Health in mind

Health-in-mindLast week, I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit Health in Mind on Shandwick Place. The charity was established over 30 years ago and has 150 fully trained and supported volunteers.

One of its main goals is to help people who are affected with loneliness and isolation to re-connect with society. This includes people with mental-health problems, the elderly and the homeless.

It connects these groups to community services and local activities and helps them to establish social networks. Ultimately it has helped many to rebuild their self-esteem and confidence.

I heard some inspiring stories from service users about how their lives had been put back on track because of the efforts of the organisation and its volunteers. It has given many a greater sense of purpose and direction. Some have even gone on to become volunteers themselves.

There are many people who due to the fact that they are isolated simply don’t know how to access the services they need. As a result, they slip through the net. Therefore, having information services like those organised by Health in Mind based at community facilities are really important.

I also heard that the charity evaluates and monitors outcomes of the services they provide. They have had very positive feedback from people from all backgrounds. For instance, 94% of respondents to one of charity’s recent surveys said that their mental-health had improved because of their services.

Recently the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities committee published a report which said that isolation and loneliness is a big issue in Scotland. It called on the Scottish Government to develop a national strategy for tackling the problem.

In developing that strategy the government would do well to learn from charities like Health in Mind. To read more about its work click here.

Fit for the future – the challenge of delivering more sustainable farming systems

Today I gave a keynote speech at the SEPA/SRUC yearly conference which brings together land managers, researchers and policy makers to discuss the future of farming in Scotland.

You can read my full speech here. In my opening remarks I commented on what has been a hugely difficult time for our farming communities.

There was last year’s horrendous summer weather, turmoil of markets abroad and the ongoing crisis in the dairy industry. And to top it all – the chaos of the Single Farm Payments system – behind schedule, badly designed and horrifically expensive.

I also provided my thoughts on how we can move toward more sustainable farming systems – something which is of huge importance to our rural communities and the wider Scottish economy.

There are number of things that we need to do but one of the key issues I highlighted during my speech is the need to use science and research to help make better and more informed use of our land for social and economic benefit.  We need to address the challenge of climate change, by reducing emissions in the farming sector and by thinking about the contribution of farming, forestry and land use to delivering this.

To achieve this we must build linkages across research and academic institutions, policy practitioners, economic development and business advisers.  But crucially we need to involve farmers themselves and the communities that they support. I think that’s sometimes understated – we have to make the connections real.

I also highlighted the importance of investing in our rural communities. By this I mean investment in our rural businesses, good quality housing and education and jobs that people pay enough for people to have a decent quality of life and where young people don’t automatically need to move away to find decent work.

We have a stronger more powerful parliament now than when I first became an MSP in 1999 and more powers are on the way. We can achieve the change necessary to make the farming sector more sustainable and to make our rural communities stronger and more resilient.

Time to Care for Carers

IMG_0811The passing of the Carers (Scotland) Bill this month was a momentous occasion. The legal framework to support carers needed to be updated. But was it enough? For me there’s been a trend in this Parliament for new laws and strategies which are good, but are not backed up by the investment needed if they are to succeed.

With increasing financial pressures on local authorities, from Scottish Government cuts, the responsibility, the burden of care has been shifted back onto families. In a country with an ageing population, and significant cuts to support for disabled or aged people, and those with learning difficulties, there are an increased number of people having to take on the role of carer, many of whom have multiple caring responsibilities already.

The issue of access to quality, appropriate social care isn’t going to go away. Moreover it’s going to get worse under swingeing cuts local authorities are dealing with in the light of this week’s budget. Third sector groups and volunteers are currently having to plug the gap that should be filled by public services. They do a great job, and the huge difference they make to the human experience is incredible and often thankless, but they can’t carry on indefinitely with this burden with such lack of financial support. We need to be prevention focussed, not crisis focussed.

In the last few months I’ve had carers seeking my help to get the right support for their loved ones. It’s mainly, although not exclusively women who are the main carer for their partners. By the time they come to me for help they are invariably exhausted. They’ve usually had difficulty accessing the right care support in their home, making it difficult to sustain themselves with even minimal trips to shop or visit friends or family being extremely difficult. For some carers the lack of the right ongoing support can push them to need care home placements often reluctantly. As one constituent put it to me – would you apply for a job that was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without any days off during the year?

I met with VOCAL last week who the Voice for Carers Across Lothian to discuss their ongoing work and their future projects. While they were disappointed with some aspects of the Carers Bill, they welcome new rights for carers – hard-fought for. I was very interested in their work with the financial sector to provide support for employees so that they can juggle their work while also being a carer. There is a hidden cost with people forced to give up their work to become full-time carers in economic terms.

