Speech: Land Reform Act – stop Scottish land being owned in offshore tax havens

The Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of the Land Reform Bill at Stage 1, allowing it to progress to the detailed committee stage. Jean spoke in the debate to call for a ban on Scottish land being owned outside the EU, especially in secretive jurisdictions like Caribbean tax havens. You can read more about that issue in a new report from RISE.

On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:52:50. You can read the full transcript of the debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I would like to recommend a book that everybody should read in order to better understand the passion with which we should deal with land reform — Our Scots Noble Families, by Tom Johnston, who, famously, was possibly the best Secretary of State for Scotland we ever had. It explains how land was acquired by some of the landowners who are still there today.

There is no doubt that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was welcome and that it has only fed the desire for more and better legislation on land reform. I will not go over all the issues that have been covered by others, such as how the Highland estates that Rhoda Grant referred to came about, but I would like to challenge John Lamont’s point that it is the people who own the land who know best how to work it. In defence of landowners, he said that the state does not know best. I suggest that nothing that we are talking about here is about the state knowing best; it is about the fact that the people who live on the land and the communities that are there know best.

The evidence is there for all of us to see. Less than two weeks ago, the Pairc estate community achieved ownership of its 28,000 acres, and I have no doubt that it will follow Eigg, Assynt and Stòras Uibhist in getting more and more people to live on the land and creating more and more jobs. Such an arrangement benefits the people who live there and their community far more than does ownership by an absentee landowner, which was the situation with the Pairc estate until two weeks ago. I think that we should celebrate the fact that the community has achieved ownership of the Pairc estate after 13 years—that is how long it has taken it to get ownership of the land. If the bill means that no other community has to go through that, bring it on.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con):

I think that Jean Urquhart might agree that we have had two acts on crofting that have not delivered very much for the crofters. Will she try to ensure that the Government makes certain that the bill will deliver for tenant farmers?

Jean Urquhart:

I thank Jamie McGrigor for raising that issue. We had the ludicrous situation in which somebody who owned 28,000 acres in Lewis was not required to meet any of the regulations that someone who owns 20 acres in Shetland or anywhere else has to meet. We must think about exactly what we are asking for. Of course we have argued for the crofting legislation to be changed, and of course the whole system needs to be reviewed, but that is not what we are arguing for in the bill.

I want to talk about tax havens and the link between corruption, offshore corporate property and land ownership. It is clearly established in a recent Transparency International report that:

“Land owned in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and Guernsey is particularly common in London, and 75% of properties under investigation for corruption are using offshore ownership to hide their identities.”

The problem is not confined to south-east England; another recent investigation found that as much as 750,000 acres in Scotland, most of it on Highland estates, is owned in offshore tax havens. That is a disgrace, and it potentially makes it impossible to find the real owners, which could be a series of shell companies and trusts. If they are registered in offshore secrecy jurisdictions, the legal means to reveal ownership is not available. Consequently, the land reform review group recommended strongly that the problem be tackled, saying that:

“the Scottish Government should make it incompetent for any legal entity not registered in a member state of the European Union to register title to land in the Land Register of Scotland, to improve traceability and accountability in the public interest.”

That is what many would like to happen.

Of course, Andy Wightman has long campaigned on and highlighted these issues, and, like the Government, he is clearly having some success in raising land reform as an issue. There is interest out there; indeed, more than 200 people emailed me about this debate, and I know that the same has happened to other members. The mass of people who responded to the consultation shows that individuals are recognising the injustice in this situation.

As late as the mid-1980s, we were paying a feudal tax to our feudal landlord on a very small bit of land in Ullapool — I think that I am right in saying that England stopped being a feudal country something like 400 years before. This legislation is therefore long overdue, because change is desperately needed. People must be able to access the land. The Stoddart family have been mentioned already, and I know of a school in north-west Sutherland that sits in the middle of a loch, which I thought was quite romantic until I discovered that it is there because the then landowner refused to give the people land for the school. When he was pressed by the council and told that a compulsory purchase order could be made, he offered the loch, which the people had to take.

There are many wrongs to be righted, and this bill is to be welcomed as the first step on that long road.

Speech: Jean calls for visas to let Scots uni graduates stay and work

On Tuesday, the Scottish Parliament debated a Government motion calling for a return of the post-study work visas, once known as the ‘Fresh Talent’ scheme, that allowed overseas students who graduated from Scottish universities to stay and work in Scotland after their degree. Jean supported the motion, and called for Scotland to have control its own immigration policy more generally, so that we can have a welcoming system that meets our needs. The motion passed by 93 votes to nil, with 12 Conservatives abstaining, as did a Labour amendment recognising the work of former First Minister Jack McConnell in creating Fresh Talent.

On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:58:35. You can read the full transcript of debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): This is a timely debate and it is heartening to hear that there is cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.

