Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.






Show us the money!

At least, now we know.

If Scotland votes no in 2014, we face years, if not decades of austerity, of scrimping and scraping, of unemployment and under-employment and of cuts to public services.  No matter who wins the UK election in 2015, Conservative or Labour, we’re going to keep the current spending limits and aim to pay down the debt.  Westminster fiddles while we all burn.

For months, people have been clamouring for information in our constitutional debate and for certainty about what the future holds.  And if this kind of certainty isn’t a potential game-changer in the independence referendum campaign, I’m not sure what is.

For this isn’t exactly what folk had in mind.  The question being put by the undecideds and doubters has invariably been directed at the yes campaign; tell us what independence feels, smells and tastes like to help us make up our minds.  The challenge for Yes Scotland and the Scottish Government is to turn this around, to mess with everyone’s minds if you like and to make the certainty of our economic future a reason to embrace change.  It’s not the uncertainty of a future going it alone that should be vexing you, but the certain path being laid out which offers nothing but sackcloth and ashes.

And it’s time to make a mockery of the premise at the heart of the no campaign – that we are Better Together, because patently we are not going to be.

The Chancellor, ahead of the Spending Round statement for 2015-16 he will deliver this coming Wednesday, launched a natty wee video, to explain in simple terms what our current financial predicament means.  At least £13 billion of cuts, on top of the £11 billion or so already announced for next year.

It’s not clear what this means for Scotland until the actual budget allocations are announced, but given that we are not one of the Treasury’s ring-fenced budgets, we can hazard a guess that it means less money being handed to us to spend.  John Swinney has an article today in Scotland on Sunday which outlines how Westminster is eroding our economic powers:

Since 1999 Scotland’s freedom to allocate spending on Scotland’s priorities has been curbed, constrained and curtailed by creeping Treasury controls. Scotland’s money has been progressively divided into different pots with restricted uses, without any consultation.”

The argument has validity and should – rightly – spark indignation, particularly when UK budget statements start to interfere with democratic spending decisions already made here in Scotland.  As they did, this year.

Moreover, the grievance card has its place in the suit of options available to the Scottish Government in this debate:  it’s not been deployed nearly as much as it was in the first SNP Holyrood administration and we can expect it to appear more frequently as we grind towards the vote in September 2014.  Good.

But we need to start conducting this debate in a language that people can understand, which makes sense to their sense of everyday and which makes it patently clear what certainty means.  The Scottish Government needs to start showing us the money.

Thus, the response needs to be both political and micro-economic. The Scottish Government needs to spell out what this democratic deficit means, that every year that the Tories ring fence spending for schools south of the border makes it harder for us to do the same up here.  And to start setting out starkly what it means when the Chancellor puts austerity before growth in his economic strategy.  We might all nod blithely along when our Cabinet Secretary for Finance rails against this, but in truth we haven’t a clue what it means.

So tell us.  Get us a natty wee cartoon which shows what the cuts to the Scottish budget actually look like.  In terms of leaky roofs in schools, closed libraries, disappearing jobs, broken swings, potholes in pavements and roads.  And spell it out in terms of household finances.  Because cuts in spending mean increased bus fares to get to work or to go to the shops.

It means parents being expected to dig deeper for fundraising activity by schools.  It means your granny having to dig into her meagre pension to pay more for her emergency call service and meals on wheels.  It means your child losing their free swimming session on a Saturday.  And it means your wee cousin leaving university with a decent degree and having no job to go to.

Sure, Scotland already controls most of these policy areas but it really doesn’t matter what we want to provide for our people if we don’t have any money to pay for it.  And that’s what voting no in 2014 will deliver.  You might want to live in a country that does all of this and more, but you can only have a chance of doing so in your lifetime by voting yes.

Vote no in 2014 and you get Tory or Labour cuts in 2015.  Vote no in 2014 and you and your family can look forward to years of doing without.  Vote no in 2014 for a dismal future and for our children – your children – to have little to look forward to.

And while we can’t say definitely what voting yes will result in – that will be for us to decide in the first elections after independence – we can assure you of one thing, with absolute certainty and clarity.

That Scotland’s future can be different.  And if you want even the possibility of a different future, that doesn’t involve your family being force fed a diet of austerity by either the Tories or Labour, then vote yes.

Where have all the public sector jobs gone?

