavement services and transport”. What this means is that they will charge education more for grass cutting of school pitches in a classic robbing Peter to pay Paul manoeuvre and charge folk more to be buried.
But this is all pie in the sky in any event. There is no guarantee of the level of income generation forecast. If there are detailed calculations and equations behind any of these figures, I’d love to see them: more likely, a blunt percentage increase on income generated in previous years was applied. And if the increased income doesn’t materialise, are these same departments expected to make their efficiencies in other ways? Don’t count on it. Which puts even more pressure on front-line services which spend considerable amounts like education and social work.
In education, the workforce is going to take a battering. Remember the stushie in Renfrewshire over the SNP’s proposal to cease providing teachers in nursery schools? Guess what? It’s being done in Glasgow but ever the wily political veterans, the Labour group has buried this proposal in a £5million package of “alterations to staff allocation”. The council intends over the next two years to raise class sizes in primary schools (“review of staffing formula in primary schools”), cut subject choice in secondaries (“improved timetabling in secondaries to maximise staffing”), replace teachers in nurseries with “team leader child development officers” and will hit additional support for learning staffing for a second time in this budget. The only measure which suggests planned rather than panicked reprovisioning is the shift to “cluster heads for early years”.
And if we were in any doubt that it is children – and the most vulnerable children – who will bear the brunt of Glasgow’s budget savings, the £2.4 million saving identified for additional support for learning by reducing additional support for learning staff, merging and relocating more establishments, reforming hospital education and stopping the ASL summer programmes confirm it. Additionally, there will be a review of out of school care lets where out of school care services do not run to capacity – which probably means stopping lets to clubs and schemes in poorer areas where higher unemployment ensures there is less demand for after school care. The cost of a school dinner and a breakfast club place is going up, and for the first time, charges will be introduced for fruit and snacks in nurseries on the grounds that it brings pre-school children into line with school age.
In social work, there are jobs and front line services going and privatisation by stealth. The meals service is putting prices up, limiting choice to two courses and moving 390 Cordia clients of its meals at home service “to an alternative service provider who deals directly with clients”. This package provides a one off saving of £306,000. £87,000 will be saved by “redirecting” transport provision for playschemes and community groups; Cordia is stopping its handperson service; and posts will be done away with in hospital social work services, the centre for sensory impairment, community work and homelessness teams. As usual, the voluntary sector will take a big hit totalling over £2 million in 2 years. Apparently there will be “minimal impact on service users”. Yep, that’s what they always say.
What amazes me is how little of this kind of detail finds its way into the public domain, through the media. The detail of the figures might be dull but the potential impact is not. What Glasgow City Council’s budget means is a hard time in the next two years for low income families in particular. It’s bad enough the ConDems whacking their living standards with their austerity measures without local councils adding to their misery.
Yet, this same council has a restricted reserve fund of £4.6 million for culture and recreation, which includes the Commonwealth Games. This fund, it says, is fully committed for the coming year ie that it is spent already. Never mind that some families will be struggling to give their children enough to eat in the next year, at least there will be a circus to take their mind off the hunger pangs.
I actually didn’t know I cared quite so much.
I blogged on equal marriage before and my attitude then was one largely of bemused indifference.
But tonight, watching the result of the 2nd reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill nearly live on Channel 4 News, when it was announced that the ayes had it – by 400 to 175 – I cheered. Despite its name, for I’d much prefer to think of it as an equal marriage bill.
Yes, history is well on its way to being made. And what interesting history we are carving out here, not least because of what the detail of who voted for and who didn’t tells us. Frankly, there’s nowt so queer as MPs.
There’s wee Sarah Teather, the only non-liberal liberal in the village, who despite having supported the idea of equal marriage, somewhat loudly and proudly, found that when it came to actually voting for it, her conscience forbade it. Her conversion to the Cornerstone club is quite a coup.
A handful of Liberal Democrat MPs also abstained, some with genuine reason to do so.
And then there’s all those Conservative MPs. Including, according to the Westminster rumour mill, a handful defending the sanctity of marriage while having adulterous affairs and some even engaged in clandestine gay relationships. So many of them that more actually voted against government policy than for it, leaving David Cameron with a huge problem. It might have been a free vote but he now has a significant rump of his backbenchers having scented and now tasted blood.
The scale of the Conservative opposition to this bill is quite breath-taking and clearly the modernisation project isn’t working. If this is the fluffy face of the Tories, heaven help us when they decide to get nasty. Except they already have with welfare reform.
The biggest disappointment was allowing this to proceed as a free vote – a conscience vote, as Francis Maude styled it. Yet, this is government policy. And since when did a matter of equality require a conscience behind it? You either are a rights respecting legislature or you are not, and clearly the Conservatives would rather not be.
