Evening Times column: It’s no exaggeration to say that poor air quality is a matter of life and death

Posted on July 9, 2014
Before any major event, there are always controversies. But with two weeks until the Commonwealth Games commence we’ll soon be past the point of grumbling about the planning, and onto enjoying the Games themselves.
Indeed it’s hard to remember now just how contentious so many elements of the 2012 London Olympics were. From the paranoid brand protection – would someone wearing a Pepsi T-shirt be barred entry to events? – to the G4S security scandal, the weeks and months preceding the Games were rife with controversy.
Of course, within about 20 minutes of Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony much of that was forgotten, and I expect the same will be true of Glasgow this summer. But it’s important that the Games are subject to proper scrutiny.
One of the core components of the Glasgow bid was a set of green pledges. Among these was a commitment to create Low Emission Zones around many of the city venues.
This would have been a breakthrough not just for Glasgow, but for Scotland. While Low Emission Zones have already been established in England and throughout Europe, Scotland has yet to take the plunge. So it was with real dismay that I learned that this promise has been dumped.
I know that environmental commitments don’t come at the top of everyone’s priorities. But it is no exaggeration to say that Glasgow’s poor air quality is a matter of life and death.
According to Friends of the Earth, Glasgow’s air pollution is the cause of over 300 deaths every year in the city, as well undermining quality of life for all of us. Low emission zones would have been a welcome step towards tackling this problem. I’ll certainly be pressing Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government to recapture the lost ambition on tackling air pollution.
On a more positive note, the Games have already provided one happy development; Pride House.
Building on success at previous sporting events, Pride House will provide a welcoming venue for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and supporters, and anyone else who wants to know more about the challenges and positive developments in LGBT sport, as well as the urgent issue of LGBT human rights abuses across the Commonwealth.
Scotland has a positive story to tell about LGBT human rights. In the space of a few decades, we have moved from a situation where homosexuality was still illegal, to recent legislation to allow same-sex marriage.
While there is still more to be done, and we must not be complacent, Scotland’s story can serve as an example of how quickly laws and attitudes can change. Pride House will offer a great platform to share that story.
Learn more about Pride House at pridehouseglasgow.co.uk

Glasgow Now blog on cycling in Glasgow

Posted on July 3, 2014

I held out against cycling in Glasgow for a long time. I was put off by potholed roads, dangerous traffic levels, and bike lanes looking like a fragmented mess in the few parts of the city where they exist at all. Most of Glasgow gives the clear impression that our city planners barely even know what a bike is.

But then about a year ago I took the plunge. Partly because I wanted to get a better range of exercise and partly because I was just getting thoroughly sick of the low standard of our bus services, I gave up buying my monthly bus pass and started getting about the city by bike.

I haven’t looked back.

Yes, the city still offers a poor deal for cyclists. Comparisons with many other cities in the UK, let alone with truly bike-friendly places like Copenhagen, just don’t stand up. Covered bike racks are few and far between, safe segregated lanes even more so, and traffic management seems designed exclusively with the driver in mind. And yes, many of our roads are in a shocking state with maintenance never seen as a political priority in the way that building new roads often is.

And yet, even with those problems and the feeling that bikes are pushed to the edge of the transport environment, I still wouldn’t give it up. It’s a far more flexible way of getting about, especially when my day might involve a lot of travel within the city. It’s obviously healthier, and I find it a far happier experience than any other form of transport. What surprised me most of all was the speed. From home to the office it saves me at least ten minutes against the bus… as well as the £1.95!

Now Glasgow has launched a bike hire scheme, which you can find here, and our city joins a growing list of such schemes in the UK and across Europe. Locals and visitors alike will be able to hop on a bike at one of a couple of dozen bike stations, and return it to any other. It’s a scheme which needs to grow – it begins with very little presence outside the city centre and the West End – and must remain affordable if people are going to use it.

But perhaps most importantly it should force the city council to face up to the long-term challenge of making Glasgow truly safe and welcoming for cyclists. There’s some evidence that public bike hire schemes can act as a catalyst for better investment in cycling infrastructure. That would be long overdue, but if the NextBike scheme takes off we could see Glasgow enter the 2020s as a dramatically more bikeable place than it is today.

