Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

I've decided, perhaps because I've had very little else to say over the past couple of weeks, to jump on the bandwagon and talk about the apology that shook the world. Well, the apology that gave me a sense of relief at the very least. I am, of course, talking about Nick Clegg's apology for signing the tuition fees pledge.

This video was extremely cathartic for me. Despite my ever growing ability to rattle off the list of manifesto pledges we've delivered like some kind of puppet mouthing a mantra, not to mention defending the decision to break the pledge on occasion, in my heart I still felt betrayed over fees.

It wasn't the fact that we'd raised tuition fees that really got to me. I'm idealistic enough to believe in an education system that's free for all and focussed on bettering the species rather than bettering careers, but realistic enough to know that this isn't going to happen without a massive shift in both public and mainstream political opinion. The problem I had was that when we did this we did so in a way that felt totally reminiscent of the Tories and Labour.

Political common sense should have suggested to me that this was the right way to do things. Don't express regret or distate as the red tops will destroy you. In fact friends of mine have said exactly the same thing when I've bemoaned the seeming friendliness and ease with which we've worked with "our coalition partners". In my heart of hearts though, I've always felt a sense of dissonance, because the human being in me wants to see our politicians remember that they are part of the species.

What Nick Clegg did with his video was show that he hasn't forgotten what it is to be human. We can all understand a reasoned argument most of the time, but sometimes we just want someone to say "I'm sorry" as well, and that's what Nick did. It may have been political spin, but to me it was based on a better understanding of human nature than most other politicians in Parliament have shown in my lifetime. 

It's this that has made me feel immense relief. I can at last go forward knowing that our MPs may be doing things that I don't wholeheartedly endorse or can barely stomach, as well as the great things that I won't bother listing here, but that they are at least retaining some sense of humanity whilst they do it.

In my view, both Labour and the Tories have failed to do this during their spells in government over the past 33 years. It is though something that I believe we must do if we are to come out of the coalition with any vestige of our former strength. Nick Clegg's video gives me hope that this is not only possible but is actually highly likely. I'll say I'm sorry now if that sounds a bit naive.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Public Sector - Cash cow for those who won't get proper jobs?

I received an e-mail this week that talked about pay restraint in the public sector. The terminology was hilarious because, with inflation the way it is and despite increases in tax allowances, public sector workers are having their pay cut. A 0% rise when (as of July) CPI stands at 2.6% and RPI is at 3.2% cannot be described as anything but a public sector pay cut.

The premise for cutting public sector pay is, on the face of it, deficit reduction. We as a nation have to live within our means after all, and freezing pay limits the number of jobs being cut. It has also been suggested that public sector pay is higher than that of the private sector, so freezing pay can address that balance too. Furthermore, it is the private sector that funds the public sector through taxation, so restraint is fair to the private sector (again taken from the email I received). So what'd the problem, you might wonder. The problem is that this argument ignores certain facts.

Firstly, this argument ignores the reasons why pay is higher in the public sector. The public sector, according to the ONS, is made up of a higher proportion of higher skilled (and so higher paid) jobs than the private sector. Public sector workers also tend to be more experienced and older, meaning their pay has risen historically. If you have a degree or are in senior position, however, you can expect to be paid less in the public sector. Public sector pay restraint isn't therefore addressing an imbalance, it is actually creating one. I wonder if it will also effect gender pay balances, as women tend to be paid more in the public sector as a higher proportion fulfil skilled roles.

The second problem is that public sector workers don't simply exist because of the largess of the private sector. The public sector exists to support society. It isn't a cash cow for those who don't want to work in the private sector. Without a public sector we would have to personally fund everything from policing our streets to healing our sick. These kinds of jobs are high stress and high risk in some cases. The people that do them choose to help others. These are the last people you'd want to be worrying about low wages when they should be doing their jobs. If they were in a private sector system they'd probably be paid quite a bit more, but their services wouldn't be anywhere near as universal as they are now. I also wonder is they'd be vilified quite so much in the media by politicians.

The final problem is the structure of the public sector. I once read a report that said that, as a percentage, the number of managers in the NHS had gone up faster than the number of doctors and nurses under New Labour. I also know for a fact that 45% of the income at some FE providers is top-sliced to pay for non-teaching staff. When only just over half of your public funds are being used to do the job on the front line, you know there's a problem. The reason for this seems to me to be the endless targets and bureaucracy that Government has been obsessed with over the past 15 years. When I was teaching, between 2008 and 2012, you spent nearly as much time explaining yourself to managers and recording evidence in triplicate for OFSTED, funding bodies and exam boards as you did planning the lessons you were ostensibly there to teach. This represented a massive waste of public funds in my view.

So, is there a point to all this? I guess the point is this. If we have to contract the public sector to cut the deficit then let's not couch it in deceit and misuse of language. Public sector pay is being cut, not restrained. Working in the public sector is going to mean worse pay than working in the private sector as a result. Jobs that involve caring for, nurturing and protecting the public will not pay well in the future. We might be able to keep pay levels a little higher for front line staff in the public sector if we are willing to cut bureaucracy and sack more back room staff like managers. Either way, if you have a degree, you're going to be even better off in the private sector than you are now.

