Four years to the day since the Scottish independence referendum was held I am in Barcelona. As if to match my mood the skies are dark and broody. Thunder is rolling in and the lightening illuminates the city skyline. It’s a dark day in Barcelona and a dark time for democracy in Spain. I am driving the ninety minutes or so out of Barcelona to Lledoners prison to visit Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Sànchez and Raul Romeva. The last mile of the journey is easy. All I have to do is follow the yellow ribbons that have been adopted as a sign of solidarity and that now line the side of the roads leading to the prison. Jordi Cuixart and Sànchez have been in prison for eleven months having been arrested and charged with sedition for their part in the Catalonian independence referendum campaign last year. Raül was arrested in November and released in December and then rearrested last March. The date of their trial, along with the other political prisoners, is planned for November but the rumour is that they shall be postponed until Spring 2019.
Today, I want to talk about Jordi Cuixart. Jordi is the president of Òmnium which is a cultural movement in Catalonia. He is not a politician. He is an incredibly brave, optimistic, intelligent and humble man. I asked him how he managed to stay so positive and he explained that he lived in the moment and tried to make each moment happy. He engaged with prison life and other prisoners. He refuses to be beaten by the system he opposes. He is quick to explain that in time people will decide the political and constitutional future of Catalonia and he sees his internment as a small part of that. But he is equally quick to point out that he and his fellow political prisoners are innocent of all charges and have been wrongly imprisoned. His wish is that their plight is spoken about on a wider international arena and not allowed to be internalised by the Spanish authorities. He wants the world to judge Spain during his trial not him, he is already innocent. Jordi talks about his wife and child with enormous excitement and affection. He outlines the difficulty in creating the connections that he wants to build with his growing son. It’s the only time in the one hour I spent with him when I sense any pain. Jordi Cuixart has been in prison for eleven months and can be held for four years without trial. If he is found guilty he could face fifteen years in prison. Jordi Cuixart’s son will be sixteen when his father gets out. I would challenge anybody to listen to the stories of these political prisoners and consider the charges brought against them. Is peacefully challenging the establishment a crime? They did not use violence and they did not incite it. They helped to facilitate and ensure a peaceful democratic protest. The Spanish authorities may not have liked the message they were hearing but no people or property were threatened or damaged in anyway. I would hope that somewhere within the Spanish judicial system there is a person with sufficient power who can acknowledge that a Spanish democracy fit for the twenty first century does not need to take such action against Jordi or the eight other political prisoners. The prisoners should be released and families should be reunited.
The number of drug related deaths in Scotland last year was 934. Deaths have been increasing every year and unless we take action that is only going to continue. The U.K. Government’s drug policy which is enshrined in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is the problem. It has been proven that in the correct circumstances drugs don’t kill you. But by criminalising users we have driven them into the shadows of society and we have stigmatised those who are problematic users. It’s the gift that keeps on giving for organised crime. From kids being recruited to ‘county lines’ , users being manipulated to use different substances, needles being shared with the subsequent spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, social workers and support workers often powerless to intervene and law enforcement agencies constrained by the laws of the land. We have created the perfect environment for criminals to produce and supply while protecting their marketplace with escalating violence. The U.K. is not the first country to get it wrong but we have been slower than others to take action to rectify the situation. It’s a multi layered complicated problem and to address all the issues will require major changes but one solution that has been trialled in other countries are Safe Drug Consumption Rooms (SDCR). Glasgow City Council in conjunction with NHS GGC have been investigating the opening of such a facility but have been thwarted by the existing laws. Last year I visited facilities in Portugal where they have decriminalised drugs and adopted a health based approach to problematic users. Medical practitioners and law enforcement officers in Portugal are united in their support for SDCR. This year I took the opportunity while visiting Catalonia to speak at an Unconditional Basic Income conference to visit the SDCR in Barcelona but first I talked to the staff at the Public Health Agency of Catalonia. They emphasised the need to adopt a humane approach to problematic drug use. They have opened eleven SDCR in Catalonia. And nobody is imprisoned for possession of drugs for personal use. They estimate that to be about one week’s worth of supply. Their attitude is that SDCR are part of the primary care package that is available to all citizens, including immigrants, legal or illegal. I visited three SDCR under the supervision of Xavier Major. The first is part of a health centre in the middle of a housing scheme with a large gypsy population. Many people were there to visit their own GP practice with the usual ailments. The others fell into one of three categories. First there are homeless people and the centre offers clean clothes, showers and a social worker along with kindness and caring. The second category are people who are injecting but don’t want to engage with the social services. They are provided with needles, wipes, a small tray to mix their drugs and condoms. When needles and condoms are provided the risk of transmitting or catching HIV, Hepatitis C or any other blood born virus is greatly reduced. Of the 180,000 needles handed out 110,000 are returned safely after use. The third category are those injecting drugs that are happy to use the SDCR. The same materials are provided but there is a greater opportunity to talk with the users and build a care package for them. The needles and wipes do not leave the room and therefore can’t contaminate the surrounding area. Last year there were 86,000 consumptions on site and 136 overdoses. Due to their adoption of a naloxone programme, nobody died. I was heartened to hear that the programme came about after input from Kirsten Horsburgh at the Scottish Drugs Forum. It takes eleven members of staff to run this facility and it is open from 10am to 8pm and the needle exchange is open until midnight. I was surprised to see that across the road was a primary school and behind that a police station but here in Barcelona the community accept problematic drug users as a health issue and that is reflected in their approach. The second SDCR I visited was a smaller version of the first but it has been integrated into a psychiatric hospital and is run by psychiatrists. And the last was the mobile unit. It is bright yellow and parks up in specific areas at the same time each day. It reminded me of a smaller version of the mobile blood donation units we have. All three units were staffed by marvellous people who treat their clients with care and compassion. They save lives and help put them back together again. It’s time we changed the law in the U.K. to allow access to such facilities. People are dying waiting.
