Kezia Dugdale: Buttons for councils rips fabric of society

You’ll hear two things about the Scottish Government’s budget this week. The SNP will tell you that local council budgets are going up once again in line with ­inflation – meanwhile Labour in the City Chambers will say their coffers are set to be slashed by £41million. Who’s telling the truth? Well here is the thing, they both are.

Tuesday, 29th January 2019, 5:00 am
Pilton Community Health Project co-ditrectors Jen Richards and Helen Scammell. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Pilton Community Health Project co-ditrectors Jen Richards and Helen Scammell. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

It is true to say that the council’s money is increasing but what gets lost in the tiny writing, in the footnote on the back page of SNP spin, is that it includes all the money the ­Scottish Government gives the council for promises made in Parliament but delivered in your neighbourhood.

Take childcare for example. The Scottish Government has bold and ambitious plans to rapidly expand the amount of free early learning and childcare it offers families. A ­worthy policy even if the detail squeezes wages and puts partnership nurseries at a real disadvantage. The cash for this is ring-fenced and is then sent to councils to spend for that purpose and that purpose only.

The same goes for the SNP’s commitment to end bed blocking, a rather cruel term for the problem of patients who are ready to go home but stuck in hospital because there isn’t a care plan in place for them to be safe. The SNP have come up for new cash for this, which is again, ring-fenced.

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These big sums added to the budget line makes the council pot look a lot healthier than it is. Take those new pots of cash for promises out and it’s clear – council budgets are ­falling, and fast. Yet again, the council is going to have to do more with less. Actually, doing less and paying for it with buttons is probably a more apt description.

Trimming the fat off council spending was so five years ago – we’re now through flesh and bone, sucking out the marrow.

Last week I visited the Pilton Community Health Project to see what I could do to try to keep their doors open. Their work supports so many other community groups; it’s the critical Jenga block in the area. Push it out and the whole community will fall down with it. That’s not just an act of social vandalism, it’s also just stupid. The projects here, whether they are focused on the community’s mental health or supporting women affected by domestic violence, all save the public purse. They are the pinnacle of the preventative spend agenda. Keeping people out of hospital and out of the care system costs money, but just a fraction of what a hospital bed does. It’s so short-sighted.

I’m watching the fabric of society being unpicked across the city. Threads that can’t just simply be stitched back together. Too many good people moving on and too much institutional knowledge being lost.

Last year, the Greens held the SNP Government together by backing their budget after the proposed cuts were halved. The Greens cynically explained it was thanks to them that extra money had been found. The political equivalent of me taking a tenner out your back pocket and then giving you a fiver with a wink. They may yet do it again this week but it still won’t be enough to save PCHP or other services and ­community hearts like it.

There is an alternative. Progressive taxation. These cuts are a political choice for the SNP in Holyrood. I’ve made this argument many times before and I’ll keep doing it, but there’s one new factor that sticks in the craw this week.

I tabled some questions in Parliament, which revealed that the Scottish Government is spending almost £100m preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Something, which we Scots have so clearly rejected. That would be enough cash to stop all the cuts across the Lothian’s four councils. What an ­absolute travesty.

Let’s welcome people and not be so hostile

Edinburgh Rugby star Damien Hoyland, who has also won four caps for Scotland, has challenged the UK Home Office over its “hostile environment” immigration policy as they seek to return his grandparents,Mozaffar Saberi, 83, and Rezvan Habibimarand, 73, to Iran.

The grandparents bought a flat in Edinburgh more than 40 years ago and have lived here longer than I have, yet the Home Office rejected their application to remain following a 2012 rule change that made it more difficult for parents spending their last years in the UK.

This is an Edinburgh family; they have a great-grandchild and 11 grandchildren, one with autism for whom they are carers. They are part of the fabric of this city.

My colleague Ian Murray, the MP for Edinburgh South, has written to the Home Secretary seeking that this callous decision be overturned.

This is a case in point of the hostile environment that simply tries to justify visa refusal rather than looking at a case with any human compassion or taking into account individual circumstances. Let’s hope the right decision is reached and the family are granted leave to remain here in the city they call home.

I wish this was an unusual case, but this is something we see time and time again.

This might not be a popular opinion with my Labour colleagues, but if devolution has any purpose it’s to do things differently where we see a need for change.

Given Scotland’s unique demographic challenges and the threat to our workforce from Brexit, maybe it is time to look at a regional approach to immigration, ending the hostile environment for those living here or seeking work, and instead recognising our need to welcome more people here.

To strike or not to strike – hard-pressed teachers fed up with shelling out

Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), through its council, took the decision to reject the Scottish Government’s latest pay offer for teachers and will now seek to ballot members on strike action.

Over the weekend I spoke with a teacher who, only a few years ago, moved into the profession and was struggling to make a decision on whether to support strike action or not when the time came.

They had been struggling with sky-high rent and had no money left at the end of the month, until the bank of mum and dad was able to give them a leg-up with a deposit allowing them to secure a mortgage and cut their bills dramatically.

The crux of the matter was that they were critical of John Swinney and his mishandling of the teacher pay talks, infuriated by the fact that the Scottish Government were trying to go around trade unions.

However, they were keen to point out that, even with a pay rise, they will still be going to the local shop to buy printing paper, paper towels or other school equipment to allow them to teach pupils.

The Scottish Government promised to make education their number one priority at the last election.

Yet teachers are forced to pay for school equipment from their own pockets.

You can’t close the attainment gap with overworked and underpaid teachers – it is now for members to decide whether to accept this offer.