Dismay at Hamilton job losses

I was shocked to learn that 133 jobs are to be lost at the Philips Lighting plant in Hamilton following the company’s recent announcement that it will phase out the production of luminaries at the plant. It was extremely disappointing to learn that these jobs will be outsourced to other countries, including France and Poland, on the grounds of cost. The announcement came as a massive blow to the loyal and long-standing workforce in Hamilton who I believe have been totally disregarded in this decision taken by Philips. Philips has been a major employer in Hamilton for more than 65 years, and these further redundancies are yet another devastating blow to the local economy.

Despite repeated assurances from the Management of Philips that the factory retained sufficient production and demand to maintain its current workforce, it is now apparent that these latest job losses show that this is evidently not the case. I have also written to the company on several occasions in the last year seeking assurances on the viability of the luminaires plant and on each occasion I was told that there were “no substantial developments around our activities here in Hamilton”. I also wrote to Sheila Leenders, the General Manager of Philips Lighting in Holland on a number of occasions, without any response.

In August 2012 Fergus Ewing MSP, Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism assured me that the Scottish Government would do all it could to help secure the continued presence of Philips in Hamilton. I have again written to Mr Ewing to urge him to ensure this pledge is now fulfilled. I also had the opportunity to ask John Swinney MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, a question in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday to ask what assistance the Scottish Government was providing to staff following the company’s announcement:


Hamilton Town Centre regeneration event


I was delighted to be able to host a town regeneration event along with my Scottish Labour colleague Sarah Boyack, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Local Government & Planning, at Hamilton Town House. The event brought together business owners, politicians and local people to discuss regeneration of the town centre.

As an MSP, it is important for me to meet with constituents to hear their views on how we can best help develop and regrow the town. There was a healthy turnout and a good debate about the main issues in Hamilton town centre. I’d like to thank all those who came along and contributed to the debate and I hope that positive moves will be made in the near future to ensure the long term prosperity of Hamilton Town Centre.

Community welfare must be central to new planning policy

I took part in yesterday’s Scottish Parliament debate on the Scottish Government’s plans to renew and update the Scottish Planning Policy. My speech can be read on the Scottish Parliament website, or viewed on the Democracy Live section of the BBC website at 1.29.43.

The debate gave me the opportunity to outline some of my concerns regarding the rapid expansion of wind farms and proliferation of energy from waste facilities.

Although I have no objection to wind farms per se, I do have an issue with their being overly concentrated in certain communities.

Once an area has been approved for wind farm development, there is no mechanism within the current planning policy to prevent that area from becoming inundated with proposals. For example, the Fortissat ward in North Lanarkshire already has one wind farm – at Black Law – numbering 54 turbines, another proposal (from a separate energy provider) is nearing approval, and a raft of extensions and applications are in the pipeline.

When I requested a moratorium on processing further applications in the area, Derek Mackay, Minister for Local Government and Planning, told me such an action would be “unprecedented”, especially in light of Scotland’s commitments on renewable energy.

I recognise and respect the value of these commitments; however, it is imperative that we do not allow them to become a disproportionate factor in the consideration of planning applications, especially those which have ramifications for local communities.

The proposal for a pyrolysis incinerator at Carnbroe is another example. Energy from waste, like wind power, is cited as a viable form of renewable energy.

Although the initial planning application from Shore Energy was turned down by North Lanarkshire Council on the grounds of community health and safety, it was granted on appeal by Scottish Government reporters, who stated that the incinerator was “urgently needed” to work towards zero waste targets. This despite the fact the proposals have attracted 6,000 objections from local people and prompted the creation of Monklands Residents Against Pyrolysis Incinerator (MRAPP).

I hope the Scottish Government will consider these examples as it draws up its new planning policy, and ensure that local democracy, and the wishes of local people, form a central part of the planning process.

Warm experiences in the Heart of Africa

Making new friends in the Warm Heart of Africa

I recently returned from a visit to Malawi, also known as “The Warm Heart of Africa” (as much for the warmth of the hospitality as that of the weather).

