Friday, December 6th, 2013
As retailers gear up for the busiest shopping weekend of the year, I’m encouraging people to do what they can to support local firms.
I’m backing the Small Business Saturday campaign which is urging the public to shop local on 7 December.
High streets and small businesses across the Lothians are under sustained pressure from the big chains, so it’s important we do what we can to level the playing field. As people gear up for Christmas I’d urge them to consider how their spending decisions affect local firms and their local communities.
And for those going online I’d encourage seeking out local alternatives. Longer-term I will continue to campaign for greater support for small and micro businesses in Lothian region, both in terms of revitalising our local high streets and improving access to public procurement.
Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
The tragic incident that resulted in the loss of life and serious injuries for many people on Friday evening, at the Clutha Vaults have been in my thoughts this weekend. Yesterday, I attended a gathering to promote women’s role in peacemaking organised by the Glasgow Peace Federation. At the beginning of event, there was a minute’s silence for the victims, their families and the staff from the emergency services involved in the rescue effort.
Thereafter, I made a contribution by sharing experiences of initiatives which support and enable women to become more involved in peacemaking in the world. There are many barriers to women participating in peacemaking but access to women’s groups to build confidence and leadership skills can help overcome obstacles.
As a student, I gained training and advice from Student Community Action to support my participation in activities to tackle injustice. Later on, it was the trade union movement and training offered at my workplace that made a difference. I encouraged women to seek out support and training through Universities, their workplaces, and trade unions.
Reflecting on world events, I think the Iraq War has had a significant impact on my life and those of many women who struggle for peace. The suffering brought about by the bombing of Iraqi people was shocking and this led to my decision to channel my energies into activism with the Scottish Green Party. Now, I am also involved in efforts to eradicate violence and support peace as part of several campaign groups including Scottish CND.
The event held by the Glasgow Peace Federation renewed my focus on supporting peace. As part of the programme, I made a pledge to help build a bridge of peace and reconciliation within my family, the community, society and between nations.
At the end of the event, I was presented with a bunch of flowers as a thank you gift. My thoughts went to the people at the site of the Clutha Vaults Tragedy. I made my way there to place my flowers alongside many other floral bouquets, offering my condolences to the people affected.
This article originally appeared on the Glasgow Greens website.
Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
Even the longest journey begins with a single step. In publishing “Scotland’s Future” the SNP Government has provided its routemap for the first steps the country will take if the voters decide it’s a Yes in September next year.
For many people, the longstanding question of independence has always been a distant, slightly abstract idea. From today on it will become an increasingly practical one; a choice we could actually make in the real world. A door that’s already open, waiting for us to walk through if we choose to.
After that point, it will be for the people of Scotland to elect the Government they choose. For far too long we’ve seen our economy organised to benefit the wealthiest, including the financial interests in the City of London. In future, we can make those choices for ourselves in a way which reflects the interests of real people living in communities across Scotland.
Greens see this as an opportunity to close the chronic inequality gap in our country, and of course to make the shift to a greener, more sustainable economy. So while there’s much to welcome in the white paper, we have a different view from the SNP on many details.
Unlike Better Together, who dismissed the whole thing within seconds of publication, an honest reading of this 650-page document will always find points to agree and disagree with.
A fairer, simpler tax system with strong protections against wealthy tax dodgers is very welcome, but cutting taxes on aviation and other big businesses won’t get Green support; a written constitution clearly setting out citizens’ rights and limiting the power of Government is vital, but I don’t think we can wait till 2016 before we start working on it; independence will give us the chance to be global advocates of action on climate change, but we can’t act with credibility unless we take far more radical action on our own carbon emissions.
We’ll make the case for Scotland to reject the NATO nuclear umbrella, and to take real economic control by developing our own Scottish currency. But even the SNP leadership, who don’t share those views, would certainly agree that it would be a good idea for Scotland to have the choice!
One thing I think we should all agree on – including those campaigning for a No vote. Our political system has left many people feeling cynical and switched-off, just as our economic system has left us the fourth most unequal country on the planet. This can’t go on. I believe we’ll be best placed to build a new political culture and a new economic model if we take responsibility for ourselves, but I also want a debate in which both sides offer new ideas and a vision about the future.
For decades, politics has been offering people minor variations on a theme. The debate over the next ten months must allow us to ask – and answer – the question “What kind of country do we really want to live in?”
