THERE wasn’t much to cheer about in Philip Hammond’s budget. More spending restraint for schools and social care, tax cuts for the richest in society, and lower corporation tax for big businesses.
But it’s fair to say the freeze on beer, cider and whisky was worth toasting – even if wine drinkers were less fortunate.
It will go some way to helping Britain’s pubs industry, which is not only crucial for local economies, but adds to the social life of every community.
In an era when modern technology runs our lives, and so many people don’t know their neighbours, there is something deeply reassuring about stepping into a local bar and sharing a drink with friends, colleagues, or even strangers.
It’s a tradition dating back centuries. They’ve been serving liquor since 1360 in The Sheep Heid; drinkers used to watch public hangings from The White Hart in the Grassmarket; and people have been quenching their thirst in the Doric next to Waverley since before railways were invented.
Pubs are worth fighting for.
I have repeatedly warned that, as a country, we must do more to prepare for automation. Machines will replace humans in many jobs, and that poses both a risk and an opportunity for our economy. We have the ability in Edinburgh to develop and build the technology, provided we give people opportunities to learn the necessary skills.
But one job I hope will never be replaced by automation is bar service.
Sure, there is a bar in Las Vegas where robots make the drinks, but I don’t think it’s going to take off on Leith Walk. Sure, you can have beer taps on tables but no robot is going to walk you through the latest IPA.
In Scotland, pubs directly employ nearly 52,000 people and around 67,000 jobs are reliant on the sector.
Many of the workers have come here from EU countries. With thousands of migrant workers returning home because of Brexit, the pub industry faces a fresh employment crisis
It’s the same story in other sectors, such as farming and the health service.
In the EU referendum, Nigel Farage vilified EU migrants and stoked up resentment towards them. For a man who loves his pints of bitter, it is baffling that he is willing to put the pub industry at such risk.
Like any industry that involves imports and exports, Brexit also puts the wider drinks sector under threat. Scotland has witnessed an explosion in craft beers in recent years, and being able to seamlessly sell products abroad is crucial for continued economic growth. Just look at the success story that is Innis and Gunn in Canada in recent years.
But, while Brexit is set to hinder the pub trade, there are some differences we can make here to help Scottish bars.
When I was Scottish Labour leader, I backed the launch of a campaign at the Kilderkin pub in the Canongate to reform the tied pub sector, which places wide-ranging restrictions placed on tied pub tenants and what they can sell.
A Bill put forward by my MSP colleague Neil Bibby would create a statutory pubs code to regulate the relationship between tied pub tenants and their pub-owning landlords and an independent adjudicator to enforce the code.
It would make it easier to bring locally brewed products into the tied pub sector, helping small brewers by providing more flexibility when purchasing their stock but it will additionally introduce statutory protection for tenants similar to those in England and Wales.
If Brexit is determined to make it harder to sell Scottish products overseas, we have to make it easier to sell them in our locals.
Tories moan about council funding – but don’t want to cough up in taxes
The Chancellor’s decision to overhaul income tax thresholds doesn’t apply in Scotland, but that hasn’t stopped there being heated debate here.
By putting up the higher rate threshold to £50,000 in England, there is now a real gap between that and Scotland’s devolved income tax system. That’s what devolution is about – the ability to make different choices in Scotland suited to our needs.
In the run-up to the 2016 Holyrood election, I advocated major progressive reforms, including a 50p top rate of tax for the very richest Scots. It was designed to raise enough revenue to stop the cuts and invest in struggling public services like our NHS.
Last week I asked the Scottish Parliament’s independent experts to cost how much the Scottish Government would need to implement the Tory’s tax cuts here in Scotland and the answer was a whopping £410 million. Remember that next time you hear a Tory politician on these pages demand extra cash for potholes or complain about garden bin charges. They have a clear and decisive plan to cut already struggling services further whilst likely benefiting financially themselves.
Lothian Tory MSPs Miles Briggs, Gordon Lindhurst and Jeremy Balfour would all pay less tax on their MSP salaries under Philip Hammond’s plans, so it’s high time they let voters know what they would cut to pay for their priorities. Would it be the budget for new schools, which already can’t satisfy the demands for a new Liberton High, which is urgently needed? Or, would they cut cash for the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and continue to complain when patients wait far too long in A&E?
No, the Tories need to put money where their mouth is and they can start by taking it out of their silk lined back pockets.
Families’ grief must be put first by system
bACK in March, I asked the Crown Office to explain precisely how long grieving families in Scotland were being forced to wait before the body of a loved one was released to them for a funeral.
I posed the question after being moved by the story of the Woodburn family, who lost their son Shaun when he was killed in Edinburgh last year.
Shaun’s dad Kevin had to wait weeks before he could hold a funeral for his son, and the delay was due to a second post-mortem being requested before the first was even done.
Kevin said it was a ‘barbaric’ practice, and I agree.
After submitting the request for information, and repeatedly chasing the Crown, I finally received my answer nearly seven months later.
It came just days before a new protocol was introduced, designed to reduce the need for second post-mortems. That is hugely welcome, and couldn’t have happened without the Woodburns’ brave campaigning, but it’s deeply disappointing that the Crown appears to have decided to sit on this information for so long.
The data revealed the huge scale of the problem. Since 2016, more than 200 families have been forced to wait two weeks or more before the body of a loved one was released.
In the most extreme cases, there have been delays of more than 200 days.
While there will always be some complicated cases, I hope the new protocol will dramatically reduce these waits.
In the months ahead, I will continue to campaign with the Woodburns, and fight for a Victims’ Commissioner in Scotland.
It’s time for our justice system to put the interests of victims and families first.