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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Skills Participation Age
The Scottish Conservative propose to introduce a new skills participation age of 18, so every young person in Scotland has the opportunity to develop the skills they need to achieve their full potential, be ready for the world of work and find a great job.
The Scottish Conservatives believe strongly in freedom of choice and the pursuit of each individual young adult’s skills and strengths. Therefore, our policy would guarantee everyone in Scotland receives their chosen form of education or training that best suits their talents and desires until at least the age of 18.
We would ask schools to make it clear that there is no hierarchy. There is no sign in the corridors saying smart kids one way, poor kids another. Instead, we would make it clear to pupils that they have a series of equally positive options. Yes, university is a great option, but there’s another path towards a great job if they want to choose that route instead.
In practice, our policy would mean more young people going on to apprenticeships, college, training, university or obtaining further school qualifications. In order to maintain existing choices for young people, we would consult on a range of exemptions, including joining the armed forces; assuming a full-time unpaid caring role; launching a business; or becoming a parent on leave.
Our proposal is already in operation in several countries across Europe, including some nations who have comparatively highly skilled workforces by global rankings. In Scotland, our policy been championed by the IPPR think tank as a means to ‘to increase skills levels and instil a habit of learning among young people that we hope would be continued throughout their lives.’
Only Ruth and the Scottish Conservatives are focusing on providing opportunities for young people, delivering high-quality jobs and ultimately, strengthening Scotland’s economy.
SNP Car Parking Tax
The SNP’s block grant is increasing by more than £500 million next year thanks to the Conservatives and the UK Government. As a result, we will not support an SNP Budget that slashes public services and punishes hard workers.
The SNP’s car parking tax could see workers paying hundreds of pounds just to park at their place of work. Hard workers and small businesses would suffer, and the SNP have so far even refused to exempt teachers from paying this charge. It is no surprise that the SNP didn’t consult a single person about such a damaging and ill-considered proposal.
This new levy is the latest in a long line of tax hikes from Nicola Sturgeon. She has already broken two manifesto promises: to not raise tax on basic rate payers, and to cap council tax rises at three per cent. Only the Scottish Conservatives would deliver a fair deal for taxpayers across Scotland.
Give Them Time Campaign
The Scottish Conservatives support the campaign’s goal of increasing awareness of parents’ legal right to defer a child who is not aged five by the start of the school year.
We note the campaign’s research, which found inconsistencies in the approach taken by various local authorities, inadvertently creating a postcode lottery of provision for some children. As such, we believe that more can be done to ensure information regarding deferral rights is accurate and accessible, and local authority education professionals are fully aware of the legal deferral rights of children.
Furthermore, the Scottish Conservatives have consistently campaigned for the end of the unfair loophole of birthday discrimination, where some children receive only 15 or 18 months of what should be two years of childcare entitlement, purely because of the timing of their birthday.
In general, the SNP’s implementation of the expansion of childcare provision has been flawed from the beginning. Nine out of ten parents have said that a lack of childcare is holding back their career. It is unacceptable that people who want to work and get ahead are struggling to do so because of the SNP’s botched childcare expansion, which is forcing private nurseries to close and reducing choice and flexibility for parents
Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill
The Scottish Conservatives welcome the publication of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.
As you are aware, the Census has not previously included questions about sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill intends to make the new questions voluntary, and will not remove the existing mandatory questions. It is also important to note that the wider issue of gender assignment, and how people legally define their gender, will not be affected by this bill.
We therefore intend to support the bill, but will seek to introduce amendments that will clarify the distinction between mandatory and voluntary questions. This will include looking at how the census will define, structure and communicate the voluntary questions on gender identity.
We believe this will achieve the intended aim of providing the most accurate and effective data, but make sure that it is done clearly and consistently and without undermining existing information the census provides.
Smacking Ban Bill
The Scottish Conservatives believe that we should not replace good law with bad law. The current law already protects children from violence and it works well. It allows “reasonable chastisement” from parents, while preventing assault and disproportionate punishment of children. The existing law also rightly recognises that there is a distinction between a child and an adult.
Parents, not the state, have primary responsibility for their children. The Bill will remove parental discretion and allow the government to interfere in family life. As with Named Persons, this Bill implies that the SNP know what is best for children, not their parents.
