Letter from Holyrood: The distraction of the referendum

If you have read a newspaper recently, or turned on the TV or radio, you’ll know that it is less than 100 days until the independence referendum.

And while the summer is often known as ‘silly season’ – because the media tends fill its columns and airwaves with less serious news – I suspect there will be less silliness this summer thanks to the important question of the referendum.

But only a little less.

The referendum has thrown up all kinds of bizarre claims and counter-claims on both sides. No doubt it will continue to do so.

However, the serious matter of the decision itself remains, and many impartial voices have begun to speak up and express their concern that we would face cuts in public services, higher taxes and higher mortgage payments as a result of independence. The latest of those independent reports suggested independence will leave us an eye watering £4.7 billion worse off than we would be in the UK. That is equal to the whole budget for schools!

I have made no secret of the fact that I believe the referendum has been a distraction from important issues which need addressed. But, as the majority party, the SNP won the right to pursue it.

Even now, though, most people I speak to are more concerned about jobs and opportunities, the education provided for their children and grandchildren, protection of the most vulnerable, and a fairer, more equal society.

We should bear in mind that no referendum result guarantees any of this, though I believe a yes vote would make it harder. Pooling and sharing resources across 60 million instead of 5 million is a great protection for things like pensions.

Progress on equality and fairness is hard won, and will have to be argued for whatever the result in September. It will not be achieved with one cross on one ballot paper on one day.
So, I look forward to getting back to politics about how we live, not where we live, on 19 September.

New worries about court closures as figures show cases are taking longer

New evidence has emerged to show that the SNP Scottish Government’s court closures are already having a detrimental effect on local justice, with criminal cases taking longer to resolve following the initial closures.

Figures revealed in a recent parliamentary answer at Holyrood show that in Sheriff Courts the number of cases resolved in 26 weeks has fallen from 72 per cent in September last year to 68 per cent for the most recent figures in April 2014.

Around 74 per cent of cases in Justice of the Peace Courts were concluded within 26 weeks in September 2013, but fell to just 64 per cent by April this year.

Meanwhile, other statistics reveal that the average time taken for cases to be resolved is also rising. In September last year it took an average of 148 days for a summary criminal case to go through a JP court, but by April it was 177 days.

For Sheriff Court cases, the average time taken to conclude in September 2013 was 139, compared to 147 days in April.

The increases have come following the first phase of the SNP’s court closures, which took place at the turn of the year. Haddington’s Sheriff and JP courts are scheduled to close in January next year.

County MSP Iain Gray, who led the fight against the SNP’s plans to close Haddington’s courts, believes that this latest evidence reinforces the case that he and others have made against the closures.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“These figures provide tangible proof that the SNP’s court closures are already having a negative impact on the delivery of local justice in Scotland. With capacity reducing as local courts close, our justice system is slowing down and victims and witnesses are waiting longer to have their cases heard.

“Those of us who have opposed the closures, including the vast majority of experts involved in the operation of the justice system, said that this is what would happen. If the initial closures are having this kind of impact, I fear that local people will also see significant delays in their cases when East Lothian’s business moves to Edinburgh.

“It’s still not too late for Kenny MacAskill and the SNP to admit they are wrong on this issue and reverse the remaining closures, including Haddington.”

60 reasons to celebrate with ENABLE

Local MSP Iain Gray recently joined more than 100 ENABLE Scotland members and friends at the Scottish Parliament for an event to mark the charity’s proud 60th anniversary.

To coincide with Learning Disability Awareness Week, the event included a debate hosted by Jackie Baillie MSP, convenor of the cross-party group on learning disability in the Scottish Parliament.

More than 20 MSPs, who each received commemorative ENABLE Scotland tartan scarves and ties, attended the event for news and debate about the most pressing issues facing people with a learning disability and the services on which they rely.

ENABLE Scotland is a member-led organisation and the country’s leading charity for children and adults who have learning disabilities, which affects around 1 in 50 people.

Commenting after the event, Iain Gray MSP said:

“I was delighted to be able to attend the ENABLE Scotland 60th anniversary celebration in the Scottish Parliament, and it was a real pleasure to see so many members and volunteers from the organisation come together from communities across Scotland, including my own.

“I was also happy to sign the motion in Parliament recognising the rights of people who have learning disabilities, and to wear my ENABLE Scotland tartan to raise awareness throughout Learning Disability Week.

“I wish ENABLE Scotland and all of its members and supporters another successful 60 years.”

Pledging support for Armed Forces Day

The county’s parliamentarians, Iain Gray MSP and Fiona O’Donnell MP, have pledged their support for Armed Forces Day during a visit to Prestonpans Royal British Legion today.

They met members of the Legion to talk about their support for the annual event, which is taking place tomorrow (Saturday 28 June). Armed Forces Day was initiated as a way for the public and elected representatives to pay tribute to the men and women who serve in the UK’s Armed Forces and recognise the huge contribution they make.

