Why the SNP must stop hoarding power in Edinburgh – The New Statesman

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As Glasgow prepares to host global leaders at COP26, the eyes of the world are turning towards the city for the first time since the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The pressure is on, and Susan Aitken, the SNP council leader since 2017, is bearing the brunt of complaints about what critics say are dirty streets, the many gap sites and the authority’s troubled relationship with trade unions. In a recent, excruciating television interview, she was repeatedly challenged to admit the streets were “filthy”, finally admitting the place could do with a “spruce up”.

For the past year, as November’s COP26 summit has drawn nearer, Aitken has occupied an elevated status among her fellow regional and urban leaders. She has addressed the World Bank, formed close relationships with the mayors and administrations of many of the world’s great cities, and worked closely with England’s directly-elected mayors such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan. She has also held discussions with private investors, and would like the UK government to stand behind the multi-billion-pound borrowing Glasgow and others need to renew their municipal fabric and create green infrastructure. She sees COP26 as an unmissable opportunity to accelerate the city’s economic resurgence and improve its global profile.

Aitken admits Glasgow isn’t what it could be. Covid, economic challenges, and strained relationships with the unions have all had an impact. And in important ways her hands are tied, not by international institutions or the UK government, but by Nicola Sturgeon. It’s generally accepted that Scottish local government is among the most circumscribed in Europe. Devolution to Holyrood has not been accompanied by devolution from Holyrood, where instead the SNP administration has overseen centralisation of power to Edinburgh.

A council’s ability to raise funds is greatly restricted. Scottish council taxes have been frozen then capped by successive SNP governments, while non-domestic rates are set centrally, collected locally, sent back to the centre then redistributed. Local authorities face criticisms from local people for challenges and cuts they have little power to address.

For political news, click the link: https://www.scotlandmatters.co.uk/politics-matters/

SNP branded ‘opponents’ of North Sea oil industry after signing deal with Greens – Daily Record

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The SNP has been branded an opponent of Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry after unveiling a partnership deal with the Greens.

Both the Tories slammed the agreement today after Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her intention to work alongside the environmentalists at the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland’s criminal gangs ‘think they’re untouchable’ due to ‘soft sentencing’ – Aberdeen Evening Express

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Child poverty rising in every council area, campaigners warn – STV News

Child poverty has risen in every Scottish council area since 2015, even before the impact of the pandemic is considered, campaigners have warned.

The End Child Poverty coalition points to research from Loughborough University which shows estimates of children living in poverty in each local authority have increased.

Child poverty rates for 2019-20 range from 15.8% in the Shetland Islands to 32.2% in Glasgow, though figures were calculated before the onset of coronavirus.

At 24%, Scotland has lower levels of child poverty than England (30%) or Wales (31%).

Holyrood has unanimously passed legislation requiring the Scottish Government to ensure fewer than 18% of children are living in poverty by 2023/24, on course to less than 10% by 2030.

Campaigners say there can be no complacency if these targets are to be met.

Speaking on behalf of the End Child Poverty coalition, John Dickie said: “Solid foundations have been laid in Scotland for future progress on child poverty, not least the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment and an increasing focus on action at local level.

“But this new data is a stark reminder that child poverty was still rising in every part of Scotland, even before the pandemic struck.

“The challenge now is for government at all levels to use every power they have to boost family incomes and reduce the costs that struggling parents face.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While child poverty levels remain lower than in England and Wales, we are not complacent and are doing all we can to tackle and reduce child poverty in Scotland.

“We are providing support worth about £5000 by the time a child turns six through the Best Start Grant, Best Start Foods and Scottish Child Payment.

“This payment, worth £40 every four weeks, is already reaching thousands of families on low incomes – we are working to deliver it to all eligible children under 16 by the end of 2022 and doubling the value of the payment by the end of this Parliamentary term.

“The 2021-22 Scottish Budget commits further investment to tackle child poverty, including £100 million to support struggling families through new Pandemic Support Payments and £49.75m for expanded free school meal support.

“These statistics highlight that, even before the pandemic began, the challenge of negotiating the UK’s welfare system has left many people in desperate need of help.

“The UK Government must act now to match our action and commit to making permanent the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, and extend this to people on other benefits.”

‘Unusual infections’ found at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital – BBC news

A small number of “unusual infections” have been identified in patients at the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital.

NHS Grampian said it is investigating the causes, and whether there is any link to the hospital environment.

It is continuing to admit and treat children as normal but said it is taking a “very precautionary approach”.

This includes changing some processes in theatres and considering the relocation of some procedures.

An NHS Grampian spokesman said: “We have identified a small number of unusual infections in patients treated at RACH.

