A New Chapter for Scottish Labour

Today sees a new chapter for Scottish Labour.  When I launched my bid to be Leader of Scottish Labour I said that we had unfinished business from the review of the party conducted following the 2011 Scottish elections.
I therefore welcome today’s announcement by the newly elected Leader, Jim Murphy, of 5 key principles for the re-founding and rebirth of the party.

The principles set out by Jim are that:

  1. We will make it clear that the Scottish Labour Party is both a democratic socialist party and a patriotic party.
  2. We will declare ourselves a party that represents Scotland first.
  3. We will set in stone the total devolution of policy making in devolved areas. Policy will be made in Scotland, for Scotland, by our Scottish Party, putting the needs of Scotland first.
  4. We will make a commitment in our party constitution to a permanent and powerful Scottish Parliament.
  5. We will renew our historic mission for a more equal and fairer society where power, wealth and opportunity are more fairly shared by our fellow Scots and our fellow human beings around the world.

I fully support those principles which underline our commitment to promote social justice, fairness, equality and solidarity.   The statement from the new leader is his ‘Clause 4′ moment – a statement of ambition to redefine our party and move forward following the referendum.

The next few weeks will see the chance for members across our movement to debate these proposals to change the Scottish Labour Party.   Our spring Conference in March will then approve our new Scottish constitution.

To quote from Jim’s speech, “After today it will no longer be a matter of opinion but a statement of an unbreakable fact, reflected in the constitution and DNA of our party, that decisions about Scotland will be made here in Scotland.”




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Freedom from Fear

Sarah with Lawrence Wason, Scottish Divisional Officer, Usdaw (Photo: Cate Gillon)This month I met with members from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) at an event in Parliament to promote the union’s annual Freedom from Fear campaign.

The campaign seeks to bring together employers, police and politicians for action to tackle violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers.  It also sends a clear message to staff that taking abuse is not part of their job description and encourages them to speak up and report incidents.

Usdaw is calling for a change in the law to introduce a specific offence of assaulting a worker serving the public. I backed a bill to deliver this change promoted by my colleague Hugh Henry in 2011 and was disappointed that the Scottish Government rejected the proposal.

Usdaw’s annual survey of shopworkers experiences indicates that more than half have been victims of verbal abuse, almost a third have been threatened and 4% have been violently assaulted.  Nobody should have to suffer concerns for their safety just by going about their work.

I’ve discussed these issues with local Usdaw members who have raised particular concerns in relation to small businesses.  In circumstances where there are only a small number of staff serving the public there is a greater sense of feeling vulnerable if there is an incident.

There are also concerns where shopworkers are expected to enforce the law, for example in relation to age-restricted products, that this leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

The campaign is timed to coincide with the build up to Christmas – a time of year where shops are full and frustrations can emerge.  The message of the campaign is for customers to keep their cool and respect the job shopworkers do and I wholeheartedly support this effort.

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Wishes for Scotland’s Children

Wishes for Scotland's ChildrenOn Wednesday, campaigners joined together for World Day for the Prevention of Abuse and Violence against Children.

To mark the occasion, Children 1st has published a new report, Wishes for Scotland’s Children.

The report contains nearly 600 wishes from children, young people and families across Scotland.  The wishes are grouped into broad themes demonstrating the aspirations of our young people but also the challenges they face.

One of the most striking things about the report is the sense that young people are missing out on childhood and being forced to face up to difficult circumstances.

Many of the wishes related to the desire to see every child safe with specific references to domestic abuse.  Children 1st point to research suggesting that domestic abuse takes place in 50,000 households where children are living.   As Local Government Shadow Minister I know that more resources are rightly being put into child protection.

On healthy lifestyles there is recognition among young people of the damaging impact of drinking and smoking on many families.

However, the report also highlights the aspirations that young people hold and their hopes for the future through education, work and family life.

The report is a reminder that there is much to do if we are to deliver a better future for young people and that the work of Children 1st, 130 years after it was founded as the RSSPCC, is as vital as ever.

I’ve lodged a motion in Parliament welcoming the report and calling on all areas of Scottish society to work together to ensure that all of Scotland’s children enjoy happy, healthy, safe and secure childhoods.

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Make Renting Right

Earlier this month I added my support to Shelter Scotland’s Make Renting Right campaign.

The campaign is calling for reform of the private rented sector so that it works for tenants and landlords with specific calls regarding security of tenure and predictable rents.

Reform of the private rented sector was an issue which Scottish Labour put on the agenda as part of the Housing Bill passed by Parliament earlier this year.  Our amendments included a cap on rent rises to stop tenants being ripped off and restricting rent reviews to one a year.

During debates on the Housing Bill, I was disappointed that the Scottish Government chose to oppose Labour amendments.  I was therefore surprised to see the number of SNP MSPs who signed up to Shelter’s campaign during last weekend’s SNP Party Conference.

Some parts of the country have seen huge increases in average rents.  In Glasgow, the average rent for a two bedroom property stands at £636 per month while in my own region, the Lothians, the equivalent is £779.  In Aberdeenshire, a two bedroom property rents for an average of £898, an increase of 40% in just four years

I have campaigned for a number of years on issues related to housing quality and supply in Edinburgh. House prices in the city are almost 40% above the national average while the waiting list for social housing currently stands at around 27,000 people. The result is that many people have no option but to choose private rented accommodation.

Rising rents, accompanied by rising household bills have seen many people struggling to make ends meet. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that the number of private rented households living in poverty has doubled in the last decade to 120,000.

Reversing this trend has to be a priority which is why I am backing Shelter’s campaign.

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Malawi Underprivileged Mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bag It Beat It – Supporting the British Heart Foundation

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

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

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

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

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Council proposes Water of Leith funding solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Debate sought to discuss employment support for disabled people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Debate on Scotland’s future enters a new phase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Edinburgh North West Foodbank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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