Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Post Brexit Blog

After the Brexit vote I needed a vacation.  Thanks to the generosity of my family, I got a week away somewhere hot.

A week wasn't long enough.  Leave the country to it's own devices for a week and everything goes to hell.  There is a completely new, unelected government.  It may have been constitutionally legal but make no mistake: this is not the government voted for by people in 2015.  Owing to the first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster, both the Conservative and Labour parties cover too much of the political spectrum.  With a more representative voting system, each would split into at least two separate parties.

Just as we see the right of the Conservative party take over from the Cameron regime, Labour is openly split between its social democratic (let's be kind here and not refer to them as Blairites)  and socialist wings.  Corbyn's total ineffectiveness in the Commons has led to the open revolt among the majority of Labour's MPs.  His power is indeed with the membership and, just as with the Tories, it is obvious that the only thing hold Labour together at this time is the necessity of gaining power at Westminster.   The Trident debate was especially jaw-dropping. In anybody else's world, the sight of MP after MP rising up from benches behind and each plunging in the dagger would have led to Corbyn's immediate departure.  Not so for Jeremy: for unlike Caesar his power lies not with the senate but as a tribune of the people.  It may be a sad day for Labour but the realisation may finally dawn that it is the election system itself that is causing the failure of democracy within both parties.

May didn't even have to face an election but rather nimbly stepped over the political corpses of her enemies as they either did each other in or fell upon their own swords.  I am still considering the resuscitation of Boris Johnson though: whether it was an act of crassness or supreme genius.  I think it was more the latter.  In terms of foreign diplomacy, it was as crass as when the last Bush administration selected arch-critic of the UN, John Bolton, to be the US ambassador in New York.  In terms of Conservative party politics, Johnson did more than any other politician to bring about the surprise Brexit vote and this was done by betraying his friend and long-term ally David Cameron.  May may have little love for Boris but she is smart enough to know to keep enemies close and to keep them busy; which is  something Cameron failed to do and is exactly what Boris will be for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile here in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP must be feeling it is all going rather swimmingly.  The nation voted to remain in the EU, Labour is in disarray and the Conservatives' move to the far right has even put political distance between the SNP own austerity regime (rigorously denied but still ongoing) and the Brexiteers down south.   Indeed an envious position to be in but not without peril, for now is the real test for the SNP.   Are they a real party of leadership, working for the best for Scotland or is their only raison d'être to separate Scotland from England?
If Sturgeon decides to go for an early second referendum  independence referendum (#Indyref2 in the parlance of our times), it might well be won.  It will also prove that this is the SNP's only sole and narrow aim, for the economic arguments against independence are far stronger now than in 2014.  The decommissioning of the North Sea oil fields are ahead of expectation, despite celebration at the oil price faster-than-expected rise to about $50 per barrel.  Uncertainty over Brexit and even the prospect of a second Scottish referendum will make matters worse.

A more powerful and better solution would be to seek an accord with Northern Ireland and work, hard, to keep Scotland and Northern Ireland both in the Union and the EU.  Both the North and the Republic of Ireland have been put into a terrible situation by the Brexit vote, as not only trade but the whole peace situation is in peril if the land border is reinstated.  Since Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, a smarter solution would be move the EU land border to the mainland, between Scotland and England.  This could be achieved if the United Kingdom becomes a federal union.

One of the more risible soundbites made by SNP supporters at this time is "I am an Internationalist because I am a Nationalist."   People who say this either do not know the meaning of nationalism or internationalism, as they are mutually exclusive.  The EU is an internationalist organisation in the true sense of the word.
The latter observation leads us to the real cause of the Brexit vote and that is the rise of nationalism across the globe.  The far right, in the UK, in Europe and in the US (make no mistake: Donald Trump is a far right nationalist) are gleeful at the outcome.  They see Britain's exit as the start of the end for the European Union.  Parties across Europe have been emboldened to work harder for this end with Marine Le Pen in France being particularly enthused.

We live in dark times but I am glad that, despite disagreements on individual decisions and policies, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats: the only UK-wide party campaigning for a Britain with a continuing future in the European Union.  As Paddy Ashdown so graphically put it, we were roadkill after the 2015 election but, with the rise of nationalism my party has been consistent in opposing it, wherever it has arisen.  We are the internationalist party and will continue to be so.

If you support Britain being in the European Union and an have a believe in international cooperation instead of competition, you should join us.  https://libdems.secure.force.com/LiberalDemocrats/NewMemberRegistration

Friday, 17 June 2016

This Week: The Highs and Very Lows

This week has seen some of the best and worst of people and politics.

My own week started on Leith Links, campaigning with the Edinburgh North, East and Leith Liberal Democrats.  Given that the EU referendum is coming up, we decided to put our efforts into supporting the Remain campaign.  Always the party with the greatest enthusiasm for the European Union, I found it a real pleasure engaging people on the subject.

Even those who didn't want to know the Libdems (I know, hard to believe!) were usually willing to talk on Europe.  My approach was straightforward.  Those who were undecided were offered, and glad to accept, information on the matter.  We had brochures, leaflets and we're glad to answer questions.   People who had already decided to vote to stay were offered rather tasteful lapel badges with stickers and balloons for the children.

It was those who intended to vote for Brexit that were really engaged.  I always asked "Why?"   Now some would not be talked to, offering a stream of thoughts as they departed.  Most did stop and explain their reasoning.  The amount of misinformation about the EU is rather scary.   One person was not even aware that the European Parliament was elected and was seriously surprised that the next election for the Parliament would be in 2018, after they had missed the 2014 elections.   Others had to be reassured that the UK did have full control of non-EU immigration. One person raised the question of anti-social behaviour (littering) by some young Eastern Europeans, to which I countered "That is against the law so why aren't we applying own own laws?"  Countering minor nuisances like this doesn't depend upon the nationality of those causing it.

