Many people have written to me regarding campaigns of interest to them. Below you can read my position on some of the most recent campaigns people have contacted me about.
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Following new guidance released last week, all secondary school pupils will be required to wear face masks when moving around the school estate, and all pupils over the age of five will be required to wear masks when using school transport.
The Unsuitable Accommodation Order has been a vital means of providing further protections to pregnant women and families with children who are homeless and have been placed in temporary accommodation. The Order has protected these individuals and families from being placed in sub-standard accommodation, which is not suitable for long-term settlement, for more than a week.
Unsuitable Accommodation Order
The Scottish Conservatives recognise the importance and urgency of extending these protections to everyone who experiences homelessness and has been placed in temporary accommodation.
While it has been important to place people who are homeless and sleeping rough into hotels and B&Bs during the coronavirus pandemic to give them safety and security, this is not a long-term solution. Extending the Unsuitable Accommodation Order has already been delayed, so the SNP cannot afford to kick this into the long grass again and deprioritise the plight of people experiencing homelessness. They should be prepared to properly resource councils with the funding and means to implement these changes, so that no one is forced into unsuitable accommodation for more than a week – regardless of their situation.
The SNP have been failing families and individuals who have been experiencing homelessness for too long, with record levels of children in temporary accommodation and the number of people assessed as homeless at a six-year high. Douglas Ross and the Scottish Conservatives are committed to taking urgent action to curb this unacceptable trend. That is why we have committed to ending rough sleeping by 2026, building more affordable homes and improving the access that everyone has to the private rented sector.
Everyone deserves a secure roof over their head and a safe place to call home.
Reopening of Schools
Every single day that schools remain closed is causing further damage to young people’s education, and is another opportunity for the attainment gap to grow. As such, we welcome any decision to allow pupils to return to school as soon as it is safe to do so. But parents, pupils and teachers must now see further details on this initial return, including how these plans will eventually be phased up to a full return for all pupils. We are quite clear that there is still more to be done to protect young people’s education and deal with the immense loss of learning many have suffered. We have relentlessly raised the issues of attainment and lost learning in the Scottish Parliament and will continue to do so.
While a number of pupils will be returning to classrooms on 22 February, the majority of pupils will be continuing to work entirely remotely for the foreseeable future. So far, the SNP’s rollout of devices such as laptops and tablets for pupils has fallen well short of what is required and there are still too many pupils left with no way to properly learn at home through a lack of technology, despite the good efforts of teachers and their schools.
The SNP Government have not committed any new funding to providing laptops or tablets for over six months now, and have ignored our calls for an additional £25 million of funding to be provided for remote learning in light of the continuing school closures. Going forward, we are clear that much more needs to be done on this issue and will continue to push both for further funding and for pupils who are unable to learn at home to be allowed back into classrooms sooner.
We are also clear that routine asymptomatic testing of teachers must be in place for 22 February, after improved testing in schools was announced last year but has yet to materialise. A comprehensive programme of testing in schools, which includes senior phase pupils as we have previously called for, will be important in ensuring schools remain safe for both teachers and pupils. Consideration must also be given towards the priority vaccination of teachers after vaccination of all the JCVI priority groups has been completed, and I have sympathy to calls in that respect. We have raised this with the Scottish Government and made clear that there cannot and should not be a postcode lottery when the times comes for school staff to receive that much needed vaccine. It undoubtedly is a major key to reopening education more fully.
As ever, any decisions concerning school closures must be kept under continual review as we learn more about the new strains of COVID-19, and as infection levels change across Scotland. If evidence shows that schools can be reopened to more pupils safely then this must happen as a matter of urgency. We are also open to this occurring on a regional or localised basis to ensure that we get pupils back to class as soon as it is safe to do so.
Going forward, we will continue to scrutinise every decision this SNP Government takes regarding young people’s education, as we have done every single week of this pandemic. While the partial reopening of schools is a step in the right direction, but there is still much to be done to ensure any further educational damage is kept to a minimum, and the onus remains on the SNP to ensure that education is treated as the priority it should be.
Ultimately, the SNP Government’s main priority is another divisive independence referendum this year rather than our young people’s education. That is why it is so important to stop an SNP majority in May and get the Scottish Parliament 100% focused on rebuilding Scotland from this crisis.
