‘About my Vote’

When the Scottish Government was elected in May 2011 with a majority it had the power to implement its manifesto, without negotiating with opposition parties. This meant that it could hold a referendum on whether or not Scotland should be independent of the rest of the UK as it wanted. In 5 weeks time, over 3 years since that election, the referendum will finally be taking place.

The Electoral Commission aims to ensure that people both know how important it is to vote, and how to actually vote. They are publicising their information on the referendum and how to register to vote, if you still need to. You should hopefully have received that ’About my vote’ information. 

This is an extraordinarily important vote. We will be deciding on we think is best for our country, not just for today but for the generations to follow.

No matter which way you vote, it is important that you do. So check out the Electoral Commission website by clicking here to find out how to register and for information on what will happen on the 18th September.

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We need to get this right for policing

Yesterday’s statement in Parliament regarding the police use of guns patrolling our streets on routine duties is one of the most important issues of our time.  If we fudge the democratic oversight of such matters we slide from a police service dedicated to community involvement to a police force independent of proper democratic oversight.

The Cabinet Secretary has powerfully demonstrated his position.  He washed his hands of any duty of governance and has decided to leave these decisions to the police – Policing by consent in Mr Macaskill’s vocabulary is merely a by-line.  He shows support for the Police by abdicating genuine accountability and transparency to a system incapable of delivering on it.  

His argument for such negligence? – ‘Operational independence’.

Such a grand concept is intimidating to challenge.  But like the Wizard of Oz, once faced, it turns out to be shallow in its application to this vital issue.  Operational independence is a concept alluded to in the Royal Commission on Policing (1963).   As a concept it has grown in stature over the decades to become a principle clung to by numerous Chief Constables in dubious circumstances to defend their decisions.  It is a principle, not fully described in law or with any agreed understanding.  As a result, elements of that independence are fudged and ill defined, hence the argument about arming our police officers. 

Let us be clear.  I have yet to hear anyone argue against the current provision of armed response vehicles on patrol containing pistols, rifles and ammunition for use in emergencies by trained police officers.  Nor, though uncomfortable at their presence, have I heard any real challenge from the public to the visible armed presence of police officers at our airports.  The issue under challenge is the Chief Constable’s authority to extend the right of police officers to bear firearms whilst on the routine patrol of our communities in circumstances where no known threats are in evidence.

This is a new departure and though limited in application to a few hundred police officers now, once allowed to pass, it can and some might say, will, be extended further by a Chief Constable without consultation and agreement.  It means the end to any claim for our police service to be described as unarmed.  The police have no such powers to act as of right.  Any exercise of powers by a Chief Constable must be rational, responsible, proportionate and lawful to pass oversight and withstand the scrutiny required to deliver good governance and thereby public consent.

Mr Macaskill has failed to apply this test.  Instead he has sought refuge in the land of the bigot, asserting criticism of his lack of a commitment to duty is in fact a criticism of hard working police officers.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The presence of loaded firearms in our communities heightens the risk of accident, injury and tragedy for both the police and the public.  We have already had officers discharge firearms and tasers in circumstances causing concern, injury and unfortunately death.  The impact of such incidents is immeasurable for the members of the public involved.  But what it is overlooked is that for the individual police officer – placed in such circumstances by executive decisions – discharges and shootings can have severe consequences for them and their families.  We therefore have a duty to ensure that when officers are in our midst armed with guns, the need for that responsibility has been fully explored and justified to protect both public and police. 

This is also where Mr MacAskill has failed.  When he received his private, some say secret, briefing on the arming of officers a year ago, he should have raised questions about approval and accountabilities with the Chief Constable and his Police Authority.  The Cabinet Secretary should have satisfied himself that Authority Board members had fully explored the case for arming police officers on routine patrol, tested that case and formally approved the changes at a public meeting of the Scottish Police Authority duly subject of a comprehensive minute.  Only then can we be confident that at some point in the future incidents involving the police use of firearms are not subject of calls to identify who allowed this to happen! 

