Jean challenges Post Office on ‘no island mortgages’ rule

Jean has written to the UK minister responsible for the Post Office, Lib Dem Jenny Willott, and the Managing Director of the publicly-owned company, Paula Vennels, to demand an explanation for the policy of refusing mortgages for properties on all Scottish islands except Skye.

The issue was raised by a Shetland woman who received a letter promoting Post Office mortgages, even though as an Islander she would be deemed ineligible to apply for one.

The Post Office’s mortgage lending criteria state: “Lending areas: England, Scotland (not Scottish Isles with the exception of Skye), Wales and Northern Ireland (unless otherwise stated).”

Ms Urquhart said:

“The local Post Office plays an absolutely central role in many rural communities, including in the islands. I would hope that relationship could extend to all of its services.

“When we have been so failed by the banks, a diversity of financial services providers is to be welcomed. Islanders should be able to benefit from that greater choice the Post Office provides.

“There’s no obvious justification for discriminating against the islands in this way. My hope is that this is an oversight by a distant official, and that the Post Office will quickly agree to scrap its ‘no island mortgages’ rule.

“But I’m already proud to back Citizens Advice in their fight for fair delivery charges to the north and the islands – if there has to be a fight for fair mortgages too, I’m ready.”

North businesses urged to speak up on unfair delivery charges

Jean has urged Highland and Islands businesses to speak up on discriminatory delivery charges. Jean asked firms across the North to back a survey launched today by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) to uncover the extent of the problem.

Businesses can take part online at tinyurl.com/DeliveryCosts, or pick up a paper copy of the survey from the 19 Citizens Advice Bureaux across the Highlands and Islands. CAS say they are particularly interested to hear views from small businesses based in rural Scotland.

Research by CAS in 2012 showed that 1 million Scots are hit by additional delivery charges or late deliveries, or are refused delivery altogether. Highlanders are charged an extra £15 per delivery on average, while customers in the islands face extra charges of almost £19 per order.

Jean said:

“As a small business owner myself, I know how costly – and how infuriating – discriminatory delivery policies can be. I’ll definitely be taking part in this survey.

“Citizens Advice are doing a great job fighting for fairer costs, and the least we can do is give them the evidence they need for the next stage of their campaign.

“Meanwhile in the Scottish Parliament I will do everything I can to support the fight for fair treatment of businesses and customers in the Highlands and Islands.”

Citizens Advice Scotland Chief Executive Margaret Lynch said:

“High delivery charges can be absolutely devastating for small businesses – both when sending and receiving parcels.

“We estimate that there are well over 20,000 businesses that could be affected. We want to assess how bad this problem is, so we are today opening a survey that is just for businesses. It’s their chance to have their say and contribute their evidence to our campaign.

“Throughout the campaign we have said that Scots don’t want ‘special treatment’. All they want is a fair deal. We are determined to ensure they get that.”

Jean’s bid to protect children’s rights

Cartoon of a child leaning against a stack of huge books. On the books is the message "You have the right to an education." Image by Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young PeopleJean has proposed an inquiry into how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) could be enshrined in Scots law. She’ll be arguing for the amendment to the Children and Young People Bill in its final debate at Holyrood tomorrow.

If backed by MSPs, Jean’s amendment will require the government to set up a body to investigate whether the UNCRC should become part of Scots law, as is already the case with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The UNCRC demands that decisions about children always put their best interests first. It enshrines a number of specific rights, including the right to an education, the right to a family, and the right to be protected from violence.

Jean said:

“We’re currently engaged in a debate about the kind of country we want to be, and what kind of future we want for all our citizens. I think we should aspire to be the kind of country that always puts our children – our future – first.

“Enshrining children’s rights in Scots law would be a powerful protection for our kids, and a bold signal of our ambition to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in.

“We have the opportunity here to be a leading nation, not only in the UK but also in the world. By starting on the journey towards a truly child-centred society, I have no doubt we’ll give other countries the inspiration to travel with us.”

The United Kingdom ratified the Convention in 1991, as have 192 other countries. Somalia, South Sudan and the United States are the only UN members not to have done so.

Unlike the ECHR, the UNCRC does not give individual children any way to take action if their rights are breached. Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law would enable Scottish children to go to court here to defend their rights.

The Welsh Assembly has moved towards legal recognition of the UNCRC, and from 1 March the devolved Welsh government will be bound by the Convention. The Scottish Parliament, with its greater powers, has the opportunity to be the first part of the UK to incorporate the Convention into law in full.

Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law is supported by UNICEF, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, the NSPCC, Children 1st, Barnado’s, YouthLink Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Families Outside and Together.