Within the basic income movement we need to get our act together. And the first item on the agenda is the name. It’s a bit like that scene in ‘The Life of Brian’ with the confusion around the many different popular people’s fronts. In Barcelona we just had the Unconditional Basic Income Europe Network event. I have always referred to it as ‘Universal Basic Income’ but in the interest of peace and progress I can accept ‘unconditional’. It is after all a basic principle of the subject. Nobody should be means tested or evaluated before receiving their basic income. Unlike the horrendous punitive process we currently have with PIP and ESA. On Friday the event was hosted at Barcelona Activa which is the Barcelona City Council’s development agency. The speakers representing the projects in Barcelona and A Coruña both expressed their commitment to Basic Income but also the frustration in running such schemes. The logistics behind running a full blown Unconditional Basic Income scheme at a national level are simpler than running pilot projects for a host of reasons including fear of losing out on the existing system, continuing to be stigmatised and the difficulties in making it truly unconditional when working with a subset of society. The economists who spoke strongly supported using consumption tax, European corporation tax, carbon tax, green fiscal instruments and money created by the European Central Bank to fund a UBI. Of course the fly in the ointment for the U.K. is Brexit. As the EU is considering innovative solutions we are turning our back on the EU. This was further compounded by a discussion that the common agricultural policy could be used to facilitate a UBI specifically for farmers. With farmers numbers dropping and the average age increasing, this is an area of employment that needs serious attention. One striking presentation came from Serbia, which is not in the E.U. but they are considering UBI to address their massive emigration problem. On average 35,000 people leave each year to work abroad. The main driver being poverty. Not surprisingly then the priority of the Serbian project is to eradicate poverty in their homeland. With the advancement of automation and the much heralded gig economy our workforce is going to change. Zero hour contracts have created a precarious lifestyle for many. And as that phenomenon continues to grow our already creaking welfare system shall come under increasing pressure. I was asked recently, when is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is, twenty five years ago. If we are wise we can plan ahead and offset a very real threat to our society. But we have to start planting the seeds today. The four pilot projects in Scotland, that are currently in their planning stages, could prove to be hugely significant in determining the viability of UBI not just here but in a wider European if not global platform.
The Scottish Government’s programme for government was published last week. It’s a comprehensive document outlining the areas of governance that we can influence from Holyrood and it’s a mixture of practical reality with enough aspiration to make me believe that, with the right strategy, Scotland can have a prosperous future. It is a rich and diverse programme encompassing many areas of life in Scotland. The key areas covered include national infrastructure, mental health, empowering head teachers and low carbon transport.
As in all things political it will not satisfy everybody and, as one has come to expect, the opposition parties were very quick to condemn it. So quick that I doubt they actually read the publication. It did however receive positive feedback from Friends of the Earth Scotland, Scottish Chamber of Commerce, the STUC, CBI Scotland, NUS Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Victim Support Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, NHS Research, Richmond Fellowship and a host of others. Whether you agree with all the plans outlined or not I hope you feel comforted that plans are being made in a considered fashion. I would ask you to compare and contrast the measured, constructive approach of the SNP Government at Holyrood and the chaotic, self-harming, devil take the hindmost attitude of those crashing the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The very rich and privileged will be safe. Their money will protect them. The rest of us are just expected to go along on this treacherous journey. My advice would be buckle up, it is going to be a bumpy ride.
I delayed my departure to London so I could attend the funeral of George Fellows. George was the husband of my colleague Marion Fellows MP for Motherwell and Wishaw and George was a campaigner and supporter for many years. George was another victim of cancer taken far too early.
My select committee for the constitution and public administration took evidence from the Minister Chloe Smith MP. The main thrust of the enquiry is voter ID. Five trails have been run in England where voters have to provide independent identification before they can vote. A polling card is deemed to be not enough. The aim is to cut down on electoral fraud. Part of the problem is we don’t really know how big the problem is. I also attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure. It was interesting but not terribly engaging.
The main of the event should be Prime Minister’s Questions but it was the usual shouting match. However the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fixed Odd Betting Terminals was a riot. Representatives of the gaming industry came to give evidence to back up their claims that it will take between 9 and 12 months to implement a maximum stake of £2 a spin. And they can’t start until a statutory instrument (SI) is passed. Both claims are spurious. I say that from a background of 35 years in I.T. and the knowledge that the S.I. states a maximum spin of £2 across the board and that’s all they need to know.
