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


Week beginning Monday 18th April

Well, here I sit, Sunday night looking back over the week. A week of visiting voluntary groups, lots of constituency cases to catch up on and new issues arriving on my desk and on David’s. Monday daytime passed really quickly with constituency cases: NHS, housing, some extremely sensitive issues relating to criminal justice.

It’s no wonder that NHS waiting times continue to be a controversial issue. In the last week I have had two cases that highlight the weaknesses within the NHS and the serious shortage of staff that leads to patients being left to suffer in pain. Two folk, in the same week and within days of each other, had falls - in one case a badly broken arm, and the other a broken leg. Both attended the Accident and Emergency Department at the local hospital.

The first of the two was admitted to the hospital and subsequently waited 3 days before undergoing surgery and the second was actually sent home twice from A+E before having surgery two days later. These were not minor breaks, but serious enough to warrant surgery. Both patients were told they had to wait because more urgent cases came in and had to go before them. That I do not doubt, because if there’s shortages then something has to give, but THREE DAYS! This highlights the shocking state of some NHS departments -  if I’m receiving two cases within days of each other, then there must be plenty more. Of course the Scottish Government keep saying that the average waiting time for various treatments has reduced, whilst for other treatments it will start to come down. But, you know for every average there is a corresponding high point and a corresponding low point, and if you’re the person at the high point, then life is pretty rough whilst you’re waiting for treatment. Every statistic that is bandied about is a person and we should never forget that.

Waiting lists do not however only exist in the NHS. I’ve often written about housing waiting lists for public sector flats and houses – Davie was approached this week by someone who has been waiting for a house for 13 years! Again we hear fine words – still waiting to hear fine words about abolishing the right-to-buy however – but as I’ve said before, fine words and worthy initiatives don’t give someone the keys to a front door and a roof over their head. I’m waiting for a parliamentary answer about how many of the much trumpeted 21,500 affordable houses over the next three years have actually been approved and scheduled to start on site.  Unless a new era of housing policy that protects some publicly rented homes is ushered in quickly, then MSPs will continue to have calls from people who are in desperate situations because of the blind adherence to policies that leave people waiting for ever and a day just to have a place they can call home. 

On Monday night, at Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, I attended the South Lanarkshire Group of the National Osteoporosis Society, and what a lot I learned. I had vaguely thought of osteoporosis as something that elderly women got – brittle bones etc., but I had no idea at all of the incidence of the condition, of the wide age range it can affect, the knock-on effects, and the measures which can be taken to ameliorate or indeed prevent. It was only when I read the literature forwarded to me prior to the meeting that I learned for example, that bone thinning is inevitable after our strong point in our mid-thirties and that for one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 this progressive weakening leads to osteoporosis where the bones become so fragile that they can break following the simplest knock or fall. I was disturbed at some of the discussion at the meeting about lack of provision for sufferers in Lanarkshire and will look further into this. Meanwhile, the National Osteoporosis Society has a website at www.nos.org.uk

Tuesday morning and a fascinating presentation in one of the Parliament’s meeting rooms from ’Revolutionary – a Young Enterprise Company’. A brilliant bunch of senior pupils from Graeme High School in Falkirk who for their school ‘enterprise’ project decided to “work towards promoting the strong social conscience of today’s youth in a direct way: tackling the issue of racism”. They did this by producing a rubber wristband (all the fashion these days!) brandishing the slogan “racismban’d” to highlight the fact that they don’t want racism in their society. All the proceeds from sales go to ‘show Racism the Red Card’ which works to promote anti-racism, principally in football. The company started with a loan from the school of 2,500, they ordered 27,000 bands from a Fair Trade company in Taiwan and then had their launch at Hampden Park. They’re garnering lots of support and are now trying to spread the message to other schools. Click on their website to see which football clubs are actively supporting and to find out what else they’re up to: www.revolutionaryonline.co.uk

Communities Committee in the afternoon – Housing Bill, but only after hosting a visit from some ‘Ladies who Lunch’ from Sandford, Glassford, Hamilton and Edinburgh – great fun, and I hope they come again. I felt really relaxed heading into that Communities meeting! Decided to lock myself in the office after Committee finished at 5.30 pm and to set to ploughing through the paperwork. I had to get back to Strathaven Tuesday night and had arranged to pick someone up at 9.45 pm to give them a lift through from Edinburgh – would you believe, fire alarm went off and then because the problem was perceived to be in the underground car park, I couldn’t get my car out to get away! Grumpy’s not the word for how I was, marching up and down outside the building, railing against the world. It was a false alarm, thankfully, but not home until after midnight.

