It’s a welcome step forward for a project that is long overdue. Under the board’s initial plans the hospital was due to open in 2012.
The old Sick Kids hospital holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of families who have relied on its services over the years but it has been more than a decade since the building was described as not been fit for purpose.
In the intervening time, the condition of the building has continued to deteriorate with draughty wards, crumbling masonry and antiquated facilities. We are still at least three years from having a new hospital and I am seeking assurances from the Scottish Government that further slippage will be avoided.
I am also seeking assurances that the contract will support local jobs and training and to ensure that the firm is not involved in blacklisting construction workers.
Last week I participated in a Stage 1 debate on the Procurement Reform Bill in Parliament.
Every year in Scotland, the public sector spends over £9bn on goods and services and the procurement bill seeks to set out the procedure for the award of these contracts.
At stage 1 of a bill, the debate is on the general principles that the bill sets out. I was happy to support these principles but used my speech to talk about areas where I am convinced the bill can be improved. You can listen to my speech at 1:24:50 into the above video.
The Scottish Government has acknowledged that a successful approach to procurement can support regeneration and economic development in our communities. The £9bn spent on public contracts helps to support local employment and deliver new services and facilities for communities.
Unfortunately, as the Jimmy Reid Foundation has noted, the current system disproportionately benefits big companies who have the resources and capacity to participate in the tendering process for big contracts. This is at the expense of small local employers who are not big enough to take on the work.
I am eager to ensure that the bill makes the procurement process more accessible. For example, I am disappointed that there is no mechanism provided to allow large projects to be de-bundled to provide a number of smaller contracts that local companies could bid on.
The proposals for community benefit clauses offer some improvement in this regard but only kick in where a project is worth over £4m. The procurement process should be about embedding local benefits across the whole system, not just about bolting sweeteners on to large contracts.
The bill has prompted a great deal of discussion among the voluntary sector and, ahead of the debate, MSPs received briefings from a range of groups. I particularly welcomed the SCVO’s contribution to the debate and was interested in their proposal to differentiate between ‘classic’ procurement (buying things) and ‘service’ procurement (buying services for people).
I highlighted this in the context of care services – an industry characterised by low wages and high staff turnover. A specific ‘service’ procurement approach could help to improve the conditions of workers and the standards of services that are provided.
Linked to this is the concept of the living wage, calculated at a level above the minimum wage that allows households to avoid poverty. In the build up to the bill’s development, I have supported calls to look at how the public sector can set a positive example by delivering the living wage to those working on public contracts. The Scottish Government has cited case law against the inclusion of the living wage but I am urging them to consider alternative views put forwards by Unison among others.
Elsewhere in the bill, I am keen to see provision that would promote environmental standards to help us meet climate change targets. As a practical example, I spoke about the provision of free school meals and how, through procurement, we should be aiming to promote the use of locally sourced and fair trade produce.
I also spoke about supported employment opportunities and the need to ensure opportunities for disabled workers. Under European Law, contracts can be reserved for supported businesses. However, I do not believe that the current regime encourages authorities to be proactive in awarding contracts to supported employment businesses.
On the whole, the debate was a positive one and I hope that the Cabinet Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, follows up on her promise to consider amendments with an open mind. I am discussing a variety of issues with colleagues such as blacklisting and the environmental monitoring to ensure that there are amendments submitted for stage 2 and will be monitoring the bill closely as it makes its way through Parliament.
In Edinburgh, this year’s celebrations take on added importance with the marking of two big anniversaries.
First up, staff and volunteers at the One World Shop will be celebrating 30 years of sourcing and selling fairly traded products from around the world. Meanwhile, the Council backed Edinburgh Fairtrade City Initiative (EFCI) will be marking a decade since the city was awarded Fairtrade City Status.
Even a decade ago, when Edinburgh achieved Fairtrade City Status, the issue was not as widely known as it is today. To achieve the status of Fairtrade City, the EFCI had to demonstrate support for the Fairtrade movement through a range of activities and it is still heavily involved in promoting the issue across the city. I have lodged a motion in Parliament marking 10 years of Fairtrade City Status.
In essence, Fairtrade is about providing a fair deal for producers in some of the world’s poorest countries. That extends to ensuring a fair price being paid to producers, requiring decent conditions for local workers and encouraging sustainable work practices to protect the environment. On Thursday I spoke in the Parliament on the importance of making sure that the Procurement Bill lives up to its potential and includes Fair Trade as a criteria when public sector contracts are being awarded.
I have witnessed first hand, on visits to places like Bangladesh and Malawi, the benefits that Fairtrade has brought to producers, workers and communities in the developing world – allowing for improved living conditions and investment in areas like education. Also, as part of the annual Fairtrade Fortnight celebrations, I have met a number of Fairtrade producers who have visited the UK to talk about their experience.