It is disappointing that Scotland’s colleges have been forced into a position where they are having to undertake restructuring and cost-cutting measures such as these in order to ensure their financial sustainability and avoid course closures and cuts.
This follows many years of chronic underfunding of the further education sector by the SNP Government, which has left many institutions with just weeks of funding in the bank at any one time and an inability to raise capital or borrow in the way that other tertiary institutions can. Given this unsustainable level of funding, it is perhaps unsurprising that many institutions are having to implement drastic cost-saving measures.
Therefore, we fully agree with the EIS that the SNP government must step up to the mark on this issue and commit to properly funding our colleges going forward.
These institutions are a vital cog in our education system, and deliver many young people the skills they need to get on in life. In the current COVID-19 context, their vital role in reskilling our workforce is all too apparent too. But unlike universities, our colleges are entirely dependent on public funding, so the onus is now entirely on the SNP to step-in, level-up further education funding, and ensure that colleges are able to continue delivering high-quality education and training going forward.
Additionally, we believe colleges are well placed to lead growth in our local economies, which is why we are proposing regional college taskforces that would bring colleges together with other agencies to engage with local businesses and deliver the skills they need.
The UK Government have announced that the UK will continue to meet our commitment to the world’s poorest, spending 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid in 2021 – amounting to £10 billion pounds in this year’s Spending Review. During a time when we need to prioritise jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people.
I believe it is right at this difficult time that the UK Government puts rebuilding our country and protecting jobs first. However, we hope to see the 0.7 per cent international aid commitment restored when resources allow in the future, and the Chancellor has indicated that this will be the case.
Based on the latest OECD data, the UK is still the second highest aid donor in the G7 – higher than Italy, Japan, Canada, and the US.
The UK is and will remain a world leader in international development, demonstrated by the UK hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) and a major girls’ education summit next year. Very few countries do more than us to lift communities out of poverty or tackle climate change worldwide. And the UK Government have been a world leader in funding vaccines and treatments for coronavirus worldwide.
Unison's 'Plug The Gap' Campaign
Our local councils have been struggling for years under the SNP and must be commended for coping with the extraordinary challenges presented by COVID-19 despite huge pressures on funding. Local authorities went into this crisis under-funded and under prepared and my Scottish Conservative colleagues and I are determined that that will not happen again.
Douglas Ross, at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference, announced our plans to give Scotland’s councils a fair deal.
The SNP have been continually raiding council budgets to fund their pet projects, running down local services like roads, schools and rubbish collection. That’s why we would introduce fair funding for our councils, so that they receive a set amount of the Scottish Government’s budget each year - in the same way Scotland receives funding from the UK Government.
The SNP have grabbed cash from our local authorities for years while they have been focused on another independence referendum. We will focus on rebuilding our communities from this pandemic by funding our local services fairly.
We will always support our local councils as they provide most of the essential services that millions of people in communities all over the country rely on.
COVID-19 Restrictions in Scotland
Since the start of this pandemic, the Scottish Conservatives have challenged the SNP Government where appropriate in the public interest. We supported the emergency coronavirus legislation on a strict test of necessity and we continue to actively review our position based on the evidence.
While we will always support measures to protect public health, we are very aware of the negative impact that lengthy periods of harsh restrictions can have on mental & physical health, as well as the economy.
We have repeatedly pushed the SNP Government to justify the measures they are taking in a way that will give as much certainty as possible to worried families and struggling businesses as it is unacceptable that decisions of such magnitude are conveyed first through leaks and press briefings.
The Scottish Conservatives were the first party to call for an urgent restart of cancer services in early May and on the same day, we sounded the alarm in the Scottish Parliament chamber about the dangers of heart disease, stroke and mental health issues going untreated.
My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I have, since the pandemic began, shone a light on the failings of the SNP Government - from the national tragedy in our care homes to the exam results fiasco.
We have also been unrelenting in our calls for further action to save jobs. The UK Government provided a comprehensive and unprecedented package of support that has protected nearly a million jobs in Scotland as well as 89,000 business. This support will only continue as Rishi Sunak confirmed that the UK-wide Job Retention Scheme will now run until the end of March 2021 to protect even more Scottish jobs.
The UK Government has ensured that families across Scotland have been able to put food on the table while the SNP are still short-changing businesses and stalling on job support.
