Autumn Budget 2017: a wintry economic outlook

On a chilly morning in Glasgow last Friday, delegates gathered at the University of Strathclyde’s Technology and Innovation Centre in Glasgow for the Fraser of Allander Institute’s (FAI) post-Budget briefing.

Chaired by Alf Young, visiting professor at the International Public Policy Institute, the presentation focused on the economic and tax measures in the Chancellor’s first Autumn Budget and the implications for Scotland as the Scottish Government prepares to present its own Budget next month.

The economy

The FAI Director, Professor Graeme Roy suggested that arguably the most significant element was the substantial downward revisions in UK growth forecast.

In its forecast for the next five years, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has wiped off £60 billion from the UK economy. The principal reason for this is the OBR’s shift in its outlook for productivity. As recently as March this year, the OBR were forecasting a gradual acceleration of the economy, returning to growth of 2% by 2021. Now, however, they believe that weak productivity performance in the wake of the financial crisis can no longer be seen as temporary, and that the slowdown is evidence of structural weakness.

Professor Roy described the implications of this for household incomes as “nothing short of dismal”. Scotland will not be immune from these pressure, and the Scottish Fiscal Commission is likely to be just as (if not more) pessimistic as the OBR.

The reasons for the UK’s weak productivity – labour hoarding, flat investment, inefficiencies in the financial system and a lack of labour market slack – add to the pressures on the Chancellor, who also remains committed to fiscal restraint. This, Professor Roy suggested, means budgets will continue to be squeezed for the next 15 years.

Taxation

Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland went on to review the tax elements of the Autumn Budget.

She explained that it was a “predominantly English Budget”, with a number of measures that would not apply in Scotland, such as those concerning business rates, stamp duty, training investment, capital and resource funding for the NHS, and a number of measures affecting housing.

However, there were also measures which will affect the whole of the UK, including changes to the corporation tax main rate, freezing of the VAT threshold, a rise in income tax personal allowance and the raising of the higher rate threshold for income tax.

While the Autumn Budget contained relatively few taxation measures, Ms Barbour suggested that forthcoming issues are likely to have significant impacts, including moves by HMRC to make tax digital, taxation changes concerning the gig economy, the devolution of tax powers and, of course, Brexit.

Scotland

David Eiser, research fellow at the FAI reminded his audience, that, as far as Scotland was concerned, the Chancellor’s Budget was the first of two important economic announcements this autumn. On 14 December, the Scottish Government’s Finance Cabinet Secretary, Derek Mackay, will deliver his Budget to the Scottish Parliament.

The Chancellor announced that Scotland is to receive an extra £2bn in block grant funding, spread over the next four years. But the Scottish Government has argued that £1.1bn of this money can’t be used to support day-to-day spending on public services, and has to be repaid by the Scottish government to the UK government”.

Mr Eiser noted that, while in principle it would be possible for the Scottish Government to offset grant cuts by raising income tax in Scotland, there is a still a need to consider the performance of the Scottish economy.

Mr Mackay will face pressure to match the Chancellor’s decision to reduce stamp duty land tax for first-time buyers on properties up to £300,000 in England. But Mr Eiser argued that there are more effective ways of addressing housing affordability issues in Scotland than reducing the broadly similar Land and Buildings Transactions Tax.

Overall, Mr Eiser assessed that there are opportunities in the Scottish Budget to increase public investment and to explore the use of fiscal transactions to stimulate the economy. But with the block grant – not to mention welfare and other reserved spending in Scotland – still driven by UK fiscal policy, the outlook for public spending in Scotland looks tough.

A wintry outlook

In Scotland, the focus now switches to Mr Mackay’s Budget speech next month. The FAI will be holding another post-budget review, and the Knowledge Exchange Blog will report on this shortly afterwards.

But, as Professor Roy suggested, the main story of the Autumn Budget was the outlook for the UK economy. It’s been reported that this has been the worst decade for UK productivity since the Napoleonic wars. That stark historic perspective presents a grim backdrop for the UK economy as it prepares to leave the European Union.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Back to the classroom – teacher training and recruitment

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by Stacey Dingwall

Earlier this week, the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report on the recruitment and retention of teachers in England. Announced in October 2015, the Committee took evidence on whether there was a ‘crisis’ in teacher recruitment, including by region and subject; what the “root causes” of the present situation with regards to teacher recruitment were; and what action the government should take to address issues with teacher recruitment.