We have heard from all members who have spoken about the contribution that overseas students make, whether cultural, social, economic and educational, but in spite of the reputation of Scottish colleges and universities, we cannot assume that they will keep coming.

Competition in the education sector is tough. Many of our colleges and universities are making greater and greater efforts to attract students from around the globe, even to the extent of changing their names. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. That change to the name was not made because people demanded it; it was made to attract students and so that they could better understand the college’s work and its potential.

It is no matter that our universities and colleges are the best or that they are opening branches in many other countries around the globe. It might be that the growing number of such courses will produce graduates there with degrees from the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh or, indeed, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

What will bring those students here? It is not enough to be the best, or to provide good student associations and a welcome. As the institutions know, they need all the support that they can get to maintain or grow the international student community. The post-study work visa is only one good reason to apply to one university over another, but it is perhaps the most important.

Some of the partner colleges in the University of the Highlands and Islands have developed the potential for business experience to follow the course as well as being part of the course. For example, were they allowed to stay after graduation, textiles students in Shetland could access equipment—large industrial knitting machines, for example—to develop better business skills and experience whether or not there was a market for their products.

Manufacturing must be one of the most important areas for us to cover, so the opportunity of getting such experience for the period after graduation is certainly an attractive option, and Scotland has a great deal to offer in that respect.

All the papers that we have received from NUS Scotland or business organisations show cross-sector and cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.

I am not sure about the Smith Commission process. It occurs to me, particularly after listening to Lord Lang on the radio this morning, that that process might not be the quickest method by which to put in place the developments that we need. It is incumbent on all members to show that there is real urgency about the issue. The fresh talent initiative has been referred to—all credit to Jack McConnell and the Labour Party for it. It is important to acknowledge that they brought it about, but it is also important to note that if we had the powers over immigration that Scotland needs and clearly deserves, the fresh talent initiative would surely still be in place and we would not need to have this debate.

It was disingenuous of Liam McArthur to try to somehow link all the evidence from academics, businesses and agencies that support the post-study work visas with the danger that not everyone will agree. By way of evidence, he cited BBC Scotland’s evidence that people in Scotland are not unlike people south of the border in their views on immigration.

Liam McArthur: The point that I was trying to make is that the assumption that the population in Scotland takes a radically different approach to immigration from the approach of the population south of the border is not borne out by the BBC survey or by attitude surveys over a number of years. Kenny MacAskill made a fair point about the leadership that we need to show, and it is worth acknowledging that we do not work with a more enlightened or progressive population on the whole.

Jean Urquhart: I thank Liam McArthur for that. In fact, I was just going to refer to Kenny MacAskill’s point that it is up to us to take a lead. It ill behoves us to constantly hark back to what is in some ways a bigger issue. We had a debate on immigration last week, in which we were all very much agreed, and those points were well made by members at the time.

Joan McAlpine talked about MIT, which is a great example of the fact that, where creativity is developed, it can flourish. Scotland needs to have control of immigration if we are to realise our full potential. We must push for the issue to be considered outwith the Smith Commission process. It is a serious and important issue for Scotland and for our colleges. More than that, it is seriously important for the kind of economic development that we want. We have acknowledged that we are talking about thousands of students. Why on earth would we want that talent to be educated in Scotland and then insist that they leave? That cannot be right. I hope that we will push for the issue to be dealt with in the House of Commons and for our case to be made outwith the Smith Commission process.

Jean’s debate: Celebrating Scotland’s diverse communities

Yesterday at Holyrood, Jean followed up the Tuesday launch of the Not My Xenophobia campaign by leading a debate on a motion entitled ‘Celebrating Scotland’s diverse communities’. You can read the full debate, in which many MSPs pledged their support to the campaign, in the Parliament’s Official Report. On this page you can watch the video of the debate, starting at 1:09:00, and read Jean’s opening speech.

There was an unusual display of unity after the debate, as MSPs voted unanimously to approve the motion, and to add both the Labour and SNP amendments.

In a world that is more interconnected than ever and in which historically our societies have developed as a result of the transnational mobilisation of cultures and peoples, it is intellectually moribund that we rarely hear politicians or the media make the positive case for immigration. It is with alarm that we are witnessing the development of increasing hostility, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance towards immigrants. I am gravely concerned that the tone of public discussion about immigration is contributing to a climate of hostility and fear. In this regard, we risk facing a race to the bottom. It is, it seems, politically fashionable to oppose immigration and, increasingly, the whole concept of multiculturalism.

I am proud today to be one of those who are making the positive case for immigration, and who are highlighting not just the economic benefits but the cultural enrichment that flows from embracing it, rather than proposing an agenda that is set on creating resentment and division. I stand as an advocate for multiculturalism who recognises the benefits of viewing integration as a two-way process, in which we learn and develop from our fellow citizens who hail from other countries and who bring with them their own heritage and traditions. The world is a more interesting place and our communities are made more vibrant and outward looking if we encourage understanding and tolerance and adopt a welcoming attitude to immigrants as citizens in equal partnership.

