Action needed following Milk Price Inquiry

NFUS DairyIn recent weeks I have been involved in a Committee Inquiry considering the Scottish dairy sector and milk prices.

The Rural Affairs Committee inquiry was prompted by news in January that First Milk, one of the UK’s largest dairy co-operatives which purchases milk direct from farmers for processing, was deferring payment to its members for milk supplied.

On top of late payments made by First Milk, the inquiry heard evidence that farmers contracted to the cooperative have consistently received lower prices for milk compared with other processors.

Across the sector, we have a situation where the price being paid to farmers varies significantly – with some receiving more than it costs to produce and others receiving less.  The committee found a clear lack of transparency in the price farmers are paid and the margins made by processors and retailers.

At an NFUS briefing this week we heard from dairy farmers directly about the pressures a short term fall in milk prices have created.

Dairy farming is a hugely important industry in Scotland but current pressures present a threat to the livelihood of individual farmers.

We heard deeply concerning evidence from the UK Groceries Code Adjudicator about examples of poor practice from supermarkets in penalising suppliers and I am pleased that these are now being investigated by the GCA.

Action is needed to address the challenges facing the industry and I’m pleased that the Committee Report is focusing attention on these issues.  Following our Inquiry there will be a response from  the Scottish Government.   I hope it will address not just the short term issues but will look to a range of issues.   We need new products to capture the value of fresh milk in Scotland and the UK.

We need new product development, for example for yoghurt, cheeses and use of dairy ingredients in food products and bigger capacity for production in Scotland.   We need to see the catering and public procurement sectors make better use of locally produced dairy products.   We need more accurate labelling by food producers and a bigger efforts to support local producers by our supermarkets.   We need to make the maximum use of export drives at the UK level to promote our home grown products.

With 2015 marking the Year of Food and Drink we need to see renewed focus from all involved to deliver the best deal for Scottish dairy farmers and a stronger lead from the Scottish and UK Governments.

Posted in Rural Affairs | Leave a comment

Engine Shed closes its doors

Engine ShedOn Friday I was in Edinburgh’s Southside to attend an event marking the closure of the Engine Shed.

It was a bittersweet occasion – a chance to celebrate the organisation’s many achievements with those who have been involved over the years, and to reflect on the opportunity now lost to young people with learning disabilities.

For 25 years, the Engine Shed provided work-based training placements for young adults with learning disabilities, helping them develop the skills and confidence to move into more mainstream supported employment.

In my time as an MSP, I’ve met many trainees and their families who’ve spoken passionately about the difference the organisation has made to their lives.

The closure comes as the Council moves to a new model of support to help disabled people into work.  The model focuses on supported employment – where people are placed in mainstream workplaces and provided with additional support. I raised this issue in a Parliamentary debate last year which I followed up with a meeting with SNP Minister Fergus Ewing as the council is following Scottish Government policy.

Unfortunately, despite an intensive period of negotiation, the Engine Shed’s focus on training and development of clients, could not be incorporated into the new model.

As a result of the shift in policy, the Engine Shed was told last year that its funding would not be renewed. Despite raising a significant proportion of its income through its own successful business operations, the Engine Shed was unable to make up the shortfall and closure became the only viable option.

The Engine Shed has provided a bridge towards more traditional supported employment.  They helped young people with profound learning disabilities who, at the time they were referred, often lacked the skills and abilities to allow them immediate placement with an employer, irrespective of the support that was offered. I am deeply concerned that without that support these young people will face even more significant barriers to work.

Alongside the loss of Blindcraft and Remploy in recent years, the closure of the Engine Shed leaves a hole in tailored support for disabled people who want to work. It is an issue which requires urgent attention.  In Scotland just 46% of working age disabled people are employed, compared with 76% of the general population, and the risks of long-term unemployment are consistently higher.

There are steps we can take.  For example, I would like to see the public sector taking a lead through procurement to award contracts to supported businesses.

However, as the case in Edinburgh demonstrates, there is no one size fits all policy.    We need to find a way to support innovative approaches like that seen at the Engine Shed for a quarter of a century.

At a packed celebration of supporters, former trainees and families on Friday one of the Engine Shed’s success stories, Sean, spoke passionately – “Keep your heads up high. Make the future your own. The Engine Shed will live on in all of us.‎”

I wish the staff well as they investigate ways to continue to support disabled young people and ensure that their experience, skills and expertise are not lost to the sector. My hope is that we’ll see the doors of the Engine Shed opened again.

Posted in Supported Employment | Leave a comment

Scottish Environment Week Reception

Yesterday evening I addressed a reception in Parliament marking Scottish Environment Week.

The event, organised by Scottish Environment LINK, is marking its 10th anniversary this year.

