Scotland on pause huh?

It’s one of Scottish Labour’s most tried, tested and apparently trusted lines. “This SNP lot are so obsessed with independence that they have forgotten about doing the day job of governing Scotland…. They’ve no time for real-time concerns, no inclination to use the powers they have… Scotland is on pause.” The inference is that if they just focused on what we pay them to do, we’d all be a lot better off.

It was used to dismiss this year’s Programme for Government; it is trotted out regularly by Johann Lamont at First Minister Questions; increasingly, it is used when lambasting a perceived failure or weakness or running away from an issue by the Scottish Government; and it’s trotted out lazily by nearly every journalist in the land.

It’s clever politics. It’s a handily crafted soundbite that trips off the tongue. It creates uncertainty about the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s priorities:  Scotland now or Scotland tomorrow.  And it’s hard to rebut without sounding defensive.

The Scottish Government is good at pointing to what it is achieving: a balanced budget year on year; economic growth;  employment rising and unemployment falling; things still being built, not least new houses, hospitals and schools; less crime, still more police officers; maintaining universal services that people get to feel the benefit of, day in day out – council tax freeze, bus passes, personal care, prescriptions.  All of these and more are tangible examples of the Scottish Government getting on with getting on.

But they suggest that the Scottish Government’s best creative days might be behind them, that if not on pause exactly, everything is simply ticking over. Business as usual, which by itself is no mean feat in the current financial climate.

Yet, that would be an unfair analysis. Everywhere you look in Scottish Government and in the Scottish parliamentary timetable, there is evidence of wholesale shift.

There is a clutch of reforming bills heading through the parliamentary process – at indecent haste in some cases.  There’s one to change how we deliver health and social care to elderly, adult and child populations who need support, removing artificial barriers over budgets, services and professionals. There’s a bill on regulatory reform which aims to streamline tribunals’ structure and activity; one on procurement which aims to change how public services are planned for, designed and delivered; one on children and young people which, while bitty as charged, will result in significant change in how we make sure more of the next generation get a better start in life. There’s a bill on its way on community empowerment which will enable the transfer of assets from councils to communities.  And there’s a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry – a revolutionary shift in social policy if ever there was one.  There are even bills which will change the stewardship of the Burrell collection allowing parts of it to be loaned furth of Scotland and one to enable Edinburgh council to use a park to build a much-needed new school.

Indeed, it’s hard to find a section of the public sector or society that is not currently been turned on its head by Scottish Government activity.  Nowhere is this more true than in our justice system, where every part of it is being poked and prodded into the 21st Century.  Changes to evidence, to the treatment of victims and witnesses, to courts, to policing, to procedures for jury trials, to the introduction of new offences – and more to come post referendum.  It’s a wonder lawyers have any time to do any lawyering what with the need to engage with change on so many fronts.

But such wholesale change creates potential risks and problems for the Scottish Government.

First, little of it is sexy. Given the shoestrings on which journalists operate these days, no one has the time or energy to turn concepts like community empowerment into digestible, bite sized chunks of copy.  And political journalism in particular, has degenerated into reporting the spat de jour.  One of the reasons Scottish Labour can give the impression that nothing is happening but the referendum is because of a complicit and compliant media.  All they want to report, or rather, have resources to report is the referendum.  And if they weren’t, well we’d all be criticising them for that omission too.

Second, humans don’t do change very well.  And if change is constant then that’s a lot of people discomfited.  All those vested interests the minority SNP Government worked so hard to bring on board and keep on side are now being tipped out of their comfy chairs.  Funnily enough, many of them – and their unions – don’t like it. They’re bleating loudly and that gives Scottish Labour something to bleat about too.  Responding to all this noise takes up time and energy, particularly when the aim is to try and keep it all under wraps: when it does erupt into the media, dampening down the flames also sucks up resources.

Moreover, reform with potential long-term benefits often creates unhelpful short-term consequences. It might make sense to streamline the court estate, so that we have courts which are better placed to deal with the increasingly complex business which passes through them, but closing sleepy hollow courts, no matter how sensible, irks folk.  The same applies with police stations.  Modern policing on straitened budgets with new and emerging national and international threats requires a different configuration:  allowing precious resources to languish in local offices that do nothing other than create a chimera of community policing makes no sense.

But closing anything local upsets local people and for all those who voted SNP for the first time in 2011, this isn’t exactly what they signed up for.  It also gifts the opposition a horse – hence Scottish Labour’s home webpage dominated by its campaign to save local police stations.

Which kind of leaves the Scottish Government damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Drive forward with a multi-reform programme and they are creating the kind of tumult they really do not want before the referendum. So, they are trying to reform quietly. But that then risks giving the impression that all they are doing is keeping a firm hand on the tiller all the way to next September.  Suddenly, that mischievous myth of Labour’s making seems to have foundation.

