Malawi Underprivileged Mothers

MUMs in ParliamentI recently attended an annual fundraising lunch for local charity, Malawi Underprivileged Mothers (MUMs).

The charity was formed in 2005 by Edinburgh midwife, Linda McDonald, after she heard accounts of difficult conditions at Bwaila Hospital in Malawi.  There, and across Malawi, facilities are limited and mortality rates among mothers and babies remain high.

MUMs now works to enhance maternity care at the hospital through a range of fundraising initiatives.  The charity has produced a range of cook books and a children’s book, ‘When the Rains Come’, the proceeds of which support projects in Lilongwe.

The annual lunch raises money through ticket sales, raffles and auctions and once again thousands of pounds was pledged to support the charity’s work.

Last year I was in Malawi as part of a Parliament delegation and visited the Joyful Motherhood project which is based at Bwaila Hospital.   The project supports the development of young babies who have been orphaned or who have lost their mother in childbirth and at any one time as many as 100 babies are on their books.   I’ll never forget meeting the family of a 2 day old baby who were given support by the project to help bring her up and seeing the real impact of money raised by MUMs in Scotland.

The visit to the project provided a stark reminder of the serious challenges facing Malawi to tackle rural poverty and to invest in infrastructure to improve the life chances of pregnant women and their babies.   This challenge chimes with the work that MUMs is taking forward and it was a real privilege to join them for the lunch.

This year marks ten years since the charity was started and Linda and the members of the charity’s board have decided that it’s time to hand on the mantle of campaigning to other groups.  However as we celebrated the improvements in maternal health that MUMs  has been instrumental in delivering Linda has one last fundraising project in the pipeline.

I was delighted therefore to support my colleague Alex Fergusson MSP in his motion which welcomes this last fundraising push.

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Bag It Beat It – Supporting the British Heart Foundation

BagitBeatitI recently had the opportunity to visit volunteers at the British Heart Foundation‘s Shandwick Place shop to add my support to the charity’s Bag it. Beat it. campaign.

Through the campaign the BHF is encouraging people to donate unwanted items to its shops, highlighting the link between this fundraising and the charity’s life-saving research into children born with heart defects.

Ahead of the visit, I looked out a bag of books, CDs and clothes to donate to the charity.  It was great to talk to staff and volunteers and learn about the campaign.  Every bag donated to the BHF raises an average of £20 that could fund laboratory costs, continuing the charity’s vital research and helping more children survive with a heart defect.

I hope that people across the Lothians will donate unwanted items to raise funds to support the BHF and I wish the charity every success with its campaign.

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Council proposes Water of Leith funding solution

Water of LeithEdinburgh Council has recently agreed arrangements to meet the funding shortfall to complete the latest phase of the Water of Leith flood prevention scheme.

The Council is planning to transfer money from elsewhere within its budgets to plug a £4.7m shortfall to complete phase 2 of the scheme.

Phase 1 was recently completed at a cost of around £29m but funding restraints meant that the second phase had to be significantly scaled back.  This has led to a drop in the estimated cost of phase 2 from over £35m to approximately £25m.

With funding agreed, procurement for phase 2 will begin shortly with work planned for an Autumn 2015 start.

In a letter to me the Scottish Government has criticised the Council for failing to accept what Ministers deemed a ‘favourable tender’ for the whole project in 2009. However, to characterise the situation in this way completely ignores the uncertainty created around the project by the Scottish Government’s own decision to change the funding mechanism.

Prior to 2009 funding for flooding was based on actual eligible costs but was replaced by a scheme based on estimates. Shortly after the change , a review of the estimated scheme costs  at the Water of Leith revealed that the original projections on which funding had been based were underestimated.

Throughout the progress of the project, it has been beset by factors beyond the Council’s control – a public local inquiry led to a modified scheme which required a further round of planning applications with substantial costs.