We barely hear such arguments. Instead we are faced, on a daily basis, with a toxic barrage of headlines demonising immigrants and an increasingly xenophobic politics that stems from the UK Independence Party but now, it seems, is infecting the mainstream parties, particularly in Westminster. The whole debate has been shifted rightwards, as it becomes increasingly popular to make opposing immigration a political principle. Even those who might have stood up for multiculturalism in the past find it difficult to do so now. That tide must turn, and we must challenge ourselves to testify for a modern, inclusive and humanitarian approach to immigration.

Of course, Presiding Officer, the scapegoating of immigrants at times of economic crisis is nothing new. Throughout history, immigrants have been a useful section of society for powerful interests to blame in order to rationalise their own failures. Far better that our attention is focused on blaming immigrants for the lack of job opportunities and deteriorating living standards than on our unbalanced economy or corruption in the banking sector—or indeed the political establishment. The economic facts, which are rarely exposed, show that, rather than representing a drain on Britain’s finances, European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to the Exchequer between 2000 and 2011.

However, it is in these circumstances that organisations such as UKIP thrive. They build on the fears that emerge as a result of economic precariousness and on the anti-immigrant sentiment popularised by sections of the media. The two have a near-symbiotic relationship, all set within a policy framework that has been shifting away from embracing multiculturalism and immigration for many years, under successive Westminster Governments.

UKIP now advocates the scrapping of the racial equality laws, a move that would regress race relations by decades. Unless partisans of diversity and racial equality make the positive case for immigration—challenging though that may seem—we risk sliding down the slippery slope of an inward-looking xenophobia. That is a xenophobia that detracts from our culture, economy and the important sense of human solidarity that has always been the bedrock for making progress in society. I believe that the majority of our population can be won to such a perspective if only we unite our voices to amplify our case beyond the parameters of the current stale, stultified and one-sided debate.

We so often hear the tiresome mantra, repeated throughout the decades, that immigrants are “stealing our jobs”. We should ask why the jobs market is so poor, how it came to be that our society is so unequal and why access to well-paid jobs is so privileged. We hear of immigrants “taking our houses”, but we must ask why our housing stock is so inadequate and underfunded, and why we do not put the necessary investment into building more high-quality, affordable homes. Why not inquire further, with a critical mind, to unearth beneath the waves of anti-immigrant headlines just how much of a contribution they make to our country?

Let us talk about how much our communities have gained from immigration—all the doctors, nurses and public servants who help us in our time of need, and without whom we would be much worse off. Let us talk about the music scene or our constantly renewing creative culture and the extension of our palate into the world as each period of immigration—if embraced—emboldens our human need to experience more than ourselves, and to explore the things that we do not yet know about, in the pursuit of knowledge. Immigration, far from being a burden, is a gateway.

We in Scotland should know that. Surely it is part of our DNA. Scots are immigrants. They are dispersed around the globe, where they have found and created work and shared their culture and made their home in another country. We should be among the first to recognise that the flow of immigration adds momentum to the progressive aspects of human history, and excites the potential in all of us, regardless of where we were born. Thus, I share the Scottish Refugee Council’s concerns at the recent poll conducted by BBC Scotland on Scottish attitudes to immigration, and I have signed Christina McKelvie’s motion questioning the methodology, outcome and timing of the poll.

I was taken aback, listening to BBC Radio Scotland’s morning news programme a few days ago, to hear the Spanish immigrants in Inverness referred to as an “invasion”. For many, that confirms that the BBC is not acting impartially.

It is time for a wholesale change in approach to how we discuss immigration and realise its benefits. I do not just want our Polish friends to be able to learn English—I want Scots to be able to take advantage of the diversity in our population to learn Polish. Imagine how our nation might develop were we to cut through the headlines of the Daily Express and Nigel Farage’s false narrative and recognise the potential that exists.

Is it not time to move on as a society? We must stop repeating time and again the age-old fallacies around immigration, and move to a period of enlightenment where, rather than creating fear and division around difference and the scramble for resources, we work together to solve the economic problems we face and, at the same time, enjoy our distinctive and valuable cultural identities.

UKIP is said to be making a “bold stand” on immigration. The truth is the opposite. It is those who stand up for the rights of immigrants and champion the benefits that they bring to a multicultural society based on social progress that are the 21st century’s trailblazers.

