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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Developing Cooperative Councils

20140614_154829(1)In my role as Scottish Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I was recently asked to contribute to a publication by the Cooperative Party on the subject of cooperative councils.

The article, which can be read here, is a statement of Scottish Labour’s ambition to re-empower local government and local communities to act together in the common interests.

We start from a position where, in recent years, local government in Scotland has faced mounting pressure on its ability to deliver the services we all rely on in our day-to-day lives. Rather that relieve this pressure, I believe that the policies of the UK and Scottish governments have exacerbated the situation.

Over the last seven years, we have seen a prolonged period of centralisation where local accountability and decision-making has been eroded.  The impact of cuts and the regressive nature of the council tax freeze have been well documented and people on low and modest incomes are now experiencing service reductions and the introduction of charges for services that used to be free.

Increases in fuel and energy costs, the increasing number of older people needing social care, the impact of climate change on infrastructure and the increase in poverty caused by the UK Government’s reshaping of welfare have all put the provision of services under strain.  Meanwhile, the loss of 40,000 staff has impacted on our councils’ ability to cope with existing demand.

In response to the current situation, Labour has set about developing an alternative vision through the work of our Devolution Commission – Powers for a Purpose.

We envisage a situation where the Scottish Parliament focuses on national priorities and setting the legislative framework rather than interfering in the day-to-day delivery of services.

The Commission’s final report sets out an empowering agenda that would see a transfer of powers from both a UK and Scottish level to enable councils to make the best use of available resources.

This would, for example, enable councils to develop responses to specific local circumstances in areas such as skills and training and housing supply.

At the same time, the commission proposes to tackle underfunding of local government.  The time is right for a rational discussion involving all parties to find a sustainable future for local government finance.  The Scottish Government’s preferred approach of a local income tax has been widely discredited. We need to find a way forward that strikes the right balance  between central funding and the ability of councils and communities to access alternative income streams to pursue locally desirable priorities.

Cooperative values have a significant role in delivering Labour’s vision for local government by supporting innovation and new ideas to make the most of resources that are underused in our communities. The important distinction is that cooperative approaches are focused on tackling inequality and regenerating communities as opposed to generating profit.

Labour councillors across Scotland are already pursuing this agenda. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have established cooperative development units tasked with supporting new initiatives.

Interesting work in Glasgow involving credit unions is demonstrating the potential of this approach to challenging poverty while in Edinburgh initiatives in the fields of childcare, social work and renewable energy are expanding.

Local authorities need to embrace the cooperative approach if such initiatives are to be successful.  A key aspect of this is ensuring that community organisations are involved from the earliest stages of planning and development so that local needs are at the heart of service delivery.

In addition to involving communities more closely with decision-making, a cooperative approach is also beneficial to workers.  One of the attractions in promoting a cooperative approach is the potential to motivate employees to feel secure in their work, to influence the services or company they are working for and to benefit from success.

It is clear that we need to reassess the relationship between central and local government to reverse the centralisation that has occurred in recent years.  A Labour led Scottish Government would implement the findings of the Devolution Commission to build capacity and knowledge across local government and our communities to make the most of the talent and resources that are currently not being used to best effect.

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Action must match words on waiting times

Earlier this month I questioned the Health Secretary, Alex Neil, on waiting times for patients at NHS Lothian.

The exchange in Parliament (which can be watched at 2mins 42secs into the video opposite) followed on from the publication of official statistics demonstrating that the health board is continuing to struggle to meet targets.

Since October 2012, patients in Scotland have been legally guaranteed a maximum wait of 12 weeks between treatment being agreed and admission for inpatient or day case treatment.

However, in March of this year, of the 13,685 patients who received or were still waiting to receive inpatient or day case treatment, 976 had waited longer that 12 weeks.  That figure accounted for over 60% of all breaches in the whole of Scotland.  

The figures also revealed that the health board accounted for around a third of all breaches for the 12 week target for outpatient appointments.

The challenges being faced by NHS Lothian in relation to waiting times were dramatically exposed in 2012 when it was revealed that the health board had systematically manipulated its waiting time figures to avoid breaches.  Underpinning this practice was evidence of a management culture of bullying and intimidation.

Since the emergence of the waiting times scandal, NHS Lothian has spent vast amounts of money trying to address the lack of capacity affecting the region.

Last year alone, more than £30m was spent, with more than a third going to private health care providers.  Despite this, and the best efforts of staff, the board remains one of the worst performers on waiting times.

I welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s acknowledgement that there are serious capacity issues at the heart of NHS Lothian and his commitment that officials continue to work closely with the health board.  I also asked the Health Secretary about the implications for other health services locally given the priority given to waiting times.  I’m conscious that there are a range of significant challenges faced in Lothians for example the recent campaign for GPs for proper support and investment.