Jean has also backed the Bill’s provision of a ‘Named Person’ service, which will ensure every child in Scotland has someone they and their parents can turn to who can help them navigate the various public services and support available. The scheme has been in place in the Highland council area since 2010, and the new law will roll it our nationwide.

Jean said:

“It’s a shame that the Named Person Service has been so misrepresented by media seeking to cook up a scare story.

“Parents are tired of being passed from pillar to post, never talking to the same person twice, and having to tell their story over and over again; they want joined-up services.

“The named person scheme means that every child and their parents have one person they can always call to help them navigate services, find advice, or be listened to.

“Some people have suggested that named person service means appointing a social worker for every child. That’s not true. In the Highlands, we already have the named person scheme and the people appointed are the local midwife and health visitor until the child goes to school, and then it’s the headteacher or deputy head.

“Named Person has been in place in the Highlands since 2010. I was a Highland councillor until 2012, and have been a Highlands and Islands MSP since 2011, and I’ve never received a single complaint about a named person interfering where they weren’t wanted.

“The Named Person Service will help families get the support they want and deserve, and create a safety net for every child.”

Rolling out the named person scheme across Scotland is supported by Barnado’s, Children 1st, Parenting Across Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, the NSPCC, Aberlour, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Action for Children, Quarriers, Royal College of Nursing and the Scottish Childminding Association.

Jean’s amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill:

116 Before section 1, insert—

<Duty on Scottish Ministers to establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect

  • (1) Within one year of this Act receiving Royal Assent, the Scottish Ministers must by order establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect.
  • (2) Where a body established under subsection (1) has completed its consideration it must—
    • (a) make a written report of its conclusions,
    • (b) lay the report before the Scottish Parliament,
    • (c) publish the report.
  • (3) As soon as practicable after the report has been laid before the Parliament, the Scottish Ministers must make a statement—
    • (a) responding to the report,
    • (b) indicating, on the basis of that report, whether they intend to give legislative effect to the UNCRC.
  • (4) The Scottish Ministers must—
    • (a) lay a copy of the statement under subsection (3) before the Parliament,
    • (b) publish the statement in such a manner as they consider appropriate.
  • (5) An order under subsection (1) may make provision about—
    • (a) the status, constitution and proceedings of the body,
    • (b) the period within which the body must report to the Parliament,
    • (c) the matters which must be covered in the report,
    • (d) the publication of the report.>

Jean urges decriminalisation for sex workers’ safety

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."Jean has criticised Edinburgh’s decision to delicense its saunas and massage parlours, and called for a debate on decriminalising sex work in order to improve safety and decrease stigma.

Her intervention has been praised by the sex-worker-led charity SCOT-PEP as “courageous”.

In a motion to the Scottish Parliament, Jean praised Edinburgh’s formerly strong record of harm reduction policies on sex work, and urged the capital to reconsider.

Edinburgh has been unusual in granting Public Entertainment Licenses to sex work premises, a policy which improved health and safety and was strongly supported by sex workers themselves. Until 2001, Edinburgh also recognised tolerance zones for street prostitution.

Jean highlighted calls from sex workers’ organisations for full decriminalisation, as practiced in New Zealand since 2003. Kiwi sex workers now report much greater safety and wellbeing. Decriminalisation is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Jean said:

“Our first duty in dealing with sex work must be the protection of the safety and dignity of sex workers. Sex work can be dangerous; but those dangers are exacerbated, or in many cases even created, by criminalisation.

“In Edinburgh’s case, delicensing will eventually lead to saunas being forced out of business by raids and arrests – which is presumably its intention. This will force sex workers into more dangerous work such as street prostitution or working alone from home.

“This is a continuation of a concerted shift against harm reduction in Edinburgh. One of the changes already made, in 2001, has been to abandon the use of tolerance zones for street prostitution. A subsequent crackdown on kerb-crawling in 2007 led to sex workers reporting a 95% increase in incidents of violence over 12 months.

“Edinburgh’s management of sex work was a success story. But instead of the rest of Scotland learning from their experience, we are seeing failed policies being pushed on the capital.

“Both the hard evidence and the testimony of sex workers themselves tell us that fully decriminalising sex work, as in New Zealand, is the best way to protect sex workers and their communities. This would allow co-operation instead of conflict with the authorities, improve the health and safety of sex workers, and create the best possible environment for the eradication of coercion, trafficking and underage sex work.”

The sex workers’ charity SCOT-PEP said:

“SCOT-PEP warmly welcomes Jean Urquhart’s motion on Edinburgh city council’s sauna decision, and on the wider legal context of sex work in Scotland. It is heartening to see an MSP focus on harm reduction rather than on ideology, and back a policy – decriminalisation – that is supported by evidence, and international agencies including UNAIDS and the World Health Organization.

