Derek Mackay: John Swinney defends SNP’s handling of scandal involving former finance minister

The Scottish National Party has defended how they handled the breaking story around former Finance Minister Derek Mackay.

The graphic story containing his texts to a 16-year-old boy was released by the Sun newspaper yesterday.

In the wake of Mackay’s resignation, John Swinney released this statement defending the Government’s handling of the scandal:

“The government became aware of these allegations at about 6pm on Wednesday night, and we simply – because of the significance of what was being put to us – asked for information to give us the veracity and the substance of the points that were being put to us.”

“We saw nothing in writing until we saw the first edition of The Sun later on Wednesday evening, so we were simply asking for the detail that we would ask in any situation where allegations are being put to us so that we can be confident about the detail that is being asked.”

Mackay resigned from his position yesterday after the Sun released a report about him sending 270 messages to a schoolboy.

The messages include him calling the schoolboy “cute” and inviting him to dinner.

Now, more accusations of harassment have come out about the ex-minister.

An SNP activist, Shaun Cameron, has claimed that Mackay sent him messages for years during his time as an activist.

After the scandal broke, the other parties in Holyrood were quick to make statements about the recent resignation. Scottish Greens parliamentary co-leader Alison Johnstone said:

“Derek Mackay’s behaviour and conduct towards a 16-year old has been utterly unacceptable.”

“His persistent and unwanted approaches represent an abuse of power, and the impact on the family cannot be overstated.”

“It is therefore entirely correct that he is no longer in his position as finance secretary and suspended from his party. The individual and family must receive all the support that they need.”

Mackay resigned from his position after the scandal broke, just hours before the release of the new Holyrood budget.

NHS Lothian in “crisis” following shock resignation of chairman

The resignation of the chairman of NHS Lothian shows that the organisation is in “crisis”, according to a local politician.

Brian Houston had been NHS Lothian chairman for over six years, but announced late on Thursday that he was stepping down.

Reasons for Houston’s resignation have been accredited to reported issues regarding questions from the Scottish Government and NHS Lothian Staff, in relation to the new hospital for sick children.

The news comes just two weeks after the Chief Executive of NHS Lothian announced his retirement.

The Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh was due to be opened in July 2019, however construction was delayed by a litany of issues and the hospital opening date was pushed back to August 2020.

Neil Findlay, Labour MSP for Lothian, spoke to EN4 News about his concerns over the current state of NHS Lothian.

“The resignation of Brian Houston and the Government putting the NHS Lothian board into special measures both show the extent to which this organisation is in crisis,” Mr Findlay said.

“For years I have been raising very serious concerns about the way the organisation operates and how this is impacting on patient care and staff.

“We have the Sick Kids hospital chaos, the saga of St John’s children’s ward, waiting lists for some procedures of over a year, GP practices closing, understaffing and another budget deficit. The patients and staff deserve so much better than this. The SNP Government has to get a grip of our NHS.”

A public inquiry was launched over the delay after it was announced that the facility cost £52 million to construct and enable.

Rumours have also been circulating that Brian Houston’s resignation came as a result of fundamental differences between himself and the Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman.

Speaking on the news of Houston’s resignation, Scottish Conservative MSP and health spokesperson Miles Briggs said: “I think what we need to establish next is what these differences between Jeanne Freeman and Mr Houston actually are and exactly what the cabinet secretary has been trying to force upon the management of NHS Lothian.”

Following Houston’s resignation, an emergency meeting of non-executive board members has been scheduled for Monday. Houston has offered to help whoever replaces him to settle into the role.

Scottish Government plans to tackle pay gap

In celebration of International Women’s Day, the Scottish Government has announced its first Gender Pay Gap Action Plan.

The action plan has been put in place to tackle gender discrimination and inequalities in the workplace. The gender pay gap in Scotland for full-time employees has decreased to 5.7% in 2018, from 6.6% in 2017.

