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.
As vice-chair of the All-party parliamentary groups on medical cannabis under prescription and drug policy reform I have been campaigning for changes to the UK drug laws. The problems that exist within society and the communities within, are not the drugs. It’s the deprivation, isolation, loneliness and poverty, leading to anger, dissatisfaction, hopelessness and depression. One pound spent on harm reduction, saves three on health care further down the line and seven on the criminal justice system. It makes financial and humanitarian sense to provide care and guidance rather than prosecution. It is time that we reappraised our attitude to drugs and moved forward with a fact-based strategy that does not harm society but benefits it. We can’t win the war on drugs. We can and we must win the peace.
There are around 3900 Inverclyde women affected by the changes to women’s state pension. Many local woman along with women from all over the country have joined the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) movement and have done an outstanding job to make sure that this issue is not brushed aside. The UK Government have not contributed any funds to helping those affected. Together with my SNP colleagues I continue to apply pressure to the Government to explore affordable solutions. The women of the WASPI campaign have fulfilled their part of the bargain by being productive citizens, some of them having worked since they were 15 years old. And while working they paid their tax and national insurance. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.
On Monday the 6th August it was 73 years since an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Out of a population of 350,000 as many as 180,000 people died. I had the privilege of meeting with a survivor of Hiroshima and her testimony is harrowing in the extreme. Suzuki Thurlow’s story should be enough to change the minds of those that support nuclear warfare but sadly it isn’t. But there is a growing body of thought that is saying nuclear weapons are now so outdated that they have no place in a modern defence strategy. As the world becomes increasingly dependent on digital technology, future wars will be digital. On the surface that seems more acceptable. We wouldn’t have the instant mass deaths and destruction. But the truth is that by taking out power grids, the internet, digital communications, the media and transport then entire countries can be brought to their knees. In a time when we live on a cycle of 24 hour news and depend on our mobile phones for business and personal communications, removing that connectivity would create panic at the same time as it would disable law enforcement. Our ability to grow and distribute food, our manufacturing capabilities and all the logistics around them would all be destroyed. Under those circumstances it wouldn’t take long for a country to disintegrate. While that makes a powerful argument for cyber war as an effective strategy it removes the need for nuclear war. The protagonists that continue to support nuclear warfare have to make a decision. Do they continue to support the nuclear arms race, including the new vanguard submarines, or do they now support cyber warfare and the starvation, civil uprising and lawlessness that would produce. I would like to think that common sense would prevail and they would give peace a chance but 73 years after Hiroshima I don’t see that happening.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee of which I am a member published a report last Tuesday. Like all of our reports it is based on evidence given to the committee from experts. In this instance it was from politicians and academics. The committee consists of five Conservative MPs, two of which have been the Secretary of State for Wales, five Labour MPs and me. I am the only member of the committee that represents a Scottish seat. The latest report is titled ‘Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships’.
What this report does is highlight the lack of trust, confidence and understanding within the UK government. When the Scottish Parliament was established the UK was already part of the European Union. Had it not been, then powers that now sit at Brussels would have been in the devolved settlement. However now that we are leaving the European Union, Westminster wants to hold those powers for up to seven years. Westminster is effectively intercepting them in transit and holding them back from reaching their intended destination, Holyrood.
The report highlights the fact that the discussions between the UK government and the devolved administrations regarding Brexit have not gone well because of a lack of consultation from the UK Government. It is my opinion that had they sat down with the devolved parliaments immediately after the vote to leave the European Union and had a grown up conversation that allowed for input and constructive criticism then we could be in a very different place. Instead the UK government internalised all the discussions and conflated their dual role as a government for the U.K. and for England. When they did finally involve the devolved powers they did not engage in a constructive dialogue, they attempted to lecture as if they were living back in the days of colonial rule. Westminster is used to ruling the roost. It moves slowly and takes comfort in its antiquated ways. Having to work alongside the devolved powers has shown up its inadequacies. When confronted with valid concerns the UK government retreated back to their silo and started fighting amongst themselves. The overriding of the Scottish Parliament and the supposition of Westminster’s sovereignty over Scotland is now being questioned in the Supreme Court. If this is the approach that has been adopted while engaging with the EU27 then it is no wonder that side of the Brexit negotiations are also in a shambolic state.
