Friday, 30 December 2011

We need to develop policies for life long learning!

This first appeared on Scots Gazette on 12 September 

The whole university fees issue continues to be a hot issue as they take shape.  Recently the Scottish universities have been announcing what fees they will charge students from the rest of the UK and non EU foreign students.  This has of course put into focus the absurd situation where we are charging students from other parts of the UK but not from other EU countries.

However, this got me thinking about the issue of lifelong learning and mature students. I read an excellent piece from LibDem blogger, Richard Morris which prompted my thinking.  Richard picked up on the fact that the Open University students studying for an equivalent or lower level degree to one they already hold will have to pay their fees up front from next year (The TES describes the issue).  He argued that many students will now be priced out of the system which will have a significant effect on the economy.  Furthermore he made the point that while other aspects of education rightly took priority this was an important issue and made a plea for the LibDems to address it as a policy issue.

“… Where there is money, we have chosen as a party to direct it towards the youngest in society (in England and Wales), through initiatives like the pupil premium and free nursery places, where we believe tight funds can get the best results and have the most profound impact. I agree with this approach.
But I cannot pretend that the knock on effect of this sits easily with me. As Liberals we are philosophically wedded to the notion of giving every individual the opportunity to make more of their lives – and the best chance of delivering that must come through lifelong learning. A quick Google search indicates we have had very little to say on this subject since May last year – which is surprising….”

I absolutely agree with him.  Moreover, I think this is a terribly important policy area with patterns of work becoming more disjointed over peoples’ lifetimes.

With the rise of the contract worker and many more people finding themselves working for a large company for a period of time then choosing – or being forced – to change direction, the need for workers in the 21st century to be adaptable is very high.  Patterns of work are changing and the days of the paternalistic large organisation are gone.  Large companies don’t do social welfare anymore – just look at pensions. Nor do they provide a culture to train and nurture a worker throughout life any more.

Companies will in the future employ a small group of uber managers and a core of key workers.  Other tasks will be performed by outsourcing, staff on short term contracts or professional contractors.  Workers therefore need to develop themselves and build new skills and knowledge to match a changing economy and changing technology – and each of us is responsible for our own development.

All this means that in building a modern, adaptable, knowledge economy, a coherent policy for adult learning is as important as education for the young.  Some of the young will need it too if they struggle to get careers off the ground in their early 20s in the current environment!

This is a key issue for developing Scotland’s economy and society in the future along with initiatives like Investors in People to encourage companies to invest in their staff for business success and to equip their employees for the modern world.

Europe - 10 things I think happened last week

This post first appeared on Scots Gazette on 12 December

I do not yet know what to make of what happened in Brussels last week and what the consequences will be for the UK as a result.

My feelings are these:

1.  I think the EU has failed to reach an agreement that will solve the current financial crisis.  I think this agreement will fail to save the Euro.
2.  I have some concerns that the aim of European leaders is a little too much to save banks that have loaned money to various European states rather than about saving any national economy.  There is a little too much of the poor paying the price for this global financial crisis.
3.  I have some concerns that the French are no friends of the importance of London as a financial centre and wish merely to curtail its power.  I also think the French have a bad habit of thinking France and Europe are synonymous.
4.  I worry that with the Euro, fiscal and monetary policy is basically aligned to what suits the German economy and that it is almost the case that a common European currency may as well be the Deutschmark.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for every economy, but I doubt it would ever work well for the UK economy (and incidentally I doubt it would be right for any independent Scottish economy, should that ever happen, in the future)
5.  I think France and Germany were trying to get Britain to bail the Euro out.  I believe the UK should participate in doing what needs to be done to bring financial stability but we are not part of the Euro and should not bail it out.
6.  I think David Cameron went over there to veto the deal and to appease the many Euro sceptics in his party.  There are rather too many Euro sceptics in his party and their Little Englander nationalism is not good.  I think, therefore he was far too quick to veto and could have taken a far more subtle approach.  There was no win-win created.
7. In fact I think David Cameron was somewhat out manoeuvred by Sarkozy and my impression is that he has not done a good job with his diplomacy – rather overplaying his hand and getting a quite unnecessary result.
8.  In actual fact we have vetoed the Euro Zone doing something we don’t mind – the Eurozone working within the EU to support their fiscal union.
9.  However, in doing this we have failed to stop something we do in fact mind – the 26 countries acting as a bloc on  single market issues with the UK on the outside.  This is not good.  It is not good for the UK long term and it may damage our trade and industry.
10.  I argued previously that we are right not to be part of the Euro – a currency zone that does not work for us and is, and seems likely to remain, inherently unstable.  It is right and very important that we are part of a supra-national body like the EU that is far more than a free trade area, but stops short – and always stops short of full integration.  Our global relations and flexibility – especially openness to the growing far east and so-called BRIC countries remain important.

