Claire Baker MSP: Making it all add up
If you stand at just the right angle in Claire Baker’s office and squint, you can see Arthur’s Seat.
It’s the small side window to her think pod you need to use, because the larger one faces squarely onto imposing grey concrete just inches away from the glass.
The surfaces of the think pod are covered with mementoes from a political and personal life that has seen her go from writing a book about US poet Sylvia Plath to serving three-and-a-bit terms as an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.
Baker hovers, bobs and points out where to look. Finding the unseen angle in things, uncovering that bigger picture, is well within her wheelhouse as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Economy and Fair Work Committee. The cross-party team has lately interrogated Ineos bigwigs over the future of Grangemouth, taken in evidence about the just transition in the north east and Moray, and opened an inquiry into the employment gap for people with disabilities.
As well as this role, Baker is a member of the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body and the chair of the Labour group – not bad for someone who hadn’t bet on becoming an MSP in the first place. She was a list candidate in 2007, but “didn’t expect to get elected” and took up her place for the region alongside Tory Liz Smith, the SNP’s Chris Harvie and others.
The election saw her become colleagues with husband Richard Baker, who had been elected to represent North East Scotland four years earlier and who would step down, mid-term, in 2016 to join the charity Age Scotland. The two, Baker says, were workmates in only the loosest of terms. “When he was in here, we didn’t really see each other that much,” she says. “It’s such a busy job, we had two separate professional lives. I think my daughter, who was very small then, is the only child whose parents were both MSPs. We had to think how we could make it work and maintain a family life.”
Richard’s exit from office, she says, brought with it a sense of normality for the trio. “It’s difficult when you’re in two different locations and you’re trying to have a family life,” she explains. “It meant then that we had a family home where we all lived. That was a new experience for all of us.”
Family has been a huge influence on Baker’s political life. Open University pioneer Jennie Lee was her gran’s cousin and she grew up listening to tales of the MP’s achievements. And her councillor father Jim Brennan was alternately a role model and a sounding board. Serving in the Fife village of Kelty, where Baker grew up, he stood down on the day she was elected and died a decade later from mesothelioma. Tributes poured in for the former Alloa Athletic player and lifelong National Union of Mineworkers member, who had been in the Communist Party before joining Labour and who took a young Baker to rallies and marches as a child; she and a cousin ended up on the front page of the Morning Star with trade union giant Arthur Scargill after one event.
“He was 70 and he didn’t have symptoms that were noticeable,” she says of her father’s diagnosis. “He had a cough that wouldn’t go away.
“I do miss him. I would go to him to discuss things that were happening in parliament. He was a good source of advice and support for me.”
Like so many others in Scotland, his condition was related to the workplace. “He was a sheet metal worker,” Baker says. “They had to work in a basement, and they had to cut sheets of asbestos. They were down there for days, there was no ventilation, they didn’t have masks.”
While it doesn’t now grab headlines in the manner it once did, the condition still claims around 2,540 lives across Britain every year, according to the charity Mesothelioma UK. “I think about people who lose their lives through work as a tragedy for their families,” Baker goes on.
Claire Baker and her father Jim Brennan
It’s an issue she tried to tackle through a members’ bill that sought to introduce a criminal offence of causing death by reckless conduct or gross negligence. If passed, it could have seen senior managers prosecuted for culpable homicide where they were found responsible for causing the death of an employee. It wouldn’t have applied to her father’s case, but Baker hoped it would aid the families of those killed at work. However, it was voted down after the presiding officer and the Scottish Government said it fell outwith the parliament’s competence, something she disputes. “I think my bill was competent,” she says. “It was about changing the criminal law in Scotland.
“I was quite frustrated; the Scottish Government seem reluctant to engage with this issue at all. They are not prepared to take much action. What I’d like them to do is at least look at this on a sectoral basis and work with the Health and Safety Executive more closely to try and raise standards in those sectors where there is more of an issue.” And anyway, she says, “there have been a number of times when the Scottish Government has pushed the limit on what’s possible under devolved competency”.
One of those times recently ended in an expensive court challenge. The Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill was scuppered when the Court of Session ruled that its measures, including the introduction of legal self-identification for transgender people, would likely impact UK-wide equalities legislation. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, who blocked the bill after its December 2022 passage, did not act unlawfully, the court ruled, and the Scottish Government, which had called Jack’s action an “attack on devolution”, has said it will not challenge the ruling.
The debate around GRR was highly charged and saw Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar whip his MSPs to support the bill. It would have allowed Scots as young as 16 to legally change their sex, but Baker proposed an amendment that would have seen the age limit stay at 18, pending the outcome of the Cass Review on gender identity services. When the final vote came, she and Carol Mochan were the only two Labour MSPs to oppose the bill, with colleagues Michael Marra and Pauline McNeil not voting at all. Both Mochan and Baker had their frontbench roles removed because they defied the whip.
While significant support for self-ID remains among the ranks of Scottish Labour MSPs, UK party leader Keir Starmer has said that system is not “the right way forward” and Sarwar has said “it feels like everybody has lost since the passing of the GRR Bill”.
