Time for a new way to deal with our drugs policy

“Free bags of weed and crack cocaine if you vote SNP”. Thus declared one Unionist troll on twitter in response to the Scottish Government’s drug policy report which argued, amongst other things, for decriminalisation of possession of controlled drugs for personal use.

The online troll went a bit further than the main right-wing tabloids, but the gist of their front pages was the same. The SNP Government stands accused of encouraging drug use, taking the side of ne’er-do-wells over the righteous.

The Tories piled on. So too did Labour’s Sir Keir. The SNP was either playing politics or helping drug dealers – either way it was all their fault.

We need to get beyond this knee jerk nonsense if we are to have a grown-up debate about how to tackle the drugs crisis.

The Scottish Government has indeed recommended that the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised. Why do we think it reached that conclusion? Could it be that the thoughtful and mild-mannered Drugs Minister, Elena Whitham, is really in the pay of organised crime?

Perhaps it’s because the independent drugs task force called for it. Or maybe because more than 30 countries have now taken this step and are seeing their drug problems reduce rapidly.

I know many people think that because drugs are illegal it stops them. It just doesn’t. Seriously, it works the other way round. It allows the market to be regulated by organised criminal gangs. It makes people who use drugs scared of seeking help, either through fear of retribution or of being charged themselves.

That’s why more than a hundred people in Scotland are dying every month. They die alone. Scared. Helpless. All because we have made them criminals.

It’s time to wake up. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 does not stop anyone who wants drugs getting hold of them. It just makes it very hard to do anything about it.

Decriminalisation instantly does three things. One, it means anyone with a problem can ask for help without being stigmatised or charged. Two, it means health professionals can intervene without fear of arrest, checking what’s in stuff, giving advice and stopping overdoses. And three, it means our police officers can stop arresting people for possession and concentrate on the organised criminal supply chain.

Drugs policy is reserved to Westminster. At the moment, the Scottish Government can do little but argue. That’s not playing politics, it’s just a fact. We need the Scottish Government to have the powers to act and we cannot wait for independence.

Westminster should devolve the power now. In truth, this could be done easily and without fuss. This is exactly what section 30 of the Scotland act is for.

I’m really not sure why they won’t. The Tories say they disagree with the policy of course; they see it as being “soft on drugs”. But if they devolved the power to Edinburgh and it didn’t work, they’d have another stick to beat the SNP with. And the Scottish Government would have nowhere to hide.

Maybe what they fear is that the policy might actually work. And if it did, they’d be under pressure to change throughout the UK. If that’s the case, then I wonder who is actually playing politics here.

Tories’ ‘Illegal’ Migration Bill isn’t UK’s top priority, it’s designed to distract from cost of living crisis

Stopping small boats is the number one priority of the British people. So said the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons this week. Really? That’s demonstrably untrue. Why does he say it the? What is the motivation behind this lie?

Well, because if we are talking about small boats, we’re not talking about the deepening Tory-made cost of living crisis, soaring energy bills or eye-watering level of inflation. The Tories believe that they are on to winner by dividing public opinion on migration. It’s politics. And it’s ugly.

Next week, Parliament will spend two days discussing a series of measures against some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The language used is important. When the Home Secretary talks of an invasion, when she creates a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, she does so for a particular reason.

The intent is to suggest a hostile hoard massing on our shores. A threat to our wellbeing and way of life. In truth these migrants are amongst the most wretched of the earth. They have lived through trauma and pain the likes of which most of us will never see.

Tory backbenchers try to pretend there are a million or more people trying to get to the UK illegally. In truth, around 3,000 people have come in small boats this year. On average maybe 35 people a day.

It is terrifying to watch this debate at close quarters. Civilised people who ought to know better than espousing narratives that we usually identify with far right and totalitarian governments.

The centrepiece of the Government’s ‘Illegal’ Migration Bill is to remove the right to claim asylum from anyone who arrives in this country without permission. It hopes that this will deter people getting into the boats in Calais in the first place. But the boats have only developed because the Government has effectivity closed any legal way of getting here.

Last year, for instance, the Government’s official scheme for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban allowed entry to just 22 people. It’s little wonder that more than 8,500 Afghans were amongst those who made the treacherous journey across the channel.

The problem for the Government is that those fleeing persecution have rights enshrined in international law. This doesn’t seem to worry most Tory MPs though. They seem content to break international agreements and preside over our expulsion from the Council of Europe, following in the footsteps of Russia and Belarus.

