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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 30th January 2005

Week commencing Monday 24th January 2005

Well, I’m trying hard to keep to my daily diary pledge, so it’s Monday night and I’m reflecting over a really interesting day.

Started off in East Kilbride in the morning at the opening of the new offices for the Department for International Development – it’s great to think of all these Lanarkshire folk beavering away in East Kilbride dealing with issues all over the globe.

Hillary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development was there to perform the plaque unveiling, and Adam Ingram, local Member of Parliament and Defence Minister was one of the speakers. Adam spoke of the way that the military function compliments international development – peacekeeping, conflict resolution, upholding democracy, rebuilding communities etc., but I couldn’t help but reflect that these platitudes are easy to listen and nod to whilst you’re munching a buffet chicken-tikka stick in a comfortable office in a business park in Scotland: how would such sentiments be received currently in Iraq, for example, and what about the anomaly of countries like the UK espousing peace and democracy whilst selling millions and millions of pounds worth of fighter jets, bombs, rifles, water cannon and batons etc. worldwide, sometimes to dodgy regimes?

After the opening, myself and Des McNulty from the Labour Group in Holyrood had a meeting with Mr. Benn. Des is Convener and I’m Vice Convener of the Parliament’s International Development Group.

I’ve been impressed whenever I’ve listened to Hillary Benn. I think he truly cares about his job and also is very amenable to co-operating and sharing information. He had arranged this meeting to discuss with the Cross-party International Development Groups in our Parliament, and in the Welsh and Irish Assemblies, how we could best work together. This cross border co-operation is welcome – too often when I try to get information about a matter ‘reserved’ to Westminster I am given short shrift (the Home Office for example has a fortress mentality in regard to refugee and asylum issues – maybe because they can’t justify their position), and I was glad to hear Mr. Benn’s intention to maintain communication and arrange further meetings. It was good too to meet counterparts from Wales and Ireland and I really do hope that the Irish Assembly will reconvene before too much longer.

Dashed through to the Edinburgh office and arrived here around 5.30 pm, just in time for the event to launch Luath Press’s latest book “Agenda for a New Scotland”.

This book has been compiled, and is introduced by, my colleague Kenny MacAskill and comprises essays from contributors about their vision of Scotland in the year 2020. Lots of interesting contributions from people in all different walks of life – academics, politicians, business people, representatives of the arts and tourism. Kenny had asked me to contribute a chapter and whilst it’s been an interesting experience, I must admit to great stress and trepidation about writing something which would then be published in A REAL BOOK! So, it’s done, it’s published and I must admit to a bit of a thrill seeing my name on the front cover. The only other time I have had anything published was in Peru, and that was aimed at a particular audience rather than for general sale.

I wrote about “Scotland: Organising for Peace”, my view that in a world where conflicts are increasing, there must be alternatives to the military solution. I believe that Scotland is a nation well-placed to contribute to good relations in the world and that we should both actively recognise that and advance our case. I’m not going to say much more here about that – it’s all in the book!

So, I’m off home now, clutching my book and looking forward to reading the other contributions.

Tuesday morning and the Standards Committee – generally housekeeping type issues, so nothing much to report here. It’s now around 7.30 pm and I’ve just returned from our Group Meeting, and clearing through the emails. Reflecting on the day though, it’s very much been about culture and arts. It’s Burns Day and following on from the debate about Burns in the Parliament last week, the Living Tradition office in Kilmarnock visited us here today, along with Robert Burns! Here’s Robert and I chewing the fat.

It really felt strange sitting chatting here – started to feel real! I wonder what Mr. Burns would have to say about Scotland today.

Straight after my meeting with our national bard, I met with a representative of the Faculty of Advocates who are sponsoring an exhibition about the experiences of Refugees in Scotland, and wish to exhibit in Parliament. I think we can facilitate this along with one of our meetings of the Cross-Party Group on Refugees and Asylum Seekers and I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition. I was invited to the showing in Glasgow some months ago, but wasn’t able to get along. It was an interesting meeting and I was really interested in learning about some of the work that the Faculty supports. While I was in Tanzania I met a group of women lawyers who worked voluntarily to provide legal support to those who could not afford it – I’m now wondering whether there are potential links with women lawyers and advocates with which the Faculty here could assist. Note in big red book – investigate!

