Winter Turmoil for Farming Communities

Following a poor harvest this summer Scotland’s farming communities face intensified economic turmoil this winter because of the Scottish Government’s abysmal progress on single farm payments. Three quarters of our farmers and crofters will struggle into the new year before they see any payments hit their accounts because the Government is dragging its feet.

Today in the chamber I demanded clarity on the delays.  As we head into a long winter this crisis is risking the jobs and livelihoods rural communities depend on.

Scottish Government mismanagement of the scheme has seen millions overspent on computer systems that are not fit for purpose.  Land assessments have not been carried out and banks have had to set up emergency loan schemes.    Yet again Richard Lochhead’s failure to deliver on this scheme has been exposed.

I asked three simple questions of the Cabinet Secretary: what percentage of SAF applications have been successfully processed, how many farms have still to be inspected and when will individual farmers know when they will be paid?  The Cabinet Secretary could not answer any of the questions posed by MSPs across the chamber.  We need a full statement to the Scottish Parliament – we need accountability and farmers need to know when payments will be made

The full exchange, including my questioning, can be found in the Scottish Parliament Official report.

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Scottish Labour tax credit plan rooted in social and environmental justice

Air Passenger Duty and Tax Credits, two important financial instruments previously the exclusive preserve of Westminster, have defined public debate this past week.  Placing the two tools together Scottish Labour has made clear that the struggles for sustainability and socialism, the need to deliver both social and environmental justice, must not be separated.

Using the money set aside by the SNP to make airline tickets a bit cheaper we would instead compensate those families who will lose out if George Osborne goes ahead with his plan to cut tax credits. This is just one way Scotland, with new devolved powers, can tackle in-work poverty.

We will keep fighting the Tory chancellor’s cuts but if he refuses to budge we will act.  By ditching John Swinney’s expensive plan to scrap APD we can afford to help working class families.

And just this weekend Stop Climate Chaos Scotland – a coalition of trade and student unions, environmental, faith and community groups – put their weight behind that decision to keep APD because it is a crucial instrument to manage aviation emissions and deal with the continued march of Climate Change.  Aviation remains the highest emitter of carbon dioxide per passenger mile while emissions have doubled in two decades.

Scotland can ill-afford to allow more planes to emit more carbon into our atmosphere. After four successive years of missing our own ambitious targets, and global temperatures for 2015 set to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels.

A month before the Paris climate talks it is inconceivable a Government so keen to “promote the Scottish example” and “demonstrate the economic and social benefits” of tackling climate change, could propose eventually abolishing a tax which would make their own emissions figures rocket.

By their own analysis, the cut will double the number of domestic flights and increase the amount of carbon released by sixty thousand tonnes.

Two months after the First Minister and every other Holyrood leader signed the Climate Change Agreement to commit to low-carbon transport system, her Government are looking to jettison that promise and the one tax on air travel it can use.

Announced by the Tories the same year Council Tax was introduced, APD is far from perfect.

A duty paid on flying, it is neither a tax on CO2 or frequent flying, nor has it been used to directly tackle climate change.  But it is one of the tools the Scottish Government will soon have to challenge the demand for carbon emitting flights because Kerosene [plane fuel] and flight tickets remain tax and VAT free.

Designed to increase international routes, John Swinney’s £250m flagship policy will be an ineffective, dangerous waste of funds. Half of the passenger increases will come from domestic travel moving passengers from lower-carbon trains and buses into the air.  And for the Scots who fork out thousands to stand in Scotrail carriages, or wait for the bus, they won’t see a penny improving the services they rely on but they’ll still continue to pay fuel duty as part of their fare.

Those who fly domestically and frequently stand to gain the most, on top of the benefit from the falling price of fuel.  The Civil Aviation Authority identifies that the mean income of those who fly from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness is consistently higher than £40,000, strikingly similar to the higher rate tax band.

