We Need To Talk About: GERS (2021-22 Edition)

“They were learning fast, or at least collecting data, which they considered to be the same as learning.” – Terry Pratchett

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-142014-152015-162016-172017-182018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Welcome to the second year of the Covid Discontinuity. As I noted last year, we’re in the middle of the worst possible thing that can happen to a statistician – a major event that throws out all of the carefully plotted trends and predictions. Last year I also used the phrase dreaded of every economic seer or scryer – “If things go back to normal next year…”

Well, they didn’t. Covid continued despite the best efforts of politicians in Scotland and the UK to ignore it, Brexit bit harder, the economic turmoil blamed on the escalating war in Ukraine caused a major fuel crisis that threatens to harm millions in the UK, inflation and interest rate spikes combined with continued wage repression raise the very real threat of a second Winter of Discontent and around Europe and the UK will be hosting Eurovision despite only coming second place.

In purely budgetary terms, this year’s GERS report suggests that Scotland’s finances do seem to be improving somewhat as the Covid support money slows down or stops completely (Don’t look at the ongoing pandemic, lost work and productivity due to illness or future increased health spending though…also don’t look at the massive looming catastrophe as cuts to social care are causing the NHS in England to grind to a halt and may be responsible for around 500 deaths a week in England alone…). The notional Scottish “deficit” is £23.7 billion – still higher than the pre-Covid trend of around £15 billion but down from last year’s exceptional £36.5 billion.

Continue reading

Protecting Pensioners

“You’re mugging old ladies every bit as much if you pinch their pension fund” – Ben Elton

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Last year, Bill Johnston and I published our book All of Our Futures – an exploration of ageism in Scotland, how it causes inappropriate policies regarding age and ageing and what Scotland could do instead to create a country that we can all safely, securely and proudly grow older in. In one of the chapters we discuss how an independent Scotland could improve policies around pensions.

This is one of the topics of great interest to everyone on all sides of the constitutional campaign but it’s also a topic that few attempt to tackle in any great detail. However the team here at Common Weal recently realised that while this chapter of the book represents our most up to date thinking on an independent Scotland’s policies towards pensions, we don’t actually have a dedicated Policy Paper on the topic beyond some higher level aspects such as in our 2017 paper on Social Security or discussions around debt and asset transfers found in our book How to Start a New Country or my paper for the Scottish Independence Convention, Parting Ways. This newsletter article will go some way to redressing this but it can only remain a short summary of what is laid out in much greater detail in the book. One thing in particular to bear in mind when discussing pensions is that there are two aspects of them which must be handled differently if not quite entirely separately. The state pension and private pensions.

image_2022-08-07_171932595

Continue reading

Our Land – Your Voice

“The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better”. – Betsy Mackay (quoted by John Prebble in “The Highland Clearances”)

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Last week, I took part in the Scottish Government’s virtual public meeting on their Land Reform for a Net Zero Scotland Consultation. This was the only virtual meeting of the series, with the remainder being held in various rural locations across Scotland. About 120 people were in attendance to hear Andrew Thin from the Scottish Land Commission, Janet Mountford-Smith, one of the Scottish Government civil servants charged with coordinating this consultation and the Land Reform Bill as well as Government Ministers Màiri McAllan and Lorna Slater whose remits lie within this Bill. After presentations by all four, the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. Unfortunately, they chose not to record this virtual meeting though we were assured that the Scottish Government took notes throughout.

Our hosts said repeatedly throughout the evening that the Scottish Government was “entirely open” to suggestions on how to enact Land Reform – and repeatedly encouraged folk to respond to the Consultation – it’s clear that they’re not working from an entirely blank slate here. Several proposals are being made and some of them, we clearly must object to.

image_2022-08-07_170852544

Continue reading

Democrat, Renew Thyself!

“And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.” – The Bible, Luke 4:23

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The second in the series of the Scottish Government’s Independence White Papers has been published. Renewing Democracy through Independence presents the Government’s view on the state of democracy in the UK, the limits of Scottish voters’ democratic voices within the UK and how Scottish independence could improve the situation.

The paper outlines the various democratic deficits of the UK. From the unelected House of Lords, through the unproportional voting system of the UK General Elections, the lack of accountability that comes with majority governments in that UK, the fact that devolution is granted essentially at the pleasure of the UK Government and can be withdrawn or overridden at any time and, most importantly for a document promoting Scottish independence, the fact that despite pro-independence parties winning several elections in the years since the last independence referendum it essentially comes down to the whim of the UK Prime Minister to “allow” another one. The central claim is that the UK is insufficiently prepared to correct these democratic deficits from within and only an independent Scotland would free itself from them.