“Significant shortages”

The Committee’s report suggests that at present, the government is failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what it describes as “significant” teacher shortages in England. It is noted that the targets for initial teacher training (ITT) courses have been missed for the last five years and that Geography, Biology and History were the only subjects in which the targets for new entrants to postgraduate and undergraduate ITT courses were exceeded. Targets for all other secondary level subjects were missed, with only 68% of Computing ITT places filled, and only 41% of Design and Technology places.

While the report acknowledges the importance of recruiting new teachers to the profession, it also emphasises the importance of retaining the teachers that it already has. Government data shows that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year, and 30% leave within five years. Giving evidence to the enquiry, the National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that the number of teachers leaving rose by 11% between 2011 and 2014.

“Unmanageable” workloads

The Education Committee identified workload as a key driver for those teachers who choose to leave the profession. Last year, 82% of the 4,000 respondents to a Guardian survey described their workload as “unmanageable”. Analysis published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in October found that teachers in England work longer hours than their peers in 35 other developed countries, working an average of 48.2 hours per week.

When Nicky Morgan was Education Secretary, three review groups were set up to provide recommendations around the three biggest areas identified by teachers as those that add to their workload unnecessarily: marking, planning and data management. The groups’ recommendations have yet to be progressed following their publication in March 2016 (and Morgan’s replacement).

In Scotland, Education Secretary John Swinney announced his intention to “declutter” the Scottish education system at last year’s Scottish Learning Festival, by reducing teachers’ workload around assessments. In response, teaching union EIS suspended their programme of industrial action over teacher workload in relation to examinations.

Teaching as a second career

Swinney also announced plans to develop new routes into teaching, using funding from the Scottish Government’s Attainment Scotland Fund. These plans were followed by the launch of the ‘Teaching Makes People’ campaign at the start of the month, which is targeted at recruiting more teachers in the STEM subjects.

As well as undergraduates, the campaign is also aiming to attract people from the STEM industries into the profession. In particular, the Scottish Government hopes that it will convince former oil and gas industry workers to retrain as teachers.

The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) reported in January that more than 6,200 people aged 30 and over started ITT in 2016-17, the highest number since 2012-13.  Entering teaching as a second career has become more common in recent years. In November, Financial Times associate editor and columnist Lucy Kellaway announced that she was leaving her role to become a maths teacher after 31 years in her role.

At the same time, Kellaway set up Now Teach, a charity which works to encourage senior professionals in the business industry to retrain as teachers. Aside from helping with the issue of teacher recruitment, headteachers have also welcomed the benefits of having former professionals in the classroom in terms of their leadership skills and ability to provide careers advice.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on careers guidance.

Modern language learning in a globalised world

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

In November, the Teaching Schools Council published Ian Bauckham’s Modern foreign languages pedagogy review, which looked at modern foreign languages teaching practice in key stages 3 and 4 in England.

The EBacc and modern languages

The review was announced in May last year by schools minister Nick Bole, shortly after it was indicated that 3,500 more language teachers would be needed in order to realise the government’s desire for 90% of pupils to sit the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language component.

Only 40% of English pupils currently take the EBacc. The Education Datalab’s estimate of the number of additional language teachers needed to increase this to 90% represents an increase of almost 40%. The government has missed its recruitment target for language teachers for the last four years, achieving just 87% of its target in 2015.

The Education Datalab’s latest data on the EBacc, published in October, suggests that the number of pupils who sit the qualification has stalled because there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of entries in languages.

The Bauckham review

Ian Bauckham’s review emphasises the “clear educational, personal, cultural, social, cognitive, career and business benefits in being able to communicate confidently in another language”. However, it notes that the latest edition of the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that over 50% of employers were not satisfied with their employees’ foreign language skills.

Although this is problematic for the country on a variety of levels, the Bauckham review points to the difficult context in which schools find themselves with regards to teaching foreign languages. Aside from recruitment issues, teachers are also dealing with some negative attitudes to foreign language learning from pupils and their parents, who may have had a poor language learning experience themselves. The review highlights that it is much easier for non-native English speakers to acquire the language due to its global dominance.

