Answers needed on farm payment application flaws

Over the weekend, a report in the Press & Journal drew attention to serious concerns about the Scottish Government’s management of online applications for support under the Common Agricultural Policy.

A contractor involved in the  development of the new Rural Support and Services website claims that repeated warnings were given about the system’s failings but that these were not headed.

Further, it is alleged that contractors raising concerns were threatened with dismissal.

I previously raised concerns about the online application system, which allows rural businesses to apply for funding support, during Topical Questions in Parliament. The question was prompted by complaints from the NFUS about the effectiveness of the new system.  The Scottish Government has subsequently bowed to pressure to extend the application deadline by a month to allow applications to be made.

While the delay is welcome the most recent revelations shine a much needed light on the chaos at the heart of the system. It’s shocking that warnings were given about the failings of the system months earlier, but were ignored. The Cabinet Secretary must explain the incompetence surrounding the development of the system and the uncertainty and worry it has caused to our farming sector.  I have lodged Parliamentary Questions to try to get some answers.

In the meantime, the Cabinet  Secretary needs to keep his eye on the ball to ensure that farmers and crofters are not let down by the failures in the SNP Government’s system.

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Supporting the One in Five Charter

1in5 campaignLast week I attended the official launch of the One in Five campaign at the Parliament.  It was great to talk with three inspiring activists Pam Duncan, Labour campaigner and human rights equality activist, Peter Lockhart, Fife Councillor and Gordon Aikman, policy researcher who has become well known and admired for his campaigning to raise awareness and funds to tackle Motor Neurone Disease.

The One in Five campaign is raising awareness of the fact that one in five people of working age in Scotland has a disability.   Such a high number makes it vital that we ensure that people are not excluded or discriminated against when it comes to work, society or politics.

The five key things that One in Five is campaigning for are that :

  1. All members are asked about individual needs which are actioned to ensure inclusion
  2. Meetings are held in accessible venues
  3. Material is available in a variety of formats
  4. Organisational tasks and responsibilities are clearly defined yet remain flexible enough to empower individual member’s ability
  5. That organisations aim to increase the awareness and understanding of issues affecting disabled people and strives to include and empower all members

Scottish Labour has always campaigned for equality and is actively supporting this campaign.  We believe it’s an important element of our ambitions to increase political participation: we need to ensure that political representation reflects our society accurately.

I have always tried to make all my public meetings, events and publications accessible to all and know how important it is to empower political participation amongst disabled people in Scotland.  In the Review of Scottish Labour which Jim Murphy and I carried out in 2011 we supported practical measures to encourage members to come forward and to provide support for our disabled members once they are elected.  I am proud to add my support to the One in Five charter to promote equality and involvement and hope that it gains widespread cross party support.

More details on the campaign for individuals and organisations can be found here

Posted in Disability, Equal Opportunities | Comments Off

Supporting our Dairy Industry

Yesterday afternoon, Parliament held a debate on the challenges facing the dairy sector in Scotland.

The debate followed a short inquiry conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee, of which I am a member.

The inquiry was prompted by concerns about First Milk, a farmer owned cooperative which buys milk from over 1,000 farmers to process for market.  In January this year, the organisation was forced to delay payment to its members.

The Committee also considered the global context in dairy and the action needed to provide stability, improve relationships and improve transparency.

In my opening speech I highlighted the challenges faced in the Scottish dairy sector and called for more urgency from the Scottish Government in implementing their Dairy Plan.

The Committee’s report neatly summarised where I think our ambition for the sector should be –

“…to work towards a more sustainable, equitable and profitable dairy sector in Scotland where all producers are paid an appropriate price for the goods they produce, and where consumers can make informed decisions about what to buy, based on clear information about where produce comes from and how much it costs to produce…”

Dairy farming is a hugely important industry in Scotland but price volatility poses a real threat to the livelihood of individual farmers.

The issues raised in the Committee’s inquiry helped inform the Scottish Government’s recently published Action Plan.

While the plan takes steps to address some of the short-term issues, I’m disappointed that the Scottish Government’s timeline delays the start to some of the key actions we need now. There is also a lack of detail on how these actions will be taken forward to provide stability over the longer term.

Today we’re no clearer on how pricing through the supply chain will be made more transparent or how new investment will be delivered to support diversification into non-milk products.  I asked the Cabinet Secretary for clarity on the work being carried out by Scottish Enterprise and HIE to identify the best opportunities to develop new processing facilities to add value to the fresh milk produced in Scotland as the timeline of December is months away.  We’re also no closer to knowing what steps the Scottish Government will take to reduce the burden of transport costs for rural and island producers.

