I was delighted to give my support (and a suit!) to Dress for Success, a registered charity that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional clothing and career support to help women enter and remain in employment.
Since its inception in 1997, Dress for Success has “suited” more than 450,000 women. Operating by referral only, DfS helps job-ready women from over 3,000 non-profit organisations, including domestic violence agencies, homeless shelters and job-training schemes. The majority of these women are aged between 18 and 38, and are, or have recently been, unemployed. Many are single parents, or in difficult circumstances.
Once a referral is received, DfS supplies the applicant with a suit and arranges a series of mock interviews. Successful applicants received one week’s worth of appopriate attire, and an invitation to join DfS’s Proffessional Women’s Group, Career Development and Networking Group, and the opportunity to participate in a range of other employment retention programmes.
With the job market more competitive than ever, prospective employees are under pressure to do everything possible to mark themselves out from the crowd. This means that making a good first impression is vitally important and, rightly or wrongly, many interviewers will take outward appearance into account.
It is tragic that any woman should lose out on a job through lack of appropriate clothing, or because she has not received the right advice about how to make a good impression – two advantages that many of us take for granted.
That is why we should do everything we can to support organisations like Dress for Success. For more information about the DfS, or to learn how to make a donation, please visit the Dress for Success website.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we are extremely fortunate that, thanks to devolution, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of the damage that the Tory Government – as that is what it is, in all but name - seems intent on inflicting upon the welfare state.
For over fifty years, the welfare state has been a cornerstone of British society; the safety net that prevents people falling through the cracks; the state’s benevolent hand that gently guides us through life, from “cradle to grave”. For the vast majority of us born in the United Kingdom, the first hands that touch us when we enter this world are the hands of the state.
Yet, in the space of two years and two bills, the Tories have taken a wrecking ball to our most cherished institutions.
To me, Wednesday’s debate represented what this Parliament and devolution stand for: the ability to do what is right by the people of Scotland. And, because I feel a sense of fellowship with people in England; because I recognise that we are strongest when we stand together and not apart, I deeply regret that they do not have similar recourse.
Although there is general agreement that the Bill is positive, it is little more than a gateway that allows for further legislation. It is what we do once we are through the gate that really matters. That is why all the proposals put forward under the Bill are subjected to long and detailed scrutiny by parliamentarians and public.
As well as placing all the provisions under the Welfare Reform Bill before the relevant committee, the Scottish Government must also consult as widely as possible, canvassing the opinions of local authorities and charitable organisations to ensure that their views, as well as those of the people they represent, are taken into account.
It is only by working together that we can defend ourselves against the worst excesses of the Tory Government.
Although I was pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the National Parenting Strategy, I found it slightly odd to be participating in a debate on a strategy that is yet to be published.
Aileen Campbell, the Scottish Government Minister for Chilren and Young People, informed the chamber that the intention was to give members a chance to put forward ideas, and I wait with interest to see whether any of the many interesting and innovative policy suggestions offered during the debate are deemed worthy of inclusion in the final document (whenever the Scottish Government chooses to publish it).
That apart, I know I was not alone in being disappointed at the vague and facile nature of the SNP motion for debate, which offered very little constructive on which to predicate a sensible discussion. The aspiration to make “Scotland the best place in the world to grow up” was only beaten for banality by the humdrum observation that “parents need support at all times”, and that “parents in difficult circumstances may require additional support”. We are indeed fortunate that the Scottish Government deigns to bestow such wisdom upon us.
There are many instructive examples of what good early years and parenting strategy could look like.
The previous Labour administration at Westminster greatly improved and expanded provision of childcare, opening up 3,500 Sure Start centres around the country, largely targeted at deprived areas.
Many European countries have used EU structural funds to implement a conprehensive Early Childhood Education and Care system, which allows parents the freedom to find and maintain work, and creates demand for a skilled childcare workforce. The countries with such a system generally have the best levels of happiness and contentment amongst children and young people. A similar system in Scotland would not only enhance the quality of care and support afforded to chilren and parents, it would help to alleviate current problems with female and youth unemployment.
