Our Farming Communities Deserve Better

It seems that whenever plans are announced for a new multi-million pounds publicly funded IT system, it’s only a matter time before we hear stories of spiralling costs and huge delays.

We’ve seen it in the NHS, with Police Scotland and more recently with the Scottish Government’s new computer system set up to deliver the CAP payments to farmers. The project was originally meant to cost £70m but this rocketed to £170m.

Rural Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochead has been forced to account to Parliament on several occasions for the expensive and costly failure of his new system.

This week it was revealed that a result of this failure only one third of Scottish farmers and crofters have received any CAP payments that traditionally arrive in early December. To make matters worse, Richard Lochead was warned over a year and a half ago that there was a risk this could happen but neglected to put robust measures in place to prevent it.

Many farmers have now taken out loans to tide them over. With the fall in milk prices running alongside this fiasco many farmers are in a dire position.

The head of NFUS summed up the issue on Wednesday when he said: ‘in short, the wheels of Scotland’s vital rural economy have stopped turning, the debt levels being carried by those who service our industry are growing and the worry and frustration for farmers and their families continues to build.

It’s clear that time is running out for farmers and we need far more decisive action from the Scottish Government than we’ve seen to date. It must now take responsibility for its failures and ensure that farmers receive an interim payment of at least 50%.

Moreover, as the RACCE committee recommended in its inquiry into dairy farming, action is need to deliver new processing facilities in Scotland, so that we have opportunities for the dairy industry to find new markets. This would help them to survive in the short-term and ensure a more secure future for the industry.

Once the mess has been resolved, and it must be resolved very soon, the Scottish Government must conduct a detailed review of what went wrong with new CAP payment system, to ensure that the same mistakes are not made in the future, in order to protect farmers, the rural economy and taxpayers’ money.

The worry and economic uncertainty from the mismanagement of these payments is hitting farming communities across the country. They deserve better.

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Edinburgh hit twice as hard as other councils by SNP cuts

IMG_0755We constantly hear from the SNP Government that Edinburgh City Council is getting a good deal when it comes to local government funding.

But figures released this week by the politically neutral Scottish Parliament Information Centre paint a very different picture.

They show the true impact of SNP Scottish Government cuts in Edinburgh and reveal the uneven burden placed on the capital when compared with most other parts of Scotland.

In real terms Scottish Government funding of councils has dropped by 7%, whereas it has been slashed by 13% per person in Edinburgh since the SNP took power in 2007. Glasgow has also been hit particularly hard with a 15% cut.

Edinburgh is a strong, growing city but the SNP’s cynical and unfair cuts undermine the efforts being made by Edinburgh’s Labour Led Council to strengthen our local economy and support local services.

This is austerity plain and simple, and it seems the SNP are focused on hitting Labour run cities like Edinburgh far more than the 1% real terms budget cut the Scottish Government itself has received.

The price is being paid by people who will be hit by reductions in council services and vulnerable people who need quality social care.

The SNP portray themselves as a party fighting for social justice. But their actions don’t match their words. They talk left, but they act right. They say they are in favour of social justice then impose swingeing cuts that will make it harder for councils to support the most vulnerable in our society.

There is nothing forcing the SNP to impose this austerity on Edinburgh City Council. They could make a different choice.

For one, they could support Scottish Labour’s radical proposal to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise income tax that would generate £500m a year, and which would be ploughed back into our councils allowing them to protect our education and social care services. Our plan would provide for rebates for low paid earners and pensioners so that it would be truly progressive.

The price of austerity is unacceptable. As Sandy Howatt SNP group leader in Edinburgh said in relation to the most recent local government settlement:

“A revenue cut of this scale would be very damaging for jobs and services within Scottish local government generally, and here in Edinburgh specifically – the harsh reality is that this will translate to real job cuts that hit real families, in real communities throughout our capital city. Everyone will be hurt by this.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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My Support for St Mary’s Music School proposals for the Old Royal High

Last New SMMSmonth, the application to turn the Old Royal High School into a luxury hotel was refused – to the great relief of those of us who were concerned about our duty to protect and preserve our city’s beautiful and historic heritage. The proposal would have required substantial extensions and irrevocable damage to the façade of the building and damage to the iconic skyline it helps frame.

A new proposal has now been put forward, with the support of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, for St. Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh since 1880 – to take it over as their new home.  The proposal also includes a new public performance space. Having seen the proposed plans, I feel they are sympathetic to the building’s original design, and would not only bring in additional talent to the city, but would enhance our reputation as a culture capital, and preserve the historic legacy of the building.  I believe the proposal provide a solution to the currently derelict building that preserves, rather than jeopardises, Edinburgh’s World Heritage Status and Outstanding Universal Value status.