We all want to think about our next break, but not all of us head to the skies to do it.  Only half the UK population fly each year, but Scots are right to aspire to see our beautiful world. Scottish Labour is not wedded to APD.  A truly progressive system can deliver cuts in emissions, and a recognition that those who use it must pay for that choice to do so.  A frequent flyer model could, for instance, ensure one annual departure is levy free, escalating for those who take to the skies more often.

If we are to prevent the march of climate change and promote our image of a clean, green nation, we have to continue to tackle climate change at home and abroad.  And the public recognise that need; in 2007 the British Social Attitudes Survey showed strong support for APD, reflecting the level of damage caused, the same year Scottish Labour doubled the duty.

If we want social justice and economic prosperity, we must make sure our environment can give us wellbeing and quality of life.  The world’s poorest communities continue to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change and suffer an ever-growing threat to their way of life as a result.  In Scotland we, Scottish Labour, have made clear we can afford to tackle in-work poverty by using the money set aside to cut aviation duty.  That choice, to support so many Scottish households, is tied to our need to protect the rest of the world’s people

This article was originally published by LabourList on Wednesday, 11th November 2015.

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Yesterday was a historic day for Scotland, and my party, as the Scottish Parliament voted not to renew Trident and to safeguard Scotland’s defence jobs for the future. I did that to promote peace and security, recognising the crucial role of Scotland, as part of Britain, has played in supporting peacekeeping, and respond to global humanitarian crises.  Below I have reproduced the amended motion agreed, and copied my contribution to the historic debate.

I welcome the chance to speak in today’s debate, especially in the light of my party’s historic debate at the weekend. The issue of whether the UK should invest in the new generation of Trident submarines involves a moral decision and a strategic decision, and this debate is a chance for MSPs to highlight where we agree with each other rather than where we disagree. It is a chance for us to work together.

The Labour motion is not a “delete all and insert … ” motion; it would rightly keep the first line of the SNP Government motion on the cost of Trident, which is an absolutely breathtaking amount. Given the choice that is facing the UK, the huge cost of a weaponry system that can never be used because of its immense destructive power should cause us to reflect and take a different path.

My party worked hard under the previous Labour Government to support moves towards nuclear disarmament, and significant progress was made. The debate around Trident must focus on the strategic choices that we must make not just to defend our own country, but to deliver peace in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. We need to think about global security for the 21st century, not for the post-war era.

I welcome the SNP’s acceptance of the Labour amendment, which highlights the fact that we must plan for the future of the thousands of workers throughout Scotland and the UK whose jobs are linked to the Trident programme. In the past few weeks we have seen Scottish jobs falling like ninepins, with the loss of jobs in our energy industries—in oil and gas, at Longannet—and now, potentially, in our steel industry. Social and economic justice demands that we support action to support the welfare of those workers and their communities. That is why the Labour amendment calls for the creation of defence diversification agencies in Scotland and the rest of the UK. We need the Scottish Government to act and to plan for our future now. As Claire Baker said, we cannot afford to lose those skills and that knowledge.

Our amendment also calls on the UK Government not to renew Trident. Building consensus and working across parties is important not just within our country, but across other nation states too. That is what is important about our debate today, and that is how we will make progress. We must think about how we will build those bridges and persuade other countries that they need to consider nuclear disarmament by getting rid of their weaponry and choosing not to invest in it.

Non-replacement of Trident is hugely important. It is the right thing to do morally and strategically, but it requires that we rethink what we do, as was highlighted in the Labour Party conference motion on Sunday. The world of the 21st century is increasingly dangerous and uncertain and demands that we invest in peacekeeping, solidarity and human rights.

Political instability can come from a variety of sources; Neil Findlay mentioned the challenge of climate change. When crops fail and food prices rocket, that can lead to changes of Government. Lack of access to water increasingly leads to the creation of flashpoints across the world, especially in some of the poorest and most unstable countries.

Challenges are also posed by countries that do not respect international laws, democracy and human rights. We need to use economic power and sanctions when states do not respect international laws and the United Nations.

