It’s been quite a lively week, with a variety of MSPs concerned with Argyll and Bute and with its hinterlands, commenting on a variety of matters of interest to Argyll and to Scotland.
There are six MSP’s who keep us regularly up to date with a range of issues and with their position on these matters.
They are, in alphabetical order: Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour MSP for Dumbarton; Jamie McGrigor, Scottish Conservative MSP for Highlands and Islands; Mike Mackenzie, SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands; Stuart McMillan, SNP MSP for Scotland West; Michael Russell, SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute; Dave Thompson SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch.
It seemed interesting to look at what each of them have been saying this week, what issues they have in common, what issues are specific to each of them; and to the picture of the concerns of Scotland which, coming from different parties, they highlight together.
Politicians have a range of pick’n’ mix objectives in their media statements:
- to underline the positives about the performance and concerns of their own parties;
- to clog the opposition;
- to inform the public on issues for which they have special responsibility, as government ministers or spokespersons on special topics for opposition parties;
- to represent the specific interests of their constituency;
- to offer positions on wider or specialist issues of personal interest or expertise.
Another part of a politician’s life, which features in their press releases, is supporting issue based promotions held in the Scottish Parliament, issuing personalised standard press releases on the subject and often being photographed at the stand.
So what have our six of the best being doing in the past week?
The two equal busiest – understandably, since both are our local constituency MSPs and both are front benchers – have been, in alphabetical order, Jackie Baillie and Michael Russell with seven press releases each.
Next – another coincidence – are our two Highlands and Islands MSP, Mike Mackenzie and Jamie McGrigor, with four each.
And, also logically, as the MSP’s on our periphery, then come Dave Thomson and Stuart McMillan with three each.
The Oban-Glasgow Train Service
The biggest common cause of the week was the two local MSPs and the two Highlands and Islands MSP expressing their pleasure at First Scotrail’s doubling of the Glasgow to Oban rail service.
The NHS Scotland Waiting Times manipulation scandal
This is one of the the most serious matters in Scottish politics at the moment.
It has revealed a health service whose management focus is on manipulating data to make their Board’s performance in the proper care of the unwell look much better than it is – rather than improving their actual performance.
It has also indicated a specific and known scam in manipulating waiting times data amongst NHS Boards, in which the Scottish Government may have tacitly complicit.
Two MSP’s addressed this matter – very differently, which, given their respective party membership, in hardly surprising.
Michael Russell made no mention whatsoever of the scandal itself. He focused on the Waiting Times Advice Helpline the Scottish Government is to pilot for a year from this coming summer, through NHS Inform. We reported on this initiative earlier in the week.
Labour MSP, Jackie Baillie, is her party’s spokesperson on Health and has been for some time. A formidable politician and very much on top of her brief, she is as prone to clogging the opposition as is Mr Russell. In fact, this tedious practice is almost confined to the two of them.
However, if you remove this element of her statements on this issue, MS Baillie has the research and the facts to paint a troubling picture.
Jackie Baillie lists the elements of that picture, saying:
- ‘The Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary until relatively recently, Nicola Sturgeon, knew that ‘social unavailability’ was increasing, but asked no questions and instead argued that waiting times were falling.
- ‘The real amount of time patients wait for treatment is significantly longer than that reported by the SNP Government
- ‘The SNP Government refused to alter the way unavailability was recorded, despite a warning from Audit Scotland in 2008 that the system was unclear
- ‘The SNP Government should have asked why social unavailability was increasing as a way of understanding capacity issues in the NHS.
- ‘Thousands of Scots have been affected, many won’t know.
- ‘The use of ‘social unavailability’ dropped significantly after the NHS Lothian scandal broke, having increased since 2008.
- ‘Lothian, Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Tayside, Grampian, Forth Valley and Lanarkshire all have their management of waiting lists called into question
- ‘The public has lost faith in the waiting lists system.’
In a second press release, following the First Minister;s attempt in the Scottish Parliament to explain this situation away, Ms Baillie said:
‘Alex Salmond’s claim that this was simply down to failed computer systems is directly contradicted by the Audit Scotland report.
‘Audit Scotland make clear that ‘social unavailability’ was used where there was most demand. Those services under the greatest pressure saw higher use. Staff told Audit Scotland that this was what happened.’
