The Lib Dem week in Scotland

st Andrews flag saltire scotland Some rights reserved by Fulla TWelcome to our weekly roundup of what the Scottish Liberal Democrats, led by Willie Rennie, have been getting up to. They’ve covered a pretty extensive array of issues from health to housing to police spying to local services to cuts to college places.

McInnes says there are still questions to answer on police spying

After a senior Police Officer gave evidence on the police spying scandal to a Holyrood Committee, Alison McInnes says that his answers were not satisfactory:

The guidance on accessing communications data is very straightforward. Police Scotland’s account of how this came about is nowhere near as clear. We were told this morning that senior officers had raised concerns over applications to access communications data but they seem to have gone through regardless.

These were serious breaches and we need understand what went wrong here. Months after the first reports that Police Scotland had hacked communications data unlawfully, we are still no closer to a full account of how we got here.

NHS in crisis

Jim Hume has been highlighting many issues where the NHS in Scotland is falling short. First, his research showed that Scotland was facing an acute GP shortage as GP training places were not being taken up:

The fear must be that the extra training places announced by the First Minister last year will not help encourage more students to enter primary care or relieve the huge pressure on local GP practices. With dozens of training posts left vacant this year, SNP ministers must explain how they will ensure uptake of these and the 100 extra places they have announced. Welcome though they are, more training places will do no good at all unless there are doctors to fill them.

The SNP Government have not published a key review of mental health services. Jim said:

First we were told that the report would be published in the summer. Then that it would be published before Christmas but still we have seen nothing. What on earth is going on?

We know that services for young people and other vulnerable groups are stretched. The NHS cannot put the right resources in the right places unless we identify gaps in services. That is what this report will help identify.

Jim highlighted the worst week for A & E waiting times since June:

Over Hogmanay, the number of patients forced to wait more than four hours to see a doctor more than doubled. We know that this is likely to be a busy time for hospitals and doubtless health boards will have taken action to boost the workforce available. The fact that so many hospitals and health boards still missed their targets suggests that they are still not getting the support they need from SNP ministers and services are stretched as a result.

A million days of homelessness

Jim also found yet another broken SNP manifesto promise – they barely built 2/3 of the social housing that they promised this year. Even if they’d met their own target, it’s only half of what was needed:

Ministers keep claiming their administration has reached its affordable housing target for this parliamentary term but their manifesto pledge was to build 6,000 new socially-rented houses each year, a total of 30,000 over the course of this session. They have backtracked on that promise, which would have helped give those people who cannot get a mortgage a roof over their heads.

This is all the more important given alarming figures showing a rise in the number of children in temporary accommodation:

The 8% rise in the number of children living in temporary accommodation is utterly appalling and a damning indictment of the SNP’s failure to meet their target on socially-rented housing.

Temporary accommodation can be an important means of providing a safety net for individuals and families who might otherwise find themselves on the street but it should not be relied upon in the long term. Spending lengthy periods of time in temporary accommodation can be hugely disruptive to the lives of children and families, who need the stability and security a permanent home offers.

Only yesterday we discovered that children living in Scotland suffered nearly one million days of homelessness last year. Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that what Scottish families need is access to socially-rented accommodation.

Education

Liam McArthur has also been busy this week. First of all he tackled the SNP’s strategy to close the widening attainment gap.

Thanks to Liberal Democrats, children in England are allocated a pupil premium based on their individual needs. By contrast, the Scottish Government’s stubborn insistence on an area-based approach still ignores the needs of children in many communities across Scotland.

This broad-brush approach fails to acknowledge there are children in real need living in every part of the country. As such, it is difficult to see how the First Minister is living up to her promise to close the attainment gap completely.

He slammed the SNP’s return to national testing, which he believes undermines the ethos of the Curriculum for Excellence:

Where I have a problem is with the determination to reintroduce national standardised testing in our primary schools. This move, whose sole advocates previously were the Scottish Conservatives, goes against the very ethos of Curriculum for Excellence. Whether Ministers believe they are sanctioning teaching to the test and league tables, these are still likely to be an inevitable consequence of introducing national testing. That is why teaching unions, individual teachers, parent teacher councils and parents are all expressing concern.

The ambition of creating a world-class education system is one I wholeheartedly support. So too is the objective of enabling every child and young person to fulfil their potential, whatever their background. I question, however, whether the SNP’s obsession with a return to national standardised testing, under-achievement on early learning and cuts to Council funding are a recipe for achieving those aims.

And he condemned the SNP’s record in Further Education – there are 152,000 fewer places than there were in 2007/8.

The swingeing cuts we have seen to part-time courses has been a huge blow for parents, carers and others who are looking to gain new skills but cannot afford to study full time. People who need to work to pay the bills have been priced out of the education system.

