Holyrood News

 This week in Holyrood MSPs have been discussing …

Scottish Labour Market Statistics

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show Scotland’s unemployment level increased by 5,000 in the July-September. 2011 quarter, and that Scotland’s labour market continues to outperform the UK as a whole, with lower unemployment, higher employment, and lower economic inactivity rates. This is the twelfth consecutive month of labour market statistics where the Scottish employment rate has been higher than the UK rate – and Scotland’s employment rate is higher than any other nation in the UK. Over the year to July-September 2011, unemployment levels in Scotland have fallen by 14,000, with the unemployment rate declining by 0.5 percentage points. In contrast, UK unemployment levels increased by 172,000 over the year, and the UK unemployment rate increased by 0.5 percentage points. Over the year, Scottish employment rose by 14,000, compared to a fall of 109,000 across the UK.  During the three month period July-September 2011, the economic inactivity rate in Scotland was 22.5 per cent, compared to the higher UK rate of 23.3 per cent. The claimant count in Scotland fell by 900 in October – the second consecutive monthly decline in Scottish claimant count levels – compared to a UK-wide increase of 5,300.

UK Youth unemployment

Youth unemployment in the UK hit a record high of 1.02 million. This means more 16 to 24-year-olds now out of work than at any time since 1992.  The number of jobless young people jumped by 67,000 in the three months to September. During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Labour leader Iain Gray and First Minister Alex Salmond clashed over the issue of youth unemployment. Using data from the past two years, Mr Gray said that unemployment was worse, the employment rate was worse and the economic activity rate was worse. The First Minister responded by noting that Mr Gray was talking about two years for a reason.  He said: “I note that Iain Gray has changed to talking about two years. Otherwise, he would have to acknowledge that in Scotland—uniquely, in the United Kingdom—unemployment has gone down and employment has gone up over the past year.”

Regeneration debate

On Wednesday, Parliament debated regeneration and Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure Alex Neil said that the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Strategy, which will be published in the coming months, will “re-energise” and “reinvigorate” efforts to regenerate Scotland’s communities. Mr Neil said that collective efforts on regeneration over previous years had not been enough as too many people in Scotland were still living in communities suffering from the effects of deprivation, unemployment and disadvantage. He said: “The Regeneration Strategy will reinvigorate efforts to change this. But I need to be clear: the strategy will not offer a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets. But we will re-energise our regeneration policy and focus on the priority areas that evidence tells us are vital to success.” Over the previous four years, the SNP has invested more than £90m in regeneration companies since 2007 with a further £25m investment planned for 2012/13. Of this funding, Clyde Gateway will receive £40m over the next few years to help regeneration in areas where Commonwealth Games events are to take place.

Housing debate

On Thursday in Parliament, MSPs debated a Conservative motion calling on the restrictions on Right to Buy, introduced in 2010, to be removed in order to help councils invest in affordable housing with the capital receipts gained from selling. The motion also stated concern that housebuilding in Scotland had fallen to a 30 year low and called for social houses to be allocated to people with local connections to protect the sustainability of communities. During the debate, Conservative Housing spokesperson Alex Johnstone said that East Lothian Council’s plans to consider buying back ex-council houses in order to meet affordable housing demand was a “dangerous practice”. However, Housing Minister Keith Brown said this was a “commendable innovation” to be encouraged and supported. Mr Brown also attacked the Conservative call to bring back Right to Buy, calling on the party to drop its “obsession” with it. He pointed out that Right to Buy had an extremely negative impact on social housing in Scotland. Mr Brown said: “Our target—which I have set out several times—is to deliver 30,000 affordable homes, completed by the end of the current Parliament…We understand that it will not be an easy target to achieve.”

Oil and Gas Framework

On Thursday the Scottish Government debated the Oil and Gas Framework. The motion recognised the importance of this sector to the Scottish and UK economies, the long-term future of the industry, improving the position of Aberdeen and developing energy skills in the workforce. It also called for a progressive approach to oil and gas taxation and supported the findings of the recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers report.  We recognise the importance of Scotland’s oil and gas sector and are ambitious to maximise the opportunities that remain in an industry vital to our future. The Scottish Government established the Oil & Gas Industry Advisory Group and support Scotland gaining responsibility over our oil and gas reserves. An oil fund for Scotland would be in the economic interests of the country; many oil producing countries and regions have established oil funds. Furthermore, the North Sea fiscal regime should be devolved, giving Scotland greater control over taxation and licensing. The oil and gas industry links with our transition to a low carbon economy. The skills and local knowledge and expertise are transferable as we make progress with our renewable targets and utilise Scotland’s extensive marine resources. Commenting on the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, Mark Higginson, senior partner at PwC in Aberdeen, spoke about the importance of “viewing clean energy not as a consolation prize but as a complement to oil and gas revenues.”  The briefing also included recent news coverage, with John Swinney responded to George Osborne’s comments regarding the impact of the independent referendum on investment and jobs in Scotland, pointing to the many companies that have recently further invested in work in Scotland. This also includes a list of those who have been critical of or reacted negatively to George Osborne’s oil tax hike: Chevron, Valiant Petroleum, Wood Group, Statoil, Centrica, NOF Energy, TAQA Bratani, Premier Oil, Oil & Gas UK, CBI Scotland, McGrigors, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Chartered Institute of Taxation, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, Lloyds Banking Group.