Six-in-the-morning start on Wednesday. It meant I was in the office for before 8.00 am, but if I had left starting out any later then I would have been late for my 9 o’clock committee meeting. Charities Bill – proper start to Stage 2 – page by page scrutiny of the Bill and submission of amendments. I find Stage 2’s quite tiring – I think we all do. Stage 3 Debate on the Further and Higher Education Bill in the Chamber in the afternoon. Stage 3 is the final stage for legislation, last amendments are voted on, the Bill passed and sent for Royal Assent (why, oh why is this necessary?). This piece of legislation merges the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils.

Attended a presentation at lunchtime by HomeStart – an organisation which gives support to families with young children. Volunteers, who are usually parents themselves, are recruited and trained. They visit families at home and offer informal, friendly and confidential support. We heard directly from some mothers who had used HomeStart and the general feeling seemed to be that this organisation works because there is no stigma attached in saying that it is difficult to cope and volunteers are not seen as ‘officialdom’, There are very successful local groups in some parts of Scotland, but not in Lanarkshire – must look into this because I am sure it would be a welcome service.

Interesting, informal meeting in the evening with an overseas student who wants to take part in the Scottish Government’s much announced and applauded ‘Fresh Talent Initiative’. Highly intelligent lad who would be a huge asset to us, but you know trying to find out on his behalf how to go about applying to be ‘Fresh Talent’ proved really difficult – passed from website pillar to website post – Scottish Executive/Foreign Office etc. etc. etc. Eventually I discovered that the “… Fresh Talent Initiative will be launched in Scotland in Summer 2005”. Excuse me, but how long has the First Minister been trumpeting this initiative, and it’s not even launched yet! Sometimes I despair, I really do; not on my own behalf but on behalf of those whose hopes get raised by all the spinning that goes on from Government. So, this lad – turns out he lives in Lothians so Kenny MacAskill will take on his case. I hope we can help.

Chamber all day again on Thursday with Question Time, First Minister’s Questions (more waiting list statistics!), and Stage 3 of the Gaelic Bill in the afternoon. I’m still chuckling though every time I think of our lunchtime visitors – the Swiss Club of Edinburgh. What an enjoyable bunch of folk. They were so interested in the Parliament and ran poor Calum ragged with their very detailed questions about the architecture, the contract procurement, building methods – it was like the Fraser Inquiry all over again. I was really interested to learn about how the Swiss run their local and national government, with citizen participation at all levels it seems. Also they appear to have a rotating presidency, with different parties taking turns at being ‘heid bummer’. I must find out more about this. As always the ‘think-pod’ in the window in my office was the main attraction.


The Swiss Invasion!

Talking of office visitors – Morag and I received a lovely letter from the Strathaven Fair Trade Group following their visit with the poster competition winners from all the Avondale primary schools. They enclosed the Minutes of their last meeting, with the immortal lines, and I quote …”Visit to Parliament was a huge success, with highlight of the day being Linda’s electronic stapler and her think-pod”. Now if Enric Miralles had realised that was all that was necessary, we could have saved a lot of money!