‘Social unavailability’ means that people whose inability to attend for an appointment at specific times was on the records – for reasons like being sent away on work or going on holiday – were deliberately offered sham appointments – early ones they were known to be unable to take up – with the record showing they were ‘socially unavailable’ to attend.
Ms Baillie quoted another telling point here highlighted the Audit Scotland report, published earlier this week and which has opened up this matter:
‘Social unavailability tends to be higher in specialties with high patient numbers and more pressure on capacity, such as orthopaedics and ophthalmology. Staff told us they used these codes most extensively in higher volume specialties.’ [Audit Scotland Report, p.26].
The ‘Bedroom Tax’
Three MSPs were concerned about the financial penalty the UK Governments is about to impose on under-occupancy of social housing – the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’.
Michael Russell and Dave Thompson focused on an interesting and specific example of those affected. This is its potential impact on military veterans returning to civilian life. Both Mr Russell and Mr Thompson, as SNP MSPs, used a standard basic text provided for their use from party central, adding their individual positions on the matter.
Jackie Baillie , the third to express concern on this matter, came up with a possible and interventionist solution. She said that ‘…the Glasgow Advice Agency has received legal advice which could help thousands of Scottish households avoid the impact of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ being implemented by the Westminster government. The legal advice the GAA has obtained shows that there may be a way for councils to protect their tenants from the bedroom tax. The Scottish Government has a duty to explore this and to find ways in which housing associations can also protect their tenants. Devolution was designed for moments like this when the Scottish Parliament can come up with Scottish solutions to Scottish circumstances.’
The continuing council-tax freeze
Two MSP’s noted this. Both are SNP MSPs and this is a major feature of the financial policy of their party’s government.
Michael Russell sent the full press release from Cabinet Secretary, John Swinney, without personal comment. Stuart McMillan used key sections from the Swinney press release, adding his personal comment to it.
He chose a passage from the government press release on the agreements in the education sphere made by Mr Swinney with COSLA in council tax freeze negotiations: ‘As agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) the package of measures, which includes maintaining teacher numbers in line with pupil numbers and securing places for all probationers under the teacher induction scheme, sees local authorities receive a flat cash settlement for next year when compared on a like-with-like basis with current local authority funding.’
£20 million boost for first time home buyers in shared equity schemes
Two MSPs welcomed this helpful government move, both of them from the party of government. Mike Mackenzie and Michael Russell both made use of a standard text from their party to explain the measure, for example that: ‘Over 500 people on low to moderate incomes will receive help to buy their first home through Scottish Government funding for shared equity schemes next year. Priority access will be given to particular groups, including members of the armed forces, veterans and disabled people.’
Both MSP’s added the following information to the introductory facts: ‘Over the past four years, our Low Cost Initiative for First Time Buyers (LIFT) shared equity schemes have helped a huge number of people to buy their first home.The Scottish Government is continuing to do all it can to help. This £20 million boost is great news for individuals and families. Our schemes will not only help people to buy their first home, they will also help ‘second-steppers’ to be able to sell their home and to move to another property. This is not only about helping people to buy houses. Our actions are also stimulating the economy. By supporting house buying and construction, we are creating new work for the sector and supporting jobs.’
Michael Russell, the only MSP to mention this, issued a separate statement on a second government measure to assist first time buyers – a £1.3 million funding boost to help first-time buyers in the Highlands on to the property ladder.
This is known as the Rural Rent to Buy model – and will support those on low and modest incomes who will initially rent a newly built property for five years before purchasing it at a reduced price. A proportion of the rent paid during tenancy is retained by the Trust and returned to the tenant after 5 years as a loyalty cash back payment. This payment funds the deposit required for a traditional mortgage, which first time buyers in particular, are finding very hard to come by.
The initiative is being piloted by the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust, Highland Council and the Scottish Government.
‘Swop Fags for Swag’ – for No Smoking Day
Two MSP’s, Jamie McGrigor and Jackie Baillie supporting this annual health campaign presented at the Scottish Parliament and run by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) throughout the UK.
Its tag line is how smokers could treat themselves to all sorts of ‘swag’ if they saved £11 by quitting smoking for a day; £78 if they quit for a week; £336 for a month off; and a whopping £4,090 for a year’s abstinence.
Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore
Two SNP MSPs had thoughts about Mr Moore this week. The neatest title was in Michael Russell’s press release – ‘Less is Moore’; and the most imaginative position was Dave Thompson’s, calling on Mr Moore, an interesting politician and, personally, a federalist, to ‘be part of Team Scotland’ in a united negotiation in Scotland’s interests with the UK government on the issue of how to divide up the EU structural funds.
