Sheriff courts already under pressure as ministers ploughed ahead with closures

A report published today by Audit Scotland has confirmed pressures are mounting on Scotland’s sheriff court system.

Findings of the report, Efficiency of prosecuting criminal cases through the sheriff court system, include:

– Budget cuts of 14% for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and 28% for the Scottish Court Service, compared to 7% cuts for central government

– An increase in the number of sheriff court cases waiting longer than 26 weeks for completion

– More than £10 million wasted repeating stages in the justice process unnecessarily.

The figures contained in the report cover the period 2010/11 to 2014/15, and while it does not explicitly consider the impact of the recent court closures, including Haddington, there are clear lessons to be drawn from its findings.

For example, the report highlights the differences in the time cases take in different areas, stating the average time taken for a summary case to reach a verdict in 2014/15 was 155 days or 22 weeks.

Haddington Sheriff Court was well below that average in the same period, while Edinburgh Sheriff Court was one of 11 across Scotland above the average.  These figures suggest that those in East Lothian involved with summary cases will now face a longer wait than when cases were dealt with in Haddington

Iain Gray MSP said

“This report provides further evidence of just how ill-advised was the SNP Scottish Government’s decision to close Haddington and other sheriff courts across Scotland.

“It shows that even before the closure of seven of Scotland’s courts, sheriff courts were already facing huge pressures, resulting in longer waits for cases to be completed and delays for court users.

“It also demonstrates once again that far from being evidence-based policy, the decision to close our court in Haddington was made in spite of all the evidence showing it was a terrible idea.

“In East Lothian SNP Ministers axed a local justice system which served our County well for hundreds of years and replaced it with a remote, centralised and less efficient one in Edinburgh. This has resulted in longer journeys and more delays for my constituents, as well as having a detrimental impact on local businesses in the town

“The findings of this report suggest that the situation will, in all likelihood, get worse. The new more centralised court system faces further budget cuts and constraints on capacity which will almost certainly mean more delays in accessing justice.

“Unfortunately, Haddington and local people accessing the justice system will feel the impact of this wrong-headed decision for many years to come.”

Iain heralds Haddington’s Blooming victory

East Lothian MSP Iain Gray has praised the victory of local volunteers and organisations following Blooming Haddington’s gold medal at the Beautiful Scotland awards.

The county’s MSP has submitted a motion to the Scottish Parliament highlighting their medal success as well as a class award as the top medium-sized town in Scotland, noting that the group have gone from strength-to-strength, winning a silver and best newcomer award in 2014.

Formed in 2013, Blooming Haddington is made up of many groups throughout the local community, including Haddington Business Association, St Mary’s Kirk, Haddington Rotary Club, Haddington Community Council, East Lothian Horticultural Society, Haddington Gardening Club, and Haddington History Society, as well as individuals from the community.

Local MSP Iain Gray said:

“This is a fantastic achievement for locals and local groups in Haddington and throughout East Lothian – they have given their neighbours a real gift with their efforts in promoting the beautiful market town and should be very proud.

“I’m delighted that their hard work has been recognised too by Keep Scotland Beautiful, and East Lothian’s reputation as Scotland’s most beautiful county continues to grow.”

SCIAF celebrates 50th anniversary with local MSP

International aid charity SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund), which provides support to those living in poverty in some of the poorest areas of the planet, spent last week in the Scottish Parliament raising awareness with MSPs of its work, ahead of next year’s elections.

The organisation, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is calling on the next Scottish Government to share its priorities to protect the planet by meeting its climate targets, and deliver sustainable development goals through maintaining Scotland’s International Development Fund. They also want to ensure businesses who receive government support meet the highest ethical and human rights standards.

Founded by Mgr John Rooney and John McKee in Rutherglen in 1965 with just £8,000 in the first year, SCIAF now works in 16 countries including across Asia, Latin America and Africa, helping some of the world’s poorest people.

In 2014 it raised over £7 million and has directly helped over two million families in the last half century.

