Sir Stephen House resigns

Today Sir Stephen House announced that he would be standing down as Chief Constable of Police Scotland in three months’ time instead of next year.

It is always sad when someone has to stand down, however I believe that this is the right decision.

Sir Stephen has been a dedicated police officer and a dedicated public servant and for this he deserves our sincere thanks.

I hope that his announcement to resign early will provide an opportunity for Police Scotland and the Scottish Government to consider a better way to serve our communities and to not only hear but listen to what they are saying about policing in Scotland.

The problems with Police Scotland didn’t start with the appointment of the Chief Constable and they won’t end with his resignation. As a former police officer I am angry at what has happened to the reputation of police officers in Scotland. The good name of every rank and file officer out protecting their communities has been dragged through the mud because of a failure of leadership at the top of Police Scotland and by SNP Government ministers.

Cuts to police budgets and civilian staff numbers; closure of services; a lack of transparency over stop and search; spying on journalists; and controversy over deaths in police custody are some of the issues that still need to be dealt with. And we need more effective governance and accountability.

There is an opportunity here. I hope that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland take it.

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Asylum for Afghan Interpreters

I have been troubled by reports that Afghan interpreters who worked with British armed forces, and have been targeted by Taliban militants as a result, are not being given asylum.

There are around 200 interpreters who have asked for help, given the threats that they face. That threat is real, as the recent murder of a senior interpreter who worked with British forces proves. These people have assisted our armed forces, now we should assist them.

Here is the text of the motion that I have laid down in the Scottish Parliament:

Motion S4M-13993: Asylum for Afghan Interpreters – That the Parliament considers that, because their work has made them a target for Taliban militants, it is unconscionable that the local interpreters who have worked with Britain’s armed forces in Afghanistan have reportedly not been granted asylum by the UK Government; understands that over 200 have applied for such help and that, without this, they are effectively being abandoned, and, in light of the assistance that they provided to the armed forces, calls on the UK Government to honour what it sees as its moral, if not legal, obligation to help these people.

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New and old responsibilities

I have been asked to take on the role of Justice spokesperson for Scottish Labour.

It is a role that I held until from June 2013 until December 2014, and I am glad to have the opportunity to be involved in these issues once again – especially given all of the justice issues that are so pressing at this time. I look forward to raising issues, in the Chamber and out, and to working with colleagues to help hold the Scottish Government to account on what are such important issues.

Although I am happy with my new responsibilities, I have greatly enjoyed working within the Enterprise portfolio throughout this year. The people I have worked with have been interesting and helpful and I have learned a great deal. I am grateful to many who gave me their time and the benefit of their knowledge and experience.

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Mobile Coverage Checker launched

Having adequate mobile coverage is an issue in many rural communities. To help identify who offers the best coverage in your area Ofcom has launched a new mobile coverage checker which provides a single-stop for consumers and businesses across the UK.

Users are able to zoom to a specific location on a UK map, or simply enter a place name or postcode, to receive data on coverage for each mobile network – down to 100 square meters. The map uses data provided by EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.

Ofcom are also inviting users to check their coverage experience and leave feedback, which they aim to use to help refine and improve the tool as part of ongoing work on improving mobile coverage.

Click here to link to the checker.

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New Leader for Scottish Labour

Today I attended the announcement of Scottish Labour’s new leadership team in Stirling.

Our new Leader is Kezia Dugdale who fought the contest against Ken Macintosh.

Alex Rowley was elected as Deputy Leader, beating Richard Baker MSP and Councillor Gordon Matheson.

We have had a positive campaign from all of the candidates and now we can move forward and get behind our new leadership team – to hold the Scottish Government to account, but also to set out an alternative vision for the people of Scotland.

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Borders Railway Opening

The people of the South of Scotland have had to wait 50 years, but a proper Borders railway is soon to open.

Her Majesty the Queen will open the new line on the day she becomes the longest serving monarch in British history.

The railway is the longest domestic line to be built in more than 100 years in the United Kingdom.

