Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Failure of Leadership

Here's an interesting opinion article by Kevin McKenna in The Herald which reports that an inquiry is underway in the Scottish Parliament over the circumstances surrounding the terrible fire which earlier this year destroyed the Glasgow School of Art.

Apparently Holyrood's Culture, Tourism, Europe and External relations Committee is asking awkward questions about 'What Went Wrong and Why? - which is a good thing if you ask me, because this is the second fire in a short space of time and the cost of repairing the damage will run to more than £100 million.  

Yet this is small beer compared to the scandal surrounding equal pay in Glasgow where the cost of putting things right will run to hundreds of millions of pounds - and that's after the Council said it had sorted its problems with the introduction of a new, improved  WPBR pay scheme back in 2007.

Unfortunately the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, disagreed with the Council's assessment (of its own homework) by condemning Glasgow's pay arrangements as 'unfit for purpose' in August 2017 - and went on in December 2017 to deny Glasgow's request to challenge and potentially overturn this decision at a further hearing before the UK Supreme Court in London.

So it's an awfully big deal you might say, though not big enough seemingly to merit the interest of one of the Scottish Parliament's many committees, for example:
  • Local Government and Communities Committee
  • Equalities and Human Rights Committee 
  • Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny
I find this quite astonishing, I have to say, especially as the Accounts Commission, Scotland's public spending watchdog, published a major report in September 2017 which concluded that a 'decade long failure of leadership by local and central government' is responsible for the continuing debacle over equal pay. 

By the way, James Dornan, SNP MSP for the Glasgow Cathcart constituency, is the current Convener (Chair) of the Scottish Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee. 



Too many worrying questions remain about art school fire
The second Glasgow School of Art fire, in June last year. There was no sprinkler system in operation when the blaze broke out. Picture: Kirsty Anderson

By Kevin McKenna - The Herald

ONLY rarely does the painstaking work of Holyrood’s assortment of committees receive due public acknowledgement. Yet, their role within the apparatus of Scottish politics has elevated this country’s model of democracy above that of many other parliamentary systems and certainly well beyond the pantomime version of it that unfolds on a daily basis at Westminster

Holyrood’s committees ensure that Scotland’s political decision-makers are held to a high level of public accountability. Certainly, a majority government can attempt to suborn their integrity by top loading them with party placemen but MSPS from all parties I’ve spoken to in recent years all agree that they work as well as can be expected within a political structure that remains essentially gladiatorial.

Some of the recent work of Holyrood’s Culture and Tourism Committee has provided a snapshot of how these panels help reduce the democratic deficit in Scotland. The Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee (to accord it its full Sunday title) has spent the last four months seeking answers to persistent questions about the causes and effects of the second major fire to have destroyed the revered Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art on June 15 last year. It will resume its GSA inquiries later this month.

These fires and their aftermath have engaged the Scottish public to an astonishing degree and on many levels. Those of us with connections to the GSA and who have spent time in our lovely Mackintosh building had always sensed that this place held a curiously anointed place in the heart of Glasgow’s citizens, including many who have never visited it. You don’t need to have been on an African safari to appreciate the big beasties who romp across its savannahs and to want to protect them. The hearings conducted by the Culture and Tourism committee into the Mackintosh fire have given the public and several interested parties and expert bodies the opportunity to call the board of the GSA to account for its management of this prized Scottish asset before the first fire in 2014, the subsequent re-building and how this may have contributed to the cause of the second fire.

The contributions, both oral and written, have been characterised by a need to ensure that there will be no third fire. They have been largely respectful and free of recrimination. There has been no sense of any personal vendettas being played out here. Unfortunately, Muriel Gray, chair of Glasgow School of Art chose a different tone when she was called to provide submissions in November. Instead she could barely conceal her contempt at even being asked questions about the competence of the board she leads. Asked by the committee chair, Joan Mcalpine, if she had any regrets after the two fires, Ms Gray said: “I don’t have any regrets about the process, I have massive regrets that these things have happened – but no, I can’t in all conscience say that I would have done anything differently.” More than one person present during her submission has since spoken of a tone characterised by “breathtaking arrogance”.

In his submission Alexander Kidd, the international fire expert who has advised Historic Scotland, refuted claims made by the GSA board that a sprinkler system was not suitable for the Mack because of the presence of historic papers and that, in any case, there are no sprinklers in historic buildings and libraries. Indeed a sprinkler system could have been installed quickly and easily. Mr Kidd had also told members of the Tourism and Culture committee that on a tour of the Mack with Historic Scotland in 1997 he described it as a fire trap. Yet, nothing was done.

Instead, a consultancy ruled out a sprinkler system on the grounds that it would be “unacceptable to the client”. They recommended a mist suppression system which was not commonly used in large buildings. It’s worth pointing out here that not even a mist suppression system (which uses less water) was in operation before either of the fires.

In light of this, why did Ms Gray insist that the GSA did not need a sprinkler system?

Interestingly, the GSA has now applied to install a sprinkler system in the former Stow College building it bought and restored after fundraising for the 2014 fire.

And why was it claimed that sprinklers were originally ruled out for the Stow building when GSA board minutes (heavily redacted) show that the board, having indeed ruled them out, then subsequently reversed this decision after Grenfell? Professor Irene Mcaramcwilliam is now GSA director, having succeeded professor Tom Inns who resigned for unknown reasons late last year. Of course there was no selection process. Perhaps she may be asked to explain why, when she was part of the GSA senior management team, the decisions over sprinklers were taken.