As Claire Baker also rightly said, we need to address the threats that are now being presented by terrorism. That means that we need to invest in peacekeeping, we need to play our part in global humanitarian events and we need to invest in defence of our country, but that should not mean the replacement of Trident. The UK is and has been an important player in the world. We were a key nation in post-war Europe, and the Commonwealth has been a bridge between north and south. The price of renewing Trident will be that we do not get to play our full and potential part in leading the drive towards nuclear disarmament. We will not get to spend our resources on the peacekeeping and defence that are so crucial to the welfare of millions of citizens across the world whose lives are damaged by conflict. We need the hardware to do that.

We are talking about planning ahead and setting a new path for nuclear disarmament, which also has to be about supporting both the workers in our defence industries and the wider communities that they serve. We need to consider their livelihoods and we need to retain their skills and knowledge. We need to invest in their welfare and future because they are part of our country’s future. We need to make a just transition.

I am keen to hear from the minister how he will take forward our proposals for a defence diversification agency in Scotland. That will be our path. It should be our way of playing our part in defence diversification and setting a new path.

This is a really important moment for us and we need to work together. I welcome Labour’s amendment and hope that it will be accepted across the chamber this afternoon.

The motion, as amended, agreed to,

That the Parliament notes with concern new analysis by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which suggests a dramatic increase in the projected cost of the successor Trident nuclear weapons programme to £167 billion; recognises the number of workers in the British defence system in Scotland and throughout the UK whose employment is linked to Trident-related activities and that firm commitments must be made to the trade unions on the retention of defence workers’ jobs; believes that, in the event of the cancellation of Trident, the establishment of defence diversification agencies at Scottish and UK levels is essential to deliver a strong defence diversification strategy that provides workers with high quality employment through the retention of skills developed in the sector, while delivering a UK defence sector equipped to deal with the world and dangers that it possesses, and calls on the UK Government not to renew Trident.

The result of the division was: For 96, Against 17, Abstentions 0.


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Old Royal High: My Submission

Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School is a national treasure.  Featuring Greek Revival architecture and a key part of Edinburgh’s skyline it’s rightly listed as being of national importance.  To date over 1,000 Lothian residents have objected plans to develop it into a luxury hotel on the basis that it would irrevocably damage Edinburgh’s renowned Outstanding Universal Value and World Heritage Status.  Flanked by two enormous copper and glass ‘accommodation wings’ the proposed luxury hotel development would impose on the current building and fundamentally damage the setting of St Andrews House and Calton Hill.

In my objection I’ve focused on the impact the proposal would have on the immediate setting and Edinburgh’s world renowned heritage status – a key reason our city is a hit with tourists and a gateway to Scotland for many.

National policy on Listed Buildings only allows significant changes to such buildings as is proposed in exceptional circumstances when all other options have been exhausted.  I’m not convinced that the business case put forward by the developers justifies the damage that would be caused to one of Edinburgh’s most important views, one of our most iconic buildings and the city’s reputation.

I’ve also pointed out that a proposal from St Mary’s Music School, to renovate and retain the building in its current form, shows that there are groups keen to retain the building to preserve the building in a manner consistent with its previous use. That would serve our built and cultural success, ensuring we can support the city’s musical heritage for future generations.  Significantly this proposal is funded and is a genuine proposal that I believe needs to be considered by the Council.  It would be a great way to ensure the reuse of this much loved building.

My objection has now been submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council and I’m pleased to hear that deadlines have been extended after the volume of site traffic pushed the ‘planning portal’ offline.  If you want to make comment or look at the proposals head to the Council’s Planning Portal and use reference number 15/03989/FUL.

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Learning from Edinburgh’s Response to Legal Highs

Earlier this week, Parliament debated the Progress the Scottish Government is making in implementing the recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances (Or NPSs).  My contribution to the debate did not focus on the prohibition or liberalisation of substance, but instead called on the Scottish Government to ensure that it provides mechanisms which enables local councils, health boards and police to respond in a coordinated, local fashion, supported by responsive national agencies and legislation.

