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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
22nd January 2007


WEEK BEGINNING MONDAY 15th JANUARY 2007

Always a good start to the week when you get to go along to a Primary School; St. Mark’s in Hamilton this Monday morning where the primary 7 pupils had prepared a ‘Question Time’ event. Pupils on the Panel first, followed by myself and the local SSP and Tory MSP. The wee lad who was doing his ‘Dimbleby’ stint really had it off pat – no nonsense and very fair in his allocation of time. Well done St. Mark’s! We then had tea with the Pupil Council – a rep from each class who discuss what’s happening in the school and plans for the future. All very organised and impressive.

Very different company in the afternoon when I sped through to Edinburgh to meet with Sir Peter Ricketts, UK Permanent Under-Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service (“he was very nice”, I said to Calum; “of course he was”, says the bold boy, “he is heid diplomat, after all!”; yeh, right enough). It was an enjoyable meeting though, and we discussed the Foreign Office’s relationship with MSPs and members of the Europe and External Relations Committee, and how we might improve this in the future. Not that it’s a bad relationship particularly – I have always found the Diplomatic and Foreign Office staff helpful generally, it’s just difficult sometimes to know who to go to for information. It’s interesting, the way that different UK departments deal with us here in Scotland’s Parliament: Although they deal with ‘reserved matters’ I’ve always found the International Development Department and the Foreign Office very approachable whilst the Home Office, in relation to Immigration and Asylum issues, is extremely unhelpful. I suppose it depends a lot on who’s heading up the operation – John Reid MP at the Home Office; I guess that answers that point!

Talking of the Home Office I found myself shouting at my car radio last week when I heard John Reid’s predecessor, David Blunkett, criticising the police investigation into the ‘cash for honours’ scandal because they’d arrested a Labour aide (Ruth Turner) at her home at 6.30 in the morning on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. He reckoned this was ridiculous, she wasn’t a criminal after all; so, what about the practice of dawn raids on innocent asylum-seeking families then Mr. Blunkett? You fully supported that when you were Home Secretary, and still do as far as I know – their hypocrisy is staggering. They basically think that they and their pals are above the law of their land.

Europe committee on Tuesday afternoon – taking evidence still on the ‘Transposition of European Directives’, and some interesting perspectives on how the Scottish Executive looks after Scotland’s interests in Europe. For example – some direct quotes:

Andy Robertson (NFU Scotland):” … Engagement through the Executive is minimal. … … … My experience is that I can get more direct access to officials in Brussels by working through the NFUS than I could in my previous existence as a Scottish Executive official … …”

James Withers (NFU Scotland): “I add that, in my experience since devolution the Executive has struggled to find its feet in dealing with Europe. there is a lack of clarity about where the boundaries are.  … … … We sometimes find ourselves in the difficult position of feeling that we are doing the Executive’s job for it. We run to the Commission to find out the parameters within which we are working and then feed the message back to the Executive.”

Readers can form their own conclusions as to whether the Labour/LibDem coalition is truly looking after Scotland’s interests in Europe. Of course, since our meeting there have been further developments on this question, but that’s next week’s diary!

Busy Chamber days on Wednesday and Thursday with introductory debates on proposed legislation – The Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill, the Prostitution (Public Places) (Scotland) Bill, and the final debate on the ‘Criminal proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Bill. And then, on Thursday evening, a debate sponsored by yours truly on the Scottish Council for Single Homeless initiative for pupils in fourth and fifth year at school – HomeSmart. I was really pleased to be able to secure a slot for debate for this really important campaign. I won’t reproduce the whole debate here, but my own contribution at the start outlines the initiative and if anyone wants to read more about it, you can log on to the SCSH website at http://www.scsh.co.uk/

Linda Fabiani (Central Scotland) (SNP): It is a mark of how important the subject is that members have agreed to bring the debate forward by an hour. I declare an interest, as a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing. That membership exists from the days before I was elected, when I worked in housing associations. I have experience of dealing with homelessness applications from a service provider's point of view, as well as from a politician's. I think that I speak for most housing professionals when I say that there was always a particular poignancy when a young person presented as homeless—I felt helpless and that I could not be of real assistance to them.

My experience has given me a perspective on the issue that underpins my belief in the absolute necessity of tackling homelessness and seeking to eliminate it as far as is humanly possible. Part of that task is the provision of suitable and affordable housing, including owner-occupied and social rented housing. We all know that that is an issue in many areas. In East Kilbride, where I live, it is a particular problem. A major part of the task must also be helping people to avoid homelessness in the first place. That is the main thrust of the home smart campaign, which seeks to ensure that every fourth-year pupil in our schools knows that help and advice is available.

Great credit should be given to the Scottish Council for Single Homeless for creating the campaign. Its importance is underlined by the statistics on youth homelessness. In 2005-06, 19,400 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 turned to their local authority because they had nowhere safe and secure to stay. That is a rise of almost 4,000 since 1999. If we consider the figures for 16 and 17-year-olds, in 2005-06 more than 4,300 young people turned to their local authority. While few fourth-year pupils are likely to think that homelessness will affect them personally, the figures tell a different story.