We are concerned that the committee working on the Bill has reached a preordained position without fully considering the legal evidence. The reality is that a majority of Scottish people are against this Bill as it would criminalise loving parents.
Reintroduction and Management of Beavers
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, and are determined to protect and enhance Scotland’s biodiversity. We believe that we must ensure that the re-introduction of any species does not damage our existing flora and fauna. It must also be done in such a way as to avoid conflict with existing land uses, which are not only important to our environment but also to the economy.
This also means that before any re-introduction of a species is undertaken there must be extensive consultation, which should be led by impartial experts and not purely pressure groups. It also means that before any reintroductions occur that we develop sensible pragmatic management plans that cover all aspects of any reintroduction including an ‘exit strategy’ should it be required.
We know the population of beavers has tripled in the past six years; there are now over 400 beavers in more than 100 active territories in Scotland. This includes a large population in Tayside, where they were illegally released. I believe the activists who released these beavers illegally, should be caught and prosecuted. I also believe that any species that are illegally translocated must be immediately removed. This is the only way that we can ensure that the reintroduction of species is undertaken in a controlled and managed way.
I will be working with my Conservative colleagues to ensure that the future national management of beavers is done in an informed way and that the plan for doing this supports not only beavers but also the environment they are in. Whilst I do not support a licensing regime for the control of beavers, if we are to have one it must be simple and easy to use with no onerous conditions or additional costs placed on farmers and land managers. It must also be proactive and quick. I also believe where it disadvantages or creates hardship for farmers and landowners such as undermining river banks causing their collapse and erosion there should be an acceptance that compensation will be required.
We all, including this SNP Government must act responsibly to protect rural Scotland. We must recognise the damage that the reintroduction of species, such as beavers, can be very detrimental if undertaken in an uncontrolled way.
Live Animal Exports Ban
The safe and humane transport of live animals is hugely important to Scotland’s farmers and crofters. The transport of animals within the UK from remote areas and islands, where access to local markets or abattoirs is limited, is a regular and important feature of livestock production. There are robust regulations in place for this, namely the Welfare of Animals (Transport) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 and the Council Regulation (EC) 1/2005, to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare are maintained. As such, the Scottish Conservatives do not believe that this requires further regulation.
The live shipment of Scottish animals to mainland Europe currently involves breeding animals and a small number of young stock destined for breeding, store and slaughter stock. The Scottish Conservatives recognise that the export of live animals is an important market for Scottish farmers and crofters. We support this where it is done in accordance with the highest animal welfare standards as enshrined in UK and EU law, because we know that these animals are kept and treated to the same standard as animals that remain in Scotland. We agree with the NFUS that while animals should be reared as close to origin as practical, if animals are to live a productive life then safe and humane transport to other countries should be a legitimate option.
The issue highlighted on the BBC on 10 September regards the live export of about 5,000 male dairy calves from Scotland. Most of these are exported as there is no market for these animals within the UK. We would like to see this number reduced. This could be done through a range of measures, and we join the call for the Scottish Government and industry to quickly work towards this.
Let me very clear about the Scottish Conservative position: as a party, we are very supportive of all measures to ensure schools provide an inclusive environment that supports all of our young people and allows them to reach their full potential regardless of background or gender. Likewise, we are clear that schools must tackle all forms of discrimination and this includes where it has resulted from gender reassignment or sexual orientation. In this respect, we are supportive of the work being done to end homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (HBT) in schools and to ensure that every pupil has a happy and safe experience in school.
We are however, unhappy about proposals which could see very young children being “taught” about gender recognition. This would be an inappropriate move given the fact that these young children could not possibly be expected to understand many of the issues involved or take responsibility for decisions they might make at a very early age. We believe the vast majority of parents agree with us on this.
With regard to the recent debate in the media, the Scottish Government has informed us that the documents are not yet formal guidelines, or proposals. They are part of ongoing work led by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that also involves local authorities and health board partners. It is therefore important that there is further debate and that schools, with the support of teachers and parents, are able to decide the most appropriate and necessary policies to put in place for their pupils.