But what does any of it mean for Scotland?
First, a sizeable number of Scottish MPs either abstained or voted against and as a result, Scotland must run Northern Ireland close for having the largest percentage of non-supporters of any geographical block. Lord Thurso and Charles Kennedy were absent from the vote – for apparently legitimate reasons.
And in a peculiarly male, pale and stale roll call of dishonour, step forward the living embodiment of unreconstructed Scottish man in the Labour ranks, in the form of Brian Donohoe, Frank Roy, Jim Sheridan, Tom Clarke, Michael McCann and Jim McGovern. Each conforming to stereotype and voting against equal marriage. Also abstaining or absent from the vote were Dame Anne Begg, Jim Hood and a certain Gordon Brown. No doubt they all had proper excuses, though it would be interesting to hear the former Prime Minister’s in particular.
Second, the SNP MPs all abstained. Pete Wishart MP tweeted this afternoon that “The SNP won’t be voting on the Westminster same sex marriage bill because none of it affects Scotland and we have our own legislation“. For a long time, the SNP held firm to the principle of not voting on Westminster bills which were exclusively or largely related only to England and Wales. But that principle was breached by the group voting against the hike in tuition fees. At first glance, the decision by the party and the group appears to make sense – this equal marriage bill is largely for England and Wales and Scotland is currently consulting on its own bill.
But thanks to the eagle eyes of Martin McCluskey – admittedly, a Labour and union staffer but that doesn’t make his spot any less accurate – this bill has specific provisions affecting Scots and will apply to Scots serving in the armed forces, for example, as well as providing for cross-border matters. Which means that any couple married in England or Wales who then moves to live in Scotland is entitled to continue to be married under the law: the couple won’t have to go through the ceremony twice, unless of course, they fancy a wee Hielan waddin just for the thrill of it.
So not only has the SNP re-instated a principle, but the group has ignored that the bill does apply to Scots. The reason is why?
The only logical conclusion is that some in the group were discomfited at the prospect of voting for something they did not agree with. Had they exercised their consciences and cast a no vote – particularly if a majority of the six did so – it would have caused trouble for their own government here in Scotland, which has, after lengthy consultation and consideration, come down on the side of supporting equal marriage. The way to avoid an unnecessary stushie was to abstain on the grounds set out.
All of this has important lessons for Scotland. There is clearly a body of socially conservative opinion among parliamentarians, most of it dressed in a suit, on such equality matters, which raises the prospect of a significant rebellion when the Scottish bill comes to Holyrood, especially if it is allowed to proceed on a free rather than a whipped vote. There will be some in Labour’s ranks who will vote no, but significantly, there are as many if not more MSPs in the SNP ranks who might oppose the bill.
If the SNP couldn’t persuade all of its MPs to vote for the Westminster bill – and allowed them to abstain instead – then it has set a precedent to allow some of its MSPs, including some Ministers with previous form on matters of gay equality, to vote against or at least, abstain on its own bill. And depending on the size of that vote, the Scottish Government might well find itself in the same choppy waters as the UK one: having to rely on opposition votes to secure a victory. For political anoraks like me, it’s fascinating stuff.
But it is all rather dispiriting that in the 21st Century, we have significant numbers of elected representatives out of step with societal attitudes, prepared to put their consciences before their duty to all their constituents, and dress up prejudice and intolerance in a range of guises. And political parties which still refuse to treat LGBT rights, justice and equality as matters of policy.
One MP, however, stands above them all; one who has not yet been named and shamed; one whose behaviour in voting against this bill is an act of betrayal and of laying waste to the legacy he was bequeathed. Iain McKenzie, Scottish Labour MP for Inverclyde, claimed he was voting against equal marriage because his constituents did not support it. The man is a disgrace. For he made this tawdry excuse in full knowledge that he is MP for an area which previously voted for a former Catholic priest who was openly gay when elected and in a longterm relationship with his partner, which he confirmed in a civil partnership. And whose partner, I understand, encouraged Iain McKenzie to vote for this bill.
Iain McKenzie said on his election that “If I can serve my constituents half as well as David, I shall be doing well indeed.“ Well, here is the news Mr McKenzie. You can’t and you won’t ever. You are the worst kind of politician who pretended to be something you clearly are not in order to secure your sinecure.
You have trampled all over the memory of a fine and principled politician. You aren’t fit to lace David Cairns’s boots.