Dyslexia funding

On Thursday, Cabinet Secretary for Education Michael Russell announced that Dyslexia Scotland is to receive grant funding of £40,000 to bolster its dyslexia toolkit for teachers. The toolkit, launched in June 2010, is an online resource for teachers to help them assess literacy difficulties and dyslexia. The new funding will be used to make it more accessible for teachers and support local implementation.

Energy providers

On Wednesday the Scottish Government announced moves to help vulnerable customers, following meetings with six leading energy providers. The areas of agreement highlighted:  “There is a need to improve communication to customers to increase simplicity, clarity and transparency. Ofgem’s Retail Market Review will play a key role in ensuring that this happens and should take into account particular circumstances in Scotland; Consumer Focus Scotland will facilitate discussions aimed at improving how suppliers can engage better with vulnerable customers;  Further to this, Consumer Focus Scotland will facilitate discussions between energy companies, COSLA, SOLACE and voluntary organisations on how to reach the most vulnerable customers; The Fuel Poverty Forum will look at the how Local Authorities fuel poverty initiatives interact with Scottish Government’s schemes in its review of fuel poverty strategy;  The Scottish Government will work with the UK Government to ensure that Energy Company Obligation and Green Deal can work on an area basis given the success of the Universal Home Insulation Scheme.”  John Swinney welcomed working with energy companies to the benefit of customers and Alex Neil said: “These practical, immediate actions will help address rising energy costs leaving more money in the purses of those most in need. We remain committed to eradicating fuel poverty where possible and today’s agreement to work in partnership is a substantial step towards that goal.”

Lord Carloway Review

On Thursday Lord Carloway published his report into criminal law and practice. He was asked to carry out the review after the Supreme Court ruled last October that evidence in the case of Peter Cadder was inadmissible as he was questioned by police without a lawyer present.  The Review is extensive and includes 76 recommendations. The Scottish Government includes key recommendations as: The right to legal advice when taken into custody; Limit the period of arrest before charge to 12 hours;  Particular protection and rights for children and vulnerable adults; Greater powers for police to conduct structured investigations; Less restrictive rules around evidence and a removal of the need for corroboration;  Adjustments to the relationship between the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) and the High Court.  Kenny MacAskill welcomed the report, thanking Lord Carloway “for this weighty and authoritative review which takes a long-term view on our criminal justice system and how it can be reformed and improved for Scottish citizens”. Mr MacAskill added: “The Carloway Review is very welcome; it gives us considered advice on how we ensure our justice system continues to cope with unprecedented pressures and offers long lasting solutions to some of the challenges we face. I look forward to considering these significant recommendations in detail as a basis of making further and wide reaching improvements to Scotland’s distinct justice system.”

Religious hate crime

On the 18th November a breakdown of religious aggravation charges (section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2010) in Scotland in 2010-11 was published. This follows on from reports that evidence on sectarianism had been destroyed. This concern was voiced by Philip Tartaglia, Bishop of Paisley. Following his meeting with the Bishop, Alex Salmond “affirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to publish the key statistics on the level of sectarian crime – not just on a one-off basis, but as an ongoing commitment to help us eradicate it.” A PQ from Roseanna Cunningham had confirmed the position: “The Scottish Government will undertake a one year analysis of the data held by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in relation to Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003. The analysis will cover the most recent data available – 1 April 2010 to 31 March 2011 – and will be completed and published on the Scottish Government website by mid November.”   The Scottish Government summarises that the data shows that in 2010-11: There were 693 charges aggravated by religious prejudice – up nearly 10 per cent in a year and the highest level in four years; 58 per cent of charges related to offences which were derogatory towards Roman Catholicism and 37 per cent of charges related to offences which were derogatory to Protestantism. 2.3 per cent related to Judaism, and 2.1 per cent related to Islam; There were charges with a religious aggravation in 27 out of Scotland’s 32 Local Authority areas; 79 per cent of all offences took place in the Strathclyde police force area; A third of the total charges were related directly to football; In just over 60 per cent of cases, the accused had consumed alcohol prior to the offence; Fewer than 5 per cent of incidents were related to marches and parades.  Roseanna Cunningham: “We need a wholesale change of attitudes, and this new report provides a valuable insight into the nature and scale of religious hate crime across Scotland. It shows that charges for religious hatred are up ten per cent on last year, to the highest level in four years, and it also shows that a disproportionate number of religious hate crimes are directly linked to football, both in stadiums, on public transport and in bars.”   She also emphasised that the Scottish Government is looking at a range of options, for example in communities and schools.  We have proposed new legislation and the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. The two new offences in this Bill will give the police and prosecution authorities the necessary additional powers they are calling for.

Scottish Pension Schemes

Also on Thursday, the Scottish Conservatives led a debate on public sector pensions. A day after more unions had voted to take strike action, the Tories defended the UK Government’s plans to increase public sector pension contributions by an average of 3.2% by April 2014.  Tory Housing Spokesperson Mary Scanlon defended the UK coalition government, saying that there was “no doubt” of the case for reform and that strike action was wrong while negotiations were going on.  The SNP and the Scottish Government believes that the proposed increase in contributions has more to do with deficit reduction than fair pensions. However, SNP MSPs will not be joining in with strike action on 30 November and Parliamentary Business will be held, with a debate on public sector pensions among it. Labour and the Greens had tried to clear the Parliamentary timetable so that their MSPs could join the strike.

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