I think we are all still processing the appalling news of the horrific fire at Grenfell House in London and the terrible loss of life – the extent of which is still becoming clear. My thoughts are with everyone affected and their families. The public inquiry into what has gone wrong promised by the UK Government must be thorough and wide-ranging.
Upon hearing the news, I immediately contacted the City of Edinburgh Council to seek assurances about the fire safety of residents of multi-storey tower blocks in Edinburgh East and across the city more generally. The Council has responded with the following statement:
It is incredible how much can change in a month in the world of politics. On the 13th March the UK Government was visibly shocked when Nicola Sturgeon demanded that people in Scotland be allowed to choose whether they wanted to live under a Tory Brexit deal or decide things for themselves. As a result, Theresa May delayed the serving of Article 50 by a fortnight and it took a full 72 hours to get any response from the UK Government. When it came, the response of “now is not the time” was hardly impressive. No-one is arguing that now is the time anyway! The Scottish Government are talking about 18-24 months when the Brexit deal is done but before it is too late to take a different path. I used my Evening News column to put forward the case for having a choice and making it clear there is a cast iron mandate to consult the people, read it here.
This month Westminster was the target of the criminal acts of a loner who decided to attack innocent people going about their daily lives on Westminster Bridge before attempting to enter the parliamentary estate and killing PC Keith Palmer. I had just left the estate and my staff were all in Edinburgh but I want to thank all those who sent kind messages on the day. My thoughts remain with those who have been injured and the friends and families of those who lost their lives.
Earlier in the month I held a public meeting on the future of Scotland post Brexit with panellists Simon Pia and Nicola McEwan. Thanks to them for joining me and to all those who came along - there was a great turn out and some very useful discussions. Interestingly, a significant proportion who had voted No in the last Indy ref would now vote Yes or were at least open-minded.
There have been some daft arguments put against allowing people in Scotland to have a choice about the future of their country.
You have no mandate Ruth Davidson tells Nicola Sturgeon. Really? Did the SNP not mention this in their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament election last year? Let’s check. Maybe it’s buried away somewhere. No wait. Page 24 has a whole section on a second referendum. It says: “We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum … if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
The Scottish Government is in the process of consulting the public on unconventional oil and gas. I would encourage everyone to take part. If you have any concerns about fracking in Scotland then now is the time to voice them.
Long before I stood for election I was opposed to fracking so I thought it might be useful to share my answers to the consultation questions. These are my views – no doubt you will have your own. Even if you don’t agree with me I would encourage you to make your views heard.
I’ve been denounced – again!
This time I appear to have incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in Scotland’s hierarchy. A front page report in yesterday’s Scottish Catholic Observer claims I have a “plan” to outlaw Catholic schools and that my views are “chillingly intolerant”. Sadly due to the deterioration of Scottish journalism once great newspapers like The Scotsman have simply rehashed the story without even the pretence of checking fact or context.
I met with RBS at Portobello High Street to raise my concerns about the impact the closure of the branch would have on the local community. The bank have made a commitment to continue to invest in the local community with charitable fundraising for local projects – if you have any ideas let me know and I will pass them on.
They are also running sessions to equip those who want to switch to digital banking with the skills they will need. But I recognise that many will still need to access a branch. If you want to switch to a bank that will continue to have a presence on the high street you can do so easily - find out more here.
I want to start this month's newsletter with a massive congratulations to my colleague Eilidh Whiteford who has worked so hard on her Private Members Bill. History has been made with the first piece of SNP legislation at Westminster as Parliament agreed to ratify the Istanbul Convention. There's still a way to go but this is a big step for those of us who want to see an end to violence against women.
We began the month with the the Committee Stage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The SNP group tabled 50 amendments to the legislation to ensure we have the right financial and social protections in place before the UK begins the process of leaving the EU. Despite our efforts the Bill was passed without a single amendment from the SNP (or any other party).
Sometimes, democracy works. It worked last month with proposed changes to business rates in Scotland. Independent assessors recalculated what each business would be charged. Since it had been seven years since the last review it was no surprise that some would see big changes.
Two thirds of local businesses saw no increase or a cut but some were facing dramatic eye-watering hikes in their rates. The hospitality trade – hotels, pubs and restaurants – seemed to be worst affected. Business owners contacted their local political leaders in anger and panic. They feared, rightly, that the scale of the increases could put them under.