Evening Times column on the constitution

Posted on June 26, 2014

The referendum’s still a dozen weeks away but the Scottish Government has taken the step of proposing an “interim constitution” – the document which would come into force from independence day in 2016 until a permanent Scottish Constitution is written.

Ministers want a broad, participative process to give everyone in Scotland to chance to help shape the Constitution. That’s a very welcome aim, and there are many international examples we can draw from about how to gain maximum public involvement. But there’s a danger in waiting till 2016. I’d far rather we began that public involvement as soon as the referendum is over.

If it’s a Yes vote (and the polls are heading that way) it seems likely that it will be thanks to a high turnout, with many people voting for the first time in years, or even decades. It’ll be important that we don’t lose that energy and positivity in the period between the referendum and independence itself.

And just because the “interim constitution” is meant to be temporary is no reason to expect that we just sign up on sight. The SNP must show a willingness to listen to the public, and to other political parties, in shaping it.

As for the content, there are good points and bad. It has a strong commitment to human rights and equality, to nuclear disarmament and to the principle that the people are sovereign. But it contains no mechanism for the accountability at the highest level – the Head of State. Whether you want to keep the Queen or elect our own Head of State, it’s important that the role is clearly defined and the person carrying it out is accountable.

More importantly, the “interim constitution” is in fact not really a constitution at all. That’s understandable, since before independence nobody will have the legal authority to create one. But it’s more properly understood as a “Basic Law”, a piece of constitutional legislation which would be passed by a simple majority at Holyrood and could be amended in the same way.

The SNP’s mandate in government comes from their hugely successful 2011 election win. But that was an election to the devolved Scottish Parliament; it doesn’t give a mandate to write a constitution. It will also be a four year old mandate by the time this legislation is debated. It would be wrong for them to think they could pass this foundation for independence, this Basic Law, with their slender one-seat majority in that context.

An interim constitution is clearly necessary, and there’s a lot to welcome in this draft. But the Government must accept the responsibility to reach a high bar on this crucial issue. That must mean a two-thirds majority.

Blog for the Daily Record on the constitution

Posted on June 17, 2014

If Scotland votes Yes in September, it will leave behind many of the peculiarities of Westminster politics. From the un-elected House of Lords, to the little pink ribbons that MPs are given from which to hang their swords (yes, really!), it’s probably understatement to say that British politics has often lagged behind the times. The absence of a modern written constitution shows how out of date it is. With that in mind, I welcome the consultation on a draft interim constitution for an independent Scotland.

I’ve often said that one of the most exciting things about the independence referendum is that people are taking the chance to decide what kind of country they want to live in. In an age in which so many people have switched off from politics, one of the highlights of the campaign has been seeing people pack out local halls to debate the key issues. This mustn’t end on September 18th – we need to ensure that this energy is carried forward into the development of a modern Scotland.

The plan to set up an inclusive and participative constitutional convention in 2016 to draw up a permanent constitution is a way of doing just that. Crucially, that process must include those who voted No. An independent Scotland should not be shaped by the “victors” alone and a public convention means that everyone will be involved. After a long and sometimes divisive campaign, it will be a vital opportunity to re-establish common ground and a sense of shared purpose.

Of course, this week the parties on the No side have outlined their proposals for what will happen in the event of a No vote. People do deserve to know what the process will be whatever the result.

Whether those proposals would be delivered is another matter – the No parties disagree on many of the details, and it’s hard to imagine further devolution being the first priority of any Westminster government while the battle over Europe drags tirelessly on.

But even setting aside the matter of delivery, the draft constitution highlights the areas where the No proposals simply haven’t gone far enough. A commitment to a Scotland free from nuclear weapons is one of the highlights of the Scottish Government’s proposals. In the event of a No vote, Trident would remain on the Clyde, no matter how fierce the public opposition.

And a No vote leaves our immigration system under UK control, with Scotland unable to pursue a more welcoming and humane approach.

There are, of course, some important areas in which I differ with the SNP’s position. Not least of these is the timing – I’d like to see a creative and participative process begin as soon as there is a Yes vote – it can’t wait till 2016.

And I’d certainly disagree with the decision to retain the Queen as the Head of State.

Crucially though, the proposals mean that everyone will have the opportunity to shape Scotland’s future. Only a Yes vote gives the people of Scotland that historic opportunity.

