This week in Holyrood MSPs have been discussing …
Public sector pensions
On Wednesday the Parliament approved next week’s parliamentary business which includes a Scottish Government debate on the public sector pensions dispute – on November 30th. The Scottish Government said whilst we support the aims of the strike, we believe it is far more productive for MSPs to send a powerful message to the UK Government through the Scottish Parliament.
On Tuesday, UK Government confirmed plans to close two of Scotland’s coastguard coordination centres. The future of Forth and Clyde had been under threat for over a year now. Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said he was “deeply concerned” by the decision to close Clyde and Forth stations. He said: “With these being the first UK stations to close, it’s unacceptable that Scotland will be the guinea pig for UK Government plans that put saving money ahead of saving lives. These stations cover large and complex areas of our beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, coastline and I remain unconvinced that a reduced number of stations will be able to provide the appropriate level of cover.” He added that the decision to reduce staffing at stations including Aberdeen was a concern, as the experience and expertise in dealing with offshore incidents in the oil and gas industry could not be replicated elsewhere in the UK.
Carers and Young Carers Strategy
On Thursday Parliament debated the implementation of the carers strategy. During the debate, Michael Matheson announced that we would fund the Young Carers Festival for another year, and also nearly £2m funding for short breaks for disabled children and their families. This funding could be used, for instance, to allow children to meet friends and enjoy leisure activities together, or for families to purchase camping and leisure equipment. The Minister also outlined details of the Government’s commitment to spend at least 20% of the Change Fund on older people’s services from this year onwards. It was recently announced that the Scottish Government exceeded the 2007 manifesto commitment to provide an extra 10,000 weeks respite care per year by 2011. Figures show that an extra 10,600 are now being provided – although the figure between local authorities varies widely.
On Thursday the Scottish Government announced that an extra 2,300 post-graduate students are set to benefit from tuition fee support of up to £3,400. The Postgraduate Student Allowances Scheme (PSAS) previously supported around 2,700 students a year. The announcement also includes 100 funded FTE places for the Open University to ensure their students are not disadvantaged by the move. Courses eligible for supported under PSAS are 9-month taught postgraduate diploma courses in vocational subjects or the 9-month taught element of MSc/Masters courses. In 2010-11, the SFC funded around 5,000 such places.
New figures, published on Thursday, showed that the percentage of homes in fuel poverty decreased from 33 per cent to 28 per cent between 2009 and 2010. The Scottish House Condition Survey (SHCS) for 2010 also showed that: 62 per cent of households in Scotland now live in homes with a good energy rating, up from 55 per cent the previous year; since 2003/04 the number of dwellings with no loft insulation has more than halved; the proportion of insulated cavity walls has increased from 53 per cent in 2007 to 62 per cent in 2010. Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment welcomed the figures, but added: “this can only be the starting point. While we will continue to push forward with the powers we have, fuel poverty in an energy-rich nation like ours is a scandal, illustrating the compelling case for Scotland to have the full powers of independence.”
On Tuesday, Infrastructure and Capital Investment Secretary Alex Neil announced that funding of £5m had been awarded to help kickstart a South of Scotland Alliance (SOSA) project to deliver Next Generation broadband to the region by 2020. The allocation is part of the £144.3m funding pot covering the whole of Scotland.
On Tuesday the Justice Committee discussed Scottish Government and opposition amendments to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill. The Lib Dems and Labour did not put forward any amendments – Labour abstained on all votes and Alison McInnes abstained on all but one, which she opposed. Patrick Harvie and David McLetchie put forward amendments from the Greens and Conservatives with Roseanna Cunningham appearing before the Committee for the Scottish Government. The Labour position is not constructive. This is important and necessary legislation and when opposition parties have concerns the Scottish Government have been clear they are open to amendments. Labour will have no impact in shaping this vital legislation and have changed their position, from arguing that they ‘look forward to scrutinising the detail of these proposals’ to failing to engage with the Bill at all. On Thursday, Former First Minister and ex-leader of the Labour Party in Scotland Henry McLeish came out in favour of the legislation. On Wednesday further action to tackle the causes of sectarianism was announced, with £3 million a year investment over the next three years through education and community initiatives. Roseanna Cunningham emphasised that “while these laws are a key step, they are only a single step.”