Joan Mcalpine and her colleagues on the Culture and Tourism Committee must continue to strive to secure plausible answers to these and other lingering questions such as those surrounding recent senior management departures, including Peter Trowes, the much-respected Mackintosh Curator. Without these answers it becomes clearer with every passing week that the GSA did not prioritise fire safety or the preservation of its collection.

The Committee might also want to consider comments this week by the Glasgow Labour councillor, Paul Carey. The councillor was responding to eye-watering information supplied under Freedom of Information that

GSA staff had spent more than £500k in expenses in the last two years alone including foreign trips and multiple stays in luxury hotels.

Cllr Carey said: “Given that the GSA has spent over half a million on expenses from 2016 to 2018 and it has one of the lowest student attendances from working backgrounds within the UK, this seems to be an elite place for elite people. We cannot justify in this day and age that any public funding should go to this elite school when we still have food banks in this city.”

In a dismissive and high-handed response, borrowing from the style of its chair, the GSA claimed that these trips were important in raising awareness of Glasgow and that the bill to rebuild the Mack, expected to run into hundreds of millions, would not require public money. Aye right.

Equal Pay - 'Decade Long Failure' (07/09/17)

The Herald's Tom Gordon reports on a special investigation by the Accounts Commission which concludes that a 'decade long failure of leadership by local and central government' is responsible for the continuing debacle over equal pay. 

Glasgow City Council, Scotland's largest, has been fighting a desperate battle against equal pay for the past ten years and its pay arrangements are still shrouded in secrecy - as opposed to being 'open, honest and transparent'.

The Court of Session recently judged Glasgow's revised pay arrangements and its in-house job evaluation scheme (JES), introduced in 2007 to be 'unfit for purpose' - as a result the number of equal pay claims in Glasgow is growing by the day.

If Scotland's largest council can't or won't get its act together, maybe the solution in Glasgow is to send in the Accounts Commission to uncover what has really been going on for the past 10 years.



Watchdog report exposes litany of failures behind £1bn equal pay bill

By Tom Gordon - Scottish Political Editor, The Herald

Glasgow City Chambers

A DECADE long failure of leadership by central and local government has left taxpayers with a bill of more than £1billion for equal pay claims from female council staff, it has emerged.

In a damning study of politicians stalling and ducking responsibilities, the Accounts Commission said around £750m had been spent settling pay claims since 2004.

However a further 27,000 claims are still live, including a recent one from more than 6000 workers in Glasgow which could cost the city £500m, pushing the final bill far higher.

The watchdog blamed “a lack of collective national leadership to overcome challenges and address equal pay issues in a timely way”, with ministers failing to give councils extra funds to help stave off challenges, and authorities in denial about the scale of the problem.

Male-dominated trade unions protecting the higher wages of male workers, often through spurious bonuses, were also a factor.

In order to fix pay anomalies a UK-wide deal, the Single Status Agreement, was established in 1999 to unify pay structures.

Councils were given until 2004 to carry out job evaluations so that women in roles such as caring, cleaning and catering were no longer paid less than men doing equivalent work such as gardening, gravedigging or bin collection.

However only one council met the deadline, and it was not until 2010 that all of Scotland’s councils had single status in place.

Without funds from central government to harmonise pay scales properly, councils failed to make the issue a priority and skimped on deals, sometimes adding to the discrimination by allowing bad practices to continue in order to avoid industrial action.

They also paid 50,000 women £232m in compromise deals to give up claims to back pay.

There were “often of a relatively low value” compared to what they were due.

Partly because many offers were inadequate, and partly because no-win no-fee lawyers became involved, around 70,500 equal pay claims were lodged against councils after 2004.

Of these around 27,000 are outstanding, and new claims are still being brought.

Highlighting the painfully slow progress, the report said: “Thousands of claims currently in the system in Scotland have been live for over a decade.”

The watchdog also complained it had faced “considerable difficulty” due to a lack of good quality data relating to the implementation of equal pay.

It recommended that councils ensure all pay arrangements are fair and transparent.

Commission member Pauline Weetman said: "Equal pay is an incredibly important issue and a legal duty for Scotland's councils to eliminate decades of inequality. However, implementation of equal pay has been a substantial challenge for local government."

The council umbrella body Cosla said it welcomed the report’s recognition that councils had faced “complex judicial processes and huge costs” as they tried to deliver equal pay.

“Councils have endeavoured to settle all legitimate claims as quickly as possible,” it said.

Equal pay campaigner Mark Irvine, who has helped many female workers bring claims against council bosses, said the issue remained a “national disgrace”.

He said: “The report hits the nail on the head. There was an agreement to end discrimination in 1999 and that it’s still happening in 2017 is a terrible indictment of Cosla. Major councils ganged up to prevent low-paid women getting what they were promised 20 years ago.”

The public sector union Unison said the report’s findings were “shocking”.

Scotland regional manager Peter Hunter said: “This study demonstrates the cost of delay and dereliction of duty. If this report compels those remaining councils to resolve outstanding claims... the Accounts Commission will have played a vital role.”

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie added: “This is a complex process but far too many people, mainly women in low paid jobs, are waiting far too long for the money they are due.

"The Scottish Government needs to work with councils to seek a speedier solution.”

“It is time for this legacy of inequality to be resolved.”