This week in Holyrood MSPs have been discussing …
The Scottish Government led a debate on welfare reform in response to the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through Westminster. There is significant concern that this Bill is simply a cost-cutting exercise, and will leave many vulnerable people worse off. For instance, the Tory proposal to scrap the lower rate component of Disability Living Allowance could leave many disabled people effectively housebound. Many people who simply are not fit to work are being assessed as able, which is causing great anxiety and distress.
Another problem – as discussed by witnesses at the Scotland Bill Committee this week, is that issues like Housing and Health are devolved, but the associated benefits are reserved to Westminster. This is particularly a problem when the two Governments are ideologically moving in opposite directions.
The Scottish Government has, for some time, been working constructively with counterparts in the UK Government to relay these concerns. However, in a letter to Iain Duncan Smith this week, Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that, as things stand, we would not be able to support this until the serious concerns have been addressed.
The Justice Committee has been considering the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill. There is commitment to this necessary legislation and support for the Scottish Government action. 91% of Scots back stronger action to tackle sectarianism, with 89% agreeing it is offensive and unacceptable in Scottish football.
The need for the legislation has been explained by legal experts, the police and prosecution authorities. Breach of the peace legislation alone is not sufficient and it is important that law enforcement agencies have the necessary tools they are requesting to take action.
The Bill will only criminalise behaviour likely to lead to public disorder which expresses or incites hatred, is threatening or is otherwise offensive to a reasonable person.
The First Minister today met Bishop Tartaglia of Paisley to discuss the latter’s concerns, after which the Bishop warmly welcomed the opportunity to put his concerns across, and in particular welcomed the First Minister’s commitment to track and analyse sectarian crime on an on-going basis.
Digital Future of Scotland’s Heritage
On Thursday, the Scottish Parliament debated the digital future of Scotland’s heritage. Fiona Hyslop’s motion emphasised the contribution of our heritage, the increased interest in family history and initiatives like Scottish Ten. This builds on our manifesto commitments to engage with Scotland’s diaspora and promote Scottish culture and arts.
There are a range of online resources, enabling people throughout the world to engage with Scottish history and culture. Family history records are available through ScotlandsPeople and geographic locations can be searched on ScotlandsPlaces. In addition, initiatives from organisations including the National Library of Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, National Museums Scotland, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) and ScotlandsImages are ensuring a vast amount of material has been made digitally available.
An interim arrangement will be put in place to pay ambulance staff to respond to emergency calls while on a break, while talks on a long-term settlement continue.
The Government has been working to resolve this issue over a number of months, after some high-profile and tragic cases in which patients have died after ambulance crews refused to attend incidents because they were on their break.
The interim arrangement will mean all applicable staff will be required to respond to ‘Category A’ emergency calls and major incidents during rest breaks. Staff will be compensated with an annual payment of £250 (pro rata), a guaranteed rest break and payment of £100 if their rest break is actually disturbed.
Supporters Direct Funding
Sports Minister Shona Robison this week announced a £70,000 funding package for Supporters Direct Scotland (SDS). The award will help SDS develop its role as a representative voice for Scottish football fans.
The Scottish Government are committed to working with supporters’ trusts to ensure they play an enhanced role in shaping Scottish football. Football is Scotland’s national game and it is important that the voice of all supporters, without whom our clubs wouldn’t survive, is heard loud and clear.
The funding package will enable Supporters Direct Scotland to develop a Scottish Football Supporters Network by using the existing trust network to collect contact details and information on every identifiable supporters organisation or group linked to a Scottish football club.
The network will be promoted through seminar events and inviting supporter organisations to sign up. The aim is to increase the number of supporters Supporters Direct Scotland represent from the current estimated 15,000 supporters up to at least 30,000 supporters who are either affiliated to supporters’ trusts, groups or are individual supporters by March 31, 2012.
Cases of MRSA and MSSA are at their lowest level since records began.
Figures published this week by Health Protection Scotland show cases of MRSA decreased from 69 to 52 (24.6 per cent) between the first and second quarter of 2011, and compared with the same period last year (Q2) cases were down from 79 to 52 (34.2 per cent). This is a reduction of over 75.8 per cent compared with the same period in 2007 (when 215 cases were reported). MRSA is now at the lowest level since surveillance began in 2005.
