Why I Won’t Be Supporting Rhoda Grant’s Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill

I’ve recently had a number of constituents get in touch with me regarding Rhoda Grant MSP’s proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill. Sex workers are among the most vulnerable workers in Scotland, and many work at daily risk of exploitation and violence.

The role of the law should be to protect the vulnerable from harm. I believe that should Ms Grant’s proposals become law, it would significantly increase harm suffered by sex workers in Scotland.

For this reason I will be arguing against the proposed Bill.

Regrettably, the consultation on this proposal largely dismisses the testimony of those most affected – sex workers themselves – and of those, such as drug services, who have witnessed the effects first-hand. If these voices are taken properly into account, a picture of serious harm resulting from hardline legislation in Scotland and elsewhere emerges.

Criminalising the purchase of sex causes clients to avoid visible locations, requiring sex workers to operate further from police and other services that protect their safety and health, including peer support networks. Sex workers will be more isolated and more vulnerable as a result.

The reduction of demand, which is the stated aim of the proposal, means that in order to continue working, sex workers will be forced to accept clients or working conditions that they previously would have rejected. This will include such dangerous practices as not concluding negotiations before accepting a client, not using condoms, and accepting clients known or suspected to be violent.

I am a member of the Cross-Party Group on Human Trafficking and take the reality of modern-day slavery very seriously. I believe the proposal would exacerbate the horror of trafficking and frustrate efforts to eradicate it. The effect of criminalising the clients of sex workers will be to prevent them coming forward if they encounter sex workers whom they believe to be trafficked, underage, or otherwise exploited.

I understand that many feel strongly about this issue on both sides of the debate. For me, the only reasonable starting point is to ask: what will best protect the safety, wellbeing and human rights of those most affected? The answer to that question is improved services, improved police training, and improved public understanding, not crackdowns that drive sex workers further from social protection.

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PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART MSP SIGNS UP TO HELP MAP PHONE SIGNAL

A Highlands and Islands MSP has urged constituents with smartphones to help “crowd-source” a new phone signal map for the region through the use of an innovative app.

The RootMetrics app, promoted by the Countryside Alliance, can be downloaded onto smartphones and tablets from the iTunes or Google Play store. Users can then test their local signal strength, a record of which is also sent automatically to RootMetrics to help build an accurate picture of phone signal across the UK.

Jean Urquhart MSP, who has downloaded the app, commented:

“As a Highlands and Islands resident, I am more than aware of the patchy nature of signal across the region and the frustration of trying to find a mobile operator that offers the most consistent coverage

“It is deeply unfair that mobile phone tariffs cost the same regardless of location but that phone users in the Highlands and Islands do not get the same service as other parts of the UK do.

“I hope that this crowdsourcing project will prove useful in identifying blind spots in the Highlands and Islands and will continue to put pressure on mobile operators and the Government to improve coverage.

“I’ve downloaded the app, and will add to the sample size in the Highlands and Islands as I travel round the constituency- I hope that other constituents with smart phones and tablets do the same to build as accurate a picture as possible.”

Jean with the RootMetrics app
Jean with the RootMetrics app

Why I’ll Be Supporting Jim Hume MSP’s Bill

I am proud to be supporting Jim Hume MSP’s proposed Smoking (Children in Vehicles) (Scotland) Bill.

It is anomalous that while workers have rightly been protected since the Smoking, Health and Social Care Act in 2005, children continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of smoke. In fact, I learned from Jim Hume’s briefing in Parliament that children with two parents who smoke commonly have the same level of cotinine in their saliva – a test for second-hand smoke exposure – as adults who worked in smoky bars prior to the 2005 Act.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 25 children per day are admitted to hospital, and 600 per day have to see a doctor, as a result of second-hand smoke exposure.

The Scottish Centre for Indoor Air studied children’s exposure to smoke in cars, and found that the air in a smoker’s car contained on average 8 times more PM2.5 particulate matter than the background level in urban areas of Scotland, or 28 times more than the level in the cleanest rural areas.

The good news is that research with the children of smokers found that the vast majority did take precautions to try to reduce their child’s exposure, such as leaving the living room when smoking. This means that if we can get across the message that a car is a particularly dangerous place to expose children to cigarette smoke, we can expect that many smokers will willingly change their behaviour. This law will help us do that.