The development proposals St Mary’s has put forward not only protect the building as it stands, and its historical setting, the alterations needed to transform it into the school and concert venue would be nearly invisible from outside the boundary of the site. It would also maintain the building in the aspect to which its architect, Thomas Hamilton, was tasked to design it in the early 19th century – as a school – but would enable it transition back into use as a cultural heart for the city.   The new performance space and external landscaping will also increase public access and will strengthen the attractiveness of Edinburgh to visitors.

I support the new proposals that have been put forward as they are not only consistent with the history and historic surroundings, but they will help our city grow and improve, while protecting and preserving our beautiful Edinburgh heritage.

You can read my submission to Planning at Edinburgh Council here

And learn more about the plans here: http://www.rhspt.org/about.html


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Day One: Stage Two Land Reform Bill

Yesterday the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee debated amendments to the Land Reform Bill. In the summer the RACCE Committee toured the country seeking evidence from communities and stakeholders. We had a huge response to our call for evidence which the Committee considered in our Stage One Report which we debated in the Parliament before Christmas.

Ministers have been keen to listen to and respond to members of the committee’s views and suggestions for changes to the bill. In the first week back we received the Scottish Government’s official response to our Stage One report and had a private meeting with Ministers the next day. That was helpful to RACCE members but made it hard for people who commented on the bill months ago to keep up with the changing position taken by ministers.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking alongside my Labour colleague Claudia Beamish about amendments we could make to the bill to strengthen it and make sure it would be the transformative legislation we wanted.

Key issues are: transparency about who owns land, both as a point of principle, but also to enable communities and those with a potential interest in how land is managed to be able to communicate with owners, and the new Land Commission. We’ve also been seeking a stronger statement on the face of the bill to set out the purpose of land reform in terms of human rights, equalities, diversity of land ownership, community resilience, and sustainable development. That’s essential to underpin the future effectiveness of the right to buy provisions which are a key purpose of the legislation. Transparency on the Land Responsibilities and Rights Statement, and the new Land Commission’s powers are important so that stakeholders and communities are involved in the process from the start. We’re also keen to see more use made of cooperative ownership structures for community land buy outs and believe there’s an opportunity Cooperative Development Scotland involved in giving advice to local groups in rural and urban communities.

Because the committee has been drip fed the Scottish Government’s changing positions on key elements of the Bill it has been difficult for land reform supporters and campaigners to follow the detail of the Scottish Government’s policy position. It was important therefore that as Opposition members we were able to get clarity on the Scottish Government’s position on the Official Report. Given the huge public interest in this Bill I was particularly keen to get on the record our support for substantial changes to ensure the Bill lives up to the aspirations we have for tackling inequality and making better use of our land in the interests of communities. As a result of our pressure significant amendments were made to the Bill which will strengthen its purpose and to increase transparency.

The key debate was on the issue of increasing transparency on ownership. As Labour members we were keen to see amendments approved which would have required registration of land ownership to be clear through using the vehicle of EU entities but the SNP, Tory and Lib Dem members voted this down.  The Committee did however unanimously pass an amendment which significantly strengthens the bill by introducing a register of “persons of significant control” who own large parts of Scotland.

We will continue to press SNP Ministers for changes to be made in advance of the Parliament’s Stage 3 consideration of bill and will take the opportunity to discuss detailed amendments with ministers where there are areas we can agree on.  The next 3 weeks will see the RACCE committee continue to work its way through Stage Two discussions on amendments to the bill.

You can read the Official Report of our discussions here. http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10324

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Care Crisis in Edinburgh and Lothians

Sarah Boyack 345NHS Lothian is going through a crisis. I’ve said it before on my blog but it bears repeating until vital investment in staff and services is delivered.

2015 saw lengthening waiting lists, increased spending on private hospitals, lack of access to care, the threat of closure of cleft surgery in Edinburgh and a 50% increase in cancelled operations. We’re hardly into 2016 but we already have found out 95 people died waiting for care packages in Edinburgh, and care workers are still receiving less than a living wage for the crucial service they provide.

Gordon Aikman, MND patient and campaigner, uncovered the stats about those waiting for care packages from a Freedom of Information request, and said “Behind these figures are real people with stories of desperation, misery and indignity.”

People shouldn’t be waiting months, and in some cases, years, for the care packages that would not only allow them to either return home or move into care, but would also alleviate some of the pressures on those currently having to fill in the gap – both family and friends, as well as the hospital staff who are having to be being diverted from other areas.