Schools also have to juggle the competing pressure of increasing the number of pupils taking STEM related subjects. The issue of a shortfall of people with STEM skills in the UK has received a great deal more attention from researchers and policymakers in recent years than a lack of those with language skills.

Language learning in Scotland: the 1+2 approach

In 2012, the Scottish Government published “Language learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach”. Intended to be rolled out across two parliaments, the approach was included in the government’s 2011 manifesto, which stated their intention to “introduce a norm for language learning in schools based on the European Union 1+2 model – that is we will create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their own mother tongue”.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for the approach is that by 2020, all children will start to learn an additional language from P1 that they will continue studying until at least S3. They will also be given the opportunity to start studying a third language no later than P5. This ambition also fits in with the government’s focus on closing the attainment gap during its term, with the language approach working to achieve key goals such as increasing the employability of school leavers.

Overall, the Scottish Government says its key aim in improving and expanding language learning in schools is that “young people are equipped with the skills and competencies they need in our increasingly globalised world” – a prudent ambition in increasingly uncertain times.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

What state is the Scottish education system in?

by Stacey Dingwall

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published new statistics on the country’s education system, contained in the evidence report for the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. The report outlines progress made against each of the four priorities set by the Scottish Government in January when it first published the Framework:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.

The government’s priority

The Scottish Government has previously identified education as its top priority, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that her actions in this area are what she wishes to be judged on during her time in office.

Unfortunately, these latest statistics did not bring good news for the First Minister. While Education Secretary John Swinney highlighted that the number of teachers in the country had increased overall, he also conceded that “significant improvements” were needed in some areas. These areas include a worsening of the ratio of pupils to teachers in 12 council areas, and a slight increase in class sizes overall.

2015 Pisa results

The progress report came on the heels of the previous week’s bad news: Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Pisa rankings. The country recorded its worst ever results in the OECD survey, with scores for maths, science and reading declining since 2012. Scotland’s 2015 results in these areas were all classified as ‘average’, in contrast to 2000’s results of ‘above average’.

Although Scotland maintained its position within the OECD statistical average, the results indicate that the country is now performing ‘significantly below’ other countries in some areas, including England (science).

Has the Scottish education system got worse?

Reacting to the Pisa results, opposition parties called them evidence of “a decade of educational failure” under the SNP. Keir Bloomer of Reform Scotland and the Commission on School Reform also said that it was “no longer credible to describe Scotland’s education system as world leading”, and suggested there was now an “urgent” case for reform.

This is not something that the Scottish Government has shied away from admitting. As we reported from this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, John Swinney has made it his intention to “declutter’ the Scottish education system, by reducing teachers’ workloads around assessments. A number of actions have either been implemented, or are in the process of being introduced, in response to the OECD’s 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, which the government commissioned itself. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, funding from which enabled 63% of the increase in FTE teachers in Scotland last year.

Pisa overemphasis?

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said that it was important not to make any “snap judgements” based on the Pisa results, emphasising the need for analysis of the full data released by the OECD rather than headline findings.

We looked at issues raised around the influence of Pisa results in 2014, when academics and research questioned the system’s reliability and its claim that when schools are given more independence over spending, their schools achieve better academic results. An evaluation of the Pisa methodology published in May this year found that it had a series of limitations including “an inconsistent rationale, opaque sampling, unstable evaluative design, measuring instruments of questionable validity, opportunistic use of scores transformed by standardization, reverential confidence in statistical significance, an absence of substantively significant statistics centered on the magnitudes of effects, a problematic presentation of findings and questionable implications drawn from the findings for educational norms and practice”.

The OECD itself has admitted that “large variation in single country ranking positions is likely” because of the methods it uses.

