Archive for July, 2010

Jack Straw’s future and its implications for unions

Friday 30 July 2010

Shadow Justice Secretary (and shadow deputy prime minister, which is why he has a go at Nick Clegg at the despatch box sometimes) Jack Straw will not stand for the Shadow Cabinet this autumn, and will pursue other interests instead, I heard this week. When I asked a friend if he had any jobs lined up, he replied: “Yeah – on the backbenches.” So that’s pretty clear I guess.

This has implications. Jack Straw was one of the obstacles to a cross-party agreement on reform of the funding of political parties, when Labour was in power. The sticking point was donations from trade unions; Straw’s white paper on party funding protected it, and he didn’t budge on it in talks. The Tories wanted the total donation given by a union to be treated as a single donation and capped; Labour wanted it treated as lots of individual donations from union members who were political levy payers. Unions comfortably form the single biggest source of donations to Labour; without them, the party would go broke quite fast. Now Labour is in a minority, that funding model is going to be challenged. Within a year, we could see union donations capped almost out of existence.

Question is – will his successor as shadow justice secretary act the same way when the coalition government comes asking for talks on the very same subject?

Who could be the next in line? A quick scan of Labour MPs with a profile and a background in the law suggests David Lammy, Emily Thornberry, Harriet Harman – could they be relied on to fight to preserve the union link in its current form? (Harman probably yes, seeing as her husband was deputy general secretary of Unite till recently).

Whoever is party leader by then will of course have the final say. All the candidates have said the Labour-union link must be preserved – but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be amended. And of course Labour alone cannot stop a new party funding bill from becoming law. Hence the shadow justice secertary’s crucial role, as constitutional affairs spokesperson, in deciding how much ground to cede.

Both Labour and the unions would lose if union donations were capped; if (as previously suggested) the cap were, say, £50,000 in a year, that would cut the value of the unions’ donations by hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. The unions would lose influence; Labour would face bankruptcy.


Unite poised to back Ed Miliband

Sunday 25 July 2010

It is (as I have repeatedly, punctiliously and exhaustively been told) a three stage process – but the first two stages are complete, with only the third to run. Unite’s national political committee met today to decide a recommendation for Britain’s biggest union©’s choice for leader of the Labour party.

Feedback came in from the regional political committees. Political officers, led by the mighty Charlie Whelan, hung around waiting. And around 2pm, they emerged with the result: Ed Miliband. And that’s almost certainly who Unite’s executive, meeting on Monday, will back.

Why? Because the feeling towards Ed M was, I am told “overwhelming support – like huge!”

I’ll leave the analysis of how much this helps the younger Ed steal a march on his brother to others. For now, suffice to say that at least one of Unite’s two joint general secretaries was inclined to support him already – but he’s the one who’s leaving at the end of this year. The other is keeping schtum, as I reported earlier.

For those who thought Unite would support Ed Balls because they expected Charlie Whelan to move heaven and earth to get him nominated as the ‘Gordon Brown Mk 2’ candidate (their words, my, er, paraphrasing), this is a bit of a slap in the face.

But aside from the issue of whether Whelan did try to do this or not, could it be (and this is pure speculation I admit) that Ed M, who worked so close to Brown as chief economic adviser at the Treasury, is also smiled on by Brownites.

Update: Just after writing those words I came across this by ex-Hazel Blears special adviser Paul Richards:

“It seems unlikely that Unite, the last big union to declare, will back Ed Balls next week. Most of the Brownites (what Kevin Maguire calls the Talibrown) are not supporting him. The former team around Brown at No10 – Stewart Wood, David Muir and others – are supporting, not Balls, but Ed Miliband”

Do you have to rob councils to pay academies?

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Much heat expended this week over the Academies Bill, which could easily see over 1000 ‘outstanding’-rated schools turned into academies before the school year starts in September. But nobody seems to have an answer to an important question: will all these academies converted from state-maintained schools leave local authorities – who still have to fund lots of their own schools – out of pocket?

The figures are startling. The Department for Education’s table of how much money secondary level academies can claim in equivalent funding from councils ranges from £1322 (Islington) to £217 Buckinghamshire).

Academy funding is rather complicated, but in layman’s terms it’s a two way process. If a traditional maintained school becomes an academy, it no longer receives certain services from the local authority, such as assessment for free school meals eligibility, library services for primary and nursery pupils and admissions services. The academy gets money to cover this, called (deep breath) local authority central spend equivalent grant (LACSEG).

The money is paid out centrally, although it’s calculated on a local basis by councils since each council spends and allocates money differently. And it includes a portion of the money which local authorities spend on schools which isn’t part of their schools budget – for example on central administration.