Does Baker, the chair of the parliament’s Labour group, now feel vindicated about the way she voted? She chooses her words carefully. “That was a difficult decision. I had never gone against the whip before but there were remaining concerns I had. I wasn’t surprised when the UK Government instructed the Section 35 Order [to block it] because the bill did have issues with compatibility with the Equality Act. It was intending to change the landscape in which you achieve a [Gender Recognition] Certificate in Scotland. The context was different. It was disappointing that the Scottish Government did not realise that.”
You go through the heat of an election, which is an oppositional phase, fighting for votes, but once you’re in here you do have a responsibility to work cooperatively
Baker – whose iPad cover is emblazoned with stickers showing the likenesses of Kate Bush and Marvel heroines atop the word ‘feminist’ – is the first Claire to be elected to Holyrood, and probably the only MSP to have written a book on the works of Sylvia Plath. Although she tends not to use her official title of Dr Baker, which she earned with a PhD on the US poet from the University of Glasgow, she is a voracious reader and book group member. Her interest in arts and culture is palpable from the Blur cushion puffed up by her window to the Amanda Palmer poster on her wall marking a gig by the singer in Dunfermline.
She’s thinking now about the Scottish Budget and the skills agenda, and about how to get things done. The Economy and Fair Work Committee is “fleet-footed and responsive”, Baker says, arguing that all committees should be the same. It has heard from the Scottish Fiscal Commission, which flagged up “fragile economic growth” as an issue, held discussions about the Bankruptcy and Diligence Bill and been told by the Just Transition Commission, which advises the Scottish Government, that systems change will not be delivered without cross-government action. And before recess, it was told by Iain Hardie, head of external affairs at Petroineos, that while bosses “don’t know” exactly when the closure date for the 500-staff Grangemouth plant will be, it will operate through to “at least” May 2025.
News of the pending closure broke during a previous meeting of the committee and just a few months after it published the results of its inquiry into a just transition for net zero for the Grangemouth area. The closure of the site is happening “at a pace that I think the committee did not expect,” she says, and will affect the just transition plan “significantly”. Neil Gray, the Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy Secretary, said the Scottish Government is “looking to push as hard as possible to ensure that, whenever a decision is taken, we protect as many jobs as possible”.
The announcement was “quite shocking” for committee members, Baker tells Holyrood, as was the “significant” amount of jobs involved, and there is a “need to work together” to find a way forward. “A lot has happened since 2007 in terms of politics, and that has changed the parliament,” she reflects. “In the first session I was here, the SNP had a very slim majority. I do feel there was more cross-party working because there had to be, but that lessened. I don’t think that has been good for the parliament in some ways. You go through the heat of an election, which is an oppositional phase, fighting for votes, but once you’re in here you do have a responsibility to work cooperatively as much as possible.”
There are, she says, “huge economic challenges for Scotland and for the rest of the UK”. “It’s difficult financial times. What the committee has often tried to do is look to where there’s potential for growth and what government needs to do to ensure investment continues in these difficult times.
“We recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made. We need to put investment where we are going to create jobs and opportunities. Skills is a big part of that – it’s been an ongoing issue as long as I’ve been elected.”
From issues around the apprenticeship levy to earnings levels, Scotland’s challenges, particularly with regards to gaps in the workforce, are “not just down to Brexit”, she says, though she opposes the stance the UK Government has taken over the rights of foreign nationals to live and work in the UK. Baker favours a “more flexible approach” to immigration and says our ageing population means there is a “really difficult demographic challenge” that must be faced. “With Brexit, I find it astonishing that a UK Conservative government could do so much that damages the economy,” she says. “We do need to change the government. Labour will introduce a different system.”
‘Labour will’ – Baker speaks with the certainty of someone confident of winning the next general election. Rishi Sunak has put paid to speculation of a May contest, saying his “working assumption” is for ballot boxes to open in the latter half of the year. Sarwar has called 2024 the UK’s “year of change” and urged independence voters to back his party to “get rid” of the Tory government. That’s after a series of polls recorded Labour support at around 30 per cent. “I think we have to be optimistic,” Baker says.
“The polling would suggest we are in a good position. I think we are in a strong position and day by day we hear the next scandal coming from the current Tory government.”
Baker points to revelations about PPE supply during the pandemic, and headlines about the contract awarded to a group led by the husband of former Conservative peer Michelle Mone, as examples. PPE Medro was awarded contracts worth more than £200m for the supply of gowns and facemasks through the government’s controversial ‘VIP lane’ for procurement. Mone, who was elevated to the Lords by David Cameron before losing the Conservative whip over the row, has admitted that she lied when denying links to the firm and that her family is in line to benefit from the £60m in profits, which has been placed into a trust by her husband.
“Every day there’s some other scandal,” Baker says of the UK Government. “The UK Covid Inquiry is exposing some of this, but it’s morally bankrupt and we need rid of them.”