Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Keeping Warm This Winter

Further to my post on 15 November 'A Cold Winter', I made up my mind not just to complain about the issue, but to try and do something about it. So I decided to try and raise awareness, in the constituency I'm a candidate for and online, about the help available.

I've launched a local campaign aimed at helping pensioners to keep warm this winter.

As a candidate, there are limited opportunities to actually help people. You can campaign on issues, but it is difficult to affect real change for people, unless you then become their elected representative. However, by raising awareness of steps that people can take to keep warm this winter, if just a handful of people get extra help because of my campaign, then it is well worth it.

More information can be found on my campaign website: www.juliehepburnsnp.com

With the Westminster Government sitting on a pot £4.5 billion of unclaimed benefits for older people, we should be doing all we can to make sure pensioners claim the money they are entitled to. That £4.5 billion would go a long way to helping people stay warm this winter.

I've put together a short list of steps (with telephone numbers and web links) that pensioners can take if they are worried about keeping warm this winter. There is a lot of information out there, but it's not all easily accessible in one place. But it is now on my website, so if you are interested in raising awareness about the help available, please check it out.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Budget of Ambition

I've finally found a few minutes to share a few thoughts on the Scottish Government's Budget. Better late than never...

One thing struck me almost immediately about the whole process, and that is the contrast between the approach of the new SNP Government and the previous Lib-Lab Executive. The previous administration , to be fair, was not incompetent. It was, though, notable for its mediocrity, of ability and ambition. The objective seemed to be that of merely managing devolution, and consequently managing Scotland. The SNP, however, have brought a breath of fresh air to the governance of Scotland, not just in the abilities of Ministers, but also in their ambition.

John Swinney's Budget is one of ambition for Scotland. It doesn't achieve everything that the SNP wants to do in government, and indeed the Budget does not stretch to some of the things that we thought could be delivered in this term. But in the context of such a tight financial settlement from Westminster, and being forced by the opposition parties into paying hundreds of millions for a tram system in Edinburgh, I am amazed at just how much John Swinney has been able to deliver.

It is also quite bizarre to see quite how hysterical the opposition parties are getting about the delivery of SNP policies that they either oppose, or had no intention of delivering themselves. To be fair (and I do try) the Tories are behaving more like a sensible and constructive opposition party - but they have had more practice than the Lib Dems and Labour.

Take tuition fees and student debt for example. Believe me, as someone who graduated the first time round in 2001 and then again in 2004, student debt is an issue close to my heart. So, I was very pleased that the SNP campaigned on policies to scrap tuition fees (thereby reducing the level of debt students would incur in the first place), replace loans with grants and write off existing student loans. It is ludicrous to suggest that the SNP has abandoned these aims. The Government has already guaranteed that tuition fees will be abolished, and the Budget states that they are working towards the phased replacement of loans with grants (starting with part-time students) and in 2008 they will publish proposals to deal with graduate debt.

Had the Lib-Lab Executive been returned to power in May of this year, then this wouldn't be happening. Yet they would not have incurred the wrath that has been unleashed on the SNP for daring to be ambitious, and to aspire and work towards something better for our students. I think that the people of Scotland will be far more supportive of a Government that at least tries to improve our country, even if it can't fulfill all of its ambitions immediately, than a mediocre Executive that didn't even try...

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A Cold Winter

My recent absence from blogging is primarily due to a bad cold, followed by some generic winter bug. Why am I divulging unwanted details of my health? Well, because it got me thinking...

The change of weather always sends a wave of such illnesses through the populous. At this time of year we all find ourselves putting on that extra jumper and turning up the heating a bit. Or do we?

Life, unfortunately, is not as simple as that for many people, who will be facing yet another cold winter without adequate heating in their homes. The appalling consequence for some will be tragic. Each winter, many hundreds of pensioners in Scotland die from cold-related illnesses. The number of 'excess winter deaths' had been falling in recent years, but the latest figures show an alarming increase. During the winter of 2006/07, there were 2,560 additional deaths among our pensioners. See the figures below:


And have a look at this press release from Help the Aged, to give you an idea of just how desperate the situation is:


In this wealthy country - especially a country rich in oil, gas and renewable energy - it is almost unbelievable that so many people cannot afford to heat their homes.

We all feel the pinch at winter as we absorb the extra energy costs, but I can't begin to imagine how people can cope with sky-high fuel bills when they are on the basic state pension.

There are some things that governments can do to address this shocking state of affairs, and to be fair, both the Westminster and Scottish Governments are doing some good work in this area - but it's not enough. We need to increase state pensions, abolish the Council Tax which impacts disproportionately on people with low incomes like state pensions, ensure that our homes are better insulated and energy efficient, and meet the demand for the central heating programme. As individuals too, we should be playing our part by looking out for any elderly neighbours at this time of year.

There are no problems in this country that cannot be fixed. This one is not rocket science. One fifth of our pensioners are living in poverty, and they cannot afford to heat their homes. This is purely a question of money and political will. So why are we letting some of our most vulnerable citizens freeze to death each winter?

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Marriage Material?

It was a beautiful winter's day to be out and about on the campaign trail. I spent the morning going round doors in Condorrat to introduce myself to residents and to hand out our local survey. After lunch, our team of volunteers moved on to Kilsyth to continue the work.

One of the most interesting things about being a political activist is the number of different people you get to meet, and they can often surprise you. For example, I received a marriage proposal today from a young man in Kilsyth! I had to inform him I was already married - but it's still nice to be asked! Not sure my husband would agree though...

Thursday, 1 November 2007

More adventures at SNP conference...


Thanks to a reminder in the above blog, I have just realised the significance of today. It could have been election day! Given that I am sat on the sofa, in big comfy slippers suffering from a cold, I'm really glad that today is not polling day :o) And unlike Marco (see link) I AM looking forward to Eastenders and the big wedding episode. I don't have many vices but soaps are one of them (does it only count as one vice if I group them all together...?).

Anyway, in my previous blog, I promised to post more on events at conference. Don't say I don't deliver!

One of the most interesting events for me at conference was the fringe meeting organised by Save the Children and Scottish Refugee Council on issues faced by asylum seeking children. One of those who spoke to SNP delegates was a teenage boy who told us about being detained in Dungavel with his mum and brother, and how terrible an experience it was. It's such a truly awful thing to do to people who have committed no crime - especially children.

We had a surprise additional guest to the meeting - the First Minister himself. Alex said the SNP was a government that would not only make popular decisions, but also the less popular decisions if they are the right thing to do. He was referring primarily to the Government's decision to give the children of asylum seekers the same access to Higher Education as other children in Scotland. Our new Government's compassionate and positive attitude to people seeking asylum in our country has not gone unnoticed. People do feel more welcome and positive about Scotland as a result - and I am particularly proud that the SNP Government is making a positive difference to the lives of this group of people. They deserve it after all they have been through - fleeing their countries in fear, years of uncertainty as their asylum claims are processes, a hostile media and often hostile attitudes of local communities too.

The meeting also heard from a woman who had sought asylum from persecution in Algeria. Her claim has taken 6 and a half years to process, and has only been resolved now because of the special measures that have been put in place to clear the backlog of cases. At the end of her very moving story, she imparted the good news that her case has been successful and she can now fully participate in life in Scotland. She is a remarkable lady and a great addition to Scotland too.

We still have a long way to go in changing attitudes towards asylum seekers in Scotland, but we are at least moving in the right direction.