I used my address to pay tribute to the work of LINK’s member organisations, to celebrate the achievements that have been made in the Scottish Parliament over the last decade and to focus on the need for further action to work towards a more environmentally sustainable society.

You can read my full speech here.

Posted in Environment and climate change | Leave a comment

Labour backs call to exempt NHS from trade deal

TTIPEarlier today I added my support to a national campaign to protect the NHS in Scotland from potential American style privatisation.

The People’s NHS campaign is calling on David Cameron to exempt the NHS from a trade deal between the EU and US, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and to commit to vetoing the deal if the exemption is not granted.

Without an exemption for the NHS, I am concerned that the TTIP could open the door to increased privatisation of health services. Such an approach would erode the founding principles that make the NHS special – that it is universally available, free at the point of delivery and based on clinical need, not the ability to pay.

Additional concerns surround the inclusion in the TTIP of the so called Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism.  This process would allow companies to sue foreign governments where public policy impacts on business.  This would seriously undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to make decisions solely in the best interest of citizens.

In recent months we have heard different explanations for the status of the NHS in negotiations around the TTIP.  There is so much confusion and I agree with the People’s NHS that we need a clear statement from the UK Government that our health services are off limits.

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Celebrating Scottish Environment Week

Throughout the week, events will be taking place in Parliament to mark Scottish Environment Week.

The annual celebrations are organised by Scottish Environment LINK and I am delighted to be the main sponsor of the week again which this year marks its 10th Anniversary.

LINK provides a forum, bringing together 38 organisations representing environmental interests. Throughout the week, many of these organisations will be in Parliament to speak to MSPs about their work.

The range of issues and interests covered by these organisations is vast – from overarching global issues like climate change and marine conservation to the preservation of some of the smallest creatures found in Scotland.

This year’s Environment Week programme includes a celebration of Scotland’s whale and dolphin populations, a look at the interactions between our historic heritage and the environment, efforts to make urban areas havens for wildlife and the push towards more sustainable agriculture.

Now in its tenth year, Scottish Environment Week has regularly provided the opportunity to reflect on action in Parliament to support our natural, built and marine environments and to focus minds on the continuing need to work towards a more environmentally sustainable society.  It is an excellent forum for engaging with MSPs on a broad range of issues.   It’s a good chance for us to reflect on progress made so far and areas where more political priority and action is needed.

Posted in Environment and climate change | Leave a comment

Edinburgh Pupils take part in Mark Scott Leadership for Life Award

Mark Scott Leadership for Life ProgrammeIt was great to meet the 7 young people from St Thomas of Aquins and James Gillespie High School who are taking part in this year’s Mark Scott Leadership for Life Award.

The Mark Scott Foundation and the Outward Bound Trust work in partnership to enable young people aged 17-18 to participate in the Award.

The students undertake a 5 day residential course, participate in weekly team meetings and have to develop and deliver a 3 day project to benefit the local community.

The students have been working with local community projects and had chosen to give a concert at the St Joseph’s Care Home in Tollcross.  Two of their class mates volunteer at the care home so there was already an established link.   They persuaded classmates from both of their schools to put on a concert for the residents and clearly enjoyed the experience.

The Mark Scott Foundation was established following the unprovoked sectarian murder of Mark Scott in 1995 and young people undertaking the course are drawn from different socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

The Outward Bound Trust aims to support young people develop the skills and attributes that employers look for to give them a better chance of gaining work when they leave school.  They are also keen to develop an interest in volunteering.

If you know someone who is in 5th year at school and might be interested they can find out more about the award here.

Posted in Community Engagement, Education, Equal Opportunities, Young People | Comments Off

Supporting active travel across Scotland

iAmBikes

As part of Scottish Labour’s effort to reach out to communities across Scotland, I was in Cumbernauld this week for a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet.

Following the meeting, I had the chance to visit iAmBikes, a social enterprise encouraging more people to take up cycling in the local area.

The approach at iAmBikes is simple – the project restores and rehomes old and unwanted bikes – but its impact is fantastic.

The benefits of cycling are well documented.  Not only does the physical activity help to promote health and active lifestyles, but the shift to cycling also has positive impacts on air pollution, traffic congestion and road safety.

CaptureThe project is run by a dedicated team of enthusiasts whose message is that cycling is for anyone. They are looking to promote cycling as an outdoor activity for all the family and have produced an excellent map of local routes.

They also have an eye on affordability. Bikes can be bought for modest sums, particularly important for growing children, but there are also options to buy a bike for a tenner and do it up yourself.

I was particularly impressed by their desire to help parents and carers to access affordable, quality bikes for young people.   It was also good to hear about the support given to people who have never been on a bike or not for decades.

