Courier column: Politicians need to act now in bid to end fuel poverty forever

The weather turned colder last week. That is more than an inconvenience for many in East Lothian, who worry about their fuel bills. About one in three households in East Lothian is estimated to be in “fuel poverty”. The definition of being fuel poor is where members of a household have to spend more than 10 per cent of their income on energy bills. It is driven by a combination of too many families on low incomes and too many houses being poorly insulated and inefficiently heated.

In 2001, the Labour-led Scottish Government passed ambitious legislation to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016. The current SNP Government will miss that target. Given this, it is astonishing that new figures have revealed SNP ministers plan to cut the fuel poverty budget by more than £15 million – a 13 per cent cut to the current budget.

Any reduction in support for initiatives to reduce fuel poverty will hit the poorest households in East Lothian hardest. That is why I have signed up to Scottish Labour’s plans to deliver a Scottish Warm Homes Act. The act would better support the most vulnerable in our communities to insulate and heat their homes. It would adopt energy efficiency as a National Infrastructure Project and create jobs across the country.

This is yet another example of where the government has the powers to make a real difference to the lives of some of the country’s poorest households, but where the political will is lacking. We need concerted action now to end the scandal of fuel poverty once and for all.

Increased rail passenger numbers must be matched by quality of service

Iain Gray MSP has welcomed new research published by the Campaign for Better Transport which shows substantial increases in the number of passengers using the county’s rail stations.

The research, which covers the period 1997 to 2015, identifies increases in passenger numbers at all local stations, including a 280% increase at Prestonpans, 109% at North Berwick and 151% at Dunbar.

 

However, while welcoming this trend towards greater use of rail services, Mr Gray is also calling for ScotRail franchise holder Abellio to be forced to deliver the high quality and reliable service these passengers need – something it is currently failing to do.

Speaking about the need for improvement in the service on the North Berwick line, Iain Gray MSP said:

“As a big advocate for public transport, I am delighted to see local train services here in East Lothian being so well used. The substantial increases in passenger numbers at all local stations identified in this research demonstrates a welcome trend towards more people leaving their cars at home and taking the train to work instead.

“But, and it is a big but, the new franchise holder Abellio is not delivering the high quality and reliable service these passengers need. I know from the feedback I am receiving on an almost daily basis from constituents that the company is often failing to meet these standards currently. Delays, cancellations, and above all unacceptable overcrowding seems to be the rush hour norm on the North Berwick line.  On some occasions my constituents have been left standing on the platform.  That is not good enough.

“I am working with passenger group RAGES to keep up the pressure on Abellio to deliver what it promised when Scottish Ministers awarded it the ScotRail franchise back in 2014. I will also be demanding that Ministers take action to hold Abellio to account for its failures and ensure that county commuters get the quality rail service they deserve.”

The Campaign for Better Transport research figures can be viewed on an interactive map at www.bettertransport.org.uk/maps/rail-usage.html

 

 

Iain congratulates county skier on selection success

Iain Gray MSP has sent his congratulations to county skier Claire Jeffray following the news that she is one of over 100 skiers and coaches set to participate in Special Olympics GB’s 2016 National Skiing Championship.

Mr Gray has also signed a motion at Holyrood congratulating Gifford resident Claire, the only competitor from Lothian, and the other Scottish skiers on being selected to participate in the Championship.

The Championship is one of Special Olympics GB’s biggest events every four years and will be held on the slopes of Serre Chevalier in France in March this year.

Commenting on Claire’s success, Iain Gray MSP said:

“I met Claire, and her mother Ann, a few years ago at Parliament and have followed her progress since then. To be among the competitors at the National Skiing Championship is a fantastic achievement, while to be the only one from Lothian, and indeed the whole of south and central Scotland, makes it even more outstanding.

“I have signed the motion in Parliament congratulating Claire and her colleagues on their selection. I also passed on my best wishes to her for the Championship and look forward to hearing about how she gets on in France later in the year. Her selection is also another great sporting success for East Lothian, which continues to excel across a variety of sports.”

Iain welcomes Bellany exhibition to Parliament

Iain Gray MSP attended the launch of a new free exhibition in the Scottish Parliament celebrating the story of the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War, which inspired Port Seton born artist, John Bellany to produce a series of works.

The exhibition that is being displayed in the Scottish Parliament features photographs, video and other objects from the First World War, and includes a new work by the Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead, in which she celebrates the life of Elsie Inglis, who set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in the face of huge opposition.

Commenting Iain Gray MSP said:

“John Bellany is one of Scotland’s most celebrated artists, born in the fishing community of Port Seton in East Lothian to a family of fishermen and boat builders. He is perhaps best known for his work which drew inspiration from his upbringing on the coastline of the Firth of Forth and seafaring communities which influenced much of his work, however Bellany also had a deep interest in the human condition looking at the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

“The Scottish Women’s Hospitals exhibition was inspired by the work of Elsie Inglis, who was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She was famously told to ‘go home and sit still’ by the War Office when she initially offered a hospital to the British Army. When this was refused she offered her service to Britiain’s allies who gratefully accepted the offer.