There’s little on the pages of this paper that is outright objectionable, indeed I and others at Common Weal have made some of the very same points in our work over the years, but this paper stands in a strange place without, apparently, a clear idea of its target audience. It’s too long and detailed to be read by anyone who doesn’t have an interest in politics but it’s simultaneously too shallow and, frankly, bland for anyone who does. As Chapter 2 of a unified Independence White Paper it would read as an introductory preamble to later chapters but as Paper 2 in a series of individual papers it doesn’t really stand alone in its own right. It certainly does little to say precisely what an independent Scotland would do to fill the gaps left in Scottish democratic structures after the undemocratic sections of UK governance are excised by independence. To that end, what follows is a brief attempt to fill that gap with what I would like to see every level of Scottish politics look like.

Continue reading

Here Comes The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss

“A president cannot defend a nation if he is not held accountable to its laws.” – DaShanne Stokes

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Look. I’m not in any way going to defend Boris Johnson. The disastrous policies – from his disorganised Brexit to his Rwanda human trafficking scheme – are causing real harm, his Covid policies have killed over 200,000 people while enriching his cronies and his constant power grabbing have pulled power into the UK Executive (read: the PM) and have disrupted our ability to vote freely, destabilised the autonomy of the devolved Parliaments, the primacy of the UK Parliament and he has torn up the last tattered shreds of what passes for the UK Constitution. He should not go down in the annals of history as one of the UK’s “great” politicians.

And yet…who comes next is looking very likely to be even worse.

image_2022-07-19_092706877

Continue reading

Finally, the Campaign Continues

“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.” – Thomas Stephen Szasz

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

And so, after many years of false starts and being told to “hold, hold” it looks like we’re finally off and back into a new independence campaign, a little shy of a decade after the previous one kicked off.

On Tuesday Nicola Sturgeon announced an update to her plan to deliver an independence referendum in the first half of this Parliamentary term. “Plan A” had always been to seek a sanctioned referendum by way of a formal Section 30 order to the UK Government resulting in something akin to the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement. But with Boris Johnson now and Theresa May before him being consistent in denying such a request, pressure had been mounting to deliver some kind of “Plan B”.

This week, we saw what that would look like. Should a Section 30 order not be forthcoming then the Scottish Government shall bring forward a Referendum Bill anyway and ask the Parliament to approve it. Given the pro-indy majority between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, it would be a miracle and a scandal if it doesn’t pass though – assuming no other party comes out at least as pro-referendum – all eyes will be on those pro-referendum (and the handful of quietly pro-independence MSPs within the Unionist parties) to see if they argue for a free vote or break with any party whip to vote the Bill. Will there be a repeat of Wendy Alexander’s 2008 “Bring it on” moment from any of the parties? I doubt it. Indeed, the biggest challenge to the referendum process – particularly an unsanctioned referendum – is the other side not playing at all.

image_2022-07-04_110324757

Continue reading

What Kind of Scene Are We Setting?

“It is politically easier to rev up GDP and hope some of it trickles down to the poor than it is to distribute existing income more fairly.” – Jason Hickel

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Last week the Scottish Government, represented by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, launched the first paper in a series of papers framing their view of the next stage of the Scottish Independence campaign. This first paper – Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? – is described as a “scene setter” and a description of the world as it is now rather than what it could be under independence. As such, it probably raised more questions from than delivered answers to the journalists at the press conference. It does nothing to answer or advance arguments around currency, borders or pensions or any of the other topics that I and other independence activists have been immersed in for a decade now but it wasn’t ever supposed to. All this paper has done is take several economic metrics such as GDP and inequality and compared the UK to several other countries in Europe. We’ve seen this approach before:– this paper is essentially an abbreviated and updated version of the first third of the 2018 report by Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission and the ideology that informed that report is woven throughout this new one.

Continue reading

No Freedom Without Information

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” – Joseph Pulitzer

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

(Since the original publication of this post, Ellen joined me on the Common Weal Policy Podcast to discuss the issues raised in more detail. You can listen to that show here.)

Common Weal has been at the forefront of Scottish democratic and governance reform since our inception – it’s one of the things that attracted me personally into the orbit of the organisation. One of our earliest campaign success stories was the creation of the Scottish lobbying register which, despite its many and still critical flaws, at least gives us some insight into who is talking to the Scottish Government and about what. Another area where we’ve been gaining ground is our ongoing campaign for better Scottish statistics – the Scottish Government has still not picked up our call for a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency to fill gaps in data provision despite overwhelming support from SNP members three years ago.