The other problem with the bill is this: it just won’t work. People will still come because the horrors in front of them will be as nothing to the horrors they leave behind. Instead of being granted asylum, they will be locked up in camps, in a state of limbo, awaiting deportation to Rwanda or elsewhere. This will of course cost the taxpayer a fortune and leave Britain’s international reputation in tatters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This country could accept its fair share of asylum seekers and refugees. We could provide legal routes for them to come here. We could employ enough staff to make sure their applications are determined quickly and fairly. We could let them work and pay tax whilst this happened. That is the sort of policy Scotland could pursue if it had the powers to do so.

UK Budget must reverse Tory cost of living crisis

Tommy Sheppard MP and Deidre Brock MP: Slash energy bills and put money back in people’s pockets

The SNP has said “the number one priority for the UK budget must be to put money back into people’s pockets” – warning the Tories can’t continue to hammer household incomes.

Ahead of tomorrow’s budget, Tommy Sheppard MP and Deidre Brock MP have urged Jeremy Hunt to deliver a comprehensive package to boost household incomes and economic growth. The MPs for Edinburgh East and Edinburgh North & Leith have challenged the Chancellor to deliver the SNP’s five-point plan:

  • Saving families £1400 on energy bills – by cutting the Energy Price Guarantee to £2000 and maintaining the £400 Energy Bill Support Scheme to the summer.
  • Raising public sector pay and benefits by CPI – putting money into the pockets of millions of workers and delivering Barnett consequentials for Scottish spending.
  • Scrapping Tory plans to raise the pension age to 68 and reinstating the Triple Lock – so no one must struggle in old age.
  • Re-joining the European Single Market – to boost economic growth and halt the multi-billion pound long-term damage being caused by Brexit.
  • Investing in green growth – by competing with EU and US subsidies to attract green investment.

In addition to the headroom identified by the IFS, and the billions of pounds saved as a result of the falling wholesale price of gas, the SNP is calling for the Chancellor to scrap non-dom tax status, tax share buy backs, and expand the windfall tax, which would raise billions more to fund cost of living support for ordinary households.

Commenting, Edinburgh East MP, Tommy Sheppard said:

“The number one priority for the UK budget must be to put money back into people’s pockets – and reverse this Tory-made cost of living crisis.

“Scotland is a wealthy, energy-rich country but families are being fleeced by Westminster. By refusing to act, the Tories are showing why Scotland needs independence, so we can escape Westminster control, re-join the EU, and build a fair and prosperous economy.

“Families are sick to the back teeth of being ripped off by the Tory government. Instead of hammering household incomes, the Chancellor must save families £1,400 by slashing energy bills and deliver a comprehensive package of support.

“The SNP’s five-point plan would reduce bills, raise incomes and boost economic growth, at a time when many families are struggling to get by. With energy companies making record profits and the wholesale price of gas falling, there is no excuse for failing to act.”

Adding, Edinburgh North & Leith MP, Deidre Brock said:

“The SNP Scottish Government is doing everything it can with limited fiscal powers, including delivering the Scottish Child Payment, higher energy bill support, and higher public sector pay.

“The UK government must finally step up to the plate and use its reserved powers to introduce a Real Living Wage and raise public sector pay and benefits by CPI. In doing so, it would raise the incomes of millions of workers and deliver Barnett consequentials which would benefit Edinburgh and Scotland.

“This UK Budget is all about choices. Instead of making families in Edinburgh pay for Westminster failure, the Tories must fund support by scrapping non-dom tax status, expanding the windfall tax and taxing share buy backs, which would raise billions.

“And if we are serious about delivering economic growth and reversing decline, the UK government must re-join the European single market and properly invest in green energy.

“Scotland is suffering the consequences of Westminster control. The Tories trashed the economy with Brexit, austerity cuts and thirteen years of mismanagement. And with the pro-Brexit Labour Party becoming a pound-shop Tory tribute act, it’s clear independence is the only way for Scotland to secure the real change we need.”

How each election can be a vote on independence and the right to choose

The best way to demonstrate majority support for Scottish independence is a referendum. But in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement and with Westminster’s continued denial of Scottish democracy, that ain’t happening any time soon. So, with support for independence rising, how can we allow people to express their view?

Much has been said recently about the pros and cons of using an election as a de-facto referendum. Some have argued that the next Westminster election should be a vote on independence. Others have argued that a Holyrood election would be the better option. But why don’t we use both?