Recently, Inverclyde council has been asking for input regarding the town centre area and in particular the roads to the West of the shopping mall. This is one of a number of such events that have been run in the area. I am always delighted when people engage in the decision making process. The citizens of Inverclyde should be listened to. The fabric of Inverclyde has been eroded with very little consultation. Our coast line has been abused for generations. Land that belongs to us all has seen the wrong buildings erected. Views and shore access has been removed. The very essence of what makes Inverclyde has been sold by the pound and with very little consideration for the greater good. But sometimes we make it easy for this to happen. We don’t engage in the sort of numbers that would concern the decision makers and this allows them to pay lip service to the community. When was the last time a major or even close to a major building project was guided by public opinion. Too often it is just the window dressing. And that’s the way it will always be unless people get motivated, organised and start making their voices heard.
I want to knock down the police station and build the new college on that site. This is something I’ve frequently discussed with West College Scotland. I want to sell the fire station in Port Glasgow to Ferguson Marine. Having met with Fire Scotland to urge they consider selling the land to Ferguson Marine and look at alternative sites in Port Glasgow. I want to build a new combined police, fire and rescue service on the site of Greenock fire station. I want to relocate the cinema and bingo hall into the mall. It was ill-conceived to put these two buildings on our glorious waterfront given they have no need for the views. I want to use Spango Valley for renewable energy technologies. This is something I raised during numerous discussions/meetings with businesses, interested parties and Inverclyde Council. And don’t start me on the old Inverkip power station site. There is the potential to do something magnificent on that site from environmentally friendly and sustainable houses to a complete eco village. Building houses on the Inverkip power station site, Spango valley and the Ravenscraig Hospital site is a recipe for gridlock on the A78. I have pushed many of these ideas towards the council but feel frustrated, at times, with our lack of ambition. It’s time we in Inverclyde started thinking big. If we don’t believe in ourselves why should anyone else?
In the days immediately after the European Union referendum I was approached by a few folk that I knew had voted no in the Scottish independence referendum. They were still pals, we had agreed to disagree, and there was no ripping apart of friends and families, however without my prompting they told me that the next time they would vote yes to independence. For those people, Scotland being torn out the European Union despite 64% voting to remain and every council area securing a Remain vote, had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. More recently Murray Foote who was at the time, the editor of the Daily Record and Fidelma Cook who was a BBC reporter at Westminster have both said given the opportunity they would vote yes. Murray was very outspoken against independence and Fidelma toed the BBC line but was appalled at what she heard behind the scenes.
Those two high profile journalists identified their final straw. Maybe it was the bedroom tax or the rape clause or maybe it was the lack of democratic scrutiny that was allowed at Westminster for the E.U. (Withdrawal) Bill. Maybe they saw the attempts to gag the critical voices and it went against their journalistic instincts. Whatever it was it made the difference.
The point being that once you have loaded the camel up to breaking point and you continue to behave in the same way, there will always be a last straw. Until the U.K. Government starts respecting and engaging with the Scottish Parliament on a wide range of issues the burden can only increase. It is time the U.K. Government understood that Scotland is a distinctly different country and our hopes, dreams and aspirations may not align with Westminster. While they fail to support the autonomy that we have been promised then individuals, companies and organisations will eventually be confronted by their final straw. It’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of time.
The U.K. Government announced this week that it will consider allowing prescriptions for medical cannabis on a one by one basis Assessing cases one by one is slow, cumbersome and therefore cruel. Tens of thousands of people could benefit now. Making them wait while other people with the same condition are provided with medicine is not a solution. Billy Caldwell’s family had to break the law, by bringing medical cannabis into the U.K. from Canada, before the Home Office caved in and allowed him access to his own drugs. MPs had to threaten to travel abroad to get the medicine Alfie Dingley requires before he was offered his by the Home Office. Other less high profile individuals are satisfying their medical needs by making their own provisions because they can’t access legal medical cannabis in the UK. Medical cannabis is available in 30 of the states in the USA and 13 European countries. Somebody living in the Netherlands suffering from epilepsy can bring their medical cannabis into the U.K. and use it to self-medicate. But a resident of the U.K. can’t travel to the Netherlands and bring back the same drugs even if they suffer from exactly the same condition. The Home Secretary announced on Tuesday that the licencing of medicinal cannabis is to be reviewed. Therefore we know that there are moves afoot to address the licensing and prescription of medical cannabis but these advances must be geared towards encompassing medical cannabis into the existing drug portfolio available to general practitioners. The end goal for the Home Office must be to allow the provision of medical cannabis under prescription. And before we can do that we have to address the supply chain for the raw materials and the laboratory facilities to produce the end product. There is a lot of work to do and we need to get started now. The time for grandstanding and prevarication has come and gone.