Across Scotland, a total of 276 sick and disabled people died waiting for their care packages, with Edinburgh making up a shocking third of that total. The lack of resource is already an issue with local councils having to deal with previous budget cuts and a financial squeeze.  The scale of those pressures will only be exacerbated with the funding cuts Edinburgh Council has just had to announce. I’m calling on the Scottish Government to properly invest in social care services in the region, as well as ensure the care workers are being paid a proper living wage for such a beneficial but under-supported role. I’ve laid a question to Ministers next week so will have the chance to raise the issue directly in the Scottish Parliament.

Today, our Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale MSP, raised this with Nicola Sturgeon in First Minister’s Questions which you can watch here and you can read my most recent article on the pressures facing NHS Lothian for the Edinburgh Evening News here

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St Mary’s Music School: Exciting, ambitious plans for Old Royal High


The Old Royal High is one of Scotland’s national treasures.  Today St Mary’s Music School have released their ambitious plans for the school.  The Old Royal High School Preservation Trust has uploaded impressive ‘walkthrough’ films on its website which reveals the exciting plans it has for the building, including the creation of a new entrance from the front façade and foyer under the debating chamber.  Keeping this building as a school, its original purpose, sympathetically preserves its heritage and place within Edinburgh’s new town.  As a music school it will help renew and stimulate Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, and the talent our city possesses, for years to come.

Respecting the setting and unique outstanding value of the existing building, the music school has come forward with an alternative proposal for the school just 10 days before Councillors will determine an application to convert the building into a luxury hotel flanked with accommodation wings.  I’ve submitted an objection to this proposal.   I believe that it rides a coach and horses through the Council’s own planning rules in terms of demolition.  The damage it would do to the unique setting of the Calton Hill cannot be justified.   I believe that the music school’s alternative proposal is better for the future of the city, has secured funding for what will be an investment in our historic and cultural heritage and a boost for the city’s tourism offer.  It would be a great way to ensure the reuse of this much loved building and I am fully supportive of the new plans.

Visit the trust’s website to see the music school’s plans and walkthrough videos.  There’s also an interesting set of images on STV Edinburgh which show the impact of the hotel proposals.

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Help protect Cleft Surgery Services in Lothian

Sick KidsCleft Palate is the most common facial birth defect in the UK. One in every 700 babies is born with cleft lip or palate and it can be extremely distressing both emotionally and financially for the families affected. NHS Lothian has, until now, provided an invaluable service across Scotland to provide surgical and follow on care to these babies. In October, NHS Lothian made the decision to close the Cleft Surgical Service based at The Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh – the only East of Scotland provision.

Crucially what’s not being considered is the issue of the quality of outcomes of patients which in my view should drive decisions and is my biggest concern about this centralisation. From the paperwork I’ve seen this is being ignored and that’s not acceptable. I have been contacted by several parents of children and babies with cleft lip or palate as well as medical staff, and I have been supporting them in their campaign to protect the service offered in Edinburgh, and to ensure any changes are only made following a full and proper independent review, using unbiased evidence.

The NHS gave public assurances in June 2015 that the Cleft Surgical Services would not be merged, but this was reversed only a few months later WITHOUT a full and proper consultation with patients, parents or staff. Any centralisation of care would mean losing the vital service currently available, with also the possible loss of cleft knowledge and expertise of specialist nurses, hygienist, orthodontist, speech and language, ENT, sleep study and special respiratory staff all associated with cleft care.

It is crucial we campaign to have patient care put first and foremost in any decisions to change services currently being provided.

Once I’d spoken to several of those who will be affected, I wrote to the Scottish Government health minister responsible but received an unsatisfactory response. I then followed this up by raising it in Parliament with a question to bring this important issue to the attention of the Minister again, as well as other MSPs as part of the fight for this key provision to be protected. Unfortunately, the cabinet secretary once again gave me an inadequate reply so I have written to her again, calling for a full independent review to be carried out, and for the many questions and calls of the parents to be answered. I have attached my letter below, and if you are interested in getting involved, please sign up to this petition to support us in this fight.


Letter to Shona Robison – Cleft Surgery 20151202

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Winter Turmoil for Farming Communities

Following a poor harvest this summer Scotland’s farming communities face intensified economic turmoil this winter because of the Scottish Government’s abysmal progress on single farm payments. Three quarters of our farmers and crofters will struggle into the new year before they see any payments hit their accounts because the Government is dragging its feet.

Today in the chamber I demanded clarity on the delays.  As we head into a long winter this crisis is risking the jobs and livelihoods rural communities depend on.

Scottish Government mismanagement of the scheme has seen millions overspent on computer systems that are not fit for purpose.  Land assessments have not been carried out and banks have had to set up emergency loan schemes.    Yet again Richard Lochhead’s failure to deliver on this scheme has been exposed.