The plan will help the Scottish Government to meet its target of reducing the gender pay gap by 2021. The plan includes over 50 actions, including:

  • Supporting 2,000 women on their return to work after a career break through the new Women Returners Programme, worth £5 million over three years, building on the success of a pilot project run since 2017.
  • Improving workplace practices, including support for women during menopause and for victims of domestic abuse, through the expansion of the Workplace Equality Fund.
  • Refreshing the gender and diversity element of the Scottish Business Pledge.
  • Urging the UK Government to strengthen and enforce the protection of women and carers against discrimination and dismissal – including strengthening paternity leave rights and introducing ‘safe leave’ which would provide victims of domestic violence with additional leave.
  • Promoting gender equality within early learning and child care; schools, colleges, and universities; and within employment support or social security systems.
  • Commissioning a feasibility study for a ‘What Works Centre for Flexible Work’ to design, test and embed new approaches to increasing the availability of flexible working – in particularly for low income parents.
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(Credit: Creative Commons)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the plan today (March 8th) at Business Gateway’s Woman in Business event, to mark International Women’s Day. She said: “The package of measures set out in Scotland’s first Gender Pay Gap Action Plan are a historic landmark in our march to achieving gender equality and closing the gender pay gap.

“While the gender pay gap in Scotland is now the lowest on record and lower than the UK as a whole we still have much progress to make, which requires long term solutions not short term fixes.”

The First Minister  also laid out the specifics of the action plan: “Our plan sets out a whole system approach across public, private and third sectors and looks at breaking down the cause of the gender pay gap throughout a young girl’s life – from challenging gender stereotyping in early years learning and schools to supporting employers to adopt inclusive and flexible workplace practices to help mothers return to work after a career break.

“This plan is not just about supporting girls and women to participate equally in our labour market. It is also about promoting and installing fair work principles and setting out the benefits these can bring to all individuals, employers and the Scottish economy.”

 

Scotland split between minimum and maximum Council Tax increase

All Scottish Councils have decided on their 2019/20 council tax increase; Edinburgh is one of 13 councils to decide on keeping a 3% increase, while those living in Midlothian will see a 4.79% increase, the largest allowed by the Scottish Government.

The 2017/18 Local Government Finance settlement included an agreement between the Scottish Government and local government for locally determined Council Tax increases to be capped at 3%. However, this has been increased to 4.79% after debate in the Scottish Parliament.

council tax

(Credit: Ryan Traynor, contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and database right)

The split between 3% and 4.79% is relatively even. 13 areas have opted for 3% and 12 for 4.79%, with only a handful of councils choosing a rate in between.

Band D – the average housing type in Scotland – in Midlothian will have the highest increase with £60.62, taking residents’ annual bill to £1344.

Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee have all opted to stay at 3%.

Reactions on social media have been mixed with some users saying they felt “betrayed” by the 4.79% maximum. Others thought that local government needed more funding, and were happy to pay more tax. More efficient spending was a concern shared by both sides.

As well as the ability to decide their council tax rates, local authorities will be able to charge a transient visitor levy and workplace parking charge.

Scottish Government to upgrade local railways

shallow focus photography of railway during sunset

Government grants could help connect communities (Credit: Albin Berlin on Pexels.com)

 

The Scottish Government’s Local Rail Development Fund has re-opened after a successful first round, which saw £700,000 awarded to communities to go towards improvements on local lines.

The first round of the Local Rail Development Fund began in February 2018 and 10 communities were given award grants totalling £681,000 in August after submitting their applications, with the aim of the fund to carry out transport appraisals which have the potential to bring forward proposals for improvements to rail connections in the area. The fund was initially given £2 million to distribute to various communities and after the interest generated from the first round, Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, decided to re-launch the fund with the remaining balance of £1.3 million up for grabs.

Matheson said: “This £2 million fund will help communities bring forward proposals to tackle specific local rail connectivity issues, which will form part of our considerations for long-term investment in Scotland’s transport system. Ten communities are already benefiting from £700,000 worth of grants, I am keen to encourage more bids for the remaining funds this time round.

“Since 2007, we have invested around £8 billion to help build the best railway Scotland has ever had. The success of this relies on communities embracing the potential harnessed by the railway and it is very pleasing to see so much interest in the Local Rail Development Fund.”

For a community, having good rail links can be key to expanding businesses and attracting tourism. One of the recipients of funding from the first round, StARLink – which aims to provide additional transport link in and around St Andrews – will benefit the town and occupants massively. St Andrews is a historic tourist destination, known worldwide as the home of golf and Scotland’s oldest university, but has suffered years of increasing traffic due to the lack of public transport. Currently the only public transport in the town is local buses, but being able to add rail links to the nearby city of Dundee or capital Edinburgh, will allow tourists to easily make the journey to St Andrews.

