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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 16th January 2005


W/C 10th January 2005

Well, here we are at the start of another year. I hope everyone had a good break – I certainly did. It was a great surprise for me to be whisked off to Genoa and La Spezia for New Year, and to visit the mountain village where the Fabianis lived before my grandfather and some of his brothers emigrated to Scotland way back in the first quarter of the 20th century. I even met an elderly gentleman who remembered the family. All in all it was a great holiday, so I’m feeling well refreshed this Monday 10th January 2005. I must admit to not having done much work over Christmas and New Year though, so raring to go?

Started off today with one of the things I enjoy most about my work; I was at Claremont High School in East Kilbride this morning talking with the Higher Modern Studies classes – around fifty pupils and it’s great to see so many taking the Modern Studies classes. As usual, I was grilled on all sorts of subjects, mainly this time health and fitness issues. I’ve noticed over the last few years of school visits that pupils are becoming much more aware of politics, both local and national, and are obviously using the Parliament’s excellent website for information.

The afternoon took me to South Lanarkshire Council to talk over housing issues with some of the SNP Councillors. There are real concerns with Councillors in many Council areas, of all parties, that the Executive announces initiatives and legislation and then leaves Local Authorities to comply, often without adequate resources. Councillors’ main concerns often relate to the areas they represent rather than party politics, and there are serious concerns about shortages of good social rented housing, about building on play areas and sports fields, and green space in general. I know it’s hard – people need houses and people need leisure space – we really do need innovative solutions to housing nationwide and it seems to be taking an awful long time for potential solutions to be identified by Government.

Tuesday evening, and I’ve spent the day in the Edinburgh office playing catch-up with the emails which I didn’t deal with during the recess and of course the mounds of post received. As usual though the team have dealt with a lot of them on my behalf – I’m aware that I’m a bit of a control freak and hate to feel that I don’t know what’s going on/what’s being done/what stage an issue is at, and sometimes I know I’m a pain-in-the-neck checking up on things or dabbling where I should just leave others to get on with it. So, one of my resolutions this year is to trust people to get on with things a bit more – I do already delegate, but I suppose what I really mean is to delegate and not interfere until I’m needed! Submitting this resolution to virtual paper is probably a mistake; I can just see Calum firing up the Website whenever I get edgy about things!

Davie gave me a rundown yesterday on the constituency cases which have been arriving in the Motherwell office. Neighbour disputes of course – we get a lot of queries about this. Sometimes things can get seriously out of hand with abusive and threatening behaviour taking place by either one or both parties. While mediation can sometimes work in these situations cases that come to my office are usually beyond the point of reconciliation. These cases can drag on for a long long time and the effects on people’s lives can be devastating. The anti-social behaviour legislation designed to curb such excessive behaviour is still in its infancy with local authority officials still getting to grips with it, but over time we can only hope that it becomes an effective way of dealing with such problems.

A recent issue is that of Tax Credits and I have had a number of complaints in recent weeks about constituents having suddenly had their tax credits stopped. As you might imagine this can cause a great deal of distress when families discover their income has abruptly been reduced and they have to manage on a lower income. Dealing with tax issues is not something I should do on individual cases because it’s one of these matters that’s ‘reserved’ to Westminster. However, we have looked into the general issue so that we can steer folk in the right direction quickly.

The reason normally given by the Inland Revenue is that the individual or family has been over-paid. Now this raises some questions about the administration of the tax credit system because people are being made awards based on the information they have supplied to the Inland Revenue who in turn decide what they are entitled to get. Then the IR come back some months later saying “we have paid you too much”. I’ve even been told of cases where folk have queried their award with the Inland Revenue, have been told “no, you’re not getting too much” and then months later having their money stopped because they’ve been overpaid! There are supposed to be systems in place that allow families to pay back money at a rate that will not leave them in so much hardship but this doesn’t seem to be applied generally, so I have written to the Chairman of the Inland Revenue to point out my concerns – it’s clearly wrong that people are being left high and dry like this.

Well, it’s 8.30 pm, I do feel I’ve cleared the decks a bit, so I’m off home to read up the papers for the Communities Committee in the morning.

Wednesday morning’s Communities Committee was really interesting – we’re still taking evidence on the proposed Charities legislation and today we heard evidence from representatives of independent schools and one hospital as to why they should have charitable status. Lots of folk don’t actually realise that private schools and hospitals currently do have charitable status with the resultant tax breaks that this gives. The issue is that under the proposed legislation any organisation which applies for charitable status will have to meet a test of ‘public benefit’ and it does not seem at all clear whether this can be met in all of these cases. As a member of the committee I should listen to all the evidence and consider it in an objective fashion, so I’ll say no more about this at present! We also heard from the churches, the Inter-Faith Council and the Humanist Society. Again, charitable status currently applies and worries that it may be difficult in all cases to prove ‘public benefit’. One suggestion in the written evidence was that a public benefit could be defined as ‘spiritual and moral guidance’. As I said at the meeting, I would have real concerns about how this could be defined and indeed who would define it. It seems, however, that it is the intention rather than the actual wording which is meant, so we’ll see if an alternative is suggested.

Committee finished late because of discussion about how we should, as the lead committee, approach the forthcoming Housing Bill which focuses mainly on the private sector, so ran from there to a Bank of Scotland briefing about their own research on the current position of house-buyers in Scotland. Some surprising statistics came out of that – in the past year Scottish first time buyer numbers fell the fastest of any part of the UK, the average age of a first time buyer in Scotland is now 37(34 five years ago), average deposit paid by a first time buyer in Scotland is now £14,568 (£6,533 five years ago), this average deposit is equal to more than 70% of average annual first time buyer gross income (40% five years ago). So, again housing is a national issue, across all tenures.