The second part is where central government claws back the money the council used to spend on the school before it beccame an academy, in a process called ‘recoupment’. This recoupment covers the amount in the council’s schools budget and its special needs budget – but, crucially, not the non-schools budget money which academies get. Still with me?

The National Union of Teachers – which has always been anti-academy – has raised two concerns about academy funding under the coalition government. Firstly, they say that the way local authorities have calculated the LACSEG figures for this year is an over-estimation – they’ve included money from far too many budget areas. As a result, academies will get much more money that previously – several times more, they claim – and the resulting shortfall in Whitehall’s education budget will be taken from state schools, they fear.

Says the NUT’s head of education John Bangs: “What’s happened is that some authorites have taken that advice seriously and they didn’t have to. It was advice that was over-slavishly followed. It’s the independent authorities that put two fingers up to government that are surviving.

“It’s the local authorities’ fault but it’s the government as well. There’s a massive imprecision in funding.”

Whether councils will lose out is rather hard to prove – though it would make sense if the government, keen to create as many academies as possible, had over-egged the pudding when it comes to guidelines on how much money academies are entitled to.

But what’s not in doubt is that the recoupment amount – what councils get taken away from them – looks as though it may rise. The Independent covered the issue of academy funding recently but overlooked this point (maybe because the Academies Bill papers weren’t all out by then). For the first time, the government is considering taking an additional amount away from councils to cover that non-schools budget portion (remember that bit?)

Or as the DfE technical note on their website beautfully puts it: “There is currently no recoupment in relation to the LA Budget portion of LACSEG. For 2011-12 onwards the methodology for adjustment of the DSG for academy conversions is still under consideration following consultation.”

In other words… watch this space on that one. But if there’s any change, it will almost certainly mean councils do lose out.

(from Tribune blog)

Unison’s “depressing” analysis of the industrial battles ahead

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The coalition government’s cuts to public sector pay, jobs and trade union rights will weaken the union movement on all sides. It’s a sobering report for a trade unionist to read. And no doubt it was sobering for Keith Sonnet, Unison’s deputy general secretary, to write.

In the report – circulated to union officials last week but written after the general election, and now seen by Tribune – Sonnet pulls no punches, summing up the challenges it faces from outside as “a depressing story”.

“The freezing of pay* and attacks on pensions will be unacceptable and force unions into industrial action that will be difficult to sustain”, he writes. “Locally deals will be sought to trade pay against jobs, but nationally it is not possible to implement such deals with meaning. These actions will undermine the bargaining machinery.”

It sounds as though he expects there to be little public support for strikes in the coming months and years as people soak up the pain from public service cuts and tax rises – not to mention if unemployment goes up.

If the government does want to actively undermine union power – as Sonnet says they do – there are many fronts to attack on.

Currently, unions are able to negotiate on pay and conditions nationally across the public sector – on behalf of doctors, nurses, other NHS staff, teachers, council workers and so on. Not to mention Whitehall civil servants.

We already know that national pay bargaining is going to be cut back: the Tories mentioned scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board in their election manifesto; and this week’s NHS white paper promises that national bargaining in the NHS will end. Sonnet reckons they will go for local government pay too.

Or as he puts it: “The growth in public sector jobs over the last 12 years will be reversed. Employers will seek to restructure to reduce costs with increased resort to outsourcing and strategic partnerships. Natural wastage may not be enough and enforced redundancies will occur.

“The greater fragmentation and restructuring of the public sector, together with greater emphasis on localisation and personalisation will put pressure on some of the national bargaining machinery. First, over time it will cover less of the workforce and secondly there will be ideological opposition”.

But he seems to have heard noises that not all pay bargaining is being tossed on the bonfire: “However, for key groups like doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants the Government will want to retain some form of pay review body”.

Meanwhile unions can expect more pain. “Recent months has seen the issue of trade union facilities being raised in the media by Conservative spokespeople, drawing attention to the cost to employers… Changes to the public sector will be used to weaken trade union influence and power. Time off for trade union activities will be restricted and employers may start to stop providing DOCAS [deduction of contributions at source, i.e. union subscriptions paid by the employer and deducted from pay packets]”.

Depressing indeed for unions. If the report is correct, it sounds as though they won’t be able to win every battle over cuts to pay, pensions, jobs and union rights. When I put this to Unison, they drew my attention to the strategy outlined by general secretary Dave Prentis in his speech to the union’s conference this year: “We will not take our members down dead end alleys. We will not exhaust ourselves in the first few months. But we will organise. We will organise public meetings and street demonstrations, in towns and cities, up and down the country. We will build lasting community alliances, to defend our public services. We will use our national campaign funds to raise public awareness about the consequences of cuts”. How that works out remains to be seen.

* there’ll be no pay rises for anyone earning over £21,000 in the public sector this year or next year, as George Osborne announced in the Budget.

(from Tribune blog)