“The artwork by Bellany on display in the Scottish Parliament depicts the brave women who volunteered to work in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, who would have seen some of the worst fighting, most horrific injuries and tough working conditions of the First World War. By refusing to “go home and sit still” these women undoubtedly saved countless lives, putting themselves at risk to help those wounded and injured soldiers who served on the front lines.”

“Today, Elsie Inglis and her colleagues in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals are an inspiration to thousands of people not only here in Scotland but across Europe and around the world for the bravery and determination they showed in the face of such adversity. I am delighted that both the work of Elsie Inglis and East Lothian’s own, John Bellany can be celebrated and commemorated in the Scottish Parliament through this exhibition.”

Accompanied by a programme of events, film screenings and lectures, the free exhibition will take place in the Scottish Parliament’s Main Hall and will run from Wednesday 20 January – Saturday 16 April 2016 (excluding 15-20 February).

More information about the exhibition and the programme of events can be found at http://www.bellany-2016.scot/

Government’s record on colleges is letting down local people

Iain Gray MSP has described the SNP Scottish Government’s record on Further Education as “nothing short of a disgrace” after new figures revealed that there are now 152,000 fewer students in colleges across Scotland than there were when the SNP came to power.

Mr Gray also believes that the Government’s failings in the Further Education Sector are letting down local people, following the axing of local bus services for students and the decision by Edinburgh College to shelve the idea of a campus in East Lothian.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“The SNP’s record on Further Education is nothing short of a disgrace. No matter how they try to dress this up these figures show that there are now 152,000 fewer students in colleges than there were when the SNP came to power. 

“In particular, second chance learners, women returners to work, workers seeking new skills, and people with learning disabilities have all been squeezed out.  Even numbers of full time students are at a lower level than they were five years ago.  The SNP budget cuts college funding in real terms yet again.  College staff are now on the point of industrial action. 

“Here in East Lothian this means that local people have fewer opportunities to access college courses. We have also seen funding pressures result in bus services for local students being cut, while Edinburgh College has also had to shelve plans for a potential new campus in the county.

“East Lothian is once again suffering the impact of the SNP Government’s neglect and incompetence. Local people seeking to increase their skills and qualifications at college deserve better than this.”

Courier column: Community councillors work hard to ensure high standards

I have just completed a programme of community council meetings.  With twenty councils in East Lothian, meeting every month, I cannot attend all their meetings, but do so usually when there is a particular issue they want to raise.

Whenever I do attend a community council I am struck by how important the work they do is to their communities.  Month by month they consider all that is happening locally, take up concerns about damaging developments, and look for ways to improve the quality of life for local residents.

Many community events which mark out the life of our towns and villages would never happen in the way they do without the input of the community councillors, from Christmas lights to remembrance parades.

Action on speeding or irresponsible parking, consideration of local views on planning developments, these are things which often depend on community councillors keeping their eye on the ball.

In the recent meetings I have attended community councillors have been working on everything from school catchment areas to bus services to hare coursing and every aspect of community life in between.

Local elected councillors, police officers, council officials, and, yes, the MSP can all expect to be held to account by community councils and rightly so.

Yet the role of a community councillor is in many ways a thankless task.  Unusually, in East Lothian they do receive some funding to use locally, but it is limited.  New community councillors soon learn that you cannot please all the people all the time, so a thick skin is required too.

We should thank our community councils though, because they are at the heart of efforts to ensure a sustainable future for our towns and villages.  Changing patterns of modern life, not least employment and shopping behaviour, as well as pressures of housing need, transport and healthcare mean we have to constantly work at nurturing the diverse places which make up the County we love.  No one works harder at that than our community councillors.

Cuts and complacency will not make our education world class

Earlier this week Iain Gray MSP spoke in a parliamentary debate on “Delivering a World Class Education System”.

Mr Gray again highlighted Scottish Labour’s proposal for “Fair Start Funding” in our schools and nurseries and how schools in East Lothian would share around £900,000 a year.

Speaking after the debate, Iain Gray MSP said:

“The fact that success at school still depends more on how much a child’s parents earn than their ability or application is scandalous. Unfortunately the SNP Scottish Government refuses to allocate enough resources to fixing the problem. Such resources as are available are misallocated, so most children who need the support do not get it.

“In East Lothian for example, we receive no support at all from the Scottish Government’s attainment fund, not one penny. Under Scottish Labour’s Fair Start Funding our schools would share around £900,000 every year. This would be funded by asking those who earn more than £150,000 to pay a little more tax, a 50p top rate. 

