Courier column: Tax credits must be retained so that it pays to work

All the evidence shows that nowadays being in work is no guarantee of not being poor.  Low pay, zero hours contracts and part time jobs mean that for many families, they work hard but still struggle to get by.

Child and Working tax credits are a progressive Labour policy introduced by Gordon Brown over a decade ago to help tackle in-work poverty.

Now the Conservative UK government have announced swingeing cuts to tax credits that will leave working families on average £1300 a year worse off. This is a policy which is not devolved, but applies across the UK, so many families in this County will suffer.  Official statistics show that nearly 4,500 families in my East Lothian constituency are in receipt of tax credits.

The Tories claim that their so-called ‘National Living Wage’ will compensate those losing out, but we know, and the experts tell us, that most people will be worse off. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt let slip the Tories’ real agenda when he said the cuts would ‘make people work harder like the Chinese’. This policy is so damaging that it has been reported that several Tory MPs have urged the Government to step back, fearing it could be a ‘poll tax’ moment for David Cameron.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson says she backs Mr Cameron on the cuts, while under her leadership the Tories voted against extending the real living wage to where it needs to be, low paid professions like caring, catering and cleaning.

Scottish Labour will oppose the Tory cuts. Their plans are nothing short of a work penalty for thousands of families in East Lothian that will turn back the clock on in-work poverty. We will continue to make the case for retaining tax credits and introducing a real living wage to make sure work always pays.

Courier column: Funding cuts on the college sector impacting on county

Part of my brief as Scottish Labour’s Spokesperson for Opportunity at Holyrood is the Further Education college sector. This crucial part of our education system has been particularly hard hit by Scottish Government funding cuts. Funding for the sector has fallen from £555.7 million in 2011/12 to £526.3 million in 2014/15, and there are now 140,000 fewer college places.

At a recent meeting with senior managers at Edinburgh College, I raised the possibility of establishing a campus in East Lothian, an ambition the college had highlighted as recently as last year. Unfortunately, the funding cuts it has suffered mean that a local campus is no longer realistic. Indeed, the cuts have also resulted in the college stopping its bus services for students in East Lothian, a very unwelcome development. However, the college is exploring the potential for providing more courses here in partnership with local agencies. I hope this will create more opportunities for students here to learn closer to home.

At last week’s First Minster’s Questions, I highlighted the findings of a recent UNISON survey of college staff which revealed that 90% think our colleges are underfunded. The vast majority also believe that has reduced the quality of the service they provide, see no prospect of improvement, and hold the SNP Scottish Government responsible. In a rather lacklustre reply, Nicola Sturgeon said the Cabinet Secretary for Education will discuss it with UNISON the next time they meet.

Last week, I hosted a parliamentary reception for the college sector. Part of the event involved colleges offering demonstrations of the type of innovative courses they offer. I tried the virtual welding, without any great success. The point was to demonstrate just what a key role colleges play in providing real opportunities for our young people to gain new skills and qualifications.

Despite the difficult funding situation they face, colleges are, I think, fighting back, and making a strong case for the importance of their work.  That was certainly very much in evidence at last week’s event.

Iain backs Scotland’s Climate March

Iain Gray MSP has met with climate change campaigners at Holyrood and agreed to help encourage people here to support local action ahead of UN negotiations this December.

Scotland’s Climate March will take place in Edinburgh on Saturday 28th November as part of a weekend of global action before the climate change negotiations in Paris. The march is being organised by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“I was pleased to meet with Stop Climate Chaos Scotland at Holyrood and agree to help promote local action ahead of the UN climate change negotiations later this year. Campaigners want Scots to join people around the globe in demanding that world leaders agree an ambitious deal on climate change at the Paris negotiations.

“I support the call for strong action on climate change so that we can stand up for the millions of people around the world who are already affected by rising global temperatures. Scotland’s Climate March is a chance for local people to show their support for a low carbon society and a better future for all.”

The organisers are encouraging attendees to wear their brightest colours as Scotland marches in support of strong action on climate action. The march will start at 12 noon at The Meadows (near Middle-Meadow Walk).

