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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 5th December 2004

Well, week beginning Monday 29th November already and only four weeks until Christmas. But, before I write anything else I have to backtrack to Wednesday 24th when I visited the Access Group in Motherwell, because I promised I'd put a photograph of them on here and it hadn't arrived in time for that week's column - so narrative last week, wonderful photograph this week - and presenting .....MOTHERWELL ACCESS GROUP!

And a grand-looking bunch they are too.

So, back up-to-date and Monday was one of these days that just works out perfectly, despite all the worries that I hadn't arranged things well enough. Sophie at the Peru Support Group in London got in touch a few weeks ago to ask if she could visit me at the Parliament along with Wilber Rozas, a Municipal Mayor from the Cusco Region of Peru. Wilber, funded by Oxfam, was on a fact-finding mission to the UK and mainland Europe to research decentralisation and civic society involvement in Government. I was so looking forward to meeting Wilber to hear how things are in that beautiful country which has been through so much upheaval in their recent history. I was conscious though that this day was not to be about my learning but about Wilber's, so I'd arranged a session at the Scottish Civic Forum as well as at the Parliament.

Wilber was a smashing visitor to have - so enthusiastic about having the chance to see how things worked in other countries, in another continent and under a very different culture. Although not many MSPs are generally around on a Monday I was delighted that John Swinney was around (he, as Convener of the European Committee was attending the RegLeg Conference that I told you about last week) for a chat with Wilber about how the Parliament worked and his own role as a Committee Convener. We followed that with a whistle-stop tour of the new complex, talking (Sophie translating) all the time about how the Scottish Parliament operated. It's interesting what people pick up on, and apart from the general view from Wilber that we had a very informal way of working in our Parliament what really fascinated him was how accessible to the public it is, both in terms of physical access to the Parliamentary complex and potential public participation. Also, he was amazed at the relationship amongst MSPs, the public and the Security Staff, the general friendliness involved and the non-threatening demeanour of the men and women who look after us all so well. To take it a step further, he nearly flipped when one of the Parliament's policemen stopped to pass the time of day and have a joke! We take this stuff so much for granted and it's only when you're forced to look at it with fresh eyes that you realise how precious it is and how much we must cherish and preserve it.

I can understand Wilber's feelings of surprise. This is not the place to go into all the political detail and history of Peru - suffice it to say meanwhile that politically and socially Peruvians suffered for decades, especially the indigenous population in Wilber's part of the country.  The first time I was in Lima was towards the end of the presidency of Mr. Fujimori who ran the country with a rod of iron, personified in Mr. Montesinos who controlled the government agencies of fear and control. Even within the short time I was there I was able to 'feel' an atmosphere of oppression and indeed fear. How it must have been to have lived with that for so many years I cannot begin to imagine. What I can imagine even less is having the strength of character and commitment to fight against such a system when you see your compatriots killed, tortured and jailed for daring to do the same. So, even though there is now a regime in Peru where people are not being killed for expressing opinions contrary to Government, there is still obviously a culture of caution and distrust, and anyone in uniform is looked at with suspicion.

Even on the walk up the High Street to the Scottish Civic Forum, Wilber expressed astonishment that I was willing to and allowed to walk out of the building and up the street without security accompaniment. If I thought that Wilber was impressed by the Parliament, then he was completely blown away by the Civic Forum. The Forum was of course set up at the same time as the Scottish Parliament to inform one of the founding principles - power-sharing. Debbie Wilkie, the Director, was marvellous in explaining to Wilber the philosophy of civic society engagement and how the Forum goes about its business with various groups across the country - worth a look yourself on Wilber professed to finding it all a bit much to take in because it gave him so much to think about, so thanks to Debbie and her staff for offering to follow up any of his queries later and trying to help as much as possible. When I had Diana Miloslavich Tupac from Flora Tristan Women's Activist Group in Lima over in Scotland a couple of years ago, she too visited the Civic Forum and had the same reaction as Wilber - a wish that her own country could some day aspire to this.

