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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 14th November 2004

Well, it’s Friday 12th November and this week’s column will only cover Monday to Friday as I’m heading off for Tanzania tomorrow, clutching my yellow fever certificate and an itinerary which looks impossible to meet – Esterina Kilasi’s constituency is rural, so shadowing her means lots of overland travel; a bit different from Central Scotland I guess.

Monday and Tuesday took me and three other members of the Communities Committee down to Dorset to see Poundbury, the ‘add on’ estate to Dorchester which was instigated by Prince Charles. He gave over some of the Duchy of Cornwall lands for development of a planned community, one of the criteria being that the architecture used was traditional rather than modernist – you may remember his rants some years ago about modern buildings being like ‘carbuncles’ on the landscape. Anyway, we were invited as part of our study into community planning. It certainly was an attractive environment, and some of my preconceptions were blown away – there is a 20% element of social housing for example, directly let from the local council waiting lists. I’m not convinced, however, that it is a concept that could be directly lifted and replicated although some of the planning issues were interesting – industrial units amongst housing, philosophy of housing first, roads to fit round them rather than the other way round, etc. I am not a hater of modern architecture, however, and did find some of the building a bit ‘pastiche’. If you want a look, do a websearch for Poundbury and loads of info. will come up.

Communities Committee Wednesday morning to grill the new Communities Minister, Malcolm Chisholm, about the budget, especially housing. We also heard evidence from housing practitioners. The arguments and proposed solutions are all very familiar, and as I said to the Minister, I worked in housing for many years, some of which was in housing development in rural Argyll, and 10 and 15 years ago I was advancing the same arguments about planning constraints, infrastructure problems and the sheer cost of building in rural locations. When, oh when, will someone with a bit of power actually translate all the fine talk into action. Mr. Chisholm has stated that he intends to be innovative, so watch this space … … …

I nipped out of the meeting for half-an-hour to meet Chapelton Primary School which was visiting the Parliament’s Education Centre. There’s always a slot for local MSPs to meet up with schools in their constituencies and it’s one of the bits of the job that I enjoy most. Chapelton is a small village school in South Lanarkshire and some of the pupils visited the parliament in its temporary home on the Mound. They all loved the new building and after their lunch visited my office – again that ‘think-pod’ proved the biggest attraction! Chapelton School always participates in the Fair Trade competition with the Fair Trade Group in Strathaven runs every year and the teachers were telling me that they’re looking to become a Fair Trade School because the youngsters are so involved with it – great stuff.

Chamber in the afternoon – the great smoking debate! It was recently made my own Party’s policy that smoking in public places should be banned, so the SNP will generally be supporting Jack McConnell on this one. I have no problem with the ban in principle due to quite obvious health grounds, but I do have unease about some of the arguments and language being used and the way smokers are being vilified, almost as the cause of all evil! I hope now that the sensationalism of the arguments can be put aside and more measured and balanced debate take place.

Also on Wednesday afternoon I was interviewed, as Convener of the Cross Party Group on Refugees and Asylum Seekers, by an American chap who is doing his doctoral thesis on the treatment of immigration and asylum issues between the Westminster Parliament and Holyrood Parliament. He professed confusion as to who exactly had responsibilities within each government – that’s hardly surprising, all of us working in the field have constant confusion and frustration. For example, take Dungavel Immigration and Removal Centre – sited in Scotland, serviced by Scottish personnel and Scottish Councils having responsibility under the Education, Social Work, Children’s’ Act etc., yet no say at all about who runs it, how it is run, or even the right to have information about who is there, for how long, and why; a little bit of Scotland over which we have no jurisdiction at all. I am pleased though that the new Children’s’ Commissioner, in regard to the incarceration of children, has spoken out about this violation of international agreements and has promised to keep on the case. Good to see an appointee with such principles.

I am honoured to be a Trustee of Just World Partners, a Scottish charity which carries out work worldwide, but mainly in the Pacific and Asia, but more recently in Central America. I was happy to take up this position back in 1999 because it’s an organisation which does all its work in partnership with indigenous organisations rather than sending its own employees overseas to work. It’s not that I’m knocking the larger charities, but I do think there is much room for capacity building local enterprises and employing local people wherever possible. So we had a Trustee Meeting on Wednesday night. Lots of exciting projects in the offing including environmental coral reef work in the Southern Pacific and a project for the repatriation of child prostitutes in Nepal. Very varied work, much of it funded by Department of International Development and the European Community, as well as small funding bodies worldwide. While I was out in East Timor and Fiji during the summer, I visited some of our projects with the locally based charities. See below:

Candida in Baucau, East Timor who has been learning her alphabet in one of the Women’s Literacy Classes run by Timor Aid in conjunction with Just World Partners.

