29 September 2004

Private Agenda

The 7:84 Theatre Company are about to reach the climax of a highly successful tour across Scotland with their play “Private Agenda”. They close shortly with a week in Edinburgh. And I have commended their efforts to a number of pals who live there.

As a political, campaigning theatre group it is unlikely that their efforts will meet with universal approval.

In the 1970s they first made their name with “The Stag, The Cheviot and the Black, Black Oil”, a play about the bonanza off our shores. With oil prices now hovering around the $50 a barrel level, one could be forgiven for imagining that the good times were about to roll for Scotland again.

But the contrast with Norway could not be starker. Sharing North Sea oil fields across our boundary with them, Scotland has done so much less – and had so much less opportunity – to make good use of a once in a lifetime find for our country.

With their own government, the Norwegians have made sure that much of the oil wealth has been invested in ensuring prosperity “after oil”.

Without a government of our own we have, by contrast, seen our oil wealth squandered on propping up the feckless spending plans of successive London regimes. And the result? Little permanent change to our infrastructure. Over the very long term, no real benefit.

This was the ironic and pessimistic message that 7:84 brought to stages across Scotland 30 years ago – and they were correct.

So their present play on this government’s use of the Private Finance Initiative – PFI – deserves equally close attention. Because we shall see the effects of today’s policies on a similar time-scale – thirty years.

I have to say that 7:84’s play about PFI did not immediately sound like a recipe for an evening’s fun-filled entertainment. But first readings can be misleading.

After my watching – and participating in – their performances in Paisley and Fraserburgh, I can report a lively re-invigorated company engaging in a serious subject in an interesting, engaging and entertaining way.

Because when you tell the story of “ordinary people” – but then the most interesting and “extraordinary” people generally turn out to be “ordinary people” – you find humour and mordant comment in abundance.

The 7:84 play “Private Agenda” has the four actors speak the words of people affected by PFI. Hospital workers forced into organisational structures that actually prevent them being able to help patients directly – schools denied their books because PFI bills had not been paid – and Skye Bridge Toll campaigners being charged with two further offences each time they went (non-paying) across their bridge to appear in Dingwall Sheriff Court.

But it is more than a play. The second half has the cast, artistic director & writer Lorenzo Mele and various politicians, on stage to discuss the play with the audience. At a time when the public does not turn out for political meetings, I have found my two “performances” stimulating, and the public’s ability to express their reaction to a political topic greatly heartening.

Political supporters and opponents of PFI have had their opportunity to be on stage, albeit that Labour MPs and MSPs seem to have been very reluctant to appear before the public.

With a parliamentary motion commending 7:84’s efforts, there is support for their efforts among politicians. Perhaps this will be the way to re-engage the public in political debate.

But it appears that the Scottish Arts Council, whose support has been important in allowing the play to tour small towns across Scotland, may be having cold feet.

I will certainly be supporting such ventures in future – although I cannot know whether I will find all as politically compatible with my views as this one.

Big Money

This week has seen the budget announcement for Scotland. Following a lack-lustre launch by First Minster Jack McConnell of his program for government, this was an opportunity to put flesh on the bones. They failed by the reckoning of the media – no flair, no new ideas.

On the face of it there was a large increase in transport spending. But all but the Aberdeen City Bypass – “announced” for the umpteenth time – were on central belt projects.

At long last we heard something of a national free transport pass for pensioners – we thought we were to get that last time and didn’t – but it turned out to cover buses and not railways or ferries. For people living on islands, no improvement at all.

All further evidence that the government simply does not have people who understand rural concerns.

But hidden away seemed to be further spending on building and improving prison facilities but this is coupled with cuts on the money spent on preventing re-offending.

Confusion but some hopes as well.

1 September 2004

In at last!

I now have a very large key for an office in the new Parliament. Simple arithmetic tells me that each MSP’s key cost £3.34 million instead of the £300,000 or so that Donald Dewar promised us.

The fact that new offices for MPs in London cost even more per head is little consolation for a general feeling of having been misled.

The space is fine although it is always possible when you have had no opportunity to influence the design, to make suggestions for improvement. That won’t happen – we have spent more than enough.

The MSP offices are “good enough” – workmanlike and with all the facilities we need. The tea and coffee machines haven’t arrived yet but the walk to the staff canteen might keep us fit.

One MSP’s suggestion that we should have a bus from the centre of Edinburgh seems misguided. I have timed the walk from the railway station to Parliament at a brisk ten minutes.

We should all take 30 minutes exercise each day, so that walk twice a day and using the stairs and not the lift, will just about do it.

Tuesday, 7th September at 9.30 is when we first use the Debating Chamber for real. A statement from the First Minister on his “Program for Government” and two days of debate on that – interspersed with the weekly question times – will show whether the visual elegance of our new chamber lives up to expectations.

But if it is all show and just the same Labour-Liberal Democrat gruel we have had of late, there will simply be no point and public disillusionment will grow further.

Because this government must raise its game. And with our new Scottish Parliament leader of the opposition in place by then, my colleagues and I will be “up for it”.

The SNP’s leadership election has been a very successful exercise in democracy. It has engaged our membership in our first “One Member – One Vote” election and persuaded nearly 80% to actually cast their vote – much more than in Parliamentary or Council elections.

As I write, I do not yet know the result. But I do know that whoever ends up in Leader and Deputy Leader positions will be fit for the job.

And ready to challenge the prevailing mediocrity.

Council Tax

I spoke at the Scottish Conference of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation in Crieff last week.

My political philosophy in relation to taxation – and that of my party colleagues – derives from Acts 4:34 & 35 –

“..those who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold .. and distribution was made unto every person according as they had need ..”

which was later rendered as

“.. from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs ..”

For the mark of a truly civilised society is one where the better-off support those in need. But we must be fair to taxpayers as well.

And that is why the SNP are in favour of a local income tax for councils to raise their local income.

The current arrangements for an average Scottish band D property in 2003-4 meant a Council Tax charge of £1,059.

For older people – owning property, but mostly on fixed or cost-of-living linked incomes – this has been a serious burden.

The poorest saw 3.3% of their income going on Council Tax in 1997 but that rose to 4.8% in 2001/2. The richest in our society continued to pay only 1.4%.

That’s why many pensioners are campaigning for change. And that is the message I put to the Councillors and officials who attended the conference, the SNP alternative which would relate payment to ability to pay.

But I said more to them.

The cost of the present system, and the uncollected tax, amounts to some £250 million pounds. And the income tax system we would use to collect local tax is already there. So we can save substantial sums of money for the public purse.

We see the kind of changes that I advocated as being fairer to taxpayer, and to those our taxes support, as well as being more efficient.

With the government currently undertaking a consultation on the issue and probably a majority of MSPs now in favour of an income-related local tax – including all the SNP and Liberal Democrat members – change seems unstoppable.


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