Straight from there for more art talk – quick meeting of the Art Group which has been set up to oversee Art in the Parliament building. We have not really taken off yet, but things are moving now because potential Curators are being interviewed next week. It will be good to get someone in-house who really knows what they are about – many colleagues approach me with suggestions for art, there have been lots of offers of artworks, but everything is on hold until we have the Curator in post.

Well, apologies – it’s 10 pm Thursday night and I’m looking back over Wednesday and today. Wednesday was such a rush around day that I didn’t have a minute to spare. It started with the Communities Committee in the morning – still taking evidence on Charity Law Reform, but that’s the evidence taking complete and we’re now scheduling additional meetings so that we can compile our report on this issue whilst taking evidence on the next one – the Housing Bill.

Wednesday afternoon’s debate in the Chamber was about the contribution that older people make to our society – another of these debates where there is a lot of talk but not a lot of action. Sometimes I feel that the Executive’s motions for debate are a bit self-congratulatory and then they seem to take offence at the opposition not agreeing! There are times for agreement of course, but Oppositions are there to hold Governments to account, and where we feel that the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality then that’s what we do.

I contributed to this debate on behalf of elderly carers in general and a particular aspect – elderly carers who are looking after adult children with learning/intellectual difficulties. I’ve been lobbying about this issue for almost two years now, to no avail. It seems so very straightforward to me, but no-one who can do anything seems to be listening. It first came to my notice in East Kilbride where a group of such parents have come together. All they want is to see their child settled before they are too ill to look after them, or indeed are no longer there. Even though I’m representing this Group the local Council refuses to meet with me to discuss it – their view is that they are meeting Executive guidelines (tick box culture). The Group ended up submitting a Public Petition and this is currently ongoing. I know I’ve spoken about this in my diary before, I could talk about it at great length and the struggle goes on. In the Chamber you’re only allowed around 5 minutes though and what I said is reproduced below:

Linda Fabiani (Central Scotland) (SNP): While Mr Sheridan was speaking, I was reflecting on the irony of our having debated closing the opportunity gap last week when we hear proof yet again that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening all the time in this country.

Today's debate is about older people. I will focus on one sector of the elderly population: elderly carers, who are mentioned in the Scottish National Party amendment and who are referred to in some measure in what the Executive's motion says about the contribution that older people make to our communities. I can think of no bigger contribution than that which is made by elderly carers. In Scotland, 500,000 people are carers and most of them are over 55 years old. Those figures come directly from the Scottish Executive's website.

A couple of years ago, Help the Aged commissioned a study, which was carried out by the University of Kent, called "Caring in Later Life: Reviewing the role of older carers". It painted a bleak United Kingdom-wide picture and, despite there having been enacted under devolution some legislation that affects carers, all would agree that we still have a long way to go. That study found that more than half of older carers suffer from a long-standing illness or disability. It revealed that three quarters of the older people who live with the person for whom they care receive no regular visits from the health service, social services or home-care agencies and that more than half of them put in long hours of intensive caring on very low incomes while suffering from serious health problems. One third of those carers said that they had never had a break, and carers aged 75 or over were more likely to provide intensive care than those between 60 and 74.

That brings me to another UK study, which was carried out by Jane Hubert and Sheila Hollins, about people with intellectual disabilities and their elderly carers. I will focus on that topic, because I have met many people in my region who are in that situation. The majority of people with intellectual disabilities—or learning disabilities, as they are also called—in the UK live at home with their families, usually with their parents or, more commonly in later life, with one parent, usually their mother. That raises many issues. For parent and for adult son or daughter, there is a physical issue. When a person is getting older, something as basic as mobility affects significantly how well they can care for the person whom they love so much.

