Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

While the referendum campaign builds to its climax, I wanted to draw attention to another issue.

In the UK 1,600 children aged 15 and under are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cancer is still the single largest cause of death from disease in children and young people in the UK.

Every day, 10 children and young people in the UK hear the shocking news that they have cancer. Treatment normally starts immediately, is often given many miles from home and can last for up to three years.

However, as if it wasn’t difficult enough to have to deal with the diagnosis and treatment – a third of children with cancer experience bullying when they return to school.

This month is Childhood Cancer Awareness month – CLIC Sargent are joining forces with many other charities to raise awareness of the impact that childhood cancer has on families across the UK, and is calling on the public to wear a gold ribbon to show their support for those families coping with childhood cancer.

Although many people do not realise just how difficult it can be, not only emotionally but also financially and logistically to be and to care for a child with cancer – there is overwhelming support that people affected should have access to all the different support that they might need.

CLIC Sargent provides vital emotional, financial and practical support to the thousands of children diagnosed with cancer each year – supporting children and families from diagnosis and through treatment.

The campaign is asking for your support – and to wear a gold ribbon to show that you support the work that is being done to help children with cancer and their families.

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Stranraer Academy Project

Last week I was at Stranraer Academy for the launch of an exciting project.

I have been working with Stranraer Academy for a number of years. In addition to visiting the school for meetings and Q&As, I have held school surgeries; encouraged distinguished guests - including the Chinese Consul General - to come to the school to speak to pupils; and I ran a year-long parliamentary project which, among other things, saw three pupils come to the Scottish Parliament to meet with parliamentarians and officials to discuss the work of the Parliament and how it related to them.

Building on this work, last week we helped to launch an initiative which will see interested school leavers gaining experience and possible employment with a construction company.

Dumfries & Galloway Housing Partnership (DGHP) currently has a significant development program to build new houses with Crudens in the west of the region including Stranraer, Monrieth, Newton Stewart and Wigton.

There has been a desire from politicians, Stranraer Academy and DGHP to connect this large scale building program to training and employment opportunities for school leavers coming out of Stranraer Academy.

18 school leavers have signed up for a training course with Dumfries & Galloway College. This course is a general taster course and will give some experience of a number of construction trades including joinery, plastering, plumbing and brickwork. The course runs for 23 weeks and the candidates will leave with a BTec qualification

During the course the College will provide some on-site training (on placement) and candidates will be targeted at their area of interest in the construction industry. Candidates will also be provided with 8 weeks on site experience with Crudens, giving them an insight into a real world working environment.

The school leavers have already been through an interview with the college. However, all the students will have an additional interview at the end of the course. This interview will be for a job with Crudens.

It is intended that 6 candidates will be recruited. Officials from the College will work with the other students to help to find other work or further training or courses.

As well as gaining construction experience and qualification the candidates will also gain some extra benefits and training including First Aid, Health and Safety and Customer Service

The College is funding the majority of this course from their own budgets (around £55k), however, an additional £16k is being provided by DGHP and the Scottish Government. Without this, the course would not be able to run. DGHP will also be helping to fund the travel expenses for those students who would otherwise struggle to participate in the course. And DGHP are also providing clothing and the candidates with a first set of tools to get them started.

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Scottish security

In the last few days, the issue of security and defence has come to the fore in the referendum campaign, and not before time.

Those who regularly read this blog will know that I have repeatedly tried to get details on the SNP Government’s plans for security and defence. This began well before publication of the White Paper in November last year and, even now, detailed information remains elusive.

When I asked parliamentary questions in May about the plans for the organisational structure of the new Scottish security and intelligence service; the ability of that new organisation to deliver on the crucial responsibility of keeping Scots secure from day one, as well as work with the other countries that we rely on; and crucially the costs involved, I was staggered by the responses.

Information is often tough to come by from this Government, but I can only conclude that in regard to the costs of setting up their proposed new security and intelligence agency, which is supposed to replace GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and apparently provide an improved service for Scots, the Scottish Government either have absolutely no idea how much it will cost to set up or they’re refusing to tell us.

Despite spending £1.3 million on the independence White Paper, the only thing that they will say about the cost of a new security service is that it will be a ‘small proportion of an independent Scotland’s total budget’. They also admit that they have no idea how many staff would need to be recruited and how long it would take to adequately train them.

Given this, it is unsurprising that Sir David Omand, a former head of GCHQ, has called plans for security arrangements in an independent Scotland “fundamentally flawed” and General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, has said that he finds the white paper defence plans “amateurish, unrealistic and lacking any clear strategic purpose.”

The focus of much of the campaign so far has been the economy – both personal and national – and that is understandable. The money in our pockets; paying the mortgage/rent; and the levels of our pensions are all incredibly important and we need to know what will happen.

However, there are some things that we take for granted and because so much of the work to secure them is done in the background most people haven’t been talking about them during the campaign. Things like security. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all work to protect our security and collaborate with police and others to help keep us safe. I do not believe that enough consideration has been given to what will happen – and needs to happen – in the event of Scottish independence to ensure that Scots are kept safe. I do not believe, given the lack of information provided in responses, that the Scottish Government have made appropriate and necessary contingencies for our safety. And I do believe that this is a fundamental dereliction of their duty.

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On the campaign trail

Graeme on the campaign trail

The referendum campaign is reaching its crescendo. It has been a long three and a half years since the SNP majority Government was elected in May 2011, making the referendum their number one priority - and in just over two weeks’ time the people of Scotland will give us their answer.

We have been out on the campaign trail. Today we have been knocking on doors and delivering newspapers. On other days, it is phone banking and street stalls; hustings or debates. We are out there, committed to meeting and speaking with as many people as possible - listening and discussing the future - of both a Yes and a No vote and I have to say that on the whole people have been very friendly.

Now comes the final push, the next 16 days will be busy.

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SPA Board Meeting in Clydebank

As Scottish Police Authority Board meetings usually take place on Wednesday afternoons, I am in Parliament and therefore unable to go along. However, as the Parliament is now in recess until after the referendum, I was able to take the opportunity to go to this month’s meeting, which was held today at Clydebank Town Hall.

The meeting was quite long – they commonly run for 4 hours or so – but interesting. There isn’t any interaction in the meetings between the gallery and the Board, which – along with the length of the meetings – maybe explains why I was the only member of the public there. However, if anyone wants to catch up on the meeting now, you can read the papers discussed and watch the meeting on the SPA website - click here for more information.

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Reviews of Armed Police on Routine Duties

I am glad to say that the concerns raised regarding the decision for armed police to be put on routine duties, and crucially the decision-making progress that lead to this decision, can no longer be batted away so the decision – and how it was made – is now going to be examined by two bodies with scrutiny powers over Police Scotland.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority will be conducting complementary reviews into the decision, which was made by the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House. The reviews were announced last week but Derek Penman, HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, and Vic Emery, Chair of the Scottish Police Authority came before the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing yesterday to face questions on the situation relating to armed police including what their involvement has been up until now; and details on what their reviews will examine and when we can expect these reviews to be published.

The answers did not give a lot of comfort in terms of how decisions are being made – as the SPA seems to be looking at decisions and changes after they are made instead of scrutinising proposals as part of the decision making process to ensure that the correct decisions are being made in the first instance. However, the fact that this policy change on armed police, which is a fundamental change in the culture of policing in this country, is now being scrutinised is to be welcomed.

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‘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 – (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!

Posted in Better Together, Local events, Referendum | Leave a comment