On May 28th I spoke in an Equal Opportunities Committee debate on “Having and keeping a home: steps to preventing homelessness among young people” at the Scottish Parliament, where I called on the Government to do everything in its power to tackle youth homelessness.
The debate followed an enquiry and report which aimed to explore the existing good practice in local authorities and other agencies in and beyond Scotland which are effective in preventing youth homelessness.
I heard evidence from young people across the country about the principle causes of youth homelessness, including family breakdowns, addiction issues and mental health problems. The report stated that homeless young people are being failed by a lack of support in overcoming inadequate life skills, compounded by substandard accommodation and isolation.
I am sure that everyone would agree that it is scandalous that young people who are already in a vulnerable position are subjected to such low levels of housing provision. It is not acceptable that young people who have been forced into homelessness are treated in that manner.
Finance is of course the biggest barrier to action being taken. I hope that the government will take seriously the points highlighted by many members and that it will do everything in its power to ensure that no young person is denied a home, an education or the support they desperately need in the future as a result of a lack of funds afforded to them.
I am deeply concerned to learn of some of the projects that have been granted funding in 2012/13 in order to tackle sectarianism in Scotland.
I asked this question as we must be proactive in tackling the scourge of sectarianism. We must look beyond the football stadium and acknowledge that the way to break this societal cycle is to educate young people from an early age in its ills. I was disappointed that rather than outlining educational programmes on offer the Minister directed people to a website. I believe this approach is wholly unsatisfactory and does nothing to comprehensively tackle the underlining societal problems which allow sectarianism to flourish.
It is incumbent on the Government to provide a comprehensive agenda to tackle sectarianism, with education at its heart. Sectarianism is not an innate quality, it is learned and can with proper educational programmes in place, be eradicated from our society. The administration is complacent on this issue; by directing anti-sectarian resources through the internet, teachers are missing out on the classroom resources to tackle the problem.
Further to this point, I submitted a question, which can be viewed on the link below at 34 minutes and 52 seconds:
On 15 March 2013 I asked the Government to break down which projects it has funded to tackle sectarianism in each of the last two years, the written answer from Roseanna Cunningham MSP can be found below:
It is clear that education is not the priority of the Scottish Government. Nearly £800,000 has been awarded to the Football Co-ordination Unit Scotland (FoCUS) clearly demonstrating that this Government thinks that sectarianism originates in the Football Ground. We will never tackle the scourge of sectarianism in our society with such an approach. This is not only worrying but highly depressing.
Further to this some of the organisations that have been awarded funding in 2012-13 have no proven track record in this field. I hope that the Scottish Government will now provide an answer as to why substantial amounts of money were awarded to these groups in favour of those who have been working in this field, with success, for years.
I believe the Government is guilty of complacency on this issue. The Offensive Behaviour Act does not make any attempt to address the underlying societal problems which lead to sectarianism. Government must redirect resources to the classroom to stamp out this problem as quickly as possible.
I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this week’s Scottish Parliament debate on Further Education. My contribution can be viewed in full on the BBC Democracy Live website, at approximately 44.35.
The debate, called by Scottish Labour, handed the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, the chance to correct his recent erroneous statements about college waiting lists and the Scottish Government cuts to the college budget.
Last October, when asked a perfectly straightforward question about college waiting lists by my colleague Neil Bibby MSP, the Cabinet Secretary refused to answer, dubbing the lists “a false concept”.
Shortly after, he offered a somewhat ingracious apology to MSPs after being forced to admit that the college budget has indeed been cut, contrary to his claims – made on two separate occassions – that it has risen.
Now, the Scottish Government’s own interim report into college waiting lists has revealed that, far from being “false concepts”, waiting lists definitely do exist and could extend to 13,000 places for the whole of Scotland.
Yet Mr Russell continues pompous and unrepentant as ever. He continued to deny the existence of “so called” waiting lists, and dismissing – seemingly inadvertantly - the evidence unearthed by his own Government’s audit as “nonsense.”
Mr Russell had previously claimed that the lists present a misleading due to the prevalence of duplicate applications – students applying to more than one college. However, the interim report into 7 colleges found very limited evidence of deplication (about 9% of their combined waiting list). Moreover, the extent to which duplication can be cited as a legitimate factor varies according to the number of colleges in the area.
For example, communities in Lanarkshire have access to four colleges withing a relatively short distance. In stark contrast, those in the Falkirk area only really have access to Forth Valley College. It is unlikely, therefore, that applicants to Forth Valley, whether successful or no, will submit multiple applications.
Mr Russell can hid behind evasions and excuses all he wants. But the plain facts speak for themselves. You cannot cut over £50 million from the college budget without significant adverse impact: fewer courses, few teachers, fewer places, and higher waiting lists.
If this were not bad enough, we also learned this week that, in 2011-12, 490 fewer college students from deprived backgrounds received an education maintenance allowance than did in 2010-11.
As a recent report on the college sector by Audit Scotland baldly states, “colleges face significant financial challenges in the years ahead.” Some colleges are already struggling. Forth Valley College, for example, had an operating deficit of £2.4 million in 2010/11.