The result was that over half of those who had claimed to be solid No voters went away with a different point of view.  It was a good result and shows the value of real facts and direct conversation.

The next morning was the start of the lows.  News of a mass shooting came through from Orlando.  There had already been the murder of promising young singer, 22-year-old Christine Grimmie,  in the same town, earlier in the week.  It seems a perverse coincidence that there would be another incident there so soon.  As the details arose throughout the day, the full horror became clear.  The biggest mass killing by a single shooter on US soil was a homophobic hate crime.  From my viewpoint, LGBT+ rights are simply human rights.  I know that the gunman, whose name frankly should be forgotten, claimed to act in the name of ISIS but, giving the previous involvement that the murderer had with the Pulse club, perhaps that was just to give some self-justification for the atrocity he had decided to commit.

America, I don't think the root cause of the problem is the amount of guns in society, although that is a massive factor.  Rather it is the general attitude toward the value of human life.  It took two mass killings in the UK, thirteen in Australia, before guns were banned in the respective nations, with widespread public support.  It seems to us abroad, despite the continuation of the phenomena, despite the anguish of the parents and relatives of the dead, the attachment to firearms continue.  Perhaps since the right to bear arms was as part of a trained militia, that the only legal weapons should be flintlock muskets and civil war pistols.  Seriously though, military grade weapons have no purpose in civilian hands.  I remember that assault-grade weapons, such as a BAR, used to be sold with only three-round magazines for civilian collectors.  The only reason one can see to change that was to sell more weapons and bullets.  An AR-15 comes with a 30-round magazine as standard.
It might be naive to suggest a total ban but a handgun is more than enough for those who feel the need for personal protection.  Taking military grade weapons off the open market would finally signal a change in American attitudes.  Even that is too much for the NRA, arms dealers and their cronies in the Congress and Senate.   In my opinion, any society that does not value human life is the last society that should have open access to firearms.

From horrors like the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub, sometimes beauty comes forth.  Such beauty was the reaction.  Vigils were held across the world and I would like to thank the Edinburgh branch of Inclusive Networks for organising Wednesday's event, held in St.Andrew's Square.  The event was open to all and people of all ages and genders attended in large numbers, despite the unpleasant and dreich weather.  Two choirs, Loud&Proud and Edinburgh's Gay Men's Chorus, sang wonderfully and there were speeches from politicians and non-politicians alike.  The most moving part was the reading of the names.  Stalin was right: numbers are just a statistic.  Hearing the names, hearing how young and how much life would have been ahead of the fallen, that for me was important.  I turned fifty this week so in a position to fully appreciate how much life, how many futures, were taken.  For many LGBT+ people the massacre was also a violation of a haven: an area where one could relax and just be oneself in a safe and supportive environment.  It is a shame that such places are still necessary but, despite what has been achieved over the last fifty years, it is so.  We are still not in a society where neither the life not dignity of every individual is respected by all.

The following day (which was my birthday anniversary) I attended the afternoon's political rally held by the IN campaign.  This rally was symbolically very important because of its cross-party nature.  Chaired by Scottish Libdem leader Willie Rennie: Greens, Conservatives, SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats were all represented by senior party figures.  For Labour it was Scottish party leader Kezia Dugdale and for the Liberal Democrats it was Nick Clegg.  Whatever views you may have about Nick (mine are mixed), he is a brilliant speaker.  Sitting next to me was a lady from the SNP who breathed a none-too-subtle "Oh my God" when Nick was a little way into his speech.  By the end she was clapping enthusiastically.

More importantly though, while all five parties want to see different outcomes from the European Union, we are all united in wanting to see it work and Britain to be an important member and leader in Europe.

I am immodest enough to note my own question was well received.  A few days before the "Official Information About the Referendum" leaflet from Vote Leave came through my letterbox.  Noting in my preamble it had ended up in the bottom of my canary's cage, I asked how best to challenge the misinformation held within it.  One example is that it stated that Turkey is set up to join the EU.  This is a lie: Turkey is nowhere near fulfilling the criteria for EU membership despite decades of negotiation.  More disturbingly, the leaflet notes the positions of Syria and Iraq in relation to Turkey.  This is beyond EU debate: it is nothing less than an appeal to xenophobia and I asked, with a week to go, how best to fight this aspect.  I appreciate Willie giving me the opportunity to put the question, which was well-answered by Nick.

At the start of the event, Willie Rennie informed the hall that there had been an attack on Jo Cox MP, to considerable shock and dismay.  None of us knew that by that time she had already died of her wounds, leaving a husband and two small children.  It was only in the late afternoon, tuning into PM and hearing Jo Cox's maiden speech being broadcast, that I knew then she was dead.

I didn't know Jo Cox but have no reason to disbelieve any of the tributes being made of her.  I am sure had she lived, that she would have made a great contribution to public life.  What shook me was the violence and manner of her death.  Members of parliament (and we now have several parliaments across the UK) come from the public and are at their best when serving the public.  They have to be available and approachable, which of course leaves them vulnerable.  When it comes to security, I think it should be up to each member of parliament to speak with the police and make the arrangements that they feel most comfortable with.   What should not happen is that members of parliament are cut off from the open access that is currently afforded.

I have stood for parliament a few times now and have yet to be elected.  Perhaps it will never happen, who knows.  It should be noted that most people who stand are aware that that they will not be elected.  We stand in order to propagate and promote the ideas, to lay the groundwork for party success in the future.  That may involve personal success but nothing is guaranteed.  If we were doing it for personal gain, we would be idiots.  There are some exceptions of course, especially when a given party is at its zenith of fortune, but on the whole what I say stands.  The vast majority of candidates do it for love and a wish to serve, not for money and certainly not for the glory.

