Holyrood diary - Alex Fergusson MSP - How can we measure ‘society’

I have always been fascinated by the different ways that we are told ‘society’ can be measured. How we look after our elderly and how we treat our pets are just two of those measurements. But I also believe society can be measured on how we treat our most vulnerable youngsters, and there is no doubt that todays world heaps more peer pressure on our youngsters than has ever been the case before. That kind of pressure invariably results in casualties, and there are many organisations, agencies and charities who justifiably claim that they provide the required support for their ‘service users’. Almost invariably they will insist that they adopt a people centred approach, and I am sure that they often do.

However, that ethos of a ‘people centred’ approach was taken to a new level for me recently during a visit to Loreburn Housing Support Services in Stranraer. Through a supported housing unit catering for 6 young people, with another similar unit in Dumfries, alongside an outreach service, Loreburn has devised a system of support and confidence-building that is taking young people from the very darkest recesses of despair to becoming self-sufficient individuals, determined to make their own way in life without being dependent on the state for their survival. In a word, they are given back their self respect.

Rarely have I come across such a positive example of a truly people-centred structure. That it works, is in no small way due to the phenomenal commitment of the management and staff, but that commitment and hard work must be rewarded a hundred fold each time one of their service users makes a successful transition into ‘normal’ society, as most of them do. Brilliant.

How not to provide people centred support

What a pity it is to have to contrast Loreburn’s approach to that of the multi-agency approach taken in Dumfries and Galloway, as highlighted in the damning report from the Care Inspectorate into services for Children and Young People in the Region. This approach involves the Council, the Health Board and the Police, amongst others, and the report highlighted the fact that while all the individual agencies gathered lots of pertinent information, it wasn’t shared between them, resulting in a lack of risk assessment and early intervention.

That being the case, we are very fortunate not to be reading this report in the wake of the type of tragic “why did no-one intervene earlier” story that we read all too often in our papers. I am no expert in these matters, but risk assessment and early intervention have to be two very basic components of any support service. Having the relevant knowledge and information, but not sharing it, is just a complete lack of joined-up thinking amongst agencies that seem far too reluctant to work together.

Too often in the past we have had similar reports, followed by assurances that ‘lessons will be learned’. Clearly, those lessons have not been learned. This time around, they must be or we will wake up one morning to another tragic story in the media – only this one could be closer to home.

Food Bank

I was pleased to receive an invitation to visit the Wigtownshire Church’s Food Bank operation in Stranraer. Having visited the same facility in Newton Stewart last year, I was keen to see how the service had developed, and I was greatly impressed. Sensibly, the Food Bank will only respond to referrals from a variety of agencies, relieving the organisers of the onerous responsibility of having to judge the merits of individual applications. It is a well thought out, well managed operation that is providing an unfortunately unnecessary service in a highly responsible way.

It is also doing a great deal to answer those who would claim in our national press that the UK is now a ‘post-Christian’ society. If ever there was a perfect example of the churches at work in today’s world, look no further than this example. What a shame it was not recognised in the huge lottery pay-out that went to the Trussel Trust – a national charity which operates Food Banks yet which could, I suspect, learn a lesson or two from the Wigtownshire Church’s operation.

Wrong Sporting Move

The Council has moved to return the after hours operation and management of many school sporting facilities from its Leisure and Sports department to the Education department. While that might sound logical, it is having a detrimental impact on the ability of many of our youngsters to participate in their chosen sport. Not only does this move put the responsibility for opening and closing the facilities to school janitors, but it places the onus of collecting any fees on a parent or participant on a nightly basis rather than being more collectively (pardon the pun) by Leisure and Sport staff.

This move probably looks good on a balance sheet, but it doesn’t make sense in these days of Olympic and Commonwealth Games legacies and the widely recognised need to get more young people involved in sport. It will have the opposite effect, is ill thought-out and should be reconsidered. Full stop.

Police Scotland

I have never supported the loss of our local Police Force through the creation of Police Scotland. In its early days last year, I visited the Wickerman Festival – a festival that has built up a reputation for being an almost problem free family friendly festival. It is also a festival that has been superbly well policed by our local ‘bobbies’ in a sympathetic and unobtrusive way.

Last year I could hardly believe my eyes – high visibility policing was very much the order of the day, with a ‘command centre’ that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a G.8 summit!

So I had difficulty believing my ears when I recently heard the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, say in a debate that one of the many successes of Police Scotland in its first year had been the successful policing of the Wickerman Festival. I intervened – ‘are you insinuating that the Wickerman was not successfully policed before?’ I asked. He barely answered at all. Q.E.D

April Showers

What a glorious month we have had and, in particular, what a glorious Easter weekend. It is hard to believe that it is not long ago we were all thinking of building an ark! Indeed, one farmer said to me in late February “if I ever see rain again, it’ll be too b…y soon.” So I had to shake my head to ensure I was hearing correctly when an east-coast farmer said to me last week that it was a wee bit wet that day but that “in all honesty, we were needing it.”!

Enjoy the sunshine – who knows how long it will last.