Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Much ado about nothing.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle over the last month or so about there being another independence referendum, despite there not going to be another independence referendum. 

I wrote back at the turn of the year about this. There is no route to a legal and binding referendum without a s.30. And, eh, that's it. There has been a bit of newspaper speculation about there being an "advisory" referendum but this has the capacity to be the most spectacular own goal for the nats. Even if they negotiated the legal obstacles, no small issue in itself, what would its purpose be? If the nats won by a landslide on a derisory turnout, how would that advance their cause one iota? And if they only just scraped home or, worse still, suffered a defeat at the hands of a pissed of electorate? The problem is that in a legally binding referendum in 2014, 2,100,000 Scots voted to remain in the UK. Any victory that didn't deliver a similar figure now otherwise minded for some other proposition would simply be ignored by the UK Government and, as I repeat, there would be nothing the SNP could do about it.

But there is now another factor and that is the position of the leader of the SNP herself. In a little noticed development the weekend before last Nicola herself said that her immediate priorities were the pandemic and then dealing with its economic aftermath. This seems fair enough but nobody thinks the economic aftermath is going to be over any time soon. Let's take the very most optimistic of scenarios. There is a vaccine in the Autumn; mass production by the Winter; actual mass vaccination by the Spring and a return to something approaching medical normality by next Summer. Will the economic aftermath disappear as quickly? If only.

How we work, where we work and, in many cases, who we work for is going to be changed forever by the pandemic and, for a lot of people, they are not going to be working at all for a good period of time.

Now, let us consider the most optimistic political scenario for the SNP. They manage to win a landslide in an election which is still able to take place in May 2021. They are back for five years. The Tories have a Damascene conversion to allowing a fresh vote. Nonetheless, we are in the midst of  a world recession. Why attempt a vote any time soon when you have five years at your disposal? Seizing the moment would only lead to the counter question: "Why do you need to seize this particular moment? If history is truly on your side what's the harm in waiting a bit? I mean, I might not be opposed to a wee row in a lifeboat but in the midst of this Force 9 gale, might we not be better on the ocean liner for the moment?"

So you see, even if everything goes the nats way (a very big if) there would still not be a referendum before 2023 at the earliest. Given the technical issues about agreeing the actual terms of this exceptionally improbable s.30 and the fact of a UK General Election in (probably) May 2024, probably not until the Autumn of 2024. And that's on the SNP's own most optimistic timetable!

So why is all this current froth going on? Why all the reporting as if a second vote was imminent and (panic!panic!) the union might be equally imminently dissolved. Well, I regret to say, that is because  such a narrative is in the self interest of political journalists and commentators.

Like all people I am opposed to murder. Well, obviously not all people, some murderers aren't. But, I confess, when there is a local murder there is always a little frisson of hope that I might get the case. Murders are out of the common. More interesting and challenging than the day to day round. And there is usually a pretty decent cheque from the Legal Aid Board at the end of them.

Much of what goes on in Scottish politics is grindingly boring. There is good reason so many able talents have left Holyrood voluntarily. Duncan Hamilton and Jim Mather; Ruth Davidson and Adam Tomkins; Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon; Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott. And that's just the headliners. And if it is boring to participate in, it is even more boring to report.

But referendums are exciting. There are marches and rallies and inflamatory speeches. There is waiting by the phone for the latest opinion poll. There are balloons (not just of the human kind) and stickers and flags. Lots of flags. There are surprise interventions by celebrities or outside actors and denunciations of surprise interventions by celebrities and outside actors.. There is a real prize for the winners and a real downside for the losers (or at least that's meant to be the case). And, in our own heads at least, the eyes of the world are briefly on Old Scotia. 

So who wouldn't prefer reporting this to reporting on Stage Two of The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill 2020? Indeed who wouldn't prefer speculating (no matter how ill foundedly) that such an event was imminent, rather than reporting on The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill? I have no doubt a worthy, piece of proposed legislation.  Despite the fact that we can be certain we will have a heat network, indeed looking at the Bill's title potentially more than one, before we are ever going to have a referendum. 

But there is also something else. Journalism, as a trade,is under severe pressure from the internet age. Barely a day goes by without a local or specialist publication closing. Equally a day without announcements of redundancies in the national press. Or individual announcements on twitter, that some respected journalist or another is joining a PLC or trade body as public relations officer. Or has decided to take "time off" to write a book. And, like so much else, this trend has been turbo charged by the pandemic. And it isn't just happening in print media, it is happening in television and radio as well. 

But Scottish journalists and commentators think they hold an ace in their hand, particularly those working for UK publications or organisations. "You can't downsize in Scotland! There is about to be a second referendum! Here, it says so in [a rival publication]."

And, if you wanted to keep your job? "Hi boss, here's my weekly column. It's about the Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill............Only joking! It's about how there is about to be a second independence referendum."


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

A whole new world.

Image


When I moved to Kilsyth in 1992 I realised the nearest railway station was at Croy and indeed made occasional use of it. 