This article appears in today’s Daily Record.
Sunday, November 10th, 2013
Green Councillor for Leith, Chas Booth, took part in a debate on “fuel poverty: better or worse in an independent Scotland?” at the 30th anniversary conference of national fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland (EAS) on 8 November 2013. This is the text of his speech.
After nearly 8 years working in energy efficiency, can I say what a pleasure it is to be speaking at Energy Action Scotland’s 30th anniversary conference.
Congratulations also on EAS’ 30th anniversary. EAS has done fantastic work in raising fuel poverty up the political agenda and you’re to be congratulated on that work.
I will talk about how an independent Scotland could use all three levers over fuel poverty to not just make it better, but to end it, which after all is what section 88 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 requires. I don’t doubt that will be an enormous challenge, but it’s essential we work towards the eradication of fuel poverty, not merely its amelioration. It is unacceptable that in 21st century Scotland, some people are still forced to choose between heating and eating.
I’m here to argue for a Yes vote in next year’s referendum, but I was not initially a Yes supporter. I was initially a supporter of greater devolution but that option is not on the ballot paper next year – instead we have a choice between Independence and the status quo. Given that choice, and given the opportunities a Yes vote entails, I’ll be voting Yes.
What will change with a yes vote?
There is only one thing that will certainly change if we vote Yes next year. And that is that decisions affecting the people of Scotland will be made here, in Scotland. I happen to think that’s a good thing.
I want to illustrate how Westminster policies are failing those in fuel poverty by telling a story.
I had a constituent at my advice surgery recently – let’s call her Mary. She works full time in a low paid job, has a young son with health conditions, lives in an expensive privately rented flat in Leith and has very high fuel bills with electric storage heaters.
She was struggling to pay her bills, and wanted to reduce her hours at work to care for her son, but due to her high rent & fuel bills she couldn’t afford to do so. She was in tears of anger of frustration at not being able to care for her son – the person she loved most in the world.
I helped her as best I could – I referred her to a housing officer to apply for a council house and referred her on for energy efficiency grants.
But it made me reflect that the policies that successive Westminster Governments – both Labour and Tory – had put in place were not helping Mary or people like her.
Devolution has helped her a little – through access to taxpayer-funded grants for energy efficiency which don’t exist in England, and it has given her regulations requiring her landlord to take his responsibilities more seriously.
But to really lift her out of fuel poverty, to end her tears of anger and frustration, more fundamental changes are needed.
Policy changes needed
Independence will give Scotland full powers over all three levers affecting fuel poverty: price, incomes & energy efficiency.
But the point is to use these powers effectively. Westminster has had these powers and has failed to use them effectively – why would Scotland be different?
Scotland would be different because the problem is more acute here, and because of this, and because of the work of organisations like EAS, the issue is much higher up the political agenda than in England.
And Scotland would be different because in Scotland there is a consensus this is an issue that needs to be tackled – that consensus simply doesn’t exist at Westminster.
What needs to change?
It’s essential that in an Independent Scotland, the price paid per unit of energy needs to be cheapest for the consumers on the lowest incomes.
Ed Miliband’s price freeze is a good start but it won’t help people like my constituent Mary who already pays too much.
But why not take that price freeze to its logical conclusion and renationalise the energy companies?
Of course one of the big 6 energy companies is already a nationalised company. It’s just that it’s owned by the French Government, rather than our own.
But if the French can have nationalised energy companies, why can’t we?
There was a very relevant report published by the well-respected Jimmy Reid Foundation just last month looking at the benefits of nationalised new renewable generation capacity in an Independent Scotland.
But of course the overall trend in energy prices is upwards. So that’s why we need to invest in renewables to ensure we insulate the poorest from future fossil fuel price rises.
In Scotland we can do that because of our substantial renewable resource. We benefit from a quarter of Europe’s wind resource as well as substantial wave, tidal and solar potential.
And it’s also essential we learn from the success of schemes such as the Aberdeen Combined Heat and Power scheme and from the recent Scottish Government expert working group on district heating to ensure these technologies are supported and rolled out much more widely.
On incomes, it’s essential we have a welfare system which treats people with respect and dignity, instead of the brutal Tory bedroom tax.
We need a welfare system which ends the false ‘striver vs scrounger’ narrative, and ends the poverty trap.
We need an economy which is fairer, where there is less of a gap between rich and poor, and where everyone earns a living wage.
