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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
W/E 23rd May 2005

Week beginning Monday 16th May

Today Monday, and today was good – I just hope that action can follow words. Margaret Ewing and I attended a conference today in the Parliament on the Report of the Commission for Africa. Lots of commitment and ideas for the way forward – great contributions from participants. But of course it all hinges on the decisions to be made by the leaders of the rich world when they meet at Gleneagles for the G8 summit in July this year. It can be done, all it needs is the will to make it happen. I could rant on about this for pages, but others today said it all: Log onto the Parliament webcam and check it out: for Africa Conference&section=56

Salil Shetty, Director of the Millennium Development Goals Campaign – “By holding this event today, the Scottish Parliament is sending out a very powerful message ahead of the G8 Summit that it expects action from the world’s leaders”.

Last week we were treated to a performance of the Watoto Children’s Choir after the debate on honouring World War II Veterans and tonight we were entertained by them again at the close of the Conference. The place was rocking! Watoto Child Care Ministries have already provided over 50 dwellings in Uganda to provide shelter for eight parentless children and a housemother – their commitment is for family living rather than large orphanages. Again, check out the website and hear them sing!

“Watoto” means “The Children”.

Well, Tuesday lunchtime and I’ve just arrived in Edinburgh after doing one of my favourite things this morning – visiting one of the local primary schools. Greenhills Primary School in East Kilbride was one of the first to ask me to visit back when I got elected in 1999. I had a smashing time this morning with this year’s Primary 7 class. They were really knowledgeable, and some of the questions were so thoughtful – quite a few of them said they wanted to be MSPs in the future, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I read the biography of some smart young MSP sometime ahead and see “educated at Greenhills Primary School, East Kilbride”. This class really knows what democracy and citizenship is all about – School Council, ‘Buddying’ Scheme, Eco Group – wow! The class had tried to visit the Parliament through the Education Scheme, but sadly it was all booked up to the summer holidays this year – I hope some of them visit me individually at some point though. Greenhills itself is a brilliant  community – I go to so much there and meet so many great people, and generally have a high old time to myself.

So, came back to the office happy-go-lucky, only to come down with a thump. The latest report from Dungavel Detention Centre – the Prisons Inspectorate has just reported after an unannounced inspection in December last year. The report states that the development of the children who are taken there “is at greater risk than ever before following the failure to implement recommendations made during a visit two years previously”. The Chief Inspector of Prisons (England & Wales) said she was “extremely concerned” about children at the Centre. It’s high time the Scottish Government told the Home Office that it is unacceptable to detain children behind barbed wire in this country – that it’s going to stop. The Children’s Commissioner, all the religious leaders in the country, umpteen people and groups with sound knowledge of the issues have been condemning this for years. Why won’t they stop it? Immigration and Asylum may be a ‘reserved’ matter to Westminster, but the welfare of children, any children in this country should surely be a matter for those who supposedly run this country – take action, do it! The same people who are now keeping quiet in this Parliament are the ones who would have been marching through the streets in outrage if Mrs. Thatcher had tried this!

Beyond the Children issue, the Report also slams other aspects of the Asylum system – one man in Dungavel had been to seven different places of detention within 20 days, and was left “exhausted and frustrated” – no wonder! “Ignorance and misunderstanding of status and rights were rife” – lack of legal advice and representation. Of course, the story always dished out is that people are only sent there at the ‘end of the process’. Nonsense! And so it goes on … … …

Dungavel is not a prison? Huh!

Back to domestic issues and meeting with Shelter about tomorrow’s evidence taking on Housing at the Communities Committee, followed by our Group’s regular Tuesday night Group meeting. So, it’s now 9 pm, Tuesday night and I’m off home to read up for tomorrow morning.

Five panels we had giving evidence on the proposed Housing Bill at the Communities Committee this morning! We were all wilting towards the end, not least the last panel of witnesses who had sat through the entire morning’s business. Still, it was all interesting stuff and that was the last evidence-taking session – next week the Minister, and then we compile our Committee Report. The theory is that the Executive will take our points on board before introducing their proposed legislation to the Chamber.

So, apart from trooping into the Chamber to vote at 5.00 pm, I’ve been working through some constituency cases today – the difficult ones where you so hope that you can help, try all angles but realise that in fact you can’t help at all. One particular one that has come to me is a rotten situation for a family which bought a house and then found out that the conversion work which had been carried out didn’t have a building warrant and has now been condemned by the local authority. As far as I can see there is no recourse for them except to have a go at the solicitor who acted for them, but I will consult my solicitor colleagues (quite a few of them in here!) to see if they’ve got any ideas. As a lay person who as well as having some bad personal experience has tried to help others, it seems to me that the legal profession is awfy well protected! Must look at this further at some point (hope I don’t get sued for that comment).

This time of the year I also tend to get letters from parents who have been denied school placing requests for their children – some of the cases seem grossly unfair, but again these are Council remits and unless there really has been procedural bad practice which the Public Services Ombudsman can investigate, there’s not an awful lot an MSP can do except write to the Local Authority concerned for their view of the matter.

An early night for a Wednesday – signing out  at 8.00 pm.

Thursday evening and looking back over the day – Chamber as usual on a Thursday. Managed to get a question in at general question time to the Communities Minister, but as usual didn’t get an answer! I asked about new houses and got told all about central heating installations – I’m really fed up the way they can prevaricate, spin out answers and just plain not answer the question. It’s so frustrating that you can’t get back in to press the point. Another Point of Order this afternoon about the Health Ministry spinning out answers so that only a few questions get taken – only 4 this time. As Tricia Marwick told the Presiding Officer – “Question time is members' one opportunity to hold ministers to account. We are clearly being prevented from doing so if we reach only question 4”.

