Monday, 5 December 2016

Battle Over Brexit

The battle over 'Brexit' shifted focus to the Supreme Court today, but the real fight is over the terms on which the UK will continue to trade with its European neighbours.

I though the issues were summarised well in a reported conversation between Carlo Calenda, Italy's economic development minister and Boris Johnson, the UK's foreign secretary.

Calenda recalled their exchange as follows:

Johnson: "I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market." 

Calenda. “I said, ‘No way." 

Johnson: "You’ll sell less prosecco.’ 

Calenda: "I said, OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ 

Game, set and match to the Italian minister, if you ask me.


Safe Pair of Hands (19/11/16)Image result for UK supreme court

A confected row has broken out over comments by a judges in the UK Supreme Court (Lady Hale) who observed recently that the Brexit referendum was not legally binding.

Now the dogs in the street know this to be true, even Nigel Farage accepts the advisory nature of the EU referendum, yet some of our politicians and the right-wing press are up in arms because Lady Hale has set out the pros and cons of an appeal case that the Supreme Court has to consider in December. 

All I can say is that Lady Hale was one of the five judges who sat on the landmark FoI (Freedom of Information) case against South Lanarkshire Council back in 2013 - and that turned out OK, as regular readers know.

Read the full story via the following link to The Guardian, but if you ask me the decision is in safe hands.

Supreme court judge hints at legal hitch that could seriously delay Brexit

Lady Hale raises possibility of PM having to replace 1972 act before triggering article 50, incurring wrath of anti-EU Tories


Lady Hale is one of 11 judges due to rule on whether the government can trigger article 50 without a vote by MPs. Photograph: Supreme Court/PA

By Anushka Asthana and Rowena Mason - The Guardian

A supreme court judge has raised the prospect that Theresa May would have to comprehensively replace existing EU legislation before the government could even begin Brexit, in a move that could seriously delay the process.

In a speech that angered leave campaigners, Lady Hale said the supreme court judges could go further than simply forcing May to publish a short piece of legislation to approve the triggering of article 50.

The deputy president of the court said that next month’s case – in which the supreme court will hear the government’s appeal against a high court ruling that MPs must approve the triggering of article 50 – raised “difficult and delicate issues” about the relationship between government and parliament.

“Another question is whether it would be enough for a simple act of parliament to authorise the government to give notice, or whether it would have to be a comprehensive replacement of the 1972 act,” she said in comments to law students in Kuala Lumpur that were published online on Tuesday. The European Communities Act 1972 took the UK into the then European Economic Community.

Herald Editorial - 30 July 2013

Council budget concerns should not trump justice

SO South Lanarkshire Council has lost its Supreme Court bid to allow it to continue withholding information relating to pay scales.
Does the council leadership truly believe this legal battle amounted to £100,0000 of public money well spent?

It is very difficult to see how. The local authority, which is currently fighting a £10m back- pay claim from 1500 female staff, must have known there was a high probability of losing. After its arguments had been rejected first by the Scottish Information Commissioner and then by the Court of Session, there was clearly a substantial risk that the Supreme Court too would rule against it, but the council ploughed on regardless. Now it faces a huge legal bill at a time when money is tight.

South Lanarkshire council tax payers could be forgiven for being angry. Such a sum of money would make a significant difference to any number of cash-strapped services funded by the council. This is the council, after all, that has warned 120 jobs are at risk as part of a £12m cuts package. Its legal costs are hefty and South Lanarkshire should not have risked incurring them; instead, it should have agreed to hand over the information when the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered it to do so. 

It is not only the council's unwise decision to risk wasting money pursuing the case to the Supreme Court that is at issue. It is also the fact of having proved itself so unwilling to be open about the information in question in the first place.

South Lanarkshire is not the only council to have faced equal pay claims. Many others have had to face up to their obligations. Whichever council it may be, it is not hard to understand the dismay councillors and officials must feel at the thought of potentially having to fund costly pay-outs to some workers at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but budgetary concerns cannot be allowed to trump the interests of justice. Where there is the suspicion that women have been discriminated against by being paid less than men for doing similarly skilled jobs, every council has a duty to investigate and right any wrongs that emerge, promptly. 