In addition to providing the opportunity to publicly celebrate our armed forces, the day also aims to help raise awareness and understanding of the role of the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, Reservists, veterans, cadets and the wider Armed Forces family across the UK.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Armed Forces Day is very important for many local people and groups, not least the county’s Royal British Legion branches. It enables communities to recognise the service local people make to the UK’s armed forces. Service personnel put themselves at risk day in and day out to protect the UK and provide assistance to others around the world. Armed Forces Day is a fitting national tribute to them for all that they do for us.”

Fiona O’Donnell MP said:

“I was pleased to join members of Prestonpans Royal British Legion to show my support for this year’s Armed Forces Day. East Lothian has a long and proud connection with the UK’s armed forces, with many local men and women having served over the years. I know that there is strong support locally for Armed Forces Day and the important opportunity it provides to honour local veterans, serving personnel and their families.”

Find out more about Armed Forces Day and show your support for it at www.armedforcesday.org.uk/

Page 4 At Prestonpans Royal British Legion to mark Armed Forces Day

Iain welcomes Gullane pupils to Holyrood

County MSP Iain Gray welcomed a group of P6 pupils from Gullane Primary School to Holyrood this week as part of the Parliament’s ongoing school visits programme.

Mr Gray met the pupils at the Parliament and answered their questions about how it operates and his own role as East Lothian’s constituency MSP.

The visit was part of the Parliament Education Service’s School Visits programme to introduce children to Holyrood and how it works. Several East Lothian schools have already visited the Parliament through this programme.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“As always, it was a real pleasure to welcome the Gullane pupils to Holyrood. They displayed a high level of knowledge about the political process and interest in what happens in Parliament and how we conduct our business there. They also asked some searching questions, but I’m used to that by now!

“It’s really positive that so many local schools have taken advantage of what the Parliament Education Service offers. Hundreds of local children have now benefited from the opportunity to see for themselves what happens in the Scottish Parliament and I look forward to meeting with many more on future visits.”

Visit www.scottish.parliament.uk/visitandlearn/Education/613.aspx for more information about the Parliament’s education service.

Gullane P6

MSP hails Neate idea for the blind

East Lothian MSP Iain Gray has welcomed the innovation of an entrepreneur seeking to make pedestrian crossing systems easier for the disabled and the blind.

Gavin Neate, who worked for Guide Dogs for the Blind for 18 years, has invented a phone app called Neatebox, that links phones to boxes inside crossing systems, letting the user control it easily from their phone. The phone then tells them when it is safe to cross via a message on the screen, audio or vibration.

Currently, pedestrian crossings require disabled or blind users to hold a cone at the back of the crossing post, which alerts them when it is safe to cross. This can make organising a guide dog or walking stick tricky, costing the pedestrian vital seconds needed to cross safely. In other cases the cone cannot be reached in the first place.

After meeting with Mr Neate to see how the phone app works with the crossing, Iain Gray said:

“This is a fantastic idea, and I hope that local authorities will get behind rolling it out to more of their pedestrian crossings when it is completed.

“Navigating a pedestrian crossing can be so difficult for people with mobility problems or visual impairment, in ways that many of us will never properly understand.

“I hope then that Gavin’s idea continues to develop and gain technical and business support, which will no doubt greatly benefit our most vulnerable pedestrians.”

Centenary poppies mark start of First World War

Iain Gray MSP and Fiona O’Donnell MP have joined members of the Friends of Cuthill Park to mark the forthcoming anniversary of the start of the First World War by sowing poppies at the park in Prestonpans.

The Centenary Poppy Campaign is a simple but highly appropriate way to mark the start of the First World War locally, raising awareness and funds for today’s Service community at the same time. The aim of the campaign is to cover the UK with poppies during the Centenary period in commemoration of all those who lost their lives in the First World War.

Packets of Centenary poppy seed are available from B&Q with £1 from each sale going to the Royal British Legion and Poppy Scotland. The intention is to sow poppies now so that they should appear in time for the official start of the Centenary in August.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Following on from the recent 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Centenary of the start of the First World War is another opportunity to remember those who paid such a high price in the service of their country.

“It’s very important that we ensure that the sacrifice made by people in East Lothian is commemorated in an appropriate way. The Centenary Poppy Campaign is an easy but very evocative way for individuals and communities to mark the Centenary in their local area. It would be wonderful to see poppies blooming across the county in August to help mark the Centenary in a really memorable way here.”

Fiona O’Donnell MP said:

“The Centenary Poppy Campaign is a simple but highly effective way to mark the Centenary and I want to thank the Friends of Cuthill Park for working with us to sow some there. The red poppies have such a close association with remembrance and I hope will bloom for many years to come.

“Any individual or community can sow some Centenary poppies as an appropriate and visual way of acknowledging the sacrifice made by servicemen from East Lothian and across the UK. The poppies are available from B & Q stores and I hope that local people will support Poppy Scotland and the Royal British Legion.”

