Fox hunting legislation in Scotland not fit for puspose

I have lodged a motion in Holyrood to raise awareness of research from the League Against Cruel Sports that highlights fox hunting legislation in Scotland is not fit for purpose. While a focus is on this issue UK-wide, I am urging the Scottish Government to evaluate what legislative changes are required.

I was happy to see the hard work by anti-fox hunting campaigners rewarded this week with the SNP adopting a strong stance towards the cruel blood sport in England and Wales, however it is important that we take this opportunity to get our own house in order north of the border.

You can read the text of my motion, and keep track of which MSPs add their names in support, here.

Spare kids from callous cuts

It’s the school holidays, and for many parents and young people these lazy days of summer will be bookended with ­emotion as the transfer from one school year to the next takes place.

Indeed, for those leaving school it can be a real ­life-changing experience, going from a school ­environment into (hopefully) work, training, college or university.

Recent figures showed that most school leavers are going into such positive destinations but there’s another set of figures that has been overlooked and to which we should pay more attention.

The proportion of school leavers with Additional Support Needs (ASN) ending in a positive destination such as further education or employment has gone up slightly from 82.5 per cent in 2012-13 to 84.4 in 2013-14 but this remains below the rate for those without ASN at 93.4 per cent.

A young person with ASN might be being bullied, have behavioural or learning difficulties, be deaf or blind or be looked after by a local authority.

Across the Lothians 20,000 children have ASN. The main factors tend to be learning disabilities and dyslexia. Across Scotland there are more than 140,000 pupils (21 per cent of the school population) with ASN, and it disproportionately affects children from lower income families and areas of deprivation.

The requirement for additional support varies across a spectrum of needs and circumstances. It tends to be best that support is integrated rather than singling out the pupil. Children and young people usually want to be seen as no different from their classmates. The approach should be to view children as individuals and tailor support to their needs.

The Scottish Government has admitted that not all children with additional requirements have received the support to which they are entitled, and as ministers continue to collect information about this issue, more children are being recorded as having additional support needs. We need to ensure best practice is being shared so we can ensure an inclusive and equal education system.

Local authority budget cuts impact on the learning of our most vulnerable pupils, and I know teachers are worried that there are bigger cuts to come. We cannot ignore the link between deprivation and additional support needs, and we cannot stand by while local authority budget cuts impact upon the most vulnerable young people in our society.

All too often ASN provision is seen as a soft target for cuts and those in the sector tell me they feel their already under-funded vital services are increasingly regarded as a luxury.

The earlier a child’s additional support needs are identified and provided for, the more likely they are to enjoy a healthy development into adulthood.

We have a responsibility in Holyrood to support local authority service delivery and I urge the Scottish Government to speak to councils without delay to identify how we can protect and enhance the provision for those with additional support needs across Scotland.

 

This article was originally published in the Evening News (7 July)

Games legacy? Still possible. Start with swimming.

In terms of spectator sport, this summer might not have the buzz of last year’s Commonwealth Games but we’re still spoiled for choice. Wimbledon’s underway (come on, Andy!), the Tour de France is getting into gear and next month Beijing will host the World Athletics Championships at the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium.Swim

 

Spectating is all very well, but what of that much-talked-about legacy the Glasgow Games promised? The event itself was spectacular, there’s no denying, and I’m sure it inspired many young people across Scotland to take up a new sport or devote more time to an existing passion.

 

Given our reputation for poor health, I’m excited by the idea of Scotland on a journey towards becoming a nation of active participants and not just spectators. But already there are warning lights on the dashboard and we should not ignore them.

 

A recent study of residents living near where the Games took place in Glasgow shows that levels of taking part in sport and exercise have dropped. There were of course benefits for local people in terms of sheer enjoyment of the spectacle and Games-related work opportunities, but it’s disappointing that the legacy appears to have hit the first hurdle. And it’s ironic to note the finding that access to local sports facilities was disrupted during the Games. I agree with Professor Ade Kearns, principal investigator on the study, who said there is a big job to be done.

 

The other warning light is the recent decision by Scottish Ministers to end funding for a scheme to improve the standard of swimming among primary school children.