But it was a complete backwater. Two trains an hour to Glasgow and two to Stirling. And that was it.

Then, in 2000, all of that changed in the space of a few days. 

Those of you old enough to remember will recall that in the relatively early years of the Blair Government there was a tanker drivers dispute which tested the mettle of that administration in facing down trade union demands. At a more micro level it caused huge problems for people used to driving to their work each day. They feared they would run out of petrol going there or be unable to obtain petrol to return home.

A significant proportion of the population of Cumbernauld work elsewhere and thus were left looking for alternative travel arrangements. Croy station was their solution.

And although the strike itself lasted only a few weeks, during these few weeks, these commuters discovered that train travel was quicker, less stressful and, if you were paying for your parking, cheaper than the private car. When the strike was over, Croy Station did not go back to normal. Far from it. Today there a four trains an hour to Glasgow; two to Edinburgh and one (via Stirling) to Alloa or Perth. 

Short term that caused immense parking problems, as people generally still drove to the station, but in time a huge new car park was built. A car park which, at the beginning of March this year, was already struggling to satisfy demand, leading to plans for further expansion being considered. 

I drove past Croy station yesterday. The picture I start with is of that big new car park. Taken at twenty past five. Before any commuter got home from their work.  Shops are reopened, offices are reopened, things are supposedly getting back to normal. Only the new normal is not the old normal. If any extension to this car park is ever now built I will be astonished. We are in a whole new world.

Few would argue that the changes brought about by the 2000 dispute were not changes for the better. Changes that benefited the life experience of the commuters. Changes that benefited the environment. But this time, I suspect it is a mixed bag. 

There was a time, long before March 23rd,  that I used to go into "the town" (Glasgow) to browse in a bookshop at least every couple of months. I usually went for a particular purchase but I never left with just that. And in the process I produced a profit, or if you prefer a surplus value, that paid the staff who served me, the rent of the premises they operated from and, and I say this quite happily, a return on the investment to those who had facilitated this personally pleasant experience. In the end they were being paid in turn by payment made to me by, or on behalf of, of those who had suffered the less pleasant experience of divorce, or industrial accident, or criminal prosecution.  As were also being  paid those whose remuneration derived from the coffee or the pint or the lunch I went for after book shopping. That's how a market system works. In this case from each of these according to their miserability to each of these desiring of a feed. 

I stopped this practice perhaps five years ago. If I now see a book I'd like to read, I don't wait to go to buy it, hoping it's in stock, that coming weekend, or whatever. I buy it there and then on my kindle. And, slowly but steadily, I know I am killing the very bookshops that I love. But, on the other hand, I have read the book long before I might have forgotten about it and perhaps found my attention seized by something else. Good news for the author, sort of good news for me, utterly disastrous news for the bookshop, landlord and tenant. And also for the bookshop's staff and also, marginally in the specific but disastrously in the trend for those who might once have sold me a train ticket, driven the train, poured me a pint and/or cooked or served me lunch along the way. 

This was all nonetheless long term trend before March 23rd. As I suspect had been people getting the train to work from Croy, as opposed to driving, before the tanker drivers strike 2000. But it is a trend prescribed steroids by the lockdown over the last four months. Just as it happened in 2000.

There will be no going back to the big city centre white collar workplaces. Once it has been worked out that, thanks to modern technology,  they are not needed, as people can work from home, then they will die away. More concerningly still, once it has been worked out that there has been no particular need at all to call on the services of some of  those (prepared to be) working from home...? The private sector will get this pretty quickly. The public sector eventually. 

But the wider knock on from this? For sandwich bars at lunchtime to other bars at tea time. For the  trains and planes and, if not automobiles, then certainly petrol stations? For jannies and cleaners and receptionists and commissionaires. For railway and bus station shops and early morning train and bus drivers? We are in a whole new world. 

Some of this is limited good news. If I worry that an electric car wouldn't take me very far? What does it matter if I won't need to go very far anyway?

But in other respects.

So here are my modest suggestions,

1. All planning permission in towns and cities, conservation status aside, should be deemed agreed residential in addition to any existing permitted use. If town and city centres are to survive it can only be by encouraging people to live there. That requires urgent action.  Bureaucratic obstacles to that are madness.

2.Since in the modern economy a driving licence is a better route to a job than many college degrees, driving lessons, 21 to 24, should be free, As should be the driving test.

3. Non domestic rates liability should be calculated by virtue of revenue derived on and from the site. With transparency a legal obligation. I get this is a big task but it is an essential one. City centre stores paying higher rates bills than distribution sites operating online are simply city centre stores who will eventually close. 

4. "Job creation" can't just be "employment creating". If there are to be public, or,  publicly funded, private sector, job creation schemes, they must have defined objectives and, in the private sector at least, be able to show some sort of business (or time limited project) plan. This will inevitably involve government picking potential winners but should also involve inviting those winners to get filthy rich if they create real long term jobs.