For too long we’ve been chasing the next election, hoping it would be the vote which delivers independence. We need a longer-term plan which uses each and every democratic event as a stepping-stone towards independence.  

Of course, the next Westminster election should be about independence. More precisely, it should be about how Scotland becomes independent and what that looks like.

Scottish independence requires two things. One, majority support in Scotland. Two, a negotiated settlement with the British State. Until we can demonstrate the first, we won’t get the second.

The Supreme Court has exposed a gap in the British constitution. There is no way for people in Scotland to consent to staying in or leaving the union without the sanction of Westminster. To be clear, the Court did not say we shouldn’t be able to choose, simply that the current statutes do not allow for it.

Front and centre of our next election manifesto should be a demand to fix the broken British constitution by updating the current devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament now needs the very powers the Supreme Court ruled it does not have to determine Scottish opinion and a mechanism for negotiating change with the UK.

This is a different proposition from a section 30 Order. It is not about asking permission on a one-off basis to determine public opinion, but about enshrining the right to choose within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. It would in effect give legal expression to the Claim of Right for Scotland.

Making this the central focus of our campaign would present our argument as one of democracy, as well as self-determination. It would demonstrate a determination to exhaust every opportunity to allow the British state to respect democratic norms, and assist in garnering international support.

Clearly, the outcome of the next Westminster election is unknown, but it is probable that the Conservatives will lose. This opens up the prospect of change, and we need to be agile enough to take advantage of new opportunities that may come our way.

It’s possible we can build support amongst other parties for a proposal to give the Scottish Parliament this power. It is entirely consistent with the principles of devolution which other parties say they are committed to. And the parliamentary arithmetic may afford us more leverage at Westminster than ever before, despite our previous electoral success in Scotland.

If we achieve this reform, we could then go forward and exercise this new power at the earliest opportunity. If we are thwarted in our objective, at least we will have been seen to have exhausted every last possible mechanism to gain our independence by consent.

This would then tee up the next Holyrood election, scheduled for May 2026, as an opportunity to mobilise people in support of a vote for independence. We could re-purpose that election as an effective referendum. The franchise is more inclusive, the voting system is fairer and, most of all, the focus is all about how Scotland, rather than the UK, is governed.

In the meantime, we still have an argument to win. This is the year where we should consolidate majority support for independence, maintaining polling levels above 50% and nudging support towards 60% to bolster the case.  But support cannot be fuelled by indignation alone. We need to complete our prospectus for what independence looks like. We need a rational and compelling narrative, completely related to the social and economic crises of 2023.     

Our opponents will continue to attempt to undermine support for independence by pointing to problems with devolved services. Sometimes criticism will be valid, but often they will lie. And, of course, always pretending there are no constraints on what we can do.

Where we already have the power, we’ve used it to make far better, fairer decisions. If we can do this with one hand tied behind our back, imagine what we could do if the Westminster straitjacket was undone. We need to explain, perhaps more than ever, that independence is essential to tackling the biggest challenges we face. In doing so we will need to be bold and ambitious, offering a vision of a new Scotland that will inspire and mobilise its citizens.

Scottish independence is necessary to protect workers’ rights

Remember last year? Hogmanay cancelled as we worked through what was to become the last Covid lockdown. Little did we know then what 2022 had in store for us.

What a difference a year makes. Covid is still with us but the restrictions have gone. And on top of that we have a whole bunch of new problems threatening to tear families and communities apart.

Prices in the supermarket seem to go up every week. Staying warm needs a small fortune.  The cost of living is spiralling out of control. And the economic crisis is turbocharged by the political incompetence of a Tory government playing the political equivalent of musical chairs.

Ordinary workers are on the frontline. Many of those who worked so hard to get us through the pandemic, especially in the public sector, have seen their pay cut in real terms by the double whammy of austerity and inflation. In these circumstances, industrial action was almost inevitable. Trade unions were formed to defend ordinary working people from the ravages of the capitalist economy. They were never going to be more relevant than during a cost-of-living crisis.

Sadly, whether it’s nurses in England and Wales, or RMT strikes across Network Rail, the UK Government has used these strikes as a political football to attack workers who are only trying to get a better deal for themselves during a Tory-made cost of living crisis. They seem determined to out-Thatcher Thatcher. Their actions designed to provoke, goad and undermine unions, while doing nothing to resolve the disputes.

