Political parties set for taxing times ahead

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_M_Orr

Having taken some time to fully digest the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which outlines the 16 Bills that will be taken forward over the coming year it is clear that while grandiose in its ambitions, some measures in the legislative programme are not quite as radical as first appears.

Some of the aims that have won praise are rather vague in their aspirations. There is a promise to “fund research into the concept and feasibility of a Citizen’s Income”, or Universal Basic Income as it is more normally called.

Green groups called this the ‘greenest’ programme ever, welcoming the pledge to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032. The Scottish Government however doesn’t actually have the power to ban petrol and diesel. A promise was also made to “promote” the use of ultra-low emission vehicles, with a ‘target’ of phasing out polluting vehicles eight years before.

However, with independence on back burner – it is the first SNP programme since 2011 that did not focus on a referendum – and following the General Election losses, it appears that the SNP is now firmly re-focusing on the day job and looking to regain lost momentum.

There were firm commitments made in the programme, enough ‘red meat’ to put the Scottish Government back on track after its set-back of the General Election where it lost 21 MPs. There is also enough in these measures that can be embraced by all parties across the political spectrum.

There is to be a new Climate Change Bill; a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans; free sanitary products; an extension of free personal care to under 65s, and a lifting of the pay cap for public sector workers.

As part of the commitment to closing the poverty related attainment gap, an Education bill will be the centrepiece of the legislative programme, freeing head-teachers from Council control, sounding rather like a Tory policy.

It is however the issue of tax that has caused the most furore and drawn the newspaper headlines, detonating the heart of the Scottish political debate. The First Minister announced the launch of a discussion paper on the use of income tax in Scotland to support public services, calling for an honest debate on the “progressive” use of Holyrood’s tax powers.

Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, smelled blood and the potential of a broken election promise. In its manifesto for the 2016 election the SNP noted that “we will freeze the Basic Rate if Income Tax throughout the next parliament to protect those on low and middle incomes”.  Ms Davidson proclaimed that the “SNP is coming for the paycheck of everyone earning less than £43,000”.

This is dangerous ground for the SNP and voters have better memories for promises broken than promises met. Hence, the cross-party appeal to hear their ideas on tax and co-operate on the budget, spreading any potential fallout.

As the Tories want Scottish tax rates static or cut they are out of the equation, but there is support from the other parties for such a debate on tax rates. Ms Sturgeon wants to force Labour, and the Lib Dems, who have been urging her to use Holyrood’s new income tax powers, to put their money where their mouths are.

As we mark 20 years of the referendum that created the Scottish Parliament, there is ongoing questioning of delivering further devolution to Holyrood, given that it is not seen to use the powers it currently has. A move on tax would clearly address this.

With fortunes on the turn, Ms Sturgeon knows that she needs to be more radical, and she knows that passing Bills at the current rate of four a year won’t cut this, nor will tweaking services with the same old Budgets.

If tax is to go up to fund long-term change, she is clearly looking to make this a cross-party issue with other non-Tory parties, pre-empting charges of electoral dishonesty.

The onus is now on the opposition parties to decide whether to back her minority administration, or back the Conservatives and sack her.

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School’s out for summer

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Sarah Robertson, Account Executive:  LinkedIn

Yesterday (29th June) was the last FMQs of this school year and as of today our MSPs are off on an enviably long summer break. So, what better time than now to look back on the last 12 months and see what an end of term political report card might look like.

The wider political world’s record over the past 12 months consists of U-turns galore, plenty of pre-Brexit peacocking, the (unfortunate) meteoric rise of a certain Mr Trump who has singlehandedly saved Twitter’s stock from circling the drain, and a Jeremy Corbyn speech that drew the biggest crowd to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage since the Rolling Stones in 2013.

The Scottish Government has faced some testing times during which Ms Sturgeon, as always, has remained personable. Maybe that’s why Nicola-bot just isn’t quite as catchy as May-bot. Over the last 12 months our First Minister has come across as, dare I say it, strong and stable in increasingly fractious and uncertain times. That being said, her record closer to home might not look so shiny.