I started this blog yesterday. I wish I had taken a further photo tonight. Next to my office there is a Wetherspoon's pub. We've been conscious over the last few days that their staff have been back in planning to reopen. Today they did and, as I left my work tonight, I stuck my head in the door. There were a number of customers sitting socially distanced and looking hardly enthusiastic about their experience. Most looked more likely to be about to go home than to order a meal or another round. If this was a remotely profitable enterprise I'd be astonished. 

What is to come is going to be grim, really grim.

Sorry.


Sunday, 28 June 2020

Scotland: My part in it's Governance.

A prologue

Last Monday, I wrote what I thought was a draft blog as the third part of my ongoing "J'Accuse" rant about Scotland's schools in the pandemic. I went to bed thinking I had saved it for the morning and certainly without drawing any attention to it.  A morning which heralded a change of policy which made it redundant. 

It was only a couple of days later that I realised I had inadvertently published it. I've left it up as I stand by it but I have also incorporated some of it in what's below. Since the vast majority of my readers come from twitter, I apologise to the 110 poor souls who might find themselves reading some of the same things again..

Scotland: My part in its Governance

For four and a half years in the mid 2000s, I was the legal equivalent of Larry Flanagan.

As Convener of the Legal Aid Committee of the Law Society of Scotland it was my job to negotiate with the Scottish Government over our terms and conditions. I dealt with two different Ministers. Cathy Jamieson for my own Party and Kenny MacAskill for "them". He was by light years the better Minister. 

Cathy, as a Minister, was the political equivalent of the former Sheriff Marcus Stone. Sheriff Stone was just about the most appropriately named member of the Judiciary ever.  Most Sheriffs acknowledge your presence in their court in some way. A nod, to say you should start, a raised eyebrow to imply you had better stop. Some indication, physical or verbal that they have (or haven't) appreciated the point you are making. Sheriff Stone did none of that. He simply sat there as if he was made of.........stone. Once both sides had finished he would occasionally prove himself capable of movement by rising to consider his decision. On his return however you had no idea, even as he started speaking whether it was going to be "A complex argument, eruditely conveyed, with which I find myself entirely in agreement" or "I have rarely had my time so wasted. I trust you will not be expecting your client to pay for your part in the advancement of this hopeless cause."  Cathy was like that. At our quarterly meetings she would listen respectfully but give nothing away except that, in due time, {her} officials would write. When they did you had no idea if it would be "A sensible idea which I have asked the Scottish Legal Aid Board to take forward" or "A ludicrous proposal which I trust will not be raised again." 

I should just say that just as Cathy, who I obviously knew well in a different context, was great company in a social setting, so was......Sheriff Stone!  He could play the piano extempore and sing comedic songs in the manner of Jimmy Durante or Les Dawson. I'm not suggesting that he should have done that on the bench but there was surely a happy medium. 

Anyway, as I say, Kenny was a much better interlocutor. If he thought you were talking rubbish he would just tell you there and then. If he thought you had a good point, likewise. Sometimes expressing one or other view at the outset, having read the advance papers, to save wasting either of our times. And where there was to be argument, or the testing an argument, he was also up for that as well. "Aye, but....." was a well worn phrase in his lexicon.

The point however was that, with both Ministers, there was an understanding that while we might propose, and civil servants advise,  it was the Minister who would decide. 

And a similar experience was observed in my only other (more or less) direct encounter with Government. In 2001, Jack and Bridget McConnell moved house to be in Jack's Motherwell and Wishaw Constituency and Mo and I were invited to see their new home and then for lunch. Logically, it must have been the weekend but in the background (elsewhere obviously) the negotiation of what became the McCrone agreement on Teacher's pay and conditions was taking place. Jack was then the Education Minister. Several times during the day Jack was phoned by a member of the Scottish Government negotiating team and asked to decide on one or other point. As he did, sometimes with a ready "yes", at others a "no but", at others still  a firm "no". The point was though that the Government were calling the shots. Certainly, and quite appropriately, in the forum of negotiation but with no misconceptions of the power balance on either side.

I say all this because of what happened over the decision to re-open the schools in full on 11th August which was announced by John Swinney on Tuesday past. The right decision. 

I have some sympathy with the complaint of both the education authorities and the teaching unions that they were not advised of this in advance. The whole process might, I think even many Nats would admit privately,  have been handled somewhat better. Indeed the statement on this matter from COSLA was issued with the support of SNP Councils.

But that was the decision. And while the Councils made legitimate points about practicalities in the timescale given earlier dithering by the Minister, they accepted that decision.  

Yet the day after Swinney spoke,  Larry Flanagan, the General Secretary of the EIS put out a statement suggesting that it was not a decision at all. Because it had not been "agreed" by the Education Recovery Group on which the EIS sits. 

Now here I just have to be blunt. This is not a decision to be taken by the EIS. 

I'm now going to say something controversial. It is a huge error to think that all unions are forces for progress at all times. Topically , the Minneapolis Police Union in the USA patently is not but in Britain we have any number of other examples. 

Unions represent the interests of their current members. And their current members being in the privileged position of being current members are commonly engaged in battle with those who are not in their ranks.