Renewable energy update
Further progress on energy and renewables has been announced this week On Monday, a report published by EDP Renewables reveals that the development of wind turbines 13 miles from shore in the outer Moray Firth will deliver between 360 and 1400 jobs during construction and between 130 and 280 jobs through operation and maintenance. The news release can be seen here. On Wednesday the Irish-Scottish Links on Energy Study (ISLES) study has found that an interconnected transmission network would help drive further growth in the renewables sector and ensure future sustainable energy supplies by better connecting and exporting electricity. The benefits of a new electricity grid under the Irish Sea connecting power sources on Scottish, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland electricity networks have been highlighted. John Swinney spoke as the report was launched, saying “It is further proof, if any were needed, of the enormous economic opportunities renewable energy provides. The low carbon economy could re-industrialise Scotland and the transmission network is an enormous part of that.”
On Wednesday, £250,000 was announced by Kenny MacAskill towards the Wise Group, enabling continuation of the successful Routes Out of Prison project. It is in seven Scottish prisons and aims to reduce offending among prisoners released from short term sentences. Life coaches work with prisoners serving sentences between three months and four years upon their release. The Wise Group estimates that it costs around £2,000 to keep an ex-offender out of jail through the project, while the Scottish Prison Service estimates that the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for a year is approximately £35,000. Commenting on the project, Kenny MacAskill described it as ‘innovative’ and “an example of a scheme that can help break the vicious cycle of offending that we all too often see from people leaving prison after finishing short term sentences. Providing offenders with support, inspiration and hope is a vital element in turning around their lives and making them feel a more useful part of wider society.”
Scotland’s Contribution to UN Climate Summit
On Thursday, the Scottish Government debated “Scotland’s Contribution to UN Climate Summit”. The motion from Stewart Stevenson looked forward to in the 17th Conference of the Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP17 is being held in Durban, South Africa from November 28 to December 9. The UNFCCC highlights the aim of Durban discussions as seeking to advance “in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements Ahead of the UN conference in Durban, Stewart Stevenson emphasised that international world leaders “must share Scotland’s ambition to intensify the battle against climate change and grasp the economic benefits of a low carbon economy.” Furthermore, “We are immensely proud of what Scotland has achieved to date on the climate change agenda in the private sector, local government and by individuals… I look forward to representing Scotland at the UN conference, and to truly demonstrate we are a small country with international reach.” Scotland has passed world leading climate change legislation and we have considerable renewable resources. Just recently, the First Minister has received the third South Australia International Climate Change Award. The motion emphasised encouraging active engagement with other delegations “to deliver the message that action on climate change is both necessary and urgent, and recognises that Scotland’s experience demonstrates that action on climate change can create jobs, investment, trade and economic growth opportunities.”
At FMQs Ruth Davidson brought up the issue of sentences for sexual offenders and argued ‘life should mean life’. Kenny MacAskill has commented on the decision by appeal judges in this case. He confirmed that changes to the law will be brought forward before the end of this year. Kenny MacAskill: “We of course respect the independence of the Courts – but I am aware that many people will be concerned that the minimum punishment sentences in these cases have been reduced, and that is why we are bringing forward the legal remedy that the Lord Justice General called for in his judgment earlier this year.” At FMQs Alex Salmond confirmed that the Criminal Cases (Punishment and Review) (Scotland) Bill will be introduced to Parliament by the end of this month. He also confirmed that the legislation cannot apply retrospectively but it “will stop future cases arising where the punishment part of the sentence is reduced on appeal.” He also pointed to the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010 having strengthened management arrange