This year, at an event to mark 10 years of Edinburgh Fairtrade City Status, I am looking forward to meeting two women from Kathmandu, Nepal who are involved in the paper cooperative, Get Paper Industries. GPI produce handmade paper products supplying firms such as the Body Shop. You can also buy GPI products in the One World Shop. These visits from producers always offer insight into how involvement in fair trade has led to positive results for the producers and workers.
Over the fortnight I will have a couple of other opportunities to meet up with Mandira and Amisha of GPI as they attending the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Fairtrade and give a presentation at a family event at Edinburgh Zoo.
The overarching theme of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight is a campaign to call on the UK Government to look at the impact of supermarket pricing practices on the millions of farmers and workers who grow the UK’s favourite fruit – the banana. As part of my visit to the One World Shop I added my support to the petition and you can join me in doing so here.
If you are interested in finding out about Fairtrade events over the next fortnight or you just want to know more about the movement, you can access a wealth of information from the Fairtrade Foundation website.
Yesterday we passed the Children and Young People Bill – with many admirable provisions – but no proper costings, particularly in relation to the capital costs of building the school infrastructure required to deliver high quality school meals. I was also concerned by the issue of the lack of progress on support for kinship carers. When I met kinship carers at lunchtime at their lobby of MSPs they expressed their disappointment that they were still not getting the support they needed. Both the Kinship Carers I met talked not just about the challenges they faced, but their also their passion and commitment. It was particularly disappointing to hear that the SNP Government having promised to bring a key report on Kinship care before the bill was passed had simply failed to deliver.
The most controversial element in the Bill was the proposal to create a “named person” for every child. I was initially very sceptical about this provision firstly as I was worried that it might dilute the focus and investment that is needed to ensure that vulnerable children do not slip through the net and secondly that parents would feel that their role was being usurped.
The Scottish Government was not very effective in their advocacy of this proposal and failed to outline the purpose and opportunity that could come from it. I do understand the points made about the need for a clear process to ensure that concerns can be picked up and cited upon where a child is potentially at risk. However, I remain concerned about the lack of resources to make sure that all children and their parents have the right support in relation to the early years in particular where health visitors and high quality childcare are vital in giving parents the support they need. I believe that it will be crucial that there is monitoring carried out afterwards to ensure that the concerns that were raised do not come to pass.
The extension of childcare is less revolutionary than claimed by the SNP because for many children it will only mean an extra half an hour at lunchtime rather than the transformation that is needed in terms of affordable childcare throughout the year. As Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Local Government I remain concerned that the resources available to implement the Bill are simply not enough and will lead to yet more tensions with difficult decisions on priorities to come.
In a report presented to the health board earlier this month, it was confirmed that the hospital would remain open for the medium to long term – a remarkable turnaround for a hospital that only 18 months ago was deemed surplus to requirements, not fit for purpose and set for sale. Looking at the report (see agenda item 2.7) you could be forgiven for thinking it describes a new site but the latest Scottish Government report shows that the entire hospital is in poor physical condition.
The indecision surrounding the Royal Victoria goes to the heart of capacity issues at NHS Lothian. Since its revival, the hospital has been used to relieve bed blocking – where a patient who is medically ready for discharge remains in hospital due to a lack of availability for post-hospital care. The proposals being put forward for the Royal Victoria specifically require an end to this practice and, given the shortage of care home places in Edinburgh, we need to see plans for new council care homes if the health board’s plans are to work
This is the reality that NHS Lothian is confronted with – stretched facilities and a huge maintenance backlog of significant and high risk work affecting clinical areas. This report must act as a wake-up call to the board and the Scottish Government to address the problems in our NHS estate.
Yesterday I met with Labour Group leaders from local councils across Scotland. They told of the direct impacts the Scottish Government’s draft financial settlement will have on local services. They were clear that the difficult decisions that they have had to make this year will be even tougher in the next two years. While they are all protecting front line education and social care services there is huge pressure given the increasing demands that they are facing.
The draft financial order was debated by the Scottish Parliament in a brief half hour two weeks ago when the Scottish Government pushed through its annual settlement setting out the funding that will be allocated to councils across the country in the year ahead. You can watch the debate in the video above, including my own speech (9:40 into the video) and that of my colleague Richard Baker (at 27:25).
I am deeply concerned that the latest settlement continues a trend of local government not being given the priority it deserves by the Scottish Government.
According to a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, local government spending in Scotland is set to fall by almost a quarter between 2008 and 2015. The impacts of this decrease can be seen from the loss of nearly 35,000 local government jobs since 2008, the fact that councils are having to increase charges for services and, increasingly, through cuts to frontline services.