It’s been one week since the Growth Commission was published. Predictably within minutes of its publication some folk on both sides of the debate rushed to express their delight or despair at its content. Having now read the 354 pages and taken time to digest it, I am happy that it fulfils its role as a discussion document! It is not the last word and it was never intended to be. Nor is it a kaleidoscope of ideas or a myriad of opportunities viewed through the prism of self-determination and ultimately independence. Some have described it as a reality check. Most have welcomed it and it has certainly engaged an audience that have previously been anti-independence. That in itself is a major achievement. Over time it will generate more column inches than it contains itself and already we have seen the common weal publish a critique. And this is all for the good. It is exactly what the Brexiteers should have been doing before the European Referendum and it’s what the unionists should be doing to explain why they believe Scotland is best served by remaining in the United Kingdom. I would have thought given the joint resources of the Conservative and Labour parties they could have worked together to produce a substantial document that explains to the people of Scotland why remaining in the United Kingdom will benefit Scotland and its people. Rather than painting a gloomy picture of self-determination, where is the bright bold vision of Scotland in the Union? I promise the day that report is published I shall not rush to the media to rubbish it. I shall take time to read it and absorb it. But until that day comes I won’t be holding my breath.
Sometimes events at Westminster lend themselves to cross pollination. The themes discussed, the risks and solutions identified, cross over from one event to another quite comfortably. This week I attended three events that fell into that category. The select committee for transport took evidence around the collapse of the franchise for the east coast railway line. This is the third time it has collapsed. I chaired an event at the Royal Aeronautical Society on behalf of the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum with the snappy title ‘Next steps for planning and delivering major infrastructure projects in the UK’. And I attended a briefing from the minister in charge of defence procurement. All three events touched on the complexities of providing the correct outcome at the right price but also highlighted the potential social benefit to the communities where companies were granted the contracts. This is known as the prosperity weighting. We would all expect any government contract to provide value for money. After all they are spending tax payer’s money. But that reminds me of the saying “he knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. We can no longer say that the lowest bid is the best bid because it saves a few bob. Or that in the case of the east coast rail franchise the most profitable to the government is necessarily the best choice. Taking into consideration the prosperity weighting allows companies to highlight the number of jobs created, the benefit to the local community, the strengthening of the supply chain and all these factors should be just as important as the cost. All these things add to the value. Too often we see a project and all we hear is that it cost so many millions but the value to the community is often far greater than pounds and pence.
The casework and correspondence a Member of Parliament receives from constituents is varied and a lot of the time my office will signpost people to the relevant organisation or service for support. Therefore, I welcome the recent launch of two projects, in Inverclyde, which will offer advice and support for people looking to get into work and also assist those with financial needs.
The first project, Fair Start Scotland is a new service which will aim to help at least 38,000 people further removed from the labour market. Fair Start Scotland is being delivered collaboratively across a range of private, public and third sector delivery partners including a range of specialist providers to ensure people receive the right type of support for them. The project is funded by the Scottish Government with Scottish Ministers committing an additional £20m in each year of Parliament – committing up to £96 million overall. For more information please contact 0300 303 3381 or visit www.thewisegroup.co.uk/fairstart.
Secondly, the Inverclyde Delivering Effective Advice and Support (I:DEAS) project is funded by the European Social Fund and the Big Lottery Fund. To take part in the service the individual needs to be one of the following – living in a workless household, low income household or single parent household. Through partners such as CVS Inverclyde, Inverclyde HSCP, Financial Fitness, Barnardos and others, each participant will have an allocated mentor who will assist them with improving their finances and ensuring they have the skills to be able to continue with positive finances through their life. For more information please contact IDEASreferral@thewisegroup.co.uk.
There is a lot of positive work taking place in Inverclyde and its vital people are aware of the services and support available. Therefore, my constituency office is happy to assist constituents with issues and signpost them to the relevant projects such as I:DEAS and Fair Start Scotland.