The Queen and Prince Philip will arrive at Waverley Station in Edinburgh to board the train drawn by the steam locomotive Union of South Africa on the morning of Wednesday, September 9, and will travel the route, stopping off at Newtongrange in Midlothian before carrying on to the final stop on the new railway at the Scottish Borders town of Tweedbank.

For more information, please visit: http://www.bordersrailway.co.uk/news/2015/august/queen-to-open-borders-railway.aspx

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Police Scotland have ignored suggestions to improve the Force

I wanted to share an essay that I wrote for publication in last week’s Sunday Mail.

The funerals of John Yuill and Lamara Bell last week revealed the pain and shock still felt by the couple’s friends and families.

They also marked a point of significant pressure for those in charge of Police Scotland, who failed them so badly. That is the chief constable Sir Stephen House, the convener of the Scottish Police Authority Vic Emery and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson.

After the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody and the previous controversies endured by the single force since Scotland’s eight forces were merged, public confidence in those in charge has undoubtedly been shaken.

Still, for four years now, suggestions to improve the reform of our police service have been rejected.

Instead, they have tried to misrepresent considered criticisms of strategy and policy – whether around the arming of police on routine patrol or stop-and-search targets – into an attack on frontline officers while ignoring the many requests to see a business plan or balance sheet for these reforms.

At the launch of Police Scotland, I observed the success of the force initially would rely on the efforts of constables, their supervisors and staff who would continue to serve the public. For those in command, success would only be delivered in years to come when systems and structures were created enabling, indeed supporting, the front line to carry out their vital duties.

My comments were clearly viewed as grudging and small-minded by those in charge of the change and certainly April 1 – yes, really – came and went without society collapsing. But behind that “success”, the evidence was already gathering, indicating management activity but little in the way of genuine planning and organisation.

Yes, we got new national units for domestic violence, terrorism and organised crime alongside a roads unit and a football unit. But when it came to delivering the bread-and-butter services of call centres and manned stations, we found out too little, too late.

Meaningless consultations were launched as control rooms closed anyway.

A single IT system remained undelivered while redundancies moved ahead with pace.

Superintendents reported a survey in which 37 per cent of members identified a culture of bullying while 85 per cent believed damaging cliques existed at the top of Police Scotland.

Their warnings were ignored by those in charge, who pushed ahead with, what some may
consider, reckless abandon, ignoring the gathering clamour of alarm bells.

If superintendents felt this way and got little response, what about those of lower ranks?

In truth, we don’t know, because a wider staff survey has been delayed for more than a year for one reason or another, none of them entirely convincing.

Last week, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill delivered an analysis suggesting Police Scotland were better placed than the NHS and councils as austerity bites. His assessment was as frightening in the circumstances as it was superficial.

Along with his government, he is already content to blame an individual’s failure for the M9 failures before an inquiry reports but is, no doubt, thankful the buck no longer stops with him.

There is without doubt something wrong at the heart of this new national police force and it needs urgent attention.

As a supporter of the single force concept, I welcomed the removal of the many chiefs and headquarters functions replicated across the country.

I did, however, expect the seven years of planning to provide the accountabilities, the command and control systems, and the management needed. But, it seems they were quite simply making it up as they went along.

In April, the Scottish Police Federation said “targets designed to give politicians control over police activity” were at the centre of much of the difficulties.

If true, those targets could only be set by the Scottish Government, because opposition politicians only found out about them by responding to constituency complaints and Freedom of Information requests.

Each question posed in regard to targets and changed policies was met by opaque, official responses that said little and amounted to less.

Throughout, I have called for candour and openness. A call ignored or rejected as coming from an MSP with an “agenda”.

I do have an agenda. I want our emergency services to be the best in the world, effective in the provision of services at a cost we can afford.

In all this, and much more, it seems to me the tragedies we have witnessed these past months were “waiting to happen”.

The insistence on good news and positive headlines has blinded those in charge to the failures they enabled through a basic lack of planning.

The funerals this week call loudly for someone to take responsibility for the failures.

Vic Emery, who had a duty to provide effective governance for policing, has already announced his retirement.