Evening Times column on the Housing Bill

Posted on June 12, 2014

A Housing Bill has been going through Holyrood recently, and we’ll shortly have one final chance to improve it. My focus has been its impact on private rented housing, and I’ve been using my website rentrights.org to seek people’s views about the issues.

The private rented sector has grown fast in Scotland; it now accounts for one home in every five in Glasgow. It used to be seen as “transitional” housing – maybe a first step away from the family home, or for students who wanted flexibility and short term leases.

But things have changed, both during the years of growth and since the recession. For an increasing number of people owner-occupation is simply unaffordable, and social housing is unavailable. That problem looks set to get worse over the next few years too.

We can’t continue to treat private rented housing as just a matter of choice. It’s quite simply the only housing our society makes available to a great many people. That leaves us with a responsibility to regulate it to make sure that people aren’t being exploited or left in substandard conditions.

A landlord registration scheme came in nearly ten years ago, but beyond weeding out a tiny minority of the most exploitative landlords it hasn’t achieved a great deal. Deposit protection schemes have been introduced, but they can be slow and unclear for tenants, and some landlords are finding it easy to get around them.

The new Bill proposes a scheme of regulation for letting agents, with a Code of Practice and a tribunal system for complaints.

We don’t yet know what the Code will contain. If the Government is bold, it could close down those loopholes on the existing standards, and go much further. We could keep rent levels under control – they have spiralled in some areas, even when interest rates have been low. We could make sure repairs are completed to a set timetable, with landlords forfeiting the rent otherwise. We could eliminate discrimination against people on benefits, or on grounds of disability and immigration status. We could tackle harassment and threats by dodgy landlords while supporting responsible ones to provide energy efficiency improvements. Above all we could give tenants the kind of secure leases that they’d enjoy in most other European countries.

I want to see far more housing built in Scotland, especially social housing, and better use of empty homes too. But while the private rented sector keeps growing we must make sure it offers safe, affordable and good quality homes for the people who’ve been left with no other choice. So I’ll be using the final day of debate on the Housing Bill to seek the changes which still need to be made.

Evening Times column on Margo’s Assisted Suicide Bill

Posted on May 29, 2014

One of the privileges of an MSP is the right to introduce a Member’s Bill.

Most legislation begins with the Government, and has teams of civil servants and lawyers working on it. For an individual member to introduce a bill and take it through parliament is no small task.

My only experience of this was a bill about hate crime, and it ran to just over two sides of A4.

Short and simple, it took a mechanism which already existed for racist crimes and applied it to other crimes of prejudice.

The Government was supportive, and apart from a few anti-equality voices from the fringe there was little opposition.

Even so, it was a fair amount of work.

Now I’ve taken on something much more substantial.

Last year I agreed to act in a sort of “understudy” role for Margo MacDonald, who was proposing a bill on assisted suicide.

It was her second attempt to address this complex subject, and the new bill involves additional levels of detail to answer objections raised last time round.

It’s also a subject which raises really big questions: about life and death; about distressing circumstances we all hope we’ll never face (though a great many of us will) and about the values by which we live.

Far more than a small technical change in the law, this is a challenging and emotionally charged debate.

Margo was aware that her own health was unpredictable. She had lived with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease for more than 15 years, and an increasing burden of symptoms and a cocktail of medication.

It was impressive enough that she managed to continue as a formidable MSP, but also to act as the standard-bearer for assisted suicide was pretty well heroic.

But though she remained an impressive figure in Parliament on her good days, she knew that not every day was a good day, and she asked me to stand ready to step in for her if she wasn’t able to be there on a critical day for the Bill.

Now that Margo is no longer with us, it falls to me to lead on this Bill.

We know that there’s a majority of public support for a change in the law to allow people – in certain carefully defined circumstances – to take control of the end of their lives in an atmosphere of love and compassion.

In recent weeks the issue has hit the headlines with comments from celebrities such as Richard and Judy, and Patrick Stewart.

But there’s just one name which will always be associated with this issue for me – Margo.

I hope I have what it takes to give her Bill the chance that her memory deserves.

My Evening Times column on next week’s European elections

Posted on May 15, 2014

Nearly five years ago Scotland’s voters had the chance to decide who should represent our interests in the European Parliament, an opportunity which barely more than a quarter of us took up.