The plug being pulled on Scottish Swimming’s Top Up programme is likely to mean greater numbers of adults who lack confidence in the water. Crucially, swimming is not a compulsory part of the curriculum in Scotland, unlike in England, and the provision of primary school swimming lessons varies extensively between local authorities. We know, for example, that children in the most deprived areas are more likely to be non-swimmers. Overall, between 30 and 40 per cent of children leave primary school unable to swim.

 

Ministers claim Scottish Swimming has received more than £5million over four years but this is a drop in the ocean when you consider that the Scottish health budget is over £12billion a year. Spending more on preventative measures to make activity a normal part of daily life will help reduce the pressure on the health service in the long run.

 

It’s not just a health issue and a life skill but it’s an issue of social justice. We know that financial pressures stop many families from going swimming. And because the provision of free swimming varies across Scotland, those living in poverty are excluded.

 

In the region I represent – Lothian – a single family swimming session can cost £8.65 in Musselburgh, £10.90 in Midlothian, £12.50 in Edinburgh and £13.70 in West Lothian. Start to add transport costs and kit onto that and you can see how unaffordable an option it becomes for low income households.

 

Among the recommendations made by Scottish Swimming and Save the Children to the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee inquiry into community sport back in 2012 was continuation of the Top Up programme – the same one the government has now cut. They also called for investment in opportunities for children from deprived neighbourhoods, and an entitlement to learn to swim for all primary school children. They highlighted that some local authorities provide free transport during the school holidays for young people to get to leisure centres and swimming pools. We should be encouraging this approach right across Scotland.

 

Swimming has obvious health and safety benefits. It involves cardiovascular activity, which strengthens the heart and lungs, and helps with endurance, flexibility and balance. Drowning is a real risk for children. Scotland and the rest of UK rate among the worst countries in Europe for drowning prevention, according to the European Child Safety Alliance. Scotland only scores 1 out of 5 on water safety, with the ECSA highlighting the fact that we don’t have swimming lessons as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. 19 European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have made swimming lessons compulsory. So often we look across the North Sea to our Scandinavian neighbours for inspiration on equality – why not on swimming?

 

Children who enjoy swimming have the option to pursue it as a competitive sport, with all the positive experiences that can bring, working towards goals, learning to be part of a team and developing confidence. It’s also been shown that swimming is good for children’s mental health, and families that spend time swimming together can develop strong bonds.

 

Last summer Sport Minister Shona Robison talked of giving every child the opportunity, facilities and support to learn to swim. And last summer Scots swimmers stood out, from Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch to Michael Jamieson and the brilliant teenager Erraid Davies. For years the Scottish Government knew the Games were coming, and from early on talked about a legacy. It’s still possible to achieve it, and making swimming a compulsory part of the curriculum would show we’re serious.

 

 

 

Women aren’t a minority, but the under-represented majority.

Support for Women 5050 has grown in recent months and I’m sure it will continue to do so.  Political engagement in Scotland bloomed during the referendum and that heightened level of involvement has continued. AJ 5050 bag1

 

Many women, young and old, become engaged during that campaign, found their voices and contributed on both sides of the debate.  It’s essential that they are encouraged to continue.

 

There is more discussion now about the need for fair gender representation in politics, but there are still those who are convinced that our representatives are all there on merit.  Globally, almost 90% of parliamentarians are men.  This tells me that action is required to provide a truly level playing field.

 

After all, I’ve attended meetings packed with women campaigning to keep local nurseries or hospitals open.  With less cash, less access to private transport and more likely to have had their much needed benefits cut, women understand the impact of these decisions.

 

But there are too few women able to influence the debate in our Council Chambers and in the Scottish Parliament.

 

It’s time now to make sure that far more women are involved in making and voting for these decisions.

 

My Party, the Scottish Greens, insists that 50% of winnable seats have women candidates.  So it can be done.  Women aren’t a minority, but the under-represented majority.

 

Please get involved and support Women5050.  Your support will make a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We must do all we can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.