Going forward

Conceding that the results were not where she wanted Scotland’s education system to be, Nicola Sturgeon maintained, however that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the “right way forward”. She also highlighted her government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations contained in the OECD’s earlier review of the system, in which the CfE was described in positive terms, with the caveat that the government must be ‘bold and innovative’ in order to achieve its potential. Given the First Minister’s stated determination to improve the education system’s performance, this is advice that would seem logical to follow.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Scottish Learning Festival 2016: excellence and equity for all

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last Wednesday, I attended the first day of the annual Scottish Learning Festival. Launched in 2000 as Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology (SETT), the two day event run by Education Scotland regularly attracts thousands of visitors from the education landscape in Scotland and beyond.

Promoting excellence and equity for all

The theme of this year’s event was promoting excellence and equity for all through:

  • School leadership and improvement
  • Assessing children’s progress and parental engagement
  • Teacher professionalism
  • Performance information

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made education the priority for her government, telling education leaders earlier this year that they could “judge” her on the success of her policies to close the attainment gap in Scotland.  Despite improvements in Scottish school standards, an attainment gap persists, with pupils in more affluent areas twice as likely to gain a Higher than their peers from deprived areas. Sturgeon’s priority is to ensure that kids in Scotland grow up with the belief that academic success is achieved through talent and hard work, rather than based on the area in which they live.

Opening keynote: John Swinney

The festival’s opening keynote address was delivered by John Swinney, the recently appointed Education Secretary. Swinney stated his aim to “declutter” Scottish education. This is to be achieved by replacing the current mandatory requirement for unit assessment at National 5 and Higher levels with enhanced course assessment. Swinney explained that the aim of this was to reduce teachers’ workload around assessments, and suggested that teachers must also take additional steps themselves to reduce their workload. In the wake of this announcement, the EIS teaching union agreed to consider suspending their planned industrial action over teacher workloads.

Swinney also launched the inaugural Digital Schools Awards at the festival, which aim to promote, recognise and encourage best practice use of digital technology in primary schools. Prior to the event, the education secretary spoke of the importance of supporting Scotland’s digital sector by developing the skills and confidence of learners, and pointed to evidence that technology use in the classroom can enhance learning and teaching, and lead to improved educational outcomes for pupils.

Improving schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective

The first afternoon session I attended was presented by Chris Graham from the Scottish Government Curriculum Unit, and focused on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland. Chris explained the background to the review, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government to:

  • Highlight key impacts of the approach taken to developing the curriculum to date
  • Analyse key aspects of education policy and practice in Scotland, and integrate insights from PISA and other evidence from different countries/regions
  • Highlight areas where further change or development could add value to an ongoing programme of educational improvement

The review made 12 recommendations, across the headings of quality and equity in Scottish schools; decision-making and governance for the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE); schooling, teachers and leadership; and assessment, evaluation and the CfE. A particular point that the OECD team made was that they didn’t believe that current activities around equity were as well aligned as they could be, and suggested that more should be done in terms of sharing evidence of ‘what works’ from individual interventions across the board. While the OECD did not specifically evaluate the CfE itself, the team did suggest that a new “narrative” be developed around it in order to clarify its scope – and perhaps even rename it. They were positive about the CfE overall however, but emphasised the need for the government to be bold and innovative in order to achieve its potential.

Chris also highlighted a range of measures that have been implemented since the report was published, some of which were under way when the OECD were carrying out their review. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to secondary schools, and the launch of the National Improvement Framework and Delivery Plan for Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education. Chris described these developments as relevant to the recommendations made by the OECD team, and sees the next steps to be taken as currently an “open conversation”.

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Inverclyde Attainment Challenge

The final session I attended looked at the experience of Aileymill Primary School in Inverclyde with the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This initiative was launched in February 2015 by the First Minister in order to bring a greater sense of urgency in achieving equity in educational outcomes in Scotland. Aileymill, along with five other schools in the area, was awarded Challenge funding in August last year in an attempt to bridge the gap between pupils from deprived and more affluent areas in Inverclyde.

The session featured presentations from Aileymill’s headteacher Catriona Miller and Marie Pye from Barnardo’s, who worked with the school to provide a dedicated family support worker and implement plans for families who were struggling with issues such as poor attendance. Catriona spoke of the extent of some of the issues facing the pupils in her school, where 70% of the roll falls into the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) categories 1 and 2.