When out on the hustings, in street, on the doorstep, one is vulnerable.  I have been pretty lucky: never having suffered personal abuse nor intimidation.  Most people are very nice; regardless of what they may think of one's personality or politics.   My fortune should not be taken for granted.   I personally know two candidates, standing in the 2016 elections here in Scotland, one of which who suffered intimidation after an otherwise civil hustings, and another who had to undergo the humiliation of racial abuse as the spoiled ballets  were being shown to all candidates.  The former was a woman and of course the latter comes from a BAME background.  Both cases are an outrage and I am aware that perhaps one reason I have not had similar experiences is because being white, male, straight and solidly-built (okay, a bit fat), such abuse does not come my way.  I have unearned privilege but I am aware of this and working for a society where such humiliations are not heaped upon other heads.

Listening to the news this evening, it was stated that the killer of Jo Cox was, during the 1990s, involved with the US Neo-Nazi group The National Alliance.  Now I remember this bunch.  They were the real-deal, full-fat Aryan white supremacists.  While at university, by accident I discovered the group online and, being blonde and blue-eyed, I felt it incumbent upon myself to disagree with these bastards.  If Jo's murderer was indeed involved with this group and paid real money for their publications, I find it extremely easy to believe that, unless he had undergone a Damascene conversion in the years since, that he would be a supporter of today's Britain First.  In their own way they are just as vile and nasty as The National Alliance was then.

I started this week in campaigning mode for the Vote Remain and Scotland Stronger in Europe teams.  It didn't turn out that way.  This week is a ghastly, horrible, reminder that as a society we may feel that we have come far from how things were in my youth.  In reality we haven't.  The demons of hatred, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny are still with us.  Their chains have become loosened, resulting in the deaths of many.

It is up to every single one of us to continue the fight against hatred, in all its forms.  We do not win by hating back.  Hatred is defeated through knowledge, wisdom and love.  Love is love.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Britain and Brexit

This is a personal note, a reflection of my experience of the UK, Ireland, Europe and beyond. It is from both the head and the heart.

There are many disadvantages to growing old.  Hair goes grey, bits start to droop - if not actually drop off.  One has also lived through history and, in the context of the European Union debate, that is a rather valuable asset.  Polls lead us to believe that the older the person, the more likely one is to vote Leave.  What I would like to know is what on earth they are smoking because I too remember England before the EU and frankly it was a bloody miserable place.

By the early 1970s, Britain was dying on it's feet.  As a nation, we had won the war, lost the Empire and lost the peace.  Britain ship building technology was stuck in the 1950s and great yards were losing contracts to Japan.  Japan was also starting to dominate the motorcycle and car industry.  When the first Honda mopeds came to Britain in the 1960s, manufacturers like Norton, Triumph and Sunbeam laughed.  By the mid-70s, there was no more laughter.  Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha dominated.  British car manufacturers took longer to fall but fall they did and not just to the Japanese.  European manufacturers like Volkswagen,Fiat and Renault were hitting the budget and mid-market areas hard.  Avengers, Singers, Maxis and Allegros didn't stand a chance.  Even later efforts like the modern-looking Rover 3500 were underpinned with an ancient Buick chassis and suspension.  

Now that is not to say that the situation for the UK magically improved once Britain entered the ECC.  No, it took time.  The Conservatives would claim sole responsibility for the turnaround in the nation's fortune but they were greatly helped by the balance of payments from both the oil industry and trade with Europe, especially in the 1980s.   It is the fall in oil and gas production that has been a major contributor to the trade inequalities that we see today.

Europe started to change our politics too.  The emergence of the Greens in the late 1980s was directly inspired by politics in Germany and The Netherlands.  The voting systems of our European neighbours have been felt in non-Westminster politics, especially in the smaller home-nations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  By sticking to the nonsensical and unfair first-past-the-post system, England is falling far behind in terms of citizen representation.

It was during the 1980s I first started to travel regularly.  My brother was serving in the military and was stationed in Germany.  They did think a bit differently.  This was the first time I saw cycle lanes.  It is sensible: dividing cycle, motor and pedestrian traffic from each other simply makes the roads safer for all users.
Another thing was that the food was just better quality.  Although the 1980s started to see an improvement in UK restaurants, at the time many were still pretty dire.  Nowadays we take a plethora of cuisine types and high quality that is available to us for granted but it was not always so.  In my birth town of Lowestoft, I remember just a handful of foreign alternatives: mostly Chinese, some Indian, with a couple of Italians and Ffrench (the name of the restaurant, not a typo) for Continental dining.   The first cappuccino coffee bar didn't arrive until 1990 and was set up by an Italian electrician who had been blackballed by local management from working in the Japanese-owner Sanyo factory.  (The Japanese had decided to invest in the UK in order to circumvent restrictive French import practices.  British social practices did not change however).

When it comes to eating out it is only in the last decade or so can it be said that the UK has caught up with our continental neighbours.  The same cannot be said for our hospitality industry.  Why is it that the vast majority of our hotel staff are from outside the UK?  No, it isn't because they are cheap labour: it is because the cultural upbringing sees no shame in offering hospitality and service.  I know this is being unfair to those British people who work in hospitality and are excellent in their job but they are the not the majority.  Once past their prime, many British hotels and guest houses remain tired, threadbare and expensive.  It isn't just the climate that drives many UK holidaymakers to foreign lands.  We go abroad for vacation to be treated well.  Hoteliers in the UK employ foreign workers in order to obtain the same level of service that we have come to expect from being abroad.  Many forget to reinvest in the infrastructure.