It was an exhilarating adventure: exciting, enlighening and emotional. I would like to thank Charles Fawcett of the North Lanarkshire Healthy Living Partnership for his encouragement and help in organising the trip, and the pupils and staff from St Andrew’s High School, St Margaret’s High School, and Coatbridge High School, along with Kenny McKay of STV Airdrie, for being such excellent travel companions.

Last but not least, I would like to thank everyone I met in Malawi. I hope someday to return.

Below is my blog for STV Airdrie.

Having been dropped off at Glasgow airport in the company of pupils, teachers, and a journalist, I was apprehensive.

I mean, as a politician, I like pupils, respect teachers, and tolerate journalists, but the idea of spending two weeks in their company was deeply worrying. Still, at least I would have a calm and relaxing flight to think up a coping strategy. Or so I thought.

The start of the journey went reasonably smoothly, but due to an incident at Nairobi airport, we were diverted to Entebbe, in Uganda But we need not have worried. After only a brief interlude (12 hours) sitting on rickety chairs in a hot and dusty airport, we were off again. We finally arrived at our destination at about midday on Thursday, having left Scotland two days earlier.

What made all this bearable was the excellent company in which, I soon discovered, I was lucky enough to find myself. The pupils and teachers from St Andrew’s, St Margaret’s, and Coatbridge High School were polite, friendly, and a joy to be with. Kenny (our resident journalist) proved that, Leveson inquiry notwithstanding, even journalists aren’t all bad.

But the question I have been asked repeatedly since I returned is, “did you enjoy it?”

It’s a strange question to be asked upon returning from Malawi, a third world country with examples of extreme poverty that defy the western imagination. What is perhaps even stranger, however, is that without a moment’s hesitation, my instinctive answer is “yes”.

The only way I can explain this is by asking some questions of my own. How could I not enjoy the sheer enthusiasm of all those that we met in Malawi, their desire to learn about us, our language, culture and country? How could I not be inspired by the fact that all the young people we met seemed to be smiling?

They smiled when they said hello, they smiled as they said goodbye, and they smiled as they ran alongside our bus as we departed from their village.

How could I not have enjoyed the generous hospitality I experienced in the hotel where we stayed, and the many schools we visited, the dancing we enjoyed and the food we were served (including nsima, the staple food of Malawi, which was fantastic)?

There is so much to enjoy about Malawi. However, and despite my many wonderful experiences, I would be lying if I did not confess to having seen things that I found deeply distressing.

Visiting homes where the roof is made of tin, where there is no furniture and a bucket for a toilet, drives home the reality of life for millions in Africa, and reinforces the extent to which we in the West are incredibly privileged. In one prison I visited, forty women and five children were accommodated in just two cells, in incredibly cramped conditions. They shared one toilet and an outside “kitchen” which consisted of a giant boiler encased by bricks. No one should have to live in this way.

The sense of frustration and impotence when visiting schools with no furniture, no running water, and no pens to write with, was almost overwhelming. Yet the children seemed oblivious to the paucity of their conditions.

Nothing could have prepared me for my trip to Malawi. It was exhilarating and harrowing, inspiring and shocking.
I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity, and I would like to thank the North Lanarkshire Healthy Living Partnership for allowing me to take part in the visit, to witness the Girls Go for Health initiative and Mother Groups in action.

I hope the story will not end here: I can’t wait to return to Malawi, a country that is rightly called the Warm Heart of Africa.

Congratulations to Big Lottery Fund winners

I am delighted that a range of organisations and groups have been awarded funding in the latest round of allocations from the Big Lottery Fund.

Amongst those allocated substantial funds under the Investing in Communities programme are the North Lanarkshire based Getting Better Together project, and Larkhall Community Growers in South Lanarkshire.