Jane Ann Liston, StARLink Convenor said: “The StARLink campaign believes that the option of direct rail travel from Edinburgh and Dundee to the town would significantly alleviate both the physical and environmental effects of too many cars in a small town. Improving the connectivity with the likes of Cupar, Dundee and Dunfermline will spread the economic benefits generated by St Andrews over the whole of Fife and across the Tay.”

Allowing communities to submit proposals for the funding will ensure that the transport links are designed to benefit those who will use them most. The communities know themselves what time will be the busiest, how many people will use the transport links and even down to where the proposed rail stations should be placed within the town. The communities know their town best and should be able to make the executive decisions when it comes to transport links that effect them and will hopefully benefit the town for years to come.

The successful applicants from the first round are:

East Lothian Council – Haddington

Fife Council – Cross Forth Travel

Hitrans – HMNB Clyde Transport Opportunities

Linlithgow and Linlithgow Bridge Community Council – Access to Linlithgow Station

Nestrans – Accessibility at Insch Station

Newburgh Train Station Group – Newburgh

StARLink – St Andrews

South Lanarkshire Council – Connectivity in Clydeside

Tactran – Bridge of Earn/Oudenarde Park & Ride

Tactran – Stirling Strategic Park & Ride

Scottish Government pledges £30,000 to help prevent children going missing

The Scottish government has announced plans to finance a programme to support children and young people at risk of going missing.

Nearly two-thirds of missing person investigations in Scotland involve young people. The new scheme aims to educate this at-risk age-group on the dangers of going missing and how to receive professional help.

The programme has been awarded £30,000 funding by the government to tackle the issue from a preventative position.

Nearly 64%, of all missing person investigations in Scotland involve young people and the charity Missing People, one of two charities involved in the new programme along with Barnardo’s Scotland, say that these figures are likely to be a significant underestimate.

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Credit to missingpeople.org.uk

Only 1 in 20 children who run away from home seek professional help.

Missing Persons Operational Coordinator Yackson Bell from Police Scotland spoke about missing people in the Capital. Yackson estimates that in the Edinburgh about 54% of the 3,000 missing person incidents last year involved children.

Yakson pointed out that young people who run away put themselves at an increased risk of experiencing crime or sexual exploitation:

“We live in fear of that on an almost daily basis.”

“All these risks are heightened if a young person goes missing.”

“If we can raise awareness of that then its something that then we support it 100%.”

You can listen to Yackson Bell talk about the programme here.

 

Holyrood recommends free music lessons “in every local authority”

The Scottish Government’s education committee has stated that music tuition should be free across the country.

The committee has stated that they respect each individual authority’s democratic right to make decisions regarding the tuition, but have stated that “in principle, music tuition should be provided free of charge in every local authority”.

Edinburgh’s local council still provides free lessons, as does the council in Glasgow. Other local authorities still charge up to three figure sums per pupil, and these fees have been increasing in recent years.

Clackmannanshire Council, for example, charged £258.50 in 2017/18. This school year (2018/19) they charge £524, more than double the previous charge and by far the highest tuition cost in Scotland.

South Ayrshire, East Lothian, West Lothian councils also only started charges this year, going from no charge to a cost of £200, £280, and £354 respectively.

West Lothian, the council with the largest price increase, saw 70% of pupils drop extracurricular music lessons after the decision was made, something the council described as “alarming”.

 

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Infographic by Jade du Preez for EN4News

 

Charging for music tuition, despite Holyrood’s statement, is very much the rule as opposed to the exception. 25 of Scotland’s 32 councils charge for lessons, although some are fairly reasonable (£140 per pupil per year in the Scottish Borders).

The issue with charging for music lessons is that it inevitably lowers participation in these programs (as education committee convener Clare Adamson told MSPs, the fees are “increasingly unaffordable” for “far too many young people”).

Lowered participation is a problem, not only because of young people missing opportunities due to their financial situation but because of the proven benefits of music lessons for young people.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year suggested that music lessons help schoolchildren learn languages and improve their language processing skills.

Another study showed how extra-curricular activities (such as music lessons) can reduce delinquency in young people. If councils continue to charge for the lessons — and children, therefore, continue to drop music tuition from their schedule — young people will not gain these small but notable benefits.