Many British folk have permanently moved abroad to enjoy the sunshine.  It seems illogical to some that some British immigrants to Spain (or expats as they still model themselves) are voting for Brexit.  There is a reason for this however.  Those people who live abroad and are voting for Britain to leave, left Britain because they don't like the multi-cultural nation we have become.  The evidence for this is in their humour.  If you have ever seen the fanzines in circulation among the British communities in Spain, it is as if Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown represent the pinnacle of our culture.  The readership hate modern Britain, hate foreigners and their greatest wish is to be able to assert their self-claimed superiority, insult outsiders at will and wind back the clock to 1955.  They fail to see the irony of their own position and, through their own inflated sense of self-worth, do not realise at a Brexit vote may well put their own position in Spain at risk.  A vote for Brexit defies logic but they are relying upon the Spanish government to act logically in the face of their own defiance.  What if the Spanish also throw caution to the winds and tells the British to assimilate or get out?   Adiòs y per favor vete!

From emigrants to immigrants.  There are many that claim that Brexit will allow us to control our borders and thus reduce pressures on our education and health systems.  It is true that language lessons for those those first language is not English do add to school expenses but has nobody noticed that we have an ageing population in this country?  The school children of today are tomorrow's workers whose taxes will be paying the state pensions of old gits like me.  If the average population continues to get older and there is not enough young workers, the state pension, already less-than-generous by the standards of our near neighbours, will fail.

As of the ageing population of today and the relationship to immigration, I will point out that the vast majority of European people moving to the UK are of working age.  The major burden on the NHS are pensioners, not young immigrants.  It has been stated often that a lot of workers from abroad staff both the NHS and our care homes.  Brexiteers argue that if we limited immigration more British people could work here.  With an ageing population though, what if there are simply not enough working Brits to fill the vacancies of services, industry and the NHS?  We are back to immigration again.  The truth is that, in common with much of Northern Europe, we need immigrants.  It isn't out of pure altruism that the German government have opened it doors to so many refugees.

The question must be asked, what is it that the Brexiteers actually want?  There are a few on the left of British politics who follow the Bennite view that the European Union is all about big business.  I disagree but at least that is a sincere and logical argument.  Since the European Union is the world's biggest freely trading zone, it is good for capitalism.  If one is against capitalism, one should be against the EU.  That is the basic reason for socialist opposition.  Fair enough.

The main driving force for the UK coming out of the EU is not from the Left but from the Right.  UKIP itself comes from a Conservative schism.  With their usual instinct for self-preservation, the Conservative Party has managed to head off the kind of damage inflicted upon Labour in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP but the cost has been the open civil war now being openly fought between those Conservatives who want to leave and those who want to stay.

If the main thrust of the argument is being generated by the political Right, what is it that they want?  The answer is not hard to find: deregulation of the private sector and lower taxation.  One former leader of UKIP, Lord Pearson, even wanted the United Kingdom to leave the EU and go and join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).  To be fair that is not on the cards today but does go a fair way to illustrate where their sympathies lie.

The Brexiteers claim that to leave the EU is a reclamation of sovereignty but there is no talk from them that we should be leaving NATO, an organisation in which our national sovereignty is almost entirely subservient to the requirements of the USA.  I knew one former Royal Navy navigator who was so sickened by the amount of times his vessel was running American missions that he left the service.  This sharing of sovereignty passes without discussion with those on the Right but give anybody else outside the UK a say in workers' or human rights of British citizens and, apparently, the whole nation is being dragged down by the envious machinations of Johnny Foreigner.

Instead of being strong partners with our near neighbours in Europe, we are told that we should be going it alone.  Make Britain great again!  Reach out to the rest of the world and we will be that great trading nation once again.  Let us make one thing absolutely clear: Britain was never a great trading nation.  We were great imperialists.  Our country grew to the height of wealth through trading with our Empire in a closed market on the most advantageous terms.  Already by the end of the 19th Century American and German industry was out-competing the UK in free trade.   In  promotIng protectionism, the British Empire become our industrial tomb.  When we lost the empire and after nations such as Germany and Japan rebuilt their industrial base after its destruction in WWII, the UK was swept aside.

How are we going to compete toe-to-toe with not only the entire EU, the USA, China and all upcoming nations like Brazil on the world markets?  The answer is in deregulation.  Chinese workers have very few rights and so it will become with us.  Corporate taxation will be reduced.  Personal income tax rates may well fall too but with a rise in VAT: after all, t was the Conservatives who introduced that tax in the late 70s and it is easily avoided by the wealthy who can afford to shop outside the country.   Leave the EU, go it alone and one can say goodbye to the minimum wage,  a month's paid holiday, health and safety at work, maximum working hours and any vestige of working rights.  In a low-tax economy, there is no way the NHS will survive.  This is the grand vision that is meant by the return of sovereignty.

At this point, I would expect to be accused of scaremongering by those who would vote Leave but I'm not and I will prove it to you with a simple example and following question.  When the respective populations of both Norway and Switzerland cast their votes on EU membership, they knew, regardless of outcome, that their own governments and political systems would continue to look out for them and act in their best interests.
Now ask yourself the question: do you trust the UK government with your future, your families' future and to act in your best interest, regardless of outcome of the vote ahead?
If your answer is no, then there is only one logical way to vote on the 23rd of June.

Cast your vote to remain in the European Union.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Five Questions: Broughton Spurtle

1. Edinburgh, in my opinion, has some of the worst new building in Europe. Why is planning law is so slanted towards the developer when decisions arising may put the UNESCO World Heritage status at risk? (My specific concern as local resident is the RBS proposal to develop the site bordering Eyre Place, Dundas Street, Royal Crescent, Fettes Row, Dundonald Street and overwhelming King George V Park. The RBS proposals suggest overdevelopment of the site that will place unrealistic pressure on local services and the environment.)

One of the biggest challenges facing communities in Edinburgh is fostering any sense of social awareness among developers.  I was speaking to the Cala during their public consultations over the 450 proposed dwelling places opposite the Ocean Terminal site.  I asked them about extra medical facilities required by the increase of population.  The answer was that this is very much a matter for Edinburgh Council.  They were however more willing to take on board my comments about any lack of play facilities for young children and keen to focus on minimising the traffic impact.