Where South Lanarkshire is concerned, its vehement attempts to block publication of pay banding information that might reveal whether women have been discriminated against, leave it open to the suspicion that it is less interested in rooting out examples of sex discrimination than in keeping its bills down. That is what will infuriate workers and rightly so. The current spate of sex discrimination claims being brought against councils are about trying to put right a long-standing wrong. Councils perceived as resisting what is right, will be judged, by employees and by voters, as acting dishonourably.

The equal rights campaigner Mark Irvine has called on South Lanarkshire council leader Eddie McAvoy to resign, as being "ultimately responsible" for this waste of public money. The council certainly has questions to answer about the decision to push this serially unsuccessful case so far.

What The Papers Say (4) - 30 July 2013

South Lanarkshire Council loses pay scale disclosure challenge

A council had no right to withhold information on its salary scales from an equal pay campaigner, the UK's highest court ruled following a £100,000 legal battle.
Action 4 Equality Scotland campaigner Mark Irvine wanted to know if South Lanarkshire Council had paid more money for jobs traditionally done by men, and had asked the council for details about its pay scales in May last year.

The council refused claiming disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act, and ultimately took the Scottish Information Commissioner to the Supreme Court in London after the Commissioner said Mr Irvine had a right to the information.
The council also accused the Commissioner of "a breach of natural justice" because he did not copy its officials into all of his correspondence with Mr Irvine and two MSPs who were following the case during the course of his investigations.

Supreme Court deputy president Lady Hale today dismissed the council's arguments, and ruled that the Commissioner was right to back Mr Irvine's request for information.
The ruling states: "The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the council's appeal.
"It holds that the Commissioner was entitled to reach his conclusion that disclosure of the information should be given by the council to Mr Irvine, and that there had been no breach of the rules of natural justice when the Commissioner did not copy the correspondence to the council."

The cost of the entire legal action is approximately £100,000, according to South Lanarkshire Council.

The Commissioner has spent £67,836 defending its ruling to date, although its costs have still to be finalised, bringing the total cost to the public purse so far to around £168,000.
The council said it is "disappointed" by the Supreme Court's decision but will now release the information "as soon as is practical".

The council had originally dismissed Mr Irvine's request as "vexatious", a legal term meaning burdensome, frivolous, annoying, disruptive, harassing, unreasonable or disproportionate, according to Commissioner guidance.

This was "principally because of Mr Irvine's blog for Action4Equality Scotland and his connections with the solicitor representing equal pay claimants against the council", the Supreme Court said.

The council later withdrew this claim and substituted it with a refusal on the grounds that it would breach the Data Protection Act (DPA), which protects the confidentiality of personal data.

It argued that "Mr Irvine had no legitimate interest in disclosure of the information and that disclosure was not necessary for the purpose of his legitimate interests".
However, the Commissioner ruled Mr Irvine did have a legitimate interest "given the considerable sums of public money involved and the fundamental issues of fair and equal treatment".

Furthermore, he could find no grounds to support the refusal on the grounds of DPA and subsequently asked for the information to be released.

The Supreme Court backed this decision today, stating: "As the processing requested would not enable Mr Irvine or anyone else to discover the identity of the data subjects, it is quite difficult to see why there is any interference with their right to respect for their private lives."
Current Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, who took over the post from Kevin Dunion last year, said: "I am pleased that the ruling by the Supreme Court supports our own carefully considered conclusions on this case.

"While the relationship between FOI and data protection law can be complex, the Supreme Court's ruling confirms the robustness of our approach and is a clear guide to how similar cases should be handled by Scottish public authorities.

"Importantly, the ruling also means that the requester can, at long last, receive the information to which he is entitled."

In a statement on the Action4Equality website, Mr Irvine said: "After three long years, justice and common sense have finally prevailed - although no thanks to South Lanarkshire Council which has wasted over £200,000 of public money fighting this case.