Find out more about Scotland’s Climate March and how you can get involved at www.stopclimatechaos.org

Grace’s Sign campaign set for Holyrood debate

A motion tabled at the Scottish parliament by county MSP Iain Gray has highlighted the disability awareness campaign recently launched by 10-year-old Grace Warnock from Prestonpans.

The motion, which highlights World Toilet Day on 19 November and this year’s theme of Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation, also mentions the Grace’s Sign campaign and the success it has enjoyed so far.

Mr Gray hopes to secure cross-party support for the motion from parliamentary colleagues, which would then enable it to go forward for debate in the Parliament around the time of World Toilet Day.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“When I met with Grace and her family last month I agreed to explore ways of helping to promote her campaign and raise awareness in Parliament and more widely. World Toilet Day is an appropriate opportunity to highlight the issue and encourage colleagues to support Grace’s campaign.

“While we are fortunate here to not face the kind of desperate problems with sanitation and toilets that people experience in other parts of the world, Grace’s campaign reminds us that there are other issues that still need to be addressed.

“I hope that enough of my parliamentary colleagues will now give their support to this motion and allow me the opportunity to seek a Members’ Debate on the topic next month.

“That would enable me to put Grace’s campaign on the agenda at Holyrood as well as highlight the work that still needs to be done globally to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all.”

Iain visits Stenton primary school

Earlier this week, local MSP Iain Gray visited Stenton Primary School to meet pupils and staff there.

Mr Gray answered the children’s questions about his work as the County’s MSP. He also asked the P5-7 class about what they had learned when they visited the Scottish Parliament earlier in the year.

Speaking after his visit, Iain Gray MSP said:

“When you visit primary schools as often as I do, you soon realise that every one is different. That is especially true here in East Lothian where a primary school can vary from one with hundreds of pupils to others with only a few.

 “Two visits this week certainly illustrated that, when I went from a Q & A at Law primary in North Berwick, one of the biggest, to Stenton Primary School, where there are less than 30 pupils.

 “I was especially pleased to get to Stenton, because their P5-7 class visited the Parliament recently, and I was in East Lothian that day, so missed them.

 “They had used the time to think up plenty of questions for me, though, and I also got my own back by testing them on what they had learned on their visit to Holyrood.

“They passed the test with flying colours, but you would have to ask them how I did!

“We can be very proud of all of our local schools, big and small, and of the next generation of the County in our villages and our towns.”

Visit to Ross High School with Kezia Dugdale

Scottish Labour Leader Kezia Dugdale MSP joined local MSP Iain Gray on a visit to Ross High School today where they met with a group of Modern Studies pupils and joined second year pupils for a cookery lesson.

Ms Dugdale used the visit to urge every young person to use their voice in next year’s Holyrood election. The Labour leader is urging more young people to register to vote, saying it is the voices of the next generation which will help build a fairer Scotland.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said:

“I want every single young person to have the best possible start in life, and we can make that happen with more young people registered to vote, using their vote and organising for causes that are important to them.

“The hard truth is that young people’s issues will only be at the top of the political agenda as pensioners’ issues have always been if politicians are forced to take notice of young voters.

“Politics for too long has been seen as the preserve of the middle aged and the middle class. I want that to change. I want every young person to use their voice to build a fairer Scotland next year.

“Scotland is leading the way with 16 and 17 year olds able to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections next year but political parties need to catch up and engage with these new voters.  

“The decisions made as a result of those elections will impact every young person in this country, from the quality of education and skills they can access, the opportunities they have to find jobs, to the NHS, public transport and housing. Next year’s election will be a defining one for Scotland’s young people.”

Iain Gray MSP said:

“It was a real pleasure to welcome Kezia back to East Lothian again. Her message that young people should use their voice in next year’s election was well received by the Ross High pupils we spoke to today.

“I know local schools have a fantastic record of engaging pupils on democracy and politics, both in Scotland and the UK, as well as on important international issues.

“Indeed, my experience of going into schools here and meeting local pupils when they visit the Scottish Parliament is that young people are already very engaged, thoughtful and ready to speak up on the issues that they are concerned about.

“Ensuring they are registered to vote in next year’s election is the next step for young people to have their say. Only by being on the electoral register and then using their vote can they help shape the future and influence the decisions made by parliament.

