In the regular UK political calendar, autumn means one thing – party conference season. But this year’s calendar has been anything but regular. Between Brexit negotiations and the election of the latest Conservative Prime Minister, the focus has not been on normal procedure. Weeks into months has been given over to the latest developments (or not) on Europe and Conservative party infighting over a leadership election the vast majority of us had no say in.
The return of the UK and Scottish Parliaments following the summer recess should have brought with it renewed focus and energy to deliver on the issues that matter for those we represent. At Holyrood we have seen positive steps with Scottish Labour securing a revised target of 75% for 2030 emissions reduction as part of the Climate Change Bill, and a long-overdue vote on the future of the rail franchise, following ongoing dissatisfaction with Abellio. At Westminster however, the business of the country has ground to a halt.
The UK Parliament returned from recess on 3rd September, only to be unlawfully prorogued less than a week later in a move which the Supreme Court judged “prevented parliament from carrying out its constitutional role for five out of a possible eight weeks”. The decision of the Supreme Court that the prorogation was unlawful saw MPs return to Parliament last week, but the nature and language of debate which ensued was far from welcome and still we are no further to securing any kind of alternative deal with the EU for Brexit. Further away still is the refocusing of parliamentary time on key issues of inequality and poverty which are affecting people across the UK every day.
At its conference in Brighton, the Labour Party sought to redress the focus, to shift the narrative away from the single-minded pursuit of Brexit-at-all-costs and back to domestic policy. Conference approved motions which under a Labour Government would have a positive impact on individuals and families across Scotland and the UK, not least the pledge to end the roll-out of Universal Credit. Alongside announcements on ending in-work poverty and introducing a real living wage of £10 an hour, this is the kind of action which would really make a difference to families currently struggling to make ends meet.
A Labour Government would also introduce a Right to Food as part of a Fair Food Act, including a National Food Commission to monitor food insecurity and an Action to Food Fund for the most deprived areas. The Trussell Trust has welcomed the pledge to half the use of food banks in the first year of a Labour government, and end the need for them within three years. As we approach Challenge Poverty Week, this refocusing on policy which better supports the vulnerable, the pledging of action which seeks to reduce poverty and address inequality in our society, should only be welcomed.
At the beginning of September the Scottish Parliament returns after a two month hiatus. Over the recess I have been working across the region, visiting community groups and recognising the hard work and commitment that goes on. The Parliamentary recess offers an opportunity to step back from the workings of Holyrood and to see first-hand the concerns of local people and to learn more about the work that goes on in our communities. It allows MSPs time to learn more about what matters to the communities and people of Scotland, so they can take these matters up in Parliament and act to address them.
That is not to say the business of politics stops when the Parliament is not sitting, and over the summer there has been no shortage of issues to address: from record drugs deaths to continuing mismanagement of the rail franchise; from GP shortages and delays in cancer treatment to overcrowding in prisons and another fall in Higher pass rates. This summer we have of course also seen the continuation of debate over Brexit, and the seemingly inevitable elevation of Boris Johnson to Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, for the First Minister, the summer recess has provided an opportunity to participate in a number of events at the Edinburgh Fringe, talking about independence and the difficulties of small talk with Theresa May. Perhaps taking a leaf from the handbook of personality turned current Prime Minister, her team decided that this summer was an ideal time to chat with podcasters and appear on Loose Women, rather than address the key issues facing the people of Scotland.
Last week saw the publication of the latest GERS figures, stating that the country had a deficit of £12.6 billion in the last financial year which means an independent Scotland would have one of the biggest deficits in the developed world. SNP plans to address the deficit would see unprecedented cuts for Scotland’s schools and hospitals – further austerity rather than much needed investment in our communities and public services.
When the Scottish Parliament returns the immediate focus will be on the Programme for Government, with the SNP Government unveiling its plans for legislation over the course of the Parliamentary year. Work on the Referendums Bill will continue, and the consequences of Brexit on our economy and our communities is never far from our agenda. But we must see the return to Parliamentary business which focused on addressing the issues that matter to Scots on a day to day basis.
We have much to be getting on with – from holding Abellio to account for the mis-management of the ScotRail contract, to finding better ways of addressing drugs addiction across the country, from supporting teachers and pupils in our education system, to ensuring people can get GP appointments and access other crucial healthcare services. We need to listen to the concerns of our communities and ensure our time in Parliament is used to deliver positive change.