Two key things that emerged from Catriona and Maria’s presentations were the importance of establishing trust to the success of the partnership between the school and Barnardo’s, and the need to develop a sustainable model to support pupils and their families due to the limited availability of funding. Also key was the relationship-based approach employed, not only to their partnership, but to the support they provide to pupils and their families. It was really inspiring to listen to how much of an impact the funding has made in Aileymill, where parents who had been previously completely disconnected from their child’s education are now engaging with both the school and social work, and there are pupils whose attendance has increased from 23% to 80% within a year.


You can read more about the 2016 Scottish Learning Festival here. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

BIM: the digitisation of the built environment

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde hosted a seminar on the digitisation of the built environment and how digital is disrupting the construction sector. The event focused on the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and its use in Scotland in particular.

What is BIM?

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As defined in the UK government’s industrial strategy, BIM is “a collaborative way of working, underpinned by the digital technologies which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining our assets”. Specifically, it embeds key product and asset data, and a 3D computer model that manages information throughout a project’s lifecycle. BIM has been described as a “game changer” for the construction industry, and can be used in the construction of new buildings as well as retrofitting and refurbishment.

Speaker: David Philp, AECOM

The first presentation came from David Philp, Global BIM/MIC Consulting Director of AECOM and the Chair of the Scottish Futures Trust’s BIM Delivery Group. The Group was established on the recommendation of the Scottish Government’s 2013 Review of Scottish Public Sector Procurement in Construction, and tasked with delivering a BIM implementation plan for the country, which was published in September 2015.

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David focused on the pathway set out in the implementation plan for Scottish public sector projects worth over £4.32m to adopt Level 2 BIM by 2017, as recommended by the 2013 review. In England, the industry was required to have adopted Level 2 by April of this year; a recent survey carried out by Construction News found that almost 70% of main contractors, consultants, professional services and clients had either fully embedded the Level 2 standards into their systems, or were using Level 2 when it suited the project.

The suitability of different levels was something that David stated was important to consider on a case by case basis – while the goal is to be Level 2 capable, sometimes Level 1 may be more appropriate. This is different to the approach taken in England, where the government has mandated that only Level 2 should be used from now on. As highlighted by David, the Chancellor’s latest Budget also included a commitment to “develop the next digital standard for the construction sector – Building Information Modelling 3 – to save owners of built assets billions of pounds a year in unnecessary costs, and maintain the UK’s global leadership in digital construction”.

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David also described the benefits of using BIM, particularly Level 2, in construction projects, in terms of efficiency, reducing risk and the creation of more sustainable and intelligent infrastructure. He also touched on the use of BIM in the construction of the High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham (HS2), due to begin in 2017. BIM has been described as the “backbone” of the HS2 project, which will be the largest BIM project undertaken in Europe so far.

Speaker: Professor Bimal Kumar, Glasgow Caledonian University

The seminar concluded with a presentation by Professor Kumar, Head of BIM at GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment. Professor Kumar, who works with David Philp as part of the BIM 4 Academia Working Group spoke about his department’s work in embedding BIM into the taught curriculum of the courses they offer, as well as his work in developing a BIM strategy for NHS Scotland, which involved mapping their existing processes to BIM processes.

Professor Kumar also shared some of his personal opinions on the adoption of BIM in Scotland, stating his belief that it will take another 30 years before Level 3 is fully adopted. He emphasised the need to ‘demistify’ BIM, as too many organisations still think that it will cost them too much in terms of effort and money to comply with the standards.

Overall, the seminar offered a good opportunity to find out more about something that, while mystifying to most, is set to transform the global construction industry.


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The Scottish budget 2016-17: what does it mean for digital?

THe Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, Edinburgh

The Scottish Parliament. Image by dun_deagh via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

Last week, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, published his budget for the next financial year. Unsurprisingly, it begins by outlining the financial challenges facing the Scottish Government. Mr Swinney highlights that the Scottish Budget will continue to fall year-on-year, and by 2020 will have fallen by 12.5% in real terms since 2010. These figures paint a very bleak picture for Scotland’s public finances.

However, with this pressure on public funds, the Scottish Government has given a clear commitment to digital. The budget states:

The Government will take steps to extend digital applications in public services, increase the use of shared services, secure further value from procurement developments, ensure effective use of assets and reduce overlap between public services. The digital agenda will both produce savings and improve the quality of our services.

