Willie Rennie: People are changing their minds on Brexit and it’s their right to do so
Writing for Holyrood, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats takes a look at the last 12 months along with what might come next
Image credit: David Anderson
Constitutional questions have clogged up parliament, court and public time over the last few years. Brexit has dominated so much of the political calendar that an array of other important issues has been allowed to slip. The hours dedicated to Brexit could have better served our country in so many other ways. We have an NHS crying out for funds, local authorities scraping by and stagnant economic growth. That’s why over the last year in Holyrood the Lib Dems have kept an eagle-eyed focus on the things that really matter: how much money our schools are getting, whether the police have enough staff, if care workers are getting fair pay.
So as Holyrood heads back to work after the summer we’ll be balancing fighting Brexit with demanding better for our public services.
A real sore point on the SNP’s record is the NHS. The country’s most treasured institution is buckling. Why? Demographic change and an ageing population for sure, but also, underfunding, repeated failings in workforce planning, underpaid, overworked health professionals and a crippled social care system.
Over the last year, our Liberal Democrat health team has been a voice for doctors, nurses and other staff struggling with daily pressures in the context of continual cuts. We’ve fought for waiting-time improvements, argued for the restoration of funding for HIV Scotland, highlighted the problems of delayed discharge and stood up for patients.
The Scottish Government’s ministerial team struggled with health and we’re glad the First Minister heeded cross-party calls for refreshed leadership. But Jeane Freeman steps up to an overflowing desk. A&E waiting-time targets haven’t been met for over a year. GP practices across the country are faltering and Brexit poses big staffing threats to our hospitals.
Health is one of Holyrood’s greatest realms of responsibility. It’s the First Minister’s old stomping ground and over recent years, it has been sorely let down. Giving health professionals the resources they need must be at the top of the list for the new Health Secretary as we head into the new parliamentary year.
The Liberal Democrats are strong on Europe. We’re clear that remaining a part of the community of nations that has existed in harmony since the 1950s is good for our economy, stability, world-class education system, public services and children’s futures. As discussions have raged over the last two years about what possible alternatives could give us even a shadow of the benefits or influence we already enjoy as part of the single market, the customs union and much more, we have been resolute - Brexit is a backwards step and seriously damaging.
The Brexit debates over the last parliamentary year have been scattered and gone largely unsolved. Will specialist produce retain its unique protections? Can Ireland rely on a hard border never being introduced? Will core medical supplies be jeopardised after exit day? Will food products and live seafood go to waste as lorries stack up at the borders? Can farmers rest assured they’ll get enough labour and subsidies to keep their farms alive? Will cancer patients have secure access to radiotherapy if we abandon Euratom? The rippling implications of this endless stream of questions is unfathomable. We don’t know how many people will lose their jobs, how many businesses will go under or how many people will choose not to bring their talents to these shores and the UK Government’s weak and often conflicting responses set all the alarm lights blinking. The result of the Brexit referendum was narrow, but this was in no way the scene Gove and Johnson painted, one of anguish, uncertainty and confusion.
The Lib Dems have been clear that the final deal can and should be revisited by the people. Warring factions of the Tory elite don’t have a right to make this decision. The British people do.
Over 100 constituencies that opted to leave in 2016 have pivoted to remain now that the harsh and lasting consequences of Brexit have been exposed. A long list of celebrities from Gary Lineker to Cher have joined our cause but support across the political spectrum has not been overwhelming. Labour has provided feeble opposition in the Commons and despite a cohort of the Scottish party breaking ranks to support the prospect of a vote, on the whole, they’ve been unreliable. The Tories have been preoccupied by infighting and sackings. But the real let down has been the SNP - loud about their concerns of leaving the EU but unwilling to commit themselves to fight for it. The nationalists could have made a serious contribution in Westminster to secure a vote on whatever dreadful deal or no-deal situation the Prime Minister presents us with. Yet instead, they’ve been negligently silent, preoccupied, always, by the next independence move.
Brexit might be boring to some but it’s only heating up. When Holyrood returns after the summer it will mark the Brexit home stretch. People are changing their minds and it’s their right to do so. We demand a final say on the deal, goodness knows what that may be, because that’s what democracy is for.
On mental health, we exposed bumper wait times which should shame the Scottish Government. Some children and young people are still left waiting over a year for treatment and adults have had to endure waits of over two years. The suicide prevention strategy took 586 days to materialise and during that time, two people a day took their own life in Scotland. To add to that dire list only Glasgow, in the whole of Scotland, has adequate perinatal care services.
Any action on mental health from the SNP has been lacklustre and unaccompanied by the funds mental health services so desperately need. Parliament backed the Lib Dem call for a seismic shift in mental health policy and investment in June and we’re hopeful that the new Minister for Mental Health will work to make that happen this year.
The First Minister professes her government’s primary focus is education and closing the attainment gap. She’s right to focus on this, because over the last decade on her party’s watch, education has slipped.
But what confidence can teachers and parents and pupils have? There’s so little support for John Swinney’s education reforms, he’s put off bringing them forward.
Over the summer, the Lib Dems drew attention to one of the key flaws in the SNP’s education system - national testing of five-year-olds. The First Minister scoffed at our evidence that many were struggling to use computers, that tests were distressing and the exercises were wasting vast amounts of teacher time. But 200 pages of teacher responses from Aberdeen to Argyll have proved her wrong. These tests aren’t providing teachers with any information they don’t already know, the results are often the product of desperate guesswork and the questions and the nature of these tests doesn’t reflect the curriculum.
John Swinney has a lot to answer for on these tests. A coalition of charities, staff and parental organisations have launched a 30,000-postcard campaign to encourage parents to withdraw their children from the tests. Teachers want parents to withdraw their children and are considering their own boycott. The whole idea has no credibility left. I was clear in my comments to the Education Secretary. He must withdraw the tests before this year’s new intake of young people are forced to go through the same rigmarole. If he doesn’t, that’s something I’ll press for a vote on when parliament returns.
More generally, in the Scottish Parliament, we have been standing up for BiFab, heralding the value of investing in skills and colleges and making crucial amendments to the islands’ legislation which gives councils more power and uninhabited islands more rights. We’ve held the Minister for Rural Affairs to account for his failure to disperse CAP payments on time, encouraged the government to be more environmentally friendly and move away from single-use coffee cups and plugged new initiatives to solve the housing crisis by getting empty housing stock back into use. We also ran a consultation on social care which will guide our bid to improve services.
Colleagues in Westminster and Holyrood worked together to harangue both governments over access to medicinal cannabis, which can alleviate so many of the symptoms of those with epilepsy or other medical conditions, until Home Secretary Sajid Javid bowed to political pressure and allowed patients who need it access to these medicines.
The issues facing Scotland are many, and we’ve got our eye on them all. The Liberal Democrats are pro-EU, pro-UK and progressive and our membership is buoyant. From public services to a People’s Vote, we’re standing up for the people of Scotland and demanding better.
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