“We are delighted that Jean’s motion notes that decriminalisation is the legal framework called for by sex workers in Scotland, and around the world. For too long, debates about sex work have been dominated by policymakers who seek to dismiss the voices of those most affected. Sex workers are the experts on the legal framework that best enables them to work safely, and to access health, human rights, and justice.

“We have long fought for policy that centres safety, human rights and evidence, and are pleased to see that, in a context for sex workers in Scotland that has recently brought setbacks, we nonetheless have courageous politicians”.

If Jean’s motion gains the support of MSPs from three of the five Holyrood party groups, including Jean’s Independent/Green group, it will be eligible for a debate in the Parliament. If you support a debate on the issue, please consider emailing, writing or phoning your MSP and asking them to sign the motion.

Jean’s motion to the Scottish Parliament:

Motion Number: S4M-08986
Lodged By: Jean Urquhart
Date Lodged: 06/02/2014

Title: Criminalisation of Sex Work

Motion Text:

That the Parliament regrets the decision of the Regulatory Committee of Edinburgh City Council, on 3 February 2014, to remove massage parlours and saunas from the Public Entertainment Licence regime; considers that this decision represents a move toward deeper criminalisation of sex work and sex workers; believes that such criminalisation exposes sex workers to greater danger and stigma; further believes that Edinburgh’s previous sex work policies, including tolerance zones for street prostitution and licensed saunas, demonstrated success in reducing harm, and notes calls for Edinburgh City Council to reconsider this decision and the Scottish Government to give consideration to policies to decriminalise sex work, as it believes has been requested by sex workers themselves.

Motion: One Big Drum at Trade Union Week

Jean has lodged a motion welcoming East Sutherland’s One Big Drum group to Holyrood as part of the Scottish Parliament’s Trade Union Week celebrations.

One Big Drum brings people together to learn African drum music, including young and old, and people with and without disabilities. The group was created two years ago by Health and Happiness‘s Bruce Armstrong and Roxana Meechan from High Life Highland, and has won great audience reactions at many local events and at the 2013 STUC Unions into Schools Songs Festival in Glasgow.

Jean will be meeting with members of One Big Drum on Wednesday 19 February, and they will be performing in the Scottish Parliament’s central Garden Lobby that night.

Motion S4M-08997: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 10/02/2014

One Big Drum at Trade Union Week

That the Parliament welcomes the visit by members of One Big Drum from East Sutherland during Trade Union Week at the Parliament; commends High Life Highland and Health and Happiness for the One Big Drum initiative, which brings together people with learning disabilities, non-disabled people, young people and older people; recognises the support from Brora Community Council, Golspie Community Council, High Life Highland, Health and Happiness, the STUC and from Unions into Schools in making the visit possible, and joins with One Big Drum in celebrating what it sees as the positive contribution that African drum music makes to breaking down barriers and collectively improving wellbeing.

Jean welcomes shoot-and-sale license for Uist geese

Jean has welcomed the decision of Scottish Natural Heritage to pilot licenses for crofters and other farmers on the Uists and Benbecula to sell the meat of greylag geese.

The measure will provide much-needed income for local communities, ultimately making goose management self-funding, as well as reducing the needless waste of discarded carcasses.

The licenses will run until March 2015, and build upon a similar pilot in Orkney which began last August and runs until July this year.

Jean said:

“This is great news for the Western Isles. Control of geese is vital to crofting and other farming in the islands, but until now most of the birds have simply had to be thrown away. This has also meant that goose control has cost crofters time or money.

“Under this pilot, we’ll see the end of the shameful waste of high-quality meat, and an income stream that will make goose control self-financing and add to the diversity of croft products.

“This is also a boost for Scotland’s largest community buy-out, as Stòras Uibhist, the community company that owns most of South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay on behalf of the residents, will be the license-holder for those islands.”

Jean had previously pressed the Scottish Government on the issue, asking Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in a Parliamentary Question whether he had discussed the impact of the geese on farming, and the possibility of introducing a mechanism for their sale:

Question S4O-02193: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 22/05/2013
To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with Scottish Natural Heritage regarding the impact of greylag geese on agricultural land and the possibility of introducing a mechanism for the sale of greylag geese.

Answered by Paul Wheelhouse (30/05/2013):
My officials have had extensive discussions with Scottish Natural Heritage and with stakeholders represented on the National Goose Management Review Group regarding the impact of greylag geese on agricultural land and possible solutions to limiting their impact on certain Scottish islands, including the trialling of adaptive management techniques.