Scottish Labour have called for the chief constable to accept his responsibilities. He didn’t fail to handle the call properly but he was, and is, at the head of an organisation who have failed to maintain the necessary systems in support of those who do receive such calls.

I believe many attending the funerals last week of John Yuill and Lamara Bell would agree.

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#KissBigotryGoodbye

I was happy to add my support to the charity Nil by Mouth on its #KissBigotryGoodbye campaign today.

The campaign, which is the result of working with students from City of Glasgow College, is encouraging Twitter users to post a photo that demonstrates why they love football. The aim is to show the positive side of football, of people who love their teams and the game, instead of the often negative stories about football fans that circulate on social media.

For more information about the campaign click here.

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Changes to local authority representation proposed

The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland is proposing to change the boundaries of hundreds of council wards ahead of the local elections in 2017.

Under the proposals from 2017 there will councillors be 1,219 councillors in 352 wards elected across the country, which is a decrease of 4 councillors and 1 ward compared to the situation today. The aim of the Commission is to review the boundaries to take account of:

  • the interests of effective and convenient local government;
  • within each council, each councillor should represent the same number of electors as nearly as may be;
  • local ties which would be broken by making a particular boundary;
  • the desirability of fixing boundaries that are easily identifiable; and
  • special geographical considerations.

Some local authorities will see an increase in the number of councillors and conversely others will see their numbers reduced. Across South Scotland local authorities will be affected as follows:

Dumfries and Galloway : Proposals will reduce the number of wards in the area by 1 and reducing councillor numbers by 4 to 43; they would place Stranraer in a single ward; and the boundaries of many wards would be altered.

East Ayrshire: It is proposed to maintain the number of councillors at 32 and to make relatively small changes to boundaries across the local authority but would make changes to ward boundaries by Dean Castle Country Park and Fullwood.

East Lothian: The proposals would see 1 fewer ward and 1 fewer councillor in East Lothian council. Among the changes they would place Musselburgh in a single ward and make changes to ward boundaries by Inveresk and Pencaitland;

Midlothian: Midlothian council would maintain 18 councillors in 6 3-member wards and would make changes to ward boundaries by Gladstone Gait, Bonnyrigg.

Scottish Borders: A reduction of 1 ward and 2 councillors is proposed with changes made to the ward boundaries at Charlesfield, Stichill, Horndean, Hawick and Roxburgh.

South Ayrshire: It is proposed that the number of councillors in South Ayrshire is reduced by 2 to 28, and amending ward boundaries in Ayr and Carrick.

South Lanarkshire: The Commission proposes to reduce the number of councillors by 3, removing one from each of the Avondale and Stonehouse ward, the East Kilbride Central North ward and the Blantyre ward. There would also be boundary changes to some wards in Blantyre, Cambuslang, East Kilbride and Hamilton.

These proposals are now out for consultation so if you have a view on the proposals, please ensure that you contribute. More detail of the proposals and information on how to respond to the consultation is available here. The consultation will close on 22 October so there is 12 weeks to feed in your views.

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Police and Fire Officers affected by Milne case

I have been doing what I can to help a number of constituents who retired 10-15 years ago and whose pension entitlement was calculated using outdated pension commutation factors. 

The Pensions Ombudsman published his determination in a case concerning the lump sum paid to a firefighter on his retirement – Mr Milne. Mr Milne’s case was a test case and there are many others, including some constituents, who are similarly affected. Essentially, the Ombudsman determined that the pension commutation factors should have been reviewed twice between 1998 and 2006, specifically on 1st December 2001 and again on 1st December 2004. As such Mr Milne should now be paid any difference between what he did receive and what he would have received using the newly calculated figures; plus basic interest over the period since retirement and plus any tax liability which might be incurred as a result of receiving this payment.

Although the Ombudsman’s decision was welcomed by others who retired between late 2001 and late 2006, information regarding what it means for them – specifically information on the new commutation factors – hasn’t been easy to come by since.  

Thankfully the Government Actuary Dept has now made this information available. Click here for more details which includes tables of factors to be used in calculating redress and detailed guidance for scheme administrators to aid them in calculating the amounts owed to individuals.

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