I asked three simple questions of the Cabinet Secretary: what percentage of SAF applications have been successfully processed, how many farms have still to be inspected and when will individual farmers know when they will be paid?  The Cabinet Secretary could not answer any of the questions posed by MSPs across the chamber.  We need a full statement to the Scottish Parliament – we need accountability and farmers need to know when payments will be made

The full exchange, including my questioning, can be found in the Scottish Parliament Official report.

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Scottish Labour tax credit plan rooted in social and environmental justice

Air Passenger Duty and Tax Credits, two important financial instruments previously the exclusive preserve of Westminster, have defined public debate this past week.  Placing the two tools together Scottish Labour has made clear that the struggles for sustainability and socialism, the need to deliver both social and environmental justice, must not be separated.

Using the money set aside by the SNP to make airline tickets a bit cheaper we would instead compensate those families who will lose out if George Osborne goes ahead with his plan to cut tax credits. This is just one way Scotland, with new devolved powers, can tackle in-work poverty.

We will keep fighting the Tory chancellor’s cuts but if he refuses to budge we will act.  By ditching John Swinney’s expensive plan to scrap APD we can afford to help working class families.

And just this weekend Stop Climate Chaos Scotland – a coalition of trade and student unions, environmental, faith and community groups – put their weight behind that decision to keep APD because it is a crucial instrument to manage aviation emissions and deal with the continued march of Climate Change.  Aviation remains the highest emitter of carbon dioxide per passenger mile while emissions have doubled in two decades.

Scotland can ill-afford to allow more planes to emit more carbon into our atmosphere. After four successive years of missing our own ambitious targets, and global temperatures for 2015 set to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels.

A month before the Paris climate talks it is inconceivable a Government so keen to “promote the Scottish example” and “demonstrate the economic and social benefits” of tackling climate change, could propose eventually abolishing a tax which would make their own emissions figures rocket.

By their own analysis, the cut will double the number of domestic flights and increase the amount of carbon released by sixty thousand tonnes.

Two months after the First Minister and every other Holyrood leader signed the Climate Change Agreement to commit to low-carbon transport system, her Government are looking to jettison that promise and the one tax on air travel it can use.

Announced by the Tories the same year Council Tax was introduced, APD is far from perfect.

A duty paid on flying, it is neither a tax on CO2 or frequent flying, nor has it been used to directly tackle climate change.  But it is one of the tools the Scottish Government will soon have to challenge the demand for carbon emitting flights because Kerosene [plane fuel] and flight tickets remain tax and VAT free.

Designed to increase international routes, John Swinney’s £250m flagship policy will be an ineffective, dangerous waste of funds. Half of the passenger increases will come from domestic travel moving passengers from lower-carbon trains and buses into the air.  And for the Scots who fork out thousands to stand in Scotrail carriages, or wait for the bus, they won’t see a penny improving the services they rely on but they’ll still continue to pay fuel duty as part of their fare.

Those who fly domestically and frequently stand to gain the most, on top of the benefit from the falling price of fuel.  The Civil Aviation Authority identifies that the mean income of those who fly from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness is consistently higher than £40,000, strikingly similar to the higher rate tax band.

We all want to think about our next break, but not all of us head to the skies to do it.  Only half the UK population fly each year, but Scots are right to aspire to see our beautiful world. Scottish Labour is not wedded to APD.  A truly progressive system can deliver cuts in emissions, and a recognition that those who use it must pay for that choice to do so.  A frequent flyer model could, for instance, ensure one annual departure is levy free, escalating for those who take to the skies more often.

If we are to prevent the march of climate change and promote our image of a clean, green nation, we have to continue to tackle climate change at home and abroad.  And the public recognise that need; in 2007 the British Social Attitudes Survey showed strong support for APD, reflecting the level of damage caused, the same year Scottish Labour doubled the duty.

If we want social justice and economic prosperity, we must make sure our environment can give us wellbeing and quality of life.  The world’s poorest communities continue to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change and suffer an ever-growing threat to their way of life as a result.  In Scotland we, Scottish Labour, have made clear we can afford to tackle in-work poverty by using the money set aside to cut aviation duty.  That choice, to support so many Scottish households, is tied to our need to protect the rest of the world’s people

This article was originally published by LabourList on Wednesday, 11th November 2015.

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Yesterday was a historic day for Scotland, and my party, as the Scottish Parliament voted not to renew Trident and to safeguard Scotland’s defence jobs for the future. I did that to promote peace and security, recognising the crucial role of Scotland, as part of Britain, has played in supporting peacekeeping, and respond to global humanitarian crises.  Below I have reproduced the amended motion agreed, and copied my contribution to the historic debate.