The role of the Seamans' union in the Glasgow Race riot of 1919, when would be black sailors were attacked and physically driven from the docks, is nobody's idea of progressive politics. Even at the time.

The role of the Clyde shipyard unions in keeping Catholics out for many year is not one that  bears much scrutiny either. 

Similarly the role of the engineering unions when it came to equal pay for women, some of whom were actually (a minority of) their members!  

Even as recently as the last Labour Government, the minimum wage had far from unanimous trade union support in the belief that, while it might help the poor, it would also erode differentials.

But there is a wider issue as well. Those who are employed in the public services are, by very definition, ultimately employed by the public. So if industrial action is taken it is being taken against the public. Sometimes that is justified. Most obviously, if the public, as their employer, is not rewarding them properly for their efforts. But where the interests of the union and the interest of the public obviously conflict, then ultimately it is for politicians, as representatives of the public, to decide. 

Now it is clearly the view of the leadership of the teaching unions that if the choice facing teachers is, on the one hand, going to their work at marginal risk to their health and, on the other, staying in the house and being paid in full, then that leads to an obvious conclusion. But any suggestion that this is not a simple clash between producer interest and the public interest should be dismissed instantly. Any suggestion that the interests of children feature on the teachers side at all here should be given equal short shrift. In my first blog on this I suggested that only three children had died in Scotland as a result of Coronavirus. I got that wrong. It was only three children in the whole of the UK.

Now what's the point to all this you say?

Well, John Swinney spoke on Tuesday and Larry Flanagan on Wednesday.  Since when Swinney has not responded, caught in the headlights between listening to parents and offending (as he sees it) teachers, whose large scale conversion to independence was a significant feature of the 2014 referendum. 

Well I'd give him three pieces of advice.

Firstly, don't assume the teaching unions speak for a majority of their members but rather instead for those with the loudest voices. My own, albeit anecdotal, experience, is not not just that a majority of teachers are prepared to go back to work but that they wish to do so. 

Secondly, make an unconditional statement now that, unless the medical advice changes, the schools are re-opening on 11th August. With or without the agreement of the EIS.

Thirdly, that if the EIS disagree with that, then they had better call a strike ballot.  Because, if they don't, any physically fit teacher not at their work on 11th August isn't just not going to get paid, they are going to lose their job. 

And, by the way, the Education Recovery Group is hereby disbanded. 








Monday, 22 June 2020

J'Accuse (Part 3)

For four and a half years in the mid 2000s, I was the legal equivalent of Larry Flanagan.

As Convener of the legal aid committee of the Law Society of Scotland it was my job to negotiate with the Scottish Government over our terms and conditions. I dealt with two different Ministers. Cathy Jamieson for my own Party and Kenny MacAskill for "them". He was by light years the better Minister. 

But my job was to get the best deal for the "members" and that required me to consider who exactly these members were. For there were three different groups of members here.

The first were those who objected to my very existence. They did no legal aid work and saw no reason why I should be given office and resources to negotiate on "their" behalf. I wasn't myself being paid for this position but the research and support staff undoubtedly were. Which these objectors were paying for. I fought that battle every day, A profession should be a profession.

The second were those who, like myself, thought that Legal Aid  was an essential public service but that reform might see it delivered more effectively. Those who saw (micro politics here) that moving to a block fee system which rewarded those who did the job efficiently at the expense of those who did not, benefited not only the better lawyers but the clients themselves. They were the people who saw me through.

The third however were the lump. And it was a big lump. Those who insisted that nothing should change, ever, except that they should be paid the same, and a bit more, for an otherwise never changing system.That the purpose of Legal Aid was not to provide a service to the public but to provide a living to them. 

I went round the country on this round for four and a half years and invariably encountered the latter in significant number. I would like to think my own "but what about?" argument usually prevailed but, to be honest, that depended on the balance of those present. I certainly departed more than once with the message that "Drumsheugh Gardens" should "listen to the membership" and that I personally should resign, ringing in my ears. Except that on the train home I worked out that there were 200 members in the town of..... and that there had been 12 at the meeting. 

And that is where the EIS is, I think, tonight.

The vast majority of teachers want to get back to work. They care for the children they teach and, when parents themselves, also realise the damage being done to their own kids lives by a lack of ongoing education. They get that there is a marginal risk to their own health, but that it is, now, clearly marginal and a risk worth undertaking for the greater good.

But the EIS is not listening to them. They are listening instead to those who go to meetings to insist that malingerers should be indulged. Malingers who declaim that their going to work would endanger the life of their elderly maiden aunt without ever being asked when they last actually saw the lady in question. And, by the way, could the Union just confirm they'd still be paid in full?

Scotland is a small country. I have known Larry Flanagan since he was a Trot in my Constituency Labour Party back in the early 1980s. I still felt him a sufficient acquaintance to call in a favour on a suggested expert witness in a personal injury case a couple of years back. A call he was good enough to assist with.