And with full control over the third lever, energy efficiency, we should end the middle class boiler subsidy that is the Green Deal. And of course this is a scheme dreamed up by the current leader of the Labour party, and implemented by the Tories.
We could replace it with simple, non-bureaucratic energy saving loan scheme like that operated by the state-owned development bank KFW in Germany.
We need to replace the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) with something far simpler, less bureaucratic, and which works.
We should create a national energy efficiency scheme modelled on the success of the Energy Assistance Package and the Universal Home Insulation Scheme.
We should create an area-based universal scheme targeted initially on those areas of highest fuel poverty but extending to the whole country in as short a time as possible, coupled with an opt-in means tested scheme to provide a whole house approach.
And of course that is exactly what the Scottish Government is trying to do now, only the fact they have to fit in with the bureaucratic mess of ECO makes their schemes cumbersome and less effective than they should be.
Crucially, we need an energy efficiency scheme which is designed to take account of Scottish geography, housing stock and circumstances. We heard at the ECO workshop earlier in the conference how a Westminster-designed scheme is failing to take account of Scottish circumstances. That must change, and it can change with Independence.
And we need to ensure long-term funding and commitment to energy saving schemes, and end the short-term madness of year-to-year contracts.
We could partly fund these schemes through recycling EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) funds – as the Energy Bill Revolution campaign is asking for. This campaign has Labour and SNP support so could really provide a massive injection of investment in energy saving. But in Westminster, George Osbourne’s treasury is refusing to countenance the idea.
We could use regulations to drive up standards – of course we don’t need independence to do this – the Scottish Government is already in the process of doing it, although not soon enough.
And we could use all sorts of other fiscal and regulatory levers to drive up energy efficiency standards, such as stamp duty rebate, improved consequential improvements and many others.
So in conclusion
The referendum gives us an opportunity to create a better nation
To create a fairer, more equal nation.
To use energy policy to ensure those on the lowest incomes pay least per unit of energy.
To use economic and welfare powers to lift the incomes of the poorest in society.
To use full powers over energy efficiency to ensure we create a green jobs revolution by insulating every home in Scotland.
To create a society which supports people like my constituent Mary, instead of reducing her to tears of anger and frustration.
I will be grasping the opportunity presented by next year’s referendum to vote Yes.
I hope you will join me. Thank you.
Friday, November 8th, 2013
Edinburgh Licensing Board member, Cllr Chas Booth, says it’s time to balance the capital’s relationship with alcohol. (more…)
Friday, October 25th, 2013
How much pay is enough for those in charge of council arms length companies? asks Steve Burgess as a “remuneration” report goes to the City Council this week.
Scarcely a week goes by without adverse comment on the salaries of senior council officers. At a time when many people are seeing incomes fall and prices rise, I understand why it is such a hot topic. It is not helped by organisations like the self-styled “Taxpayers’ Alliance” whose criticisms of high public pay are part of a vision of stripped-down public services; with services handed over to private organisations where, ironically, massive pay awards and bonuses are rife.
However, if we want thriving public services, as I do, it is reasonable to pay higher salaries for those in public services with very high levels of responsibility – as long as they are doing their job well.
But the same logic must apply to the council’s arms length companies. Evening News readers will be familiar with the fact that the boss of Lothian buses gets paid more than Scotland’s first minister, but he is only one of four Lothian Buses directors to receive close to or above £200,000 in pay and bonuses last year. That is why my Green MSP colleague Alison Johnstone has been calling on the company to spread its rewards more evenly among the drivers and other staff who are the backbone of the service.
But at least Lothian Buses is recognised as a high-performing company. Can the same be said for the former chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, on a full year salary of £97,000 with a £3,700 bonus in 2012-13, despite a year of questionable performance? Or the boss of council regeneration company EDI, whose pay last year topped £100,000 and exceeded that of the senior council officer to whom he reports? And I know that the Edinburgh conference centre appears to be thriving, but does that really require a top salary of £160,000 – more than the council chief executive and over three times that of the hardworking leader of Scotland’s capital city.
As council budget cuts bite into frontline services, it seems that there remains scope for some belt-tightening at the top end and the Council could act here. Although salaries are set by the boards of arms length companies, the Council can send out a clear message that salaries should be set at a level appropriate for the responsibility involved. It could also recommend an end to the routine bonus culture – so that bonuses are only paid for exceptional performance rather than for just doing your job. If arms length companies go on providing padded salaries and bonuses to their top people, the council should re-examine their core funding and consider making some cuts here too.