"The council originally dismissed my request as 'vexatious' but now it is one of Scotland's largest council's which is left looking rather silly and, after this decision, with egg all over its face.

"The council and its political leadership have lots of questions to answer over this debacle and the terrible waste of public money involved.

"The wheels of justice turn very slowly at times, alas, but today they finally caught up with South Lanarkshire Council which should hang its head in shame."

Council leader Eddie McAvoy said: "I am very disappointed at this outcome, and all the more so because we were told repeatedly by our legal advisers that our case was sound and that there were good grounds for the council's arguments.

"Given the judges' ruling, I have instructed officers to release this information as soon as is practical."

A council spokeswoman said: "This judgment is disappointing. We have never denied this information to people with a legitimate interest in it, where it is necessary and warranted, and that's why it has been provided to those representing employees and ex-employees in tribunals.

"However, we have been acting on legal advice that, if we released it to a third party, we could be in breach of the Data Protection Act by disclosing information which could be used to identify specific people and their salaries.

"Given that concern and our legal advice, it was clear that these arguments had to be heard in the highest court in the land. Indeed, the judges make it clear that they took our arguments seriously and believed our case was worth putting before them."

Glasgow and Equal Pay

I sent the following email to all MSPs and MPs with seats in the Glasgow City Council  area earlier today including Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister.

As I've said on the blog site before Glasgow is now the only major council is Scotland not to have reached a satisfactory agreement over its post-job evaluation pay arrangements.

Neighbouring North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire Councils did so recently and thousands of A4ES clients played a big part in persuading these two councils to come to their senses.

So let's hope that Glasgow's MSPs and MPs get behind their local constituents in the fight for equal pay in 2017.      


Glasgow and Equal Pay

I enclose three recent posts from my blog site regarding the fight for equal pay in Glasgow City Council.

If there is no sign of a negotiated settlement by the New Year, I suspect that many of the 5,500 A4ES clients in Glasgow will be seeking to make equal pay a major issue in the run-up to the local council elections in May 2017.

Kind regards

Mark Irvine


Calling Glasgow (02/12/16)

The blog site has seen a lot of traffic following yesterday's about Glasgow, but what I  need to do in the weeks ahead is build a network of active supporters who are willing to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.

Because the more people who Like, Share, Retweet and Follow my posts via Twitter and Facebook the stronger the message will be to Glasgow City Council.

If the current leadership of the Council are not part of the solution, then they are part of the problem if you ask me.

Glasgow is the only council in Scotland which has refused to reached agreement over their post-JE pay arrangements - in Glasgow's case this is known as the WPBR (Workforce Pay and Benefits Review). 

So if Glasgow's leaders are not prepared to face up to their obligations on equal pay, they should stand aside and make way for politicians who are prepared to do so.   


Calling Glasgow (01/12/16)Image result for calling + images

Glasgow City Council looks set to become the next big battleground in the long fight for equal pay as we approach the end of 2016.

As readers know, ever since the Employment Appeal Tribunal found in the claimants' favour (back in March) efforts have been made behind the scenes to establish whether GCC is prepared to resolve all the outstanding claims via a negotiated settlement.

In my view, this now looks increasingly unlikely and I suspect that the claimants are all just being 'strung along' in the hope of getting past next year's local council elections (due in May 2017) without too much argy bargy.

So I'm making an early New Year resolution to start the engines of a new A4ES campaign in January 2017, if there are still no signs of serious negotiations getting underway next month.  

The task I'll be setting myself is to make equal pay and Glasgow City Council's foot-dragging behaviour a major issue in the run-up to the May 2017 local elections.

Now I can't do this on my own, but A4ES has over 5,500 in Glasgow and I'll be aiming to stir people into action and create a network of local campaigners who are willing to turn the heat up on the Council in the early months of the New Year. 

Because if the present leadership of Glasgow City Council is not part of the solution, then it's part of the problem if you ask me.