What this delicate balancing act requires is a first class communications strategy, which gets the message out about what the Scottish Government is delivering now, what it is doing with the powers it has to deliver for the future and what it could do if it had all the powers a normal country needs to create the wealthier and fairer society the SNP espouses.

There is no doubt that it’s doing the first bit very well and the last bit at every opportunity.  But the bit in the middle?  Well, the fact that Labour is still using “Scotland on pause” whenever it can suggests it thinks it’s on to something.  Allowing the charge that this is a do-little government to go uncontested might not be the best tactic after all.  Not when you’re trying to persuade people to trust that we have what it takes to make a success of independence, nor to feel confident that we can do better, making our own way in the world.  The bit about using the powers we have to create a better, brighter future might actually be helpful to the narrative aimed at encouraging more to vote yes.

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Court closures show the curious side of Scottish politics

So, the Scottish Government has decided to close a handful of courts and you’d think the sky had fallen in.

There’s clearly nowt so contrary as opposition politics.  Tavish Scott’s piece in the Scotsman railed against backbench SNP MSPs voting with their government’s proposals.  He finishes on a suitably melodramatic note, suggesting that the SNP “flowing tide that swamped all other parties and carried many surprised Nationalists into Holyrood” might just have turned.  Yet, in criticising the likes of Rod Campbell who voted in principle for Cupar sheriff court in his own constituency to close, Tavish ignores that the even more honourable Sir Menzies Campbell MP (he gets more gongs today) who, as constituency MP for the Neuk, is cheerleading for a UK government which (if the outraged bloggers and legal commentators are to be believed) is systematically dismantling the justice system south of the border.  Easier to support what your government gets up to when it isn’t in your own backyard, I’d reckon.

Tavish also ignores that when the junior partner in the Scottish Executive, many Lib Dem backbenchers regularly held their noses while voting for government policy and measures which brought them out in hives.  ASBOs for children anyone?

Even more curious has been Scottish Labour’s approach.  Seven days to save local justice screamed the hastily thrown together, last minute campaign to oppose the court closures.  Of course, their Keep Justice Local campaign conveniently ignores that the party supported the proposals to create a single police force.  But even if the party’s stance was based on some semblance of consistency and rigour, it doesn’t make political sense.  Are the courts in seats held by Labour?  No.  Are the courts in seats in which Labour is the main challenger?  No.  So why bother?  If I’d been Labour, I’d just have left the SNP to twist in the wind and for its backbenchers – who do all have courts being closed in their seats – to answer their local critics er, locally.

But let’s leave the politics of the curiosity shop to the side for a moment and consider the issue.  Will closing sheriff courts in the likes of Peebles, Kirkcudbright, Cupar, Dornoch and Haddington bring Scottish justice to its knees?  No.  Will shutting the doors on justice of the peace courts in towns like Irvine, Annan, Cumbernauld and Wick result in a diminution of our rights as citizens?  No.  In fact, said citizens will probably scarcely notice.

The fact is that not everyone is affected by a court closure the way they are affected by the loss of a school or local health facility.  You only need access to justice when you need it and for most of the population, that is a rare occurrence indeed.  Before jumping to their defence, did anyone bother to look at how much business passes through these sleepy hollows?  Did anyone do the maths and work out the cost of justice dispensed versus the costs of keeping old, crumbling and hard to heat buildings wind and watertight?

Apparently, such mundane issues matter not.  You cannot put a price on justice, argue these courts’ defenders (mostly local lawyers who make their living from them).  But you can.  And if you don’t put a price on the cost of providing justice here, then you are making it harder to afford to provide justice there.  Where it is needed.  When asked for a view on the proposed closures in their backyard, one sheriff clerk noted that they currently lose their Sheriff a day a week, putting pressure on their much busier schedule – it would be better to have the Sheriff in one place and ease things there.

The real problem with the proposed court closures is that the opportunity to re-model how justice is provided for has been lost.  The proposals for specialist courts – despite the evidence that where piloted, they have worked – were dumped early on on the grounds of cost.  There has been no attempt to look at current population trends and determine if we have courts where they need to be.  The starting point should have been a blank sheet to create a twenty year programme of shifting local justice out of inappropriate Victorian buildings and out of the way locations into state of the art facilities close to the people.  There should have been a tie-up with the Scottish Futures’ Trust’s hub programme, putting courts and court facilities into one stop shop buildings, where they are easy and friendly to access. 

But radical ideas of bringing justice into the heart of communities and close to the people, demystifying it and ensuring it joins up alongside other services people need like debt, benefits, housing and social work advice, cause some in the justice system to swoon.  They like the fact that they sit in ancient big piles apart from the populace.

In any event, whether by design or default, the Justice Secretary wasn’t minded to embark on such an adventure.  These are cuts which will trim the budget and not cause too much bother in the longer term.  But these measures provide further evidence of a worrying mindset at large – and on this, opponents are spot on.  This Justice Secretary has a centralising tendency which appears to run against the grain of SNP thinking in other areas.  First, the police force and the fire service, now courts.