The loss of the SNP’s majority certainly brought a new dynamic to Scottish politics and Ms Sturgeon’s government regularly received a bloody nose from opposition benches on issues such as education and healthcare.

Opposition parties have highlighted Nicola’s pledge made back in 2015 to put closing the attainment gap front and centre. Last year she made John Swinney, her most trusted minister, Cabinet Secretary for Education to prove to sceptics that she was serious. However, the Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems have found it relatively easy to throw punches at the government, drawing on Scotland’s sliding literacy and numeracy standards, our widening – not closing – attainment gap, as well as the delayed Education Bill.

On healthcare, the issue of low and stagnated pay has bitten the government where it hurts, and long waiting times for things like access to mental health services have proved troublesome hurdles for the SNP administration to navigate. While over the years these issues have been rumbling in the background, it seems they have begun to come to a head and the public have started to ask, with all the extra powers the Scottish Government now has, why things aren’t improving.

A glaring blemish on the SNP’s report card, and something that Nicola will no doubt be reflecting on over the summer holidays, is her party’s loss of 21 seats in the General Election. There is no doubt that this result has influenced her U-turn on indyref2 and it is evident there is growing doubt amongst party ranks as to whether Independence, for now, is a good idea.

Only yesterday, on the last day of term, a report by the Fraser of Allander Institute said Scotland’s economy is “likely to continue to lag behind the UK.” While opposition parties have used this to berate the government, and ministers have said the fundamentals of the Scottish economy remain strong, it is clear that whatever side of the political spectrum you sit, the summer probably won’t be the relaxing break some had hoped. Will any of the party leaders take Alice Cooper’s words literally? I can think of one south of the border who might.

“Out for summer, out for fall. We might not go back at all.”

Lies, damn lies and political predictions

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Like most pollsters, pundits and political types that have been talking on TV all night and into the early hours I should start this piece by admitting it is entirely likely that what I am about to say is entirely wrong!  I certainly was with my predictions about this election.

I will leave others to talk about the implications of the UK-wide results beyond saying Theresa May will surely go down in history as having committed the biggest act of political suicide in history – or at least since the one her predecessor made a little over a year ago!

For those of us working in public affairs in Scotland who were looking forward to a period without elections after a total of 6 votes in 3 years, with more opportunity to focus on policy issues which matter most to our clients, this seems a forlorn hope.  it is almost impossible to imagine any party governing for anything close to the full 5 years of a Parliament so a further General Election is surely on the cards – the only question is when!

In Scotland, the story of the night will clearly be the fall of the SNP vote and their loss of seats, in particular the loss of high profile figures from their traditional base in rural areas of Scotland such as Angus Robertson, their former leader at Westminster and Alex Salmond, former First Minister.  Those wins for the Conservatives, along with wins in areas such as Stirling and Aberdeenshire signal a clear return for the party to areas of Scotland which were former strongholds in the 1990s and before.  The role of the Scottish MPs could in fact be critical in a UK context and it would be a supreme irony if those MPs make the difference which keep the party in control of Downing Street.  Either way, the result for the party is certainly not something that anyone would have predicted a few years ago and will put an end to the jokes about numbers of Tory MPs and Pandas.

The other story of the night is the extent to which Labour has also drastically over-performed expectations.  Whilst the party was expecting to hold Ian Murray’s seat in Edinburgh South, as well as perhaps winning in East Lothian, they achieved that and a lot more besides, returning MPs from their own traditional heartlands, including winning seats back in Glasgow.  This certainly gives the party a platform and credibility to continue to rebuild.  The difficulty for the Scottish party now will be the extent to which their success may or may not have been down to Jeremy Corbyn, who was opposed by Kezia Dugdale.  It is likely that hatchets will be buried in that regard in the short term at least but it does present a future problem for the party.