It was a pretty dismal turnout for any election, but it was more or less in line with expectations. The previous turnout had been a little higher; the one before that a little lower. The rest of the UK saw one in three voters turning out. Across the whole of the EU fewer than half of all European citizens exercised the right for which people in previous generations fought and died.

There are understandable reasons why few people vote in European elections. It’s a less democratic body than most national parliaments, with MEPs having to share power with the unelected European Commission and the Council of Ministers which is composed of national governments. It’s also undeniable that the European Parliament feels remote; even though its decisions affect our lives very directly, few of us have any real idea of how it works.

That problem isn’t helped by the constant stream of anti-EU propaganda from the hard right parties or the papers which support them. We’ve read about a non-existent scheme to force people to fly the European flag, a ludicrous story about a plan to “merge” Britain and France, and of course that old classic about straight bananas. More recently we’ve also seen a disgusting wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and baseless myths, deliberately calculated to generate fear which the same right wing forces are only too happy to exploit.

It’s all a distraction from the important work that the MEPs we elect will be doing. Some of the most important social and environmental policy decisions are made at EU level, protecting people from exploitation at work, and preventing pollution in both urban and rural areas amongst many other things. Europe has a track record of protecting our legal rights, and as a global advocate of action on climate change. It’s no surprise that the loudest voices against the EU are also anti-equality, anti-environment, and anti-workers’ rights.

Europe is far from perfect. It needs to be more democratic, with power exercised by people we elect, not by appointed Commissioners. It needs to be more transparent, with protection against corporate lobbying. It needs to be more accountable to the people, but not voting can’t ever help that to happen.

Next week, on Thursday May 22nd we’ll have the chance to vote again for six MEPs to represent Scotland. If Maggie Chapman is elected as our first Green MEP, joining the 45-strong Green Group, she’ll work for that democratic reform, and for a welcoming, socially just and peaceful Europe.

Evening Times column: Referendum or no referendum, it’s perfectly obvious the CBI is an economically right-wing lobbying group

Posted on May 1, 2014

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI)has been having a rough couple of weeks.

The organisation, which claims to represent employers of all sizes throughout the UK, initially joined the anti-independence campaign by registering with the Electoral Commission, something that’s required to allow them to spend up to £150,000 campaigning for a No vote in the referendum.

This led to an exodus of its members who wanted to remain neutral in the debate. Businesses including Aquamarine Power, a clutch of Government agencies, and the majority of Scotland’s universities all quit the CBI.

Crucially, the BBC and STV both took a similar stance. As our national broadcasters they must guard their impartiality if they’re going to have public confidence as sources of news coverage.

Remaining members of an explicitly anti-independence campaign body like the CBI would have been unthinkable.

Since then the CBI has done a rather clumsy U-turn. Blaming the whole shambles on a junior member of staff, they have asked for their registration to be withdrawn.

It’ll be interesting to see whether they make any effort in future to adopt a genuinely neutral stance on the referendum, or if they just carry on working for a No vote regardless.

But the whole affair has exposed some deeper issues about the CBI, and begs the question, why did these organisations ever join it.

The truth is that the CBI is not – and never was – just a business networking organisation.

Take a look at its website, and you’ll see what I mean.

Over the last year alone, its press releases include explicitly pro-austerity arguments, praise for the UK Government’s fiscal plan, calls for privatisation of Scotland’s public services and its publicly owned water utility, and demands for tax cuts and deregulation.

It’s perfectly clear that, referendum or no referendum, the CBI is an economically right-wing lobbying group, openly advocating free-market ideology.

Indeed, their Scottish director (whose recently announced early retirement has, they say, nothing whatsoever to do with their chaotic repositioning on the referendum campaign) was recently challenged over the gulf between rich and poor in the Scottish economy, and answered by describing equality as an “abstract” term, openly admitting that while he read a lot about it, he didn’t really know what it meant.

Of course he doesn’t – he’s a former banker who’s spent the last 20 years representing the interests of those who are very well served by the same economic system which causes inequality.

If membership of the CBI isn’t compatible with a broadcaster’s neutrality on independence, it surely can’t be compatible with their neutrality at election time either.

The organisations which have quit the CBI should take this opportunity to reflect on what they were ever doing on its membership books in the first place.

Evening Times column: We can build a greener, stronger Scotland

Posted on March 21, 2014

I have taken part in many public debates about independence and, as the referendum campaign enters its final six months, I am sure there will be many more.This week I’m doing one which, as a Green MSP, I regard as being on my home turf.