By 2009, the cost of the project was estimated at £55m and while the lowest tender did represent good value, the Council had insufficient funds to be able to commit to the construction contract.  At this time, the Council was in regular contact with the Scottish Government to seek clarification over future funding arrangements but no commitment was given.  As a result of this uncertainty, the Council had no option but to abort the procurement process and progress on a phased basis.  This decision has again added further expense to the project.

I have repeatedly raised the issue of flood funding with the Scottish Government, particularly around the impact of a change to their funding mechanism in 2009.  Before the change the Scottish Government would pay 80% of the costs leaving local authorities to stump up the remaining 20%.  I have been repeatedly told that the flood prevention scheme is not eligible for any further funding but I believe the circumstances surrounding the scheme merit further consideration.

Hopefully the latest decision by the Council will see progress on phase 2 of the scheme finally move forward.  However, with phase 3 mothballed, I will be continuing to press the Scottish Government for support to ensure that the entire scheme can be completed to protect residents and businesses from the impact of flooding.

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Debate sought to discuss employment support for disabled people

The Engine ShedI was bitterly disappointed to receive news that the Engine Shed is being forced to wind up its current operations.

The organisation, which has provided work-based training placements for young adults with learning disabilities since 1989, confirmed that due to the withdrawal of council funding it will cease operation in the next six months.

Over the years, the organisation has built up a successful community café, bakery and shop and had expanded its operation into catering.

The announcement of closure follows yearly battles in recent times to secure council funding amid a shake-up of services for disabled people in the city.

In response to the funding disappointment, staff and volunteers at the Engine Shed are now turning their focus to the future, exploring the possibilities of developing new ways of continuing its work.  I have written to the Scottish Government and the Council to ask what support they can offer to help in this transition process to ensure that the years of accumulated knowledge and expertise is not lost.

Over the years, I’ve met many trainees who have moved on from the Engine Shed to find mainstream work. The Engine Shed model is transformative, with a well-documented success rate, providing people with the skills and confidence to overcome barriers to work and helping them to a position where they can support themselves.

At the moment in Scotland, around half the people of working age with a disability are currently employed, despite many more having the talent, skills and desire to work.  Supported employment has an important role to play in redressing this balance.

Unfortunately, supported employment in Edinburgh has been hit in recent years with the closure of BlindCraft and Remploy and the announcement on the Engine Shed is further disappointing news.

I have lodged a motion in Parliament and hope to secure a Member’s Debate to discuss the supported employment sector and its importance in ensuring that disabled people are supported into work.

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Debate on Scotland’s future enters a new phase

Last week, after more than two years of campaigning, the people of Scotland finally had the opportunity to cast their ballots in the independence referendum.

When the final votes were tallied, the result was 55.3% No and 44.7% Yes.  In Edinburgh, the two sides polled 61% to 39% respectively.

One of the most remarkable things about the vote was the turnout. Across the country, 84.6% of those eligible to vote took the opportunity to have their say – a record for any referendum held in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage and far, far higher than the turnouts for elections.

Prior to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, I had campaigned my entire adult life for devolution of powers to Scotland.  In the 15 years since, the Parliament has brought power closer to communities on key areas like health and education and progress has been made.  I continue to believe that devolution offers a positive way forward and, as a result of the vote, the continuing debate on Scotland’s future will now turn to how we can strengthen devolution further.

In the first week back in Parliament, MSPs participated in a two day debate on what comes next.  That began with a statement from the First Minister and a powerful response from Johann Lamont.  In her speech, which can be viewed in the video above, Johann reflected on the campaign – the positive and negative – and of the need now to come together to work for Scotland rather than foment division.  She spoke about the need to put politics back to work to address issues raised across the country during the debate.

The referendum has mobilised political participation in Scotland and re-engaged a huge number of people who had never before voted.  We all have a responsibility to ensure that this momentum is not lost.  I recently wrote on this issue in relation to falling turnouts at local government elections and the need for politicians to reconnect with the public.