VOCAL works with Shared Care Scotland on a fantastic new scheme called “Respitality,” working with the hospitality sector to create short, local breaks for carers that can also cater for those they care for; liaising with hotels, B&Bs and activity centres to find out what services they can offer, and in return filling otherwise empty rooms, B&Bs and coach tours. Wee Breaks Midlothian offer advice for planning, finding funding, tips from others and general advice to help carers get the respite they so often miss out on, which can make a world of difference.

SNP budget cuts will hurt communities

Cuts Protest (2)

We’ve heard it before and we will hear it again in the coming weeks. During today’s budget debate Finance Secretary John Swinney repeated his claim that the Scottish Government is properly funding local government.

If this was the case then why did Edinburgh Council recently announce that it has to make £85m of savings in the year ahead? And why is it planning to shed 2,000 jobs – the single biggest job loss in the council’s history?

The reality is that the council’s finances have been pushed beyond breaking point due to a combination of year-on-year-cuts from the Scottish Government, an underfunded council tax freeze and increasing demand on public services.  So childcare, schools, social care and a raft of services that people rely on are being cut back.

Compared to other local authorities Edinburgh’s finances have been hit particularly hard. An independent analysis published by the Scottish Parliament’s research centre recently revealed the uneven burden placed on the capital when compared with most other parts of Scotland. In real terms Scottish Government funding of councils has dropped by 7%, whereas it has been slashed by 13% per person in Edinburgh since the SNP took power in 2007.

No one forced the SNP to pass their latest round of austerity cuts on to local communities. There was an alternative – Scottish Labour’s Plan to raise income tax which independent experts have confirmed will protect our vital public services and with our £100 rebate protect those with incomes of less than £20,000. Instead the SNP Government has chosen George Osborne’s Tory austerity cuts and voted our proposal down.

As a result, the price will be paid by people who rely on council services. Today’s demonstration saw Councillors and trade union reps from across Scotland call for the SNP to use the powers they have to stop these damaging cuts which will hit the most vulnerable in our communities.  It will also negatively impact on children and young people’s education – and our country’s future.

The Finance Secretary should have listened to Sandy Howatt the SNP’s group leader in Edinburgh who had the following to say in relation to the Scottish Government’s local government settlement:

“A revenue cut of this scale would be very damaging for jobs and services within Scottish local government generally, and here in Edinburgh specifically – the harsh reality is that this will translate to real job cuts that hit real families, in real communities throughout our capital city. Everyone will be hurt by this”

Warm Homes key to improving health and reducing fuel poverty

Cold and hard to heat homes are a major of source of ill-health in Scotland particularly for the elderly.

The head of the Royal College of Nursing Theresa Fyffe recently said: “it’s indefensible that cold, hard-to-heat homes continue to leave the most vulnerable in our society at the mercy of cold weather each winter.”

Shockingly, it is estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 older people are dying from cold related illnesses every winter.  It’s clear we must to do a far more to ensure that the homes for our elderly are properly insulated.

This is why this week I lodged a motion in Parliament supporting Age Scotland’s warm homes campaign. The charity is calling for a Warm Homes Act and investment to raise all housing to a high energy performance standard.

In addition to the serious health risks, poorly insulated homes are also a major drain on household finances with one third of Scottish households living in fuel poverty. But it is worse for older people with nearly half of our single household pensioners suffering from fuel poverty.

I agree with Age Scotland that by introducing a Warm Homes Act we can lead the way as a country internationally recognised for improving the nation’s wellbeing.

We would also do well to learn from projects such as the Better health through improved housing’ pilot set up by Edinburgh City Council in conjunction with NHS Scotland and Home Energy Scotland.

The aim of the pilot, as well as reducing fuel poverty levels, is to reduce emergency admissions to hospital by identifying patients with health problems whose health would be improved by undertaking improvements to the fabric of their homes, including new heating systems and insulation.

It is estimated that ill health caused by cold housing costs the NHS in Scotland up to £80 million per year. Such pilots therefore will not only help make our homes more energy efficient and reduce fuel poverty they can also save the NHS money.

I agree with Theresa Fyffe when she said “Ending cold homes and cutting fuel bills through improving the energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes should be a priority for political parties in this year’s Scottish Parliament election.”

As Environmental Justice Spokesperson for Scottish Labour I was proud to announce our support for a Warm Homes Act in advance of the Climate Change talks in December.  I hope other parties will sign up too.

Our Farming Communities Deserve Better

It seems that whenever plans are announced for a new multi-million pounds publicly funded IT system, it’s only a matter time before we hear stories of spiralling costs and huge delays.

We’ve seen it in the NHS, with Police Scotland and more recently with the Scottish Government’s new computer system set up to deliver the CAP payments to farmers. The project was originally meant to cost £70m but this rocketed to £170m.