Mental health is also an issue:

"Psychiatric disorders, including depression, affective disorders, anxiety disorders and delusional disorders, are more frequent among elderly people with intellectual disabilities than among the general elderly population."

I quote from the report that I mentioned, because the researchers say it better than I can.

It is clear that aging carers and their adult children will have a complex set of individual and joint needs. The needs of an older person with intellectual disabilities may conflict badly with those of an elderly parent. I have had the privilege of meeting the Murray Owen Carers Group, which is a group of elderly carers of adult children with learning disabilities in East Kilbride and I have heard some of their stories of the very basic difficulties that they face. For example—this is about a lady I know—how is a woman of 80 supposed to cope with the fact that her son, who is over 40, refuses to get into the bath or shower in the morning? That is very difficult, in both a physical and a mental sense. The stress is enormous.

There are also worries about bereavement when it comes to elderly parents. For people with learning disabilities, the loss of a parent—especially the sole surviving parent—is so much worse than it is for the average person, because they can find it so difficult to understand that their mother is no longer there one day when they come home from the learning centre. People in that situation can often be excluded from the rituals and processes that are associated with illness and death. Although they are aware that their life has suddenly changed, they sometimes do not understand why. Couple that with their having to move into a strange environment, which might be an institution or some kind of accommodation that they share with other people or another family. They might instead stay in the same house; I know someone in that situation. A person can end up staying in the same place, with a visit two or three times a day from a carer or from assorted carers. Such a change in a person's life must be absolutely awful for them to cope with.

Planning must begin long before that point is reached. I would like the Executive to consider that seriously. The Murray Owen Carers Group has submitted a public petition, because it feels that despite implementation of "The same as you?" whose good intentions the group does not knock in any way, there are many hidden families whose needs are not being addressed because everything is focused on taking people from institutions—quite rightly—and putting them back into the community.

I ask the Minister for Communities or the Deputy Minister for Communities to meet me and representatives of the Murray Owen Carers Group. I am sure that the group represents people from all over the country who are in the same position. Let us see whether we can make a difference to the lives of people who contribute so much to our communities here in Scotland.

I ended by asking the Minister to meet with the Murray Owen Group, and intervened on him later to repeat the request – declined. So, we’re hoping the Public Petitions Committee will recognise the problem.

An evening of ‘housing’, firstly meeting with housing professionals and then a meeting of the Cross-Party Group on Affordable Housing. The topic for discussion this evening was stopping the Right to Buy – whilst this measure would not instantly solve the housing crisis, it would help in the longer term.

So, the reason I didn’t do my diary last night was that I dashed off to dinner with two dear friends, one of whom is moving from Edinburgh to Yorkshire. I’ll miss him, but I guess it’s another place to visit!

Confession time – I slept in this morning, Thursday. Nothing to do with over-indulging at dinner I hasten to add – I set my phone alarm for 8 pm instead of 8 am! I wakened up with a jolt at 10.30, realised that I was missing Chamber, but thankfully I wasn’t down to speak in the Energy Debate. I got there in time for First Minister’s Questions, so managed to avoid the wrath of Tricia the Whip. Tricia allowed me off this afternoon, because the National Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony was being held in Hamilton. So a couple of hours with David about local casework and then to the Town House.

I’ve just arrived home from Hamilton, and I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with how South Lanarkshire Council organised today’s events, and this evening’s ceremony. It was performed by primary school children, secondary school children and the local youth drama group. From the initial exhibition in the hall, right through to the last piece of music in the ceremony, it was moving, compassionate, thoughtful, and yet serious in its intent to portray both the horror of the time and the necessity for recognising that such things still go on – Rwanda where 1m died, East Timor where one-third of the population was wiped out, Cambodia under Khmer Rouge, Bosnia.