Communities vs Blood Cancer
I believe it is important to increase the number of stem cell (cord blood and bone marrow) donors in Scotland and I welcome the vital work undertaken by Anthony Nolan.
In 2015 the UK Government announced an extra £3 million in additional funding for stem cell services, part of £19 million in additional investment that the UK Government has committed since 2010 to improve the provision of cells in the UK. This funding is being used to encourage young adult donors as well as those from under-represented populations, such as black, Asian and ethnic minority communities who find it difficult to secure a suitable match.
No patient should be denied a stem cell transplant due to the availability of a lifesaving donor. The Scottish Conservatives know the importance of the stem cell donor register and support its expansion.
I am unable to attend the Anthony Nolan’s parliamentary drop-in, however I fully support this campaign and will highlight its importance to parliament.
Contact between Grandparents and their Grandchildren
I agree that the rights grandparents currently have in regard to access to their grandchildren needs to be significantly enhanced.
Currently the legal framework of Parental Responsibilities and Rights (PRRs) is set out in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. At present, a grandparent in Scotland does not have an automatic right to see his or her grandchild. This is because they do not fall into the category of people who have automatic PRRs under the 1995 Act. Any person who does not have, and never has had, PRRs in respect of a child but who claims an interest can apply for a court order granting them contact with the child. If an amicable agreement cannot be reached about contact, a grandparent could make such an application to the court.
I agree that the Scottish Parliament should consider proposals to ensure grandparents should have greater rights in regard to access to their grandchildren. If at all possible children should be raised by loving family members rather than the state. However, I will need to examine the evidence in greater detail, in particular recommendations by the Law Society, to determine whether legislation is required to provide greater rights to grandparents.
Coul Links Development
The Scottish Conservatives have been monitoring the Coul Links application since it was submitted and we acknowledge concerns about the potential environmental impact of the development.
My colleague, Edward Mountain, MSP for the Highlands and Islands Region, has spoken to our group leader on the Highland Council. The group leader attended the meeting as an observer and he has confirmed that the planning committee has approved the proposed development.
Approval for the development was granted on the basis that the local councillor was in favour of the proposal, SEPA did not object to the development (having reviewed the additional information) and the developer has agreed to considerable additional works to mitigate any possible damage to the flora and fauna and in particular invertebrates.
As SNH did not withdraw its objection, this matter will need to be considered by the Scottish Government and I do hope that they will do so carefully. It is important the Scottish Government fully considers the concerns of the objectors and bear these in mind when considering the comments of the statutory consultee, SNH.
We believe it is very important that planning permissions continue to be dealt with at a local level. I have always supported local determination as I believe it will achieve the most democratic outcome.
However, as this development potentially will affect an area that is designated it is right that the government reviews the decision to examine the potential environmental impacts.
The Transport Bill offers a chance to examine and possibly change legislation surrounding pavement parking, as well as low emission zones and bus franchising to name some of the other issues it may address.
The Scottish Conservatives welcome the Transport Bill in principle but we will likely aim to lodge amendments to strengthen the Bill at Stages Two and Three to ensure it is a robust and sound piece of law.
Frequent parking on footways can cause damage that eventually manifests as uneven pavements. Such damage can represent a real danger to pedestrians, especially vulnerable ones, with local authorities having to foot the bill for repairs.
We can all agree that inconsiderate parking must be tackled and I am pleased that there are plans to look at it. A blanket ban on pavements must be properly researched and proportionate. Inconsiderate parking should not be tolerated, but there are many instances when parking partly on a pavement is the only available option and can be done without obstructing pedestrians’ access.
As you will be aware there may be instances in which parking with two wheels on a pavement has left sufficient room for pedestrians to pass while allowing traffic to flow freely on the road. That is a key point because it would obviously be counterproductive to impose a ban only for it to result in constant road blockages. As long as such parking can be done in a way that allows more than enough room for all pedestrians to pass freely, it is not always necessary to impose a blanket ban. I am not convinced that a blanket ban with no room for exemptions by local authorities in places might be too much of a catch all approach, I know of many areas where pavement parking is the only option to allow free passage of vehicles, including emergency vehicles, through narrow streets – in those examples perhaps local authorities may need to approach this pragmatically. Blanket centralisation of such individual circumstances in my view has historically caused unintended consequences.