But he needs to listen to the vast majority of teachers who want to go back to work, To certainly sort out the personal protection they need and insist on it, But not to let policy be dictated by the minority who would find an excuse to never go back. Until their pension can kick in. And in the meantime be prepared to go to (virtual) meetings to protest as much.  

For they are not the majority,

Call off the "holidays" and spend the next fortnight preparing to get back to work on 11th August, Then perhaps we could all stand on our doorsteps on a Thursday night and applaud the teachers. Dare I say to Larry, who I suspect knows his Lenin as well as me, and his Trotsky somewhat better, that would be the strategic move,

.






Thursday, 11 June 2020

J'Accuse (part 2).

Now, obviously the schools had to close. We had no idea of the virulence of Coronavirus back in March and it is not just with the benefit of hindsight that the schools should in truth have closed sooner. 

But why were there no national or even education authority guidelines/instructions as to the level of home support that children were to receive? The average primary school class in Scotland has 23.5 pupils. For them to be contacted individually by videolink for 30 minutes each week by their teacher is only twelve hours work? So why is that, in many cases, not happening? Not only not weekly but in many cases not at all. And, anyway, why should it only be individually anyway? There are any number of free video apps that could have been used to create virtual classrooms. There seems to be some suggestion that this might be a safeguarding issue but the logic to that would be that all schools should have high walls in case "undesirables" look in. There is also the rather pathetic "not all children have computers or tablets" argument. That's an argument for getting them computers or tablets. That's the end of the argument. 93% of all homes have internet access and I bet that includes pretty much all of them with children. My client base includes a lot of poor younger people, parents or not. When we take new client details we ask for an email address. I do not recall a recent case where the client did not have one.

And then we have the "teachers are overworked" argument. Really? Doing what? And if they are, here's an idea. Not my own but suggested to me as I worked on this. Medical and nursing students have been recruited to great utility to assist the NHS at this time. Why couldn't not just teacher training students but undergraduates intending teaching as a career have been brought in on the same basis? I bet you a pound to a penny most are more tech savvy than most teachers and even if it was only to assist with that they would have provided a valuable service. Now it is inconceivable this didn't occur to anybody else, so the logical conclusion is that some objection was found to it. That's the problem. Throughout this whole thing, it has been clear that there has been a mindset based on finding reasons things "can't" be done rather than finding ways to do them.

Which brings me to my penultimate point. Holidays.

I get that working from home is not the same as being on holiday. I've been working from home myself and while it is far from a normal workload there is still noticeably less to do at weekends.  But there has been a given throughout that the schools would be on holiday from the end of June until the middle of August. Why? Because they always are. Schools in England partially returned on 1st June for key sectors: Senior Secondary school and the very youngest and oldest of Primary pupils. Now Scotland has been about a fortnight behind England on just about everything. That's a matter for another day. Here however the argument was that there was no point in our schools going back on 15th June as the holidays were to start on 29th June.

Now, one of a variety of things could have happened with holidays. They could have been brought forward so that they ran from 1st June to mid July. Nobody was going anywhere anyway. Or they could have been pushed back so that there was a decent window after lockdown and before the holidays. That indeed might have increased the chances of children and teachers getting some sort of actual holiday. Finally, they could have been shortened either at the start or finish. Perhaps with an extended October break so that people might actually get away. There are any number of places in Southern Europe and beyond which still enjoy "holiday" weather at that time. None of this is going to happen. None of it appears even to have been contemplated. Again I ask why? Does nobody care about kids being out of school for a continuous five months? It genuinely appears not. That is a scandal.

And then finally, there is the question of the schools returning. On 1st June, the First Minister announced that there had been no new Coronavirus deaths in Scotland. That obviously has slipped back a bit but we are clearly on the right track. Later in the week Chris Musson reported that excess weekly deaths in Scotland from all causes were now only 37 more than the seasonal average. Yet, on the same day as the FM gave her welcome news, my own local authority, North Lanarkshire, in common, I understand, with others, advised that it had been decided already that on returning in August, children were only to receive ten hours a week schooling, two days a week. Beyond that their child care was their parents' problem.

There seems to have been no consultation with parents or pupils about this. It has been decided by producer interests alone. 

Now there might be a second wave and that would potentially change everything but if there isn't, here is what we now know. Coronavirus is of little risk to children. Most who get it don't even know they have. Across Scotland there have only been three deaths under 15 and our children's hospitals have had negligible admissions for Coronavirus alone. It is also not much of a risk to anybody under 60. Sure it can be a nasty illness, sometimes involving hospital admission but the chances of you dying remain slim and are getting slimmer still as treatment evolves. The argument for part time return seems to that some children might be carriers and some teachers might catch it from them and then get seriously ill or pass it on to vulnerable relatives.  

Well, I have news for you. Life during a pandemic has some risk. Indeed life has some risk at any time. If you drive on a busy road you increase the chance of having an accident. If you climb a hill you increase the chance of having a fall. If you go on an exotic holiday you increase the chance of being bitten by a snake. People apply a cost/benefit analysis to these and countless other things on a daily basis. 