The First Minister had announced earlier in the day that it was the intention that school pupils learn about the Holocaust, with teaching packs being sent out to all schools. This is welcome, because it is true that if you don’t acknowledge history then you’re in danger of repeating it, and the younger people are in such recognition and learning the better.

Friday lunchtime and I’m about to set off for the Staff Christmas Lunch – yes, I did say Christmas Lunch; this is the earliest we were able to get us all together! This morning I had a look over some of the things David had updated me on the day before in Lanarkshire.

I receive on occasion a constituency case with extremely distressing circumstances that you feel almost powerless to do anything about. Often it’s about relationship breakdown and the associated conflict – verbal and physical threats, abusive phone calls, the targeting of extended family members who have little or nothing at all to do with the whole debacle. These situations are so much worse if children are involved and often parents are so caught up in their own turmoil that the needs of the child are ignored. It’s stating the obvious to say that the emotional upheaval can have a very dramatic impact on the lives of the people involved and there are no simple words or actions that can make these stressful circumstances simply go away.

In dealing with cases like these, Davie and I often feel that any advice we can give is inadequate and that we’re just not able to do anything except give encouragement to go the police, solicitor, social work, self-help group, mediation service, anything that might help. But seeking help is itself no easy thing for people to do and may initially even add to the intense sense of anxiety. It can sometimes though be a catalyst for both sides to accept that something is finally over and agree to move on with their lives.

On a slightly lighter note, although by no means less important if you are directly affected, I have a constituency case this week that arises every now and then. Namely the lack of disabled car parking spaces and the attendant problem of unregistered drivers using them and blocking the ‘blue badge’ holders. I have heard unregistered drivers at times openly admit to using disabled spaces, feeling no remorse at all because they believe that most of the badge-holders are not genuine. Well, let me tell you, as a representative on a couple of occasions of someone trying to qualify for a ‘blue badge’, it’s not always easy!

Now we have all heard the stories about how some people with registered disabilities have “nothing wrong with them”, how we see them get “in and out of their cars with no problems”, but not all disabilities are immediately apparent. Sometimes folk equate disability only with wheelchairs or walking sticks, or with guide dogs or hearing aids. Most of us though will have known someone in our lives who look physically okay but have difficulties with walking or breathing, someone who perhaps has had to take a load of medication just to get out the front door. Sometimes these are the people who need to park close to where they’re headed. If I ever have the misfortune to suffer from debilitating ill health, I hope that the small allowance of a car parking space is not considered too much to ask.

It’s Saturday morning, and unusually I’m in the Edinburgh office today – I had to come through to Edinburgh to host a dinner last night: If a group want to hold a function in the Parliament Restaurant the event has to be sponsored by an MSP. So last night I sponsored the RMJM dinner. RMJM is the architectural practise which partnered the Catalonian firm, EMBT (Miralles) in designing the Holyrood Parliament complex. The boss wanted to hold a dinner in the Parliament for all of his staff, past and current, who had worked on the project design. So, 95 guests! It was a really enjoyable evening – all were clearly delighted to be seated in the completed building eating dinner, and the Restaurant did a grand job – food and service were excellent.

The Holyrood Project design was of course extremely complex and very much in the public eye in terms of the chamber, the MSP block, the garden lobby etc. It was good to see the recognition being given to the work of the architects, engineers, technicians and back-up staff who had concentrated on some of the very necessary but unexciting parts of the overall design – the basement, the plumbing, materials’ components – metre upon metre of stainless steel, acres of concrete, wood, glass – service hatches, the list goes on and on. Whatever anyone thinks about the architects or the builders, about the civil service or the politicians, whatever anyone thinks about the design and finish of the Holyrood complex and its cost, there were people who worked extremely hard to make it all come together, and who no-one ever saw. I reckon they deserved it their dinner last night.

Well, I’m signing off now and posting my diary to Electric Scotland straight away, because Monday and Tuesday I’m off to Dumfries & Galloway for various meetings and fact-finding visits about housing and the voluntary sector. I need all of tomorrow for the preparation. Until next week … … …

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