This may be a watershed moment.  It is just possible that Europe may never be the same again.  If this all means a two tier Europe, then so be it (I’m not sure how the Euro Zone will play out anyway).  However, we must remain an integral part of the EU and we must work to achieve our interest within it and to take a lead.  France are too self interested to be left alone to it and so, in the final analysis, are Germany.
The EU needs us and we need the EU.   It is important that we avoid total isolation because there are trade deals to be done and diplomatic influence to be wielded – if we have any left!  To this end, as a puzzle what happened and where that leaves us I am asking, “David Cameron, what was that all about?”

Edinburgh, London, Paris, Munich - everyone talk about, the Euro

This post first appeared on Scots Gazette on 6 December 

Today Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy met for make or break talks to save the Euro.  If they implement what they have agreed the Eurozone will become essentially both a monetary and a fiscal union.  If they fail, the enormous debt mountains threaten to bury the currency, along with several countries and with it perhaps the EU itself!

And what of Britain?  What is the future in an outer ring of nations outside a core of 17 nations joined fiscally and monetarily?

In trying to answer this question I am conscious that I have always been, and remain, a pro European.  The EU supports trade and commerce and an incredibly positive cultural exchange.  True, it costs a lot but that is more than made up for by what we gain in trade and contracts.

I am also conscious that post globalisation the EU is an invaluable supra-national body, vital for international co-operation on issues like climate control and scientific projects.

But, most importantly I believe the EU (and its predecessors) is an absolutely crucial building block in what has kept the peace in Europe since World War II and what makes war seem almost unthinkable amongst these close knit neighbouring nations.

So what of the Euro?

I have always held the view that we were right to not enter into the Euro.  Oh, the principle seemed fine enough but only if monetary and fiscal policy was a good fit with our economy – which across so many countries and based heavily on Germany always seemed unlikely.  I thought Gordon Brown got it about right setting five tests to see if it was right to join, the first and most important of which said, ” are our business cycles and economic structures compatible so that we could live comfortably with Euro interest rates”.
Also, while I am a passionate believer in Europe and see it as far more than just a Common Market, I do not believe in a united states of Europe.  Nationalism is too potent a force to pull that one off peace-ably.  A close knit supra-national body and community of nations is how I see the EU.

This means I am glad we have not been part of the Euro.  I could never have foreseen this malarkey but it did not seem in our interests before.  Today, I think it is best we continue to keep out of it.

I suspect if the untangling can be done without excessive pain, one or two countries curently in the currency are best finding a controlled way to extract themselves.  This may be the best thing for all, not least the Greek people for example!

As it is these are interesting times for Europe and we must be careful that the EU itself does not unravel – which is a danger. 

The Scottish angle in this is interesting. 

If Scotland were to become independent the SNP’s currency of choice would be Sterling.  Going into the Euro would be even more untenable now than when this policy was first made.  However, if we were to be part of a Sterling zone would it not be better if we got the vote for the body that decides fiscal policy that affects the currency – namely Westminster?  Does this not recognise we are part of a Sterling economy?  Is this not an indicator that we are a natural part of the UK rather than separate from it?  I would argue this helps to indicate that devolution within the UK is the most natural and the right constitutional arrangement for Scotland!

