Tuesday, January 01, 2013
Looking back at the year that's gone...
It is the close of another year, a time to reflect on the past 12 months and look forward to the challenges of 2013.
Let me start by thanking all those who fought the council elections in May. Although we knew it would be a tough campaign, it was still so disappointing to lose so many hard working local councillors. However, in contrast to some other areas, here in the North East we still have a strong cohort of local councillors standing up for liberal democracy and I will continue to work with them in local campaigns.
It has been a busy year for the Liberal Democrat group in the Scottish Parliament. I believe our group of five MSPs, ably led by Willie Rennie, has maintained a strong presence in parliament and in the media. Strong liberal voices speaking out and working hard, listening to our communities.
And more than ever, there is a real need for liberal voices, because this last year has fully exposed the centralising and controlling instincts of the SNP Government. It is a government that displays a casual disregard for parliamentary scrutiny. Despite promising to govern as if they were still a minority, we have seen the government – time after time – push through legislation unamended, deaf to concerns.
Openness and transparency were never words that were readily associated with the SNP government (we learnt in the summer that they organised secrecy workshops to train civil servants in dealing with freedom of information requests regarding independence).
But October was a turning point – we discovered that the SNP government would go to the Court of Session to prevent the publication of a non-existent document.
The extent of Alex Salmond’s cover-up (over whether he had legal advice on EU membership for a separate Scotland) was exposed to the whole nation - we now know that we can’t trust this government to answer a simple yes or no question, let alone give Scottish people access to important facts that will affect their future.
October was the month when we learned that when Alex Salmond says ‘yes’ it can mean anything really.
That was followed by incidents where the First Minister and his Education Secretary had to be dragged to the chamber to apologise for misleading parliament, not once but twice.
We have worked constructively where we can, not opposing for the sake of it. For example, we supported the Government’s Bills on minimum pricing for alcohol, social care self directed support, long leases, and criminal cases (punishment and review). Last year Liberal Democrats worked constructively to deliver changes in the budget with extra funding for colleges, social housing and early intervention secured. This year we hope to be successful in reversing proposed savage cuts to college budgets and securing extra funding for nursery education.
But when necessary we have been a vigorous opposition. When we believe that legislation is ill thought out, or budget decisions will damage our communities we have made our voice heard. Our most vigorous opposition has been to the Police and Fire Reform Bill. This Bill paved the way for the single Scottish police force and single fire service to come into being in April. The SNP bulldozed through their centralising reforms, paying no heed to concerns expressed by communities, politicians or chief constables. The opposition parties tabled a total of 125 amendments to this Bill. They were aimed at improving accountability, re-strengthening the role of local authorities and creating greater transparency. The government rejected them all.
I believe this legislation is a destruction of the community foundations that our police and fire and rescue services are built upon and as the Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson I led for the party on this. Needless to say we did not vote for the legislation.
Concerns remain over accountability, local control and political independence. I have not been convinced by arguments put forward as to how the new services will function in practice. Over the last month we have witnessed the unedifying sight of the chairman of the Scottish Police Authority and the new chief constable engaged in a public power struggle over where responsibility lies. It’s barely 100 days since the legislation received Royal Assent and already the centralising Act is in turmoil. I also continue to have serious doubts over the outline business case and estimated savings.
Justice issues remain to the fore at parliament, with the government’s proposals to remove the need for corroboration in criminal trials and reforms to criminal legal aid causing controversy. Scotland’s justice system is under sustained attack from the Scottish government at the moment. The SNP portrays it as pursuing a reforming agenda, but I fear there is a cavalier disregard for the founding principles of our criminal justice system, and we will do what we can to resist wholesale changes.
I have invested a great deal of time in campaigning for prison reform, particularly for changes to the women’s prison estate. You could be forgiven for thinking that the description of conditions for woman offenders in Scotland were pulled straight from the pages of a Dickensian novel and not from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate reports: overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, food not fit for consumption, excessive use of solitary confinement and a lack of adequate medical facilities have all been features of Scotland’s only prison for women offenders - HMP Cornton Vale.
Our justice system has for too long been failing women offenders and our communities. The chronic overcrowding that has been the hallmark of Cornton Vale has led to an increase in violence and self-harm. It has also fostered an atmosphere which is in no way conducive to rehabilitation and efforts to break the cycle of re-offending.
For too long, the SNP Justice Secretary dodged his responsibility to improve the scandalous conditions that where getting worse on his watch. Again and again, I and others implored Kenny MacAskill to support calls for a new, purpose-built facility to house women offenders. Again and again Mr MacAskill refused to act and pointed to the cost of building a new prison. However, I am pleased to report that at last we have worn him down. He announced last month that a new prison will be built. This is a welcome chance to have a fresh start in our approach to rehabilitation. I’m pleased that the Justice Secretary has finally agreed with me that the cost of doing nothing is a price a tolerant liberal society should not be prepared to pay.
In May, The Scotland Act was passed, devolving significant new financial powers to our parliament.
In October The Edinburgh Agreement, successfully negotiated by our Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore was signed. This set out a proper basis for the referendum and crucially, thanks to Michael Moore’s steely resolve, ensures that one single question is posed. Both governments agreed that the referendum should have a clear legal base, be legislated for by the Scottish Parliament, be conducted so as to command the confidence of parliaments, government and people, deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect. It must be held before the end of 2014.
The North East in Parliament
College mergers, transport infrastructure, Union Terrace Gardens, hospital waiting times, council funding, rural GP practices, local job losses, farming regulations, retained fire stations, the oil and gas industry and road safety are all issues I have pursued through debates, oral questions and Ministerial contact.
The coming year
The next 12 months will be testing for Liberal Democrats across the UK, as the Westminster government tackles the economic mess left by Labour, while here in Scotland we gear up for the 2014 independence referendum. These will be challenging times but nonetheless there will be opportunities too for us to stand up for our beliefs as Liberal Democrats. We should be proud of the role Liberal Democrats are playing, locally, nationally, and throughout the UK.
With best wishes
Alison McInnes MSP
Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Scotland
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