No matter where you go and who you talk to in the public sector, there are furrowed brows and sotto voce mutterings about workload, stress and job cuts.

But do the figures bear out the impression given by those employed in Scotland’s public sector?

Let’s start with the reserved public sector, that is, those jobs that belong to reserved bits of government activity in Scotland – the civil service, armed forces, public corporations, public sector bodies (sorry, I’m not sure what the distinction is) and the euphemistically termed “public sector financial institutions”.  That’s RBS, HBOS and Northern Rock to thee and me.

Interestingly, since our bubble burst in the 3rd quarter of 2008 there’s not been an awful lot of change in the overall headcount.  Apparently, we should only compare like for like quarters:  it says so in red on the spreadsheets, so not wishing to risk being zapped or thrown in leg-irons, that is what we shall do (mostly), comparing Quarters 1 (April to June) of 2009 through to 2012.

Overall, the number employed in reserved parts of the public sector has fallen by 19,000 but this is largely accounted for by the banks who have reduced the number employed in Scotland in the various parts of their businesses by 11,100.  Partly this will be down to actual job losses but perhaps also by holdings shifting back into the private sector, such as the disposal of Northern Rock.

So, the reserved public sector has only lost 7,900 jobs with 3,200 out of the civil service (that’s likely to be out of HMRC and DWP mainly), 1,400 from public bodies, 2,400 from public corporations and 800 from the armed forces.

Clearly, every job lost creates real difficulty for the individuals and families involved, as well as those relying upon the service provided by that part of the sector, and a ripple effect in local economies and communities but given how willingly the UK Government has wielded its austerity axe, it seems surprising that not more jobs have gone.

We’ve been rather sheltered from the impact of the cuts in devolved areas compared with England.  This is because of the soft-shoe budget shuffle conducted by the Finance Secretary in deferring cuts and in moving revenue funding into capital expenditure but despite all his efforts, there are definitely fewer people employed in devolved parts of the public sector than there were three years ago.

The total number has fallen by 37,500 but this fall masks unevenness across different parts of the sector.  In the civil service, for example, only 700 posts have gone, while the NHS is down 3,800 with the bulk – nearly 30,000 in total – being lost in local government.  FE colleges, too, appear to have taken a disproportionate hit, losing 1,700 posts.

It is also important to note that these job losses do not necessarily equate with unemployment.  We are talking posts rather than people and many jobs will have been lost when the incumbent took retirement and was not replaced.

Moreover, within local government, it appears to be actual council services that have borne the brunt of losses.  Police and related services have lost 500 posts since 2009 and fire and related services have lost 200, with the same headcount in fire services of 5,600 being recorded since the end of 2010.  Some stability then.  And one of the reasons why it seems like a lot of posts have been lost in these services is because of the creation of high watermarks.  In police, this was reached in 2010 with 24,900 posts with a full 1000 lost since then.

There is also real difference among local authorities.  If we look all the way back to the dawn of devolution, most local authorities are still employing more people now than they did then, even taking into account losses recorded since 2008.  And in some areas, the big drop in headcount cannot be explained by the cuts alone.  Glasgow, for example, appears to have lost over 10,000 posts between 2009 and 2012 but this can partially be attributed to the creation of ALEOs and charitable trusts which took posts off the books.

Such a stark analysis also hides some uncomfortable truths.  It is too easy to look at the growth in public sector employment – particularly in councils – throughout the first nine years of devolution as bloat. Many of these new posts were created to meet new burdens and responsibilities created by government legislation and policy initiatives.   All those obligations are still there, requiring to be undertaken, yet there are now fewer people with which to meet them.  This undoubtedly impacts on the quality of service delivery, particularly in areas which are intense in terms of their human resources costs, like care in the community, nursing and teaching.

By the same token, the bald statistics do not show in which service areas posts have been lost.  We have no way of telling if front line services have suffered more than management – as we all suspect.  But we can see that some parts of the public sector are taking more hits in terms of jobs lost than others.  Indeed, overall, devolved parts appear to be losing more posts than reserved areas.

And what is most worrying is that while public sector jobs are going, the decline has been rather gradual.  There are still substantial, real terms financial cuts to come, particularly in local government, over the next two years.  We are likely to lose a lot more posts with shrinkage occurring at a much more rapid rate that it has to date.

*All these figures are plucked from the data tables accompanying the publication linked to above.  Feel free to browse the spreadsheets as I did….