Scotland’s close relationship with Malawi was also on the agenda in the Parliament, SCIAF discussed with East Lothian MSP Iain Gray its upcoming meetings with a local farmer travelling to Scotland to discuss their collaborative work.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Having seen some of the countries SCIAF operate in first-hand when I worked for Oxfam, I know the powerful work they do under often dangerous circumstances in areas blighted by disease and war.

“Acting for over 50 years in some of the world’s poorest places and for its very poorest people, they should be commended for their commitment and selflessness.

“I was delighted to meet them in parliament to discuss their upcoming work, in Malawi and other countries in need of our support, and wish them well for the next half century.”

New bus stops installed to serve Hibernian Training Centre

Iain Gray MSP has welcomed the installation of two new bus stops at East Mains just outside Ormiston to serve the Hibernian Training Centre (HTC).

The new stops will make it easier for people to use public transport to get to the training centre, which is used by Hibernian players as well as for a variety of community purposes. It follows discussions between the Hibernian Community Foundation and local groups about expanding community use of the excellent facility.

Mr Gray and East Lothian Depute Provost and Ormiston resident Cllr Jim Gillies were joined by Hibernian players and staff Danny Handling, Gavin Gillies, Jamie Insall, Aaron Dunsmore, Henri Anier and Dominique Malonga at one of the bus stops earlier this week.

Iain Gray MSP, who is also Chair of the Hibernian Community Foundation, said:

“Ever since I became Chair of the Hibernian Community Foundation, we have been working to increase community use of the Hibernian Training Centre at Ormiston, which is a first rate football facility.

“I was at the opening of the Centre when Sir Tom Farmer spoke of how this could be an asset for the nearby communities.  It has taken a while, but over 50 per cent of the activity at HTC is now community based.

“It is now well-used by the Foundation for a variety of activities, from children’s football to disability football, Hibernian Girls and Ladies, and walking football for the slightly less young. 

We want to see its use by local communities extended, with more than 90 potential partners involved in discussions on possible initiatives in areas such as well-being and health, the environment and social care. 

“Of course getting to the Centre is vital to make it accessible to more people, and the improved 113 service has helped.  However we needed a bus stop for Centre users. 

“I thank East Lothian Council for listening to the Foundation and its roads department for installing these new bus stops.”

Iain welcomes historic victory for deaf community

Iain Gray MSP has welcomed a historic moment for the Deaf and Deafblind community in East Lothian and across Scotland, after the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill yesterday.

The Bill, sponsored by Scottish Labour MSP Mark Griffin, places an obligation on central and local government to promote British Sign Language. A leading academic has said the Bill will transform the lives of sign language users in Scotland.

Supporting the Bill, Iain Gray MSP said:

“This is a historic victory for the Deaf community in Scotland.  I am absolutely delighted that the Bill has passed and I was proud to support it.

“BSL is the first language of many Deaf and Deafblind people in Scotland. It is the only language some have ever known, or ever will know, yet getting access to basic information in BSL is incredibly difficult. 

“Simple things that so many hearing people take for granted, such as arranging doctor appointments, or reporting a crime to the police, are incredibly difficult for those who communicate in BSL.

“This has to change, and I am confident that having passed this Bill, we can begin to break down the barriers that face Deaf and Deafblind people on a daily basis.”

Professor Graham Turner, Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland, added:

“Mark Griffin’s Bill will permanently transform the lives of every BSL user in Scotland. This is the most progressive legislative step to promote signed language that the UK has ever seen. What’s more, it perfectly reflects the collaborative, participatory nature of Scottish public life.

“BSL users have always been ready to make a distinctive contribution to society, and by promoting their language, Scotland will enable this to happen.”

Heather Gray, Director of the National Deaf Children’s Society said:

“The British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill marks a historic moment for the deaf community in Scotland, many of whom have British Sign Language as their first or preferred language. The National Deaf Children’s Society strongly believes that this landmark legislation will become a key driver in Scotland towards more effective service provision, better opportunities, and improved life chances for deaf children and young people.”