This blog was first published as an opinion piece by the Edinburgh Evening News
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
Many of us who support the idea of an independent Scotland but would prefer not to be described as nationalists are motivated by the prospect of greater responsibility. By taking responsibility we have a chance to create a fairer society.
One aspect of that “fairer” agenda has to be correcting the imbalance in how government decisions impact on women. In a recent radio debate I pointed out that on so many issues it still feels like women are treated as a minority. It is clear that women are not even so much as an afterthought in the UK Government’s so-called reforms and cuts. Even the Scottish Government’s laudable Modern Apprenticeship scheme suffers from significant gender segregation.
By contrast our progressive northern European neighbours seem to be getting it right. Not only are countries such as Denmark and Norway among the best in the world when it comes to more equal distribution of income – the UK is seventh worst – but women there enjoy some of the highest average earnings.
As a Green I believe strongly in equality, fairness and democracy. Next September we have two choices, and it is clear to me that a Yes vote gives the best chance of achieving greater equality between men and women, fairer income distribution and more democratically accountable decision-making.
Welfare reforms being introduced by the UK Government, along with its budgets and spending reviews are having a big impact on women. Child Benefit, Child Tax Credits and the childcare element of Working Tax Credit are paid to main carers, usually women. However, the new Universal Credit will be paid per household. There is a serious danger that this money will not reach the women who traditionally do the budgeting in low income households. Money provided directly to women is more likely to be spent on children’s needs than money allocated to men. Research shows access to independent income is valued by many women.
Universal Credit also risks reducing the appeal of work for women, who are often the second earners in a household. And then there’s the move to a single monthly payment instead of payments spread over different dates. This will simply add unnecessary pressure.
The referendum presents an opportunity for Scotland to take responsibility, and design its own, more compassionate welfare system – a system that properly considers the different impacts on men and women.
And I believe we could go even further.
A country’s main asset is its people. And we ignore the potential of women and our children at our peril. We envy countries such as Norway where they have pursued policies that promote a high rate of employment among women, along with a high quality nurseries funded by a strong workforce.
Drawing on all our people will be crucial as an ageing population requires greater publicly-funded care, and we should make it much easier for women who want to work to do so. We should start a national conversation about our approach to nursery provision. Employers increasingly need workers with good people handling, problem solving and communication skills, the kind of skills our children pick up when they’re in good quality nurseries.
Nordic countries have implemented policies that make it easier to combine work and family life. Since 1970s the number of women in work in Norway has risen from 44 per cent to 76 per cent. Over 80 per cent of mothers with small children are employed.
Norway developed a comprehensive system of support for women and care for their children. In 1970 only 13,000 Norwegian children were enrolled in day-care centres. Today it’s about 280,000. Paid parental leave extends to almost a whole year and you have a right to work part-time until your youngest child turns 12.
Getting women into work in Norway has benefited the government by generating income from tax, which has helped fund a high quality welfare state and other public services. It is a positive circle, contrasting with the spiral of decline that is UK austerity.
Norway has also seen a trend of fewer hours worked. People don’t feel the need to work long hours to make a living. Quality of life should be paramount for government, rather than the myth of everlasting growth.
I simply can’t see such transformation occurring whoever’s in charge at Westminster.
Scotland’s women have massive potential going untapped. By boosting childcare and considering the gender impacts of devolved policy decisions we can take a small step towards realising some of that potential right now. But we must take the opportunity of further responsibility, for welfare, employment law and taxation. Then we really could achieve that fairer society we aspire to.
Alison Johnstone is the Scottish Green Party MSP for Lothian and is a member of the Scottish Parliament’s economy committee
Read what other leading Greens have to say on independence here.
Thursday, October 17th, 2013
ONE of the classic dividing lines in politics is about the role of the state, and whether people think it should hold things in public ownership, or let the private sector run everything.
At the most extreme, some people would want to abolish private sector businesses altogether, while others would let markets dominate everything. Most people are somewhere in between.
But wherever you sit on that public-private spectrum, we’ve seen some pretty odd paradoxes recently.
First we had the UK Government hyping up its Royal Mail sell-off.
Back in the 80s, right-wingers used to argue that privatisation was necessary to turn lifeless state businesses into dynamic and successful ones, but the Royal Mail is one that’s already delivering (if you’ll forgive the pun).
