Back to work

Monday 11th January 2016


The first shots may have been fired in the election campaign, but it was very much back to business for MSPs in Parliament this week.

The Health and Sports committee picked up where it left off before the holidays with a jam packed agenda.

At the top of the list, were the Scottish Government’s budget plans for the National Health Service in the year ahead.

It’s no secret that the NHS is under huge pressure to match resources with the increasing demand placed upon it by a rising elderly population.

As I have said before in my column, one of the keys to addressing this problem is to shift the balance of care into the communities.

This is why I welcomed the Scottish Government’s announcement late last year that they intend to allocate £250m in to health and social care.

However, I was disappointed that the government failed to spell out exactly how this money would be allocated to local areas due to ongoing discussions with the councils.

It’s essential we use this funding to ensure more elderly people are given high quality care that they deserve in their own homes.

The funding should also be targeted toward improving support for staff to allow them the quality time they need to care for the elderly and vulnerable, rather than the 15min care visits we have at present.

It’s this lack of contact that contributes to too many elderly people leading their lives in isolation. As was highlighted during a debate in Parliament last week, according to research just over 50% of over 80s are often or always lonely.

This simply isn’t right and we need to do something about this to give back to those who have given so much to us.

While the election campaign will inevitably dominate the headlines in the weeks ahead, I hope that Parliament will keep its focus on important issues such as these and do its’ best to properly hold government to account.

A fair deal for care workers

Monday 28th December 2015


We are well and truly into the Christmas holidays and I hope you have had some time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family after a busy working year. In my Christmas message to readers in the Tele last week I paid tribute to those in our emergency services and armed personnel serving overseas.

However, in my final column of the year I would also like to give a special mention to all the care workers who go that extra mile morning, noon and night, looking after the elderly keeping them safe in their own homes where they want to be.

Despite the great job they do, our care workers are often underpaid, undervalued and under stress.  It’s for this reason I am backing calls made last week by Scottish Labour for a Living Wage for all workers in the care sector and better support for training and staff.

These measures will help increase the motivation of the workforce and reduce the high turnover rates in the sector. They will also allow for more people to be cared for with dignity and compassion in their own homes, resulting in fewer admissions to hospital and relieving the pressure on our NHS.

With an ageingpopulation and with more people suffering from complex and multiple conditions, the vital role that our care workers fulfil will become all the more important in the years ahead.  I hope we can all work together in the New Year so that by next Christmas the social care workforce will get the fair deal they deserve.

Cuts to council budgets

Monday 21st December 2015


As was to be expected, John Swinney was strong on his anti-austerity rhetoric during his budget statement last week.

“What we will not do is follow in the UK Government’s footsteps and implement austerity and target the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society” he asserted.

Mr Swinney’s decision to slash local government funding flies in the face of these warm words.

In total over half a billion pounds will be snatched from the hands of councils up and down the country.

Inverclyde’s budget will be raided to the tune of £5m. This comes on top of the substantial cuts already made in previous years.

As a consequence, yet again, the council will be forced to make tough choices about what services it can and cannot maintain, whether it is care visits for the elderly, our leisure facilities or school breakfast clubs.

With one eye firmly on next year’s election Mr Swinney has distanced himself from the difficult decisions and passed the buck onto councils.

True to form he has abdicated responsibility in the interest of political expediency.

It is time that the Finance Secretary got the balance right, accepted the responsibilities of Government and translated his anti-austerity rhetoric into action.

If he really wants to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society he should abandon his decision to raid local government budgets.

Organ Donation Bill

14th December, 2015

Organ Donation Bill

ON Monday I visited the renal unit at Inverclyde Royal Hospital which provides dialysis for patients who have acute kidney failure. During the visit I was glad to have the opportunity to talk with patients and staff.

One of the hot topics for discussion that came up was the current Organ Donation Bill being proposed by Labour MSP Anne McTaggart.

Last year there were less than 100 organ donors in Scotland but there are over 500 people currently on the waiting list, including one of the patients I met on Monday.

The Bill proposes a ‘soft opt-out’ system which would permit the removal of a deceased person’s organs if they hadn’t objected during their lifetime. Presently we have an ‘opt-in system’ in Scotland where an individual must express their choice to donate organs prior to their death.