The intravenous use of one substance, ethylphenidate has been the focus of difficulties in Edinburgh.  Considered to be cheap, purer and of better quality than street drugs it is frequently used in combination with street drugs but its short-lived high caused needle use to grow month on month and users exhibited erratic and sometimes antisocial behaviour. Residents in the Southside, Tollcross and the city centre were distressed to come across people with a frequent need to reinject using their stairs and leaving behind drug-related items.

But since a ban came was introduced in March there has been a marked change in Edinburgh. Infection and injecting are down and support services in Edinburgh are pioneering ways to respond by reducing usage, managing cravings and preventing relapse.  We still need more mental health and emotional support alongside capacity building to ensure that services are co-ordinated with the NHS, police and the council.

It is key the national framework must not downplay the importance of local progress and or deprioritise work that is done by local agencies. Caledonia Youth and Crew 2000 had a good track record of passing on samples of legal highs to police forensic services but, that relationship and the local integration have been lost through Police Scotland centralisation.

Edinburgh’s experience with intravenous drug use in the 1980s was absolutely harrowing and affected a generation. The AIDS (Control) Act 1987, pioneered by Gavin Strang MP, enabled local authorities to track the infection, provide details of infection rates and provide information on the treatment provided. That helped us to control the disease. Since those dark days of the 1980s, Edinburgh has worked hard to support those who misuse substances and to prevent harm to individuals and the wider community.

In Wales, the WEDINOS project has shown that the NHS and justice systems can integrate well to cascade harm reduction guidance to local support services. That service is relied on by local teams but provided nationally.

The local co-ordination of treatment, rehabilitation and public education is key to minimising harm reduction. We need to ensure through national action that resource and discretion are responsive to local demands, and we need to foster co-ordination in communities across Scotland.  Read the full transcript of my speech in the Scottish Parliament Official Report.

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Twenty More Store Launch

On Friday I visited the Twenty More Store in Dumbiedykes, a store ran by a terrific charity called Comas, an organisation that helps a wide spectrum of different households many of whom are struggling with the same thing: poverty.  Many people living in Dumbiedykes face hardships; including the impact of anti-social behaviour and drugs and alcohol misuse.  Although the estate is very close to the city centre it feels isolated to many who live there – hence my longstanding support and campaigning for a decent, regular bus service.

However, Dumbiedykes has a terrific community spirit and lots of residents happy to volunteer to help. Just along from the Braidwood Centre, the new shop has already become a focal point for the community. Comas recognise this, and helped to open a shop selling essentials dedicated to saving £20 per household. This is possible because each product is sold at its cost price; no loss and no profit is made.  It is crystal clear that Comas wants nothing as much as than to see the improvement of Dumbiedykes community, in every shape and form. For more information on the store, visit

And for more info on Comas head to  the charity also runs the Serenity Café which is well worth a visit at 8 Jackson’s Entry, off the Canongate.IMG_20150925_162803 IMG_20150925_165504

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Private Hospitals Don’t Resolve Waiting Times

NHS Lothian’s use of private hospitals to tackle waiting times is back in the news again. The last time the health board used this strategy to clear a backlog of waiting time was just a few years ago in 2011. Tackling waiting lists is much-needed, but using private hospitals is so short-sighted. This is simply not the right thing to do. The cost of sending patients to private hospitals can only store up financial problems for years ahead and could contribute to further waiting time pressures in the future.

NHS Lothian needs a budget which matches the demographic change taking place in the Lothians. We’ve got an ageing and growing population, which greater needs, as well as growth from more young people but the budget is not keeping up with the demand. The Scottish Government needs to act so that we can keep NHS Lothian fit for the future. That means investing in GP training as well as practises being sufficiently resourced, to stop bed blocking we need to have enough care home spaces with the right expertise to care for our growing elderly population and ultimately hospitals need to be given the ability to fix this long running waiting time issue.