Recently, they have refused to backdate business grants to previous periods of restrictions, meaning that businesses could lose out on as much as £2,000 in support. The SNP also voted down our proposal to set up a Coronavirus Business Advisory Council to give businesses the seat at the table deciding restrictions they have been asking for since this pandemic began.
While jobs are never a priority for the SNP, we don’t believe there is a choice between protecting public health and saving livelihoods. It’s time to do both.
Protection of Workers Bill
I fully support the right of retail workers to work within a safe environment free from harm and the fear of harm.
Retail workers helped keep Scotland on its feet at the height of the pandemic so it is unacceptable that they face such high levels of threats, abuse and violence. The continued increase in retail crime and use of violence against retail workers is unacceptable, and I believe in large part down to the SNP’s soft touch approach to justice. In 2019, Nicola Sturgeon’s government passed a law which effectively banned prison sentences of less than a year, meaning those criminals would get a fine or community sentence instead. Only the Scottish Conservatives voted against these wrong-headed plans which will see more serious offenders let off the hook.
I am happy to promote better reporting of crime – the recently published Scottish Crime and Justice Survey found that nearly two thirds of all crime is not reported to the police. I also support a collaborative approach in dealing with offenders and working with organisations to provide additional rehabilitation programmes for the most prolific drug and/or alcohol dependant offenders.
I support the general principles of Daniel Johnson’s Bill. To demonstrate our commitment to the protection of people against assault, and to send a message that such treatment of retail workers is unacceptable, we will support this bill at Stage 1.
However, this bill is not without its flaws and we would like to see better enforcement of the existing law and more serious sentences handed down to punish any wrongdoing, protect public safety and properly rehabilitate the offender. First of all, his maximum punishment of 12 months in prison is flawed in light of the SNP’s ban on short prison sentences as discussed above. Secondly, the offences outlined in the bill are largely already covered in existing laws. The later stages of this bill’s passage through parliament are an opportunity to improve this bill.
Face Masks in Schools
Thank you for contacting me following the decision taken by the SNP Government to make the wearing of face masks in some school settings and on school transport compulsory. The first problem is that this is actually just guidance and was never voted on by Parliament. It has been unclear if this was statutory law or simply guidelines. Once again, schools are left to enforce things which are not legally enforceable.
Throughout this pandemic we have been supportive of any measures taken to protect the safety of children, parents and teachers, wherever these measures are justified and proportionate. But in this instance, there remain a number of unanswered questions about why this decision was necessary and how it is to be implemented and enforced. I hear your views as a parent on this, and these views are helpful in how we approach this matter.
There have been consistently mixed messages around this policy from the moment it was announced, with SNP Education Minister John Swinney initially explaining that rules concerning face masks will be ‘not mandatory but obligatory’, and then failing to offer further clarity when requested to do so. There are also outstanding issues around how this policy will impact pupils with additional support needs, including pupils who lip-read. Parents, pupils and teachers need further information on these issues, but the guidance they have been offered is, regrettably, as clear as mud. There remain unanswered questions about whether parents will be punished if they do not send their children to school if they disagree with the policy and also if head teachers have any flexibility in making local decisions.
Moreover, I am concerned that the decision to apply a single policy on face masks across the whole of Scotland is neither necessary nor proportionate. We have long believed that individual schools should have much greater decision-making powers, and given the current low prevalence of COVID-19 in Scotland, I believe the SNP need to spell out why this decision should not be left to head teachers, who know their schools best and are most aware of the issues impacting their staff and pupils.
Once again, I thank you for taking the time to contact me with your concerns on this issue – while we remain supportive of additional safety measures where necessary, I believe that in this instance, the SNP must do more to justify this decision and offer greater clarity to schools and more importantly parents. We will continue to press this issue in Parliament, I also encourage you to write to them and your local school if needs be.
Animals and Wildlife Bill
Thank you for contacting me regarding the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protection and Powers)(Scotland) Bill, which was supported by the Scottish Conservatives, and specifically the amendment regarding the protection of mountain hares.
I know that the Government is currently working on the licensing scheme and the Scottish Conservatives will play our part in ensuring that this scheme is introduced quickly and reflects the decision made in the Parliament to make mountain hares a protected species.