Rural Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochead has been forced to account to Parliament on several occasions for the expensive and costly failure of his new system.

This week it was revealed that a result of this failure only one third of Scottish farmers and crofters have received any CAP payments that traditionally arrive in early December. To make matters worse, Richard Lochead was warned over a year and a half ago that there was a risk this could happen but neglected to put robust measures in place to prevent it.

Many farmers have now taken out loans to tide them over. With the fall in milk prices running alongside this fiasco many farmers are in a dire position.

The head of NFUS summed up the issue on Wednesday when he said: ‘in short, the wheels of Scotland’s vital rural economy have stopped turning, the debt levels being carried by those who service our industry are growing and the worry and frustration for farmers and their families continues to build.

It’s clear that time is running out for farmers and we need far more decisive action from the Scottish Government than we’ve seen to date. It must now take responsibility for its failures and ensure that farmers receive an interim payment of at least 50%.

Moreover, as the RACCE committee recommended in its inquiry into dairy farming, action is need to deliver new processing facilities in Scotland, so that we have opportunities for the dairy industry to find new markets. This would help them to survive in the short-term and ensure a more secure future for the industry.

Once the mess has been resolved, and it must be resolved very soon, the Scottish Government must conduct a detailed review of what went wrong with new CAP payment system, to ensure that the same mistakes are not made in the future, in order to protect farmers, the rural economy and taxpayers’ money.

The worry and economic uncertainty from the mismanagement of these payments is hitting farming communities across the country. They deserve better.

Edinburgh hit twice as hard as other councils by SNP cuts

IMG_0755We constantly hear from the SNP Government that Edinburgh City Council is getting a good deal when it comes to local government funding.

But figures released this week by the politically neutral Scottish Parliament Information Centre paint a very different picture.

They show the true impact of SNP Scottish Government cuts in Edinburgh and reveal the uneven burden placed on the capital when compared with most other parts of Scotland.

In real terms Scottish Government funding of councils has dropped by 7%, whereas it has been slashed by 13% per person in Edinburgh since the SNP took power in 2007. Glasgow has also been hit particularly hard with a 15% cut.

Edinburgh is a strong, growing city but the SNP’s cynical and unfair cuts undermine the efforts being made by Edinburgh’s Labour Led Council to strengthen our local economy and support local services.

This is austerity plain and simple, and it seems the SNP are focused on hitting Labour run cities like Edinburgh far more than the 1% real terms budget cut the Scottish Government itself has received.

The price is being paid by people who will be hit by reductions in council services and vulnerable people who need quality social care.

The SNP portray themselves as a party fighting for social justice. But their actions don’t match their words. They talk left, but they act right. They say they are in favour of social justice then impose swingeing cuts that will make it harder for councils to support the most vulnerable in our society.

There is nothing forcing the SNP to impose this austerity on Edinburgh City Council. They could make a different choice.

For one, they could support Scottish Labour’s radical proposal to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise income tax that would generate £500m a year, and which would be ploughed back into our councils allowing them to protect our education and social care services. Our plan would provide for rebates for low paid earners and pensioners so that it would be truly progressive.

The price of austerity is unacceptable. As Sandy Howatt SNP group leader in Edinburgh said in relation to the most recent local government settlement:

“A revenue cut of this scale would be very damaging for jobs and services within Scottish local government generally, and here in Edinburgh specifically – the harsh reality is that this will translate to real job cuts that hit real families, in real communities throughout our capital city. Everyone will be hurt by this.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Day One: Stage Two Land Reform Bill

Yesterday the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee debated amendments to the Land Reform Bill. In the summer the RACCE Committee toured the country seeking evidence from communities and stakeholders. We had a huge response to our call for evidence which the Committee considered in our Stage One Report which we debated in the Parliament before Christmas.

Ministers have been keen to listen to and respond to members of the committee’s views and suggestions for changes to the bill. In the first week back we received the Scottish Government’s official response to our Stage One report and had a private meeting with Ministers the next day. That was helpful to RACCE members but made it hard for people who commented on the bill months ago to keep up with the changing position taken by ministers.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking alongside my Labour colleague Claudia Beamish about amendments we could make to the bill to strengthen it and make sure it would be the transformative legislation we wanted.

Key issues are: transparency about who owns land, both as a point of principle, but also to enable communities and those with a potential interest in how land is managed to be able to communicate with owners, and the new Land Commission. We’ve also been seeking a stronger statement on the face of the bill to set out the purpose of land reform in terms of human rights, equalities, diversity of land ownership, community resilience, and sustainable development. That’s essential to underpin the future effectiveness of the right to buy provisions which are a key purpose of the legislation. Transparency on the Land Responsibilities and Rights Statement, and the new Land Commission’s powers are important so that stakeholders and communities are involved in the process from the start. We’re also keen to see more use made of cooperative ownership structures for community land buy outs and believe there’s an opportunity Cooperative Development Scotland involved in giving advice to local groups in rural and urban communities.