A self-build Homeless Hostel for young men in Fiji who have been accepted on an early release programme from jail – just started!

Thursday morning and back in Chamber for First Minister’s Question Time at noon, after trying to deal with mountains of emails first thing – not to mention loads of phone calls from journalists looking for comment from everybody and their granny on Tommy Sheridan’s resignation as leader of the SSP. FMQs focussed on Iraq and the Black Watch – by Nicola Sturgeon, David McLetchie and Tommy Sheridan. I really do think New Labour grossly underestimates the strength of feeling in Scotland on this issue.

Another school visit at lunchtime – St. Elizabeth’s Primary from Hamilton – a great bunch. Every so often a school-child asks a question which you just find impossible to answer. How about today’s - “If you couldn’t be yourself, which MSP would you like to be?” Well I’m still thinking about that one and haven’t yet come up with an answer!

Managed to dodge Chamber in the afternoon to try to clear some work before heading off on Saturday, but ended up doing Politics Tonight on Radio Scotland – Tommy’s resignation, Iraq and the Dying with Dignity member’s debate which had taken place earlier in the day. One of the MSPs has launched a Private Members Bill to allow physician assisted suicide. Really difficult, and of course a conscience decision rather than a political one for us all. I’ve often thought about this question over the last few years, and, no, I just cannot find any way of justifying this change in the law. Others do feel differently of course, so the debate may well continue.

Just before I left the office, another press phone call. Seemingly there’s another campaign to choose a Scottish National Anthem and we were being asked to opt for our favourite. For me, it’s easy – Hamish Henderson’s “Freedom Come All Ye” – I love its nationalism and internationalism. However, a quick chat round the canteen on Friday proved to me that not a lot of people have heard of it! Sad, if not to be Hamish’s masterpiece, then I hope Burns’ “A Man’s a Man” takes the vote.

Well, so to Friday, and, I hoped, a clear day to try and catch up before I head off to Africa. But not to be, here I am at 7.30 pm and all I’ve managed to do is this column!

In-between times, I’ve had all sorts of meetings – a couple of them to arrange an educational day for a municipal mayor from Cusco in Peru who is visiting me on 29th November. It’s only in the last three years that Peru has had Government open to civic participation and there is a huge interest there, as elsewhere, about how the parliament in Scotland interacts with civic society, pressure groups and community activists. I have previously hosted such educational visits from Peru and looking forward to hearing at first hand from Wilber Rozas just how things are progressing.

The afternoon brought a visit from a constituency representative and colleagues from elsewhere in Scotland to talk about the Executive’s ‘Same as You’ policy framework which is supposed to ensure a fair deal for people with learning difficulties. I’ve done some work on this before, and it’s quite clear that although the policy looks sound, its interpretation varies amongst Local Authorities. Part of the trouble is, in my opinion, the way that the Executive monitors the performance of Councils in dealing with ‘Same as You’ – tick boxes measuring outcomes can look convincing, but there is a certain art in completion of these annual appraisal forms and very often when you look below the quantitative outcomes and try to measure the quality of service, a very different story emerges. So, a major project when I get back is to again attempt to get this subject on the agenda again.

I’ve just realised on quickly reading back through what I’ve written that there’s not a lot mentioned about constituency issues – this is testament to the great folk that work in my office who just deal with so much when I’m off running around, and reacting to things that come up throughout the working day. Today, for example, Malcolm Chisholm’s announcement that bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families is to come to an end – sounds familiar, heard it from the last two Communities Ministers. Bottom line is that if Councils and Housing Associations don’t have the houses, then they can’t hand over the keys! This job is all about teamwork, and I’m lucky that I’m the member of the team who often gets the ‘good bits’ and the fine experiences such as my trip next week.

When I went to East Timor in 1999, Margaret Ewing advised me to keep a daily diary because it’s so easy to forget your experiences. I’ve followed that advice wherever I’ve travelled for work since, so next week’s diary column will be all about Tanzania.

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