I spent the morning researching and writing a speech. I then travelled to Barcelona where I am speaking at the Unconditional Basic Income Europe conference. Westminster went into conference recess today. It’s an opportunity for those of us in the SNP to pursue wider issues as our conference is not until October.
I spoke at the conference. It is great to see so many countries across the globe represented.
I shall be attending the conference and hosting events on Saturday and Sunday.
On Monday, I am visiting drug consumption rooms in Barcelona including their mobile unit. In the evening I shall be visiting the Catalan National Assembly and get a briefing on the political situation in Catalonia. On Tuesday, I am meeting a range of parliamentarians and then visiting Jorge Cuixart who has been imprisoned due to his involvement in the referendum last October. There will then be more meetings with a number of ministers. On Wednesday, the main item of the day is a meeting with President Quim Torra. And then back to Inverclyde.
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Final recommendations on the proposed new parliamentary boundaries have been published today.
Under the proposals, ‘Greenock and Inverclyde’ would be renamed ‘Clyde Coast’ and the seat would include Langbank, Bishopton, Largs, Skelmorlie, Fairlie and Millport. This would increase the size of the electorate from about 57,000 to 75,000.
In December 2017 I lodged my objection to the proposals outlined at that time and the revised proposals published today have done little to reassure me.
If these electorate boundaries were to be approved then Scotland would lose approximately 10% of its seats. Reducing the number of democratically elected members is an outrage at a time when there are 791 unelected members of the House of Lords.
My four staff members already have a high volume of constituency cases, over 5,000 since 2015, a problem exacerbated by Inverclyde lack’s of a CAB and the closure of the Port Glasgow Job Centre and other advice services.
Increasing the electorate by almost a third without providing additional resources will inevitably impact on the level of service my office is able to offer constituents.
Part of the problem is that the boundary commission were given the remit to reduce the number to 600. They were not asked to design constituencies that would give the electorate a stronger and more representative voice. They were not asked to design a system that helped elected members do their job better. Westminster got what it asked for.
I will continue to oppose these proposals when they are brought before parliament.
You can view my full response to the December 2017 consultation [here].
Last day in the constituency before the end of summer recess. Today was spent tying up loose ends and preparing to return to Westminster even if it is only for two weeks before the conference recess starts. And one again may I say recess is not holiday it is an opportunity to dedicate all my time to constituency issues and work that does not tie me to London. I caught the 18:50 flight and got to my flat at ten pm.
I attended a debate in Westminster Hall on the charges the government makes for registering children as British citizens. The charge is far more than the cost of administration and is clearly being run as a profit making process which is contrary to that in other countries across the globe. I had a meeting with GambleAware to catch up with the safer gambling campaign. We discussed online gambling, intrusive advertising, sports celebrities encouraging gambling and children being groomed as the next generation of gamblers. On that last topic I was horrified when a constituent brought to my attention the slot machines being sold by the toy shop Hamleys. They use real money and normalise gambling at a very young age. I wrote to Hamleys and asked them to remove them from their stores. I then met with Mentor. Their role is to provide education around drug issues. I sat in on an urgent question on the Windrush generation and finished my day at an extremely interesting event discussing ‘County Lines’. This is the process that involves drug gangs recruiting kids to act as couriers. Aside from MPs, most of those at the ‘County Lines’ discussion were serving police and crime commissioners. The phrase “we can’t arrest our way out of a drugs crisis” was used time and again. Even the Minister used it. And yet that is exactly what we are trying to do.
Today started with an internal meeting of the SNP Finance and Economy Team. I attend this in my capacity as spokesperson on infrastructure. Next up was PMQs. Particularly poor this week. The PM didn’t even dance for us. That was swiftly followed by a meeting with the Minister with responsibilities for gambling. She was extremely helpful and forthcoming. The main issue is getting the UK Government’s declared maximum stake on fixed odd betting terminals of £2 implemented next April and not allowing it to slip, as the treasury would like it to. I also brought the issue of Hamleys toy slot machine to her attention. I then spoke on behalf of the SNP in a debate on organised crime and the exploitation of children. As it turned out the focus of the debate was ‘County Lines’ and although this impacts every constituency in the UK there was not one member of Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats or Conservative and Unionists at the debate. Everyone that spoke highlighted the increase in violence, abuse and exploitation but despite the findings of the previous evening, the Minister for organised crime still wants to arrest his way out of this crisis. When will they listen?
I was on the order paper as question 11 to the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport. My intention was to seek clarification on the UK Government’s approach to gambling related harm. But some very long questions and equally long answers meant that my question was not reached. On the up side Hamleys wrote to me and told me they are withdrawing the offending toy slot machines.
Just time to write an article and get to the airport to catch my flight.
The first Friday of every month is local surgeries day and today I was at Port Glasgow library, Craigend resource centre and my constituency office. Sometimes surgeries can be slow but not today. It was an extremely busy day.