The number of MSSA cases decreased from 355 to 345 (2.8 per cent) from the first to second quarter of 2011 – also the lowest level since surveillance began in 2005.
Clostridium difficile infections in patients aged 65 and over increased from 355 cases in the first quarter to 378 cases in the second quarter of 2011 (6.5 per cent), although this slight increase is not considered by Health Protection Scotland to be statistically significant and represents a decrease from 577 cases (34.5 per cent) from the same period last year. This is the second lowest number of cases since surveillance began in 2006 – the previous quarter being the lowest. When compared with the same period in 2007 there is a decrease of 76.2 per cent – down from 1,588 cases to 378 cases.
Clostridium difficile infections in patients aged 15 to 64 increased from 127 to 160 between the first and second quarter of 2011 (26 per cent), and decreased from 165 cases in the same period last year (3 per cent).
The Scottish Government have invested more than £50 million funding over the past three years to tackle healthcare associated infections and have also launched a new hospital cleanliness watchdog, introduced zero tolerance hand hygiene policy in hospitals, and regular unannounced visits to hospitals.
Legal Aid Paper
The Scottish Government this week published a paper outlining proposals for the future of legal aid provision.
A Sustainable Future for Legal Aid follows the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s public spending plans for the next three years, and sets out proposals for maintaining a fair, high quality and equitable legal aid system which maintains public confidence at an affordable and sustainable level of expenditure.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board and the profession are continuing to work well in the face of some difficult circumstances. The implications of the UK Supreme Court’s decision in the Cadder case, for example, have put additional pressures on the legal aid system.
However, it is important that we do not allow the difficulties presented by the current economic climate to undo the good work that has been done so far. This paper sets out a range of proposals that we believe can protect access to justice, while delivering efficiencies and savings that will ensure the long-term integrity of the legal aid system.
On Thursday, housing was debated in Parliament. Housing Minister Keith Brown reiterated the Scottish Government’s commitment to building 30,000 affordable homes over the next five year term.
Mr Brown said that the SNP’s housing record in Government was strong, pointing out that more than 27,000 affordable homes were completed during the party’s first term in Government. In order to help ensure maximum housing stock availability, he outlined plans to raise the rate of council tax currently charged on empty properties. He also highlighted the innovative funding initiatives such as the National Housing Trust which is being used to encourage house building during a difficult financial period.
On Wednesday, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure Alex Neil made a statement on Fuel Poverty in Parliament. Key points of the statement were the announcement of an additional £5m for insulation and heating systems for the vulnerable and poor. The Energy Assistance Package will be extended to people on Carers Allowance. Up to 7,000 households could benefit from this. A review of the Fuel Poverty Strategy will be carried out to look at: the nature of fuel poverty and its drivers, future options for fuel poverty programmes and how to maximise the leverage of external funds, and an examination of engagement on reserved matters. There will be a statement of policy and an action plan resulting from the review.
Funding for Scottish Government Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency programmes will be £65m in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, rising to £66.25m in 2014-2015. This is a 35% increase on the £48m being provided in 2011-2012. The Warm Homes Fund of £50m will begin operation in 2012-13.
Mr Neil also outlined that £12.5m will be split between local authorities through the Universal Home Insulation Scheme and stated that the First Minister has called for the ‘big six’ energy suppliers to meet with the Scottish Government and stakeholder groups.
Since it was established, the Energy Assistance Package has given energy advice to over 200,000 households, helped reduce annual fuel bills since 2009 by almost £12m and delivered heating measures for 21,000 homes. As well as extending EAP to carers, it was previously extended to families with children, people with severe disabilities and the terminally ill.
Student fee levels in Scotland
All Universities have now announced their fees and the average estimated Scottish fee is £6,841 for RUK students compared to a total English estimated annual fee of £8,509 (which reduces to £7,811 when bursaries and fee waivers are taken into account). Many Scottish universities have set their fees below the maximum of £9,000 per year for RUK students. Although the University of Edinburgh and University of St Andrews now have the highest fee levels in the UK at £36,000 (based on the cost of a four year degree course at £9,000 per year), many Scottish Universities have made the total cost of a four year course £27,000, while Edinburgh Napier University has capped the total cost at £26,000 for a four year course. Many universities are launching bursary schemes.