“This may lead to a delay for a very small number of patients, for which we apologise.

“We are communicating directly with both patients and staff about this.”

Aberdeen social housing to benefit from £5.2 million green retrofit scheme – The Scotsman

Around 100 social housing properties in the north-east of Scotland are set to be upgraded with energy-saving measures and green innovations as part of a pioneering £5.2 million project.

The move is aimed at improving residents’ quality of life, cutting fuel bills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping the country achieve net-zero climate targets.

Around a quarter of all Scottish households are estimated to be living in fuel poverty, struggling to pay for heating, with one in ten suffering ‘extreme’ fuel poverty.

Glasgow-based firm SMS plc is running the scheme in conjunction with thermal imaging specialists IRT Surveys and construction company Robertson Group after launching a partnership with Aberdeen City Council to deliver the changes to the homes.

The landmark initiative will see a programme of fabric improvements and renewable energy technologies put in.

This will include installation of solar panels, batteries and heat pumps to remove the consumption of carbon-intensive fuels, alongside a behind-the-meter battery storage system to create a decarbonised neighbourhood.

There will be no cost to tenants or landlords for the work, which has backing of £2.2 million from Westminster’s newly launched Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator.

As part of the project’s ‘fabric-first, whole-home’ approach, IRT Surveys will use cutting-edge thermal imaging technology to pinpoint the areas where improvements are required to reduce space heating demand.

Implementing these fabric upgrades, in tandem with the installation of renewable energy assets, the project will showcase a route to achieving net-zero emissions through a financed and scalable business model.

If successful, similar initiatives could be rolled out across Scotland and the UK.

Stewart Little, chief executive of IRT Surveys, said: “We are delighted to have been appointed for this landmark project with Aberdeen City Council, a scheme which we are pleased to say has received government support through the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator.

“The urgency of the climate crisis means it is vital that we address all carbon impacts from buildings, including the UK’s social housing stock.

“By working alongside Aberdeen City Council, and our delivery partners SMS and Robertson Group, we will develop an intelligent, scalable model that will help decarbonise the council’s extensive housing portfolio in ways that are both commercially viable and affordable for residents.”

Sean Keating, head of new energy systems at SMS, said: “By creating an expected 39 jobs locally through the initial trial phase of the scheme, our project additionally looks to demonstrate how – when delivered at scale – investment in green infrastructure can support the government’s agenda to level up regional economic growth.

“Indeed, above all this project is about creating a more sustainable future: one that ensures affordable comfort in our homes, reduces fuel poverty, creates jobs and ultimately protects our environment amidst climate change.”

The Scottish and UK governments have set out goals to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – where quantities generated by human activities are no greater than the amount absorbed – 2045 north of the border and 2050 for the nation as a whole.

Currently there are around 2.58 million dwellings in Scotland, most of which are occupied – three per cent are empty and one per cent are second homes.

The housing sector is one one of the biggest contributors to Scotland’s and the UK’s climate impact, responsible for around 15 per cent of total emissions.

Heating homes accounts for a major portion of this, particularly older housing stock with inefficient insulation and energy systems in place.

A significant proportion of Scotland’s domestic buildings were put up prior to 1919 and built using traditional techniques and materials.

Achieving the climate targets is going to involve major retrofitting works and substantial costs to homeowners and housing providers.

The installation phase of the Aberdeen scheme is scheduled for completion in December this year, after which the energy performance of the 100 homes will be reassessed and monitored for a period of six months to demonstrate the concept’s efficacy.

The multi-million-pound project comes following a successful bid to the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

North East drug dealers caught with 73,000 ecstasy pills in house – The Northern Scot

A pair of North East men caught with more than 73,000 ecstasy tablets in a house have been jailed.

Connor Holmes (24) and Scott Roddie (29) from Aberdeen distributed class A drugs across the world.

In December 2018, two parcels addressed to Holmes from the Netherlands were intercepted and found to contain 8.2kg of MDMA powder.

The police subsequently raided his home and recovered 73,366 tablets worth at least £733,660 and £8500 in cash.

A day later a further parcel, addressed to Holmes, containing cocaine, heroin, and more MDMA was recovered.

Both Holmes and Roddie pleaded guilty to being involved in the supply and importation of controlled drugs when they appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh in March last year.

At the same court today Holmes was sentenced to two years and three months.

Meanwhile, Roddie was jailed for six years and three months.

Their convictions were welcomed by both police and prosecutors.

Detective Inspector Tom Gillan said: “From the address in Aberdeen, Holmes and Roddie were able to receive and distribute illicit drugs, with a street value of around £1.3million on an international scale.