In Scotland, where many in the public sector already earn more than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, the Scottish Government has engaged positively with trades unions. As a result, they have reached agreement in some pay disputes already, and are continuing to negotiate others.

The response to the strikes is very much a tale of two governments. Don’t just take my word for it. Roz Foyer, General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress says that while the Scottish TUC has robust discussions with the Scottish Government, they listen and work with them, unlike the Government in Westminster who continue to introduce strike-breaking legislation.

As we head into 2023, it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that our vital public sector workers know how much they are valued. And this needs to be reflected in their pay packets and working conditions.

However, there is an uncomfortable reality we need to face. The Scottish Parliament has little flexibility over its budget. It has no control over the movement of capital or labour. It cannot continue to mitigate Tory policies forever. And it cannot pay our workforce what it would like to.

To do all that, the Scottish Government would need to have the powers of a normal independent country. Why shouldn’t it? That is now the big question that those who support the union need to answer.

It is clear people want change. But it is not enough just to want it. We need the means to make it happen.  And that means we need to revisit the debate on Scotland having the political capacity to achieve what the people who live here want. Never has the argument about our constitutional future and the type of country we aspire to be, been so intertwined.

COP15: UK Government failing to turn global promises into domestic action for nature

The UN’s COP15 biodiversity summit is now over, with a global biodiversity framework now agreed. It’s being called “a first step in resetting our relationship with the natural world” and includes commitments to restore on 30% of degraded ecosystems on land and sea by 2030; 30% of terrestrial and marine areas conserved and managed by 2030; and halting and reversing nature’s destruction by 2030. 

A much less discussed COP than Glasgow’s COP26 conference last year, the global ambition for nature is now set. Now it’s time for countries to deliver on the promises they’ve made on the international stage. We have no time to lose if we are to meet these targets in eight years’ time. 

Across the Scotland and the rest of the UK, action means ensuring that nature loss is both halted and reversed. To protect and restore our precious species, habitats, and ecosystems. And to ensure that our best ally in the fight against climate change – nature itself – can flourish.

The problem? Here in the UK, we have one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The UK Government has made no progress on its own commitment to restore 30% of land for nature by 2030. And, according to environmental groups, its nature restoration ambition will mean there’s less wildlife in the decades ahead than there is today.

The stark contrast between the Scottish Government’s leadership on tackling nature loss – and UK Government’s complete failure of leadership is plain to see. Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to declare a joint biodiversity and climate emergency. And now the Scottish Government is taking action to tackle the nature emergency with the powers at its disposal.

Meanwhile, at Westminster, the UK Government’s (Environment Act) targets, won’t deliver on the pledges made at COP15. Put simply, they are too weak. There’s no overall target to improve water quality. No target to improve the condition of protected nature areas. And they won’t help us to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030.

The UK Government must therefore urgently publish a clear pathway to meet its commitments. It must also scrap the Retained EU Law Bill, which seeks to undemocratically wipe away the last vestiges of EU environmental protections in UK law. And, most importantly, it must support the Climate & Ecology Bill.

By enacting the Climate & Ecology Bill, we would have a science-led plan to help us solve the climate-nature crisis. A plan that will reduce the UK’s full greenhouse gas emissions in line with the best chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C. A plan that will mean we have reversed nature’s destruction by the end of this decade. A plan that commands the support for the public, via a temporary citizens’ assembly to help decide the fairest way forward.

The Bill is already backed by hundreds of scientists, NGOs, community groups and businesses. Zero Hour, the campaign for the Climate & Ecology Bill, is now calling on all politicians to get behind this serious environmental plan. A plan that treats the crisis for what it is – an environmental emergency.

As Rishi Sunak said at COP27, “there’s no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature”. So I ask my colleagues, across the political spectrum, to support the Climate & Ecology Bill and work together to enact this crucial law.

And as the snow settles after COP15, it’s essential to lock the pledges the UK Government is making into law. We have a vanishingly small window to act, but there’s still time to do so.

Liz Truss’s fuel bill plan is just Robin Hood in reverse

The last item of parliamentary business of Boris Johnson’s premiership was a debate on sewage pollution. Fitting, don’t you think? After all, more than anyone he turned our political discourse into a cesspit, setting mendacity as standard and jettisoning integrity and morality as he went. So, farewell then, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. You won’t be missed. 

But could the next one be even worse? Liz Truss emerged victorious this week from a long Tory leadership race that was tedious and terrifying in equal measure. Early signs aren’t promising. 