See the full article on the Evening News website

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Make Renting Right

Sarah Boyack supporting our MRR againToday, in an article for the Evening News, I called for action to be taken against the rip-off rent rises that we are currently seeing throughout Edinburgh.

This year, we have witnessed a massive rise in the price of private-sector rents – with an average increase of 8.8% on last year’s prices. We have also seen house prices rise faster than in any other city across the UK.

These trends indicate that more people will be effectively shut out of the property market and forced to rent in an increasing expensive private sector. As prices continue to rise, we will see people, who are already priced out of the housing market, also being priced out of the rental market.

Not only will this be bad for Edinburgh’s economy, but it will have a severe impact on the individuals that are subject to these rises – many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests that the number of private rented households living in poverty has doubled in the last decade to 120,000.

What’s more, according to the JRF: “private rents are forecast to rise by around 90 per cent in real terms between 2008 and 2040 – more than twice as fast as incomes. This would push up to 50 per cent of private renters into poverty by 2040”. If this trend continues we will see tens of thousands of people being pushed into poverty.

Yet, new figures show landlords are making more whilst more tenants struggle.

This appears to be intuitively unfair and risks deepening the inequality in our society. It is clear that we need to take action to reform the private rental sector to make it to work for everyone, rather than simply acting as a cash cow for landlords.

To do this we must create new laws to tackle the rising private-sector rents, but we also need to see a significant increase in the availability of affordable social housing in the city.

Scotland’s social housing stock has fallen by 17% in the last decade, which has caused the proportion of households in the private rented sector to double – from 8% per cent to 14%.Furthermore, a recent study conducted by Generation Rent found that “if current trends continue, renters will start to outnumber home owners in 104 UK Parliamentary seats across the UK by 2021”.

The SNP Government cannot continue to turn a blind eye to rent reform. The 54,000 private renters in Edinburgh deserve better than that.

I have been a strong supporter of campaigns such as Shelter Scotland’s Make Renting Right campaign, and I would encourage anyone interested in this to also sign up. Together we can make the Scottish Government pay attention to the need for affordable housing.

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Green Flag Awards 2015

Green Flag Award Logo Colour JPEGThis week, a record 65 Scottish parks were awarded Green Flag status.

The Green Flag Awards, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful, are a national standard of excellence given to parks that have achieved an exceptional quality in the management and presentation of their outdoor spaces.

Impressively, 28 of these award-winning parks can be found in Edinburgh – a testament to the quality of our cities green spaces and to the dedication of those involved in maintaining and improving these sites.

Congratulations to all the award winners on receiving their Green Flag. Keep up the good work!

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Autism Parents/Carers Consultation

Header (1)As part of my work as Vice Chair of Labour’s Scottish Policy Forum, I want to draw your attention to an autism consultation that I am trying to get up and running in the Lothians.

The care and support available to autistic children should be symbolic of the aspirations and compassion we have for all children in our society. Unfortunately, the current resources and care options available to autistic children, their parents, and their carers often falls far short of what is required to adequately meet their needs.

I was made aware of the seriousness of this issue when Councillor Ricky Henderson, Labour’s Care and Support Spokesperson in Edinburgh, passed on the experiences of one of his constituents to enable us to discuss his experience of having two children with autism.  He told us about how, despite his best efforts, he was forced to leave his job and become a full-time carer; about the shortfall in care assistance within the community; about the stresses on the current mental health system; and the failure of the Scottish Government to pay attention.

His story moved us, and knowing that other parents in the community were experiencing the same difficulties, we decided to draw up a consultation form to pass round organisations who dealt with those impacted by autism – in the hope that the data collected could be used to inform our policy making through our Scottish Policy Forum.

Last month, Ricky and I met families at the Gorgie City Farm to discuss their experiences. The parents and grandparents we met appreciated being able to talk about the reality of their day-to-day experiences. The responses collected so far give a real insight into the deficits in our health, care, and education services and where we might improve.

If you have been impacted by these issues, or know of anyone who has, please feel free to complete the Autism parents and carers consultation questionnaire and send it back to me.

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