The biggest shift in the court reform programme will be to centralise the high court at three locations – Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.  That might save money and avoid the travelling circus but it does indeed mean thousands of victims and witnesses making a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles, often at their own expense, in order to see justice done.  The same applies to offenders but the state looks after them.  It’s not yet clear how this will be made to work in people’s rather than the process’s interests.

Also, the community justice system might also find itself becoming a nice, neat national body – proposals to reform the system have just been consulted on and this option had fewer potential downsides listed than the other two.

At the same time, over in another portfolio, the direction of travel is entirely local.  There will be a community empowerment bill, putting assets directly into the hands of communities;  community planning partnerships are being beefed up; the amount of local government spend controlled through ring-fencing by the centre is miniscule compared to in Labour’s day in the Scottish Executive; the mantras are early intervention, preventative spending and collaborative working.  It’s all about not just reconfiguring the provision of public sector services but totally reforming how and what we do, root and branch.

And the dichotomy at work here, at the heart of the Scottish Government, with two of the Cabinet’s big beasts apparently espousing and driving quite different approaches to public sector design and delivery is perhaps the most curious thing of all.

Vote: are doctors right to strike?

It’s too easy to play the politics of envy with news that doctors have voted to strike – or rather, to withdraw all but essential services – on 21 June.

Well-remunerated public servants, most of whose education costs were met by the taxpayer also and who can look forward to gold-plated pension settlements on retirement, baulk at the idea of us all being in this together.  At least, that’s how the Daily Mail styles it.

The truth, as always, is more complex.  Yes, doctors earn a lot.  There are some who deserve every penny and there are others who treat it all rather like the Goose who lays golden eggs, doing just enough to justify her laying capacity and no more.   And yes, the pensions – the bonuses even – are eye-watering to many.  But then they’ve paid their share towards those pensions and are as entitled surely to a pension as anyone else?  But hey perform a highly-skilled and necessary job:  if we want an NHS free at the point of need to keep us all in rude health, then that requires people to do so.

In any event, the UK Government is embarking on systemic public sector pension reform with little evidence to suggest it is the problem they make out.  Deftly, they use the politics and economics of envy – in a neatly ironic twist – to persuade the ordinary Joes that public sector workers have had it good at our expense for too long and we can no longer afford it.  The fact that the NHS pension pot is at least £2 billion in excess is conveniently ignored.

But does the extent of reform justify the response from doctors, and indeed other public sector workers?  The proposals suggest that doctors will have to work until 68 before they retire – a bit like the rest of us then.  And given the rapid advances in life expectancy for the average population – thanks in no small part to the wondrous talents of medical research and practice – we have to start thinking sensibly about this retirement malarkey.  If most of us live until our early to mid 80s, that’s twenty years and more of economic inactivity for most.  Is it right that this prospect just keeps on expanding, especially when people tend to come into the labour market much later than they did even ten years ago (not always of their own choosing, of course).

Of course, an appropriate debate on the consequences of and issues for an ageing society is being avoided at all costs and so, we have come down to having battle lines drawn over money.

The very idea of doctors withholding their labour causes some of us to gasp and to start stockpiling cans of soup for the prospect of barricades, rubbish on the streets and even revolution.  A few of us might even get quite excited at the thought:  instead of this slow burn of austerity that will result in a quite different public sector order, let’s just take our sides and get on with it.

But to reduce the need for futures thinking around what kind of public sector do we want to have and perhaps more cogently, can we afford in the decades ahead to narrow faultlines around the age of retirement and the amount people contribute to their pension pot is to miss the opportunity and sidestep the challenge.  All sides are complicit in doing so.

There is no doubt that times are tough for everyone on a pay freeze in the public sector.  It does not matter that you earn six figure sums saving lives or doling out anti-depressants:  a real terms cut in income of 5% year on year means stuff has to be jettisoned.  Feeling sorry for those at the top of the earnings pile having to decide whether or not to withdraw their precious offspring from private school as much as families trying to stop the electricity being cut off is moot.  As I said, the politics of envy is unhelpful in this debate.

But we should be concerned that the discourse around the need for public sector reform has become so fixated on public sector workers’ pay and conditions.  To some extent, this is inevitable given that salary costs dominate public spending:  services cannot be delivered without staff, after all.   Yet, with promises here in Scotland to pay living wages and to avoid compulsory redundancies mean that everyone is focused on the needs of the workers, way more than we are on the needs and interests of the recipients.

Is it right that the focus is on the workers rather than the work they do?  Is it right that the workers choose to take a stand on their rights rather than on those they serve?

The doctors’ strike on 21 June is only the start:  widespread action is planned right across the public sector in October and there are likely to be more skirmishes before then.   Whether you like it or not, we are all going to be affected, some more seriously than others.  Does it represent a return to militancy by the cosseted and feather-bedded or is strike action justified to make clear how destructive the UK Government approach and policies are?

What do you think?  Are doctors right to strike?