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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 24th March 2005


Week beginning Monday March 21st

Constituency day – checking in with Davie to make sure that between us we’re covering all the case work. Housing (lack of!) features large again this week in East Kilbride. One case that particularly got to us today was about a family living in a private rented house with the lease about to expire. One of the parents and two of the children have disabilities – in one case a very serious illness needing a great deal of rest and care. We had hoped that the Council would be able to help a family like this, but the answer came back today that no offer in the near future likely because of the shortage of housing in the town. Their only option for a council house is to move out of East Kilbride, away from the hospital they use and from the family and friends who give them support. Sometimes I just feel like I’m hitting my head off a brick wall with this stuff, and if I feel like this, goodness knows how it feels to be the family involved.

I remember when I moved to work in East Kilbride in 1994. The New Town Development Corporation was winding down, social housing was being transferred to the local authority and the local housing association had started up, some very far sighted residents believing that a stock of good, rented housing had to be maintained in the town and not subject to the Right to Buy legislation. The Development Corporation had operated a fairly aggressive sales policy and much of the rented stock was gone. It was ‘the done thing’ in East Kilbride to wait your turn for a house and then almost immediately buy it at discount – we now of course have the legacy of this in the town – private landlords letting out ex-Development Corporation properties at rents matching the highest levels of Housing Benefit available and beyond. I was the first member of staff at the Housing Association and we faced a lot of opposition from all sides – it was hard work for the voluntary Management Committee, but they stuck with it and by the time I left in 1999 we had a stock of over 300 properties, all for social rent, and protected from the Right to Buy policy.

And then, lo and behold, the Labour Party decided to extend the Right to Buy – who would have believed it! It’s been delayed until 2012, but East Kilbride Housing Association, like so many others, will from that time start to lose the good, rented housing stock that local residents fought to preserve. It’s not too late yet though for that ridiculous decision to be overturned, and I for one raise the Right to Buy issue at every opportunity – we hear lots of fine words about how the RTB doesn’t actually mean that the house itself is lost to the market; aye right, tell the family in East Kilbride who have to move outwith the town where their child is in hospital about the macro-economics of housing supply and demand, and they’ll tell you that the RTB has had its day and should have been stopped years ago.

Standards Committee Tuesday morning and a meeting with the Standards Commissioner. This is the chap to whom complaints about MSPs are made. The subject under discussion today was about how to deal with malicious, vexatious, repeat complaints etc. and the Commissioner wants the Committee to lay out the ground rules as to whether a complaint to his office is admissable or not. We heard his views and will discuss in full at the next meeting, but I can’t help feeling that this chap is supposed to be independent and that his independence could be compromised or, often just as importantly, perceived as compromised, if MSPs become too much involved. Any "anorak" amongst readers can check the Official Report in full on the Parliament website!

Trustees Meeting at Just World Partners in the afternoon – we’re still going through the mill with European funding etc. and I really can’t say much just now until we’re sorted out, but I’m becoming more and more frustrated with bureaucratic delays and the refusal of anyone with clout to at least try to help us, either in Brussels, in Latin America or indeed here in Scotland. Alyn Smith MEP at the Brussels end is doing his best, and is rapidly becoming as frustrated as me. When the organisation has come through this difficulty and is back on an even keel, Alyn and I really do want to do some proper research into how the European Community overseas development funding actually works. The Scottish Executive has also said that part of their international development strategy will be to capacity-build and assist small Scottish based organisations, so I must get started on teasing out exactly what that means too, as I can’t even get them to speak to me about Just World Partners and the difficulty of dealing with the EU!

I’ve just got back from the SNP Group Meeting where we heard, amongst other things, the Public Services Ombudsman tell us about how her job is panning out – the previous Ombudsman offices, eg Local Government, Housing Association, NHS etc., have been amalgamated over the last couple of years. The presentation was interesting and informative, and it set me thinking again about the discussion with the Standards Commissioner earlier in the day. Again, it’s about perception, and the public should not be given the impression that complaints about MSPs are treated any differently from complaints about any other public servant. I did ask the Committee clerks after the Standards Committee Meeting to check out under what directions the office of the Public Services Ombudsman makes decisions about validity of complaints.

Well, heading home now to watch the last episode of The Gathering Place, the documentary about the Holyrood Project. Roseanna and Rob accompanying me again and my turn to buy the carry-out food – Chinese I think.