“Unfortunately the SNP once again joined the Tories to vote that proposal down. They may indulge in progressive rhetoric, but I am afraid their votes tell a different story.

“I also used the debate to speak about another Scottish Labour idea, the reform of senior years at school to create wider opportunities for young people. That would be backed by a new Scottish graduate Certificate, encompassing exam results but also vocational training, foundation apprenticeships, work experience and voluntary achievements too.

“One reason for this proposal is the problems of the new “national” exams. Dr Jim Scott, an educational researcher and retired head teacher has produced significant evidence that the new exams have led to a drop in enrolment and attainment at levels 3 – 5 (which have replaced Standard Grade).

“Pupils are doing fewer exams and passing fewer still. Jim believes that this is an unintended consequence of Curriculum for Excellence with serious consequences for those pupils who may not go on to take many Highers.

“I am afraid that the Education secretary could not, it seems, care less about this, even although it would appear to be damaging the futures of thousands of Scots. Her Government’s cuts and complacency will not make Scotland’s education system world class.”

Iain pledges support for cancer treatment advances

The county’s MSP Iain Gray attended an event in the Scottish Parliament this week hosted by Kidney Cancer Scotland, Melanoma UK, the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation and Bristol Myers-Squibb at which he pledged his support for advances in cancer treatment.

Whilst at the event Mr Gray signed the groups’ pledge which stated “I pledge to support new and exciting advances in the treatment of cancer which offer patients the prospect of improved long-term survival from cancer across a range of tumour types.”

Commenting after the event Iain Gray MSP said:

“I was delighted to be able to express my support alongside other MSPs for advancing the debate on innovative treatments and their impact upon patient outcomes.

“More than one in four deaths are caused by cancer and over 159,000 people died from the disease in 2011. There is cause to be optimistic though as new treatments and therapies are advancing the effectiveness of cancer treatment and on survival rates which have improved over the last 20 years and continue to do so.

“Signing this pledge today was important as for a number of tumour types including lung, melanoma and kidney cancer, five year survival rates continue to remain below 20 per cent. We know that early diagnosis saves lives and provides the best hope for improving cancer outcomes, so taking steps to support new advances in the treatment of cancer we can improve the long-term survival rate for those diagnosed with a range of cancer types.”

Visit to skills studio used by county pupils

Local MSP Iain Gray has visited the Sky Academy Skills Studio in Livingston to find out more about the innovative opportunities it is providing for pupils across Scotland, including many from East Lothian, to enjoy a unique learning experience.

Mr Gray was given a tour of the facility, where students aged 8 to 18 are able to create their own TV report about a subject they are studying at school using Sky’s state-of-the-art technology, including broadcast-quality cameras, green screens and touch-screen edit tables.

The dedicated studio, which only opened last year, has already welcomed pupils from several East Lothian schools, including Elphinstone Primary School, King’s Meadow Primary School, Yester Primary School, Macmerry Primary School and North Berwick High School.

Speaking after his visit Iain Gray MSP said:

“The Sky Academy Skills Studio is a highly impressive facility offering a unique learning experience for pupils. Having access to state-of-the-art technology, including broadcast-quality cameras, enables pupils to make their own TV reports about issues they are studying.  It is a wonderful way to fire their imaginations and also encourage them to consider a career in broadcasting.

“It’s great to see that so many schools in East Lothian have already taken advantage of this free opportunity and I hope that many more will do so in the future. I would certainly urge local teachers to look into what these visits can offer their pupils and consider registering for a trip to the studio.”

Find out more about the Sky Skills Studios at https://teachers.sky.com/skills-studios

Iain marks nursing professional body’s centenary year

Iain Gray MSP has joined colleagues at Holyrood in paying tribute to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in its centenary year.

Mr Gray has signed a motion in Parliament which celebrates the pioneering work undertaken by the professional body and trade union for nurses. The motion highlights the RCN’s work on developing professional standards for nurses, promoting excellence in practice and helping to shape health policies.

It also praises the organisation for the work it does supporting nurses and promoting the importance of nursing staff and their contribution to patient care. The motion also reaffirms the Parliament’s support for and thanks to Scotland’s dedicated nursing staff and healthcare support workers.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) makes a unique contribution to nursing and healthcare in Scotland and across the UK. From humble beginnings in 1916 it has grown to become the largest professional association and union for nursing staff in the world.

“The RCN has been pivotal in developing standards and expertise in the profession and supporting nursing staff over the last century. It has also played a central role in helping to shape the development of sound health policy and improvements in patient care.

“I’m pleased to join colleagues in paying tribute to the organisation during its centenary year. It is also another opportunity to celebrate and thank all of Scotland’s nursing staff and healthcare support workers for the vital contribution they make to our health and wellbeing.”