Zoe Inglis, Chair of Friends of Cuthill Park, said:

“The Centenary Poppy Campaign is a great cause which Friends of Cuthill Park are very pleased to help support. We are working hard to rejuvenate the park for the benefit of the whole community and sowing poppies to mark the Centenary is a really positive thing to do here. I hope that local residents will get behind the campaign and help mark the Centenary with us.”

Find out more about the Centenary Poppy Campaign at www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/ww1-centenary/centenary-poppy-campaign

Cuthill Park 2

Parliamentarians mark Carers Week at local event

As part of this year’s Carers Week (9-15 June), Iain Gray MSP and Fiona O’Donnell MP joined other local politicians to hear first-hand from people looking after friends and family about the kinds of challenges they face.

A group of 20 local carers met with the politicians at a summit meeting in Musselburgh at the start of the week. The meeting was organised by Carers of East Lothian, the local carer support service.

Speaking after the event, Iain Gray MSP said:

“It is many years now since I launched the very first Scottish Carers’ Strategy as a Health Minister. Yet many issues such as respite availability and the difficulties of negotiating with the NHS, Social Work and DWP still make too many carer’s lives difficult or even impossible. Carers Week is an important opportunity to put the focus on carers again and listen to their concerns.

“I was pleased to attend the excellent Carers of East Lothian briefing event and hear about the experiences of some local carers. It’s important that politicians act on the issues that matter to carers and do all we can to assist them with their vital role. The Scottish Parliament has done a lot of positive things for carers, but there is always more that can be done, such as improving support for kinship carers.”

Fiona O’Donnell MP said:

“Carers Week is all about giving carers an opportunity to be heard and this event certainly did that. It was good to hear about the experience of young carers who can all too easily be forgotten in planning and developing services.

“We heard a clear message that we need to improve communication with carers and to enable them to play a bigger part when the person they care for is being assessed for a service. They can make a unique contribution and that needs to be valued more.

“Again, on a positive note, it was clear from research carried out locally that the support of COEL makes a significant difference to the lives of carers in East Lothian. I want to thank them, not just for a really informative session but also for the work they do all year round.”

Iain meets with award-winning county business at Holyrood reception

County MSP Iain Gray met the owners of local business James Sandie and Son at a recent Holyrood reception to mark the 50th anniversary of CITB, the Industry Training Board for the UK construction industry.

Mr Gray chatted with Murray and Colin Stewart, who run the East Linton-based painting and decorating business, at the reception which gave MSPs the chance to learn more about the CITB’s work. The company was named Best

Painting and Decorating Business of the Year at the Scottish Decorators Federation in 2013. Murray Stewart is also a former President of the Federation.

CITB are the Industry Training Board and a partner in the Sector Skills Council for the construction industry in England, Scotland and Wales. They work with industry to encourage training, which helps build a safe, professional and fully qualified workforce.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“It was good to welcome Murray and Colin to the Scottish Parliament and learn more about their business. They underlined the importance of apprenticeships in the construction industry and CITB have been working to ensure that construction employers have the right skills, in the right place and at the right time for 50 years now.

“The support and funding it provides also helps companies to increase their competitiveness and respond to challenges such as the low carbon agenda, reducing costs on site and recruiting the best talent for their sector. I welcome the important role CITB plays in the sector and was pleased to help it celebrate its success at Holyrood.”

Letter from Holyrood: The value of apprenticeships

Last week was Scottish Apprenticeship Week, marked by a series of events organised by the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland to celebrate and promote apprenticeships.

I am a big fan of apprenticeships and training. So is my party.

In government and in opposition we have pushed for more high-skilled apprentices. Their value to Scotland’s workforce is so significant, from engineers and technicians, through to skilled workers in the tourism and service sector.

East Lothian is well placed to take advantage of the apprenticeship scheme too, and, earlier this year, the council created a further 12 places, along with 30 six-month, paid training places. In 2012/13, there were 387 apprentices from the county in all. Locally Enjoy Leisure have also begun an apprenticeship programme.

But while we are celebrating the value of modern apprenticeships, it is a good time to ask how we maintain and improve that.

Audit Scotland looked at this in March and produced a detailed report.

Firstly, it explained that once apprentices have completed or left their training, we don’t know what they do next. If we want the best from the scheme, we have to have hard data on whether training helped apprentices get a job and keep it.

Secondly, the report recommended that funding for higher-level apprenticeships should be monitored, to make sure money is there to deliver them.

At the moment, the government is producing more apprentices than Labour did in power, but 1000 fewer high-level opportunities, and spending £860 less per apprentice than in 2006/07.
But while Audit Scotland’s points challenge the government to do better, the value of the scheme is not in doubt.

For anyone interested in becoming an apprentice, they should visit www.myworldofwork.co.uk, or call Skills Development Scotland on 0800 917 8000. Employers looking to take on an apprentice should visit www.ourskillsforce.co.uk, or call 0800 783 6000.