Where is the cost/benefit analysis here? When was it decided that shop workers must take that risk, and binmen, and bus drivers but teachers need not? Who has considered the continuing and potentially permanent damage to children's lives from ongoing part time schooling? Who has factored in the potential employment consequences, at best financial, at worst terminal, if their parents can't work full time?

This decision needs reversed now. The assumption should be that the schools will open normally in August. The damage done to children can't be undone but future damage can still be prevented. 

Rant over.


Wednesday, 10 June 2020

J'accuse (part 1)

Foreword

I want to start by saying that in what follows I am talking about the Scottish Education because that is where I live but nothing that I say should be interpreted to imply that the English authorities have covered themselves in glory here. I choose England specifically because I am led to believe things are a bit better in N. Ireland (where the school holidays are to end early) and I simply have no idea what's happening in Wales. 

Education, Education, Education.

Education has always had a particular place in the Scottish psyche. We take rightful pride in the fact that the Act of Union guaranteed the continuation of our, already by 1707, tradition of a basic education at least for almost all. That was far from the case south of the border at that time.

And our national bard, arguably our most world famous citizen ever, derives at least some of his reputation from being an educated common man at a time where that was a rare thing elsewhere. 

You didn't need to be a Scottish nationalist to celebrate the fact that, until recently, it was accepted that the Scottish Education system was overall superior to the English one. Indeed, given the extent to which that distinction has been lost on their watch, you wonder if nationalists were the only group who didn't value it.

Nonetheless, the fact that our schools are to be completely closed for five months, the longest period anywhere in the world, is not a distinction you would have expected here. Yet that is exactly what's to happen.

And the urgency to reach that outcome, with it basically being hinted at the very day the schools closed and it being confirmed more than two months before they are now due to reopen? And the urgency to declare that, even then, they won't reopen fully? That's very strange indeed. Something to which I will return.

Schools obviously have as their basic function the education of children. But they have other important  functions too. They contribute to the physical and mental welfare of  children. All that time you spent  running about the playground as a kid wasn't just fun in itself, it was keeping you fit. And that having a daily routine of getting up on time, getting washed, getting dressed and knowing exactly where you'd be from 9am and 3.30 or 4pm?  That was doing you good as well. 

Schools also unwittingly contribute to the socialisation of children. To getting used to dealing with other children and adults outwith their own immediate family. To realising what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour in public. They are also the first environment where children have to be significantly responsible for their own welfare.

And then there are the children who need that extra help. Because of disabilities or other special needs of their own or because of difficulties in their home environment. In my work I do a fair bit of child protection work and very commonly children in this latter category are first flagged up by the school. Because their attendance, or hygiene, or nutrition, or behaviour has caused their teachers concern. Sometimes because the teacher has been the only person the child themself has felt confident to confide in.  

It's for all of the above reasons, in normal times, the system places so much importance on school attendance.

And then finally, although they are reluctant to admit it, schools also play an essential free child care role for working single parents; parents who are both in employment or parents who simply need a daily break for reasons of their own welfare. 

A diversion (of sorts)

Today, in my own job, I received a communication from my Sheriff Principal, Sheriff Principal Anwar, who has herself been fighting a different battle against a different public sector lump in her attempts to get our courts back to some kind of functioning. In it she commends written submissions in place of oral hearings wherever possible but cautions toward brevity.  I'm afraid here I cannot entirely take her advice. For to make my full point I need first to deal with how the education system has dealt with the first and undisputed objective of an education system. Education.

And my conclusion is wholly inadequately. 

The schools closed, like everything else, in a climate approaching panic. My own business got that it was coming at about a week's notice. In that week, my partners and I were a bit like rabbits in the headlights. But our trainee, Amrit, was not. He organised for us all to have remote and secure access to our office servers. He installed an app on all our phones that enabled calls to be answered remotely and reconnected remotely. Insofar as not already in place he arranged for our emails to come to our laptops. And he guided us through how to consult by clients and colleagues by Zoom.

And yet, when we left the office for the last time on 24th March, we did not appreciate that a lot of this would be, for the moment, of no use. For, instantly, there was no business. The courts were closed. The Land Registry was closed. Pretty much all of white collar public service in Scotland was closed. 

But we weren't closed. So when we realised that business would not come to us we realised that we needed to go to them.

It's not perfect but the UK Government support has been immense and, if it involves a bit of extra tax down the line, it is not just the like of lefties like me who will happily pay it.

But we didn't just say "That's us more or less paid and the furloughed staff just about paid and thanks to a grant, the rent just about paid. Let's just wait this out". No, we said, let's see what we can do to help the clients in the meantime and let's work on getting things back to, if not normal, then certainly functioning as best we can. I spoke to a client who runs a substantial painting and decorating business, still "on the tools", about 14 days in. He advised that he'd spent his time submitting quotes for business still open in the hope of securing it when circumstance allowed. Doing it himself because the guy who usually did it had been furloughed.  

But in much of education?

Nothing happened then. Nothing much has even happened now. 