What is really striking about Cumbernauld is that as a new town it was built with a series of walking routes across the town separate from road traffic.   Those routes are now coming into their own as the new map produced by North Lanarkshire Council and iAmBikes illustrates.  The map covers the whole of Cumbernauld and key locations such as train stations, schools, shops and key public services.  It’s an extensive network and iAmBikes are now working with the Scottish Wildlife Trust on their Living Landscapes project to make the routes more attractive to users.

Campaigns like the annual Pedal on Parliament mass cycle rally demonstrate the desire across the country to promote a more positive cycling culture in Scotland.  The Scottish Government has set a target that by 2020, 10% of all journeys in Scotland should be made by bike.  But while there is broad consensus on the benefits of cycling, there is real concern that the ambition is not being lived up to.

This week, the Parliament voted on the Scottish Government’s budget.  Its draft plans had been criticised by cycling campaigners and the Infrastructure Committee, which called for substantial additional funding to roll out active travel projects.  There was a minor uplift of £3.9m to support cycling and walking infrastructure – but I’ll want to see the details of how the money is spent.

Investment is hugely important if we want to make cycling a more attractive option for more people.  That means investment in infrastructure (like dedicated cycle routes and facilities like bike racks), training for people of all ages, and for local initiatives such as iAmBikes.

In Edinburgh, the local council has committed to increased cycling funding as a proportion of the overall transport budget year on year.  In 2015/16 this will increase to 8%.

Alongside investment, we need to see a greater emphasis placed on active travel in planning.  At the earliest stages of developments, designers should be considering how their proposals can support people to cycle safely by, for example, providing changing facilities, secure storage and clear transport planning.  We also need to consider transport integration and how cyclists can be accommodated on public transport to broaden cycling out from only short journeys to longer commutes.

These steps are crucial if we are to follow the example of other European countries to develop a sustainable cycling culture.  There are positive signs, such as research from Sustrans pointing to around half of children in Scotland walking or cycling to and from school. However, it is clear that a step change is required if we are to see such trends continue into adulthood when, all too often, bikes are abandoned in favour of driving.

I am continuing to pursue these issues in my capacity as Scottish Labour’s Environment spokesperson and as a member of the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Cycling.

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Community Right to Buy

This week I took part in the Stage 1 Debate on the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Bill.

The debate focused on proposals to extend the community right to buy, a mechanism which, since its introduction in 2003, has allowed rural communities the opportunity to register an interest in and purchase land for the benefit of the community where there is a willing seller.

The introduction of the community right to buy, and the wider Land Reform Act of 2003 which contained it, remains for me one of the most important achievements of the Scottish Parliament in its 16 year history.  However, land reform remains unfinished business for Scottish Labour. The Community Empowerment Bill, along with the upcoming Land Reform Bill allow the opportunity to press for greater radical change.

The proposals being discussed this week seek to extend community right to buy beyond rural communities and across Scotland.  They also follow through on Scottish Labour’s call for the right to extend to situations where there is not a willing seller.  These are hugely significant steps towards providing an equal opportunity for people across the country to access control over community assets.

Alongside expanding access to community right to buy, the Bill also presents the opportunity to look again at the 2003 Act and to address the issues that communities and landowners have faced through its implementation.  In particular, the complexity of the process and the importance of providing support to allow people to take advantage of the new powers need to be addressed.

The debate was informed by a report from the Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member.  As our report notes, while welcoming the general principles of the Bill, the devil will be in the detail.   We’ve set out our views on the changes the Government needs to make to improve the bill and deliver on our ambitions.

In my speech, I focused on the provisions to allow communities to purchase land where there is no willing seller – the bill frames this as a right to buy abandoned and neglected land.  I am concerned that the definition of abandoned and neglected potentially creates a barrier for community groups.

The Committee called for an ‘unambiguous and acceptable’ definition of what would constitute abandoned or neglected land to ensure that the proposals contribute to sustainable development.  That must not just be about physical land and environmental issues but must equally focus on the contribution it makes to a community’s social and economic prospects.

However, the Scottish Government has indicated its preference to define these terms through regulations at a later date.  While the committee was willing to cede this point, asking only that the subsequent regulations be subject to Parliament scrutiny, my Committee colleague Claudia Beamish and I disagreed with this approach.   Our worry is that these words may prevent communities from benefiting from the right to buy ambitions the bill aims to deliver.

The definition of what land will be covered is central to the entire purpose of community right to buy and it is vitally important that this is clearly reflected in the Bill that is passed.  Otherwise, we have been given fair warning by stakeholders that any attempted purchase would be open to legal challenge because the detail is not sufficiently clear.

This is one of a number of areas where the Committee will be closely scrutinising the passage of the bill.  The test I will have when amendments are being considered is whether they can deliver radical and credible law that delivers new powers that communities can actually use.

The powers discussed during the debate are a vital part of changing the nature of discussion between communities and owners, and that is the prize to be now won – credible and tough backstop powers when needed, but with more constructive dialogue and debate to enable more community land ownership and use to take place.

Posted in Community Engagement, Community Facilities | Comments Off

Labour pledge to go beyond the Vow on Welfare

Yesterday Scottish Labour announced its second General Election pledge at an event in Edinburgh.

Speaking to a packed room of party members and journalists, Jim Murphy said that a UK Labour Government would devolve powers to vary and top up welfare benefits to create a fairer Scotland.

The announcement is part of a package of measures to deliver on Scottish Labour’s commitment to implement and go beyond the measures set out in the Smith Commission following the referendum.

Within 100 days, a UK Labour Government would introduce a bill to implement the Smith Commission recommendations.  However, these recommendations are a starting point and Labour’s approach will reflect our different values and ambitions for Scotland. On Welfare, it would extend beyond this in five important areas.

Scottish Labour would:

  • maintain the security of the UK benefits system while passing the Scottish Parliament powers to top up benefits
  • ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the power to introduce new benefits, funded in Scotland to meet different circumstances and choices
  • extend powers over the incentives and support to work in the benefits system, with particular focus tackling youth unemployment
  • fully devolve housing benefit to invest in new housing rather that subsidising the private rented sector
  • devolve welfare, not just to Holyrood, but to local communities – starting with the work programme

The pledge was backed up in a strong speech from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The pledge on welfare proposals follows an earlier promise to fund 1,000 extra NHS nurses in Scotland using the proceeds of a UK-wide mansion tax – the first two commitments that will form part of a distinctive Scottish Labour manifesto in the build up to the General Election.

These proposals both echo the arguments that we made during the referendum that devolution allows Scotland to have a distinctive approach through the Scottish Parliament while benefiting from the pooling and sharing or resources across the UK.

As our former Shadow Cabinet member for Local Government I’m strongly in favour of Double Devolution – not just devolving power to the Scottish Parliament but on to our local councils and communities.  This was a key principle behind Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission last year.

The transfer of housing benefit is important as part of our plans to build more affordable social housing.  The devolution of the Work Programme alongside Skills Development Scotland means we can address local unemployment and skills to help people get back to work and support local employers get the trained staff they need.

Our commitment to go beyond the Vow would make the Scottish Parliament the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world and combines security and social justice.

Posted in Campaigning, Economy | Comments Off

Scottish Labour pledge on fracking

Fracking graphicEarlier this week the Scottish Government’s Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, delivered a statement on the Scottish Government’s position on fracking.

The headline announcement was a moratorium, or suspension, of planning consents for unconventional gas and oil developments. The Scottish Government is also proposing work to assess planning, environmental and health impact along with public consultation.

A moratorium, by its nature, is a temporary solution. We need to know what will happen after the consultation and assessment process is concluded.

At the end of last week, Scottish Labour’s leader, Jim Murphy, announced that the next Scottish Labour Government would use existing powers to stop onshore fracking.

The environmental and safety case for fracking has not been made and Scottish Labour has proposed a ‘triple-lock’ system to halt any onshore fracking taking place in Scotland robust safeguards are in place.

This involves:
– A local referendum before final planning approval is given;
– Halting any fracking in Scotland until the lessons of fracking in the rest of the UK are learned;
– A comprehensive review of the baseline conditions before any planning application is granted.

The powers to block fracking until these conditions are met are already devolved to the Scottish Government but its moratorium falls short.

In correspondence I’ve received, communities are concerned that developments will be imposed on them against their will. Our proposals for local referendums aim to reassure communities that no development will able to take place without local residents endorsing the decision.

At the beginning of the week Labour MPs prompted a UK Government U-turn to introduce new protections before fracking can go ahead. If the Infrastructure Bill is enacted with these conditions, it will mean that tougher environmental standards will apply elsewhere than exist in Scotland, unless the Scottish Government adopts the same approach.

I raised the issue of the climate impacts of fracking with the Ministr given that the Scottish Government has failed to meet the first three of its annual targets.   Alongside the general issue of unconventional gas exploitation I specifically raised fugitive emissions as an issue needing more research.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has finally agreed to Scottish Labour’s demand to use the planning process to halt fracking for the time being. But this week’s statement doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Scottish Labour will continue to press the Scottish Government to set out clearly how it will control fracking in Scotland when powers are fully devolved.

Posted in Energy, Environment and climate change, Planning | Comments Off