Where these two areas intersect is how we, as citizens, gain access to data and information produced by the government which might be difficult to find or not published at all. You have a right called Freedom of Information which allows you to ask public bodies (including the government itself) about the information it holds on various topics. It can be a question such as how much has been spent on a project? Or how many times a Minister has met a specific person? Or anything else that isn’t routinely published or that the Government has good reason to not publish (perhaps due to national security concerns). There are, of course, caveats such as declining to publish information that would be difficult or expensive to obtain (perhaps the question was too broad or requires someone to trawl through a half-forgotten archive of paper records). All of this legislation is important. If we don’t know who is talking to government, what government is telling itself or what they’re not telling us then we cannot hold them to account for their actions. I’d go as far to say that an opaque government is inherently corrupt or, at least, cannot adequately demonstrate that it is not.

However, there are flaws in the current FOI legislation as well and we have been campaigning on reform to the legislation as well. In 2019 I took part in a very memorable meeting at the Scottish Parliament where we discussed various aspects of possible reform.

 These reforms include ending “corporate confidentiality” in public-private contracts after the contracts have been signed (so we know precisely how much we’re spending and on what – especially on large infrastructure projects), mandating that private companies in receipt of public money should be covered by FOI when they spend it (so that government can’t hide behind a wall of privatisation), and – most serious of all – that government should end its unlawful practice of treating FOI requests from some people differently from others (such as allowing Ministers to “review”, delay or block FOI requests submitted by journalists). One of our key recommendations was to address a fundamental flaw in the FOI process itself which is that in order to get information into the public domain, you first need to be able to ask a question about it.

To ask the question “For the minutes of the meeting between the Minister for Energy and Coal Billionaire Joe McSmoke in August 2019?”, you first need to have some kind of suspicion that such a meeting even took place and that there’s a possibility that it was minuted and that those minutes were recorded in a way that is publishable. Instead, we’ve called for public bodies to adopt what we’ve termed to be a “Glass Wall” approach whereby any information that would normally be disclosed by a properly submitted FOI should be proactively published in a browsable archive (we may still need to submit something similar to an FOI to the curator of said archive to be able find said information but the point is that you wouldn’t need to).

I’m glad to say that many of these suggestions were accepted by the Committee and, eventually, by the Government itself. It brought about an investigation by the Information Commissioner to ensure that the recommendations were being carried out (especially the ending of unlawful interference of FOI by ministers) and which published last week.

It was this report that led me to discovering another fundamental flaw in the FOI process that surprised me and also throws the entire system into serious doubt as to its ability to ensure transparent government.

Folk in Indy circles will no doubt be aware of the ongoing story about the UK Government’s “secret polling” into public attitudes on the Union. This polling was done in around 2018 (so is almost certainly out of date now) but was never publicly published. A court case recently concluded with an instruction to publish the data and the latest in this story is that the UK Government is still refusing to publish and may need to be challenged again.

However, there is a twist to this story. When this all kicked off last year my wife Ellen asked the obvious but unasked question – If the UK Government isn’t publishing its polling on attitudes towards independence, why couldn’t the Scottish Government publish its own internal polling on the topic? Even better, once both were published, we could compare and contrast the results of the various questions asked. Not being able to find that polling in any of the public databases, Ellen submitted an FOI for its release and, to both of our surprise, we were told that the reason that this data hadn’t be published before and couldn’t be published now was because the Scottish Government hadn’t conducted any public polling on attitudes in the time between January 2018 and July 2021 when the request was submitted.

image_2022-06-18_082803455

This could and should have been a major story last year and Ellen planned to send it around journalistic circles just as soon as a linkable version appeared on the Scottish Government FOI database.  Several days passed without it doing so. Then weeks. Then a couple of months. To this day, if you search for her FOI request it still returns no result.

The Information Commissioner’s report last week brought the topic back to the front of our mind and Ellen contacted the Commissioner to try to find out if there was a reason that this FOI would not be published. The prompt reply frankly shocked us. A private reply to an FOI is considered by the Scottish Government to be a fulfilment of FOI legislation and puts the information into the “public domain” but there is no obligation in the legislation for the reply to be entered into a public database. Doing so is merely considered “best practice”.

image_2022-06-18_082827080

Consider this for a moment. There is an obligation on the Scottish Government to respond to FOI requests but so long as they give the information to the person who asked the question, there is no obligation on them to let anyone else know about it. But, as it is now a public document, “leaking” it as I have done above isn’t even leaking – it’s just sharing a public document.