There is also now agreement across the parties in the Scottish Parliament that the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds was a success and should now become standard in future elections.  Part of that success was the sustained programme of civic education and many many hustings and debates that young people took part in and had access to.  The challenge now is to ensure that there is sustained involvement in a whole raft of other political campaigns and for future elections.

With a Yes/No question it was inevitable that the outcome of the referendum would leave a lot of people disappointed.  However, I sincerely hope that following the vote, people on both sides can come together to work towards addressing the issues and inequalities that were central to the debate.  I spoke with a Yes voter at the weekend who commented that although he was disappointed he was not disheartened as he believed that in the end the result of the referendum would lead to faster change and more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

We also need to focus not just where power lies but how power is used.  Many of the debates I attended focused on issues that demand our attention: arts, equalities, social justice and how we build a fairer, more sustainable economy.   We now have the chance to build on those areas where there has been success as a result of devolution such as renewables and academic research.   But we also need to redouble our efforts to tackle the inequalities that too many people and communities in Scotland face.   That’s why I look forward to hearing the Scottish Government’s programme for the rest of this term of the Scottish Parliament and debating the many more policy and spending initiatives that we could act on now.

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Edinburgh North West Foodbank

Edinburgh NW FoodbankI was privileged to meet with volunteers at the Edinburgh North West Foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks on Friday.

At any one time there are 100 volunteers working to collect food, organise boxes and provide the logistical and organisational support to distribute food to people in crisis.

Last year the foodbank supported 3,608 men, women and children – the equivalent of 32,500 meals.  This year has already seen an 39% increase in demand in referrals from frontline professional care partners.

Speaking to volunteers they were clear that the demand is not just from people who are homeless or living on social security, but that there’s been a big rise in people who are working but not earning enough to pay the bills.    Volunteers were also keen to stress that people are only allowed 3 food packs in a six month period.  The food bank is there to help those in crisis not to provide long term support.

It was inspiring to hear about the generous donations people have given.  The foodbank works with supermarkets, banks, the City Council, housing associations, schools, churches and companies who have helped out with donations of food and financial support.

I was struck by the fact that the project is run entirely by volunteers.  Although the building has been let to the project for 3 years, there are no paid staff running the food bank.  Given the financial and organisational logistics of running such a distribution centre in partnership with Edinburgh charities, it makes the work of the volunteers even more impressive.

If you are keen to help fundraise or donate food to the project  here’s a menu guide to give you an idea what is particularly needed.  Long term the foodbank needs more corporate donors so that whenever they run out of donations they can fill in the gap and so that they can employ staff not just to keep the project going but to develop it to meet growing needs.

If your work place, trade union, or community group is keen to help out you can find contact details on the foodbank’s website.

For me the visit reinforced my commitment to work for policies to tackle poverty, freeze people’s energy bills, and above all support campaigns to end zero hours contracts, introduce the living wage for public sector contracts and build new affordable housing in Edinburgh.   But meantime we should all be grateful for the fantastic commitment given by volunteers and the range of agencies and community groups who support their vital work.

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Bed blocking figures illustrate need for care investment

CaptureRecent projections released by the National Records of Scotland reinforced the message that our health services will come under increasing strain as our population ages.

In its latest analysis of Scotland’s population, the NRS predicted that the number of people aged 65 and over living alone could increase by more than a half in the next 25 years.  Meanwhile, the number of Scots living to 85 and over and living alone is predicted to increase by 161%.

The reference to living alone is not an insignificant point with loneliness and isolation having a notable impact on general health among older people.  The Herald’s Time for Action campaign cites research suggesting that the majority of doctors report having patients who attend on a daily basis due to loneliness.

The population projections are a double edged sword – an indicator of how advances in health care are helping us live longer lives and a wake up call to the realities of the capacity pressures that this will bring.

In NHS Lothians, addressing these capacity pressures is already a pressing issue, a fact well demonstrated by figures on bed blocking.  Bed blocking occurs when a patient is medically cleared for discharge but because of the lack of appropriate care support, is forced to remain in hospital.