I put on twitter an appeal for parents to contact me with their personal experience but then Libby Brooks of The Guardian cut in to point out that The Scottish Parent Association had already been on the job.So, I commend their work to you. This is the link  https://t.co/Oo2aGZYJKh?amp=1(Sorry but I can't workout how to create a hyperlink in "new" blogger so you'll need to cut and paste)  Anything I had written might anyway have been dismissed as atypical based on the views of my own twitter followers alone.And I accept that my twitter followers might have a particular political bent.

But I have also spoken to people. Not twitter people,  just ordinary people who I have bumped into. Or who, knowing me and knowing my intentions to write, have contacted me directly.

And in truth it has been a lottery.

I spoke to one friend. One kid in Primary, one in Secondary and one at the very end of Secondary 6. In respect of the last, he expressed frustration about the lack of information about how her four (four!) advanced Highers would be assessed but also simple regret that her school years would, for her. end this way. Forever. In respect of his boy in mid secondary, amidst reserve about how much could ever be achieved through home schooling, a recognition that the school, with daily timetables and teacher contact, was doing its very best. But in respect of his Primary kid, in one of the best Education Authorities in Scotland? Virtually nothing.  A daily email with tasks for the day but no follow up on whether they'd been done or any assessment as to whether they'd been done correctly. Now my pal and his wife, a lawyer and a doctor, can mark this themselves. Not without humour on the way."If you can't work this out for yourself, use a slide-rule" "What's a slide-rule?" As for his dad compensating for the lack of batting practice on the playing field by playing the role of Imran Khan himself in the garden and  then ending up needing medical treatment himself?  But few kids are as fortunate. 

And then another pal with a bright kid? Five highers to be attempted next year. Contacted regularly by some subject teachers. By others? Not at all. Since 23rd March, not at all.. During which time, a point I make not for the first or last time, all of these teachers have been paid in full.

I could carry on but I'll just finish with one further example. Somebody who works beside me. A daughter in Primary 3. Virtually no contact from the school at at all since 23rd March except to say that they won't be back to normal (even) on 11th August. So child care remains with her beyond that date. Now, the woman involved, in her particular role, can work from home. Albeit, with childcare responsibilities during the day, that will involve working in the evening. So she'll be fine (of sorts). But suppose she was a receptionist? That if we were harder employers? That, if anything other than nine till five employment  meant no employment at all?. While those responsible for this sat in the house doing nothing while being paid in full? That would be a scandal.

It is 10 O'Clock and I am in court at 9am so enough for tonight.


Saturday, 6 June 2020

Institutional Failure

I want to start by saying something that might surprise you. The number of deaths in Scottish care homes is a scandal and Nicola Sturgeon's attempts to excuse it by inventing her own facts about English care homes is a disgrace but.............I have considerable sympathy for Jeane Freeman.

Both the UK and Scottish Government's were too slow to react to the Coronavirus. By early March however it was clear a crisis was coming. Quite what its scale would be was the great unknown. How many would catch it? How many would become seriously ill? How many would need hospitalisation? How many would die? 

What was known, even then, was that at the European epicentre of the outbreak at that time, in Lombardy, the hospitals were being overrun. There were more patients than beds. And the fear was that his might happen here.

So it made perfect sense to try and free up hospital beds. And perfect sense to try and free up beds by relocating those who were in hospital but did not require to be there for the purpose of treatment but simply because they were unfit to go directly home.

Suppose that hadn't been done? Suppose the disease had proved even more life threatening than it has? Suppose that people, who might have survived, started dying as they could not get a hospital bed? Because beds were occupied by those who didn't need to be there? 

That would have been a scandal even beyond that which has actually happened. 

So clearing beds was an absolutely justified priority. Deciding that where their occupants should best go (the practice in normal times) needed to take second place to their simply going somewhere.

So when Ms Freeman signed off on buying care home places in bulk? Absolutely right.

And while I do not have sight of the executive advice that followed, I am reasonably certain that it was to the effect that "Any patient who can be safely discharged should be discharged". 

But it wasn't for the health minister to take a crash course on the medical qualification that would have qualified her to define the word "safely". That was then delegated to officials. It was surely for them to decide if discharging patients without them having first had a coronavirus test still met the requirements of that word? 

Now, perhaps, but I very much doubt it, officials advised the Minister that, to comply with her imperative, patients would need discharged without tests,whatever the consequence, and she replied "go ahead anyway".If that happened, Hell mend her. But I suspect that's not what happened. She was never asked that question, at least until much of the damage was done. The policy was correct. Its execution was not. That's not a failure of Government at a political level. It is institutional failure.

And that is going to be my theme here. That, in this crisis, the Scottish Government might well mainly have performed quite well at a political level but it has fundamentally failed at an institutional level.

And before I move on to other examples, I want to defend (up to a point) Ms Freeman once again. On tracing. 