The compromise that we would like to emerge would be to find a balance between protecting vulnerable pedestrians and allowing harmless pavement parking to continue. I suspect our amendments will be of this ilk.
I can understand the temptation to push through a blanket ban because it is right to say that we should not tolerate forcing vulnerable pedestrians to move around parked cars on pavements or dropped footways. However, we would not be serving the public if we simply imposed a blanket ban and left motorists, as well as law enforcement officers, to clear up the mess.
Climate Change Bill
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of environmental protection. Last year, we won cross-party support to enact stronger energy efficiency targets for homes by 2030. 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. Our policy paper outlines the specific areas we would like to see more progress on.
While the Scottish Government claims Scotland will be one of the first countries to achieve zero emissions, the Bill in its current form does not commit to that. The Scottish Conservatives will continue to stand up for the best interests of the planet and hold the Government to account on climate change issues. We will work to champion the environment and push the Scottish Government to be more ambitious in their Climate Change Bill as it progresses through Parliament. As always, we will take an evidence-based approach.
I was pleased to see that both the UK and Scottish Governments wrote to the Committee on Climate Change to ask advice on setting a net zero emissions target following the publication of the IPCC’s special report. This advice will be published on 2 May 2019, at which point I will be able to come to an informed view on this matter.
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of environmental protection. Last year, we won cross-party support to enact stronger energy efficiency targets for homes by 2030. 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. Our policy paper outlines the specific areas we would like to see more progress on.
The Scottish Conservatives will continue to stand up for the best interests of the planet and hold the Scottish Government to account on climate change issues. We will work to champion the environment and push the Scottish Government to be more ambitious in their Climate Change Bill as it progresses through Parliament. As always, we will take an evidence-based approach.
This is vital to ensure that Scotland can make real progress instead of the unfortunate position we are in whereby the SNP Government have consistently overpromised and underperformed on key environmental targets. Their poor performance means transport emissions have not seen any sizeable reduction, we are seeing our wildlife impacted, recycling targets are on course to be achieved 12 years late and their target for increasing cycle journeys will not be achieved for an astonishing 239 years.
However, I was pleased to see that both the UK and Scottish Governments wrote to the Committee on Climate Change to ask advice on setting more ambitious emissions target following the publication of the IPCC’s special report. When this advice is published, I will be able to come to an informed view on this matter.
It’s time to protect free speech in Scotland
I agree with the Scottish Law Commission's conclusion that there is an important balance to be struck between freedom of speech and press on the one hand and the right to restore one's reputation swiftly when it has been unfairly tarnished on the other.
It is for the Scottish Government to bring forward legislative proposals based upon the Law Commission's recommendations, and when that happens the Scottish Conservatives will ensure any reform to the law receives the rigorous scrutiny it deserves.
Communications Act 2003
There is clearly a balance to be struck in our society between freedom of expression and courts having the ability to prosecute the most vile online content. It is incumbent upon all of us in public life to get this balance right.
However, when cases are tried, the decision arrived at is for the court alone. Having an independent judiciary free from political influence is an important part of a liberal democracy and so I will not comment directly on any particular decision. Each situation is different and judges are best placed to take into account the full range of factors that relate to any particular crime. That is not to say that I will instinctively agree with any particular sentencing.
Religious Observance in Schools
The Scottish Conservatives consider the current right of parents to request their children opt out of any religious ceremony is appropriate and we support its continuation.
We believe that this issue is a matter for each school – following consultation with parents, staff, and pupils – to decide the most appropriate form of religious observance, bearing in mind the particular ethos of the school and its local community. We are also comfortable that school assemblies can include time for reflection which is inclusive of all pupils, whether or not they have a religious faith.
Moreover, we support religious and moral education as an important part of the school curriculum. It enables pupils to learn about a whole range of religious beliefs, as well as to understand why some people do not have a religious belief.
Budget for Better
The Scottish Conservatives welcome the publication of the Independent Review of Student Support since it focuses on some key principles which must underpin future reform. We need to ensure a more sustainable approach in the future given the increasing financial pressures upon students and the commitment to widening access.