I'll be writing much more on the blog site in the days ahead, but at the moment readers in Glasgow can help by Liking, Sharing and Retweeting this message on Facebook and Twitter.

Always remember that 'many hands make light work'.


Glasgow City Council Update

I said on the blog site recently that the fight for equal pay in Glasgow had gone quiet because the focus of events had shifted to the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

The Court of Session (Scotland's highest civil court)) will hear an appeal from Glasgow City Council against the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (reported previously on the blog site) which was favourable to the claimants. 

A4ES has also made a 'cross appeal' to protect the interests of its 5,000 clients in Glasgow which has the potential to bring down the so-called 'Workforce Pay and Benefits Review' - Glasgow City Council's local job evaluation (JE) scheme.

The Court of Session has now listed the Glasgow Appeal for April/May 2017 which is great timing if you ask me, because this means that the case will be heard in the run-up to next year's local council elections.

Now I have said previously on the blog site that a negotiated settlement in Glasgow is in everyone's, but so far at least the City Council seems intent on a 'fight to the death' through the courts.

If you ask me this is a foolish strategy, because the original decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (in favour of the claimants) is sound and will be difficult to overturn at the Court of Session.

So if there is no progress to report by the end of 2016, I think it's fair to say that the City Council can expect fireworks in the New Year.

Because I will make it my business to ensure that equal pay becomes a major issue in the period leading up to the May 2017 council elections.


Heartwarming Tale

Here's a heartwarming tale from Scottish TV which tells the story of a German prisoner of war who left £384,000 to Comrie, a small village in Perthshire Scotland, which he credited with turning his life around.

It's enough to restore your belief in the human spirit.


Nazi prisoner gifts £384,000 to Scots village where he was captive

Douglas Barrie - STV

Heinrich Steinmeyer died in 2014 and left the bequest to Comrie where his ashes are also scattered.

Heinrich Steinmeyer was only 19 years old when he came to Britain as part of Hitler's infamous Waffen SS.

Born to a "very poor family" from Silesia (now part of Poland) in 1924 with only basic education, he left behind his apprenticeship as a butcher to join the SS when he was 17, fighting on the Western Front.

Shortly after D-Day in August 1944 he was captured in Normandy and eventually ended up a prisoner of war at the Cultybraggan Camp in Comrie, Perthshire.

Although the shadow of having a reputation as a hardline Nazi followed the young soldier, some Scots kindness sent him down a different path as the Second World War ended and everyone tried to move on.

Such was the kindness shown to Steinmeyer from the Highland village that when he died in 2014 his ashes were scattered near the camp where he spent the most important years of his life.

Two and a half years later it has emerged the 90-year-old had bequeathed €457,180 (£384,000) to Comrie in his final will and testament.

It read: "I would like to express my gratitude to the people of Scotland for the kindness and generosity that I have experienced in Scotland during my imprisonment of war and hereafter."

Scots village: Comrie as it stands today with population of around 2000. SWNS

The monetary donation will be received by the local community trust once legalities have been handled, with advisers currently working with German solicitors in a complex and lengthy process.

According to his will it is to be "used exclusively to provide for local developments for older people, suggested by older people".

Andrew Reid, from the Comrie Development Trust, said: "This story is about Heinrich Steinmeyer's gratitude for how he was treated and welcomed in this village and other parts of Scotland.

"His gratitude will live on in the way that it will support older people in Comrie.

"Mr Steinmeyer wanted to express his deep gratitude for the way he was treated as a prisoner and for his time working in Scotland after the war.

"He wanted to give thanks for his welcome back as a visitor to Comrie and Scotland.

"Heinrich's personal history is an amazing story of friendship and appreciation, and people in Comrie will both honour and benefit from his legacy."

It has yet to be decided what will become of the donation, however, a separate account has been set up named the Heinrich Steinmeyer Legacy Fund.

The trust say the bequest has come from the sale of all of his possessions, including his house and car, with all of the proceeds sent to Comrie to benefit older people.