With 2015 marking the Year of Food and Drink, we need more than the warm words of the Action Plan.  We need to see renewed focus from the Scottish Government to deliver the best deal for Scottish dairy farmers.

That means much faster action on developing new markets and new products for Scottish dairy produce.  It means retailers working harder to promote existing and new products when they come on the market and better use of labelling to highlight local, Scottish and UK produce.   It means the public sector maximising the opportunities to buy locally and to ask the hospitality and catering sectors to do more to support local producers too.

Finally, as consumers, we need to be asking more questions about where our food comes from and where possible buying local.

Posted in Debates, Rural Affairs | Comments Off

Let’s Make It Happen – International Women’s Day

Zero ToleranceThis year’s International Women’s Day saw a series of events where women have debated what progress has been made to advance women’s equality.

Over the last fortnight I’ve met with women who are community activists, trade union members, representatives from ethnic minority communities, academics and students and, last week, a conference for young women organised by Zero Tolerance.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had events in the Scottish Parliament enabling women from across Scotland and from a range of backgrounds to join us in debating the way forward for women in Scotland and the wider world.

From campaigning for women’s suffrage to equal representation in Parliament, International Women’s Day has enabled a focus on the achievements and campaign for equality for more than 100 years.   I have campaigned for women’s equality throughout my life and know that IWD is a fantastic day both to acknowledge how far we have come but but also reflect on how far we have still got to go.  It’s vital we use the day, as well as every other day, to continue highlighting to policy makers here in Scotland and abroad the importance of gender equality, and the need to put an end to all forms of violence and discrimination to girls and women.

IWD was first marked in 1911 by over a million people – women demanded the right to vote, to hold public office and protested against sex discrimination. The first time it was marked on 8th March was when Sylvia Pankhurst, the British Suffragette leader, was arrested on her way to make a speech in London, and it was finally officially marked by the UN as International Women’s Day in 1977 as a day for “women’s rights and world peace.”

Statistics show that Tory austerity cuts are disproportionately affecting women. One in five women are still paid below minimum wage, countless women have no choice but to give up work because childcare is too expensive, and thousands more women than men are stuck in unfair zero-hours contracts.

It was a Labour Party that enacted the Equal Pay Act more than 40 years ago, but the Tory Government has done nothing to advance the fairer pay agenda with not a single one of Scotland’s top ten companies publicly reporting their pay gap, and only five out of nearly 7,000 companies across the UK doing so.   Labour Party commitments such as affordable child care, action on domestic violence, increased maternity and paternity pay, an end to zero hours contracts and support for a living wage across public sector procurement contracts will improve women’s lives.

Women are still noticeably missing – on company boards, as senior executives and at every level of political representation.  This year’s International Women’s Day theme was Make It Happen.

I am a strong supporter of the 50:50 campaign which is continuing the fight for equality in Parliament, which will certainly not happen on its own. The Labour Party’s longstanding policy of “zipping” – woman, man, woman, man, etc – and regular women-only shortlists has helped pushed up the level of women’s representation in the Scottish Parliament.

Over time however, some complacency has crept in.  There’s not been the same effort to push to attract new women into politics or to support them in the process of selection, which is a costly process both in terms of finance and time.  Being an MSP is a big commitment and, as women still tend to shoulder the main responsibilities for childcare and caring for relatives, even though the parliament has “family friendly” hours for its formal business it’s certainly not family friendly in terms of the long hours most MSPs actually work.  I’ve certainly noticed that whereas men tend to leave politics only when they reach retirement age, female MSP colleagues have disproportionately left the Parliament well before they reach that age and have gone on to other forms of employment.

I think this is an issue worth examining – it may be due to the constant pressure of political life, the breadth of women’s interests which are not confined to politics and maybe the fact that women are less likely to define themselves in terms of their jobs and see life outside Parliament.  So we need to take account of this and make a much greater effort to ensure both in our selection procedures and our training programmes that we work with trade unions, local community organisations and the business community to make sure we support women in coming forward.

What’s clear is that without some form of positive action, parties will not deliver significant numbers of women representatives – never mind equality of representation.  It cannot be left to electoral accident or warm words.

We also need to tackle lack of support for women; we do now have role models but not necessarily the accessibility for new women to come through and gain the confidence to put themselves forward.   That’s not surprising in a world where women still earn less, still suffer from the glass ceiling and are still responsible for the majority of childcare and caring responsibilities.  Women’s networks to support women through the process of selection and support mechanisms at constituency and regional level could have a huge impact on the number of women putting themselves forward for elected positions.

This month’s theme of ‘Make It Happen’ is particularly focussed on calling for further action for advancing and recognising women, ending the violence that affects one in three women worldwide and increasing the global number of female parliamentarians from 22%.