Because the committee has been drip fed the Scottish Government’s changing positions on key elements of the Bill it has been difficult for land reform supporters and campaigners to follow the detail of the Scottish Government’s policy position. It was important therefore that as Opposition members we were able to get clarity on the Scottish Government’s position on the Official Report. Given the huge public interest in this Bill I was particularly keen to get on the record our support for substantial changes to ensure the Bill lives up to the aspirations we have for tackling inequality and making better use of our land in the interests of communities. As a result of our pressure significant amendments were made to the Bill which will strengthen its purpose and to increase transparency.

The key debate was on the issue of increasing transparency on ownership. As Labour members we were keen to see amendments approved which would have required registration of land ownership to be clear through using the vehicle of EU entities but the SNP, Tory and Lib Dem members voted this down.  The Committee did however unanimously pass an amendment which significantly strengthens the bill by introducing a register of “persons of significant control” who own large parts of Scotland.

We will continue to press SNP Ministers for changes to be made in advance of the Parliament’s Stage 3 consideration of bill and will take the opportunity to discuss detailed amendments with ministers where there are areas we can agree on.  The next 3 weeks will see the RACCE committee continue to work its way through Stage Two discussions on amendments to the bill.

You can read the Official Report of our discussions here.

Care Crisis in Edinburgh and Lothians

Sarah Boyack 345NHS Lothian is going through a crisis. I’ve said it before on my blog but it bears repeating until vital investment in staff and services is delivered.

2015 saw lengthening waiting lists, increased spending on private hospitals, lack of access to care, the threat of closure of cleft surgery in Edinburgh and a 50% increase in cancelled operations. We’re hardly into 2016 but we already have found out 95 people died waiting for care packages in Edinburgh, and care workers are still receiving less than a living wage for the crucial service they provide.

Gordon Aikman, MND patient and campaigner, uncovered the stats about those waiting for care packages from a Freedom of Information request, and said “Behind these figures are real people with stories of desperation, misery and indignity.”

People shouldn’t be waiting months, and in some cases, years, for the care packages that would not only allow them to either return home or move into care, but would also alleviate some of the pressures on those currently having to fill in the gap – both family and friends, as well as the hospital staff who are having to be being diverted from other areas.

Across Scotland, a total of 276 sick and disabled people died waiting for their care packages, with Edinburgh making up a shocking third of that total. The lack of resource is already an issue with local councils having to deal with previous budget cuts and a financial squeeze.  The scale of those pressures will only be exacerbated with the funding cuts Edinburgh Council has just had to announce. I’m calling on the Scottish Government to properly invest in social care services in the region, as well as ensure the care workers are being paid a proper living wage for such a beneficial but under-supported role. I’ve laid a question to Ministers next week so will have the chance to raise the issue directly in the Scottish Parliament.

Today, our Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale MSP, raised this with Nicola Sturgeon in First Minister’s Questions which you can watch here and you can read my most recent article on the pressures facing NHS Lothian for the Edinburgh Evening News here

My Support for St Mary’s Music School proposals for the Old Royal High

Last New SMMSmonth, the application to turn the Old Royal High School into a luxury hotel was refused – to the great relief of those of us who were concerned about our duty to protect and preserve our city’s beautiful and historic heritage. The proposal would have required substantial extensions and irrevocable damage to the façade of the building and damage to the iconic skyline it helps frame.

A new proposal has now been put forward, with the support of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, for St. Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh since 1880 – to take it over as their new home.  The proposal also includes a new public performance space. Having seen the proposed plans, I feel they are sympathetic to the building’s original design, and would not only bring in additional talent to the city, but would enhance our reputation as a culture capital, and preserve the historic legacy of the building.  I believe the proposal provide a solution to the currently derelict building that preserves, rather than jeopardises, Edinburgh’s World Heritage Status and Outstanding Universal Value status.

The development proposals St Mary’s has put forward not only protect the building as it stands, and its historical setting, the alterations needed to transform it into the school and concert venue would be nearly invisible from outside the boundary of the site. It would also maintain the building in the aspect to which its architect, Thomas Hamilton, was tasked to design it in the early 19th century – as a school – but would enable it transition back into use as a cultural heart for the city.   The new performance space and external landscaping will also increase public access and will strengthen the attractiveness of Edinburgh to visitors.

I support the new proposals that have been put forward as they are not only consistent with the history and historic surroundings, but they will help our city grow and improve, while protecting and preserving our beautiful Edinburgh heritage.

You can read my submission to Planning at Edinburgh Council here

And learn more about the plans here: