Reflections on International Women’s Day

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day was in early March but this year’s celebrations stretched out into April.

I attended a variety of events which focused on progress made both in Scotland and internationally.  I wanted to capture my thoughts about what challenges still face women in their day to day lives.

Ahead of this year’s celebrations on 8 March, I visited Edinburgh University to speak to members of its International Development Society. The issue of women’s empowerment was also on the agenda at our Scottish Labour conference this year when we met in Perth.   Last week I met with members of Milan for a belated celebration of International Women’s Day and visited Shakhti to see the impact of Edinburgh Cyrenian’s FairShare project which supports women from ethnic minority communities fleeing domestic violence.

Milan is an Edinburgh based charity supporting the welfare needs of senior citizens from south East Asian ethnic minority communities across the Lothians.  It was good to see and discuss the benefits of practical support for women from a range of backgrounds.   It’s also been a chance to reflect on what more we need to do to support women overcome discrimination and achieve a more equal society,

International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s – a time period of significant unrest and debate among women over issues of oppression and equality.   Over the last century, so much has been achieved for women’s rights, especially in the developed world.  However, the cause is far from won.

Statistics show that in Scotland women continue to earn less than their male counterparts, that they make up the majority of those dependent on state pensions and pension credits and that they are more likely to be in part-time work.

Meanwhile, domestic abuse is increasing with over 60,000 incidents recorded by police in 2012/13.  Over the years, I have worked to support organisations such as Zero Tolerance, Edinburgh Women’s Aid and  Shakhti to highlight the issue of domestic abuse and to call for action.

Against this backdrop, International Women’s Day is a celebration of all that has been achieved in the fight for gender equality and a reminder of the challenges that lay ahead.

As Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on International Development I’m keen that we address and highlight the international aspect of gender equality.   We need to use our hard fought victories in the UK to secure support for women in their continuing struggles in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The United Nations has been promoting the Millennium Development Goals – a set of eight ambitions including the promotion of gender equality in the developing world. The MDG sets a specific target to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education in all levels of education no later than 2015.

An update of this MDG was provided in September 2013, noting that gender parity has been achieved in primary schooling world wide.  However, access to primary education is not the same as attendance and while narrowing, gaps in attendance between boys and girls are still evident. Further down the education path, access to secondary and further education remain highly unequal.

Poverty is at the root of unequal access to education in the developing world.  Many young women and girls are unable to go to school as they are required to spend many hours fetching water or cannot afford more than the most basic primary level of education.

Improving access to education empowers women, helping to break down sexist attitudes and opening opportunities for women to access employment.  However, as the UN has noted women continue to enter the labour market on an unequal basis.  While women’s share of paid employment in the developing world has increased slowly to 40%, the jobs that women take often do not offer financial security or social benefits.

In March last year, I participated in a Parliament delegation to Malawi where I had the opportunity to learn about the challenges facing women in their society.  My experiences ranged from the distressing to the inspiring.

One day during the trip, I visited Joyful Motherhood, a Mary’s Meals supported project which provides support for the development of babies who have been orphaned.  The country faces high levels of childbirth related deaths.  The prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the remoteness of communities from hospital facilities are contributing factors.

The following day, I met members of Theatre for Change, a project educating communities in Malawi about HIV/AIDS through the use of interactive theatre.  The top three groups of people most vulnerable to the condition are sex workers, police officers and teachers.  I saw the appalling conditions where sex workers, some as young as 11, live and work.

On the final day of the visit, I saw some of the inspiring work that is helping to address these challenges and empower women.  I met with some of Malawi’s female MPs who have been working with Scotland’s Active Learning Centre on local workshops to promote community engagement.

I spoke to them about the Scottish experience of encouraging women into politics and retaining their skills.  The event culminated in a commitment from Malawi’s main political parties to stronger support for women.  The acid test will be in the elections to the Malawian Assembly that will take place on 20 May.

International Women’s Day offers the chance to reflect on these and other issues around the world – to celebrate all of the achievements that have brought us closer to gender equality while recognising the scale of the challenge that remains.  There’s still much to do in the UK too in terms of equal pay, better employment and training opportunities and affordable nursery access for working mums.   Ensuring that women have equal access to participate in our political process is is vital which is why I’m a strong supporter of the work of the Edinburgh Labour Women’s Forum campaign to increase the level of women’s representation at all levels of public life.

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Debating Scotland’s future planning needs

At the beginning of this week, the Parliament held a debate on two documents setting out the framework for all planning developments in Scotland.

The National Planning Framework is a long-term strategy setting out how plans for development and investment will contribute to the Scottish Government’s objectives.  It is a statutory document that must be reviewed every five years.

The Scottish Planning Policy sets out the Government’s policies on how it expects developments to take place.

The implications of these documents are wide-ranging and, as a result, the drafts were subject to scrutiny from four of the Parliament’s committees - Local GovernmentInfrastructureRural Affairs and the Economy.

Each of the committees have produced reports with a range of recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider and it was these reports that the debate focused on. You can read my opening speech here or watch it at 38:45 in the above video.  My closing speech can be read here or watched at 2:13:05 in the video.

In my role as Scottish Labour’s Local Government and Planning spokesperson, I used my opening speech to highlight three overarching themes that emerged from the committee reports.

The first of these related to the process and timing of how these plans have been developed.  All four committees expressed concern that the 60 days set out in statute for Continue reading

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Powers for a Purpose

Powers for a Purpose1This morning I joined Scottish Labour’s Leader, Johann Lamont, to unveil Powers for a Purpose - the final report of the party’s Devolution Commission.

The report sets out Scottish Labour’s vision for the future of devolution, building on the success of the Scottish Parliament and considering how the system can be strengthened and improved.

The report’s title, Powers for a Purpose, alludes to the commission’s vision for a debate about where power should lie to best serve the people of Scotland.

This is not about power for power’s sake. While the report recommends that a range of powers be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, it goes further to look at how we would devolve powers to local authorities and to individual communities.  At the same time, it acknowledges Scotland’s place in the UK and the sense in continuing to make decisions on issues like monetary policy, defence and foreign affairs at a UK level.

I believe that the proposals will make devolution stronger and more accountable. Over the last  year I have worked as part of the commission, listening to the views of business, trade unions, academics and constitutional experts to develop the proposals in the report.  I am proud of the bold proposals that it has produced.  It answers the desire for many of us who wish to stay part of the UK but to see devolution strengthened.  September’s referendum will now set out a clear choice – stronger devolution and powers to transform Scotland to create jobs and opportunities for our communities or separation.

I believe that the work of the commission builds on Scottish Labour’s legacy as the party of devolution and home rule.  The establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was a proud moment that has brought people closer to the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives.

The Scottish Parliament has allowed Scotland to follow its own path on areas like health, education, transport and the environment while benefiting from the strength that comes from being part of the UK.

I’m particularly proud of the recommendations from the Commission that aim to strengthen local decision making.   I blogged earlier this week about the financial straight jacket and underfunding that the SNP Government has placed on local government.   Devolution was never meant to be about creating a strong Scottish Parliament at the expense of local decision making.

Today’s announcement sets out new powers and new funding streams for our local councils to enable them to tackle the big issues that blight communities and people’s lives as the impact of economic inequality and deprivation hits many of our communities.

New powers on training and the devolution of the Work Programme alongside housing benefit will enable local authorities to play a fuller part in taking the lead in regenerating our communities and addressing the skills shortages and investment that local businesses and key sectors of the economy particular in our big cities.  I hope that our proposals will sit alongside the campaign led by the Labour councillors in our Scottish cities for City Deals too.

Powers for a Purpose sets out a radical and practical set of proposals to empower our local communities and reverse the trend of centralisation we’ve experienced from the SNP Government.

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Tough Local Government settlement finalised

Last week I took part in the latest debate on local government finance in the Scottish Parliament.

This was the second debate in as many months on funding for local councils – a result of the approach taken by the SNP on this issue. You can watch my speech 8:55 minutes into the video opposite.

In the first debate at the start of February, the basic level of funding was discussed.  Last week’s debate concerned the distribution of the £70m offered by the SNP in return for authorities freezing council tax, maintaining pupil to teacher ratios and offering places for all probationer teachers.

Throughout the past year, I have challenged SNP on concerns about underfunding of local government and of the underfunding of the Council Tax Freeze specifically.

My questions have come as a result of research and reports from the Joseph Rowntree FoundationAudit ScotlandUnison and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, among others.   A raft of organisations are asking pertinent questions about the sustainability of local government funding.

I believe that this latest settlement continues a long trend of Local Government not getting the priority it deserves under the SNP.

Since the SNP came to power, every council in the country has had a real terms cut to funding.  The effects can be seen in cuts to services, increased charges for local people and the loss of almost 40,000 jobs in seven years.

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out, vulnerable groups that rely on council services are the most affected by these cuts.  There are the growing challenges of supporting people on low incomes, deprivation and providing care for the increasing numbers of older people who need it

Ahead of the debate, local government colleagues raised key issues with me such as the underfunding of the school meal pledge and the pledge on extra childcare.  The council umbrella group COSLA has made representations on these issues and others to the Finance Secretary.

Despite the concerns of numerous organisations, the Scottish Government tell us this settlement is a good deal.   In truth I believe that it’s a straightjacket binding councils to meet central demands without proper funding.  The council tax freeze remains underfunded and, as councils face rising costs and increased demand for services, the situation worsens.

Labour lodged a reasoned amendment to the Government’s motion which, if supported would have placed on record the Parliament’s concerns about the issues being raised by external organisations while ensuring that councils received their share of the settlement.  Unfortunately the Government rejected the amendment and we reluctantly supported the settlement.   Last year our amendment on the need to act on the Bedroom Tax suffered a similar fate.

It is increasingly clear that Local Government finance has been broken under an SNP Government that places difficult decisions about the future of local services second to the referendum.   The day after our debate in Parliament I debated the future of local government with the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie MSP.   The irony of the Scottish Government demanding more powers for themselves while taking powers from local government was not lost on the audience.    It’s no accident that Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission is called “Powers for  a Purpose: Strengthening Accountability and Empowering People”.