Independence in Europe, since the 1980s has been central to making Scottish independence seem more credible and less scary than outright independence maybe seemed in years gone by. If the future shape of Europe seems more uncertain, as I think is the case currently, then this strengthens the logic of being part of the UK.  Again, being an autonomous part of the United Kingdom is the way forward – Home Rule within the UK makes more and more sense to me.

I think in the current period Europe and the Global Financial Crisis are difficult ones for the SNP administration at Holyrood as they emphasise how they are in fact marginal to issues such as those crises and the the Sterling economic zone!

We are rubbish at looking after carers!

This post, by me, first appeared on Scots Gazette on 29 November

The sad death of footballer Gary Speed has thrown mental ill health into the spotlight again.  As I write I do not know what led to the death of a popular young man by his own hand at the tragically early age of 42. However, it highlights the battles many suffer from illnesses such as depression and the desperate challenges faced by their families and loved ones.

I want to consider the issue of those who suffer mental ill health and their carers.  I want to talk about how important they are, how important it is to look after them and how – when it comes to carers – the mental health authorities are all talk and could do better!

Something like a fifth of the population suffers from mental illness and it is estimated that in the UK there are 1.5 million caring for relatives suffering in this way or from dementia.

Carers are a desperately important part of the support medical care given to those with mental illness to allow their recovery or put them in a position where they can cope with their everyday lives.  The mental health authorities in Scotland have recognised the importance of an informal network of unpaid carers as a crucial part of the delivery of care and that they be” respected in their role and experience receive appropriate information and advice and have their views taken into account.” Which is apparently part of one of ten Millan guiding principles which went towards forming the Mental health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003.

Carers also face a tough situation.  Sure they come in all shapes and sizes and face an almost infinite variety of different situations across a broad spectrum of severity.  However, they all face certain things in common.  Carers all report feeling emotions of hopelessness, fear, guilt and isolation.  Often they find themselves utterly alone and overwhelmed by a situation they feel inadequate to deal with.  There is also plenty of evidence now that their physical health often suffers as well.

Caring is a tough gig and it is important.  But talking to carers they all, consistently, complain of being kept outside the loop.  They feel they are not well communicated with about their loved ones condition. They feel, despite the fact that they know them and their moods best, their views and observations are not listened to and, perhaps worst of all, they feel there is almost no information and support for them.

One carer said to me, “the mental health profession is just a bit rubbish when it comes to looking after carers!”

This is a view many professionals working with carers sadly share as well.   I’m told by some people working with carers that the principles of working with carers in Scotland have not yet been truly implemented.  And I’ve no reason to think England and Wales is doing any better.
More needs to be done.

To this end I want to praise the work done by Edinburgh Carers Council (ECC).  They recognise the need to look after and support carers.  They need the support and ultimately this aids the recovery of the original loved one and patient.  And this is more than a one hit.

As the medical model of looking after mental illnesses has moved from complete recovery to finding a way of living a satisfying and contributing life, so that ongoing support has to adapt for carers.

The ECC are developing programmes that support carers on an ongoing basis.  One programme I have come across is known as WRAP (wellness recovery action plan).  It has been adapted for carers and is about supporting them and equipping them to support themselves.  It aims to give carers a range of strategies and routines which are about looking after themselves.  Eating properly and getting rest and exercise is part of it.  Making time for yourself and having routines to recuperate are also important.  This is about leisure and doing some of the things you love.  If you are not making a life for yourself you will rapidly become useless to your loved one you care for.  It is also about self esteem and feeling supported; and it’s about giving access to information and practical support to navigate the mental health authorities, to participate in care and get answers and support when you need it.  The idea is improved physical and mental well being, less guilt, more energy and improved relationships which all means being a better carer.

It is just one programme but it is giving real and practical support to carers of those with mental health problems in Edinburgh today.

My plea is therefore this:
We need more of this for carers of all types.

The mental health authorities, who do a tough job and many great things, need to be better in practice at looking after carers rather than just talking about it in reports.

And, in these times of austerity, I can imagine programmes like this could be in the frontline for being cut-back.  My plea is that they are vital and ultimately better value in saved resources and medication bills as a result of the support carers give the mentally ill on their journeys to recovery and coping.