For the SNP, it must feel like a disappointing and frustrating night full of contradictions.  They have achieved their second best ever result in a Westminster election and have some right to claim they have “won” the General Election in Scotland.  They also could not ever have been expected to repeat their exceptional result from 2 years ago when they won 56 out of the 59 seats but the scale of their losses will surely have surprised most in the party.

Although Nicola Sturgeon’s position is under no immediate threat, with so many experienced defeated former MPs, particularly from rural areas, able to snipe from the sidelines should they choose, the First Minister could face a rocky period.  Alex Salmond indicated in his concession speech that he isn’t planning on staying quiet in the future.  The First Minister will need to consider a rethink to her long-term strategy to balance the desire of many in her base support for a quick second independence referendum, whilst trying to win back SNP voters which have been lost in this election precisely because they do not want such a vote anytime soon.

It appears that any thoughts of such a referendum will be off the table at least in the short to medium term but the First Minister will face a struggle to hold together the very broad SNP coalition – will she be forced to decide if the party is an urban one or a rural one?

The other question for the SNP is what role they will now try to carve out for themselves at Westminster?  They have offered to support a Labour Government but surely the price you would expect them to demand, a second independence referendum, is perhaps a gift they don’t actually want at the moment as if this election result has taught us anything it is that voters take a dim view of unnecessary elections and tend to react accordingly, as one Mrs T. May seems to have discovered!

So, there will certainly be plenty to talk about at the next PubAffairs event next week which Orbit are delighted to sponsor.  It will take place from 6pm on Wednesday 14 June at Hemma in Holyrood Road so I hope you will come along.  Between us we might even be able to make some sense of what has happened and have a guess at what might happen next!

This election will impact on Scottish housing

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Annie Mauger, Executive Director, Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland, @CIHScotland

With control of housing policy devolved to Holyrood, voters with a priority interest in Scotland’s future housing landscape could be forgiven for thinking this Thursday’s general election is of limited relevance to them. Key policies such as affordable housing targets, the integration of health and social care, planning and land reform are all areas where the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and, in some cases, Scotland’s 32 local authorities take the lead.

So why should Scottish housing professionals and others with a keen interest in housing take the time to scrutinise general election manifestos and interrogate the policies of their local general election candidates before voting this week?

In fact, there are many areas of policy with a major impact on housing that remain reserved to Westminster. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of welfare policy. Despite recent reforms that have seen some aspects of welfare policy devolved to Holyrood, there are still significant aspects of welfare where Westminster has the final say. Furthermore, we are still currently in a state of transition as responsibility for certain aspects of welfare policy is transferred to the Scottish Parliament. This means, for instance, that far-reaching UK Government reforms to welfare policy such as the roll-out of Universal Credit are having – and will continue to have – a direct effect on the availability, accessibility and affordability of housing in Scotland.

In particular, CIH Scotland has recently highlighted the negative social impact and spiralling costs of implementing Universal Credit in Scotland. CIH Scotland members have reported to us a substantial increase in rent arrears as a result of delayed payments. Social landlords have been forced to commit substantial internal resources to support tenants with their claims while demand for financial support from alternative sources such as the Scottish Welfare Fund and referrals to food banks are also on the rise. We have also seen an increasing reluctance by private landlords to let property to Universal Credit claimants. These multiple problems of implementation are something the next UK Government – whatever its political colour – will have to confront and resolve.

More recent research has also highlighted the negative impact of proposals by the UK Government to cap Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit for social housing tenants at LHA rates. This means that single people under 35 years of age will see their allowance capped at the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) with the result that around 21,000 younger social tenants in Scotland could collectively face a rent affordability gap of up to £22.6 million per year.

These are just two examples of policy areas where the actions of a future UK Government will have a real and direct impact on the Scottish housing sector. Anyone interested in Scotland’s future housing landscape should therefore consider carefully the implications for Scottish housing of this Thursday’s general election. Having done so, I hope that most will realise just how important it is to go out and vote.

Annie Mauger is Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland.

This article first appeared in Inside Housing.