Many members would have joined with Sheena Wellington at the formal opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 in singing the words of Burns:

“That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”

It is time to show that there is a difference between the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament, by making and profiling the positive case for immigration and celebrating Scotland’s diverse communities. Please support the motion.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that Scotland’s diversity should be celebrated and rejects the negative attitudes expressed in the media and politics toward immigration and immigrants; also notes with concern the impact of these attitudes in the context of the approaching general election; believes that there should be recognition of the very real and positive contribution made by immigrants from all over the world to Scottish society, culture and history; also notes that the Scottish population is comprised of a rich mix of peoples and cultures from all over the world and believes that all immigrants and their descendants are an integral part of the Scottish identity; calls on politicians and the media to stop the demonisation of immigrants, and calls on media outlets to take a more responsible approach toward their reporting of immigration to Scotland and the UK.

Jean on the referendum: “It will not stop our ambition.”

In her speech in yesterday’s Scottish Parliament debate on the referendum, Jean pledged that she will always be committed to Scotland governing itself. While of course we accept the result, she said, “the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct,” and so we should see the referendum as the start of a road not the end.

Jean celebrated the way in which the referendum brought so many people back in touch with Scotland, with campaigners seeing more of the country, and everyone creating their own vision of its future: “The exciting thing is that people have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.”

You can watch Jean’s speech at BBC Democracy Live – skip to 1:36:20.

The full transcript of Jean’s speech follows. You can read the full debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

I thank the First Minister for his statement and acknowledge the extraordinary contribution that he has made over all these years. I am slightly taken aback by the comments that suggest that he is in the past now. I simply do not accept that. He may be demitting office, but I do not doubt that he still has a huge role to play in Scottish politics.

Similarly, I do not think that the result that we received on Friday morning means that the matter is done and dusted and is the settled will of the Scottish people. It may be the result that was voted for by a majority of people on that big and fantastic occasion, but life goes on and things change. Will everybody who voted yes be content with whatever the vow turns out to be? I doubt it. There will always be people who are committed to Scotland governing herself. I will certainly be one of them, and I know that there are hundreds of thousands of others. We might have another referendum. It might be in my lifetime; it might not be. However, the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct. I am trying to say that we can accept the result, but it will not stop our ambition for something else.

One of the really staggering things about the referendum campaign was the way in which people discovered Scotland for the first time. People who had not had the opportunity before and who had not been north of Shettleston were suddenly appearing in Caithness, Shetland and the Western Isles, and in the east, west, north and south for the first time. That raises the question, “Where should we go as a country?” The first thing that we must do is encourage people to get to know what this country is, because without really knowing and understanding Scotland, how can we see what is best for our country? The exciting thing is that people — maybe not enough of us and, for some of us, too late on this occasion — have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.

There has been a great deal of talk of the Scottish Parliament having control of the health service in Scotland. The health service was a hot topic and many people in the health service agree that there are issues around the NHS budget and what we should do about that. For me, it is rather like the West Lothian question—it comes down to our being in control. The health service budget does not operate in a vacuum. Two of the biggest pressures on the health service are people being out of work — we know that work is good for health — and people feeling completely powerless in the face of welfare changes, which is making them sick. We need to have the two levers of welfare and creating employment opportunities if we are to relieve the pressure on the health service.

For me, the answer to the West Lothian question will always be independence. There is no sense in MPs from Scotland going to Westminster to vote on the English education service or the English health service — why would they do that? — but there is no way round it. I think that Westminster will turn itself inside out and tie itself up in knots trying to resolve the problem, but there is only one answer for our health, our wellbeing, the discovery of our country and allowing people to take part.

It is not that we do not care about people in Liverpool. I am sick of the argument that, for the sake of universal socialism, we should never govern Scotland. That is nonsense. We can share the work of unions across the world — as a country, we have done that. I care as much about people in Liverpool as I care about people in Bonn, in Gaza or anywhere else where there is real concern for our fellow human beings. However, the answer for us, if we are to do our best by our country, will always be that we must absolutely govern it.

My dedication to an independent Scotland will not be diminished by the outcome that was announced last Friday morning. I suggest that it is only the start of a long road — or a short road — not the end of one.

Speech: Thirsting for Justice

Jean spoke in the Labour MSP Claudia Beamish’s member’s debate on the desperate water shortages experienced in Palestine as a result of the Israeli occupation.

You can watch her speech below (start at 45:00), and read the transcript of the whole debate at TheyWorkForYou.com.

Find out more about the Thirsting For Justice campaign on Twitter and Facebook.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I thank Claudia Beamish and John Finnie for bringing this topic for debate in the Scottish Parliament. I do not know how else we can raise awareness of the appalling situation in Palestine. How do we in Scotland effect change?

I have not been privileged to visit Palestine, but I listened to members who have had that privilege and who have been in the Gaza strip, and it seems to me that, as Alison Johnstone said, water is a basic human right that is being denied. The issue is being raised around the world by the United Nations, and yet the situation persists.