COSLA, the umbrella body representing Scottish local councils, has proposed allowing children who are entitled to free school meals to also receive music tuition free of charge.

This suggests progress on the issue. However, no single local authority lowered their tuition costs in the 2018/19 semester, which implies that unless Holyrood takes greater action, universal free music tuition could be a long way off.

Fizzy drink health crisis?

A report released by Cancer Research UK revealed children’s shocking fizzy drinks habits, but is this the full story? 

Newspapers are no stranger to doom and gloom,  just today we were told that every day Scottish children consume 600,000 fizzy drinks a day. However this isn’t the full story.

The report released by Cancer Research UK looked at the diets and obesity levels of Scottish children. They found that 1 in 4 were obese, with fizzy drinks being a contributing factor.

Despite consumption of fizzy drinks being high sugary fizzy drink consumption has actually fallen by 21%.

Researchers have been calling on the Scottish Government to further the limit the advertising and sale of junk food special offers. despite the average Scot consuming 12 kilocalories less in fizzy drinks everyday, the consumption of junk food such as confectionery biscuits and cakes has been steadily increasing since 2010.

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Fizzy drinks currently on the market.

There are calls for the Scottish Government to do more when tackling the obesity with suggestions that restrictions on multi-buy offers on junk food and fizzy drinks which could limit children’s intake.

However, the government is holding a consultation for restricting the advertising of unhealthy food. Members of the public have until the 9th of January 2019 to take part.

Edinburgh, Electric Cars and You

The UK Government announced earlier this week that it would be bringing their proposed ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars forward by 8 years to 2032 – the same year proposed by the Scottish Government.

This means that any cars purchased after this date must be ‘effectively zero emission’; one solution for this is the use of electric cars.

But is Edinburgh ready for an electric revolution?

roadAsset 13@6x-100

houseAsset 11@6x-100

map2Asset 16@6x-100If you can’t charge at home you can use a charging point.

These are dotted around the country and are easy to find with services such as Zap Map that give you a run down of the charging options available in your area.

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Edinburgh isn’t exactly short on chargers. There are around 20 sites within three miles of the centre, almost double the amount of petrol stations.

But there’s a catch.

This is how long it takes to refill the different types of vehicle

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and when you consider that in Edinburgh,

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twenty charging points might not be enough.

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After the Department of Transport announced that the electric car subsidy was being cut by £1000 in November, a surge of last minute applicants has left the fund ‘days away’ from running out.

If electric cars are to be the future then Edinburgh Council, Holyrood and Westminster have a long way to go to reach the 2032 deadline.

UPDATE – Last Minute Talks At Holyrood As SNP Seal Budget Deal With Greens

Just hours before MSPs vote on the SNP budget, a deal has been struck with the Green Party for support of the government’s budget.

Finance Secretary Derek Mackay spent earlier today negotiating with opposition parties in a bid to find much needed support for his budget plans, which will include major changes to tax.

Mr Mackay has said his budget would provide, “stability, sustainability and stimulus” for the Scottish economy and services.

The Green Party said they were willing to make a deal if there was, “significant amendments to the budget as it stands”.

As a minority government, the SNP needs at least one opposition party to at least abstain to get its budget plans through Holyrood.

Mr Mackay was quick to dismiss any potential deal with the Scottish Conservatives or Labour, calling Labour’s budget proposals ridiculous and unworthy of consideration.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems are pursuing funding for education and mental health, along with support for ferry services in the northern isles.

Leader Willie Rennie said the budget “needs to do more to meet the long-term needs of the economy”.

Currently Scotland has three income tax bands – a 20p basic rate, a 40p higher rate beginning at £43,001 and a 45p additional rate for earnings over £150,000.

Mr Mackay has suggested redrawing the system by adding a 19p “starter” rate and a 21p intermediate rate, while adding 1p to the higher and additional rates, creating a five-band system which would see many Scots actually pay less tax than they do now.

This would raise an extra £164m. This rising to £366m when combined with threshold changes from previous years.

UPDATE: The SNP have reached a deal with the Scottish Green Party, in exchange for a ”substantial package” of funding towards extra cash for councils and better pay settlements for workers in the public sector.

Mr Mackay will inform MSPs of the details of the deal at Holyrood later today.

Follow the Budget debate at 2.40pm today at Holyroodhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-42858908

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