Jobs at Scotland's Airports
Jobs and livelihoods across Scotland are under unprecedented pressure and I appreciate that the aviation sector is particularly vulnerable in the economic crisis in which we find ourselves.
We have all lived through months of lockdown which brought the aviation sector to a standstill. Now that restrictions are easing, and the SNP Government has finally got to grips with its plan for air bridges, I am hopeful that some progress can begin to be made. The Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly demanded scientific justification from the SNP for their restrictions on travel and those returning from abroad.
The pressure is now on the SNP Government to take real action to protect the workers and businesses that rely on a thriving aviation sector. Scotland's airports need clarity at this time in order to be able to plan for the future in a sustainable way. There has already been enough damage, we cannot afford any more confusion, delay or distraction like we have seen in the last few weeks.
Both myself and my Scottish Conservative colleagues are committed to protecting jobs and livelihoods in every sector and region across Scotland, and we will continue to urge both of Scotland's governments to do all they can in that regard.
It was deeply frustrating, though perhaps predictable, that the SNP Government used the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to postpone the obligation for local authorities to offer parents 1,140 hours of free childcare provision. As had been exposed when we defeated the SNP in a Scottish Parliament debate on this issue earlier in the year, consistent mis-management of this target meant that it would likely have been missed anyway.
Since this cancellation was announced, we have consistently called for the SNP to reinstate a deadline for its implementation. Many parents are understandably concerned about the level of childcare they can expect to be entitled to in the coming months, and we are all too aware that parents need this certainty as soon as practicable.
It is therefore incredibly disappointing, though again, perhaps not surprising, that the SNP have announced that their 1,140 hours of childcare policy is unlikely to be delivered before the end of the coming academic year. Despite the construction industry having only been shut down for around three months, the SNP have decided not to even consult on a new deadline for this policy until December, and that local authorities will then have at least six months’ notice before the 1,140 hours obligation is introduced.
We are clear that this proposed timeline is unjustifiable, and unacceptable. COVID-19 does not excuse a delay of this magnitude, and we therefore want to see these plans brought forward by at least several months – with the appropriate level of ambition, this policy can still be in place well before the end of the coming academic year. Given the many other uncertainties that currently exist for parents, concerns around childcare provision is not a problem they should have to be dealing with.
Until the 1,140 hours obligation is reintroduced, it is ultimately a decision for each local authority as to whether they wish to continue their prior commitments to delivering 1,140 of hours childcare by August. However, I am aware that instead of providing councils with sufficient additional funds to deal with the ongoing costs of this pandemic, the SNP Government have encouraged councils to instead use the funding that was originally intended for the 1,140 hours rollout for this purpose. This continues a decade-long trend of Scottish local authorities being severely underfunded, and many councils have seemingly had little choice but to redirect their 1,140 hours funding to other priorities.
But the fact that councils have had to use their 1,140 hours funding to meet the ongoing costs of COVID-19 raises the issue of how 1,140 hours will be funded when this obligation is reintroduced. The SNP therefore need to provide assurances that councils will have the funding required to deliver this commitment, whenever it is finally reintroduced.
Both myself and my Scottish Conservative colleagues have always supported the increase to 1,140 hours of free childcare, and the importance of ensuring this policy is both funded properly, and delivered in a timely fashion, is not something we will let this SNP Government forget, regardless of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis
Tied Pubs Bill
We know that pubs play an important part of our cultural heritage and communities. We are sympathetic to the aims of Neil Bibby’s Bill, and want to create a thriving and diverse pub sector. We are also acutely aware of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial stability of the pub sector.
However, we have concerns about the operation of the statutory code in England and Wales and how this would be translated into Scots law. The pub sector in Scotland is very different to England and Wales. Figures from 2015 show that there are 4,900 pubs in Scotland: 64 per cent of these are independent free trades, 17 per cent are tied pubs, 13 per cent are managed, and the remaining 5 per cent operate on a free-of-tie tenant/lease basis. The figure for England are almost inverted as most pubs in England are tenanted and not freehold.
This means that the bill would only apply to around 17 per cent of pubs in Scotland, and even less if there was to be a threshold introduced. Additionally, tied pubs do have advantages such as making it easier to become a publican, and creating economies of scale. There is also a risk that moves in Scotland to regulate the tied tenant relationship could lead to reduced investment in the tied-pub sector and therefore our high-streets.