There is a significant, worsening problem with youth homelessness that we owe it to Scotland's youngsters to address. With 3 per cent of young people in Scotland reporting as homeless each year, we cannot afford to turn away and hope that the problem resolves itself. We should be grateful to the Scottish Council for Single Homeless for the work that it has been doing and we should embrace the home smart campaign as an extremely worthwhile endeavour.

The council's idea for the campaign is simple, but appears to offer the right kind of help. Rather than waiting until the young person strikes out on their own, obtains a tenancy, then fails to maintain it and ends up homeless, it has taken the sensible step of taking the message into schools. The information in learning packs allows teachers and pupils to consider the issues that often arise with tenancies and young people, and to consider how they might avoid the pitfalls that have befallen so many in the past. As well as facilitating discussion, the packs offer sensible advice, including, for example, advice about how to ensure that the behaviour of one's friends does not affect one's tenancy. That seems fairly straightforward to those of us sitting here, but one of the major problems that young tenants have is in controlling their home environment and not letting it turn into a community centre for their friends.

I wish to make it clear, though, that the campaign is not an entirely new venture for the Scottish Council for Single Homeless. The ‘I'm offski!’ learning materials were first produced in 1988 and have won awards. However, home smart goes even further. The experience of the organisation over many years is illustrated by its developing and innovatory campaigns. It will soon produce an evaluation toolkit to measure the success of the campaign—I am sure that it will be very successful. Getting pupils to think about the issues while they are still in the fourth year of secondary school will ensure that the information is embedded and that they know that support and advice is available.

Targeting the campaign at fourth years is important—I believe that it is the optimum age group to target. It is the age group that is perhaps desperate to leave home for negative reasons. It is an age group that may have a rose-tinted view of how one can strike out on one's own and be a success. Many young people who are at a stage in their lives when they should be building for the future can struggle to find the resources just to survive. Surviving day by day instead of planning for their future leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of outside influences. Home smart is about trying to stop that happening.

It is hard to judge how many pupils have so far been exposed to the materials produced by the council, but around a third of our mainstream schools have indicated a strong interest. That points towards a possible 20,000 pupils. I make particular mention of John Ogilvie High School and Strathaven Academy, schools in central Scotland that I know well for their openness to new ideas and that have responded positively to the Scottish Council for Single Homeless.

Roseanna Cunningham (Perth) (SNP): Understandably, the member is mostly focused on central region, but is she aware that the interest of schools in home smart goes far beyond it? Indeed, a primary school in my constituency—Balnacraig school in Perth—has won a prize in the competition. Does she agree that that school should also be commended?

Linda Fabiani: Absolutely. I am happy to commend Balnacraig school in Perth. That underlines the fact that the campaign is national.

As I said, every mainstream school has received a pack, and any special needs and residential schools that have expressed an interest have received one too.

I congratulate and commend the Scottish Council for Single Homeless for the work of home smart. I also want to thank Lovell, the housing developer that has sponsored the campaign and provided the prize for the recent draw. If the campaign has ensured that pupils know that there are people and organisations to which they can turn for help, and if it has encouraged those pupils to think about the issues and appreciate the challenges and difficulties that leaving home presents, the campaign is worthy of congratulation and encouragement. As I said earlier, more than a third of all homeless applications are from people between the ages of 16 and 24.

Scotland's politicians should be working towards ending the scourge of homelessness. Each of us in the chamber should be humbled that the problem has still not been turned around eight years after devolution, despite the good intentions of us all. That perhaps indicates a need for more positive action on the part of Scotland's politicians, a more proactive agenda on youth homelessness and a greater encouragement of the work done by organisations such as the Scottish Council for Single Homeless.

And so to Friday. Looking back over the week above it looks as if I wasn’t doing much, and certainly I did have a couple of early nights for a change, but then there was Friday! Up to Dornoch to do the Toast to Scotland at the Tain SNP Burns Supper. A long way to go but a great time was had, even though I had to get the early train from Inverness the next morning. I don't get up to the Highlands enough these days - so many friends there and so many beautiful places still to see.

The week started with enjoyment, and finished with some more – the 50th Anniversary of the Trefoil Guild in East Kilbride, celebrated with a lunch, some speeches, and some chat. The Trefoil Guild comprises ladies (men are allowed but none have applied!) who care about the Guiding Movement and want to keep an involvement – most, but not all, have been Guides or Guiders themselves. Even though I admitted I was never a Brownie or a Guide, they assure me I can join the Trefoil Guild; and even when I admitted I’d been in the Girls Brigade for all of around three months (before I got in big trouble for howking up my skirt to a mini during the parade), they still let me be a Guiding Ambassador – gracious ladies all of them!

Back next week.

Linda Fabiani
22.1.07


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