In an inspiring lecture at Edinburgh University titled “Women’s Rights have no Country: Regenerating Feminist Transnationalism” Anne Marie Goetz, Professor at the Centrer for Global Affairs, NYU and Chief Adviser to UN Women, focused on the importance of women in senior leadership positions globally.

She highlighted the lack of women involved in post conflict resolution processes meaning that male dominated military forces determine the next steps.  There are also few women in UK Peacekeeping forces or middle management.  That matters in setting priorities relevant to women, for example the use of violence against women as part of conflicts and the lack of support for women at risk of sexual violence in refugee camps when they have been displaced from their homes.

We need more women at every level of governments – from our local councils to the highest level of UN and EU decision making if the needs and experiences of women are to be properly taken into account.  Anne Marie argued that Transnational feminism meant that we have to develop regional and global solidarity and to support women through resources and support.   In the aftermath of the financial crash, states are being hollowed out making it harder for them to be agents of social justice.

She finished by posing the question – when will we see a woman appointed to be UN General Secretary.   She suggested a #She4SG campaign – a great idea.

At last week’s Zero Tolerance conference for young women I commented that everything we’ve won, we’ve had to fight for.   I also argued that we need to do more to make childcare affordable but that we also had to stand up for carers’ rights and keep up the pressure on decent funding for care for our older people as women are bearing the brunt of economic pressures.

So let’s use the energy of our debates and discussions, and the renewed focus brought by the Women’s 50:50 campaign to celebrate the gains we’ve made for women in the fight for equality so far, and renew our determinations that women’s voices are heard when we debate our future.

Posted in Women's equality | Comments Off

Summit Discusses Living Wage

Earlier today Scottish Labour Leader, Jim Murphy opened a Living Wage Summit in Glasgow.

The event, organised by the party, brought together representatives from trades unions, business leaders, the third sector and groups involved in action against poverty to discuss tackling low wages.

It follows the announcement at the beginning of this month of a series of policies to help young people in the workplace get a fairer deal.

A recent report from KPMG estimated that more than 400,000 people in Scotland earn less than the living wage, including more than 70,000 young people.

Scottish Labour has proposed the idea of Make Work Pay contracts to encourage employers to give these low paid workers the  living wage, currently set at £7.85 per hour.

Under the  proposals, employers would receive a tax rebate for every low paid worker who gets a pay rise to the living wage. The 12-month rebate would be equal to the increased tax receipts associated with pay rises which has been estimated at an average of £445 per worker.

In addition to increased tax receipts, it has been estimated the proposal would save an average of £232 per person in social security spending. That means a pay rise for Scotland’s low paid workers could save almost £100 million from the welfare bill.

The living wage provides a benchmark for tackling in-work poverty and has been shown to positively impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of workers.  Beyond the initial rebate, there are also real benefits to employers linked to reduced staff absence and turnover and increased productivity and morale.

We need to be proactive in encouraging businesses to get involved and Scottish Labour’s plan provides the incentive that could lift thousands of Scots out of low pay.

The issue of low pay is currently being taken forward by Scottish Labour’s Low Pay Commission.  The commission is made up of representatives from anti-poverty organisations and business, and will report later this year on how to end low pay in Scotland.

The Commission will be analysing the feedback from the summit and also examining trends in low pay.  They will consider Scottish Labour’s Future Fund, which will provide funding support to 18 and 19 year olds not in university, college or a modern apprenticeship, and also how Scottish Government procurement can be used to promote higher wages, and the living wage.

Today’s summit has demonstrated the broad support for the living wage across Scotland alongside Scottish Labour’s commitment to extend the rate to the private sector and to Make Work Pay.

Posted in Economy, Employment | Comments Off

Microchipping progress but still a shocking way to treat a dog

Dogs Trust

Earlier today, the Scottish Government announced plans to introduce compulsory microchipping of dogs in Scotland from next year.

Scottish Labour has long supported the introduction of compulsory microchipping so today’s announcement is a welcome step forward.

The benefits of microchipping are clear, from helping return dogs to their owners and deterring theft to reducing the burden of stray dogs on local authorities and animal welfare charities.

I particularly welcome the commitment from the Dogs Trust to offer free dog chipping so no dog owner is not prevented from access to the technology through lack of cash.  Owners can get in touch with the Dog’s Trust for an appointment at their Scottish Rehoming centres in Glasgow or West Calder or at one of their drop-in events which will run until the legislation comes into force.

We now need to look closely at the detail of the proposals.  It is important that dog owners are given the information they need, not only to get their pets microchipped but also to ensure that they keep contact details up to date.