In the year to March 2014, almost 120,000 bed days were lost across NHS Lothian due to bed blocking – more than a fifth of the national total.  To tie this back to the issue of ageing, consistently around 70% of these lost bed days relate to patients aged 75 and over.

Addressing capacity through the whole system is vital – in the latest census period  more than half of delayed discharges in the Lothians were due to issues with care home place availability.  I have raised the issue of provision with the Council to ask what action it is taking to address demand.   The long term impact of the council tax freeze and the increasing numbers of people needing care means that funding for council provided care is under huge pressure.

I raised the issue of the cost to the NHS of bed blocking with the Health Secretary in Parliament during Ministerial Question Time.  He confirmed that the average weekly cost of keeping a patient in acute hospital was around £4,000, compared to £1,800 in a community hospital, £600 in a nursing home and £300 for home care but ducked my request for a breakdown of costs by NHS board across the country.

I’ve written before about the acute pressures on local government services due to SNP funding decisions so I’ve submitted written questions to get a clarification of how much money could be freed up to fund care services and for details of how much the Scottish Government intends to save by tackling bed blocking and where the savings will be spent.  However, the benefits of effectively tackling this issue are not solely financial.  the prize is the possibility of vastly improved health outcomes for our elderly people.

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Student planning heightens community concerns

SouthsideAt the end of last month I attended a community meeting to discuss the high number of planning applications for student accommodation in Edinburgh’s Southside.

The area’s links to Edinburgh University make it a popular site for developers but many residents have approached me to raise concerns that the situation is now at breaking point with hundreds of student flats in the planning pipeline.

In an echo of previous community campaigns in the area, there was a high turnout from local residents keen to demonstrate the community’s desire to work together to make its concerns known.

Edinburgh University is an internationally respected institution and a source of pride for the city.  Its continuing success and expansion is welcome and nobody is trying to say that we don’t need new accommodation.   However, it is vital that the right balance is struck for the benefit of the community.

This issue goes to the heart of the planning process which should work to deliver strong communities.   An important part of that process is to ensure a mix of residents whether they are students, young families, single households or elderly people.   I don’t believe it is in the best interest of communities if we box these groups off from one another in distinct districts.  However, across a number of areas of the city, students account for more than half of the resident population.

One issue that I am keen to see addressed is the availability of affordable housing in the Southside and elsewhere across the city.  Without affordable housing of a suitable standard it is difficult to deliver the mix of residents that will help the area continue to thrive.  It is important that this housing need is given adequate weight in the planning process so that developers are encouraged to build a mix of housing.

The Southside is and always has been a vibrant and diverse community and it is important that this is not placed at risk by an imbalance of new development.  Following the meeting I will continue to make representations on behalf of constituents to raise their concerns about specific proposals and about the issue of student accommodation more generally.   In my closing remarks to the meeting I emphasised the importance of people submitting their views on planning applications so that local knowledge, experience and views could be taken into account.

Our meeting committed to the establishment of a working group aimed at bringing together local people to ensure that local views are heard.   We need a vision for the Southside and new affordable and well designed housing.   Hopefully with the strong level of interest demonstrated at the meeting we will also see the establishment of a new Community Council for the Southside able to make sure that local political representatives are able to work in partnership with the local community.

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No More Page 3 – I signed because…

No More Page 3 campaigners at the Scottish ParliamentOver the summer I once again added my support to the ‘No More Page 3‘ campaign.

The national campaign is calling on the Sun newspaper to voluntarily remove its Page 3 feature, describing it as sexist and outdated and highlighting the impact of sexualised images on attitudes towards women.

I find it profoundly sad that the most prominent female image in one of the country’s biggest selling newspapers is of a topless model. This isn’t about being prudish or promoting censorship, it’s about highlighting how our society values women.