This week I was pleased to speak in a debate in parliament on employee rights. They can protect us when things go wrong, when companies get into difficulties or in the face of unscrupulous employers, and they have been hard won by labour and trade union campaigners over decades.

Read on for the full text of my speech…

Alison

Alison Johnstone chamber pic
Workers’ rights are human rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

That article goes on to cover equal pay for equal work, the right to just remuneration and social protection “worthy of human dignity” and the right to join trade unions. Those rights are also embedded in the European charter of fundamental rights and, in part, in the UK Human Rights Act 1998.

Strong employee rights are vital, but they face a barrage of attacks from the UK Government. We have heard from other MSPs about the Conservative plan for a 40 per cent threshold for strike ballots in health, transport, fire services and schools. As the minister and other colleagues have noted, the UK Tory Government, with 37 per cent of the vote, did not quite make the grade, but it still proposes abolition of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Employee rights are also under attack from the UK Government’s support of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—the so-called free trade agreement that is really a corporate power grab that endangers workers’ rights. TTIP proposals will give corporations influence over laws and regulatory convergence risks lowering health and safety protections. That is an affront to democracy, and TTIP should be scrapped.

Governments have to be free to make changes that will improve the lives of their citizens. Raising the minimum wage to the living wage is exactly the sort of policy that the Greens will continue to fight for. In the general election campaign, we argued that, by 2020, the minimum wage should be £10 to ensure that nobody in work is faced with poverty. We also support the introduction of wage ratios.

The rise of zero-hours contracts, which have been much discussed in the debate, is another example of where workers’ rights are being eroded. They will work for a few people, but most exploit people who desperately need work. I support calls from the STUC for full employment protections for all workers, regardless of their employment status.

The Scottish Green Party supported the devolution of employment law during the Smith process and was disappointed that progress was not made. That support was not motivated just by the desire to see workers protected; it also makes sense. In its submission to the Smith commission, the STUC said:

“it is easier to imagine coherent policies on economic development, tackling inequality through public service provision, welfare and active labour market intervention if the Scottish Parliament is empowered to tackle discrimination, poor employment practice, insecure employment, low minimum wages and to create healthier workplaces and promote collective bargaining.”

Employment protections are fully devolved to Northern Ireland, so it can be done while maintaining a single labour market. Employment services and fair access to employment tribunals are referred to in the Government motion. Devolution there is warmly welcome.

Since the introduction of tribunal fees, there has been an 81 per cent drop in applications to the employment tribunal. That is a serious access-to-justice issue for workers. Citizens Advice Scotland, in its briefing for today, sets out its advisers’ experience. They found that “fees negatively alter the power balance between workers and employers” and that the decision whether to take a claim to the tribunal is no longer based on merit but is based on personal finances—can the person afford justice or not? With the fees that we have discussed this afternoon, that is no surprise. Often, those who most need to challenge employment practices are being priced out of doing so.

I support the Law Society’s view, which we heard in committee, that any limitations to tribunal devolution should be restricted to those that are objectively necessary.

The Scottish Parliament information centre has produced a comparison of the Smith agreement and the Scotland Bill. It has marked the devolution proposals on employment programmes in red because they did not address any of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s concerns. That has to change and I hope that it will.

I, too, support calls for a weekend allowance for all staff in National Museums Scotland. Like others, I look forward to the establishment of a much-needed Scottish hazards centre that will actively campaign for safer and healthier workplaces and more effective enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities.

Graeme Pearson spoke of his concern about the varying practices by trade unions in different parts of these islands. While he questioned the need for two different approaches, if the one approach that we have is regressive and truly woeful, I support having two different approaches.

Alex Johnstone spoke of “socialist failure”. Last night, I was watching the late news—it was on one of the major channels but I cannot remember which one—and I saw a dinner of bankers who were described as “the elite”. Is it not the case that, if the losses that they incurred had not been socialised, failure might have been truly catastrophic?

I suggest that this Parliament do all that it can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.

MUSSELBURGH LINKS: PRAISING THE BIG NATURE FESTIVAL VENUE

I’ve lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament praising the Big Nature Festival at Levenhall Links in Musselburgh.AJ and rangers at Musselburgh

The family-friendly event took place on 23 and 24 May, with an estimated 6,000 people taking part in activities and talks and sampling local food and drink.