While today’s announcement is welcome, there is more that the Scottish Government could be doing.  Scottish Labour has backed a ban on the sale and use of electric shock collars and we challenge the Scottish Government to match that commitment.

I recently met representatives of the UK’s biggest dog welfare organisations, the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust, to back calls for a ban on these cruel and unnecessary devices.

The collars are used to train dogs out of fear of further punishment by administering shocks to the dog when they do not perform what is asked of them. Research conducted by DEFRA found that the use of the devices for dog training has a long term negative welfare impact on the animals.  Meanwhile, rewards based methods of training have proven successful in modifying behaviour without subjecting dogs to such cruelty.

Public support is behind the campaign.  In an independent survey, the Kennel Club found that almost three quarters of Scots are against the use of electric shock collars and would support the introduction of a ban on their use.

You can find out more about the campaign from the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust websites.

Posted in Animal Welfare | Comments Off

Festival celebrates Fairtrade City

Celebrating 10 years of Fairtrade City Status for Edinburgh in 2014

Celebrating 10 years of Fairtrade City Status for Edinburgh at the One World Shop in 2014

On Monday I joined Fairtrade campaigners to celebrate the impact of the Edinburgh Fair Trade Festival.

Organised by the Edinburgh Fairtrade City Group, the event recorded the achievements of the City’s schools, businesses and community groups which have done most to promote Fairtrade.

The event marked the beginning of week two of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight – now in its twentieth year, organised by the Fairtrade Foundation and featuring a range of events across the whole of the UK.

Edinburgh has a long-standing commitment to fair trade and last year celebrated 10 years since being designated an official Fairtrade City.  In that time, awareness of Fairtrade products has rocketed with sales valued at £1.67bn in 2014.

With increasing price competition in the grocery sector, the Fairtrade Foundation is promoting a range of initiatives to boost the use of fair trade products in the supply chain.  For example, ahead of the launch of Fairtrade Fortnight, Mars announced a deal which will see all cocoa for Mars bars sold in the UK and Ireland sourced from Fairtrade certified sources.

Fairtrade is about getting a better deal for farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries – securing better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade.

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 services like healthcare and education.  Over the years, I’ve also met a number of Fairtrade producers who have visited the UK to talk about their experience.

This year’s Edinburgh celebrations was attended by producers from Mauritius, Palestine and Malawi.

I’ve also laid a motion to welcome the fact that Edinburgh University‎ has now been a Fairtrade University for a decade.

The impact that the choices we make in our shopping habits can have on the lives of these producers is incredible and I hope that during Fairtrade Fortnight and beyond people will consider giving Fairtrade alternatives a go.

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Youth employment on the agenda

Glenrothes - Mar 2015This morning I joined colleagues in Glenrothes as Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet continues to tour the country.

Employment was top of the agenda as Jim Murphy unveiled a range of policies to help make sure young Scots in the workplace get a fairer deal.

This includes plans to support the roll out of the living wage, to tackle exploitative zero hours contracts and to increase the national minimum wage for all age groups.

Nearly one in five Scots who are in work earn less than the living wage, currently set at £7.85 an hour. Research highlighted by the Living Wage Foundation has found that young people, women and part-time workers are significantly more likely to earn less than this benchmark for the basic cost of living.

While some progress on the living wage has been made in the public sector, there is more we can do. For example, Scottish Labour is committed to introducing legislation that would require any firm awarded a Scottish Government contract to pay the living wage to its workers.  At the same time we will work with the private sector to support and promote the living wage while tackling low pay and low skills. We want to work with local authorities to link these issues to business support and incentives such as rates relief.

Across Scotland, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that 60,000 Scots are currently on zero hours contracts (although the STUC has suggested the figure could be around 84,000).  Citizens Advice Scotland has raised concerns about the increasing misuse use of these contracts which, again, disproportionately affect young people and women.

In many cases, zero hours contracts exploit workers and Scottish Labour is determined to take action. Proposals include a right to a fixed-hours contract for employees who have consistently worked regular hours, ensuring compensation arrangements for individuals whose shifts are cut a short notice and a ban on the use of zero hours from public contracts.

According to the ONS, as many as 13,000 people in Scotland are still being paid less than the National Minimum Wage. At a UK level, Labour is committed to increasing the National Minimum Wage across the age bands.  We are also committed to increasing fines for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage and  to providing more effective enforcement action.

In each of these areas, it is young people who are most disadvantaged.  Our new policies will help to address these inequalities to give young people the best possible chance in life‎.

Posted in Employment, Young People | Comments Off

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.

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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 | Comments Off