When a senior politician can say that out loud we'll have made some progress as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Sunday Trading Post Olympiad

I found myself pondering the issue of Sunday trading this morning thanks to BBC Breakfast. With that in mind, laid about below are a few of my thoughts and observations on the subject.

The news story I watched made the point that the current extension of opening hours, as an experiment, wasn't complete yet. To  my mind there is a further issue. I haven't observed any reaction from local public transport providers to the extension in opening hours, meaning the number of additional shoppers has probably been restricted. If there is to be an experiment in extending opening hours then it needs to be coupled with changes to public transport to facilitate access to town centres.

One of the guests on the programme suggested that it should be up to the public to decide when they wish to shop. Despite the fact that the individual had a vested interest in saying this, I totally agree. I am not an atheist and have no real axe to grind with religion, but I do not think religion should have explicit say in how this country is governed, or when we can shop. I also question whether it is likely that potential church attendees will be prevented from attending by the chance to visit their local supermarket. No BOGOF deal in the world is so good that it would have people rushing from church, even if they wanted to be there.

The small business owner on the programme suggested we should retain Sunday trading laws as small businesses will suffer due to unfair competition. He was right that small businesses are unfairly treated in our high streets but, for me, he had the solution wrong. It seems to me that high rental prices, overheads and wholesale costs are the issue here. Therefore, it would seem to me, that these are what need to be tackled to help small businesses survive and grow. I've also noticed that many local small businesses are closed on Sundays and so wouldn't be negatively effected in any way by large companies trading.

My suggestion on the subject of Sunday trading is this. Firstly, let's do some proper research into Sunday trading by finding out if the public want it and then, if they do, experimenting throughout one or two district council areas in partnership with local public transport providers. Secondly, if that works, in the sense that companies wish to continue to remain open and footfall is good, then lets go national with it. Thirdly, let's tackle the real issues that are preventing small businesses from competing, rather than simply hoping we can prevent big companies from attempting to muscle in.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Mental Health and Kent's Councils

One of the things I quickly discovered about being a trade union rep for my old employer was the fact that Policy and Procedure are everything. You could terrify a middle manager with the right reference to this policy or that procedure and you could find good people being made to suffer for not dotting an I or crossing a T.

One of the positive things about this was the fact that in the main, if you could get the top brass to put it in writing, policy was a good guide as to how you would be treated and a good defence if you were treated badly. I didn't always agree with the policy, of course, and often got sideswiped by it too. What it gave, though, was an idea of issues that had been thought about and considered by my employer.

My employer had a pretty thorough set of health related policies, for example, which pleased me no end. Although I can't recall if every one was enacted, there was a sickness/absence policy, a policy for addiction/abuse and a policy for work-related stress, along with recognition of specific health issues within equality policies. The aim of these was in the main to be supportive, but with the threat of more firm action if the relevant staff member didn't play ball.

One policy, which affects around 1 in 5 people, was conspicuously absent however. The policy in question was a mental health policy. Whilst mental health was perhaps partially covered by the other health related policies, the lack of a stand alone policy was something I found disturbing given that mental health issues are so prevalent in the UK. Before I left, I did say that I would try to draft one myself, using others for guidance, but I must admit to that still being a work in progress.

I don't know if my former employer has plans to enact a mental health policy, irrespective of whether I finish writing one for them, but I must admit to a curiosity about the prevalence of such policies. I found a number online to use as crib materials, but didn't find many locally. So, given my curiosity and my ever so slight politics addiction, I decided to turn my gaze on our local councils by e-mailing each one to find out the lay of the land. 

The response I got will probably come as no surprise to most. I sent the e-mail last Wednesday so not everyone has spotted it yet, including the mighty KCC, but every response so far has been a big fat NO. To be specific, Shepway, Dartford, Medway, Gravesham, Tonbridge & Malling, Dover, Swale and Sevenoaks Councils all lack a Mental Health policy. Given the prevalence of shared HR services in Kent, I expect that figure to grow. 

Why does this matter, I suspect comes to mind. There are three major reasons why I think this matters. Firstly, mental health issues affect a huge number of people. They cost businesses and the public sector a huge amount of money and that needs to be managed. Secondly, people with mental health issues are subject to stigma and discrimination. Discrimination and fear are damaging to the well-being of any workforce, and can be catastrophic for individuals. Thirdly, people with mental health issues need support and understanding. Whilst a policy doesn't create or engender this, its presence can be a starting point. 

So, I've discovered that many Kent councils lack a mental health policy. Some, to be fair, had considered mental health within existing policy and others had training in place for staff. It seems to me, however, that if we are to improve the nation's mental health and improve recovery rates from mental ill health, as set out by the "No Health without Mental Health" strategy document, then we must first recognise the key role that employers have to play in doing so. For me, stand-alone mental health policies within large employers are a key starting point for this. Here's hoping local councils, and colleges, agree with me.