My motion welcomes the ongoing efforts of East Lothian Council, Scottish Power, RSPB and the Friends of Musselburgh Links group to progress further restoration of the site.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Big Nature Festival and the conversations I had with many people passionate about wildlife and unique sites such as Levenhall. The festival’s organisers and participants should be proud, and the event undoubtedly brought a welcome boost to the East Lothian economy.

Levenhall links and lagoons are a real haven for birdlife and a valuable green space for the community. I hope the success of the festival is repeated and we see the site fully restored to create a high quality nature reserve for future generations to enjoy.”

You can read my motion here.

 

 

Devolution must not stop at Holyrood

This week I spoke in parliament on the findings of the Devolution committee’s inquiry into the UK’s Government’s proposed legislation on further powers.

Smith

Here’s what I had to say:

 

The committee was tasked with scrutinising the previous UK Government’s translation of the Smith commission’s recommendations into proposed law. As my committee colleagues have said, that scrutiny was undertaken in an atmosphere of mutual respect and with an agreed determination to ensure that, as the report said,

“both the letter and the spirit of the Smith Commission’s report”

would be

“fully translated into a legislative package”.

A key conclusion that the committee reached can be found in paragraph 493 of the report, which states:

“In some of the areas … the Committee believes that the current draft legislative proposals meet the challenge of fully translating the political agreement reached in the Smith Commission. In other areas, improvements in drafting and further clarification are required. In some critical areas, the then UK Government’s draft legislative clauses fall short.”

In the time that I have, I intend to outline where the Scottish Green Party is content that the clauses meet the letter and the spirit of the Smith commission’s proposals and where we believe that they do not. I will also stress the need to broaden public engagement as widely as possible as the process moves forward, which Jackie Baillie touched on.

It is fair to say that we are having this debate because, during the referendum campaign, the people of Scotland, regardless of what side they were on, became so involved in the debate about what kind of Scotland they wanted to live in. Some 18,000-plus emails were received during the Smith commission process. Given the tight timescale, it is fairly likely that those emails did not all receive the consideration that they perhaps deserved. We will never have all the time that we wish to have, but there is a little more time now for engagement. That level of engagement illustrates that, as the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations noted,

“If it is to be meaningful and effective, devolution must be driven by the people of Scotland”

and

“There must be opportunities for the public to influence the process and contribute their views.”

The committee report states as a key recommendation:

“The Committee believes that further public engagement, directly with the people of Scotland as well as representative bodies, charities, industry groups, voluntary bodies etc. is still a vital activity that needs to be carried out and is fully committed to the spirit of the recommendation made by the Smith Commission in this respect.”

It says:

“The Committee calls on the UK and Scottish Governments to consider how to commit to the spirit of the Smith Commission’s recommendation in this respect.”

The committee did what it could in that regard to go out and about. It had meetings and engaged where that was possible, but I would like the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament to consider properly how to broaden meaningful consultation. I urge the Government to look at things such as citizens juries and consensus conferences. As colleagues know, the charrettes method has been used with some success in the planning system in Scotland. Those techniques are used across the world to help to solve complex problems without top-down imposition by so-called experts.

As colleagues have stressed, welfare devolution is one of the complex problem areas. At First Minister’s question time last week, my colleague Patrick Harvie spoke of the

“tangible level of fear among so many people in the face of”

cuts

“to what remains of the welfare state.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2015; c 16.]

The Engender briefing for today’s debate sets out starkly how gendered the cuts have been. Since the coalition Government started cutting, 85 per cent of the money that has been saved from tax and benefit changes has come from women’s pockets. We want to fix those wrongs that are harming women, children and vulnerable people, but there are genuine concerns that we will not get the devolution of welfare right. Our job has not been made easy by the complex devolution agreement, which could potentially make things even more confusing for people.

The committee report has important recommendations to ensure that we are able to create a system that works. On top of that, women and those who are in receipt of benefits need to be much more involved in the design. Engender calls for the administration of universal credit to be devolved early with a section 30 order. Jim McCormick also pointed out that we need much-improved intergovernmental working if we are going to manage properly those really important areas of shared responsibility, such as welfare.