This might be slightly irrational of me, but when John Lamont suggested that the situation, in which people must live in appalling conditions, is the fault of the Government in Gaza, I wondered whether Palestinians would say that people in Scotland deserve the welfare situation that we have here because it is our Government’s fault. The issue has nothing to do with that. I feel in my heart that real injustice is being done to the Palestinian people. It might be the case that the political situation needs to be resolved, and I know that the problem in the middle east is complicated, but we are concerned with a situation that is causing people to die and families to be driven apart.

There are many visual images of the hardship that people are suffering. Books have been written and films have been made that show us the arid lands and the results of a deliberate withdrawal of resources, including water for arable lands—to feed the olive trees, for example. Water is needed to give life to the Palestinians. It is the source of life, and to deny the Palestinian people their right to clean water and sanitation is despicable.

We can contrast those images with images of the lush growth in the settlements, where there is plenty of water. Members cited the facts and figures. We heard about people having access to 70 litres as opposed to 340 litres, and we heard that in the west some of us have the luxury of access to 4,000 litres per day.

I hope that the thirsting for justice campaign has huge success and that we can reach the hearts and minds of people who care about the Palestinian people. There are Jewish organisations and Israeli people who feel that the situation should not be allowed to continue. Not everyone in Israel thinks that the situation is somehow justified or okay.

If the Scottish Parliament can do anything, I hope that we will try to unite with such people to effect change. Change for the Palestinian people might have to come as a result of Israelis talking to Israelis. However, let no one be uncertain about the feeling in this Parliament. The situation is untenable and cannot be allowed to continue.

I thank Claudia Beamish and John Finnie again for bringing this timely debate about a desperate situation that we must all try to alleviate.

Speech: The Scottish Budget 2014

Jean spoke in the final debate on the Scottish Budget, emphasising again the importanmce of preventative spending, and secure funding for the charities that provide so many preventative services.

She also addressed the Bedroom Tax, which the Scottish Government has successfully mitigated but which remains effectively a tax paid by Scotland to the UK Treasury.

You can watch her speech below (start at 1:45:48), and read the transcript of the whole debate at TheyWorkForYou.com.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): As always, I pay tribute not only to the hard work of the cabinet secretary in putting together the budget but to the efforts of the Finance Committee clerking team in helping those of us who are on the committee to scrutinise the budget and shed some light on the issues at hand. I am pleased to have the opportunity to go over some of those issues in this stage 3 debate.

The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on producing a positive and ambitious budget despite the tough economic environment and Westminster’s disastrous austerity agenda. Once again, vital components of Scotland’s social wage—free prescriptions, free personal care and public transport for the elderly, and free university education—have been protected. When household budgets are being squeezed by rising food prices and energy costs, those measures are not only welcome but necessary.

As a member of the Finance Committee, I am particularly pleased that the Scottish Government has strengthened its commitment to prevention, spending to stop social and health problems before they start instead of relying on expensive cures once it is too late. That philosophy is increasingly being followed in Government strategy, and the budget includes £30 million over two years to support the voluntary sector’s vital work in that area.

However, far too many charities are still being given funding settlements for just one year at a time, which makes it hard for them to plan and invest in future services. For example, the Badenoch & Strathspey Community Transport Company, which is extraordinarily good, faces an uncertain future despite providing an essential service that is well used by hundreds of people every week. We need to move to an expectation that funding for community projects will be for several years at a time, which will create the security that these brilliant voluntary sector services need and deserve.

On a more general note, I was pleased to see so many parties voting for the principles of the budget at stage 1. That is a testament to the cabinet secretary’s ability and his determination to get the best deal that he can for Scots from all walks of life. It also demonstrates that, despite differences of opinion on Scotland’s constitutional future, a solid majority in this Parliament believe that there is such a thing as society, that we cannot slash and burn our way to a better economy and that a healthy economy is based not on how those at the very top weather the storm but on how those at the bottom are protected from the harsh winds of an economic storm that continues to wreak havoc on communities up and down Scotland.

I am still angry that the bedroom tax was imposed on Scotland in the first place. I am angry that other welfare cuts, which are driven by ideology and lack compassion, are causing tens of thousands of Scots to turn to food banks. I am angry that a party that has been consistently and overwhelmingly rejected by the Scottish people for years continues to hold the purse strings. No matter what sterling work the cabinet secretary is able to do within the confines of our financial settlement and no matter how much we may agree with the second-largest party in this Parliament, the fact remains that, until Scotland has the full economic powers of any other nation, there is only so much that can be done to counteract the me-first attitude of Westminster’s right-wing orthodoxy.

At the end of her speech, Jackie Baillie declared with great aplomb—I hope that I am quoting her correctly—

“Today we can vote in effect to end the bedroom tax”.