Courier column: Help fight poverty

Many years ago I taught in war and famine torn Mozambique. Later I spent twelve years as a campaigner for Oxfam.  I saw the terrible consequences of conflict in places like Rwanda, Cambodia and Angola, but also the price poor people paid in countries like Chile, Zambia and Zimbabwe which were peaceful but appallingly unequal.

For all those years I was also active in the Labour Party, because I was very aware that my own country had far too many families for whom poverty was also their daily reality.

When I became an MSP, changing that became my main purpose, and it still is.  Helping those who face catastrophic poverty and have had to flee war with little more than the clothes they stand up in, and caring about those who face a daily struggle in a rich country like ours are not contradictory.

Both things are wrong, and both things are unfair.

East Lothian is a great place to live, and in many ways a prosperous County.  Yet East Lothian Council gathers statistics on deprivation which tell a more complicated story.

Almost one in five of our children live in poverty.  Nearly half of the County’s residents have had to turn off the heating to save money.  Crisis grant applications are increasing, and more and more families are turning to our local foodbank for help.

That simply should not be the case in 21st century Scotland, and we can do more to alleviate it.  Last year Renfrewshire Council held a “Poverty Commission” which asked the community what policies would reduce poverty and improve opportunity, especially for young people.  Some suggestions were small, but they came from the evidence of people dealing with poverty every day, and they are now happening.

I think we can make that difference in East Lothian too.  That is why I have written to East Lothian Council suggesting they lead a similar Commission here.  Watch this space.  We can make this County fairer.

Iain backs campaign for better accessible toilet signs

County MSP Iain Gray hosted a meeting at the Scottish Parliament between Grace Warnock from Prestonpans, Independent Living in Scotland (ILiS) and Scottish Disability Equality Forum (SDEF).  This follows Grace contacting her MSP for help in her campaign to raise public awareness about the use of accessible toilets by people without a visible disability.

Ten-year-old Grace has Crohns disease. While she is currently in remission, she has previously used accessible toilets when she was out and about as this enabled her to quickly access a toilet when she needed it and because it has washing facilities to hand and space for her Mum. Being able to use an accessible toilet has afforded Grace support and dignity when she needs it.

However, Grace has occasionally experienced negativity from people whilst using accessible toilets. This is sometimes due to people thinking that if you are not a wheelchair user you should not be using them.

To help overcome these misconceptions, Grace came up with a great idea to help people understand. She designed a new door-sign that helps to show that people might not have a visible disability but may still need to use an accessible toilet. Now she is looking for those with responsibility for public toilets to use her new design and help raise public awareness.

Grace’s campaign has been featured in “The Big Issue” and South Lanarkshire Council has now agreed to explore piloting the new sign at some of their facilities.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Living with Crohns disease means that being able to use an accessible toilet has been important to Grace. This should be straightforward enough, but her experience of using accessible toilets has sometimes been less than positive. This is in part due to many people thinking that if you’re not a wheelchair user, or have another visible disability, you shouldn’t be using them.

“Grace responded by coming up with a great idea to help raise public awareness and understanding. Her new door-sign seeks to highlight the fact that not everyone who needs to use an accessible toilet uses a wheelchair or has another visible disability.

“What is more Grace has run a powerful and effective campaign, and with the help of Independent Living in Scotland and Scottish Disability Equality Forum has persuaded South Lanarkshire Council to explore piloting her new signs at some of its public toilets. This will help raise awareness locally and also get the ball rolling on wider support for the use of her sign.

“I am fully behind Grace’s campaign. She’s an inspirational girl who has shown great determination to pursue this important issue and bring others on board with her idea. I will continue to do all I can to support her and hope to see her door-signs going up at accessible toilets across Scotland in the future.”

Grace Warnock said:

“There are children and adults with severe Crohns who have had to have surgery and they need to change their stoma bags when out. Doing this in a room that has a toilet and sink means that they will be able to do in the privacy of one room.

“Why should you be made to feel bad just because you need a little more space or you need access to clean water? No one should be stared at or receive hurtful comments doing something very natural just because your illness can’t be seen.”