We also believe that there is a very important debate to be had about the financial restructuring of tertiary education so that costs of tuition and student support are not seen in isolation. International studies reveal some interesting trends if there is a more strategic approach to funding - something that has been pointed out by Audit Scotland.
We agree with the NUS that a priority should be better provision of bursary support and have long argued that this could be achieved by a fairer balance of funding between taxpayers and graduates. We are mindful of the statistics which show that Scotland lags behind other parts of the UK when it comes to the extent of bursary support. That is just one reason why we are in favour of a modest graduate contribution to university education.
We are also mindful of the recent statistics published by SAAS which tell us that the poorest university students in Scotland are borrowing the most. We have supported a higher loan repayment threshold in past manifestos and will work with other parties in the Scottish Parliament to deliver this as soon as practicable.
We have also long campaigned on improved mental health support in Scotland. The provision across our colleges and universities is patchy and more needs to be done. We will consider the NUS calls for a universal counselling service carefully.
Life in Limbo
I am passionate about improving our housing supply and working towards eradication of homelessness in Scotland. I have spoken with, and heard evidence from, many individuals with lived experiences of homelessness in the aim to fully understand the deep seated causes of homelessness – and how as a society we can change this. I have also visited various homeless services across the nation. I am dedicated to resolving this social issue.
The Homelessness in Scotland: Bi-annual update highlighted that between 1 April and 30 September 2017, local authorities received 17,797 homelessness applications, an increase of 330 (2%) over the same period in the previous year. There were 6,581 children in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2017, an increase of 594 (+10%) compared to 30 September 2016 (National Statistics for Scotland: Homelessness in Scotland: Bi-annual update 1 April to 30 September 2017, Link).
I support the ambition and many of the ideas in the Programme for Government on homelessness set out by the Scottish Government. Currently, the Scottish Parliament is examining the different approaches to eradicating homelessness so that we have a multi-layered approach to combating this social evil.
This issue is fundamentally one of housing supply and the SNP has repeatedly failed to meet housing targets. The number of new homes completed has fallen by more than a third under the SNP.
The Scottish Conservatives have proposed a range of ideas to increase the housing stock available, from planning reform through innovative infrastructure funding to meaningful action on empty homes. We urge the SNP to back these ideas.
The future direction of temporary accommodation in the coming years in Scotland, depends on the policy implementation of the SNP and future Scottish Government legislation.
Devolution after Brexit
I understand there are concerns about the status of the devolution settlement during Brexit. Brexit allows powers returning from the EU to come to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament will therefore be more powerful than ever before due to Brexit. The Scottish Conservatives have been consistently clear that Clause 11 of the UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, as introduced, did not reflect the presumption of devolution.
I am satisfied with amendments to the Bill, which presume devolution for returning powers. As a party, the Scottish Conservatives support ongoing discussions between the Scottish and UK Governments on this matter. I and my Scottish Conservative colleagues have been consistent and vocal in our support for a strong devolved settlement, and will continue to be so.
The Scottish Conservatives have been clear that powers over farming and fisheries must be devolved where possible and that we also need to protect our UK internal market so that our farmers, fishermen and food producers do not face new barriers to business with Scotland’s most important market. So there are also areas where common frameworks are necessary.
We should also think of the current EU regulations on the environment as the floor, not the ceiling for our own new system.
When the UK becomes an independent Coastal State in 2020, we have the opportunity to take back control of waters and deciding who can access our waters and on what terms. The SNP, by contrast, is determined, at any cost, to get back into the EU, which under Article 38 of the Lisbon Treaty, means we would have to join the CFP.
Teachers are conscientious professionals who work hard every day educating the next generation. I am enormously grateful for the work they do to ensure children have the best chance to succeed in life.
The policy on public sector pay has always recognised the need to be fair to public sector workers and protect jobs in the public sector, while balancing this with being fair to those who pay for it.
Notwithstanding the issues currently facing teachers, the demand for a 10 per cent pay increase is not financially sustainable. It would place a substantial bill on both local and central government - one that is unaffordable in the present circumstances. I am therefore concerned that such an increase could lead to a further reduction in teacher numbers, at a time when teacher workload is already stretched.
We need to ensure that any pay increase is fully funded, and does not lead to reduced resources for frontline public services.