Friday, 22 October 2010

Public services - now is the time we need access to information

As we all begin to weigh up the catastrophic consequences of Gideon Osborne's cuts on our public services, it is likely, whether we are public service workers, trade unionists, community activists, campaigners or service users, that we will be seeking information on those services. All the expert opinion appears to be saying that requests under FOI are likely to increase in these circumstances.

It is therefore an appropriate time for the Scottish Government to seek to close some of the loopholes that allow bodies to slip through the net and refuse to disclose information. In particular when public services are provided by private contractors, housing associations, local council trusts, or other non-public bodies.

While technically such bodies could have always been covered by the simple decision of Ministers to designate them under Section 5 of the Act, this is in fact, the first time it has been attempted since the Act's passing in 2002.

Obviously, these 'outside bodies' make great public play about how much better they are in providing services than the old public sector, so you would think they might welcome the opportunity to promote that. After all, a commercial company that is sensitive to the needs of the public sector to be accountable for our money might have a better chance of winning contracts? 

Call me an old cynic, but my previous experience with UNISON, was that commercial companies did their damndest to hide away from the light of information provision. Private contractors tried to prevent Lothian Health Board revealing details of the PFI contract for the ERI; North Ayrshire Leisure refused to respond to a request for information as they were not a public body; and Scottish Water's PFI contracts seem to be in some twilight zone!!

That is why if you feel it is important that outside bodies doing business with the public sector must be accountable for the way they spend our money - and according the Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner - 'at least two thirds of the Scottish population favour extending Scotland's FOI laws to cover bodies such as housing associations, leisure trusts, PPP/PFI projects and private prisons.'  - then I suggest you might want to make your views known to the government by responding to their consultation. It is available at - and responses are due by November 2.

The proposals aren't perfect - PFI contractors in the Water service aren't covered, nor are housing associations except for the GHA - but the principle that such bodies should be covered is worth getting behind. And no time is more appropriate than just now!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Homage to Edinburgh, Homage to Tati.

It is unusual for me to enthuse about a film, but last night in a packed GFT, I sawThe Illusionist, the film which opened this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. It was a beautifully written, drawn and filmed piece of animé. A true homage by its creator - Sylvain Chomet - to his temporary home city of Edinburgh, and to the film's screenplay writer - Jacques Tati.

The screenplay was written for Tati's daughter and never filmed during his life. She presented it to Chomet, and he switched the action from Prague to Edinburgh and spent 5 years in the city producing it. It has been worth it. As an adopted weegie, I have never seen Edinburgh look so beautiful, or so realistic. Although set in the late 50's/early 60's, you can truly identify parts of the city - Salisbury Crags; Victoria Street and, of course, the Cameo cinema all feature, as does the West Coast of Scotland - with driving rain!

The film is also an homage to Tati himself, with the illusionist of the title being based on Tati's creation - M. Hulot. And what a superb piece of work he is! Not simply the Hulot of Vacances, or even the one of Playtime - confused by modern life - here Tatischeff (Tati's birth name) is a much more care worn prestidigitateur, but still keen not to disillusion his young ward.

As his fortunes decline - it is the early days of rock and roll, and no-one is watching old-style variety any more - hers increase, until the inevitable heart-tugging parting. But the film can be watched for a whole variety of reasons as well as the gorgeous production. The storyline is both funny and sad - watch the scene with the stew that she has prepared, and that he thinks contains his white rabbit. The rabbit, by the way, is probably one of the main supporting stars of the picture!

While the main characters are painfully realistic, many of the supporting cast are superbly surreal. Chomet enjoys himself with the inhabitants of the theatrical hotel, american tourists, and not least with the drunken highland laird, who first books Tatischeff for Scotland.

See this if you like Edinburgh; see this if you like Tati; see this if you like the 50's, but above all - see it!!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

THREATS AND OPPORTUNITIES - the public sector and the arts

The following piece is an extract taken from a contribution I gave to a recent Morning Star Education Seminar on Government funding and working class culture. This was part of a series on cultural topics that continue into January. Future events on Burns; Tressell & the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Orwell. The details can be found here - 
The first seminar brought together, myself, Dave MacLennan (ex -Wildcat, and producer of A play, a pie and a pint at  Oran Mor in Glasgow.) and Susan Galloway, a researcher from Glasgow University’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research. All of us focussed on the importance of public funding to the cultural sector and expressed their concern about the cuts planned by the ConDem government.
But we also debated alternative sources of funding, and the opportunities and drawbacks of each. I listed big business, trade unions and charitable trusts as options - all of which had major limitations. The volume of public funding means that it is no surprise that at both local and Scottish level this provides the lions share of cultural funding. The Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) had nearly £60m to distribute in grants to the arts in 2010 (although about £12m came from the National Lottery) - plus the Scottish Government funds some national companies direct. But Scottish local government - in the latest figure I can discover - spent £274m on the provision of culture in 2003-4 (figs from Cultural Commission report of 2005). Clearly this funding is crucial to the current ‘healthy’ arts scene in Scotland. 
Elsewhere in my contribution I listed some of the problems that relying on one single source of funding can bring. From political censorship, to self-censorship; from over-dependence to being at the whim of fashion.
Having said all this - why is it important that the public sector continues to fund cultural and artistic work? Haven’t I outlined more than enough difficulties in doing so?
That may be so - but withdrawal of the funding that currently comes from the ‘state’ - however inadequate and restricted it is (and that £274m from local authorities is only 2.5% of their total expenditure ) would mean both a damage to culture in general - and working class/progressive culture in particular.
Leaving the field to big business, and/or individual ‘rich’ supporters will mean the high-profile, city centre, Scotland-wide projects and product may well continue to be backed, but radical, challenging, and above-all locally based community work, will suffer.
And it is clear that public sector funding is already being cut, and faces further extensive surgery.
For Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop to point to the maintenance (this year) of funding for Creative Scotland compared to the cuts planned at the Arts Council in England is fair comment. But it ignores the real damage that is starting and will get dramatically worse as cuts come the way of local councils and other public services. Figures of 10, 12,even 20% cuts have been bandied about. How far will non-statutory grants to local groups - or anyone producing for those local groups survive in that climate? yet again it will be local community-based art that will suffer. 
Finally - are there any positives? I think ironically, there ARE opportunities, if arts organisations can be flexible and imaginative enough to grasp them. Ironically they arise out of the very cuts we worry about.  There are already campaigns beginning in the fightback against these cuts. These campaigns will need to a) capture the support of local people and communities, and b) articulate the concerns of workers and service users. And there is strong evidence that TUs are aware of and wanting to make such alliances. Locally-based radical arts groups might be an ideal way of doing this. 
If I was one working in West Dumbarton for example - I’d be approaching the joint union/community campaign already working there, to see what work could be done together - and might also want to talk to people in the STUC, UNISON, the EIS, the PCS about opportunities.
So there are faint glimmers in the darkness, but there are many more threats. This is why cultural groups, trade unions, community groups etc should be working together - to use all the working classes talents in fighting the cuts to come. Let’s use cultural work to build campaigns like the ~STUC’s There is a better way, and in the process reinvigorate working class culture and local arts work.