This last point shows that developers address the issues that planners address.  They know that under the current system, public views rarely matter: it is the council planning committee that they have to satisfy and that is everything.  Another example would be the redevelopment of the Edinburgh Academicals stadium in Stockbridge.  The local residents are overwhelmingly against the scheme as it stands but it is being pushed through by the council nonetheless.  It seems that the threat of losing the next election is not enough of a threat to hold over politicians.

This is something that perhaps can be addressed by the Scottish Parliament.  When it comes to housing, the first thing I would look at is housing density.  There are minimum standards for room size here in Scotland but I am not aware of any minimum standards of dwelling density.  It is in a developer's interest to maximise the return.  It is in the power of Holyrood to set maximum numbers of dwellings in a given area for a given city zone if the council is not providing suitable local standards.

The right of counter-appeal can also be looked at, although there are dangers if this becomes too powerful, resulting in neighbourhoods refusing any form of development.  Some may say that the Edinburgh trams should not have gone ahead at all but imagine if each neighbour the line goes through had to grant the scheme access.

The main point though would be to make any appeals scheme affordable.  At the moment, the residents of Stockbridge have only the option of spending tens of thousands of pounds if they want to launch a judicial review.  That probably is not going to happen.

As for the point over UNESCO World Heritage status, I have mixed feelings on this.  True, it does identify areas of outstanding character across the world (thus bringing in tourism and revenue) but some cites complain that it also halts necessary development.  Now I am not saying that Edinburgh is getting it's planning right; just highlighting the potential conflict between UNESCO standards and city needs.

In the end, cities are for people to live in.  Not just for the people already there but also for those who need to come and live here.  It is the politician's job to find the best way through the possible areas of conflict.

2. What concrete measures will you put in place to alleviate poverty and inequality in Scotland?

As a Scottish Liberal Democrat, I believe that not only should every person have equality of opportunity but we as a society should be there for whenever a person seeks to do better for themselves and their family.

The key to this on an individual level is education. Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that education is the first and arguably most essential investment when it comes to tackling any form of  poverty. That is why we have proposed a Penny for Education - a penny on income tax to enable investment in a transformation in Scottish education that will make it the best in the world again and enable people to get well paid jobs. This is fair because the rising personal allowance will mean that anyone earning under £21,500 will actually pay less tax next year. Those at the top will pay 30 times more than someone on an average income.

For those already in work, we have sought to ensure work pays and that the system is fairer to those on low and middle incomes. In government we raised the income tax personal allowance, cutting the bills of 2 million Scots by £800 and lifting 2.7 million across the UK out of paying income tax altogether.

We will pay the Living Wage for all public services and stop giving government grants to companies that don't pay the Living Wage. The Scottish Government has given £5 million to Amazon, even though it pays its workers more than £1 less an hour than the living wage and there have been real concerns over working conditions at their base in Dunfermline.

Scottish Liberal Democrats have committed to working with the other parties and stakeholders to ensure that the new Scottish welfare system is fair to those in and out of work and has the full confidence of users.

I believe that fuel poverty in a major issue in our city and across Scotland.  Liberal Democrats will work with other parties to see the energy efficiency of our nation's entire housing stock, not just new builds, but all our nation's homes improved.  This will be a major, long term project but a necessary one.  If we leave this to the free markets, it will never happen for all.  The nature of Scotland's housing, especially for the older buildings, means that there are people living in older property will can never really afford the major improvements required for their homes to truly become energy efficient.  As we undergo the transition towards a low carbon, more energy efficient future, it is important that our homes and, indeed, our businesses too, are fit for purpose.  Frankly, we are a northern nation but previous generations of regulators and builders did not seem to appreciate this, especially when it came to mass-market housing.

3. Tonight, women and girls in Edinburgh are afraid to go out in the dark alone. At this moment, women here are afraid to stay in their own homes, through fear of violence and abuse. What specific measures will your party bring forward, in the next parliament, to ensure that women and girls in Scotland are safe in their own homes, and are able to go out freely and confidently into the world? What will you do to stop women in Scotland living in fear?

At this election, Scottish Liberal Democrats are proposing among other things to:

Introduce a new offence of domestic abuse

Support early intervention with those at high risk of first-time offending

Take major action to improve conviction rates for sexual offences, including consideration of legislation to allow research to be undertaken with jury members; the right of juries to be able to ask questions of expert witnesses or the provision of an expert adviser to assist juries with expert evidence, together with suggestions made in the Bonomy review.

Legislate to prohibit physical punishment of children. The evidence from dozens of studies is now indisputable on what our law describes, in Victorian fashion, as the "justifiable assault" of children.  It damages their wellbeing, increases aggression and antisocial behaviour which can continue into their adult lives, and risks escalating into physical abuse.

My colleague Alison McInnes, the Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, did a great deal in the last Scottish Parliament to help protect women and girls from violence and abuse. You can read a recent speech she gave on preventing violence against women at http://alisonmcinnes.co.uk/en/article/2015/1125822/speech-on-violence-against-women-16-days-of-activism.

My personal view is that some of it comes down to early education, both in schools and in the examples from parents and carers.  Some people, usually but not exclusively women, are simply more vulnerable to abuse.  Recently schools have done a great deal to tackle bullying in our schools but until we live in a society where signs of weakness does not trigger an oppressive response in some others, the challenge will still be ongoing.  Peer pressure has a lot to do with this.  When it is not done for a group member to cat-call or abuse a passing stranger in the street and the peers turn upon others for doing so, progress will have been made.  We do not yet live in such a society.