But this leads us to another question – how many FOI requests have been answered by private email and not shared more widely? I don’t think it’s a question anyone but the Scottish Government  can answer with certainty but there may be a way of taking at least a stab at it. Whenever you submit an FOI request, you are given a unique reference number. That number – as per Ellen’s FOI above – takes the form of the year of submission and then a string of numbers. That string of numbers appears to be not random but at least somewhat sequential. The earliest FOI in the database is FoI/16/00690 published on October 23rd 2017 and the most recent as of the time of writing – published on May 24th 2022 – is FOI/202200296591. As of the time of writing there are 8879 FOI replies in the database. I don’t know if the sequence of ID numbers includes documents other than FOIs (is document 202200296592 some other letter to or from a civil servant perhaps?) but I can’t imagine why it would. It may be that some of these FOIs have been sent to other public bodies (such as Local Authorities) and published in their own databases but – as said above – we have a clear example of at least one FOI to the Scottish Government that has not been published. Assuming each of these numbers does refer solely to a unique FOI request and its reply and the reference number is as sequential as it appears to be then that may suggest that in the worst case, less than 30% of FOI requests to the Scottish Government have been published in a public manner beyond a direct reply to the person who submitted the request. I dearly hope there’s an explanation out there that means that things aren’t as bad as that. If anyone has one, please do let me know.

I’d be really interested to hear your experiences with this. If you have submitted an FOI request and found that your reply is not on the database then let us know. I’m not sure what we can do from there. We could probably do more to train up volunteers to submit FOIs and have them share their replies with us but how can we do more than that? Does Common Weal have to publish these FOIs ourselves? Do we have to partner with some journalists to create a “Shadow Repository” of all of the FOIs the Government didn’t want you to see? Will just the threat of doing so force an explanation from the Government? Whether by actual legislation or, as a distant second, firm departmental commitments to actually follow “best practice” the Scottish Government should and must publish ALL FOI requests that it responds to. Even the “frivolous” ones. Even the “vexatious” ones. Even the “inconvenient” ones from journalists and especially even the ones that reveal that the Scottish Government hasn’t been doing work that it should have been doing as it prepares to fight another independence campaign. For their part, the Information Commissioner’s office confirmed to us that it is not within their remit to force FOI replies to be published again, because it is not a statutory requirement.

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy without transparency and accountability. Corruption is inevitable if power remains in the dark and behind closed doors. If only a select few have access to information, the same results. From a very practical standpoint, it’s also a complete waste of resources to have to blindly keep asking the same FOI questions because you didn’t know that someone else asked for the same information some time before you. In a very real sense there can be no freedom without freedom of information. The Scottish Government can and must ensure that all of us can see what it is doing at all times. If they don’t, we have to ask the final obvious, unasked question. What, precisely, are they hiding from us?

TCG Logo 2019

We Need To Talk About: Billionaires

“There is no such thing as philanthropy, because the money that the billionaires pretend to donate, belong to the people anyways.” ― Abhijit Naskar

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The villagers lived in hopeless fear of the dragon. They worked hard to provide for themselves but it was so hard when the dragon owned the land under their feet, owned the rooves over their heads, owned the tools they used to till the fields and owned the store where they bought the things they couldn’t make for themselves and even owned the carts they used to bring things to market. Everything the villagers did fed the dragon in the end. It took a share at every step of the way and its hoard grew ever higher. The villagers had once tried to slay the dragon – it was a hard fight and cost the lives of many of them – but in the end, the dragon’s offspring just slid onto the top of the hoard and things carried on as they had before. They asked their mayor to tax the dragon, but the dragon whispered promises of power into the mayor’s ear and gave him baubles to make sure it didn’t happen. The villagers tried to vote out the mayor but the dragon whispered into the ears of some of the villagers and told them that if they worked really hard in precisely the way that the dragon didn’t, then they too could become dragons themselves. Even when the mayor was voted out – all the dragon had to do was whisper to the new one and make sure things were never so bad for it in the time it took to ensure the next mayor was more compliant. And so the villagers worked hard – harder than ever before even as the storms that ruined their harvests became stronger and more frequent – and the dragon’s hoard got larger.

Continue reading

Complete Your Census!

“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.” – The Bible, Numbers, 1, 2-5

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

If you haven’t done so already, please compete and submit your census. If you have already done so, thank you – and please encourage your friends and family to submit theirs if they haven’t.

There are many reasons to ensure that you do – not least because it’s a legal obligation and should be considered as much a part of your civic duty as paying taxes, voting and serving on a jury. It is by far and away the most important statistical exercise conducted by our nation and goes a long way towards informing public policy directly and helping to correct and anchor other forms of data gathering. I make this plea as an informant of public policy and an unabashed stats geek. Neither I nor Common Weal have been paid by the Scottish Government to write this article (we wouldn’t accept such a payment even if it was offered). They haven’t even asked us to write this. We’re doing this because we understand how important it is that it gets done properly. Our own ability to create and analyse policy depends on access to high quality, accurate data and the census is one of the most important tools in our box of facts and information.

Scotland's Census

Continue reading