There can be little doubt that the Unite trade union has questions to answer, both in its conduct over the Grangemouth refinery dispute and on the role it played in allegedly seeking to influence the ballot for the selection of a parliamentary candidate in the Falkirk constituency.
But it is the resort to intimidatory demonstrations at the homes of managers of the Grangemouth plant that has fuelled calls for an inquiry into the conduct of unions in the pursuit of industrial disputes.
However, whether the Westminster coalition’s announcement of such an inquiry has helped or hindered matters is moot. Barely had news of the inquiry been made public than it triggered immediate denunciation. The Unite union has branded it as politically driven. Labour has questioned its motivation. First Minister Alex Salmond has denounced it as “foolish and irresponsible”.
The inquiry will be headed by industrial relations lawyer Bruce Carr QC. However, his previous involvement in a court battle with Unite risks fuelling criticism that this is indeed a union-bashing exercise.
His report will cover the tactics used by the unions in the bitter dispute which almost led to the closure of the Grangemouth oil refinery, amid claims that “mobs” of demonstrators were sent to protest outside their homes of executives from owner Ineos.
Given the embarrassment caused by the behaviour of Unite to the Labour Party and in particular its leadership – Johann Lamont in Scotland and Ed Miliband who leads the party nationally – it was inevitable that any move by the Conservative leadership to instigate an inquiry here would immediately attract charges of political opportunism. And that the inquiry could run for up to six months looks like an arrangement perfectly suited to keeping Labour on the back foot over the nature of its relationship with Unite and the extent of the union’s influence in the party’s policy and affairs.
Knowing that such would be the reaction, the government should have given more serious consideration as to how an inquiry could be structured and presented to avoid just such a response. It could, for example, have invited advice from quarters outside the party political hothouse and also sought to engage broader, and less politically aligned support. Instead, by proceeding in the way, it has prejudiced the inquiry by making it appear like the instrument of a political vendetta. This works to undermine the very raison d’être for such an inquiry. This is particularly regrettable, given the widespread public concern over a return to the worst industrial relations practices of the 1970s.
There is a case to answer. But this is not the best way to present the case, still less to secure the answers that might bring some comfort to the public. The combatants now look if anything more deeply entrenched.
Extend round-the-clock care
Reading the reports presented to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), there can be little doubt of the compelling case for hospitals to provide “genuine” seven-day care.
This would pave the way for the elimination of the practice of placing patients on to wards inappropriate for their needs and conditions. This practice – known as boarding – increases the risk of death, lengthens hospital stays unnecessarily and increases the incidence of patient re-admission.
The RCPE conference heard concerns that growing pressures on hospital capacity, including from the ageing population, meant that patients were not always admitted to the ward most appropriate for their care.
A “consensus statement”, to be passed to the UK and Scottish governments, calls for this practice to be eliminated.
It is a statement to which the authorities should give urgent heed. But it is also one to which the hospital managements themselves must respond. In order to give practical effect to its recommendations, more senior staff and hospital services will need to be available out-of-hours to improve the flow of patients.
This “genuine seven-day working” would ensure patients had the best care. It will almost certainly involve a further extension of out-of-hours availability including more doctors on site rather than on call at home. This could help reduce demand on hospitals by, for example, making sure patients are discharged when ready rather than being kept in until doctors and other services return after the weekend. It should bring its own cost efficiencies, but hospitals must be prepared to reconfigure budgets.