4. In the light of the current PPP scandal, how do the candidates see future funding for large infrastructure projects?

Following the schools crisis here in Edinburgh, Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for a full inquiry into how we got to this point. We would also make the companies that build and maintain our schools and hospitals subject to freedom of information laws so that the public can check they are being run properly.

Our fully costed manifesto sets out the infrastructure projects we plan on taking forward and how we will pay for them. For example:

We will establish a Fit For The Future Investment Fund, drawing on the earmarked resources from half of the Scotland Act borrowing powers (more than £200 million a year).

Action to reduce the persistent underspending of the Scottish Government's budget to ensure underspends are redeployed into other projects that are waiting for the green light.

The Scottish Government's capital budget is increasing.
Our Help to Renovate loans will come from the special financial transaction consequentials in the Scottish budget.

We will expand the Housing Fund for Scotland model that has seen investment in rented homes pioneered by a local government pension fund.

In view of Liberal Democrat commitment to local democracy and councils being responsible for raising and spending funds locally and transparently, I would be open to ideas on other alternatives, such as funding of city projects through the issue of bonds.

5. Although the independence referendum was the occasion for great political involvement, it has also led to a very polarised political environment in Scotland. (As anyone who follows social media will be aware!) How do the candidates intend to heal the political divisions of post-referendum Scotland if they are elected?

As far as I am concerned, these elections are about the best delivery of services and improving the standards of living for everybody living in Scotland.  It most certainly is not about a second referendum, which is what the SNP want to make it about.  Nor is it about cries of defending the Union, which is what the Conservative party would have us believe they are about.  Both of these parties are cynically exploiting and deepening the polarisation which the question, correctly, refers to.

We are living in exciting times here in Scotland and we have an opportunity to use the new powers coming to us to make a real difference to all our lives.  We can show the rest of UK that there is a different way to do things than the old Labour - Conservative Punch and Judy show but, to my mind, nationalism is not helping in this.  It is, in fact, a distraction from us as a society making use of the the powers we already have.

I say that instead of blaming others or calling upon any form of jingoism, let us focus on the task at hand, right now.  Goodness knows they are big enough.  Education, housing, the NHS and a myriad of others, just as vital.  How does either cries for either a second independence referendum or claims to be the protector of the Union help?  They simply don't.

If on Thursday I were to become your MSP, my pledge would be to focus on the issues, encourage others to do so, take responsibility for our own actions here in Scotland and work, constructively and transparently, with others in finding and delivering fair, democratic and liberal solutions for the people of Scotland.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Seven Questions. Greener Leith.

1. In your opinion, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency?

The two most pressing environmental issues facing the constituency is cleaner transport and warmer homes.

Of these, the transport one is the easier to tackle.  We can encourage cycle use by upgrading cycle lanes on streets, like Leith Walk and Lower Granton Road, wide enough to handle them.  26,000 people live with 800m of Leith Walk and in storage right now, there is enough materials to have the trams run to the Foot of the Walk.  Let's get on with it.

2. If elected, how will you use your role as MSP to encourage the Scottish Government and Edinburgh Council to improve how they work together on environmental issues facing this constituency?

Edinburgh Council is currently undergoing severe levels of cuts and while the Scottish Government  always demand more services, it's no good if there is no funding for the changes.  Liberal Democrats would free councils to raise and keep more money to spend in their local communities instead of having to be dictated to by central government.
If elected as your MSP, I will ensure that I keep good lines of communication open with Edinburgh Council. It is important that each level of government understand each other and, despite any party differences, common ground is found to work together for the good of all.

The main environmental issue affecting the city (and nation as a whole) will be to bring up the energy efficiency of our existing homes.  We will need transparent communications between central government and local authorities to achieve this.

3. How will you use your role to inspire and encourage greater pride and civic engagement in our public spaces?

It would be great if we have more of them!  We really need more green spaces and play spaces  incorporated in the new residential plans for the Port of Leith.

What parks that we have are well used and I would be sympathetic to turning over more space to allotments.  This is already been done in Victoria Park for instance.  For public health and fitness, I would also like to see more outdoor gyms, as already exist in Musselburgh and Silverknowles.  These can be put into quite small spaces that would otherwise be neglected.
I want to see Stedfastgate brought back up to some form of good use.  The fountain monument there has been vandalised, brick paving ripped up and seating damaged.  If areas like these had some form of dual usage then they are more likely to be appreciated.

4. When local issues are so important for many constituents, how will you ensure that the global issue of climate change, and our impact, is always kept front of mind?

I spent twenty years travelling the world in energy so know the reality of global energy generation first hand.  We live in exciting times however because even the industry itself realise that the time of oil is drawing to the end.  Our energy is moving over to electricity and that means more local generation.  It does not mean however that Scotland is isolated from the rest of the world.  We will be still importing gas for the next twenty or thirty years while our renewable industry grows.  Scotland will still be a part of the UK and European-wide power network and will, at different times, be an energy importer and exporter.
It is for these reasons that Scotland cannot be isolationist in outlook.  How the UK and Europe generates energy will continue to affect us and greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what we do here.  We have to continue to take an interest in the global energy picture.

5. Which environmental policy do you think the current Scottish Government has been successful at implementing over the last 5 years, and which policy could do with some improvement?

Liberal Democrats do welcome the start made by the Scottish Government on land registration, with private land being registered by 2025 and public land by 2020.

I wish I could be more generous but I can't think of another damn thing that has been successful.  Great and ambitious environmental targets are set but are never reached.  The Scottish Government has a statutory duty to eradicate fuel poverty by November 2016. It refuses to accept this is going to be missed despite the fact a third of households (845,000) are in fuel poverty. In some rural and remote areas (Orkney for instance) it is almost two-thirds.
I have been at hustings where the SNP claim that the nation is on target to meet our renewable heating targets by 2020.  The target for that year is 11% and currently we are at 3% renewable heating production.  How is that even near being "on target"?  If we are going to be anywhere near the 40% target set for 2030, we have to move on this immediately.