The camp where Steinmeyer was held was bought by the trust in 2007 and has since redeveloped nine of the huts as commercial properties for rent.

Cultybraggan Camp: Where Steinmeyer was held during the Second World War SWNS

Steinmeyer's legacy will not only be marked by his generous donation to the village, but by his long-standing friendships and relationships to the community.

After leaving the camp in June 1945 he was transferred to Watten, Caithness, and another camp in Ladybank, Fife, when the war ended.

He stayed in Scotland after his release from detention in 1948 and settled in Stranraer, working on farms in the area.

The former soldier eventually returned to Germany in 1970 and settled in Demlmenhorst, near Bremen, although he did return to visit Scotland on a number of occasions.

In 2008 he first mentioned his plan to leave something to the village in his will to a close friend from Comrie, George Carson, who worked to ensure it would be possible in the event of Mr Steinmeyer's death.

Mr Carson died just a fortnight before the man who was once his enemy in war and eventually became his friend.

Heinrich Steinmeyer: In his uniform (left), and later on one of his visits (right).

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Glasgow and Equal Pay

The SNP have been out in force this week at Westminster in support of the so-called 'WASPI' women who are affected by the government's plans for equalising the state pension age.

WASPI, by the way, stands for Women Against State Pension Inequality. 

The SNP is calling for the government to rescind its proposals and effectively 'turn the clock back' to 1995 when the policy and timetable for equalising the state pension age were first announced.

So the issue has a long history and the SNP is arguing that the 2.6 million women affected (across the UK) should be compensated by the injection of £8 billion from the public purse to put them back in the position they would have been in before the equalisation scheme came into place.

In Scotland the pro rated figures would be in the region of 250,000 women and a bill of £800 million or so - not hugely different from the numbers involved in the fight for equal pay in Scotland over the past 12 years.

The UK government says the cost to the taxpayer would be £30 billion not £8 billion, but the real significance is that a public ding dong is taking place over the issue and MPs at Westminster are making a lot of noise.

I hope that low paid council workers still fighting for equal pay in Glasgow can expect the same level of support from local and national SNP politicians, if no settlement is in sight by the New Year.

Because all of the constituency seats in Glasgow, in both the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments, are now, of course, held by the SNP.


Who Gets What and Why? (07/09/16)

Over the past 16 years Scotland has put an extra £12.6 billion pounds in the pay of the country's school teachers, courtesy of the landmark McCrone Agreement which increased their basic pay by an eye-watering 23.5% in the year 2000. 

The implementation cost of this fully funded pay increase was £800 million a year and this huge sum of money is now part of the Scottish Government's base budget - a budget which virtually double between 1997-2007, as did the spending power of Scotland's 32 local councils.

A year earlier the Scottish council employers signed up to the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement which was designed to tackle low pay at the bottom end of the local government pay ladder and sweep away years of widespread pay discrimination against a wide range of very low paid, female dominated jobs.

The 1999 Single Status Agreement covered over 100,000 of the lowest paid council employee and included cleaners, catering staff, clerical workers, classroom assistants, home carers and so on.

The cost of 'single status' was estimated at £450 million at the time, but unlike McCrone the landmark equal pay agreement was not fully funded and relied upon future pay settlements and productivity gains to achieve its worthy goals.

So looking back all these years later the position is that 70,000 teachers have benefited to the tune of £800 million every year while more than 100,000 of the lowest paid council employees have had to fight tooth and nail for their right to equal pay.

Interestingly, a debate is now underway about the standard of teaching in Scotland's schools and one body of opinion is that the underlying problems are exacerbated by relative poverty and poor living standards amongst working class parents.

Now I don't grudge teachers a decent pay increase, but I think it is obscene that one group of council employees should be treated so much better than another which is, of course, exactly what happened over the McCrone and Single Status pay agreements.

The McCrone Agreement was struck by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition government which was in power in Holyrood at the time, but the deal and allocation of an extra £800 million every year was supported by all of the mainstream political parties including the SNP which now dominates the political scene north of the border.