Getting Better Together, based at the Healthy Living Centre in Shotts, will use its grant of £39,000 to finance an 18-month project to transform an unused area of ground into a garden. This will include a sensory garden and an area for children from local nurseries and schools that will allow them to grow and provide produce for the community food co-op and café in the nearby healthy living centre.

Not only will the project help to promote healthy living, it will also create opportunities for volunteering, training and work experience.

Larkhall Community Growers, meanwhile, will use its grant of £57,814 to develop its community garden to promote healthier lifestyles, and provide training opportunities to improve people’s ability to secure employment. Approximately 1,400 people, including residents, local primary school pupils, volunteers and garden users, are expected to benefit from the programme.

It is essential that we continue to invest money in grass roots projects; I welcome the Big Lottery Funds ongoing commitment to enhancing Scotland’s local communities, as I have acknowledged in several parliamentary motions.

Central Scotland has so much to offer

Last week I spoke in a parliamentary debate on the future of tourism in Scotland.

This gave me a welcome opportunity to highlight the wealth of tourist attractions located across Central Scotland.

As a Central Scotland MSP, I span three local authority areas, and every single one has a lot to offer.

Visitors to (or residents of) North Lanarkshire can experience Scotland’s industrial heritage at the Sumerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, sample the tranquil delights of Drumpellier Country Park, or engage in more active pursuits at Strathclyde Country Park, a major water sports venue and home to theme park M&D’s.

South Lanarkshire has some of Scotland’s finest scenic and historical attractions, such as Chatelherault Park, Low Park Museum (both rated 5 star by VisitScotland), and Hamilton Mausoleum.

And no visit to Falkirk is complete without a trip to the Falkirk Wheel, the World’s first and only rotating boat lift, and one of Lonely Planet’s 10 works of engineering genius.

Tourism provides and creates jobs and boosts the economy. It is therefore vital that we realise our potential as a major tourist location. The Government should look at ways of extending opening hours to suit working families, and should continue to invest in the transport infrastructure, to maximise accessibility.

Distilling Success

Siobhan with (from left to right): Operations Manager Martin Leonard; Master Blender Stuart Harvey; Keith Fulton and Joy Love of Scottish EnterpriseI very much enjoyed my recent visit to Inver House Distillers in Airdrie.

Inver House is now owned by International Beveridge ltd, the international arm of the Thai Beveridge Company, and is responsible for the distillation and bottling of all the group’s Scotch Whisky. It sells over 12 million units per year, and exports to 85 countries around the world. Amongst the many products it produces is Old Pulteney, which was awarded World’s Best Whisky of 2012 for its 21-year-old single malt.

Its Towers Road site was first established as a distillery in 1964, and although it is no longer used for alcohol production, it has remained open and involved in the whisky industry ever since, and today operates as a  storage and packaging facility for a range of quality whiskies and gins. Inver House employs 176 staff across Scotland, with 126 based in Airdrie and 5o in its 5 distilleries.

After an interesting and informative meeting with senior management, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the warehousing and bottling facilities. The sheer volume stored and packaged at the site is really quite staggering, and stands testament to the quality and commitment of the staff and workers, some of whom have been employed at the site for well over 10 years. A slow workforce turnover is always a good sign, and suggests that relations between staff and management are very good. 

Inver House Distillers is a great asset to Airdrie, and it was interesting to hear the reasons behind retaining it as the Scottish headquarters. Not only does Airdre provide a good source of local employees, it has excellent road and rail links to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and is in close proximity to two 2 major airports.

Given the recent announcement regarding the new BioCity life sciences hub at Newhouse and Chapelhall, it is clear that Airdrie remains a very attractive proposition.

Hamilton CAB

SIobhan with Community Jobs Scotland employees Scott, Michael, Barry, Ian , Natalie and Maggie

I recently visited  Hamilton CAB to speak to staff employed through the Community Jobs Scotland scheme.

Community Jobs Scotland helps young poeople aged between 16-24 into sustainable, long term employment by offering them paid work experience in the Third Sector. Opportunities must provide at least 25 hours of work per week, and must pay at least the minimum wage. So far, the scheme has secure short term employment for over 1,000 people.