Busy constituency day on Friday. Off to Kilmarnock first thing to do a couple of house visits and to call in on Stresswatch Scotland. I am a Patron of Stresswatch Scotland, a small organisation, founded in 1971, which gives advice and information for people with anxiety, panic, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s the only such organisation in Scotland, with phone lines manned, and self-help groups run by volunteers. We only have one part-time member of staff who does a great job in co-ordinating the service, publishing booklets and organising training events. The funding is minimal and we rely on memberships (just 5 per year), donations and sales of books, tapes etc. Like so many voluntary organisations, Stresswatch Scotland provides a vital service for users, takes off some of the strain from mainstream service providers, yet has a hand-to-mouth existence because of the lack of core funding. So much more could be done – expansion of service, taking more referrals, encouraging more volunteers if only we had the resources. We don’t need a lot, just the confidence that core funding would allow us to move forward. Funding by the Scottish Government has recently been cut because a particular element of the service is not available – it would be if we had the resources to promote it! Chicken and egg situation.

Stresswatch sends out quarterly newsletters to members, packed full of information – the current one has articles about Panic Disorder, Sleep Problems and Social Phobia for example. This is the type of organisation to which many people turn who feel that they can no longer be helped by general medical services, or who in fact find it difficult to admit they have a problem at all and so won’t speak to doctors or social workers. So often, those who suffer from a mental disorder feel stigmatised. At Stresswatch many of the counsellors have direct experience themselves and can understand – sometimes all someone needs is a bit of understanding. www.stresswatchscotland.org

Afternoon in East Kilbride, first of all being interviewed by a local journalism student – great career in front of him has Gordon, considering the hard questions he asked and him only in his first year at Bell College!

Another voluntary organisation later in the afternoon and early evening. East Kilbride Befrienders asked me to come in for a chat because, again, there is a core funding (lack of) issue. I’m not going to say much about this at the moment because discussions are ongoing, but what I will say is that over the years this organisation has helped many, many young people in East Kilbride and the loss of such a service would be a severe blow to the current client group. I would have thought that at a time when it is recognised that social workers are in short supply, then voluntary organisations which help to fill the gaps would be welcomed by the authorities.

Saturday morning and off to attend the AGM of a very annoyed voluntary organisation! It’s Lanarkshire Couple Counselling Service (used to be Marriage Guidance Council), and they’ve been serving Lanarkshire for 40 years now! Entirely voluntary, no paid staff at all and this year have carried out 656 appointments – some going. These volunteers are dedicated, and again, although we refer to folk as volunteers, in fields such as this there is highly intensive Diploma level training before being allowed to practice.

Lanarkshire Couple Counselling Service is funded by clients’ donations, other donations and by the respective Lanarkshire Councils, the work being split 50/50 between their areas – in the last financial year North Lanarkshire Council granted 2000 and South Lanarkshire Council 450. Not a lot considering the amount of referrals they get from Council services. In fact it now looks like this year’s Council funding will be cut, apparently because careful management means that the organisation has some money in the bank (not a lot), so no prizes for prudence! And, no opportunity to use wise financial management to allow for further diploma courses for volunteers, or to consider employing a co-ordinator. Catch 22! A constant frustration of mine is that the so called voluntary sector is chock-full of volunteers working in a professional manner with no recognition at all. This service is truly vital to the well-being of families in Lanarkshire - 187 children were involved in client families during the last year of operation – and we keep being told about the importance of the family unit to society.

On a lighter note, it did make me laugh when the Treasurer managed to resign after 13 years of service to the organisation. This is the same lady who when I attended the AGM some five years ago, agreed to carry on for “just one more year – absolutely”. Well done Cathie, and such a familiar story in voluntary groups.

Saturday afternoon and last work gig of the week – didn’t seem like work though, as I always enjoy this event. The local Territorial Army in East Kilbride’s annual open day – the Royal Corps of Signals, 52 Lowland Signals Squadron. A great bunch of men and women (10-12% women) committed to what they do. It’s fascinating to have explained how the communications network operates out in the field; so often when we think of the Military, we think of front line infantry and tanks and forget about all the logistics required by specialist military personnel. My very first full-time job was with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) so I should know better! I was really struck this year in talking to the soldiers by how much they loved their Regiment and had absolute loyalty to their comrades. I guess I noticed this more because of the crazy UK Government decision to disband some of Scotland’s historic regiments – a decision which logic I will never understand. But then this Government does a lot of things that many of us find it hard to understand; I wonder if they understand themselves?

Linda Fabiani
24.4.05


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