The Scottish Parliament is now in summer recess. Mid-Scotland and Fife is the second biggest geographical region after Highlands and Islands, so I welcome the opportunity recess brings to spend time in the region. A recent visit to Crieff highlighted to me the important role community groups and volunteers play in preserving our towns and villages but also in developing new ventures to boost tourism and local interest. The Old St Michaels Church yard, having previously been uncared for, overgrown and even proposed as a potential car park site, now offers a place of reflection off the high street with maintained gardens and currently one of the Crieff Cowches. Committed volunteers have created an asset for Crieff and demonstrates what can be achieved.
The Archaeology Trail at Strathearn Community Campus is another local initiative which aims to both celebrate local heritage and promote economic regeneration. The trail is a welcome addition to the area which involved local schools in its development as well as providing an education resource to connect the community with its history.
The Crieff Cowches are a welcome addition this summer. Situated around the area, they bring the work of local artists to the community, provide interest and fun on the art trail and will be auctioned off for charity at the end of the project which is run by the local bid. The project cleverly complements the Crieff in Leaf Coos celebrating the history of the tryst in Crieff.
Projects like these, which draw in support from local businesses and benefit from local expertise and connections, are key to stimulating ongoing interest for visitors and residents alike. With central funding for tourism always limited, finding ways of pooling local resources and securing financial backing are increasingly important.
I also appreciated a tour of the Glenturret distillery to hear about their plans following change in ownership. Whisky tourism remains a key aspect of Scotland’s appeal to visitors and the distillery is an important attraction for the area. Crieff has seen a shift away from traditional coach tours and increasing numbers of specialist visitors, coming specifically for the food and drink, or the history, or the wildlife. It’s important to respond to these changes and can offer experiences which appeal.
Securing Crieff and Strathearn on tourist trails is important and opportunities need to be grasped. The North Coast 500 show what can be achieved and the potential of cycle and walking based tourism could be promoted. What better way to explore our area of Scotland than to really slow your pace on two wheels or on foot. Marrying up sustainable environmentally-friendly travel with the natural beauty of Scotland could open up huge opportunities for many communities and businesses.
Crieff is facing challenges as tourists need change, but we are well placed to take advantage of opportunities. There is much to be positive about and that is reflected in the energy and commitment I have seen towards this special town.
Child poverty figures for Scotland make for unpleasant reading, with almost a quarter of children in Scotland in poverty and the latest projections estimating an additional 50,000 children being drawn into poverty over the next few years. That’s a classroom of children every day. While I agree with Nicola Sturgeon that the impact of UK welfare policy is significant, the Scottish Government has to act and use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to introduce positive measures to support families in need.
This week, the Scottish Government reported on the progress of a targeted family income supplement, previously planned for introduction by 2022. The new Scottish Child Payment of £10 a week will be rolled out for eligible under-6s by the end of the current parliamentary in 2021 and extended to under-16s by the end of 2022. While this additional support for families in poverty is to be welcomed, the reality that it took repeated calls from charities and campaigners to get to this point is less so.
An open letter was signed by 70 organisations calling for the supplement to be brought forward. Scottish Labour’s repeated calls for the income supplement to be fast tracked had the backing of organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Government’s own Poverty Commission urged its introduction in the current Parliament. It should not have taken so long for the Scottish Government to act and it is a disappointment the full roll out of the payment will still not take place until 2022.
The Scottish Government estimates by 2024, these payments could lift 30,000 children out of relative poverty by 2024. But with 240,000 children living in poverty now, much more needs to be done. The Resolution Foundation predicts that child poverty will continue to rise over the next five years to a 20-year high of around 29% by 2023-24. If we want to reverse this trend we have to act.
The Trussell Trust, which operates 135 food banks across Scotland, has highlighted that last summer saw a 21% increase in the number of emergency food parcels given to households with children. With the start of the school holidays, food banks across the country have warned they are facing their “busiest summer ever” with families who qualify for free school meals increasingly struggling to feed their children over the holidays. Foodbanks do all they can to support families in need, but they are not a long-term solution and all households should be protected from needing their help by long term solutions to poverty.
If we are serious about addressing the challenges in our society of inequality and poverty, we need to take determined and sustained action at all levels of Government. We need to see a real living wage for all workers, to protect families from in-work poverty, an end to zero hours contracts to improve income security, and an economic strategy that offers more opportunity to find employment. A Scottish Government which fails to heed to the advice of its own Poverty Commission and which only acts when repeatedly pressured by charities and campaign groups is one which looks like it is lacking ambition. The Scottish Child Payment is a belated but welcome step in the right direction, but it is a modest one when what we need is a giant leap.