In his response he gave an assurance that the treatment time guarantee for inpatients will be delivered by the end of this year and by March for outpatients.  Patients in the Lothians deserve nothing less and the challenge now will be to turn those words into reality. 

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Reconnecting People and Politics

Chamber pic 1

In politics, the focus of politicians and the media is driven by the cyclical nature of elections.

Last month it was the European Parliament.  This will be followed closely by September’s referendum before the focus shifts to the UK General Election in 2015, the Scottish Elections in 2016 and then local elections in 2017.

After a pause for breath in 2018, the whole cycle begins again – it is a hectic schedule and one in which time seems to move incredibly fast.   Although the elections take place on a single day, the parties campaign hard in the months before the elections and increasingly interest and community groups make the most of the chance to hold hustings and debates to focus attention on issues they want elected representatives to tackle.

Voting in elections is a fundamental democratic right, allowing each of us as citizens to hold politicians to account for their actions, but it is one that fewer and fewer of us are exercising.

This was the subject of debate in Parliament last week as MSPs discussed the impact of falling turnout and our responsibility to address it.  The debate focused on Local Government elections where turnout has dropped by almost 20% in the space of 13 years.   In 2012, less than four in 10 of us chose to cast our votes. You can watch the full debate here.

This debate is partly technical, with a focus on how we can make it easier for people to register and cast their vote.  There are a host of options from encouraging more postal voting to using technology like mobile phones and allowing people to register on the day of an election.  These issues are currently subject to a Scottish Government consultation which was broadly welcomed in the chamber.

However, alongside technical considerations, the nature of politics is at the heart of declining turnout.  To put it bluntly, it comes down to a failure of politics, and politicians, to connect with people on the issues that matter to them.

Research into voter turnout identifies that young people and those from less affluent areas are the least likely to vote.  This is hugely significant because without action that disconnect can become self-fulfilling and can widen inequalities in our society.

In seeking re-election, politicians attempt to speak to those people in society who are most likely to vote.  If large sections of the population who are unhappy simply do not vote, their views are lost from the debate.  Essentially, those who vote are represented best.

In a practical demonstration of this effect, research by the IPPR looking at the 2010 General Election found that those who did not vote faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote.

Representatives at all levels, and the political parties that they stand for, have a responsibility to address this vicious cycle and the inequality that it propagates by working to re-engage with local communities.

As Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I strongly believe that local authorities have a fundamental role to play.  Councils and councillors are responsible for so many of the services that we all rely on in our day-to-day lives.  A significant proportion of the casework I receive from constituents relates to council services like housing, schools and planning.

I want to see local authorities empowered to give them the flexibility to adapt to the most pressing issues in their communities.  By the same token, authorities need to engage with local communities to involve them in decisions about how services are designed and delivered in their communities.

Political parties also need to organise themselves in a way that involves people.  In 2011 I led a review of the Labour Party in Scotland that went back to first principles of who we are and what we stand for.  The process focused minds on how we can make the party more representative of the communities we serve.  For example, we want to encourage more women, more young people and more people from ethnic minority communities into our party and then to stand for election as representatives so that their experience can inform our politics.   I’ve blogged before about the need for mainstream politics to be more inclusive.

But in my amendment for our debate I believe we also need to counterbalance the centralism that’s been encouraged since the 2007 by encouraging and enabling local authorities to fulfil their civic leadership potential, promoting local action, empowering individuals and groups to have a real stake in their communities. By encouraging representatives and parties at all levels to be more proactive, we can begin to repair links between people and politics.

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Powerful account as we enter MND Awareness Week

MND ScotlandToday marks the beginning Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Week, a week of campaigning to draw attention to the effects of this terrible illness and to highlight available support.

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is the name given to a related group of diseases that affect the nerves which carry messages from the brain to the muscles.  The disease is degenerative, progressive and incurable.

Yesterday, in a powerful and moving article, Gordon Aikman, the Director of Research for Better Together, described his own recent diagnosis, the impact this has had on his life and his determination to campaign to support research and improved services for MND.

He highlighted cases where MND patients have to pay for some of  the essential care they need and spoke of the fact that 80% of funding for the country’s seven specialist nurses comes from charitable donations.

I’ve known Gordon for a number of years, from his previous role as a researcher for the Labour Group in Parliament and I greatly admire the way he has met his diagnosis head on.  Ever the campaigner, he has set up a JustGiving page to support the work of MND Scotland.  Incredibly, in just one day, his story has inspired people to donate over £20,000 to the charity.

MND Scotland is a charity dedicated to people living with Motor Neurone Disease, their family, friends and carers.  The charity’s website is an invaluable resource and is home to a huge library of information and support materials covering all aspects of the disease and the impacts it has on people’s lives.

As we enter MND Awareness Week, the accounts of people like Gordon remind us of how much we still have to learn about the disease.  In light of this, his fundraising efforts are all the more important as they will help fund the research that will hopefully, eventually lead to a cure.

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