In fact its profits jumped from £201 million to £324 million this year.
Owned by the public sector, run in the public interest, and returning all that profit to the public purse.
Then came the Scottish Government’s announcement of a public buy-out of Prestwick Airport.
Yes, the public sector will step in and take ownership of this loss-making business, specifically because no private buyer was willing to.
Now it’s possible that Prestwick could eventually get back into the black, and its scale is of course vastly less than the bail-out of the failed banks back in 2008.
But there’s something odd going on when the only assets the state will buy are those which promise to lose taxpayers’ money, and the ones which are paying us a tidy sum are handed back to the spivs and speculators.
Royal Mail and Prestwick aren’t the only current examples.
The East Coast rail line, which has been run in public hands since a string of private sector failures, just announced £209 million profit for taxpayers last year, yet the UK Government remains stubbornly committed to privatising it again.
And while political parties and the public alike complain about high energy prices, we’re missing out on the huge potential for the public sector to make profitable investments in renewable energy.
One report last week, Repossessing the Future by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, makes the case for an energy business which serves the public interest.
AS I write, the Royal Mail’s new shareholders have raked in almost 40% profit on Day One alone.
The rest of us, who used to own it collectively, are left hoping the moneymen will think our universal postal service is worth providing.
It’s time we struck a new balance in the public/private debate, and recognised that there’s an important place for economic activity which serves the public interest.
The state’s not just there to act as a safety net when the market fails us.
Friday, October 11th, 2013
If you dipped into Twitter yesterday to see what Stirling Council was doing about waste collections, the industrial dispute, bus cuts or the siege of developments now threatening our communities, you would have been surprised to see business being dominated by which bits of cloth should fly on our buildings and a weekend of military marching bands.
If you missed it, there was a silly Labour-Tory motion to replace the Saltire with a Union Jack on Council buildings linked to the debate on the most important decision on our collective future we will make in our lifetimes.
I don’t care too much for flags, I’ll happily wave a Union Jack at Wiggo in the Tour de France, or a Saltire at the Commy Games. Our identities and cultural leanings are diverse and multiple and we are all the more richer for it.
The independence debate should inspire us to build a better Scotland, one where we put our common wellbeing as the most important value. It’s not really about flags.
Thankfully sense prevailed and the motion was withdrawn, but another agenda item raised the flag again, this time for National Armed Forces Day.
Stirling has hosted a modest event for many years and while I understand the values around sacrifice, duty, tradition and connection to place that some wish to celebrate, it can get lost in pure militarism.
I have been making the case (in my civic role as Bailie) to the Provost and to other Bailies that we need to be evolving this annual event into more of a cultural festival like Edinburgh’s Mela. There has not been opposition to the idea of a genuine civic celebration that respects the contribution the armed services make alongside our other public services while celebrating the diversity of our communities.
However the decision by the Administration to host the main UK National Armed Forces Day has now bounced the Council into a mega event with a mega budget. We are literally now staring down the barrel of a gun with a minimum spend of £250k potentially up to £400k – over 25 times the budget for the smaller scale annual event.
The paper on the details and costs for this finally came to Council for scrutiny and a decision last night after Stirling was recently confirmed as the ‘winner’. I couldn’t support it. When the council is locked in an industrial dispute with staff, bins are not being emptied, buses are being cut and our schools are struggling to find the resources they need, it’s a step too far.
Another related item on the agenda was the future investment in Kings Park which was finally transferred to Scottish Government control this year with no drain on Stirling’s Common Good Fund. The reconnection of Stirling Castle with the full extent of it’s ancient Royal Park opens up fantastic potential as an event venue for concerts, gatherings and festivals and obviously National Armed Forces Day is being eyed up as an early opportunity to develop this.
However, I was concerned that one option available was to use the Stirling Common Good Fund to make the capital investment. I don’t have a problem in principle with the fund being used to make long term investments in the Royal Park that will benefit the people of Stirling over time, but this needs to be a genuine investment with a return that replenishes the fund and increases it.
No decision was taken on how to fund the improvement works ahead of next year’s 2014 events, but my concerns were acknowledged by the Administration and when it comes back to Council for a decision, any options involving the Common Good Fund must now have a clear model for profit sharing and reinvestment in the fund for the common weal.
This article originally appeared on the Stirling Greens website.