At the request of farmers on Orkney, Scottish Natural Heritage is working on the development of a scheme to permit the limited sale of wild goose carcases under licence, provided an effective and proportionate system of identification and control can be established.

We are required to consult with the European Commission before putting any such scheme into practice and we intend to start those consultations very shortly.

Remembering John Farquhar Munro

John Farquhar MunroI was sad to hear of the death over the weekend of John Farquhar Munro, who was a crofter, a Highland councillor, and Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West from the start of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 until the 2011 election.

I enjoyed a craic with John every now and again in the best Highland tradition. Political discussion, general updates on gossip and local news, and questions put with that famous twinkle in his eye – JFM was a wily politician with a great sense of humour. He knew fine what he was doing when he endorsed Alex Salmond for First Minister and cared not for how unpopular it made him with his party – and he was right. He was a kenspeckle figure across the Highlands and we will remember him.

— Jean

‘Outside the Box’ – art by Inverness prisoners

I had the pleasure of seeing Out of the Box at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery last Thursday. The show is an exhibition of art created by prisoners taking part in Fife College learning programmes at HMP Inverness over the past year.

One prisoner who took part in the exhibition said:

“Prison can be an emotional and daunting experience, with some prisoners feeling like worthless failures who have no hope of going anywhere in life. The education department offers prisoners both the support and tools they’ll need to change their lives, in an attempt at, hopefully, changing these thoughts and feelings.”

I think that captures something important – that the dehumanisation of prisoners that is apparently so popular among some politicians and tabloid columnists is not only revolting in its own right, but also stands in the way of prisoners rebuilding their lives and, in so doing, reducing reoffending.

My favourite painting was the G4S van plunging into a lake – a rejection of just the kind of industrialised, for-profit incarceration to which this project is diametrically opposed.

Outside the Box is at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Castle Wynd, IV2 3EB until Saturday 15th February 2014.
Please call 01463 237 114 to check availability, as part of the exhibition is in a room that is used for other events.

The Week Ahead (20th January-26th January)

Tuesday
On Tuesday morning Jean will be working in her parliamentary office, holding her usual weekly meeting with staff. In the afternoon Jean will be meeting with representatives from Ofgem, before Jean attending a CPG Poland meeting and a reception for Abellio, one of the companies currently bidding for the Scotrail franchise, in the evening. Later on Jean will be attending a ‘Walk the Walk’ Dinner. This event will assist Walk the Walk identify areas of investment and to consider how Walk the Walk can make a difference in Scotland.

Wednesday
Jean will be taking part in the Finance Committee in the Parliament on Wednesday morning. In the afternoon she will be asking a question about what the timescale will be for the introduction of areas of natural restraint to replace less favoured ones during the debate about rural affairs. Following this debate Jean will be meeting with representatives from The Crown Estate. For the rest of the afternoon, Jean will be in the Chamber for the Budget Debate before attending the cross party group on Palestine, which will be discussing the film ‘Children in Chains’ by Jonathon Pullman about the abuse of Palestinian children in the Israeli Military Court System.

Thursday
Jean will be attending a breakfast reception at Dynamic Earth. The Scottish Contractor’s Group (SCG) is launching its Creating Scotland’s Future Campaign. The campaign highlights the benefits to the Scottish economy of investing in construction, and the work and training opportunities local projects can create. At noon, Jean will be attending First Minister’s Questions in the Chamber. In the afternoon Jean will be working in her parliamentary office. Jean will then be travelling through to Glasgow to speak at the opening of the Gaelic and Scots showcase at the Lomond Foyer, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. This event is part of the Celtic Connections Festival which takes place in Glasgow.

The Week Ahead: 16th-20th December

This week concludes the current Parliamentary session.  On  Monday, I took a flight to Edinburgh and spent most of the day working in my office at Holyrood. Later, I took part in an independence debate at the University of Strathclyde, where some interesting views were heard.

On Tuesday, I will begin with an invitational event at the Scottish Poetry Library. Later, I have my staff meeting and grouping meeting. In the afternoon, I’ll be speaking in the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill Stage 3 debate.  I’ve taken great interest in the Bill, as I sit on the Finance Committee which scrutinised it.  In the evening, I’ll be chairing the Cross-Party Group on Culture.

I’ll be meeting with the Scottish Council on Archives on Wednesday, and I am attending the Cross-Party on Crofting in the evening.

I have various meetings and engagements on Thursday morning, and I’ll be attending the Finance Secretary’s budget statement in the afternoon. I’ll be bidding to speak in the ensuing debate.

Friday will be an office day, and then another year at Holyrood will be over!