I really enjoyed talking to the young people on the scheme. Many young people are demonised in the media as lazy and feckless; they are portrayed as lacking both the desire and the qualifications to find work. I have never believed this to be the case, and was annoyed to hear the SNP Member for Shettleston, John Mason, repeat this demeaning stereotype in Parliament when he alleged that many young people do not want to work.

I suggest Mr Mason visits the young employees at Hamilton CAB. One of the employees I spoke to described searching for a job with his best friend, who was also out of work. They went out every day, handed out hundreds of CVs, and, despite their relative lack of success, remained positive and determined by providing support and encouragement to each other.

To assert that the thousands of young people currently unemployed are  reluctant to work is ridiculous and insulting; instead of blaming young people who are suffering from a lack of opportunities, it is time that the Scottish Government took firm action to combat youth unemployment.

The other young employees I spoke to during my visit were enthusiastic about their work with the CAB, where they have been placed on a structured training programme providing them with transferable skills and experience of dealing with the public.

However, whilst Community Jobs Scotland is providing welcome opportunities for young people, improvements can be made. Potential participants should not be required to be out of work for six months before applying to the scheme, as is currently the case, and nor should they have to wait 6 months between placements.  Flexibility is key, and if the current rigidity is not done away with, then participants will become trapped in a cycle of termporary placements.

However, by and large, the scheme is performing well, and I would like the Scottish Goverment to invest further funds to give more young people a foot up in the job market.

North Lanarkshire Disability Forum

Siobhan with committee members from the North Lanarkshire Disability Forum

I recently attended the latest committee meeting of the North Lanarkshire Disability Forum in Motherwell.

Formed in 1991, the North Lanarkshire Disability Forum is a voluntary organisation run by disabled people, for disabled people. It offers support, information, advice and guidance to disabled people and their carers across a range of issues, including community services, transport, health, welfare, and housing.

As ever, I was struck by the level of commitment exhibited by the committee members on behalf of those they support and represent. They spoke with passion – and frequently anger – about the many challenges facing disabled people across North Lanarkshire, in particular the punitive changes to disability benefits contained within the Welfare Reform Bill.

As well as discussing the ramifications of the Welfare Reform Bill, the NLDF raised a number of other issues pertaining to disabled people, which I am determined to pursue with the relevant authorities.

Sadly, and despite the vital service they provide, the NLDF exists within a perpetual funding crisis. With no core funding, the organisation is left in a constant state of flux, with no concrete certainty as to its operating budget from year to year. Given the increased pressure and demand that will undoubtedly result from the Welfare Reform Bill, this state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, and the Scottish Government must act now to ensure that the NLDF, along with other community and voluntary organisations, has the funds it needs to continue providing support.

Organisations like the North Lanarkshire Disability Forum are of critical importance; we must do all we can to protect them, whilst ensuring that they have the necessary funds to expand and improve their services.

Join the campaign to save Airbles Station

A campaign has been launched by local councillors and members of the constituency Labour party to save Airbles station in Motherwell.

The station has been threatened with closure by transport quango, Transport Scotland.

The Scottish Government funded organisation is looking to save £280,000 and has listed 14 Scottish stations on its website for possible closure by 2014.

However, local politicions, including my Labour colleague John Pentland MSP and local councillor Michael Ross, as well as local Labour party activists, have started an online petition against the closure, and are encouraging local service users to contribute to Transport Scotland’s consultation in order to make their views known.

I am fully behind this campaign. It is crazy to consider closing down train stations at a time when we should be opening new ones. Dr Beeching did huge damage to public transport in the United Kingdom when he spearheaded the closure of so many local stations; damage that is probably irreparable. We should not be compounding his mistakes by adopting the same misguided policy.

I remain a vocal advocate of the campaign to bring a new station to Plains, and I am similarly committed to ensuring that Airbles station remains open.

To see the petition, click here. To contribute to the consultation document, click here.