A smashing lunch for us all in the George Hotel in Edinburgh, courtesy of a dear friend who represents the Scottish branch of Committee for Italians Abroad - when he'd heard why Wilber was in town he invited us to lunch along with the Italian Minister, Snr. La Loggia who was attending the RegLeg Conference, so we had Scotland, Italy and Peru all talking about decentralisation.

But, Monday night was a real treat for Wilber - courtesy of the Glasgow Burns Club who had asked me to speak at their St. Andrew's night. When I told them I had a Peruvian visitor they very kindly invited Wilber and Sophie along, and what a night we had. The language barrier proved no barrier at all to Glasgow's welcome to Wilber and a great time was had. Wilber joined in all the songs and hilarity - the spectacle of a Peruvian visiting Scotland for the first time and singing along to "I'm a cat, I'm a cat, I'm a Glasgow cat and my name is Sam the Skull" was a spectacle worth seeing. The night was perfect and culminated in Wilber, absolutely legitimately, winning first prize in the raffle! Thank you so much Glasgow Burns Club - Scotland at its best.

Tuesday morning, and suffering the effects of the night before - fun effects only you understand, I was driving! Straight into snail-mail and emails and Morag relaying all the telephone messages from the day before when I was enjoying myself with Wilber and Sophie. The morning also brought, however, a visit to the Education Centre from St. Patrick's Primary School in Kilsyth, primary 5 I think they were. I went along to part of their mock debate in the Centre and then put myself up for 'Questions to your MSP'. As I'm sure I've said before in this diary you often get the same questions time and time again, but just every so often one of the youngsters throws you. How about this for a good question - "how many ideas have you had since you got elected?" Well, how do you answer that! I had to be honest - "don't know how many exactly, but some were good, some not so good, some new, some were the same as other people's - let me know if you get any really good ones yourself!".

There was a secondary school visit in the afternoon - Hamilton College - and, I was fairly put through the mill with these teenagers. When primary school pupils visit the parliament I get a real buzz about how they're so young yet becoming aware of their parliament and representatives, and when senior pupils visit I am really taken with their depth of insight into the issues of the day. I say it over and over I know, but I have real hope for the future when I see how many young people come through our parliament every day and learn how they can exert influence.

In between the school visits today I had a meeting with Shelter about the Communities Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning. The Communities Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that finally Bed and Breakfast accommodation for families was to be stopped apart from 14 days in an emergency and where a family requested it. There is an issue for Councils, some more than others, about lack of resources, however, and indeed how this affects those on mainstream waiting lists. Shelter's view is that most Councils are now able to meet this target so it should go ahead. This is also my view, with the caveat that where a Council, and there are four who profess real problems, can prove that with the best will in the world this is impossible, then they should be assisted by the Executive. So, we'll see what evidence tomorrow morning brings.

And so to Wednesday morning and the meeting of the Communities Committee. We did listen carefully to the evidence from COSLA which asked that the Executive postpone implementation of its B&B regulation for 3 months to allow all Councils to be able to comply. Well, my view, and the view of most of the Committee, was that this initiative has been well flagged up over the last 18 months, and that if there are real problems here for some councils then 3 months delay will not fix it. I actually felt that the main issue here was more about COSLA and the Scottish Executive having had a bit of a fall-out, and homeless families should not be asked to bear the brunt of that. There are issues about lack of resources to allow Councils to meet the terms of all the Homelessness legislation which has been introduced but it doesn't all focus upon B&B only. The Committee voted for the Executive, so from 6th December 2004 homeless families and pregnant women should spend no longer than 14 days in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. A parting thought - we were told during evidence taking that there was a family in East Lothian who had been in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 15 months.