Those in favour of the Bill have pointed to the example of Spain which introduced ‘soft opt-out’ legislation for organ donation in 1979 and now has the highest rate of donations from deceased donors in Europe.

However, those on the other side of the debate have raised concerns. For instance, some argue that the Bill has the potential to cause additional distress to families who have lost a loved one in what is already a very difficult time.

Another message coming from those who have provided evidence before the committee is that more must be done to raise public awareness if we are to increase donation rates.

We want a situation where organ donation is talked about in all settings – between families, in schools, colleges and universities.

Given the sensitivity of this issue, and the huge ethical dilemma it creates, the committee will give serious thought as to whether this Bill along with other measures will improve donation rates and ultimately save lives.

We will report on our findings in the New Year.

We can’t afford any more delays to new health centre

Monday 7th December 2015


Last week John Swinney updated Parliament on Scotland’s public finances. Like the curate’s egg his statement was good and bad. On the good side the £6m longawaited project to replace Ravenscraig Hospitalwas finally given the go ahead.

The most recent delays were a result of a dispute between the Scottish Government and EU over funding rules for major capital projects. Not only did the delays cause unnecessary distress to families I also understand that they may have resulted in additional construction costs for the project.

During question time in Parliament on Thursday I demanded that Health Minister Shona Robison ensure the Scottish Government meet these extra costs in full. After all, the government got itself into this wrangle with the EU because it failed to get its own financial procedures in order for funding major capital projects.

As if often the case with politicians what they don’t say is just as important as what they do say. In his statement last week John Swinney failed to make any mention of how and when the plans for the new facility to replace Greenock’s crumbling health centre will go ahead.

Over three years agoI highlighted that the centre needed £1m worth of repairs to bring it up to a modern and acceptable standard. After a long campaign the government finally announced in the summer that it would provide £19m for a new facility. However, recent reports in the Greenock Telegraph have suggested that the project has been hit by the same financial problems that faced Ravenscraig and may not now begin until 2019.

The Scottish Government has a responsibility to the community to tell us when the project will begin, how it will be funded and when the new health centre will be delivered. We cannot afford any further wrangling over EU funding rules. It will be patients, families and the local community that will lose out as a result.

MSP welcomes cabinet visit

Monday 29th October, 2015


Commenting on the Scottish Government Cabinet visit planned for November 23rd Greenock and Inverclyde MSP Duncan McNeil said:

“I welcome this visit. It will provide a great opportunity for Ministers across the different portfolios to engage with the local community and address a number of issues of real importance to Inverclyde.”

“We need assurances from Shona Robison about the future of Inverclyde Royal and how she will work to address the significant delays to the new Greenock Health Centre and the replacement for the elderly care unit at Ravenscraig Hospital.”

“It’s important that Michael Matheson meets with local representatives regarding the future of the prison site and explain what action he will take to reduce the 75% rise in violent crime in the area.”

“And I hope John Swinney will spell out exactly how he will work with local agencies to extend the quayside at the Ocean Terminal so that we can increase the number of cruise liners coming into Inverclyde and boost the local economy.”

Keep Calmac public

Monday 30th November 2015


Last week I backed Labour’s motion in Parliament calling on the Scottish Government to halt the current tendering process for the Clyde and Hebrides 2016-24 ferry services contract.

I did so because private company Serco, who are widely believed to be in lead position to snatch the £1 billion contract, have failed to provide sufficient assurances that they will keep the lights on at Calmac’s headquarters in Gourock. During the debate I welcomed support from the SNP’s Mike Russell, MSP for Argyll and Bute, who shared my concerns.

The RMT union have described Serco as the “specialists in failure based on their appalling track record in public services”. When Serco won the race in 2012 to gain control of the Northern Isles ferry services it was only a matter of time before the company got to work putting profit before people by cutting jobs.

On the day that the Scottish Parliament debated Labour’s motion, new legal advice provided by EU procurement law expert Gordon Nardell QC was published showing that by applying a provision known as the “Teckal exemption” the Scottish Government does not need to put the service out to tender.