Andrew Hall: Digital delivers in our classrooms

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Sumdog CEO Andrew Hall

This week marks National Digital Learning Week, an initiative organised by Education Scotland that aims to show how the use of digital technology can enhance learning and teaching, raise attainment and equip young people with important skills for the modern world of work. This year’s theme is “Digital Difference”, with teachers invited to share and celebrate the digital approaches that make a real difference in the classroom.

Coinciding with Digital Learning Week 2017, Sumdog has organised Scotland’s first ever nationwide online maths contest. Over 2000 individual classes from more than 500 schools across the length and breadth of Scotland are signed up to take part. Pupils work together as a class to answer correctly as many maths questions as they can over the period of the contest, which closes tomorrow. The overall winning class will be announced at a special event in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, May 24.

Sumdog is an education technology social enterprise headquartered in the west end of Edinburgh. Used in 88 countries worldwide, our game-based learning system is specifically designed to improve skills and attainment in maths and literacy and is carefully aligned to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. It uses educational games to motivate students in maths, reading and writing.

Sumdog’s unique learning engine gets to know each student, leading them through the curriculum while enabling their teacher to monitor their progress and target help where it’s most needed. With each new skill they master through Sumdog, pupils can earn rewards. The virtual pets they adopt can learn fun new tricks and each correct answer earns a virtual coin which can be spent in Sumdog’s on-screen store.

Most importantly of all, Sumdog is having a meaningful impact on addressing educational attainment in half of all Scottish schools where it is now regularly used. A recent study in Glasgow Council schools shows the huge potential of digital tools like Sumdog. Over a period of six months, the study found that those pupils using Sumdog at least one hour per week progressed three times faster in improving their maths than those who used it very little or not at all.

With a majority of pupils participating in the Glasgow study coming from areas of high deprivation, there is strong evidence that digital tools like Sumdog can make a serious contribution towards meeting the Scottish Government’s mission to close the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived backgrounds.

With digital tools making an increasingly important contribution to modern teaching practices in our schools, National Digital Learning Week is a great opportunity to share positive experiences and to encourage the wider use of digital technology to enhance teaching and improve learning outcomes.

To find out more about National Digital Learning Week, visit http://www.digilearn.scot.

Read more at: http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/opinion/andrew-hall-digital-delivers-in-our-classrooms-1-4447242

Let’s empower our learning disabled to lead on change

People with additional needs are helping to make their services and communities better says James Fletcher, director of the Association for Real Change Scotland (ARC)

People with additional needs are helping to make their services and communities better says James Fletcher, director of the Association for Real Change Scotland (ARC)

This week is learning disability awareness week with the theme ‘looking back, thinking forward.’ To mark this, members of the National Involvement Network, a group of over 80 people with learning disabilities or support needs, have decided to hold a unique event in Glasgow called “Hear our voice; 10 years of leading change in our services and communities.’

The event will planned and delivered entirely by people with additional needs with support from ARC Scotland and will be attended by over 180 people who can help shape the future of social care in Scotland.

It will celebrate the remarkable achievements of the members of the National Involvement Network in becoming leaders of change, and highlight their ground-breaking publication the Charter for Involvement.

The Charter for Involvement sets out in their own words how they want to be involved in decisions made about their services and communities.  It does this in a practical and straightforward way that can be understood by everybody.

It avoids the jargon and over-complication that is often introduced by professionals and is a barrier to meaningful involvement and co-production.

Their work has become part of the DNA of Scotland’s social care sector and has already helped to improve the lives of hundreds of supported people across the country.  At this week’s event, a further three organisations will formally commit to putting the Charter into practice- bringing the total to over 50 organisations that are now doing this.

This is making a real difference to work practice and culture within social care organisations and health and social care partnerships in areas such as staff recruitment, training, policy-making and governance.

It is telling that over the past year, members of the National Involvement Network have chosen to focus their attention on speaking with people who have communication difficulties about their experiences of living in their communities.  They have developed a specialised ‘Talking Mats’ framework to do this, and some have undergone training to use it.

Through this work they have helped people to connect with their community resources, such as church and cinema and to express ways in which the support they receive can be improved.