The result is that local government cuts are disproportionately affecting some of our poorest communities who rely the most on public services. Moreover, the financial settlement has meant councils now introducing or increasing their charges for some services. Again putting pressure on low or middle income housesholds. In a warning for the years ahead, the JRF also noted that while much of the cuts to date have been absorbed by efficiency savings, the cuts to come will force councils to reconsider what services it can provide and for whom.
One of the key issues of these annual debates is the continuation of the Council Tax freeze. While the Scottish Government boasts that the freeze benefits hard-pressed households, I have worked to highlight the flaws of this argument.
The major flaw is that the policy has been underfunded. Each year, the Scottish Government makes an additional £70m available to councils to adopt the freeze. This figure has remained unchanged since the freeze was introduced in 2008/09, ignoring the impact of inflation and the fact that the cost of delivering council services has increased by over 10% since 2007.
The annual cost of the policy also continues to rise. The Scottish Government is providing an additional £70 million of funding in 2014-15 to freeze the council tax at the previous year’s level. However, since the freeze is based on 2007-8 levels of Council Tax, the actual cost (and amount of money provided by the Government) to freeze the council tax for 2014/15 is £490 million.
The second major flaw is that the council tax freeze fails the fairness test. Information provided by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre has found that over the first six years of the freeze, households in Band A properties will have saved a total of £258 (or a little over 80p a week) while owners of Band H properties, the highest band, have saved over £1,500. Furthermore, some of the lowest income households do not see any benefit from the council tax freeze as they are already eligible for the council tax reduction scheme.
When council tax was first introduced, it accounted for around 20% of local government funding. As time has gone on, and as a result of the council tax freeze, that proportion has dwindled and the proportion of council funding coming from central government has increased. This has implications for local accountability and is a manifestation of a Scottish Government that is following a more centralised agenda. The SNP plans to introduce their hated local income tax have been put on hold until 2016. Intriguingly, the SNP’s White Paper gives no more details.
Despite the financial constraints being placed upon them, local authorities across Scotland have responded positively to the challenge. In discussion with council colleagues across the country I have heard of positive initiatives targeting fuel poverty and youth employment among others. Here in Edinburgh, the council also engaged in a consultation exercise, announcing its budget plans early and encouraging local people to have their say. In Stirling the Labour councillors led an engagement exercise which asked local communities what their priorities were given the financial constraints facing the council.
As Scottish Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I am working to engage with a variety of initiatives to help reinvigorate local democracy, including Labour’s own Devolution Commission. A central challenge to strengthening local government lies in fixing how it is financed and I will be working on this issue in the months and years ahead. We need a fairer system. There’s a real irony that while the SNP government demands more fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament their treatment of local government has been to impose tighter controls than were seen in the Thatcher years.
Across the Lothians Parliamentary region, seven police stations will lose their public counter service along with the facility at the Police Information Centre on the Royal Mile.
Meanwhile, four stations will have the hours of their public counter service cut in Edinburgh’s West End, Howdenhall, Portobello and Bathgate.
Two of the stations losing their counter, at Corstorphine and Craigmillar, will be moved to a shared service location at substantially reduced hours. All of these changes will come into force early next month.
In November, following widespread anger at the proposals, two stations earmarked for closure – at South Queensferry and Linlithgow - were given a reprieve and will remain open at their present hours. Despite this small victory, I am concerned that the proposals as a whole represent a scaling back of local access to community policing.
While members of the public will be able to continue accessing the stations that are losing their public counter, they will have to call ahead to make sure a police officer is able to meet them. Public counters have traditionally been staffed by trained police staff but I am concerned that these proposals will see officers removed from other duties to fill this role.
In the case of Corstorphine and Craigmillar, I continue to have concerns regarding how the shared service facility will operate.
Following the announcement of the proposals in October, I wrote to a number of community councils affected by the changes and sought further information from local police stations. These views helped form my response to the Police consultation.
With costs as high as this, and the increasing of other household bills, it is not difficult to see why more and more parents, and particularly women, are forced to leave work. Of course, for some families, this will be the right option but it has to be a choice. In the current circumstances, leaving work is the only option because the numbers simply don’t add up.
Last year I met young women who were keen to get onto a college course for whom childcare costs were utterly unaffordable. They knew that without college qualifications their chances of getting work would be slim.
As part of its 2007 manifesto, the SNP promised to increase the entitlement for free nursery education for 3 and 4 year olds from 400 to 600 hours a year. This will finally be delivered as part of the Children and Young People Bill which goes before Parliament next week.
However, flexibility is a key issue – those 600 hours have to be available at times when families need them. A key concern in Edinburgh is a lack of capacity, partly due to the fact that a large number of places are taken up by families that commute into the city for work.
If we are to deliver better childcare, there needs to be a real focus on increasing provision to ensure that there are enough places to meet demand. The Council is working to develop measures to provide extra support for parents.