We live in a country experiencing a 39 year low in crime, gun related crime has been slashed and we have 1000 additional officers on the streets. It is therefore difficult to understand the threat assessment provided to support change. However, I hope that these changes will be reviewed and a decision arrived at to provide effective cover without the need for armed officers being engaged in routine incidents. 

The sight of a Scottish police officer with pistol in holster dealing with a beggar in a city centre, a bus incident, a disturbance in a fast food outlet or indeed doing his shopping is not one that I, for one, want to see. 

Operational Independence seeks to ensure the police act without fear and favour in their investigations and it should allow the police to respond to immediate unusual challenges without the need to convene committees.  In policy matters, however, a police service committed to its community should wish to see Police Authority approval of changes before implementation.  Such processes will ensure, for a national police service, accountability at local and national levels and provides a confidence in the one true principle of policing by consent.

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Answers on Armed Policing? We will see…

After many calls the Cabinet Secretary is coming to the Chamber this afternoon to speak on the important change that has seen armed police officers performing routine duties.

Unfortunately, the Cabinet Secretary has chosen to give a Ministerial Statement, rather than set time for a debate. This means that instead of properly airing the concerns about the decision, and crucially the way it was taken, during the course of a full debate, we will only have 20 minutes set aside to question the Cabinet Secretary on this policy shift. This is far too important to be treated so shabbily but we will ask our questions today, and press for more accountability and governance tomorrow.

Posted in Chamber, Justice, Shadow Justice Secretary, Single Police Force | Leave a comment

Referendum Q&A in Cumnock


Next Wednesday evening (30th July) I will be chairing a Q&A about the independence Referendum in Cumnock featuring David Mundell MP.

The Q&A is taking place in the Dumfries Arms Hotel. Admission is free. You can reserve your place via Eventbrite – www.eventbrite.co.uk (search for Scotland Office) or call 0131 244 9066. People are being asked to arrive at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.

We have already had good feedback regarding people’s interest and so I am looking forward to a good and busy night of questions!

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Scrutiny of decision making in Police Scotland necessary

A few weeks ago, I talked about a significant change in the management of firearms officers and the way they are deployed.

This is a fundamental change in the way Scotland is policed. In my view the relationship between the police and the public has to be based on a mutual respect and the provision of public consent. In this context I believe that the arming of police will have an incalculable impact on the relationship between Police Scotland and the public and it is was wrong.

The fact is, in Scotland people do not expect our police officers to routinely carry guns.  It’s a scary prospect and I’ve yet to hear any evidence from the Chief Constable or the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on just why it is necessary.

There is also significant confusion and a lack of transparency about how the decision was made and exactly who was made aware of the change. The Scottish Police Authority, the body responsible for holding Police Scotland to account, have indicated that they did not receive a full and comprehensive briefing on the issue from the Chief Constable before implementation.  And the Cabinet Secretary has so far refused to come before Parliament to explain the move.

This is not good enough, and raises concerns about the efficacy of the accountability and scrutiny measures in place. I will continue to ask questions on both this change, and the way it was implemented, as we need answers.

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Motor Neurone Disease – campaigning for more reseach and better services

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is the name given to a related group of diseases that affect the nerves which carry messages from the brain to the muscles.  The disease is degenerative, progressive and incurable.

Gordon Aikman, the Director of Research for Better Together, has recently been diagnosed with the disease and has been brave and forthright in talking about his reaction to his diagnosis, what that means for his life and the energy he is dedicating to campaigning to support research and improved services for MND.

He highlighted cases where MND patients have to pay for some of  the essential care they need and spoke of the fact that 80% of funding for the country’s seven specialist nurses comes from charitable donations.

Before Gordon went to Better Together, he worked for Scottish Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament and I got to know him a little. It is hard to believe that someone so young and healthy can have been diagnosed with such a terrible disease and yet it is inspiring to see him meet his diagnosis head on, and to use his energies to campaign for more support and improved services for people with MND.