The new structural fund methodology comes as a result of the recently signed EU Multi-Annual Financial Framework – but the final EU budget has still to be agreed by the European Parliament and final allocations have still to be agreed both at EU and UK level.
Dave Thompson questioned why the Scotland Office has not done more within the UK government and in EU discussions to protect the position of Scotland at the outset, and urged the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore to be part of Team Scotland in helping to achieve an equitable outcome.
Michael Russell’s amusing title introduced the less than informative ‘clog the opposition’ that the title suggested was in the pipeline, saying: ‘Michael Moore MP, Secretary of State for Scotland will visit Argyll and Bute this Wednesday in a carefully choreographed series of visits designed to avoid difficult questions from angry residents about the UK Government’s swingeing welfare cuts.’
As Mr Russell and his SNP council colleagues in Cowal are currently arguing in their own interests just now over the planned closure of Struan Lodge care home, the doctrine of collective responsibility presents challenges for everyone, presumably including Michael Moore?
And now for the uniques
Some of these MSPs also issued statements on matters no one else had picked up on. This is interesting as it indicates matters of constituency or special interest.
- Stuart McMillan welcomed the Scottish Parliament’s endorsement of free higher education and was angry that Scottish Labour had not supported the government motion in parliament, He said: ‘Labour made an explicit commitment in their 2011 manifesto to no upfront or backdoor tuition fees – almost the exact wording in today’s Scottish Government motion, yet the Labour Party tonight did not support the motion, despite their support for ‘no price tag on education’ still being on the Scottish Labour Party’s website.
- Jamie McGrigor expressed an interest in the Scottish Government’s aspiration to see foreign language teaching in our primary schools – but warned that the resources are unlikely to be available and suggested that premature action would therefore be unwise.
- Jackie Baillie drew attention to the fact that new figures have shown that West Dumbarton has one of the highest levels of child poverty in Scotland – 25 per cent of children living on the poverty line. The figures for Scotland as a whole, show 27 out of 32 local authorities with council wards where over 20 per cent of their children live in poverty. Ms Bailie says that these figures come off the back of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report showing that progress in reducing child poverty in Scotland had stalled under the present government.
- Dave Thompson recommended that the residents of Raasay should seek a community buy out of the island, in his constituency, and that this should be supported by the Scottish Governemnt. Following the row this week of the Scottish Government awarding the Raasay Sporting Rights lease to an absentee bidder from Ayrshire, when, as he says, ‘it has for many years been successfully run by the Raasay Crofter’s Association’, he also asks for the ‘best value’ criterion to be dropped from the tender process.
- Mike Mackenzie repeated the First Minister’s encouragement for young people to take up ‘unparalleled’ renewables opportunity. He said: ‘ This message cannot be repeated often enough. It is vital that we ensure the skills of all of Scotland’s people are utilised to drive forward our growing energy sector by encouraging more women to get involved. At the moment, we know that men outnumber women in the sector by more than four to one, a statistic that we must change if Scotland is to realise its full energy potential.’
- Jackie Baillie commended people to go to see a critically acclaimed play on tour to Garelochhead, My Name is Rachel Corrie – at the Gibson Hall on 27th February – and telling the story of 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, an American who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
- Jamie McGrigor argued that Scotland’s historic houses and built heritage are key parts of the country’s history and tourist infrastructure., saying: ‘This is particularly so of my own region of the Highlands & Islands where many jobs, often in remote communities, are sustained by castles and stately homes which are open to the public’. He noted that: ‘Well over a third of our international visitors cite our heritage and culture as the principal reason for coming to Scotland’.
- Mike Mackenzie, still with a focus on renewable energy, a sector to which he has always been committed, welcomed the report on Renewables issued by the Scottish Parliament Committee of which he is a member. Highlighting what he sees as opportunities for the Highands and Islands, he said: ‘I found it a valuable experience to be a part of this enquiry. I think this is a comprehensive and valuable report on what is a subject of the utmost importance to Scotland and the Highlands & Islands.’
Taken together, these interests and statements by the six MSP concerned with or on the fringes of Argyll, represent a pretty good snapshot of the issues of concern not only of the last week but continuingly to Scotland as a whole.