In the Chamber on Wednesday afternoon the First Minister made a statement about the Tsunami disaster and how Scotland was contributing to the aid effort.

The first reports of the disaster on Boxing Day morning were certainly a rude awakening for those of us celebrating the holiday season in peace and security. I can’t begin to imagine the horror of being there, or even the horror of realising that people you knew and cared for were on the spot. We did for a short time suffer that sick feeling of dread in relation to our friends in East Timor, but managed to get in touch fairly quickly – East Timor was not affected.

As the days have passed we’ve noted that response from Governments and the public has been admirable with many donations of both money and expertise. My concern about this is that once we no longer have daily reports on TV and in the press then it slips our collective consciousness. The earthquake in Bam, Iran was a year ago but survivors are still living in temporary shelters. I must admit to having forgotten about the earthquake in Gujarat, India in 2001 until I was reminded the other day.

Another concern I have has been well discussed I’m glad to say, and that’s that necessary financial assistance to the tsunami affected countries should be additional to international development commitments elsewhere and not instead of. Many countries have suffered for many years from unjust situations created in some measure by man rather than nature – around 6,000 Africans die of preventable diseases every single day, there are ongoing conflicts in Northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and of course the awful situation in Darfur in Sudan.

I have been interested this week in the Chancellor’s visit to Africa and the talk of leading the way to an African solution – I do have very firm views about this, but that’s for another time. All I will say now is that 40 years ago the United Nations recommended that each developed country should contribute 0.7% of its income to international development. Some countries have met that target – the UK never has.

This year is a year to step up the campaign for more fairness and justice in the world – the G8 meets at Gleneagles in the summer and the UK assumes the presidency of the European Union in the latter half of the year. There is a campaign organised around which common interests can gather – “Make Poverty History” which can be accessed at their website - http://www.makepovertyhistory.com

Wednesday afternoon in the Chamber rolled on with a report by the Education Committee on Child Protection Issues and then the Gambling Bill which the Scottish Executive has refused to debate, but handed over the Westminster to deal with by Sewell Motion. The Sewell Motion is a mechanism defined in the Scotland Act for use where the legislation, although on a devolved matter is dealt with by Westminster! This stifles debate and stops Scottish decisions on Scottish issues. All too often this Scottish Government bows down and defers to London.

The last event of the evening was held in the Garden Lobby of the Parliament and it was the launch of Cancer Research UK’s latest health awareness initiative “Reduce the Risk”, which aims to raise awareness of the avoidable risks for cancer and the importance of early detection. For further details see www.reducetherisk.org.uk.

Another of my resolutions this year is that I shall write up this diary every day so that it’s all fresh in my mind – I do worry sometimes that my memory is really failing because I often can’t remember what I did with myself two days before let alone a week. Let’s just say it’s because I’m so busy. So, it’s now Thursday evening and having self-righteously announced that I can’t go out to eat because I have my diary to update, here I am.

This morning the SNP had called a debate about Scotland’s role in the reconstruction of East Asia after the tsunami. I was only able to attend the first hour of the debate because I had agreed some time ago to speak with the latest intake of American students at Edinburgh University under a programme which they facilitate for USA political students who come to Scotland for around 3 months to learn about political systems in the UK and Europe. As always it was a really interesting session, and all of the students I spoke with yesterday (around two dozen of them) will carry out research placements in our Parliament, across the parties. The SNP has participated in this programme from the start and we have had some really useful research projects carried out by these youngsters over the years.

Sandra White and I had an interesting meeting at lunchtime/early afternoon with a visitor who wished to discuss with us the concerns of some Sighthill, Glasgow residents about the English as an Additional Language teaching facility in St. Roch’s school – St. Roch’s school hosts the children of most asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow, and some feel that although the EAL staff are doing an extremely good job the facility is under-resourced. Although I must protect the confidentiality of our visitor, I must stress that this complaint has not come from a member of the refugee community. Sandra of course will take this up as a Glasgow MSP, but I am interested in the wider issue as Convener of the Cross-Party Group on Refugees and Asylum Seekers. One of the justifications given by Glasgow City Council for the level of staff is that it reflects, for youngsters who have been in the school for over a year, the same staff:pupil ratio as in other schools which teach children whose first language is not English. I would strongly suspect though that the needs of asylum seeker and refugee children are greater than the needs of children who are perhaps born in this country, but whose parents do not speak English at home, or indeed those children who are here in Scotland for a limited period due to their parent’s career.

Sandra and I were so interested in the subject that it took a text message from our Whip, Tricia Marwick, to remind us that Question Time was ongoing! I felt really guilty because Tricia is so flexible about allowing us away from Chamber to cover other business, so, hotfooted it there for the last few questions and the debate on Improving the Rights and Services for Victims and Witnesses.

I’ve spent this evening working on housing policy and answering emails as they come in – that’s to say answering some emails and deleting all the junk ones that we all receive – mortgage offers, IT packages, pharmaceutical bargains including Viagra online, and sadly sometimes pornographic material.

Just a short while ago I noticed troops of folk walking along our corridor – it turned out to be Party members from Falkirk visiting the Parliament courtesy of Michael Matheson, so that was a great excuse to stop work and chat for a while – probably my favourite pastime. So signing off now for Thursday!

Friday morning and I’m here in the Edinburgh office – wasn’t supposed to be. but my planned main visit to Kilmarnock today has been postponed and so I’ve rejigged my diary to cover all the Kilmarnock business on Monday. So, a day of sorting out, tidying up, ditching lots – great! Not only that but fish and chips in the canteen. So, lots done today, some work in the briefcase to look at over the weekend, and off home to Strathaven. No appointments set up for the weekend, but the 40th Birthday Party of a very dear friend to go to on Saturday night. Thoroughly looking forward to it. 

So, catch you next week!


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