The hills around Jerusalem were drenched in sun the last time I was here. It brought out their significance and history. This week, though, the Holy Land has been visited by a Scottish winter. As I peer through the steamed up windows of our VW Transporter, it’s decidedly dreich out there.
I’m here on a parliamentary delegation to see if the political mood matches the weather. The trip is organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding (www.caabu.org) and Medical Aid for Palestinians (www.map.org.uk). Over four days we have a packed schedule of meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials, human rights groups and the UK Foreign Office. We also get the chance to see first-hand what it’s like to live under a military occupation.
I am a longstanding advocate of the Palestinian people and am vice convenor of the All Party Group on Palestine. I am very proud to have written the motion and worked with colleagues across the political parties to succeed in having the motion discussed in the main chamber.
It is clear that if there is to be a viable two-state solution then the occupation has to end and the settlers will either need to be relocated or become citizens of a new Palestine. It’ll be one of the most difficult and complicated negotiations in international conflict resolution. But unless a halt is called to the settlement building programme and both sides commit to starting peace talks the situation will only get worse.
The Green Investment Bank is vital because it funds innovative but high-risk low-carbon projects. This is crucial in Scotland where we have a huge amount of green energy potential. But in order for low carbon energy to become a low cost energy option we need investment in research and development.
I am extremely concerned about the privatisation of this important institution. Even more so since the reports that the privatisation may result in an asset stripping exercise. This goes against previous commitments made to the Scottish Government.
Planning is always a hot topic of discussion. Baileyfield South is a brownfield site and, given the number of houses required to meet the need in Edinburgh, it's right that it should be used for residential development. But the application seeks to squeeze too many houses into the available space, which would be bad for both the existing neighbours and the future residents. Developers know that people want to live in a vibrant, lively community like Portobello but unchecked development pressure could harm Portobello’s character. I've put in my objections - the developer should withdraw it, rethink it and resubmit it.
If you’re not already aware, a process of revaluation of business rates has been undertaken. I have been liaising with a range of business owners, particularly in Portobello, who are seeing rates increasing beyond all reason (nearing 500% in one case). I will be fighting their corner in the weeks ahead – there is no way these increases can be justified and we cannot see some of our most popular pubs, restaurants and cafes go under because of this.
If you are a business owner and haven’t already checked your proposed rates change – please do so at https://www.saa.gov.uk/ and do let me know if you have any issues.
The UK leaving the European Union is dominating everything in Westminster. The Supreme Court rightly decided that Parliament had to have a say and as a result we had 2 days of debate this week. I managed to get in for a few minutes in the last hour of the debate and you can watch it here. I've also outlined my position on the vote here.
The SNP Scottish Government has already produced their own paper outlining how Scotland’s position can be protected. Scotland can remain part of the European Economic Area (EEA) even if the rest of the UK does not – leading to a relationship with the EU like Norway has. It would enable us to retain access to the single market and retain the freedom of movement of people that our country needs and benefits so vastly from. If you’ve not already had a look I highly recommend you read the paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe. You can access it here.
This time next week I will be proposing a resolution in parliament on the situation in Palestine. It’ll make a change from wall to wall Trump and Brexit. The resolution has cross party support including a surprising number of Tories. It calls on the British Government to lead in getting new peace talks started and on the Israeli Government to stop building settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
But why? And why now?
I write from the train, speeding towards London to begin another week traipsing the corridors of impotence. This week, as many, will be wall to wall Brexit as we debate the terms on which we should be leaving the EU, and try to protect Scotland’s position amid the chaos.
But something else is dominating the international agenda and consumes the imagination of every person who dares hope for a better world. Trump. What on earth has happened to America?
You’ll not be surprised to hear that ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union, I have been receiving lots of letters and emails from constituents raising their concerns. While there have been a couple of requests asking me to respect the UK wide result and vote to trigger article 50, the vast majority have asked me to do all I can to protect Scotland’s place in Europe.
That’s not a surprise. In Edinburgh 74.4% of people voted to remain in the EU. For all its flaws, people across our city recognised the overwhelming benefits of EU – be they economic, cultural, environmental and civil.
This week I signed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Book of Commitment, in doing so pledging my commitment to Holocaust Memorial Day and honouring those who were murdered during the Holocaust as well as paying tribute to the extraordinary Holocaust survivors who work tirelessly to educate young people.
Friday 27th January will mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the largest mass murder in history.
Time is running out for many of Edinburgh's small businesses. Today I've written to the Chancellor asking for additional emergency assistance for our hospitality sector through the COVID-19 epidemic.