Well it’s Thursday night now and I’m in the office in Edinburgh. Yes, I know I’ve skipped Wednesday, but actually, I really did skip Wednesday: awful not well, but I’m sure details are not required. One thing that particularly disappointed me though was that I was supposed to be at the theatre last night to see 7:84 Theatre Company’s adaptation of Christopher Brookmyre’s novel "Boiling a Frog". I was so looking forward to it because the book was smashing – the tickets did get used though and seemingly I missed a great performance. One of the thrills on the day of the Parliament opening last year was meeting Christopher Brookmyre and showing him round my office; my wee brother was really jealous when I told him because Chris has been his favourite author for some time now. Of course, I name drop at every opportunity.

I managed to get home to Strathaven last night because this morning we had a Question Time at Strathaven Academy. It was organised by the Fifth year students and was really well put together with probing questions on current topics - school lunches/childhood obesity, whether sexual orientation should have any bearing on employment opportunities, whether proposed anti-terrorism legislation is an infringement of human rights. It was over far too quickly and I would like to have heard more views from the students themselves.

I didn’t get back to Edinburgh this afternoon until after 2.00 pm so I’m afraid I missed Question Time. Just working away here, ploughing through the emails, answering letters, making phone calls. That’s what my day is going to be tomorrow too. Tomorrow is Good Friday so I’ve got no constituency visits arranged – Morag and I are going to have a big clearout day, and Calum is going to stay well out of the way in case he ends up bagged and recycled.

I’ve been getting asked all day how I felt about "The Gathering Place" now that all four episodes have been shown. It is difficult to be objective about it as a piece of film-making because the project itself took up so much of my time over a period of four years – the memories came flooding back with every scene. Much of the criticism of the documentary that I’ve read and heard is that it missed out so much that was critical – the selection of the site, the method of contract procurement, the views of Donald Dewar, but I do know that filming didn’t actually begin until 1999 and as has been well documented elsewhere, all the big decisions were taken prior to our Parliament being elected.

I guess many folk were looking for a political piece of television whilst the programme was actually a fly-on-the-wall view of what it was like to try to build a parliament, and that to me was captured rather well; the worries, the frustrations, the arguments, the huffs, the tantrums, but also the fun, the people I met during the process, and overall the joy of seeing our parliamentary complex come together at last at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. One of the questions asked of some of the key-players at the end of the programme was "would you do it again?" Well, I would, but in the words of the old saw "if I was trying to get there I wouldn’t start from here". "The Gathering Place" being shown is like ‘the end’ for me, the closing chapter, and what I do have to do now though is write down my own version of events for posterity (some of it for private reading only!).

On a serious note, one of the things that jumped out at me in the last episode was during the coverage of the announcement of the Fraser Inquiry by the First Minister. Mr. McConnell said quite clearly that he was holding this Inquiry because "lessons had to be learned". Well, Lord Fraser had two remits – one, to investigate the project, and two, to make recommendations about future public procurement. I wrote to Lord Fraser recently about the second part of his remit and the response was basically that this wouldn’t be fulfilled! Not good enough – I’ve written to the First Minister for his view on this and will shortly be meeting the Fraser Inquiry team again. I’ll keep you up-to-date.

Well, Sunday night and boy do I feel self-righteous. On Friday I did as I promised myself. Spent the day in Edinburgh - tidy office, tidy cupboards, tidy drawers, all correspondence and emails up-to-date. I’ll be out of the parliamentary office for most of the next two weeks you see because it’s Parliamentary recess. Time to catch up with community visits, research and writing, and of course a bit of campaigning for the forthcoming general election. I’ve even tidied up my office in the house and sitting here typing with a clear desk having dealt with the weekend emails. One of those attached a letter I was happy to add my signature to; a letter to Tony Blair asking him not to support the US Nomination of Paul Wolfowitz as President of the World Bank. The Observer Newspaper reports today that some of the Cabinet members are not at all happy that Blair is endorsing this man, and neither should they be. This is the US Deputy Defence Secretary who actively promoted war with Iraq, and the same man who as Ambassador to Indonesia did nothing to stop the illegal occupation of East Timor which resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people. Surely when we’re hearing all the fine talk about how we’re going to be in the forefront of international development, and promoting human rights and democracy then we should not be actively supporting such a nomination.

I’ve just been reminded it’s Easter Sunday, because my favourite girl has just telephoned, all the way from Toronto, Canada. I actually have more family in Canada than I do here at home – five of my mum’s sisters emigrated, the first marrying a Canadian soldier just after the War, and the last moving out there as a child when my granny died in 1965. Monica is the 7 year old daughter of my wee cousin James, so I think that makes her my first-cousin-once-removed? Easter last year I was in Toronto with them all, and I really do wish I was heading there again. Maybe summertime, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, Peaceful Easter, I’ll write again on 11th April.

Linda Fabiani
18.2.05


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