So the big question is how do the people at the bottom of the pay ladder catch up and improve their circumstances, comparatively speaking, if those above them in the pay pecking order keep pulling ahead?

If you ask me, a far better and more socially just use of that £800 million a year of public money would have been to allocate a large chunk of it to the people at the bottom of the pay ladder.

But for this to happen, in future, the government of the day will need to stop using public money to bolster the interests of comparatively well paid groups in Scottish society who also benefit hugely and disproportionately from other areas of public policy such as free university tuition and the extension of free school meals.


Who Gets What and Why? (06/04/16)

I've been saying for a long time that in these tough economic times people living in rented accommodation have been getting a raw deal compared to their neighbours and friends who have a mortgage.

And that's because mortgage payers have seen their housing costs fall significantly over the past five years with interest rates being at artificially low levels - whereas the cost of rented accommodation keeps going up as this article from the BBC web site shows with a big increase of 7.63% in West Dunbartonshire Council, for example. 

Yet to add insult to injury the Scottish Government has announced extra spending on free school meals for a Primary 1-3 school pupils which is worth £114 million over two years or around £330 a year for each child - for families with children.

But not to the less well off families of course because their children already receive free school meals, so all these extra millions of pounds are going to support the better off - like Scotland's school teachers who enjoy much better than average pay.

Now Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, has been campaigning in support of these changes which is understandable as it is clearly in the interest of EIS members, but the bigger question is "Is such a policy fair and socially responsible?".  

I say "No" because in my view the money would be much better spent on targeting the the less well off instead of further cushioning the lives of the better paid, especially when you stop and think that the majority of teachers will have been benefiting from the mortgage situation over the past five years.

So if you ask me, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament has got this all wrong - the lower paid are the ones who deserve a break not people in already well paid jobs.  

West Dunbartonshire Council announces housing rent rise

Rents for council house tenants in West Dunbartonshire are to rise by 7.63% from 1 April, it has been announced.

The council said the increase would add an extra £4.67 each week to the average weekly rent over the year.

Housing convener, Cllr David McBride, said the rent rise was "needed to pay for the major improvements required to our properties".

He added: "Increasing rents is never an easy decision but I believe our tenants understand why we need to do this."

P1-3 pupils in Scotland to get free school meals

The Scottish government matched a plan being introduced in England

All Scottish P1-P3 pupils will get free school meals from January 2015, First Minister Alex Salmond has announced.

He said the move, affecting 165,000 youngsters, would boost health and was worth £330 a year for each child to families.

The move matches a plan being introduced in England, in September this year.

Opposition parties accused the Scottish government of playing catch-up, and taking credit for Westminster policies.

The first minister also told the Scottish Parliament that free childcare would be expanded to every two-year-old from a workless household in Scotland by August, affecting about 8,400 youngsters.

Mr Salmond said a further extension of the policy to reach 15,400 two-year-olds by August 2015 would see Scotland delivering 80 million hours of childcare to pre-school children, which he said was the greatest amount in the UK.

The free meals announcement came after UK ministers announced plans to offer pupils in the first three years of primary school in England a free cooked lunch.

Scottish ministers followed suit, partly by using extra money going to Scotland, through the Barnett Formula, as a consequence of the English plan.

Mr Salmond said the Scottish government announcements would bring improvements, but fell short of the childcare revolution which Scotland needed.

Ahead of the independence referendum on 18 September, the Scottish government said all three and four-year-olds, and vulnerable two-year-olds, would get 1,140 hours of childcare a year by the end of the first parliament, in the event of a "Yes" vote.

But opposition parties said SNP ministers had the devolved powers to realise their childcare plans now.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "We need to create a tax welfare and childcare system that doesn't plunge children into poverty, as the UK government is doing, that puts us on a par with the best childcare systems in the world.