If the SNP are serious about reducing Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions, why is it that at a Spectator event here in Edinburgh on the 28th of April, George Kerevan MP, SNP representative on the Treasury Select Committee, appeared on stage with Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, and agreed to half tax on Air Passenger Duty by 2018?  Anybody with environmental awareness knows that that air travel is the worst method in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and that aviation fuel is otherwise untaxed at any level.

6. Where do you stand on amending the current law on ownership of Scottish land or property by overseas companies to say that the land must be owned through a UK registered company or other organisation? (E.g. Much of the ownership of brownfields land in the constituency is by offshore companies who are hard to trace.)

The law needs changing.  Where I live in Newhaven Harbour, I look over the brownfield site whose exact ownership is only known to the lawyers involved.

Liberal Democrats will work with other parties to ensure:

An effective and transparent land register for Scotland

We will work with other parties to establish fair taxation based upon land value in order to replace the council tax.

Liberal Democrats would like to see the right for local communities to purchase land extended to urban communities, and especially applied to neglected or abandoned plots.

7. What is your stance on equal rights of appeal under the planning system? Currently only planning applicants can submit appeals, not councils or other community organisations.

I see the need for reform, especially when councils fail to represent the views the local community.  The redevelopment of the Accies site in Stockmarket was railroaded through by the council in the teeth determined local opposition.  In these circumstances the local community should indeed have the right to appeal and that any process should be affordable.

Local communities cannot have the right to veto in all circumstances however.  Now it is debatable whether the trams were a good idea or not but imagine if each neighbour had the right to appeal the route.
A balance is required between local effects and greater needs.  Thus the effects of a retail development (such as Accies) is local and should be able to be appealed.  I would want to look at the effects upon developments that have wider applications and am open to ideas on the issue.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Protecting the NHS in Edinburgh

Thank you for your email on protecting the NHS and the specifically-targeted question of what I would prioritise if I were to become our community's MSP.

In order to answer your question, I will have to refer to both Edinburgh-wide and larger national issues but I will do my best to stick to the brief!

My main concern with health delivery in Edinburgh is the ongoing rollout of combined health and social care services.   I, along with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, understand the need for this process.  In general, the population is getting older and this means more long-term, chronic illness.  The practice of relying upon long hospital stays has become increasingly difficult.  In response to this challenge, there has been various pilot schemes set up across Scotland.  Known as Hospital-at-Home, the purpose is to keep the patient in their own home for as long as possible while under the same level of medical care they would receive while in hospital.  This means that the GPs, hospital doctors, nurses and pharmacists would come to them.

Hospital-at-Home has several advantages.  First of all, the patient is able to maintain a higher life quality and level of independence than if they were staying in hospital.  It amazed me when I learned how quickly people forget even basic things like washing up and making a cup of tea when they have been in hospital after a long stay.  While in the person's home, changes in social care needs can also be quickly identified by the visiting health professional and packages tailored appropriately.  What is most important is when the person does need to go into hospital, the visit can be planned and a bed made ready.   The most costly manner of hospital admission is through the A&E system, which are unplanned, meaning that there can be long and costly delays while a bed and staffing is found.

From reports that I have received, the integration of health and social care in Edinburgh is not going well.  There was supposed to be extra budget set up for Hospital-at-Home but the money was not provided.  Instead staff was transferred from ward duties and based in Liberton Hospital, resulting in the closure of a physiotherapy gym.  The hospital staff were not replaced.

Unlike other Hospital-at-Home schemes in Scotland (i.e. Fife), there is no provision for pharmaceutical services to be part of the home visit scheme here in Edinburgh.  Fife found that it is far more efficient to include pharmacists as patients' drug needs can be monitored and, if necessary, changed thus avoiding unnecessary crisis situations.  In Edinburgh it seems that frequently a patient has to return to hospital before an effective review can take place.  This can result in the postponement of planned surgery, delays in admission and bed-blocking down the line.

It seems that the care side of the package is not being effectively handled either.  Agency staff are not being used (deemed too expensive) and there are problems in both recruitment of new staff and retaining existing personnel.  Neither staff nor patients like the 15 minute visit but these still happen, resulting in poor service and sometimes leaving patients flustered and upset.  People can pay the difference to ensure better care but only if they can afford it, leaving the poorest with a take-it-or-leave-it service.

Add to all this the planned closure of Liberton Hospital, due for early 2017, resulting in the loss of vital rehabilitation services.   Astley Ainsley hospital had its orthopaedic recover services moved to Liberton in 2015, so with the closure of Liberton it looks like that Edinburgh would lose this as well.  Astley Ainsley itself is due to be remodelled as a care village but there is no clear timetable as to when this will take place.  In the meantime Gylemuir to the west of the city is being used as an interim rehabilitation venue but people have to pay the current national care home rate to use it.  The 60 beds announced by health minister as being new were in fact already in use.

One has to remember that this situation is taking place against the background of long-term and continued cuts made by the SNP Scottish government.  Once inflation and capital spending has been accounted for, Audit Scotland found that in real terms health spending in Scotland since 2008/09 has decreased by 0.7%.  While the SNP claim they are spending record amounts on the NHS, they are not matching the ring-fenced amounts made for NHS England by the Westminster government, although the budget we receive reflects this protected spending.

If Scottish Liberal Democrats are part of the next Scottish government, we will seek to address three areas of Scotland's NHS:

  • Increase spending on mental health services, especially for young and adolescence age group.  We will also see that there are 24/7 mental health facilities in all 30 of the nation's A&E units and in every one of Scotland's police divisions

  • Address the increasing need for GPs across Scotland.  From 2009 to 2013, the SNP government only managed to create 35 new GP positions across Scotland.  By 2020, the Royal College of GPs predict a shortfall of 740 positions.  Although the Scottish government announced the creation of 400 new training places, of the 315 of these that have been advertised, only 237 positions have actually been filled.