I welcome the chance to speak in today’s debate, especially in the light of my party’s historic debate at the weekend. The issue of whether the UK should invest in the new generation of Trident submarines involves a moral decision and a strategic decision, and this debate is a chance for MSPs to highlight where we agree with each other rather than where we disagree. It is a chance for us to work together.

The Labour motion is not a “delete all and insert … ” motion; it would rightly keep the first line of the SNP Government motion on the cost of Trident, which is an absolutely breathtaking amount. Given the choice that is facing the UK, the huge cost of a weaponry system that can never be used because of its immense destructive power should cause us to reflect and take a different path.

My party worked hard under the previous Labour Government to support moves towards nuclear disarmament, and significant progress was made. The debate around Trident must focus on the strategic choices that we must make not just to defend our own country, but to deliver peace in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We need to think about global security for the 21st century, not for the post-war era.

I welcome the SNP’s acceptance of the Labour amendment, which highlights the fact that we must plan for the future of the thousands of workers throughout Scotland and the UK whose jobs are linked to the Trident programme. In the past few weeks we have seen Scottish jobs falling like ninepins, with the loss of jobs in our energy industries—in oil and gas, at Longannet—and now, potentially, in our steel industry. Social and economic justice demands that we support action to support the welfare of those workers and their communities. That is why the Labour amendment calls for the creation of defence diversification agencies in Scotland and the rest of the UK. We need the Scottish Government to act and to plan for our future now. As Claire Baker said, we cannot afford to lose those skills and that knowledge.

Our amendment also calls on the UK Government not to renew Trident. Building consensus and working across parties is important not just within our country, but across other nation states too. That is what is important about our debate today, and that is how we will make progress. We must think about how we will build those bridges and persuade other countries that they need to consider nuclear disarmament by getting rid of their weaponry and choosing not to invest in it.

Non-replacement of Trident is hugely important. It is the right thing to do morally and strategically, but it requires that we rethink what we do, as was highlighted in the Labour Party conference motion on Sunday. The world of the 21st century is increasingly dangerous and uncertain and demands that we invest in peacekeeping, solidarity and human rights.

Political instability can come from a variety of sources; Neil Findlay mentioned the challenge of climate change. When crops fail and food prices rocket, that can lead to changes of Government. Lack of access to water increasingly leads to the creation of flashpoints across the world, especially in some of the poorest and most unstable countries.

Challenges are also posed by countries that do not respect international laws, democracy and human rights. We need to use economic power and sanctions when states do not respect international laws and the United Nations.

As Claire Baker also rightly said, we need to address the threats that are now being presented by terrorism. That means that we need to invest in peacekeeping, we need to play our part in global humanitarian events and we need to invest in defence of our country, but that should not mean the replacement of Trident. The UK is and has been an important player in the world. We were a key nation in post-war Europe, and the Commonwealth has been a bridge between north and south. The price of renewing Trident will be that we do not get to play our full and potential part in leading the drive towards nuclear disarmament. We will not get to spend our resources on the peacekeeping and defence that are so crucial to the welfare of millions of citizens across the world whose lives are damaged by conflict. We need the hardware to do that.

We are talking about planning ahead and setting a new path for nuclear disarmament, which also has to be about supporting both the workers in our defence industries and the wider communities that they serve. We need to consider their livelihoods and we need to retain their skills and knowledge. We need to invest in their welfare and future because they are part of our country’s future. We need to make a just transition.

I am keen to hear from the minister how he will take forward our proposals for a defence diversification agency in Scotland. That will be our path. It should be our way of playing our part in defence diversification and setting a new path.

This is a really important moment for us and we need to work together. I welcome Labour’s amendment and hope that it will be accepted across the chamber this afternoon.

The motion, as amended, agreed to,

That the Parliament notes with concern new analysis by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which suggests a dramatic increase in the projected cost of the successor Trident nuclear weapons programme to £167 billion; recognises the number of workers in the British defence system in Scotland and throughout the UK whose employment is linked to Trident-related activities and that firm commitments must be made to the trade unions on the retention of defence workers’ jobs; believes that, in the event of the cancellation of Trident, the establishment of defence diversification agencies at Scottish and UK levels is essential to deliver a strong defence diversification strategy that provides workers with high quality employment through the retention of skills developed in the sector, while delivering a UK defence sector equipped to deal with the world and dangers that it possesses, and calls on the UK Government not to renew Trident.

The result of the division was: For 96, Against 17, Abstentions 0.


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