Well, we cannot. We cannot simply vote to end the bedroom tax—that is the point of wanting Scotland to have independence.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): Does the member accept that, because of the Scottish Government’s actions in putting the £50 million on the table, we have effectively ended the bedroom tax in Scotland?

Jean Urquhart: No, I do not accept that at all. We have mitigated some of the worst outcomes of the bedroom tax, but we have not ended it. In fact, Scotland is going to pay dearly, to the tune of possibly £50 million from other services, to mitigate the bedroom tax. Let nobody be under any illusion that we have ended the bedroom tax.

The Conservative members who have spoken so far have pointed out that the cabinet secretary has not mentioned business or the economy, and they have said that this is not a budget for business. However, it seems to me from all the reports—those in what I might choose to call the English papers as well as those in the Scottish papers—that the big issue today is not the business community. The biggest issue—the one that is hitting everyone’s mailbox—is the bedroom tax and its effects on housing associations and local authorities.

I highly recommend the budget. I can only repeat what many other members have said: the only way to mitigate the bedroom tax is to abolish it, and the only way to guarantee that it will be abolished is to vote yes on 18 September. The budget lays the groundwork for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. I support the Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill and the Government in its efforts to ensure that all future budgets can freely set Scotland’s priorities.

Speech: Oxfam’s Lift Lives for Good campaign

Photo of luxury yacht, captioned "The 85 richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. -- Oxfam"

Jean spoke in the debate on Oxfam‘s Lift Lives for Good campaign on Tuesday 21st January, brought by her fellow Highlands and Islands independent MSP, John Finnie. You can watch the debate on the BBC site (Jean’s speech starts at just over 16 minutes in), read the transcript in the Parliament’s Official Report. Read Oxfam’s full Lift Lives For Good report on tackling inequality and climate change, and please donate to the campaign if you can.

I, too, thank John Finnie for securing the debate. Oxfam’s record in fighting poverty is quite exceptional. As an organisation it has, more than any other, highlighted the work that has yet to be done.

We should celebrate Oxfam’s work in showing that deprivation is not just about money. It is also about mental and physical health, feeling safe and secure, and connectedness to family and community. Oxfam’s work on the Humankind Index, which released its second annual results for Scotland in June last year, gives us a vital way of understanding this complexity. Gross domestic product growth is no good if all the growth goes to the rich, or if wealth is being created only by breaking the backs and spirits of working people.

This week, Oxfam revealed that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the human race, which is 3.5 billion people put together. The Scottish Government’s stated priority is sustainable economic growth; I hope that, one day, we will see that being extended to include sustainable human wellbeing.

One idea that was raised in a meeting in Parliament last week is worth serious consideration: a universal basic income, or citizen’s income. The amount would be enough to cover basic needs and it would be paid to every citizen without means testing. It would recognise unpaid work such as raising children and looking after relatives, and it would support lifelong learning, reduce inequality and give us a real chance to abolish poverty altogether — a mission that less radical ideas have repeatedly failed to achieve.

Oxfam’s Lift Lives for Good campaign recognises the importance of building skills and community links as well as providing aid. Here in Scotland, two of Oxfam’s partners recognise the importance of wellbeing beyond money. Tea in the Pot, in Govan, helps women who have mental health problems to share their experiences and ideas. Not only does that element of the project help people to fight loneliness and improve wellbeing, but the project also means that people who are normally excluded from decision-making and ignored by officials can work together to make their voices heard and challenge the policies and conditions that damage their wellbeing.

Let us celebrate Oxfam often, but let us work harder on our National Performance Framework and on introducing some of the key elements that people have declared are a priority for them, which are not about getting more money but involve other areas and issues around wellbeing that Oxfam has highlighted.

Speech on the Landfill Tax Bill

Sadly we ran out of time in the Chamber this afternoon and I wasn’t able to speak in the debate on the third and final stage of the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill. I’ve been part of scrutinising this Bill all the way through, as a member of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee.

Landfill Tax may not seem like the most exciting topic, but it is exciting that from 2015, for the first time, Scotland will set and collect two of its own national taxes (the other being the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax) instead of relying on London. Ideally we would have responsibility for all taxation in Scotland, so we can have taxes that fit Scotland’s economy and our progressive values – that’s one of the reasons I’m campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum.

Here is the speech I would have given, if we’d had time:

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

It gives me great pleasure to speak at this stage 3 debate. I am extremely proud to have the opportunity to be a part of this important Bill, and have enjoyed scrutinising it as a member of the Finance Committee. I’d like to add my thanks to the Bill team and the Finance committee.

Presiding Officer, members will be aware that the Landfill Tax Bill will directly replace the UK Landfill Tax regime. In terms of what constitutes a taxable disposal according to the UK Landfill Tax arrangements, the Scottish Bill will start with an identical set of exemptions. This is a useful starting point, as it will give Revenue Scotland and SEPA the opportunity to get their bearings so to speak. However, the Bill gives the Scottish Government the opportunity to add or remove exempted material through subordinate legislation, which I think is important. That gives the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people the chance to influence taxation and I believe that is something that most, if not all across the chamber would welcome.