If I had been the Scottish Health Minister,I'd have happily signed up to tracing being a UK responsibility. But Ms Freeman (at least in current incarnation) is a Nationalist. So she wanted a Scottish scheme. And, indeed, when the UK Government announced they were recruiting 15,000 tracers, we announced we'd be recruiting 2,000 of our own. Petty, but fair enough in their own terms. 
Except that when it was announced the UK had 13,500 tracers in post, the press then revealed that we had none at all!

Now again, do I think Ms Freeman did not want tracers recruited? That she made a public statement on the subject and then forgot to do anything else about it? I don't think that for the moment. She told her officials to get on with it and, not unreasonably, assumed that they were getting on with it. Nobody expected her to conduct individual job interviews. I suspect that she was surprised as the rest of us to learn from the newspapers that actual recruitment hadn't even started. Again, that wasn't political failure, it was institutional failure.  

But enough of health. Let's look at some other areas. Let's start with volunteering.

Shortly after the lockdown, the UK Government set up a volunteering scheme to help the NHS and other public services. Within 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of people had signed up.Including tens of thousands in Scotland. Except that the UK Government hadn't made it clear that they could only operate this scheme in England. Now, yet again, a non nationalist administration here would just have said, "Pass their names on". They were, after all,  people volunteering to help during a national emergency. You'd have thought even the SNP wouldn't prioritise making a xenophobic point over endangering people's lives. But if you did, you'd be misunderstanding the nationalist mindset. 

Nonetheless, I have no doubt the nationalists wanted there to be a Scottish scheme. Indeed they eventually had one. The key word is "eventually". 

When they knocked back the "English" scheme, the instructions to officials wasn't difficult. "This is "their" scheme. Revisit it. Insert "Scottish" and "Scotland" as appropriate wherever possible.. Set up a website. Get on the phone to NHS Scotland and tell them to get back to you by 5pm tomorrow as to how these people might best be utilised".

If had set that task to my trainee, I would have been disappointed if he had not accomplished it within 36 hours. 

In fact,it took the best part of three weeks. I'm not going to waste time checking the exact chronology but my feeling is that from lockdown to the UK scheme being announced took less time than from the UK scheme being announced until the Scottish one followed. During which time a huge amount of momentum was lost. I had a journalist pal trying to get figures on comparative numbers of volunteers but, such was the obfuscation of the Scottish Government on comparable numbers, he eventually gave up.

Now, the decision not simply to go with the UK scheme? That was a political decision with which I disagree. But the delay on there being a Scottish scheme? That, again, was institutional failure.

I need to speed up. 

Schools. At an early stage it was just accepted that our schools would be closed for five months. That is not happening anywhere else in the UK. Or indeed the world. Closing schools ruin lives. But whatever. Teachers need their holidays. If there were still to be six weeks Summer holiday, why haven't they started now and be planned to end in mid July? Sure,a lack of political will, but was any other option except continuous closure ever put to Ministers? I sense, again, institutional failure. 

Justice. (Declaring an interest, don't even get me started). I could choose any number of examples but, I ask non lawyers doing this daily, is there anywhere, except our sheriff courts, where you still can't do video conferencing? Or, I ask lawyers, is there anywhere else in the mainland UK where there are still no jury trials? And the time it took to devise an early release scheme for low risk prisoners? Again the, particularly useless, Minister doesn't help, but still, even he wasn't even given options! Institutional failure.

Local Government support. I get, I really do, that precise figures need properly calculated but no payments to account? And, anyway, how long does it take to work out precise figures? Institutional failure.

Business support. Again, we could have gone with the UK Scheme, but didn't. Because,in truth, our current administration hates UK schemes. However, even in their stated reservations, it was because the English scheme missed out fish farms. So how long did it take to sort this out? And then after it was announced, so inadequate that it required to be substantially revised  via a press statement issued in the middle of the night. Demonstrating a level of incompetence which I am sure was not the intended objective of the political administration. In this case you certainly can't say the Minister is either stupid or lazy or insouciant. But it would be unrealistic to expect her alone to produce the details of the scheme. Again this was an institutional failure..

Our democracy. The absurdities of Rees-Mogg insisting on personal attendance at Westminster to vote? A given. So obviously MSPs can vote remotely? Well, actually, no. Because that's not quite yet been organised. Since March 23rd (March 23rd!), it has not been organised, Despite us having the initial advantage over Westminster in terms of electronic voting in the chamber. Do I think even the SNP want that? No I don't. Institutional failure in spades.  Just as was the fact that, within two months of passing the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, we required a Coronavirus No.2 (Scotland) Act to do lots of things that had been overlooked the first time.

Before closing I'd also make the point that not all levels of government in Scotland have failed.  With a few minor hiccups, local government has performed competently and on occasions heroically throughout. HMRC have also played a blinder in delivering the furlough and self employed support schemes.

When this is over, all of this needs to be calmly analysed. Not least to advance their own principal project, the SNP would benefit from a better functioning permanent administration. The last thing they need is for "Scottish" to become synonymous with "worse".  Politicians can't do this themselves. But they can ensure that people and structures are in place which can. Let that be one of the lasting lessons of this crisis.