Rarely has there been such a mismatch between the problems facing a government and their prescription for dealing with them. Truss seems ideologically opposed to the measures necessary to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. 

Her mantra of tax cuts may have won votes from the small clique of middle-aged right-wing people that comprise the Tory rank and file, but it makes absolutely no sense in the real world. The Tory party was founded to give voice to the rich and powerful, and Liz Truss is taking them back to their roots. That’s why she will protect those with capital and penalise those without. 

Her attitude to energy prices is a case in point. Of course it’s right to freeze energy prices. If we don’t, millions will face extra hardship, small businesses will go to the wall and inflation will run rampant. But the freeze should be paid for by taxes on the obscene profits corporations are now making, rather than by consumers. 

The Truss plan protects profits, keeps siphoning money out of the real economy to be accumulated as private wealth, and places a future burden on all of us to fund it. And those who are worst off, on low and fixed incomes, will pay the biggest proportion of their income in future bills. It’s basically Robin Hood in reverse. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, the UK government should do four things. First, levy a windfall tax on excess profits of the giant corporations and use it to peg domestic energy bills. Second, uprate social security payments generously. Third, bring in a more extensive business support programme to help small business meet rising costs. And fourth, use an emergency budget to fund cost-of-living wage increases for public sector workers. 

The Tories won’t do this of course. Nor will they devolve economic powers to Scotland to allow us to take a different approach here. So, the Scottish Government will do what it can, and commendably has already done a lot. Freezing rents, outlawing evictions, increasing child payments to low-income households, increasing free school meals and other measures will help people here. But we still have no control over most social security, business taxes, government borrowing, and the essential levers we need to manage our economy. 

There is a way to make sure government policy serves the people rather than the corporate elite. To have the capacity to deal with rising living costs and the increasing poverty and inequality that follows. we need independence.

The arguments in the Supreme Court next month about having another referendum matter.  As a normal independent country we could be sure to have both the agency and the will to make the changes necessary to protect the people the Tories keep letting down.

Tory Leadership Race Reveals Just How Foul The Conservatives Really Are.

It’s a bit like watching a dysfunctional family on the other side of the street fight amongst themselves. They’re all as bad as each other. There’s no way you can intervene, except to try to get the whole lot evicted because of the harm they are doing to the neighbourhood. And so, the Tory leadership election trundles on, oozing with bad intentions.

The most remarkable thing is that Johnson is still Prime Minister. Lying to parliament. Breaking the law. Protecting his mates. Disowned by his party. But still, he occupies Number Ten. And they let him.

Rather than do the right thing and remove this man from office, the parliamentary Conservative Party shamefully enables his delusions. He still believes he is the victim here.

In truth, they have been saved by the summer holidays. Parliament takes a break next Thursday and returns on September 5. They are hoping Johnson can do no further harm in the time he has left and that, by the time we’re back, someone else will be in charge. Boris will be consigned to the backbenches.

The early stages of the Tory leadership race are over and those whose only intention was to set a marker for the future excluded. But the process so far tells us a lot about the nature of the Conservatives in Britain today.

Most alarming is the race to the right with candidates vying to see who can be the most illiberal and regressive. Not one of them will review deporting refugees to Rwanda, an ugly policy which is a stain on Britain’s humanitarian credentials. Not a single voice is heard in dissent from these wannabe Tory leaders. It’s foul.

In part, this is because they all have an eye to the final ballot of 160,000 Tory members. These are a group of people quite unlike the population they live amongst. They are older, whiter, better-off and, for the most part, more reactionary.

You might think the best leader would be the one who will tell this privileged elite like it is. But not a bit of it. Contestants are pandering to every prejudice. I am convinced that, were equal marriage not now the settled position of the body politic, that would also be firmly in their sights.

To make matters worse, social prejudices are combined with economic illiteracy resulting in drivel about tax cuts and smaller states. Some on the hard-right are quite serious about this, others just parroting what they think their Tory base wants to hear.

If these ideas gain traction, they spell more trouble for those already at the sharp end. Suella Braverman, knocked out yesterday, said Universal Credit should be taken off part-time workers to make them work more hours.

Let’s just unpick that. The people she had in mind were mothers with children (single people don’t get UC), working for wages so low they qualify for state support. That was her target.

The Tory small state means fewer health workers, teachers, police officers. Weakened protection for you and your environment. A squeeze on wages while prices soar and the rich pay less tax.

We do not need to put up with this anymore. Now is the time to choose a different course. Now is the time for independence.