18 May 2017

S5M-05630 Partnership Action for Continuing Employment

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05630, in the name of Paul Wheelhouse, on partnership action for continuing employment, which is known to all and sundry, and to us, as PACE

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Bill Bowman introduced an Andy Grove quote to the debate and there is another quote of his that might be useful, which is:

“The ability to recognise that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of an enterprise”.

There is also the well-recognised Dutch saying “Een schip op het strand is een baken op zee”, or, in English, “A shipwreck on the shore is a warning to the sailor”.

In Andy Grove’s autobiography, he talked about strategic inflection points, which are when something suddenly happens that one has not seen coming and one has to respond to it. That has happened many times in history. For example, when Fritz Haber discovered the importance of nitrogen fixing, that led to the end of the runrig agriculture system, the start of the enclosure system and the removal of many people from the land. That is why there was a workforce to create the industrial revolution, so we could argue that it was a benefit. However, I am not sure that it helped the people very much, as their lives were probably much more miserable in the city squalor that they experienced than in the rural area.

By the same token, McCormick’s reaper, which was invented in the 1830s, transformed the way in which employment worked in agriculture, as did Cartwright’s invention of the power loom in the 1780s, which threw many people out of work.

Division of labour has deskilled many people over the years—that is not new. Plato’s “Republic” referred to the division of labour, so the idea has been around for a long time. Adam Smith talked about it in “The Wealth of Nations” in relation to the manufacture of pins.

Those were the threats in the mechanical world; computers bring their own new threats. From the 1960s onwards, computers automated routine activities that were often done by large numbers of people in back offices. There was a move to the creation of new products that displaced existing products from markets and, with the advent of the internet, computers have threatened, and will threaten even more in future, our high streets as retail changes. The next big revolution—artifical intelligence—is with us now and will displace many intellectual activities.

Elaine Smith: I would like to share something else that Dave Watson said today in his article in The Scotsman. He said:

“Like all new technology, the robots probably won’t deliver all that they promise. In the meantime, human beings in the workplace deserve a bit more dignity and will deliver more without being turned into robots.”

Does the member agree that dignity of labour and dignity in the workplace are extremely important?

Stewart Stevenson: The member is absolutely correct. I have not read Dave Watson’s article, but I will make sure that I do so before the sun goes down behind the yardarm, or whatever it does later in the day.

I want to give a few further reflections about what happened in Fraserburgh, because that has been my experience of PACE and there are one or two things that are not process things that are worth looking at.

We got all the people in the room and the Government very generously provided tea, coffee and biscuits. There was a lot of genuine informal networking before the meeting, during breaks in the meeting and after the meeting that, I suspect, had as much value as the formal session round the square table in the leisure centre in Fraserburgh. It meant that people who had responsibilities could not escape the people who were affected by how they discharged those responsibilities, which was quite important.

The other thing with the Fraserburgh experience—although, as far as I am aware, we never discussed it—was that it appeared to work on a Chatham house basis. In other words, we were able to open up and talk about things in some comfort that what was said in the room would not be taken up and used outside the room to disadvantage the people who were present, although, as under Chatham house rules, we could later refer to the matters that were discussed.

I do not know whether the intervention in Fraserburgh, where hundreds of people were going to lose their jobs, is typical of how it works in similar major events. I thought that the soft things about how it worked in practice were driven by the personal characteristics of many people in the room.

The trade unions were there. At the first meeting, we had three or four trade unionists present, and Unite the union did an excellent job in representing the workers, but even they had a difficulty because the factory concerned has a huge, international, multilingual workforce, and there was support from translation services to help the unions to make better contact with many of the people who were not actually union members, for all sorts of historical reasons, but who nonetheless properly required the kind of support that comes from the trade unions.

Creating the opportunity for people in the room to be supported, so that they could support the workers, was a good aspect of that meeting. It was also good to have the company in the room, because the company was being run from Hull, with management decisions being made in Hull, and there was competition between the opportunities in Hull and those in Fraserburgh, with each location offering different things. Having the company in the room made a huge difference to its understanding of the future support that it could be given to develop its facility in Fraserburgh, and that ultimately protected the facility for the longer term.

Oliver Mundell might be interested to know that, because of where the meeting was held, we had both Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise in the room, and that was immensely valuable, because they each brought different things specific to their areas, just as I am sure the south of Scotland enterprise agency will do. It was just such a strategic inflection point that got us to the task force. It was the sudden and unexpected loss of the most profitable contract, when the purchaser took that business elsewhere, that created the need for the PACE response.

If anybody has learned anything from today’s debate, Richard Leonard has learned of the curse of the 140-character limit on Twitter. Let us hope that Donald Trump learns it sometime soon as well.


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