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Standard Life delivers an Inconvenient Truth

When Standard Life announced last month that it would consider moving operations out of Scotland, it presented an inconvenient truth for the SNP.

Since the announcements that the three largest political parties in the UK would oppose an official currency union with an independent Scotland, the First Minister has been keen to claim it is a bluff.

However, with the intervention of Standard Life, an important player in the Scottish financial sector, we have a concrete example of what independence could mean for Scottish jobs and the economy.  Subsequent interventions from the likes of CitigroupLloydsAggrekoBP and Shell have further demonstrated the uncertainty that the possibility of a Yes vote in September is creating.

Standard Life employs 5,000 people in Scotland but supports many other jobs and services.   In Edinburgh a huge number of jobs depend upon the businesses supplying support services to financial sector.  The impact of a firm of Standard Life’s scale relocating its business to England would therefore have a wider ripple effect on the wider Scottish and Lothians economy.   Standard Life is not the only major company considering the reality of separation from the rest it the UK.

Moreover, Standard Life’s position is not just about currency union.  Setting out its position, the firm cited uncertainty over interest rates, financial regulation, taxation of pensions and savings and EU membership for an independent Scotland.  While Standard Life is a symbolically Scottish institution, the vast majority of its UK customers are from the rest of the UK.   However, Scotland’s place in the UK brings benefits and stability in terms of the regulatory framework.

The response from Alex Salmond to the rejection of currency union has been reckless, if predictable.  To suggest that it’s a bluff in relation to the declaration of the main political parties and to dismiss the advice of the independent Permanent Secretary to the Treasury is to take a huge gamble with people’s jobs, wages, mortgages, pensions and savings.

We can’t risk the livelihoods of the thousands and thousands of people dependent on the success of Edinburgh’s financial services industries.   I don’t believe that Standard Life or the other big firms who have spoken out are playing politics – but their intervention is a much-needed reality check to the lack of answers to the questions posed by the independence referendum.

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Community approach to Fountainbridge

Union CanalI have written previously on this blog about the work of the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative and community efforts to influence the regeneration of the canalside at the site of the former Scottish & Newcastle Brewery.

The masterplanners for the site, EDI, have now submitted its Proposal of Application Notice – providing 12-weeks of consultation ahead of the submission of planning permission.

As part of this process, there will be a public meeting to view the proposals.  This will be held on 27 March from 12-8pm in the Central Halls.  This will be followed by an exhibition from 28 March-11 April to view the plans in Fountainbridge Library.  You can view the plans here.

The submission of the Planning Application Notice follows a lengthy period of community engagement to get the plans to this stage. Last year, EDI, held a series of community consultations to give local people the opportunity to help shape development of the area to the west of the city centre.

EDI have published short reports following each of these consultation events which can be accessed here.

The first event focused on key principles to underpin the development.  What came out of the discussions was the desire to turn the area into a vibrant community with welcoming outside spaces and a range of uses.  People want to see the area used to provide a mix of housing in the city centre.  They also want to see best use made of the canal and for a city quarter that provides things like cafes and restaurants alongside office space that can be easily accessed by cyclists and pedestrians.

The second workshop took on the principles identified at the earlier event to begin to flesh out ideas for the area. These looked at enhancing the water space, creating a neighbourhood that would stand out, finding ways to incorporate the heritage of the area and ideas to ensure that the development is environmentally sustainable.

The final, and most detailed workshop presented an outline development strategy and masterplan options based on the outcomes of the first two events.  The feedback from the community was positive and the report highlights a buzz of excitement surrounding the progress of the proposals.  This demonstrates the benefits that real community involvement can lead to a collaborative approach to deliver developments that people support.

Following these consultations, the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative has produced a detailed response setting out some concerns relating to the provision of housing and the best use of the waterside.  I am hopeful that the Masterplanners will continue to engage with the community on a regular basis to ensure that views are discussed.  The emerging proposals look inspiring and I hope you can find the time to have a look through them, particularly if you live near that part of the city.

I hope we’ll continue to see both the spirit and outcomes of the consultation process followed through as the development moves forward.

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Contractor appointed to build Edinburgh’s long delayed Sick Kids

Sick KidsYesterday NHS Lothian announced the contractor to build the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children

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.

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Procurement Reform Bill debated

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.

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Big year for Fairtrade City

One World Shop VisitYesterday morning I was at the One World Shop in Edinburgh to meet staff and volunteers ahead of what is set to be a very busy few weeks for the fair trade organisation.

This Monday marks the beginning of the Fairtrade Foundation’s annual Fairtrade Fortnight celebrations with events taking place across the country.

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.

In recent years, awareness of the Fairtrade movement has increased dramatically, helped in no small part by Scotland being designated as only the second Fairtrade Nation in the world last year (Wales being the only other).  However, back in 1983 when One World Shop was founded, this was still a new idea and it is to the credit of those involved at the organisation that the issue is as high profile as it is today.

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.

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Children and Young People Bill – some progress but needs to be resourced properly

IMG_0580Yesterday 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.

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