Fewer students are studying for fewer qualifications and the flexibility that part-time courses offered has been lost. That is the reality of what the SNP’s college reforms have meant for students. The Further Education sector has been hammered on the SNP’s watch.

Power to local councils

Nine years of Council Tax freeze have put massive pressure on Council services. Willie Rennie asked the First Minister to stop penalising local councils at First Minister’s Questions. He also managed a side-swipe at the Tories, who are putting out leaflets across Scotland talking about how they are the low tax party when their councillors in Moray are planning to raise local taxes by 18%.

The First Minister seems to think that she has treated Scottish councils reasonably and fairly. Are we talking about the same country?

Moray is only the first to consider taking on the SNP’s council tax freeze. Many more Scottish councils are being forced to think about it too. John Swinney must have known this kind of reaction was inevitable as soon as he announced his £500m cuts.

Teachers are striking, children from poorer backgrounds are missing out and nursery education targets have been missed. But the First Minister is still refusing to consider plans to protect these services. SNP cuts to council budgets have to stop now

Barriers to small business

Willie Rennie highlighted the problems faced by a new distillery in his constituency:

This new start-up business faced many hurdles imposed by government that need to be reviewed. The business rates originally set failed to recognise the special challenges of establishing an operation which does not see an immediate return on the investment.

And the planning system was slow and cumbersome, making it difficult to set up the business quickly. The government must do more to ensure that firms are given a helping hand rather than left facing unreasonable barriers

Tavish calls for Audit Scotland investigation into charity founded by SNP MP

Tavish Scott said Audit Scotland should investigate a charity which received £16,000 in 2012 but has only donated a tiny proportion of its income to good causes:

If less than 3% of this charity’s income has been donated to good causes, Scottish Ministers need to explain why.

People are concerned that public money is going to organisations with very close ties to the SNP. This should be independently investigated by Audit Scotland who are beholden to no government.

Scott slams “grotesque” college pay off

The Public Audit Committee report does not understate the extent of the failures of governance that led to these grotesque sweetheart deals for senior staff at Coatbridge College.

There was a litany of failure that allowed the system to be abused. The checks and balances that were in place clearly did not prevent the paying out of hundreds of thousands of pounds which left the college in the red.

We knew that SNP mergers have seen funding slashed and the number of student places plummet at many colleges across Scotland. What this sorry episode reveals is that it also helped lead to failures of governance and created the space for unscrupulous individuals to line their pockets at the expense of students. We need an urgent review of the role of the Scottish Funding Council in light of these unacceptable payouts

SNP found wanting on Freedom of Information

Tavish also took the SNP to task over their record on freedom of information. The Government has been heavily resistant to actually providing information and they fought several reasonable requests all the way, most notably on whether they had taken legal advice over our potential EU membership. They now propose a slight extension, but Tavish said that just wasn’t good enough:

81% of the public think the firms building and maintaining schools and hospitals should be subject to FOI and over the last ten years 15,000 tenants have lost enforceable rights because council housing stock has been transferred to housing associations, which are not subject to FOI.

The SNP’s attitude towards transparency is well known – their approach to extending coverage of FOI legislation is ad hoc at best. Their secretive multi-million-pound deals with private firms delivering major infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals and roads shows they are more than happy to keep some things hidden.

This minor change will not deliver. The 2002 Act was meant to be the start of the process of opening up government and improving transparency. This announcement is largely just restoring rights that have been lost.

SNP delays farm payments

Tavish slammed the SNP for delaying CAP payments to farmers.

Crofters and farmers are increasingly worried by the Cabinet Secretary’s wall of silence. He promised letters before Christmas. Most arrived after New Year.

Most producers do not know what they are getting or when. So the Scottish Government must set out a timetable for vital CAP payments. This is especially needed for all those under even greater financial pressure because of the dreadful flooding in many parts of the country.

SNP “cons Glasgow and Edinburgh” over high speed rail link

The SNP announced in 2012 that there would be a high speed rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This week, they admitted that he project had been quietly shelved:

Tavish Scott said:

Three years ago the First Minister said there would be full steam ahead on this project. There was a grand ceremony in Glasgow addressed by two Cabinet ministers.

What’s happened since is that the SNP have shelved the project but hoped nobody would notice.

The SNP’s about-turn on their plans for this route shows a lack of respect for people in the two cities.

They conned everyone into thinking that they would build this bullet railway from a blank page. They could never tell us where the terminus was in either city or the route it would take. These plans have been kept secret. And now they have tried to keep their cancellation secret.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • Scottish Liberal Democrats seem to have had an uplift in opinion polls for the Scottish Parliament elections – 7% or 8 % which would give them 7 MSPs.

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