The real victims of Mr Russell’s delusions and denial are the thousands of prospective students denied a place at college.
Colleges are a vital source of the skills and training that young people need to find secure employment or to progress on to higher education. Under Mr Russell’s stewardship, the prospect looks bleak for the college sector.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Scottish Labour has called up the Scottish Govenment to reverse its cuts to further education spending. If Mr Russell swallowed his pride and followed our advice, colleges could concentrate on what they do best: providing the skills, education and training to help our young people into work.
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.
I was glad to have the opportunity to speak in yesterday’s debate in the Scottish Parliament on youth unemployment. You can view my speech in full on the DemocracyLive section of the BBC website at 51.40 in the first half of the debate.
There were thoughtful and insightful contributions from across the Chamber, and I would like to extend special thanks and congratulation to my colleague Jayne Baxter for her excellent maiden speech.
Youth unemployment is too important and immediate an issue for us to allow it to become mired in petty political point scoring, and I was relieved that, for the most part – although with a few notable exceptions – there was a degree of consensus on the gravity of the problem, if not its solution.
The stark facts state that long term youth unemployment has escalated with frightening rapidity, especially in areas such as North Lanarkshire. As was pointed out in yesterday’s debate, Lanarkshire has already suffered the ravages of endemic unemployment, following the dismantling of its once vibrant coal industry and the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks. We have a responsibility to do everything in our power to bring jobs and investment to the area, and to ensure that young people have access to the advice, education and training they need to enter the jobs market.
As I highlighted during the debate, although the Scottish Government has invested considerable funds in youth employment schemes, it has also reduced funding for further education by 24% between 2011 and 2015, This may well lead to the closure of some courses, and deny many young people the opportunity to gain the training and qualifications they need to enter employment or higher education.
In another negative move, the Government skills and training agency Skills Development Scotland has withdrawn front line careers advisory services, replacing them with the website “My World of Work”. Although Angela Constance, the Minister for Youth Employment, assured me that this website constitutes “a service enhancement and is certainly not a replacement for face-to-face contact”, the closure of local Skills Development Scotland offices and the reduction in staff numbers suggests otherwise.
Cutting back on further education funding and careers advisory services is, I believe, antithetical to the Scottish Government’s stated objective of tackling youth unemployment.
I hope that Angela Constance and her Scottish Government Colleagues – especially the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell – listened carefully to the contributions to yesterday’s debate, and will take the advice offered in the collaborative spirit implied by its “all Government, all Scotland” approach.
I participated in last Thursday’s debate in the Scottish Parliament about the closure of Remploy factories in Scotland. My contribution can be viewed on the BBC’s Democracy Live at 53.40.
The coalition Government’s programme of closures has already had a devastating impact on Remploy workplaces across the UK. What’s more, and despite the Government’s assertions to the contrary, not enough is being done to secure employment for the disabled workers who have lost their jobs.
To date, 31 factories have closed with the loss of 1061 workers, only 35 of whom have since found work.
In Scotland, the former Remploy factories at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Netherton, in my own region of Central Scotland, have already closed. Last week, we heard that the factory at Springburn, which manufactures wheelchairs for the NHS, will also close, following the breakdown of takeover talks. Altogether, over 100 disabled former Remploy employees will have lost their jobs.
As I said during Thursday’s debate, politicians in Scotland have a responsibility to help protect the remaining Remploy factories, as well as other sheltered workplaces. We must also strive to assist disabled former Remploy workers secure alternative employment. To facilitate this, I urged the Scottish Government to follow the example of the Welsh Assembly, which has already assembled a £2.4 package to encourage suitable businesses to employ former Remploy Workers.
In addition to this, the Scottish Government should use its upcoming Public Sector Procurement Bill to ensure that sheltered workplaces have access to public sector contracts.
Unfortunately, we cannot stop the coalition Government’s attack on Remploy. However, we can mitigate its effects. There was a large degree of consensus across the Chamber on this point, and I look forward to working alongside the Scottish Government on this issue.
I was delighted to take part in yesterday’s debate in the Scottish Parliament on Scotland’s relationship with Malawi. My contribution to the debate can be viewed online at 38.17 here.
Next year marks the bicentenary of David Livingstone, the Blantyre born doctor, missionary and philanthropist who played a primary role in forging Scotland’s relationship with Malawi.
An internationalist as well as a philanthropist, Livingstone was a Scottish hero in the truest sense of the word, and deserves to be recognised as such. That is why I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will mark his bicentenary by releasing further funds to renew and strengthen the bonds between Scotland and Malawi.
I was fortunate enough to visit Malawi this June in the company of pupils and teachers from St Andrew’s, St Margaret’s and Coatbridge high schools in North Lanarkshire. The trip was organised by Charles Fawcett of the North Lanarkshire Healthy Lifestyle Project, as part of the girls go for health initiative. That initiative was established in 2009 as part of a formal partnership agreement between North Lanarkshire Council and the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi.