“The men made use of the dark web and cryptocurrencies to support their criminal market place and used the UK postal system to distribute the drugs.

“This is an example of a targeted investigation which disrupted a developed and sophisticated criminal model, based in the North East of Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Gerry McLean from the National Crime Agency said: “These two men were responsible for the global distribution of class A drugs on an industrial scale.

“It is only right that they spend time behind bars.

“Holmes and Roddie thought that they could evade law enforcement by using the dark web and cryptocurrencies, hiding behind computer screens, and tricking our postal service into facilitating their dirty work.”

Nicola Sturgeon faces public humiliation as huge billboard exposes Scots care home horror – Daily Express

How the SNP wrecked Scottish education – The Spectator

The politicians aren’t listening to us,’ an exasperated teacher tells me by phone. ‘There’s nothing left for us to do but get on with it.’ The despair felt by Scottish teachers is a notable shift from the anger I encountered in the staffroom when I trained among them five years ago.

That was the year of the ‘PISA shock’, 2015, when Scotland performed abysmally in reading, maths, and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Distinguished education professors at top Scottish universities were left reeling. One such academic suggested that the Scottish government had five years to fix the problem. In response, John Swinney, the SNP’s education secretary, promised to implement ‘radical’ and ‘controversial’ reforms. He might have also promised to make matters worse, since that’s what he’s done.

In 2019-2020, the proportion of pupils passing three or more Highers was 43 per cent, lower than any year from 2015 onwards. Audit Scotland, an independent watchdog, concludes that the attainment gap between rich and poor ‘remains wide’ and that progress ‘falls short of the Scottish government’s aims’. Scottish children from poor backgrounds remain significantly less likely than their English counterparts to go to university.

Yet in 2019 Swinney tweeted that the most recent PISA figures (showing a slight ascent from the depths to which literacy had sunk) ‘corroborates what we see elsewhere — improving schools and a closing of the attainment gap’. But where exactly do we see this? Look closely at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, the shoogly peg on which the Scottish government hangs such claims, and you quickly find that it is not fit for purpose. For instance, the government reported that in 2019 the highest ever percentage of school leavers (26 per cent) from the most-deprived quintile of areas were going on to university. However, elsewhere the government’s own research indicates that as many as 90 per cent of those on low incomes actually live outside the ‘most deprived’ areas.

‘About half of the decrease in the gap (2+1.5 out of 7) is likely to have been due either to non-disadvantaged people living in deprived areas, or to the stagnation of entry from non-deprived areas,’ writes Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Paterson goes on to say that the government’s decision to base its policy conclusions on these ‘sleights of hand seems distinctly dubious’.

Distinct dubiety is a hallmark of this government’s education policy. From the beginning, standards have been adapted to fit the curriculum, and not (as it should be) the other way round. For example, when Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in 2010 under Alex Salmond, the SNP withdrew Scotland from two major international maths, science, and literacy surveys: Timss and Pirls. Then, in 2017, the government decided to withdraw from another tried and tested literacy and numeracy survey.

The SNP’s preferred metric is continuous assessment, which they largely make up as they go along. Standard Grades and Intermediates have been replaced with ‘National 4’ and ‘National 5’ and the Scottish Highers have been hollowed out, changing in all but name. To put it mildly, the results fail to impress. Paterson explains that not only do the latest reports indicate that ‘pass rates in the Higher and National 5 assessments have been falling’, but ‘in mathematics, too many students’ numeracy was weak and too many struggled with algebra. In social subjects and in English there was a tendency to mistake opinions for facts, to make sweeping generalisations, and to answer exam questions with regurgitated model essays that had been memorised’.

It was hardly surprising that CfE — dreadful at the best of times — was unable to withstand the pressures of the pandemic. Last summer, Swinney was forced to upgrade some 75,000 high school students’ exam results after the outcry over the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to downgrade pupils’ marks. Cruelly and unusually, teachers had been appointed arbiters of children’s futures, and were instructed to rank order their pupils. Which created entirely foreseeable problems.

Now it would seem that ‘assessment’ is virtually the only form of education that Scottish pupils are guaranteed to get. After Easter, pupils were brought back to the classroom to face a continuous diet of assessments, since the official end-of-year exams have yet again been cancelled. What’s the difference between an ‘assessment’ and an ‘exam’? ‘You tell me,’ one teacher says.

Teachers are deeply concerned about the mental health of pupils under this stress. There are huge holes in pupils’ learning due to the pandemic, but the time away has also exposed the weakness of a system based on teaching children to parrot answers for a test. Many pupils have not been taught how to think, let alone have any general knowledge on which to draw. And while some private schools were able to set up preliminary exams over Zoom with invigilators, pupils at state schools and from poorer backgrounds (or without the same parental support) have had no such advantage.