For the members of the National Involvement Network, learning disability awareness week is an opportunity to celebrate their remarkable achievements over the past 10 years.

Lynnette Linton, Chair of the National Involvement Network said “We would like delegates attending the conference to learn what involvement means from the point of view of people who receive support. We hope they will be inspired and motivated to find new ways to hear and include the voices of people who use support services.”

The event is also an opportunity to look to the future and consider how supported people themselves can help social care organisations and the communities they work in to address and adapt to the very real challenges they face.

Learning form the experience of people who receive support (and those who need it but don’t get it) must surely be the foundation for informing the changes still to come within this sector. As Lynnette Linton put it, ‘In future involvement won’t be special, it will just be natural.’

Fortunately, there is a willingness amongst many people to share their experiences in and contribute to finding solutions to sometimes complex issues, such as budget cuts and managing risk.

This valuable resource has yet to be fully realised. To do this, people tell us they must first feel listened to and respected, and to clearly understand how their views will influence the decisions being made.

Meaningful involvement and co-production takes time to do properly, will not always give the answers that are hoped for and may challenge professional assumptions.  However the result is support and community services that are centred around the people that use them.

By this time next year the National Involvement Network aim to have 100 organisations signed up to the Charter for Involvement, and to extend their work to communities out-with the central belt.

 

Council election a sign of things to come as the constitution continues to dominate

Orbit Communications - Alex Orr 01
Managing Director, Alex Orr, @Alex_m_orr

The votes are in and counted and 1,227 councillors have been elected across 353 wards in 32 local authorities. The dust has now begun to settle and the horse-trading as to who will run these administrations is well underway.

It was the SNP who clearly won these local elections. They have more councillors, 431, and are the largest party in half of Scotland’s councils. The Tories scored big, making significant gains, increasing their number by 164 from 2012 to 276 councillors. Labour slipped back badly, losing 133 councillors to stand at 262. Indeed, the Conservatives have leapfrogged Labour in terms of councillor numbers and can also be counted as winners, in terms of momentum.

In terms of numbers, there have been boundary changes which mean that some comparisons are made with “notional” outcomes in 2012, the last time these councils were contested. On that count, the SNP performed at the lower level of expectations are notionally down by a fractional seven seats. However, in terms of absolute numbers, the SNP have ended up with more councillors than in 2012. Plus the SNP are the largest party in Scotland’s four largest cities – including Glasgow, where jubilant supporters attended their ousting of Labour.

The Conservatives registered gains pretty well everywhere in Scotland, more than doubling their number of councillors and are the largest party in six councils – Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Perth and Kinross, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire, without taking charge of any council. Indeed, Scotland is now No Overall Control territory – with the exception of the Highlands and Islands where the Independents hold sway.

You knew it was going to be a good day for Ruth Davidson’s party when they picked up a Council seat in Gordon Brown’s backyard of Cowdenbeath and other previous no-go areas such as the Highlands, where they picked up seats for the first-time in 22 years and Glasgow, where they picked up seven seats, including a councillor in Shettleston, one of Scotland’s most deprived communities.

The Liberal Democrats mostly held steady – although, sometimes, that was from a decidedly low existing base. But they drew attention to relatively good results in areas where they have Westminster election hopes. The Greens added seats.

The results further reinforce the fact that it is the independence question that dictates Scottish voting behaviour, with every election now see through the prism of the constitutional question.

Ms Davidson led a campaign that was unashamedly about stopping the SNP’s drive for a referendum rather than about local issues. It was inevitable given this that it was the Conservatives who were set to make strong gains, at the expense of both the SNP and to a greater extent the Labour Party. The Tories are now firmly positioned as the main opposition to a second independence referendum.

It is inevitable that these voting patterns will again dominate the General Election, although with a different result because of the first-past-the-post system used at Westminster, which is likely to see the SNP emerge as the clear winners.

Until it is off the table every future election in Scotland – council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster – will be dominated by the constitutional question, the very situation those who voted Conservative wanted to avoid.