What funds have been made available?

In cash terms, the funding for Scotland’s digital strategy has more than doubled to £116 million. This has been achieved by merging a number of distinct budgets, which, according to the Scottish Government, reflects the integrated nature of the strategy. The majority of the funding has been allocated to capital expenditure projects, which have increased their share to £92.2 million.

It’s expected that these resources will cover areas such as digital infrastructure, digital participation, digital public services, and the digital economy.

What digital initiatives have been introduced?  

The Budget makes a number of commitments to support digital change in Scotland, although, very few details are given about specific digital projects.

The main initiatives outlined in the report include:

  • Spending over £100 million to improve broadband services, as part of the £400 million Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme. It’s expected that by the end of 2015, 85% of premises will be connected to a next generation broadband network, rising to 95% by the end of 2017.
  • Establishing an ‘Alpha Fund’ to help improve the efficiency and quality of digital public services. It’s hoped that this can be achieved – like most digital transformation programmes – by developing common services that can be used across government.
  • Supporting the Digital Transformation Service to develop digital public services from a user perspective and to realise the benefits of digital technology.
  • Developing the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) digital services, including progressing with the ‘Data Linkage Framework’ strategy, which is expected to deliver data research projects that benefit the public. The NRS will also be preparing for the next Census, in 2021, which will mostly be delivered digitally.

What other announcements may impact digital?

For the ninth consecutive year, the Scottish Government have continued with their manifesto commitment to freeze council taxes. Councillor Michael Cook, who is vice president of COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has argued that Scottish Government cuts to local government revenues are “unprecedented”, and are coming at a time when local government are already facing massive pressures. He suggests that this could lead to job losses and changes to services.

In addition, the Scottish Government has chosen not to change the Income Tax rate for Scotland – a power recently devolved to Holyrood. Mr Swinney argues that this new power is limited, and any changes would go against the principle that taxation should be proportionate to the ability to pay.

Both of these decisions will have implications for the digital sector. For instance, companies that provide services to local government may find some new challenges as local government revenues have been cut by 3.5%.  It may mean that companies will have to further prove their value, as local government looks to reduce their costs or improve the services they provide. Yet, it could also bring opportunities, as the need for technical solutions that provide efficiencies has never been greater.

The decision not to raise Income Tax may also benefit Scotland’s digital sector. If Income Tax had risen in Scotland, recruitment might have become more challenging, or at least more expensive, as skilled staff might have been tempted by lower taxes elsewhere in the UK.

Final thoughts

The Budget has not provided any real surprises. Local government needs to make savings, and politically, increasing taxes would be difficult, especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year.

Therefore, the digital sector needs to focus on addressing the challenges highlighted in the Budget. This includes providing creative, efficient, technological solutions that support the everyday needs of both central and local government.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on digital policy. 

 

Increasing participation in sport and physical activity

by Stacey Dingwall

Our latest member briefing focuses on increasing participation in sport and physical activity in the UK, looking at successful examples of increasing activity and ways in which policymakers are trying to overcome the barriers to participation in sport and physical exercise. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

Physical activity levels in the UK

Despite the longstanding and valued position in British society of sport, getting people of all ages involved in sport and physical activity has become increasingly challenging. While current UK guidelines for aerobic activity recommend that adults aged 19 and over should spend at least 150 minutes per week in moderately intensive physical activity, the latest statistics on physical activity from the British Heart Foundation indicate that:

  • Only 67% of men in England and Scotland report meeting recommended levels of physical activity, and only 59% in Northern Ireland and 37% in Wales;
  • Women are less active than men in all UK countries, with 58% reporting meeting recommended levels in Scotland, 55% in England, and 49% in Northern Ireland and 23% in Wales;
  • Physical activity levels vary by household income; in England in 2012, 76% of men in the highest income quintile reached recommended levels, compared to 55% of men in the lowest income quintile.

The implications of inactivity

Low levels of physical activity not only have health implications, but also economic – in the UK, inactivity has been estimated to cost the NHS £1.1billion (Allender, 2007) with indirect costs to society bringing this cost to a total of £8.2billion.