  • The integration of health and social care involves the creation of 31 new care boards overseeing £8 billion of NHS and social care resources. In March 2015, Audit Scotland’s report on progress towards the integration of health and social care found: “a lack of national leadership and clear planning is preventing the wider change urgently needed if Scotland’s health and social care services are to adapt to increasing pressures”.

It is to this latter point that the problems with Edinburgh's integration of health and social care lies.

So to answer your question:

The first thing I would certainly do as an MSP is to postpone the closure of Liberton Hospital, at least until the problems of Edinburgh's Hospital-at-Home and social care deliver have been suitably addressed. Following the Fife example, I want to see pharmacy services included as part of Hospital-at-Home.  Only after those services are running properly can we review the hospital bed situation across the city.

I would also seek to get the Astley Ainsley remodelling into a care village underway.  It cannot be allowed to continue in it's current state of limbo and, with our aging population, it will certainly be needed.

Later this week I am meeting with a local GP who is also a representative of the British Medical Association.  I will listen very carefully to what is said and how we can improve GP services across the city and what can be done to improve frontline mental health services city-wide.

In order to see an improvement in the state of our local health and care services, I hope I have convinced you that both the Scottish Liberal Democrats are aware of the challenges that we face and have the resolution to tackle them.  If so, please support us in the upcoming election by casting both votes for Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Friday, 22 April 2016

TTIP 2016

Thank you for getting in touch with your concerns about TTIP and CETA - the trade deals currently being negotiated by the European Union with the USA and Canada.

Personally, I first blogged about TTIP in 2014 (http://martinveart.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/ttip-and-isds-one-good-one-bad.html) and identified the potential difficultly of the negotiations, that is how to overcome ISDS - Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism.  It is this mechanism that has led to concerns, as voiced by organisations such as 38 Degrees and the potential future of public organisations such as the NHS.  The ISDS mechanism struck me then as a particular threat to national and EU sovereignty and I came out strongly against it.

I returned to the topic for Westminster elections in 2015 where I outlined the then Liberal Democrat position (rather uncritical of TTIP and ISDS) and where it differed from my own position. http://martinveart.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/campaign-letters-1-ttip.html   In this blog I restated my opposition to ISDS while stating the benefits of TTIP, especially for our small and medium-sized businesses across the UK and EU.  It is recognised that TTIP would be worth the many billions to all trading nations: the equivalent of an extra €500 for every adult and child in the EU on this side of the Atlantic alone; the equivalent an extra £1billion each year for Scotland.   This is not something to be dismissed lightly.

Since last year, I am very pleased to say that the Liberal Democrats position has changed and has come more into line with my own.  As I predicted, this debate has been led by Europe.

Last September France and Germany suggested an alternative to ISDS in the form of a semi-public investment court system (ICS).   Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, with other Liberal  members of the European Parliament, has voted strongly in favour making sure there are no special courts for corporations and in ensuring any dispute mechanism is accountable.  Like you, liberals want to see a system of dispute resolution that is accountable to the public, transparent and ensures the State's 'right to regulate' takes priority over an investor's 'right to invest'.

The European Union has recently issued a clear guarantee that Member States' rights to provide the public services they see fit will be enshrined in TTIP and CETA – this is to prevent any challenge by corporate interests.  This is a welcome clarification and will provide the safeguards that we are all looking for.

I have to say that since then there has been further developments of great interest.  On the 19th of April, the UN Human Rights Council's independent expert, Alfred de Zayas, questioned the whole necessity of having either an ISDS or ICS system, claiming that neither system was compatible with national sovereignty or human rights.

Speaking in front of the Council of Europe's legal affairs and human rights committee, de Zayas said  “Existing investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms should be phased out and no new investment treaty should contain any provision for privatised or semi-privatised dispute settlement.”

The reason de Zayas gives is that while ISDS mechanisms are necessary in bi-lateral trade agreements in order to ensure that trading partners with less-than-adequate national legal systems do not arbitrarily change laws to target individual companies, both the US and the EU are governed by the rule of law.  It is therefore unnecessary for any form of ISDS system to be part of TTIP.

I have reflected upon de Zayas' position and found that it is consistent with my own view that any form of ISDS or ICS is unnecessary to make TTIP work as a trading agreement.

It is too early to gauge the effect of de Zayas' intervention into the ongoing process.  Recent rounds of the TTIP trade negotiations are stumbling over European companies ability to win US procurement contracts.  In terms of public tendering and procurement from the private sector, America has a "buy US" policy for federal contracts, while demanding equality for US companies operating in the EU.

It is important to recognise that both TTIP and CETA could bring significant benefits to businesses and families across Scotland by allowing a greater trade of goods and services within a wider marketplace with reduced barriers.  Indeed, these deals are estimated to be worth tens of billions of pounds to our economy and could support hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country.  That’s potentially great news for the many people in our community who are looking for work and for our local businesses that want to grow and expand and is a prize that is worth fighting for, but only if we can also protect our public services and ensure accountability.

At the moment we should be clear that these are just negotiations and a final agreement has not yet been reached let alone published.  If an agreement is reached it will still have to be approved by the United States Government, the European Commission, the European Parliament and each of the twenty eight European Union Member States’ Parliaments.

I am clear that, when we get the chance to look at and consider the final agreement, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will not support anything that threatens our public services, gives power away to corporations or would jeopardise the free and public nature of the NHS and other public services we all rely on.  As one in the party that has been more critical than most, if elected I will ensure that this remains the case.

Having outlined my position, please would you support me with your vote in the upcoming election?   In doing so you can be sure that you would be electing a person who has an informed, strong and independently-minded view on the entire TTIP process.