As the Law Society of Scotland has said, a Scottish Landfill Tax makes sense. It enables the Scottish Government to deliver a more joined-up approach in relation to its zero waste aims. It allows the Scottish Government to deliver a tax system that is tailor-made to Scotland’s environmental landscape, the scale of production and consumption, and the businesses that operate within the environmental landscape. The Scottish Landfill Tax will play an important role in maintaining the economic stimulus required to harness waste management opportunities and direct the Scottish economy toward a prosperous future with secure access to resources. Additionally, there will be new opportunities for the Scottish Government to directly raise local revenues from Scottish businesses for local use. I believe that all members would be interested to see the Scottish Landfill Tax be successful in its aims, and will work together in order to adjust critical aspects of the tax to bring it into line with shifts in policy and external circumstances, for example.

Presiding Officer, I believe that the Landfill Tax Bill, alongside the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and the Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Bill – introduced to Parliament by Finance Secretary John Swinney last Thursday – represents a critical juncture in tax collection and management in Scotland. Like the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government, I believe that the Scottish Parliament should have legislative responsibility for the full range of taxes levied in Scotland.

I believe that would be the best and only way for the Scottish economy to flourish and reach its potential. I believe that Scottish control over all taxation in Scotland is the only route to a fairer, redistributive tax system. I believe that a fully independent Scottish tax system will be a key means to maintain our public services. A Yes vote in September next year would allow the Scottish Government to design a simpler, yet fairer tax system for Scotland with those goals in mind.

Of course the Scottish Landfill Tax won’t be perfect initially. There may be skills gaps to be addressed moving forward. For example, SEPA is an environmental regulator rather than a tax assessor, and we should allow SEPA time to adjust. The Finance Committee has a key role to play here, as Revenue Scotland and SEPA will report to the Committee on a 6 monthly basis in order to ensure an affective monitoring process. However, the salient point is that the Scottish Government has been presented with the opportunity to show that it can be relied upon to effectively design and manage important areas of taxation. I have the utmost confidence that the Scottish Government has the experience, the knowhow and the ability to carry out the provisions of the Landfill Tax Bill effectively, and thus make a success of the new devolved Scottish Landfill Tax. That goes for the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and any other devolved taxes in the future.

Presiding Officer, I see the Landfill Tax Bill as a worthy and valuable piece of legislation. It does what it is supposed to do. It provides legislative provisions for a Scottish Landfill Tax to replace the UK Landfill Tax regime. However, it also does much more. It provides the Scottish Government with real power to take important decisions on a crucial area of taxation, makes use of the experience and expertise of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and is conducive to the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Agenda as we look to Greener energy alternatives. I hope to see everyone involved in implementing and monitoring the Scottish Landfill Tax coming together to grasp this fantastic opportunity with both hands. Together, we can display the benefits of devolved taxation to the public and to business, and make a real difference to both the environment and to business in Scotland.

Speech: Dundee City of Culture Bid (12th November 2013)

On behalf of the Independent and Green group, I would like to echo the support for Dundee’s city of culture bid that has been expressed by members across the chamber.

Dundee is, in many ways, a microcosm of Scotland. It is a city with a proud industrial heritage that is reinventing itself for the 21st century and leading the way in video games technology and biomedical research. Over the years, it has been infused with Irish, Italian, Polish, Asian and Chinese immigrants—to name but a few—and both of its top-class universities continue to attract students from all over the globe.

The continued investment by the Scottish Government in Dundee’s waterfront will transform the way in which its citizens interact with the city and will, I hope, add further architectural excellence to Dundee’s many cultural accomplishments. I am assured by my Dundonian researcher that the city’s football teams—of which I know absolutely nothing—particularly the one that plays in dark blue, are also worthy of mention for their European heritage and exciting style of play.

What really makes Dundee worthy of its bid, though, is its people and how they have shaped their sense of self through the bid. Artists and writers are now thriving in a city that is universally recognised to be bursting with opportunity and ambition. From Sheena Wellington’s show-stopping performance of “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” at the opening of the Parliament in 1999 to the wry observations and brilliant talent of the much-missed Michael Marra, Dundee’s contribution to Scotland’s traditional and contemporary folk scene is legendary. Its links to Deacon Blue, Snow Patrol and The View and its annual blues bonanza demonstrate that that musical legacy continues to the present day.

New publishing firms such as Teckle Books and the success of the Bob Servant novels perfectly encapsulate the irreverent Dundonian sense of humour. Those success stories beget popular events, with the DCA’s Dundead horror festival and the Dundee literary festival being other highlights of a packed cultural calendar.