“I was also keen that Kezia see the great work Ross High has been doing.  I have been very impressed with the school’s efforts, and the pupils at a number of recent events locally and in the Parliament.  We should blow our own trumpet about the good work going on in County schools.

“I will continue my efforts to engage with young people across East Lothian and encourage them to participate in our democracy.”

 

Interviewed by Law primary’s Media Crew

Iain Gray MSP has visited Law Primary School in North Berwick to speak to a group of P7 pupils about his work as the county’s MSP.

During his visit Mr Gray was interviewed by the school’s Media Crew, a group of pupils who update the school’s blog and interview people for local radio station East Coast FM.

Speaking after his visit to the school, Iain Gray MSP said:

“Visiting local schools to talk to pupils about my work is a really important part of my role as the local MSP. Local pupils invariably show great interest in how our democracy works in Scotland.  They always have plenty of interesting questions about my work and what goes on at Holyrood.

“This visit to Law Primary was a little different in that I was also interviewed by the school’s media crew. They are doing a great job helping to promote the school’s many successes and contributing to the work of local radio station East Coast FM.”

Iain supports annual charity fair

Iain Gray MSP has again supported the Save the Children Annual Country Fair at the Corn Exchange in Haddington.

Mr Gray attended the popular market, which has now been running for over 40 years, to show his support for the volunteers who help make it such a success every year.

Speaking afterwards, Iain Gray MSP said:

“I always try and stop by to show my support for this well-established and popular annual event. This year there was the usual excellent range of stalls, with everything from fruit and vegetables to home baking, and from bric-a-brac to clothes and toys, on sale.

“Congratulations to all the volunteers and people who supported this wonderful local event again this year and helped to raise so much in support of Save the Children’s important work.”

Hosting national college event at Holyrood

Iain Gray MSP has hosted a parliamentary reception for colleges across Scotland to inform MSPs about some of the sector’s latest initiatives and innovations.

The highly successful Colleges Scotland event, which attracted a large number of MSPs, involved contributions from a range of speakers, including Mr Gray, as well as series of demonstrations put on by colleges from all over Scotland, including “virtual welding” which Mr Gray tried out.

The hospitality at the event was provided by Edinburgh College through its “Hospitality Academy” initiative, which involves East Lothian High Schools and Queen Margaret University and has become a model which other sectors are now following.

Speaking after the reception, Iain Gray MSP said:

“Every week sees the Scottish Parliament host numerous receptions and briefings.  Last week was no exception, but I do think that the most successful event last week was the Colleges Scotland reception.  I may be biased, as I was hosting the evening, but it was absolutely packed out with a tremendous buzz.

“That might partly have been down to the amazing demonstrations put on by colleges, including “virtual welding” which I tried out, with little success. It was great too to see Edinburgh College showcasing its Hospitality Academy with some its students providing the food and drink for the event.

“However the unusually high attendance from MSPs in particular, is I think, a reflection of the fact that we are increasingly understanding just what a key role colleges play in providing real opportunities for our young people to gain the skills they need.

“The College sector has had a tough time recently, facing swingeing cuts to budgets and being forced into mergers which have seen thousands of staff leave the sector.  There are also 140,000 fewer students in colleges now than there were a few years ago.

“Nonetheless Colleges are, I think, fighting back, making a strong case for the importance of what they do, and last week’s event was very much in that vein.”

Iain welcomes more Ross High pupils to Holyrood

Iain Gray MSP welcomed another group of pupils from Ross High School to the Scottish Parliament this week.

The S4 National 5 class spent the first part of their visit watching the Parliament’s Education Committee as it questioned the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop MSP over the ongoing T in the Park funding story.

The pupils then enjoyed the usual tour of the Parliament building before joining Mr Gray for a question and answer session, where they could ask him about his work representing East Lothian at Holyrood.

Speaking after the latest visit, Iain Gray MSP said:

“It sometimes seems like I’m welcoming pupils from local schools to Parliament most weeks, which I’m always very pleased to do. This latest group from Ross High showed the usual thoughtfulness about our political system I’ve come to expect from local youngsters and asked an interesting range of questions.

“I hope they enjoyed having the opportunity to watch some of the Parliament’s work up close and to find out more about what goes on here.”