Overall, we are positive about the aims and objectives of Neil Bibby’s bill, but are keen to learn more about the operation of the code in the rest of the UK and potential consequences of legislating in Scotland. We look forward to engaging with the sector and examining the evidence provided to the Committee, to determine appropriate action to support the pub trade.
Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill
Intolerance, bigotry, racism and prejudice of any kind should not be accepted anywhere in a civilised society.
We must recognise the profound harm which hate crimes cause to the victim and the community they belong to, but in law there is a vital balance to be struck between freedom of expression and cracking down on prejudice. The Scottish Conservatives will therefore scrutinise this Bill closely at all stages and propose amendments where necessary.
In general, I support the findings of Lord Bracadale’s review in 2018 that the best way to punish hate crime is by aggravators which can be added to existing crimes, rather than standalone offences. Furthermore, Parliament should ensure there is no risk of diluting the meaning of hate crime by expanding the protected characteristics too far.
The proposed offences of ‘stirring up hatred’ will have to be looked at closely to ensure there are sufficient safeguards for freedom of speech built in, and that poorly drafted law does not create unintended consequences.
We will support the abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy, which hasn’t been used for over 175 years and is likely incompatible with international human rights law.
I am disappointed that the SNP Government have decided not to create an aggravator for criminals who target vulnerable persons. Tougher sentences for these sorts of offenders is something the Scottish Conservatives have campaigned on for a number of years and was recommended by Lord Bracadale. We also regard this Bill as a missed opportunity to make meaningful steps towards restorative justice – where the victim of crime is put at the heart of the justice process.
Legislation can’t solve all problems, and further to this Bill the SNP Government must demonstrate how they will tackle prejudice at its root, adequately punish and deter offenders, and stand up for victims of hate right across Scotland.
Deposit Return Scheme
The Scottish Conservatives supported Scotland setting the most ambitious climate change targets in the world and we believe Scotland and the UK should continue to hold the highest environmental standards.
We believe a Deposit Return Scheme could help to improve recycling rates, cut down on both waste to landfill and plastics in our waters, and ultimately help to protect the environment. We have called for a well-designed, accessible and fair scheme that encourages people and businesses to do the right thing and help cut down on litter and waste. We will continue to support the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme in Scotland, although we share the concerns of businesses that a UK-wide scheme may be more appropriate and successful.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we believe a slight delay to the Deposit Return Scheme is the right approach. Many companies are facing bankruptcy and workers are being laid off in unprecedented numbers. It is a very difficult time for small shops across Scotland, and we do not think it is fair to add to their burden at this precise moment. The Deposit Return Scheme will not be successful without the support of the business community and they have pressing concerns about their immediate future during this global crisis. To have the biggest impact on saving our environment, we believe a delay to the Deposit Return Scheme is necessary.
Climate Change Plan
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to tackling climate change and ensuring the highest standards of environmental protection. We have committed to promoting a secure and low-carbon based energy sector, supporting sustainable transport and to maximising Scotland’s resources; all of which can help achieve ambitious emissions reduction targets.
We work hard to champion the environment and continue to challenge the SNP to be ambitious in their Climate Change Plan review. Unfortunately, the SNP government have failed to meet their own tree planting targets in four out of the last five years. They have also failed to raise broad-leaf planting quickly enough, with planting levels remaining below 2014 levels.
We recognise the global climate emergency we face and agree with the UK Committee on Climate Change that more it needed from all sectors in order to fight the ongoing effects to our environment. To this end, we understand the interconnected relationship between the climate and biodiversity crises and have pledged to create 15,000 hectares of new woodland per year, establish a biodiversity baseline for surveying and modelling species and tackle invasive species, such as rhododendron, through an Invasive Species Action Fund.
Furthermore, the Scottish Conservatives’ Green Cities Plan pledges to create a network of green vegetation corridors in urban areas aimed at: improving air quality, increasing biomass to boost biodiversity and create ecological corridors across our cities enabling animal migration, and assist in the beautification of cities to increase property values, tourist appeal and general wellbeing for residents and businesses.
The Scottish Conservatives will continue to stand up for the best interests of the planet and hold the SNP government to account on these key environment and climate change issues.