The primary aim of the agreement is to end the marginalisation of women in Malawian society by engaging with partner schools in Malawi to facilitate greater access for women to education and healthcare, and working to end harmful practices such as initiation ceremonies, female circumcision and early marriages. It therefore continues a proud tradition of Scottish involvement in the health and education systems in Malawi, which is as vital now as it was in Livingstone’s time.
The Lanarkshire Healthy Lifestyle Project is also seeking Scottish Government funding for a new initiave to secure legal representation for women in Malawi’s prisons, many of whom have never undergone trial. Considering the conditions of Malawi’s prisons (one of which I visited during my trip to Malawi) I earnestly hope that the Scottish Government will allocate the £400,000 the initiative requires to fulfill its aims.
Yesterday’s was an excellent debate: informative, consensual, with passionate and insightful contributions from Members of all parties.
The debate stood testament to the high valuation placed on Scotland’s relationship with Malawi; a relationship I am sure will endure for many more years to come.
I was glad to be able to contribute to last week’s Scottish Government debate on drink driving.
Under the terms of the Scotland Act 2012, the Scottish Parliament now has the power to lower the drink drive limit from its current level of 80mg (amongst the highest in Europe) to 50mg (the level in most European countries).
As I state in my speech, this is a move I fully endorse. Cars and alcohol are a toxic combination: they should not be mixed.
However, whilst I explain my reasons for supporting the lowering of the limit, I have some doubts about the ancillary measures proposed in the Scottish Government’s consultation, many of which require the devolution of further powers.
There are a number of steps we can take right now to tackle Scotland’s problem with drink driving, and alcohol abuse generally. For example, the Scottish Government should clamp down on alcohol advertising, and afford more funding and coverage to campaigns, whether in print, on tv or online, which warn of the dangers of alcohol consumption, especially in relation to driving.
We must also ensure that there are adequate numbers of frontline police to enforce new legislation, and a robust legal system to punish those that contravene it.
Driving whilst intoxicated is a reckless and selfish act. If we are to send a clear and unequivocal message, those who are found guilty of driving under the influence of drink or drugs must be made to face the consequences of their actions.
Over the summer, I spoke to the Motherwell Times about my first year in Parliament, from the shock of my election and delivering my first speech parliament, to learning to cope with people’s response to my disability, and visiting Malawi.
Here’s to another four years:
SIOBHAN McMahon is amazed her disability has been such an issue during her maiden year in the Scottish Parliament and vowed to fight for equality.
Elected first on the Labour list for Central Scotland, Siobhan admits while proud to be an MSP, she isn’t happy it came on a night when her party suffered a devastating loss to the SNP.
She said: “I don’t think happiness came into it for a good six months, shock was the primary emotion as none of us saw that result coming.
“Some people might lack sympathy with the MSPs losing seats, but there were plenty of people on much lower salaries who lost their jobs and you would have to be without a heart not to feel for them.”
Siobhan was no stranger to the Parliament having worked for the Labour party, and enjoyed being sworn in as the first father-daughter MSPs with Uddingston and Bellshill MSP Michael McMahon.
She said: “It was incredible being on the floor for the first time. A choir from Falkirk sang one of my favourite songs, the sun was shining and being with my dad to swear in was a nice thing, although I was so nervous giving my first speech.
“But it went really well and I put in a quote from my dad at the end. Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said she’d never seen a man so proud, the only problem was he thought I was quoting Donald Dewer.”
Siobhan has had to overcome several challenges since entering Holyrood, but nothing like the realisation people see her as disabled.
She said: “The biggest thing for many people is my disability, which I’ve had since birth, and I’ve never known that in my 28 years.
“I have spastic hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, which affects my hand.
“I’ve never discussed it as much and the reaction I’ve got from some MSPs is quite appalling. For instance, I’ve been asked if my hand is sore and another said they’d hurt their arm so now had an insight into my life.
“I brought it up when talking about welfare reform but only to say ‘enough about me, let’s talk about the people who are really struggling’.
“No one nudges when a minority walks into a pub, but if someone is with their carer or in a wheelchair people don’t know how to react.”
Siobhan admits she never expected to be a champion of the disabled.
She said: “Equality for the disabled doesn’t exist. I can’t speak for every disabled person, nor would I want to, however it’s about time someone said ‘hold on!’, I just didn’t expect it to be me.
“When I went to Malawi in June I was warned they might bring it up, but it wasn’t mentioned, I was back here three days and it was. That’s the disappointing thing and that’s the frustration.”
Siobhan is making her own name in politics and was named personal private secretary (PPS) to new Labour leader Johann Lamont.
She said: “The leadership contest showed my dad and I are two different people as I was backing Johann Lamont, while he was campaign manager for Ken Macintosh.
“Of course I ask his advice sometimes, but it’s a two way street, and who thinks the same as their parents all the time?
“Johann has great faith in me. While I wasn’t looking for a ’job’ she asked me to be her PPS, I didn’t think it would be a position that would be open and now I’m sitting in shadow cabinet.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to learn and one I’m grasping with both hands.”
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.