Government action

Our briefing highlights the range of policies and interventions implemented by the UK and devolved governments to try and increase participation in sport and physical activity among the population. These include the Department of Education’s £150m per year Primary PE and Sport Premium Fund; and Scotland’s sport strategy for children and young people, Giving Children and Young People a Sporting Chance.

Good practice – home and abroad

In addition, the briefing profiles successful interventions at the community level, such as Let’s Get Fizzical, a physical activity programme for young people delivered by StreetGames in collaboration with Birmingham City Council. International examples of good practice are also highlighted, including the Active Healthy Kids Canada programme and the North Karelia Project in Finland.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To get a flavour of the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Debating the cost of alcohol to society

“Society is paying the costs – alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society £21 billion annually.”

So said David Cameron, launching the UK government’s alcohol strategy in 2012.

The prime minister was echoing the widely held view that alcohol is a financial burden on taxpayers. The British Medical Association has put the costs of alcohol harm in Northern Ireland and Wales at £680m and £1bn respectively, while the Scottish Government believes the annual cost of excessive alcohol consumption to be £3.6bn (equivalent to £900 for every adult in Scotland).

An alternative view

But now the popular view of alcohol as a drain on taxpayers has been challenged. A new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) claims that the net cost of alcohol to the state is minus £6.5 billion.

The report found that the direct costs of alcohol use to the government in England – including NHS, police, criminal justice and welfare costs – amount to just under £4 billion each year, whilst revenues from alcohol taxes amount to over £10 billion. And it claims that even if the government halved all forms of alcohol duty, it would still receive more money in tax than it spends dealing with alcohol-related problems.

Commenting on the findings, the report’s author, Christopher Snowden said it was time to stop regarding drinkers as a burden on taxpayers:

“Forty per cent of the EU’s entire alcohol tax bill is paid by drinkers in Britain and, as this new research shows, teetotallers in England are being subsidised by drinkers to the tune of at least six and a half billion pounds a year.”

The report received a hostile reception from Alcohol Concern. Deputy chief executive Emily Robinson told the Daily Telegraph:

“Non-drinkers suffer the consequences of alcohol related problems every day; whether that’s from drink driving accidents, being the victim of crime or anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, waiting in Accident and Emergency departments for their turn, even through to the costs of street cleaning town centres after a Friday night.

She went on to argue that policies, such as minimum unit pricing (MUP), were needed to tackle the harm caused by alcohol.

A setback for minimum unit pricing?

The IEA report appeared on the same day that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general advised that the Scottish Government’s policy on MUP breached EU competition and free trade laws.

The proposal to introduce minimum retail pricing for alcohol appeared in the Scottish Government’s 2009 alcohol framework, and in 2012 the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2 paved the way for the introduction of a minimum price of 50p per unit. The policy was challenged by the drinks industry, which believes that there are more effective ways of tackling harmful drinking.

While the advocate general’s advice may influence the ECJ’s final decision, The Scottish Government is standing by its policy. “While we must await the final outcome of this legal process,” said Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, “the Scottish Government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.”

The devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland have set out plans to introduce their own MUP legislation. In England, the 2012 alcohol strategy included a commitment to introduce an MUP for alcohol. However, in 2013 the coalition government decided not to proceed with this, and instead to impose a ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price.

Last year, a report from Sheffield University suggested that below cost price policy would have small effects on consumption and health harm, while an MUP set at  a level between 40p and 50p per unit, was estimated to have an approximately 40-50 times greater effect. The research appears to support evidence from Canada, the first country in the world to introduce MUP, indicating that MUP could bring significant health benefits.

With the IEA report introducing a provocative new perspective, and the final judgement on MUP awaited, it’s unlikely that ‘last orders’ will be called any time soon in the debate on alcohol’s impact on society.


 

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Further reading*

Alcohol pricing and purchasing among heavy drinkers in Edinburgh and Glasgow: current trends and implications for pricing policies

Understanding the alcohol harm paradox in order to focus the development of interventions

Understanding the development of Minimum Unit Pricing of alcohol in Scotland: a qualitative study of the policy process

Alcohol’s harm to others

The cost of binge drinking in the UK

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service