Labour may have lost the vote after the debate, but I take some comfort that Transport Minister Derek MacKay has said he will go away and look at the legal arguments again. If there are opportunities to cease the tendering, we should take them. The Government and the Parliament should not just support the trade unions’ right to test the legal arguments but should be side by side with them in that process.

With all those consequences in play for the Inverclyde economy and workers at Calmac HQ in Gourockwhich I mentioned in my column last week, we should leave no stone unturned to ensure we keep Calmac public.

CalMac vital to Inverclyde

Monday 23rd November, 2015


The Scottish Cabinet are in town today and is often the case with these visits warm words and photo opportunities will be high on the agenda.

However, I hope Ministers will also take the opportunity to address a number of really important local issues including how they will secure the future of Inverclyde Royal and ensure that there are no further delays to the replacement for Ravenscraig.

Another issue that has arisen in the last few days is the future of CalMac’s HQ which employs 169 people and last year injected more than £9m into the local economy.

It was recently reported in the Ileach – the Independent newspaper for Islay and Jura – that private sector company Serco stated there would be “no head office” if it wins the 2016-24 contract for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services.

Concerns have been raised for some time now that the headquarters would be closed down if Serco won the contract but this is the first time there has been any public indication that this could happen.

The Clyde and Hebrides ferry services which are currently run by CalMac were put out to tender in June by the Scottish Government. Serco and CalMac are bidding for the new contract.

We need cast iron guarantees from Serco and the Scottish Government that CalMac HQ and all the jobs that it brings are guaranteed for the long-term not just in the short-term required by the tendering process. Worryingly up until now these guarantees have not been forthcoming.

Accountability key to improving policing

Monday 16th November 2015


Police Scotland has been plagued by problems ever since it was established over two and a half years ago. These have not been ‘teething’ problems as some would have you believe. We are talking about real and systematic failures that have dragged the reputation of the police force through the mud and forced the former Chief Constable out the door.

Failures include the stripping away of local accountability, major policy decisions being made without consultation and police officers being stretched to the limit due to severe cuts in civilian staff. We have also observed a target culture prevailing in the organisation with local police officers last year conducting four thousand stop and searches in the space of two months. To make matters worse, last week Scotland’s independent police watchdog highlighted serious weaknesses in Police Scotland’s call handling system.

In response to growing concerns about the operation of Police Scotland, Labour’s Shadow Justice Spokesman Graeme Pearson launched a review. Going around the country he listened to what ordinary officers, staff and members of the public had to say. They painted a picture of a police force which is centralised, politicised and autocratic.

Last week he published the findings of his review and made a series of strong recommendations about how to improve policing in Scotland with a particular focus on measures to ensure Police Scotland is held properly to account. He also proposed there should be a resource audit conducted across the country to identify accurately the staff and allocation needed for each community. The Scottish Government should act now and implement these proposals in full so we can return to the sort of community policing that was once the envy of the world.

Tax Credits

9th November, 2015

Tax Credits

Politics is about choices. When the previous UK Labour government introduced tax credits it chose to do so because it wanted to create a fairer and more equal society.

Tax credits have helped lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty and have allowed families to aspire to more than just making it to the end of the month. Six thousand families in Inverclyde currently benefit from the policy.

When George Osborne recently announced his plans to cut tax credits the political parties in Scotland where faced with a choice about how they would protect working families from these cuts.

Last week, Scottish Labour committed, in the event that Osborne’s plans go through, to use the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament to top up tax credits. We would pay for the move by cancelling the SNP’s plans to cut air passenger duty and by choosing not to cut the tax rate for higher rate taxpayers.

The SNP Government, true to form, have made this an issue about the constitution. They have asserted that they will need even more powers to be devolved before they can act. No surprise there. This is the wrong choice. And here’s why.

In a recent meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution committee, Judith Paterson of the Poverty Action Child Group raised concerns about what would happen if we fail to top up tax credits.

She said it had been forecast that if Scotland does not do so, many more children will fall into poverty over the next few years, which would have associated impacts on children’s health, education and prospects.

I hope that George Osborne chooses to scrap his plan altogether but, if he does not, the Scottish Parliament must move away from the distractions of the constitutional debate, and act to stop thousands of working families being pushed back into poverty.