Scottish support for Gaza

Last Thursday, just as First Minister’s Questions was raging below, 15 people protesting against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza were being removed from the roof of the Scottish Parliament.

A few days before, many hundreds of people marched in Edinburgh in protest at the offensive, which saw 6 Israelis and at least 158 Palestinians killed. In order to gather a statement of solidarity from Holyrood, I lodged a motion condemning the actions of Israel, which I’m please to see received the backing of many MSPs.

The Scottish Minister for External Affairs and International Development, Humza Yousaf, has rightly described the Israeli offensive as ‘heavily disproportionate’ and the ongoing blockade of Gaza as illegal. I have written to ask him to go further, and challenge Israeli representatives directly at the earliest opportunity on their blockade of Gaza and strangling control over land and water resources. I also agree with consitituents who have contacted me about bias in the mainsteam media, which often fails to reflect the relative military strength of Israel.

Again, I was very pleased to see to the Scottish Government calling for the UK Government to vote decisively to recognise Palestinian statehood at the UN, instead of their current plan to abstain. It’s refreshing to hear strong Scottish public opinions reflected by Ministers.

Given that the Scottish Government holds pretty clear opinions on the rights of the Palestinian people, they should now consider how they could join the global movement of boycotts, divestment and sanctions in support of Palestinians. For instance, I have suggested that the Government looks at opportunities in the Procurement Reform Bill to include consideration of international law and ethical issues when making decisions about public spending.

Although the ceasefire is holding and the headlines are fading, the Scottish Parliament must do all it can to keep up the pressure and push the peace process forward.


Freedom Of Information – The Fight To Extend Goes On

This week parliament debated proposed changes to Freedom of Information. I have previously called for FoI to be extended and I know it’s an issue a lot of people care about.

In the debate I made my views known.

I welcomed the cabinet secretary’s commitment to introduce regular reviews of who is covered by FoI, and her commitment to address the issue of public consultation.

I said that now is the time to extend FOI’s coverage. The public desire is there; more than 80 per cent of people surveyed want FOI to be extended to cover new public services, and a vast 91 per cent value the right to know.

I welcomed the SCVO’s clear statement this week that it supports the extension of FOI to include all public services, whether they are delivered by public, private or third sector organisations, and its views that the public have a right to know all aspects of how public services are funded and run.

I made clear I do not believe that economic circumstances should curtail access to, and the safeguarding of, the right to know. We should have the right to information from a company that is building a local school or about a regional hospital that is being built under PPP; we should be able to scrutinise the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; and we should be able to FOI the companies that are running Scotland’s privately managed prisons, Serco and Sodexo.

We have even privatised the maintenance of our nuclear weapons at Faslane and Coulport — such contracts should remain transparent.

If you’d like to read my contribution in full click on this link and scroll down to 16:23.

I will continue to press this issue.

Scots go Dutch: where should the money come from?

Headlining the lineup at this year’s Cycling Scotland conference was a delegation of Dutch speakers led by the Ambassador herself. The Dutch are pretty much rockstars in the cycling world, with 26% of all journeys made by bike and some cities with rates of around 60%. As the ambassador put it, everyone from builders to bakers to bankers cycle in Holland.

Here in Scotland, we have a ‘vision’ (read: target that we’re not sure of meeting) of 10% of journeys by bike in 2020. Current levels average around 1%.

Getting to 10% is not rocket science. Time and time again I’ve heard how the right combination of safe infrastructure, facilities and training will make cycling the obvious, attractive option that it should be. Time and time again, though, it all boils down to the need for more funding and political leadership.

In a few weeks I am meeting the Scottish Finance Secretary along with Jim Eadie MSP (together we convene the Cross Party Group on Cycling) to put the case for more funding. Cycling organisations calculate that investing about £100m a year would put us on track to meet the 10% target. At the moment, it’s about £20m a year.

In today’s tight economic climate, the big question we will be asked is where the money should come from. I very much doubt that road lobbyists get asked this question – it’s amazingly easily to find £3bn for the A9 – but there we are. A Government that was serious about active travel would find the money and make it happen but there’s no harm in having some answers ourselves.

There are two options here: either the money must be reallocated from something else in the budget, or the Government should raise new money. So an interesting challenge to anyone who’s interested: where would you get £80m a year from?

Here’s a few suggestions from me:

- There’s little point in wishful thinking about vanity road projects that are a done deal. The £1450-1600m budget for another Forth road bridge. The £900m for the Aberdeen bypass roads. The £3000m for dualling the A9. There might be underspend, but I’m not holding my breath. We need predictable funding.

- We should look at other budgets, not just transport. The Health (incl. sport) budget is absolutely vast at over £11bn and investing in cycling must be a win-win for NHS.

- Or we could look at ideas for raising new money. For instance, Nottingham has recently introduced a levy on workplace car parking spaces in the city centre. Businesses with over 10 spaces pay an annual charge per space. All the money raised is being spent on improving public transport. It is expected to raise up to £14m a year in Nottingham, a city of about 300,000.

Do get in touch with me with your constructive ideas!












































Why are we re-importing Scottish ash trees in the first place?

This week I had the pleasure of getting out of the office and into the lovely autumnal colours in Livingston’s Bellsquarry Wood, with Angus Yarwood from the Woodland Trust.

Just weeks after I highlighted the threat to Scotland’s pine trees, a very serious threat to our ash trees is making headlines. The disease ‘Chalara dieback’ has killed off up to 90% of Denmark’s ash trees, and has now been detected across the UK, including at several sites in Scotland. The UK government has placed an emergency ban on imports of ash saplings from the rest of Europe.

One of the most revealing aspects of this story is that the disease is being spread by importing tree saplings – but in Scotland these are trees that started their lives here, are EXPORTED to be grown in nurseries in mainland Europe and are then RE-IMPORTED to Scotland for planting! The Minister for the Environment confirmed this bizarre situation when I questioned him in Parliament, calling it ‘a well-established practice’.

Surely we could build up the Scottish tree nursery industry so that there was no need to rack up these considerable ‘tree miles’ and create more skilled jobs in our rural areas? The more absurd side of globalisation is increasing our vulnerability on many economic and environmental fronts, and a big part of the answer must surely lie in greater localisation of our economy.