 

Iain challenges Minister on overturned county planning decisions

Iain Gray MSP has challenged Scottish Government Ministers on their proposed ‘root-and-branch’ review of the planning system.

Mr Gray wants to ensure that the review does not reduce local democracy further by making it easier to overturn decisions made by local decision-makers. He raised the review with Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, at Holyrood questions last week.

The county’s MSP asked the Minister what the objective is of the proposed review and highlighted the fact that Ministers have overturned numerous local planning decisions in East Lothian during recent years. These have included the unwanted incinerator at Dunbar, various wind turbine applications and inappropriate housing developments such as Ferrygate at North Berwick.

Figures revealed in January last year showed that since August 2009, 32 East Lothian planning appeals had been decided by Scottish Ministers. Seventeen of those were granted, 53 per cent, compared to the national average of just 42 per cent.

Iain Gray MSP said:

We already know that local decisions are more likely to be overturned here in East Lothian than in many other parts of Scotland. From an unwanted incinerator to numerous inappropriate housing developments, communities in East Lothian have become increasingly frustrated by Government Ministers riding roughshod over their views.

“This repeated overturning of local planning decisions is undermining local democracy and accountability. It also risks discouraging public participation in important planning decisions. If the likelihood is that Ministers will simply overturn local decisions, no matter how strongly communities feel about them, people can become cynical about the process and simply won’t bother having their say on developments in their area.

“Communities in East Lothian want a fair planning system which respects local decisions. My fear after listening to Mr Neil’s response in Parliament is that this review will simply end up making it easier to overturn local decisions in the future. If that is the case it will undermine local democracy further rather than improving the current position.”

Prestonpans Primary pupils visit Holyrood

Iain Gray MSP was pleased to welcome pupils from Prestonpans Primary School to the Scottish Parliament this week.

Mr Gray held a question and answer session with a class of P7 pupils on Tuesday, while a second group of P6/7 pupils visited on Wednesday. Both groups had a tour of the Parliament and the opportunity to ask questions about the way Parliament works and what goes on there.

This was the latest in a series of visits local schools have made to the Parliament via its excellent education services which aim to inform and engage young people across Scotland.

Speaking after the visit Iain Gray MSP said:

“It was a real pleasure to meet the P7 pupils from Prestonpans Primary during their visit to the Scottish Parliament this week. 

“I always try and find time to chat to local children when they visit and answer some of their questions, although on this occasion I only managed to meet one of the two groups, because of other parliamentary commitments. However, I was pleased to hear that they all enjoyed their visit and hope to be able to meet with the second class at the school in the near future.

“The Parliament’s education service does a great job and I’m glad so many schools from East Lothian have taken advantage of what it offers for young people.”

 

You can find out more about visiting the Scottish Parliament at www.scottish.parliament.uk/visitandlearn

Iain welcomes latest success for Seabird Centre

Iain Gray MSP has welcomed the announcement that the Scottish Seabird Centre has been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious RSPB Scotland Nature of Scotland Awards, in the Nature Tourism category.

The Awards ceremony will take place in 19 November 2015 at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh. This latest acknowledgement for the North Berwick-based charity follows a string of awards and other recognition for its important conservation and educational work.

Mr Gray has also congratulated Belhaven Hill School in Dunbar on being shortlisted for the Youth and Education Award.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“I welcome this latest well deserved recognition for the Scottish Seabird Centre. It’s a truly first class local visitor attraction, with a national vision and international reach.

“The work it does promoting conservation issues and providing educational opportunities for children and young people is absolutely outstanding and very worthy of all the plaudits it receives.

“Well done also to Belhaven Hill School on its success in being shortlisted in the Youth and Education category at the awards.

“I congratulate everyone at the Seabird Centre and Belhaven Hill School and wish them every success for the Awards ceremony in November.”

A full list of the charities, businesses, groups and individuals shortlisted for this year’s Nature of Scotland Awards can be found at www.rspb.org.uk/whatwedo/scotland/natureofscotland/2015-shortlist.aspx