"That is why the future of Scotland's children is the future of Scotland, and why Scotland's future is an independent one."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said the free school meals plan was promised by the SNP in 2007, but never delivered, adding: "Now it has been reprised, because the UK government has acted on it and provided the money."

She said of Mr Salmond's childcare vision: "What he had was an opportunity to show his new-found commitment to childcare was more than a referendum ploy and start delivering for working families and children now."

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, added: "A cynic might say that the SNP, having promised the earth and failed to deliver for years, has only now re-discovered its commitment to free school meals because the coalition government is delivering it.

"Today, we have a Westminster policy delivered with Westminster money, and the SNP playing catch-up but trying to claim the credit."

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond announced his plan in parliament

However, the free school meal and childcare expansion plan, being funded at a total cost of £114m over two years, was welcomed by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, a long-time campaigner on the issue.

"The best educational investment we can make is in two-year-olds, because that can change their life," he said.

"If we're going to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty we can make efforts at later stages - we can do stuff about youth unemployment, we can try and improve life chances through schools - but the best impact we can make is in doing it at the age of two."

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group, told BBC Scotland the school meals announcement was long overdue, adding: "The pressures on families and their ability to support their children are extraordinary, so providing a free school lunch to children in primary one to primary three is a very immediate, direct and well-evidenced way of supporting families at a time of increasing pressures."


BBC Political editor, Scotland

Alex Salmond's critics suggested his enthusiasm for free school meals was driven by external factors: the availability of cash from the Treasury as a consequence of the previous announcement of a comparable scheme for England; a desire to cosset parents - and especially mothers - with an eye to the referendum.

The first minister insisted he was persuaded by the advantages of the policy: it encouraged uptake including among those who were nominally eligible at present; it improved the health and wellbeing of youngsters and thus their educational attainment

Give to the Needy (29 December 2013)

In the run up to Christmas Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, burst into fairy-lights by demanding that Scotland's 'share' of the extra public spending announced recently by the Coalition Government at Westminster - should be used to provide free school meals to all children in primaries 1, 2 and 3.

Now this is serious money we're talking about - around £60 million a year, I think, because Scotland will expect to get 10% or so of the extra public spending announced by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in his autumn statement.

Which is of course a free handout of taxpayers money to people who earn above average incomes - because school meals are already free to people on low incomes and to those claiming benefits.

So, the big beneficiaries of the new policy in England and Wales are the better off - since the less well off gain absolutely nothing from extending free school meals to children whose working parents are perfectly well able to meet the cost themselves.   

In fact the policy benefits people exactly like EIS members, as I can't believe that any of Scotland's teachers currently qualify for free school meals - as things stand.

But if I had a Magic Wand, I would target this £60 million on the less well off and probably not just those with children - since that leaves out a great many people who have never had children or whose kids have grown up.

To my mind, £60 million spent on those most in need, would do far more good than spreading £60 million across the whole population - or in this case just people with children of a certain age.

Now some people say that social benefits should be 'universal' or available to everyone on the same basis - free NHS prescriptions in Scotland are a good example although they are not really free since the cost is met out of general taxation.

Yet this approach does not apply to the cost of housing and I've written before about the £20 billion windfall that mortgage payers have enjoyed in recent times which has not been shared with people who rent their homes or living on a fixed income.    

So why not use the extra money in a more meaningful and imaginative way, for example, by holding down rents in the social housing sector?

Because this particular group within the Scottish population has not benefited from the artificially low interest rates that Scotland's mortgage payers have experienced in the past 5 years - which means that since 2008 mortgage payers have effectively been receiving special treatment as far as their standard of living is concerned.  

A much better and fairer use of £60 million, if you ask me, as such a policy would put a significant amount of money in the pockets of those at the bottom of the income ladder - instead of subsidising members of the teaching profession and EIS (Educational Institute  of Scotland). 

The statistics tell their own tale - Scotland's share of the great £20 billion mortgage windfall is around £2 billion which makes £60 million look like chickenfeed.

So the argument about universality, about everyone being treated the same way, does not stand up to serious scrutiny.