The Greens called for and welcomed agreement on the proposals for the devolution of unconventional gas licensing, fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes, and formal consultation on energy policy. I agree with much of what the First Minister said yesterday on energy policy. Scotland needs a stronger voice.

The Scottish Government has a moratorium on fracking, but there should be no delay in the public consultation. It is time for a complete ban with no delay in devolving the licensing regime.

As we have heard, the Crown Estate is another area in which the draft clauses do not deliver the Smith agreement. For some reason, the proposed method of devolution is convoluted—the land reform expert Andy Wightman described it as “opaque, complex and unnecessary”. I strongly support the devolution of the Crown Estate away from Holyrood, but there is no need for overly complex preconditions in an already complex settlement. In effect, the draft clauses allow two Crown estates in Scotland, with one managed by commissioners in London and one managed by whatever sort of local devolution scheme is established. That is entirely at odds with the spirit of the Smith commission and must be rectified.

I welcome colleagues’ openness to the idea of building on the Smith commission. There is too much to cover, but I will make a final point. Devolution must not stop at Holyrood. I did not campaign for a mini-Westminster in Edinburgh. If the past couple of years have taught us anything at all, surely they have taught us that we need to trust our local authorities, our communities and our people with more power.

Alison

 

The University of Edinburgh’s fossil fuel investments

I have lodged a motion concerning the situation at Edinburgh University, where students are more than a week into their peaceful protest on campus, dismayed over the university’s decision not to withdraw investments from fossil fuel industries to pursue more ethical investments instead.

I had the pleasure of joining the occupation on Friday evening, where the positive and constructive way in which the students are making their case is clear for all to see.

The campaign is an inspiration to myself and many others who share the view that Edinburgh University should reconsider its position, and follow a more responsible path when it comes to investment.

You can read my motion online here.

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EDINBURGH DEVELOPMENT PLAN MISSED OPPORTUNITY

 

Today’s decision by Edinburgh city council to approve a new Local Development Plan, shows it is obsessed with suburban sprawl rather than building affordable homes.map-of-edinburgh-640x300

The long-awaited plan allocates land around the city for the next 10 years, and has been driven by controversial Scottish Government projections that more than 100,000 new homes are needed across South-east Scotland. It earmarks areas such as Brunstane, Cammo and Newmills for development.

It’s frustrating to see this plan being passed without addressing the real concerns of communities around Edinburgh where unnecessary developments are earmarked. Our city has thousands of empty homes, plenty of brownfield sites and land that has been banked by developers. That is where the focus should be.

The city urgently needs more affordable homes – homes which are built in compact communities with easy access to services and transport. Much of the LDP debate has sadly been about swapping suburban sprawl in one location for sprawl in another, without fundamentally addressing the need for a spreading the city at all.

It is a missed opportunity to develop a sustainable city region.

Alison

 

 

 

Health inequalities: why has there not been more progress?

The Scottish Parliament held a debate on health inequality last week, which I was unable to speak in but I wanted to share some thoughts on.

This is a significant issue in Scotland where people in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to suffer from poor health and die earlier compared with people in affluent areas – the infographic below highlights this disparity in Edinburgh along the tram line route. However, government incentives so far have shown little tangible difference due to their emphasis on individual behavioural change.

Mind the Gap graphic

This debate has coincided with the Green MSPs publication of a new health inequality briefing which you can read here. The briefing, based on a Health Inequality research paper, outlines the importance of tackling the social determinants of health including income, access to health and social services, good quality jobs and the quality of our environment.

Given the wide range of factors influencing our health, we should be looking at how all major government decisions affect health inequality. And we should be supporting a community-led approach so that particular local health challenges can be tackled through projects designed and run by the community.

Greens are calling for:

  • Incomes to be raised through policies such as a £10 minimum wage
  • Legislation to bring in Health Inequality Impact Assessments (HIIA) for all significant government policies
  • The creation of a Healthy Challenge Fund to empower communities in the same way as the hugely successful Climate Challenge Fund