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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
31st January 2008

This week has been one of those where I’ve found myself sympathising with people in real and desperate need and then fuming with anger about politicians who seem to want to just make political capital out of suffering.


I was at Dungavel at the weekend – a detention centre where asylum seekers whose cases have been rejected are held before being removed from the country.  These people are facing some of the most difficult times of their lives – many are petrified that the return to their homeland will mean their death, others are worried about persecution, and so on.


Some of these people want to get married before they go home.  The reasons differ, some just want to know that they are married before they face the uncertain future back home, for some it is all they have left to cling to – a hope of a better future even when reality suggests that this is unlikely, each person has a different story.


Getting married doesn’t change their status as asylum seekers, it doesn’t give them any chance of staying which was denied them without marriage, and they know this, it’s made clear to them.  It used to be that they went through a standard kind of procedure and the minister or priest from the local churches or the local registrar would marry them.


The rule has been changed now and they have to apply to the Home Office for permission with a non-returnable fee which is substantial.  The applications are routinely refused and the asylum seekers are prevented from marrying.


For all the tiny inconvenience that it would cause officialdom and the relatively minor disruption to an average day in the centre, surely this small act of humanity should be allowed?  These are people with very little, herded together in a detention centre which was a jail – which it could be argued is still a jail – who have not committed any crime other than being a stranger in most cases, people with very little in their lives at all, people who can have little hope.


Whatever your opinion of people whose asylum applications fail and how we should treat asylum seekers in Scotland, surely no-one can deny that we should show just a tiny bit more humanity in this respect?  We’re not being asked to do much, just give them a little dignity.


The recent remembrances of the evils of the slave trade should at least have brought to our minds the point that people should be treated with humanity, dignity and respect at the very least.  This one small concession to these people’s dignity would cost us next to nothing, and we should make sure that we deliver it.


To go from there to the shenanigans of First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) in Parliament is a jump, but it has a dissonance which is worth noting.


FMQs is an opportunity every week for MSPs to ask the First Minister to justify his actions and those of his Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers – a chance to hold the Government to account.  Each of the leaders of the opposition parties gets a chance to put a range of questions to the First Minister before the rest of us get a go at him.


In today’s session, the Labour leader, Wendy Alexander, tried to score political points over the increase in the numbers of pensioners waiting for central heating to be installed in their homes.  Leaving aside the fact that the Scottish Government has expanded the categories so that more people are now entitled (which is why the list has grown), Ms Alexander never came seeking help for those people, she just came to play a juvenile game of trying to say that the Government had failed.  A similar ploy was tried the previous week with a man who absconded from prison and raped a teenage girl – no attempt to make sure it doesn’t happen again, just an attempt to pin blame on the Government.


The Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, did something just as distasteful.  He brandished a letter sent from a consultant to a patient telling her why her treatment could not be scheduled and that her name was being removed from the waiting list – something which is against the rules which the SNP Government brought in on December 31st.  We smelled a bit of a rat when we realised that the date had been scored off the letter – December 21st was what it turned out to be.  The letter was sent before we changed the rules to make sure this kind of thing couldn’t happen any more.  The letter was sent at the time that rules written by the former Lib Dem and Labour administration were still in place – and the letter was fine by their standards!


I don’t mind politicians having a go at each other – politics is a rough game – but at least they should be honest.  Another thing, though, is that politicians should not seek to use people’s problems for political gain.  Politicians should be here to serve the people and should work to that end, we should be looking to change things like the conditions asylum seekers are held in and seeing if we can speed up central heating installation and reform waiting lists and so on, but it should be done for the sake of the people, not for political point-scoring.


On a far lighter note, I’m off to the Scotswoman of the Year Awards tonight.  I promise I’ll tell you all about it next week.

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