He has been willing to talk about his condition and last night, in an interview on Scotland Tonight, he gave an insight into how difficult it was to take in that he had MND; the practical challenges that he faces and will continue to face; as well as his desire to live his life to the full while he can. He has eloquently articulated the struggle that he and the hundreds of people in Scotland with MND at present are coping with – and through that, is helping to educate us all on this terrible illness.

Gordon set up a JustGiving page to support the work of MND Scotland – and the response to him and his story has been so profound that since it was launched a few weeks ago it has raised over £35,000 for MND Scotland.

MND Scotland is a charity dedicated to people living with Motor Neurone Disease, their family, friends and carers. The charity’s website is an invaluable resource and is home to a huge library of information and support materials covering all aspects of the disease and the impacts it has on people’s lives.

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We need an inquiry into historic child abuse

I welcome the UK Government’s announcement today that it will instigate a review led by an independent panel of experts on law and child protection, with the option of a full public inquiry if necessary.

Johann Lamont has been calling for a public inquiry into instances of historic child abuse. However, the Scottish Government has refused to set one up.

Now that the UK Government has made their announcement, the Scottish Government stands alone in their refusal to implement a full and proper inquiry into instances of historic child abuse. The Scottish Government must finally agree to reassess their stance and bring forward proposals to answer the demands for justice from survivors.

Those affected by historic institutional child abuse seek true accountability, an acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology from those organisations still in existence, alongside comprehensive recommendations for the future in terms of prevention. In addition to the provision of counselling services and appropriate prosecutions, there is also a need to address who, when and on what authority decisions were taken to destroy records in respect of victims’ histories.

Instead of passing the buck between Cabinet Secretaries the Scottish Government must take responsibility for the issue and instigate an inquiry to ensure that these horrific crimes will never be repeated in Scottish institutions.

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Answering Jedburgh’s Questions

Heading to Jedburgh tomorrow for, among other things, the BBC’s Big Debate.

I will be on the panel with fellow South Scotland MSPs Jim Hume and Joan McAlpine; playwright and theatre director David Greig; Alex Bell; and Simon Pia.

The questions are always good so I am looking forward to it.

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Worrying shift in the management of firearms officers

There has been a change in the police management of authorised firearms officers and the duties officers are expected to perform whilst armed with an automatic weapon in a public place. This change will see specialist officers routinely being allowed to carry handguns.

This change has been made with little or no consultation with local councillors, the Scottish Police Authority, the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, or the Sub-Committee on Policing. Apparently the Cabinet Secretary for Justice had a quiet chat with the Chief Constable of Police Scotland – and he felt that no other scrutiny was required.

I have written to the Cabinet Secretary to ask him if he still thinks that his private briefing, in the absence of a full Scottish Police Authority consultation and/or the briefing of Parliament in the Chamber or via its committee processes, was the appropriate way to deal with this matter. I am personally very concerned that the lack of information and consultation means, consequently, an insufficient scrutiny of such an important change.

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Show Racism the Red Card in the Parliament

Today Show Racism the Red Card held a reception at the Parliament.

The organisation was highlighting the work that they have been doing this academic year with young people – 12,036 of them – educating against prejudice.

At the event, SRtRC Education Coordinator Dee Matthew spoke of the importance of providing young people with the right information to dispel the myths that can provide the foundations for prejudiced ideas.

The organisation works with professional football to deliver workshops and a high profile campaign, which challenges racism towards those with BAME backgrounds, asylum seekers and refugees, people from Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities as well as challenging Islamophobia and sectarianism.

The campaigns and workshops have been a success with 71% their participants who admitted to behaving in a racist or sectarian manner in the past saying that they would not do so again and 91% of participants feeling confident to challenge or report racism or sectarianism.

SRtRC were lobbying for continued financial support to ensure that this good work can continue.

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