Meanwhile, teachers are struggling to keep up with the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s continual changes to its 2020-2021 ‘alternative certification model’. As indicated on the SQA’s website, the latest ‘update’ was announced on April 13, maddeningly close to the June 25 deadline to submit materials (though that deadline is also an ‘update’).

Perhaps most scandalous of all is Swinney’s decision not to release the findings of the OECD’s report on Curriculum for Excellence until after the May election. He says this is on account of ‘confidentiality rules’. Who does he think he’s kidding? Education is fully devolved. Scotland’s pupils aren’t guinea pigs. Scotland’s teachers aren’t load-carrying mules. Scotland’s public isn’t stupid. Those responsible for this mess ought to answer for it at the ballot box.

A vote for the SNP would mean another wasted decade in Scotland – The Spectator

Sometimes, Westminster unwittingly makes quite a good case for Scottish independence. Britain’s Covid emergency has ended, but the damage of the last year is enormous: the knock-on effects of lockdown can be seen in NHS waiting lists, the devastated high street, the mental health backlog and the 20,000 pupils who are absent from the school register. There is urgent work to do, yet the government is engaged in a battle to the death over who paid for wallpaper in Downing Street.

We see a Prime Minister at war with his ex-adviser, unable to rise above the fray and capitalise on the opportunity of his vaccine success. Then there’s the opposition, unable to oppose. It’s not hard to see why many Scots might opt to press the ‘eject’ button by voting for the Scottish National Party in the Holyrood election next week.

Nicola Sturgeon would use a majority for independence by starting an immediate campaign for a referendum that would dominate Scottish politics for years, to the exclusion of all other issues. It’s worth asking what precisely that would mean.

The issues facing Scots are identical to those faced in England: the Covid-19 crisis is in retreat, but the deep societal damage of a year of lockdowns is increasingly evident. Some 3,550 fewer cancer diagnoses were made in Scotland last year, a fall of nearly 14 per cent. Scotland’s NHS is in no shape to play catch-up: even before the pandemic, waiting times for long-term health procedures were already estimated to be worse than in England. Generally, public services are less well run north of the border.

As for children, lockdown has hit poorest pupils hardest. But already poor pupils in Scotland were little more than half as likely as their English counterparts to get to university. Never have Scots been in more need of focused, effective government. But if they end up with an SNP majority there will be a non-stop campaign for separation; every policy will be used to drive another wedge between Scotland and England.

Sturgeon has admitted to having made no calculations about the economic impact of independence — which is odd, given that independence is her party’s reason for existing. But its chief policy seems to be the suspension of disbelief.

The pandemic is expected to have left Scotland with a deficit of up to 25 per cent of GDP, higher than any other country in the world. Any country joining the European Union needs a deficit no higher than 3 per cent of GDP: independence would mean sado-austerity with cuts far bigger than anything attempted by David Cameron or George Osborne.

Scotland joining the EU would also mean — under EU rules — border controls with England and a consequent hammer blow to trade. North Sea revenues, even if they had not collapsed, would never fill this gap.

By being in the Union during the pandemic, Scotland benefited from the safety net of being in the UK. The furlough scheme was financed by the UK Treasury’s borrowing power. Scotland is now coming out of lockdown due to having vaccination levels that are higher, by some margin, than anywhere on the Continent. By no coincidence, Scotland’s Covid deaths are down by 99 per cent — the same as in England. No European country except Portugal can say the same.

Recovering from the pandemic will take a generation. A vote for the SNP would mean another wasted decade in Scotland, with all political energies being focused on the constitutional question rather than on repairing the damage. Nicola Sturgeon argues that independence is needed to deal with the country’s post-Covid problems. But it is hard to see how Scotland having to cut public spending while not having its own central bank would help address these issues.

The best case for the Union has been made by Anas Sarwar, the new leader of Scottish Labour, in recent weeks. His message is that Scotland needs a recovery, not a referendum. If that message fails, unionists have to face up to the grim truth that, after 14 years in power and despite its dismal record, the SNP has found a way to game the devolution system. By convincing the 45 per cent of pro-independence voters that national liberation lies around the corner, Sturgeon’s party can guarantee itself victory after victory.

Devolution was not intended to deliver independence. As one Labour grandee famously said, it would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Even Tony Blair, with his new long hair, now admits that this was a misjudgment: it instead gave secessionists a platform from which to pursue the un-doing of the United Kingdom.

A pro-independence majority next week will take the SNP closer than ever to this goal. If the Tories have any sense of preservation — of the country, and of their party — they should give Scotland their full attention in the remaining days of the campaign.