Joyce McMillan wrote with her usual acuity and passion on something which has troubled me also. Effectively, she was expressing her concern that while Scotland fiddles, the world burns. Scotland is too busy picking fluff from its constitutional navel – and the UK is about to join us – to notice that the rest of the world has caught a nasty cold which may or may not turn out to be the plague.
She’s right. And there is evidence aplenty of this in operation.
This week, there has been more bankers-behaving-badly stuff. Just like Groundhog Day, condemning bankers’ bonuses has become an annual event to look forward to. With Antony Jenkins, the Barclays’ boss, announcing that he will waive his bonus, they have largely spoiled our sport. And as we rush to tug our forelocks in gratitude, we can ignore the very nasty, possibly illegal allegations circulating about the nature of Barclays’ relationship with Qatar at the height of the financial crisis.
Now there is one. All the big banks’ bosses have waived their entitlement except for Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds banking group. Give it up gracefully, pal: the longer you hold out, the louder the calls will be. And frankly, your bank doesn’t need any more bad publicity, what with it being investigated in the Libor scandal and its shares being downgraded to “sell” in the last few days.
We’ve become rather inured to the banks’ excesses: how else to explain the low-key reaction to the big financial story of the week, that of the FSA deciding to limit liabilities for the interest swap scandal. I won’t bore you with the details, largely because I’m not sure I understand them. But it goes something like this: yet another cunning wheeze dreamed up by boys and girls far too bright for their own good to make money out of thin air goes wrong and costs lots of people a lot of money and ultimately for some, their businesses and their livelihoods.
Having been found out – again – efforts are now underway to protect the banks from the full-scale of their misdemeanours. Everyone is a wee bit feart of the scale of this one – the FSA investigated 173 out of a possible 40,000 products sold and concluded 90% had been mis-sold – and trying to contain the fall-out.
Clearly, the banks are still viewed as too big to fail, even when they continue to play fast and loose with theirs and everyone else’s money.
This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last financial scandal. Until we get someone – anyone – prepared to make reining in the worst excesses of the banks a top political priority and relentlessly beat the drum on behalf of the little people – consumers, taxpayers, pensioners and benefit recipients – every year, will see another calumny visited upon our economy.
And even though there is little chance of that happening anytime soon, why don’t we do something ourselves? When, exactly, do we reach the point when as citizens, we say enough. When do we allow ourselves to get angry? Individually, we can all lob a verbal grenade or two in their direction but why no proper displays of collective anger?
We are well capable at manufacturing outrage when it suits us – and it suits some of us very well. This weekend’s commentary reflects on the reactions generated by two controversial political cartoons and the internet is a cacophony of anger and rancour from both sides (and even within the same sides) of the constitutional debate. And in the day-to-day of the big stuff in people’s everyday lives, none of it matters a jot.
Part of the problem is a lack of political leadership on this matter – and as Joyce McMillan points out, on the really big issues of climate change and resource challenge. Our politicians are in full-on avoidance mode. The UK Government thinks it is playing a clever game, alternately wagging the finger, issuing idle threats and simpering gratitude, as the Chancellor did in response to Jenkins foregoing his annual bonus. But we all see through it for what it is – the politics of pretending to be on our side when really being on theirs and their own.
The Scottish Government is strangely silent on a matter which would allow it to play its London grievance card legitimately and potentially to some effect. Here are the big, nasty banks – global entities one and all – aided and abetted by a supine UK government which would rather protect their interests, than those of the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized Scottish businesses which are the backbone of our economy. Another reason to vote yes, no?
UK Labour is at that stage of the electoral cycle where the objective is to offend no-one, so therefore avoids saying anything much about anything at all. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour appears so incapable of coherent thought that it manages on the front page of the Sunday Herald to condemn the sums involved in public sector redundancy packages while on the next page object to the loss of a quango which paid its members for attendance.
Yet, its behaviour is symptomatic of the wider malaise. Why get worked up about the big stuff that is costing public sector jobs, service cuts and savage welfare changes when there is a spat de jour to be pinned on the SNP about the consequences of austerity? Frothing at the mouth over nothing very much for narrow political gain was never so easy nor pointless. No vote on something as big as constitutional change is going to be won on the back of a tally of party political points scored.
The constitution matters, of course it does. But so do other things and these other things make us all feel angry, impotent and bewildered. Manufacturing outrage on the meaningless is a trite and dangerous political game. Particularly when your country and her people need you – now, not after the referendum.
After all, we share more on common causes and values in relation to these bigger threats and maybe it’s time our politicians reflected that. Maybe it’s time for them to lead us better on what unites rather than divides us. Enable us to channel our anger at the appropriate targets collectively and it might even result in a more edifying and substantive constitutional debate all round.