In a country where we want men and women to be treated equally, the images on Page 3 objectify women and reinforce sexist attitudes. What message does it send to a young girl to see women reduced to sexual objects? At the same time, how can we promote respect for women and tackle serious issues like domestic abuse when sexual images are so normal in everyday life?

There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that sexualised images fuel body image anxiety among young women and devalue the role of women in society.

There can be no doubt that the objectification of women is something that permeates throughout our culture.  When the Parliament debated the issue last year, I reflected on the work of Zero Tolerance, an Edinburgh based domestic abuse charity, highlighting everyday sexism in areas such as fashion, advertising and the mainstream media.  I also highlighted the role of technology with deeply concerning research findings suggesting that girls as young as 12 experience pressure to send topless pictures of themselves via text and instant messaging.

Part of the solution is to begin to question the prevailing wisdom that writes off items like page 3 as harmless fun. There is a growing wave of public opinion calling for an end to Page 3 and I hope the Sun will listen to those concerns.

Page 3 is an outdated concept that belongs in the past and I am delighted to support the No More Page 3 campaign.

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Housing on the agenda in Parliament

In the final weeks of Parliament ahead of the summer recess, MSPs voted in the chamber on two pieces of legislation concerning housing in Scotland.

First up was the Buildings (Recovery of Expenses) (Scotland) Bill, proposed by my colleague David Stewart MSP.  The Bill gives local authorities improved powers to recover their costs where they step in to deal with dangerous or defective buildings.

It is estimated that under the existing system, only 50% of debts are actually recovered and that there could be over £3.9 million in outstanding debts.

Dangerous and defective buildings are a real problem across Scotland, and research has suggested that as many as 81% of dwellings are in need of some kind of repair.  In Edinburgh, people are particularly affected by the issue of building maintenance following the statutory repairs scandal.

Defective buildings are not just unsafe to the public, they are an eyesore that can have a detrimental effect on the surrounding area by driving down the value of properties or making town centres seem unwelcoming.  The new legislation should help to address the situation by making it easier for local authorities to take action and recover costs.

The second piece of legislation considered was the Scottish Government’s wide-ranging Housing (Scotland) Bill.  The headline provisions in the bill are to abolish the right to buy, to increase flexibility for social housing allocation and to provide tools to tackle antisocial behaviour in the social sector.

The bill also includes a range of provisions on the private rented sector.  Rent reform was one of the key areas Labour focused on with proposals to limit rent reviews to once a year and to set a cap on rent rises.   Across Scotland there are over 300,000 private rented households, over 100,000 of which are classed as being in poverty.  The idea of a rent cap was supported by the Scottish Government’s own Expert Welfare Group so it was disappointing that the SNP chose to reject the move.

During the debate I moved a number of amendments to the bill informed by Edinburgh’s experience with statutory notices and particularly surrounding the operation of tenement management schemes (TMS).  Introduced as part of the Tenement (Scotland) Act 2004, the TMS was designed to provide a template for homeowners in shared buildings to ensure the effective and fair management of common repairs.

A common issue that emerged in the statutory notice scandal, and which has affected the use of tenement management schemes, is what happens when an owner is either missing or refuses to cooperate.   Through the Housing Bill, we are attempting to address this issue by giving local authorities the power to pay a missing share and recover costs from any uncooperative owner.  This would help address delays to work caused by these owners.  These provisions should come into force relatively soon now that the bill is passed.

I successfully argued for an amendment that could  potentially see housing associations given a similar power.  This would allow an association to ensure that works are carried out quickly while ensuring they are able to recover costs.   This measure could only happen following a consultation by the Scottish Government.

I was also pleased to have an amendment accepted that will require the Scottish Government to update its guidance to local authorities to ensure they are aware of their new powers under the Act.  Getting the provisions of a bill is one thing – getting them implemented effectively is another and guidance has a key role to play.

If you want to find out more about how to organise common repairs with other owners in your property, Consumer Focus Scotland has published a guide for homeowners which can be accessed here.

 

 

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