The afternoon debate was about the voluntary sector and the social economy. I was leading it for us and had hopes that that the Minister would accept my amendment which merely said that the ongoing Strategic Funding Review should “include measures to ensure continued and stable core funding for voluntary organisations that are expected to deliver ministerial and local government policy objectives.” Perfectly fair I thought, but the Executive rejected it and in fact said that core funding was a backward step – hard to have a backward step when its never happened in the first place! Seemingly, according to the Minister, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Services agrees with him. I find that extremely disappointing because, without fail, whenever I visit voluntary organisations, the main issue is the core funding to allow them the security of knowing that they can help their client group and plan for the future. Having to apply here, there and everywhere just for the funding to survive is demoralising and cuts the potential service. Even for voluntary organisations which employ staff, some of the staff time is spent running around chasing funds to keep them employed – it’s common for voluntary agencies to have to issue 90-day redundancy notices to staff as a matter of course because funding is so insecure. And surely where an organisation is providing a service on behalf of government then enough money guaranteed long-term to keep them afloat is not too much to ask!

I was disappointed that I couldn’t attend a special presentation at lunchtime, organised by Oxfam, about Banda Aceh and East Timor, especially as tomorrow is the third anniversary of East Timor’s independence. I had to attend a housing briefing with the Executive’s Bill Team (I get all the good jobs!). Still, I guess I’m as up-to-date as I can be with Timor Leste, and have just submitted a Parliamentary Motion tonight both to congratulate the country and have a go at the Australian Government for their underhand dealings about the oil in the Timor Sea:

    ·       S2M-2848 Linda Fabiani: 3rd Anniversary of Timor-Leste’s Independence—That the Parliament congratulates the world’s newest nation, East Timor, on the third anniversary of its independence; notes that the Australian Government has, since East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999, taken in approximately $1.2 billion in revenue from oil fields much closer to East Timor than to Australia, and is claiming the bulk of the revenues from the largest known field, Greater Sunrise, on the basis of prior occupation stemming from illegal agreements with Indonesia, the former occupier of East Timor; notes that the Australian Government pre-emptively withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea two months before East Timor’s independence, and believes that the Australian Government should now work to establish a fair and permanent maritime boundary with East Timor based on the rule of international legal principles, recognising that the poorest nation in Asia deserves more than shabby revenue deals well short of its legal entitlements.

When I was in East Timor in 1999 I spent a bit of time with Mr. James Dunn who was Australia’s last Ambassador to the country prior to the Indonesian invasion in 1975. He was a smashing man who had campaigned for 24 years for justice for East Timor – 1999 was his first visit back because he vowed not to return there whilst his own country recognised Indonesia as sovereign. He was deeply ashamed of his Government’s actions in signing up with Indonesia to split the Timor Gap oil revenues between them. Also deeply ashamed were many of the Australian WW2 veterans who constantly campaigned against their Government’s actions. You see, during the second world war, East Timor (a colony of Portugal at the time) was a bulwark against Japan and the East Timorese were selfless in their support of the Australian troops on their island. Sadly, as happens, the allies pulled out when Japan landed and the Japanese retaliation against the Timorese left up to 70,000 dead – about 10% of their population at the time. Some of the old folk in East Timor talk about their country having suffered two holocausts – the Japanese invasion and then the Indonesian invasion, during which 25 years occupation around 200,000 more Timorese died.

East Timor is a beautiful country, with fascinatingly gentle, yet very strong people. They deserve more than the shabby oil deals they’re being offered. Here are a couple of photographs taken from the website of the International Federation of East Timor:

Man who fought with Australia against Japan in WWII poses with the oldest and youngest of his 28 children/the mountains

Home to Strathaven.

Friday morning spent in Kirktonholme Primary School in East Kilbride – and what a great time I had. Started off with a non-religious assembly for all the children and staff, including the nursery school. Lots of fun and the children obviously enjoyed it. We sang “Lily the Pink”, “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” and “There was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly”. They sing good songs at schools now – I only remember hymns and dreich traditional songs at primary school. Then I visited the Nursery School and played “The Farmer wants a Wife” – I do remember that one, only now the youngsters don’t knock lumps out of each other at the end; it was all very civilised, and I was real chuffed when a wee lad wanted me to be his wife!

The bulk of the morning was taken up with the two Primary 6 classes who have been doing a project on the Scottish Parliament. Like at Greenhills Primary on Monday morning, I was well impressed with the standard of knowledge and the level of curiosity of the children. I know I keep on about it, but they are the future for democracy in this country and well done to all the teachers who make sure that citizenship and the nation’s institutions are on the school agenda.

Constituency work Saturday morning and then a treat on Saturday night. Duncan and I attended the East Kilbride Kittoch Rotary Club Grand Ball. We very much wanted to go because the fund-raiser was for the Erskine Hospital Charity Appeal, and I understand that around £4000 was raised. I donated a tour of the Parliament and lunch as a prize and it was a really lovely couple who won it – I’m looking forward to hosting them at Holyrood. Well done to all the organisers. The food, entertainment and company couldn’t have been better- it was a Caribbean theme and all the tables were appropriately named – St. Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica, Aruba – except the one I was at!

How did they know I used to work there! The good old days.

Linda Fabiani

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