Alongside this, my colleague Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s Education spokesperson, has launched the Every Step campaign - which is seeking to speak to 20,000 people over the next few months to gauge their experience of childcare provision in the city. This will help create and shape ideas for the future. If you would like to take part, you can access details of the campaign and the online survey here.
Earlier this week the Council’s Finance Committee was once again looking at the shared repairs service – launched as a replacement to the controversial statutory repairs system.
The report looked at proposals to develop the service including emergency call-out charges, the launch of a facilitation service and the creation of a trusted trader scheme.
The numbers for the service in the first year show that it is still some way short of generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining and these additional services will come at a price for residents.
However, the feedback I get from constituents is that they are regularly told by council staff that the council no longer carries out statutory notices except in emergency situations.
Last week I was contacted by a constituent who has water pouring into his flat, but had been told that the council could not do anything. This week I heard from a constituent who had a statutory notice laid several years ago where the council had not followed up to see if works had been carried out. My constituent had hoped to get neighbours to work together to carry out repairs, but there are only two owner occupiers in the stair and absent owners are not interested in carrying out the works. My constituent is now worried about the safety of the building to passers-by.
The two factors that jumped out at me reading the report were the call out charge and the subscription to join the trusted trader scheme. It is proposed that where an individual requests a call-out from the council and it doesn’t lead to a statutory notice, the individual will be charged over £100. Where the call is out of hours, that will rise to £150.
The Council has said that these figures have been set at a level so as not to discourage people from reporting potential problems. However, I am concerned that £100 is enough to do just that for hard pressed households.
While it is important that the service can find ways to generate income and become self-sustaining, I am not convinced that the balance of these charges is fair because it means that the person making the initial contact has to pay. The regular feedback I get from constituents is that they’ve been told that the council no longer carries out statutory notices for non-emergency work. That leads me to question whether the income generated by the council actually reflects the work that needs to be done and the potential income that would be raised from a scheme that worked effectively.
A more positive proposal is that the Council is proposing to charge traders £195 plus VAT to join the trusted trader scheme. The scheme will allow residents to select from a list of traders who have applied to the Council and to read feedback on their work from other homeowners. Given the huge demand for repair services, this is potentially a lucrative avenue for businesses to pick up contracts. However, the cost of joining the scheme could be covered by completing one relatively modest job.
I’m also keen to support the proposals for a “facilitation service” whereby the council helps owners to get together to agree on the works which are needed.
Alongside this work, the Council is continuing to scope potential options for a replacement for the statutory repairs service. I continue to believe that an enforcement service is vital both to ensure the protection of the city’s built heritage and as a viable option for homeowners who would otherwise struggle to get the work done. I am continuing to highlight this issue with the Council and am also keeping a close eye on legislation being debated in the Scottish Parliament which could provide additional options to deliver fairer and more affordable options for owners.
Meanwhile, the legacy of the statutory repairs scandal continues to hang over the Council as it struggles to rebuild public trust. At the end of last week, the Evening News covered calls for a full inquiry into the fiasco. It cited an example, cleared by the Council’s resolution team, where a household were billed an additional £2000 for water.
I am continuing to pursue this issue on both fronts – to ensure that people caught up in the scandal have their complaints dealt with fairly and to ensure that the lessons learned inform the delivery of a new service that is open, transparent and fit for purpose.
It’s absolutely vital for the long term sustainability of the city’s tenements and the health of residents. The stress that comes from dealing with prolonged disputes over bills and living with leaks and maintenance worries is real and we need to remember the human cost of the impact of uncertainty and the difficulty of getting problems fixed.
I am pleased that the bill has passed its final Parliamentary hurdle and believe that this is a big step forward, delivering greater equality for LGBT people who wish to have their relationship recognised through marriage.
The passing of the bill builds on the progress we made when we introduced civil partnerships in 2004 and paves the way for the first same-sex marriages to take place later this year.
This issue has polarised opinion and, since the first consultation in 2011, hundreds of constituents have written to me to express their views.
While I am strongly in favour of equal marriage, I was conscious of the concerns raised with me by constituents and other MSPs. However, I believe that the bill provides proper protections for religious and belief celebrants who do not wish to solemnise same-sex marriage and back the commitment which allows those who do to opt in.
In addition to these protections the UK Government has further amended the Equality Act to make absolutely sure that, where a body does decide to carry out such ceremonies, individual celebrants are not forced to do so if they deem such ceremonies to be against their faith. I believe these measures give appropriate protection to the religious and moral freedoms of individuals and organisations.
Last night was that rare occasion when MSPs were not whipped on every amendment as it was a free vote. So the individual representations and the wider debates that we’d had over the last three years were particularly important to me in deciding how I voted line by line through the bill.
I am grateful to those constituents who have taken the time to write to me to raise their support and concerns on this issue and am proud that the Parliament has taken this positive step for greater equality.