The bid for city of culture status gives Dundee an opportunity to celebrate all her heroes. There are too many other cultural strings to Dundee’s bow to mention: the McManus Galleries, the impending V&A museum, DC Thomson, Brian Cox, AL Kennedy, William McGonagall—I could go on.

It is worth noting in particular the continuing success of Dundee Contemporary Arts and Dundee Rep, not least because both were established at a time when some would have suggested that arts funding should be a lower priority for the city. As two key drivers of Dundee’s continued regeneration, I believe that they have demonstrated the intrinsic worth of cultural investment, and they are two potent symbols of the dedication of the city of Dundee to its artistic community. They are successful because they are used—and used well—by the folk of Dundee.

Dundee fully deserves to be awarded city of culture status, and I hope that, when the judges take in the spectacular view as their train travels over the silvery Tay, they realise that they have just arrived in a city of great culture in any year.

Speech: Strict Liability

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wasn’t able to give my speech in support of the introduction of Strict Liability during my colleague Alison Johnstone’s Members’ Business debate on October 29th. In the interests of transparency, I’ve reproduced my planned comments below:

I welcome the opportunity to speak during this member’s debate about the proposal to introduce stricter liability in Civil Law in order to protect those considered as vulnerable road users in Scotland.  I thank Alison Johnston for bringing the proposal to the chamber through her strict liability motion.  I, like members who’ve spoken before me today, believe that stricter liability would have a positive effect on the health, wellbeing and safety of Scotland’s cyclists and pedestrians.

Too many cyclists have already been killed or injured on Scotland’s roads.  In 2012, there were 901 cyclist casualties, up by 9% from 2011.  Of these casualties, 167 were seriously injured, and there were 9 deaths.  Both of these figures were up from 2011.  That indicates the scale of the problem, and the situation is clearly not improving with another 13 cyclist deaths this year.  The problem is one that affects the whole of Scotland, from Alison Johnston’s Lothian constituency to my own constituency in the Highlands and Islands.

We must look to support stricter liability and its underpinning philosophy to have the interests of vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, given priority over drivers of motor vehicles.  In Scotland, and the in UK in general, we’ve fallen behind most of our European neighbours where drivers are already required to prove they were not at fault in civil cases.  In many European countries, the responsibility is on the driver, it is easier for cyclists and pedestrians hurt in collisions to receive compensation more quickly, and the roads are made safer for everyone involved.  This includes cyclists and pedestrians, who always come off worse from a collision with a motor vehicle.  Stricter liability would help cyclists and pedestrians to receive just recompense and therefore have access to rehabilitation schemes far quicker than at present, and it would foster a culture where the onus is on driver to keep a proper look out for vulnerable road users.  By improving cycle safety, Scotland could show itself to care about the safety of its citizens on the roads, and to have a mature and socially conscious response to the tragedy of death and injury in cycling incidents.

I believe that Scotland could, and should, work towards becoming a cycle-friendly nation.  The UK is one of only 5 countries in Europe that does not have stricter liability in Civil Law.  In Denmark for example, measures have been introduced to create a positive cycling culture.  There, all victims of motor vehicle accidents are entitled to compensation under the law, and anyone buying a car must also buy third party liability insurance which provides cover for strict liability in accordance with the law.  By following the examples of Denmark, France and the Netherlands, it would indicate to the rest of Europe that Scotland welcomes cyclists.  It would encourage more Scots to get out there and cycle for leisure, for health or for competition.  I acknowledge that the Scottish Government has already funded a number of national cycle safety initiatives, but believe that the government can do more and look to introduce stricter liability to protect Scotland’s vulnerable road users and to foster a ‘cyclist friendly’ culture.

There is support from a range of walking and cycling organisations for the introduction of stricter liability in Civil Law.  Notable supporters of stricter liability include Pedal on Parliament, SPOKES, CTC Scotland, celebrity chef Nick Nairn and Paralympic cyclist Karen Darke.  Before the summer recess of Parliament, I spoke with Brenda Mitchell of Cycle Law Scotland, who is doing excellent work in raising awareness amongst MSPs of the issues relating to strict liability.  Cycle Law Scotland have launched a Campaign called ‘Road Share’, which promotes stricter liability for the protection of cyclists and other vulnerable road users who are involved in road-traffic collisions.  Cycle Law Scotland has really driven forward the issue of stricter liability and I think that members should look to support to the work of that organisation if they’ve not done so already.

I, for one, will continue to support calls for stricter liability, and will work with MSPs, walking and cycling organisations, and individual citizens in doing so.  I support Alison Johnston’s motion and look forward to the day that cyclists and pedestrians have the protection that they need and deserve.  The Scottish Government can play a key role in working towards such a goal, and I look forward to proposals that further promote the protection of cyclists and pedestrians on Scotland’s roads and streets.