Closer to home, North and South Lanarkshire Council, in conjunction with NHS Lanarkshire, have already published a parenting strategy featuring a number of recommendations, including the need to encourage male parents and carers to take an active and positive role in their child’s life, and to continue to expand the range of parenting support groups available locally.
Those are just a few ideas for how we can enhance childcare in Scotland. We must concentrate on getting it right for Scotland’s parents and carers. In doing so, we can help to give our children the best possible start in life which, I believe, is the most that any Government can offer.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the Scottish Parliament debate on the Police and Fire Reform Bill.
The Bill, which proposes to overhaul the current regional structure of Scotland’s police and fire services, and to amalgamate them into a single police force and a single fire service, is a substantial piece of legislation that requires long and careful scrutiny.
As with any piece of public sector reform, it must have the best interests of the people at its heart. Whilst in the current straitened times there is an understandable wish to save money through reduced duplication and increased efficiency, this wish must always be subservient to the overidding aim of improving the services themselves. Cost should not come before quality.
This was the point I was keen to stress during Wednesday’s debate, my contribution to which can be viewed here (at 1.12).
There is no point, for example, in protecting front line police only to consign them to back office duties. There is also no point in setting unrealistic timescales for staff reductions, which are unlikely to be met.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must ensure that our police and fire services remain rooted in the local communities that they exist to serve.
The recent local council results made for good reading for Labour politicians, supporters and activists.
It was great to see so much hard work rewarded, and I am pleased that Labour has decisively maintained control in battleground seats such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, and retained a substantial controlling presence in South Lanarkshire and Falkirk. And it would be remiss to omit the power sharing arrangement between Labour and the SNP in Edinburgh; a good example of politicians putting rivalries aside and the people first.
Whatever the SNP now claim, they will undoubtedly be disappointed with how things went. That they believed they could take Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, and a host of other councils was an open secret; but, in the event, Labour’s simple message of more jobs and better local services resounded with the electorate.
The week before the election I observed that the SNP was becoming complacent, a view perhaps shared by some voters. It is essential that, having made good progress, Labour does not fall into the same trap.
We must deliver on our election promises, and continue to listen to, and learn from, the electorate.
Last week’s Scottish Parliament debate on the “2012 target” (the commitment, laid down in 2003 by the previous Labour Executive, to eradicate “unintentional” homelessness by 2012), was a largely constructive affair.
Whilst members of all parties acknowleged the bravery and ambition of the target, they also recognised that progress towards realising it has been uneven across local authority boundaries, with some councils assessing 90% of applications as priority, and others only around 80%. The spirit of the commitment demands that it is achieved throughout Scotland: there is no room for homelessness in a modern, civilized society, irregardless of what part of the country you happen to live.
There is another aspect to this debate, however, which members failed to give voice to. Although it is generally accepted that the coalition’s Welfare Reform Bill will have a deleterious impact upon the attempt to reach our homelessness target, it has also presented the SNP Government with an opportunity to amend grants and provisions which, under the terms of the bill, will be devolved to Scotland. One such is the Community Care Grant.
In its current form, the Grant provides financial support for vulnerable applicants entering a new tenancy, providing them with a small but essential fund to purchase essential goods.
There are a number of problems with the grant in its current form. At present, applications to the grant are not accepted until notice of housing is received, causing a wholly unecessary delay. Under the successor arrangements, applicants should receive the grant along with the keys to their property. In addition to this, eligibility criteria for the grant, along with the appeals process, must be made simpler and more transparent. This will cut down on the volume of unecessary appeals and allow support workers to provide more accurate advice to applicants.
Finally, the ridiculous rules excluding those in receipt of other benefits – such as incapacity benefit – from applying for the grant must be removed. The grant should go to the neediest, whatever their circumstances.
When I proposed these changes to the grant during a debate last december, Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, appeared receptive. I am anxious to learn what action has been taken in the interim.
Tommy Morgan, Labour council candidate for Airdrie North, has kindly produced this informative leaflet for anyone requiring clarification on the Plains station proposals.