Wednesday afternoon brought the much publicised debate on In Care Abuse Survivors, and the First Minister gave a statement first in which he apologised on behalf of the State. This was much welcomed by all. The Minister, Peter Peacock, outlined the Executive’s forward plan, which includes appointing a Reporter to look into historic files and offering support. Again, all welcome, but my own view as expressed in the debate is that a Public Inquiry should be held, and I am still none the wiser why the Executive are so set against this, or indeed why they won’t share their findings on the Irish Public Inquiry. The First Minister said in the Sunday Mail that he was ordering an investigation into the Irish model, so either he didn’t, or he is unwilling to share the information. The abuse survivors want a Public Inquiry and I feel that we collectively owe this to them – as the Minister said, “there was a collective failure of society to deal with the problem”. Therefore, to me it is society’s collective responsibility to acknowledge what happened, recognise our responsibility and try to make reparation wherever possible. Ireland, Canada and Australia had Public Inquires, why can’t we?.

Worked really late Wednesday night – I’m working on a policy paper and a related article on an aspect of Citizenship which needed submitted by the end of the week – so up against a deadline.

Arrived in early on Thursday because Carers Scotland were putting on an exhibition in the Parliament which I wanted to see. Carers Rights Day is Friday 3rd December and I had laid a Motion of support:

S2M-2077 Linda Fabiani (Central Scotland) (SNP) :  Carers' Rights Day— That the Parliament praises the valuable and vital role played by the 666,000 carers in Scotland; notes that the fourth annual Carers’ Rights Day is being held on 3 December 2004 and that Carers Scotland will be visiting the Parliament on 2 December; recognises that millions of pounds worth of carers' benefits go unclaimed each year, and considers that the Scottish Executive should step up its activities to encourage better take-up of the allowances rightly due to carers in Scotland.

Well supported across the parties and I hope the Executive will step up efforts to make sure carers take-up their due allowances.

Thursday morning in the Chamber was a debate on Aquaculture. I wasn't taking part so I was able to nip out and do a quick talk at a training course run by a pal who asked me to give a quick presentation on 'a typical week for an MSP' - a bit like doing this column verbally. The course participants were generally from voluntary sector backgrounds and were learning how to interact with the Parliament, and the best ways of influencing policy.

I did think during it that this was the kind of think that Wilber Rozas would love to see taking place in his own community. I was fascinated to hear from Wilber about some of the initiatives he and some fellow Mayors in the Andean region of Peru had undertaken - apart from the political initiatives to influence Government, there were the community initiatives to raise folks' confidence and invoke a community spirit which had largely been lost through terrorism and fear. For example, he told me that his wife was the captain of the ladies' football team, but due to modesty they play in their normal everyday clothes. When you consider that everyday clothes for an Andean woman involve these big striped skirts with copious lace underskirts and a tall black hat which ties under the chin, then it must look very, very strange! Wilber tells me they're pretty tough though and that the men won't play against them because they're so vicious.

After First Minister's Questions at noon, Robin Harper, Green MSP and I took ourselves off to the BBC in Glasgow to record a programme for them - not allowed to say any more about this! Enjoyed it though. Rushed back in time for Decision Time at 5 pm.

Thursday night and all day Friday was a case of locking myself away again and trying desperately to get my article finished – success, first draft submitted.

The weekend was very much a Party weekend - National Council on Saturday in Perth – policy papers up for discussion with the members. Also picked up on some issues that some members in my area want raised. Sunday brought canvassing for the Inchyra Council By-election in Grangemouth – again doing the door-to-door visits, noted concerns of residents. Central Scotland covers ten constituencies, from Grangemouth and Falkirk, through North Lanarkshire, part of South Lanarkshire and Kilmarnock.  I have to admit though that the longest conversation I had with someone at their house was about the result of the ‘X-Factor’ the night before. It’s one of these programmes that I mean not to watch and end up hooked on! Final next Saturday.

As a parting word this week, I’m very flattered to discover that my political opponents are keeping up-to-date with my diary here on Flag in the Wind. I got a letter from a Minister during the week, telling me off for saying to readers that the Executive had ditched some of their targets. This was accompanied by some paperwork which did in fact show that the Executive had ditched some of their targets – very strange!

Cheers until next week … …

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