It’s been organised by Stop Climate Chaos, a broad coalition of organisations campaigning on the crucial issue of climate change. Although most Greens are pro-independence there are others who will be voting No or who remain undecided, and I’m sure this is true of climate change campaigners too.

Is there a clear reason why independence would be good or bad for Scotland’s contribution to tackling climate change?

Maybe it depends more on the kind of governments we elect in future, instead of the constitutional situation.

Of course there’s a lot of truth in that.

Scotland achieved a good degree of political consensus on our climate change legislation, but we have missed every single target so far.

All political parties want to say the right things but there’s little commitment to doing the right things.

Without transformed policies on energy, transport, housing and the economy we will continue to see failure on climate change, whether we are independent or not.

But oil-dependent Scotland would be forced to face reality with more urgency than the UK.

Both governments are still utterly committed to exploiting fossil fuels; they regard them all as positive economic resources.

But in reality the world has many times more than we can ever afford to burn.

By the leading estimates, as much as 80% of reserves will have to remain unused if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Yet much of our economy rests on the perceived value of these same reserves, as though all of them will end up being used.

This means not only that the fossil fuel industry itself is profoundly over-valued, but also that whole economies are vulnerable as a result.

This is the so-called “carbon bubble” – not just an environmental threat but a gigantic economic crash waiting to happen.

At present, the UK Government is every bit as committed to the fossil fuel industry as the SNP Government in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s vast oil and gas industry creates economic vulnerability, not strength.

We urgently need to reduce our use of fossil fuels in energy terms, and reduce our economic exposure to the carbon bubble.

Independence doesn’t achieve that in one step, but it allows us to begin the transition to a renewable – and economically sustainable – alternative.

We can build a greener, fairer and economically stronger Scotland.

But I’d challenge anyone to show me how the limited powers of devolution allow us even to get started.

Column from Glasgow Now – data, privacy and the surveillance state

Posted on March 12, 2014

A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.

So wrote a group of five hundred leading authors including names such as Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Tom Stoppard, in an open letter to the United Nations at the end of last year. They were trying to initiate a global campaign for a Digital Bill of Rights, and in the few months since then the idea has begun to catch on. But is it too late?
There can be no doubt that mass surveillance is already taking place, and that our own governments have gone way beyond any democratic mandate in developing it. The Edward Snowden revelations have exposed the extent of government surveillance in such a shocking way that even his critics cannot brush the matter aside. Nobody can be in any doubt that governments which claim democratic credentials, and even use international law as justification for war, are not behaving like law-abiding democrats.

But the issues of surveillance, data, and privacy go beyond what our governments are doing deliberately. Serious threats to our freedom and privacy can also arise from an incoherent or muddled policy. Over recent days concerns about the security of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of NHS websites have begun to surface in the national media. If websites which collect patients’ confidential data become vulnerable simply because the software running them has gone out of date, or because the NHS itself maintains no control over them, then threats to privacy may arise from an unregulated mess, rather than a deliberate programme of surveillance.

A similar lack of regulation can be seen in the private sector. A decade or so ago people might have been worried about how much information the supermarket loyalty card held about them; the issue has spiralled out of all control since then. Your internet service provider, your mobile phone company, your search engine, a host of other private companies which gather data about us all are currently able to use it without meaningful oversight or even our informed consent. As corporations control so many aspects of our lives, and exercise power which was once under democratic control, this opens up chilling possibilities.

Sometimes arguments about the public good are used to justify data sharing between companies or government departments. The desire to identify people who pose a threat such as terrorist groups or organised criminals, or to ensure that information relevant to child protection cases doesn’t get lost but is acted on; these are understandable attempts to use technology to help keep people safe.

But unless such activity is truly accountable, and takes place in a context of respect for people’s privacy and the presumption of innocence, it risks undermining basic principles of a democratic society.

This country rejected the proposal for ID cards, backed up by a database which would have tracked every citizen. There’s a real concern that we’re already getting most of what the National ID scheme would have involved, but this time by stealth instead of by conscious choice.

A global Bill of Digital Rights is important to campaign for. But agreeing it would take years; it’s crucial that we hold our governments to account right now, or by the time the United Nations even debates such a Bill the concept of digital rights could be a historical footnote.