Ben McKendrick from the British Heart Foundation has also pointed out that as well as 84% of the general public supporting the measure, as do half of smokers.

I think this is an important and common-sense proposal that could help protect the health of thousands of young people, as well as helping to move us towards a smoke-free Scotland. I’ve told Jim that I am fully behind his proposed bill, and happy to help him get it into Parliament and then into law.

Shetland Times Article: Supporting the “Drop the Debt” Campaign

The Shetland Times’ “Drop the Debt” campaign is a worthy and welcome reminder of the need for governments to be held accountable for their promises and their actions. The historic housing debt that burdens not only Shetland Islands Council but other councils across Scotland is a drain on local government resources at a time when every penny by necessity must be a prisoner.

Much of the historic background of the housing debt has been covered in great detail by other contributors, but the political context of the debt must also be analysed if the campaign is to be met with success. This is the Liberal Democrats’ first taste of power at Westminster for a century, and 3 years into a Coalition Government no action has been taken on housing debt. Despite holding the balance of power after the 2010 election, no promises were extracted on housing debt; instead, a referendum on the voting system was agreed at a cost of £75 million. Although I support a fairer, more proportional electoral system, I find it extraordinary that the political capital held by the Liberal Democrats was squandered so fruitlessly.

The Shetland Islands’ own MP, Alistair Carmichael, is Lib Dem Chief Whip and a major player in the Coalition Government in Westminster. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and member of the infamous “Coalition Quad”, Danny Alexander MP, is a Highlands MP who promised at the last election to wipe out Highland Council’s historic housing debt. Both are decent, honourable men who strive to do the best for their constituents, but neither has yet taken visible action to make the case within the halls of Westminster for dropping the debt.

The consequences of such a staggering debt hang around Shetland’s neck like an albatross. We are all aware of the continual cloth-cutting Shetland Islands Council are forced to make to education, transport and other services, just as we are aware of the extra costs being shouldered by council house tenants.

As Councillor Alastair Cooper has previously argued, had Shetland Islands Council not built the houses it had in the 1970s, oil and gas revenues that have sustained successive UK Governments would never have flowed into the Treasury. Given that Shetland contributed £82 million more to the UK state than it received back in 2011, the situation becomes even more farcical. It is nothing short of a scandal that the billions of pounds of taxes that flow from the North Sea have never found their way to cancelling the debt incurred by Shetland to facilitate the industry in the first place.

Westminster’s cuts to Scotland’s budget (8% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15) make it very difficult for the Scottish Government to mitigate the tremendously difficult situation Shetland and other local authorities find themselves in. However, the £40 million that would be required to wipe out the debt is a drop in the Westminster ocean. For example, the sum of money lost annually through tax avoidance is estimated at £25 billion, roughly the same as the entire Scottish Government’s budget, demonstrating that good governance could deliver more revenue to support stretched local authorities.

While I believe that Westminster must take action on this, I am cognisant of Malcolm Bell’s call for Shetland Islands Council, the Scottish Government and Westminster to all play their part in righting this historic wrong. Let’s recognise Shetland’s financial contribution and Drop the Debt.

Jean signing the "Drop the Debt" petition in Parliament.
Jean signing the “Drop the Debt” petition in Parliament.

Screen Machine Event, Scottish Parliament

Last week, I was able to catch up with some old friends when the Screen Machine  rolled into Parliament for its 15th anniversary. The Screen Machine is a tremendous mobile cinema, lodged inside a 35-tonne articulated lorry and taken into every nook and cranny in Scotland to bring the latest films to rural communities.

Thanks to funding from Creative Scotland, HIE and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, as well as support from RBS, the Screen Machine was able to visit 34 different communities in 2012/3, and is soon to be on its travels again. One of the films being shown is the much-lauded crowdsourced documentary We Are Northern Lights, and I was lucky enough to meet its director outside the Screen Machine last week.

Full details of the current tour and programme, including details of how to book tickets, are available at: www.screenmachine.co.uk or by phone on 0871 902 5750 – more information can also be found on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Jean with Nick Higgins, Director of We Are Northern Lights (photo by Hannah Houston)
Jean with Nick Higgins, Director of We Are Northern Lights (photo by Hannah Houston)