All posts by davidmwalsh

Journalist and blogger.

Hopes fade for World’s End murder families

by Katy Docherty and David Walsh

Victims Helen Scott and Christine Eadie.

The families of the World’s End murder victims are set to have their hopes dashed when the Double Jeopardy Bill goes before Holyrood. The current law prevents a person from standing trial for the same crime twice but will be scrapped in a session of the Scottish Parliament tomorrow.

The Double Jeopardy Bill will now allow a retrial if evidence arises of the acquitted person admitting guilt or new DNA evidence comes to light to strengthen the case against the accused. The conditions of the Bill have been restricted to murder, rape, culpable homicide and serious sexual offences cases.

Criminal defence lawyer John Scott is skeptical of the plans: ‘There isn’t really any evidence which is absolutely conclusive of guilt. It’s not as if DNA evidence will tell you who did it. DNA evidence is far more likely to tell you who didn’t do it and beyond that, it can tell you who might have done it.

‘But you still need something else beyond DNA evidence in order to be able to convict.’

Continue reading Hopes fade for World’s End murder families

Two Ed’s are better than one in budget demands

by David Walsh

 

Opposition leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls have made demands this afternoon to remove fuel VAT duty and introduce a further bank bonus tax in the next week’s budget.

Both made the case for Labour’s measures to ensure economic growth at today’s press conference ahead of the unveiling of the Coalition government’s budget.

The tax levied on bankers’ bonuses last year raised £3.5bn, something Labour argue will kick-start the economy if mirrored this year. The Conservatives have criticised the Opposition of having made £12bn of unsustainable spending commitments. Continue reading Two Ed’s are better than one in budget demands

Cameron: Passion versus duty over “The Big Society”

Speech analysis by David Walsh

Podcast by Katy Docherty and Emily Glass

‘The Big Society’ could be compared to ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in many ways. It may make a loud noise with the promise of creating something, but is the new rhetoric for old fodder merely just smoke and mirrors to save face in a time of economic difficulty?

PM David Cameron is answering questions over his "The Big Society" (Image: BBC)

Prime Minister David Cameron has stressed the need for social as well as economic recovery. In his address to assembled London social entrepreneurs this morning, the Premier outlined just what his vision of “The Big Society” was. ”It is actually social recovery as well as economic recovery, and I think we need social recovery because as I’ve said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken,” he explained.

Perhaps the speech was wasted on an audience who would be potentially considered core Conservative voters and those less directly affected by Cameron’s latest crusade in social politics. Preaching to the converted, and all that. Critically, Cameron needs to assert his faith in the concept on the lower sorts on the economic rungs; to Mr and Mrs Everyday whose lives will be hardest hit by a compacting economy and spending cuts, not the section of society most financially cushioned from a fall.

Stating that it was his ‘passion’, he went on to describe that reducing the budget deficit was only his ‘duty.’ Such a conflict of interest has been noted by critics of the government who have panned the concept as being “too vague”. Mr Cameron did acknowledge this in the speech this morning, saying that he agreed it was vague in the sense that there was no single initiative being rolled out nationwide but “a stream of things that need to be done.”

What exactly is “The Big Society”? In a nutshell, it is taking emphasis off central government action and empowering local communities to organise their lives more effectively and harmoniously. The bitter irony in this rhetoric is that it will be handing power to the people who are in the firing line of his double-barrel tirade in calling for people ‘act more responsibly’.

”Whether it’s broken families or whether it’s some communities breaking down or whether it’s the level of crime, the level of gang membership, whether it’s problems of people stuck on welfare unable to work, whether it’s the sense that some of our public services don’t work for us, we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me that is what the Big Society is all about,” he said. If it is the handing down of power from the government to the people, would one want to be giving control to broken and lawless communities?

So, is “The Big Society” merely being ground out the the ConDem coalition policy mill to paper over the cracks in public spending? It would seem that in having to reduce the country’s budget deficit and therefore withdrawing key public services, the government believes that the public should also do it’s duty in meeting the government halfway. As he stated, government action can only ever be half of the answer and wanted to make it easier for people to volunteer in society.

What of the voluntary sector we have? Although much funding of charitable and local government-funded schemes will dry up in the current financial drought, Mr Cameron has unveiled a £100m transition fund, christened as the Big Society Bank,  to aid voluntary organisations. Critics say this is not nearly enough to help finance the number of volunteer groups in operation in the UK, many of whom have benefited from government coffers in the past.

And what will “The Big Society” mean for communities in Scotland? Well, in Edinburgh for example, £90m will be axed by the City of Edinburgh council in its budget over the next three years. Glasgow city council will need to find £101m over the next two years. In real terms, this will mean a lull in public service provision and is leaving local councils across Scotland searching for an alternative. Is David Cameron’s “Big Society” the answer?

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Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Fighting in the baking heat of foreign climes does little to acclimatise ex-servicemen and women to life on the bitter cold December streets of Edinburgh. For some that leave the armed forces, pavement slabs become their new trench or fox hole as a new fight to survive begins. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori may be ‘the old lie’, but a harsher truth prevails for those who have fought in Britain’s armed forces and returned home to reality, David Walsh writes.

 “Knee knocked, coughing like hags, we cursed as we trudged through the sludge,” wrote war poet Wilfred Owen in 1917 in his asylum room at Craiglockhart. The words uncannily ring true this month in a snow and slush-covered capital city. Like the many fallen soldiers of the Great War, the homeless faces of Edinburgh facing these sub-zero temperatures become mere statistics to the general public. 6,739 hot meals. 44 beds a night. 809 volunteers. 928 sheltered, given support and a warm meal*. The glow of Christmas street lighting, the glitter of shop window baubles or the cinnamon-sweet offerings of the Christmas markets do little to thaw the cold reality for many this Christmas.

Christmas is a desperate time for those on Edinburgh's streets. Source: MMO News.

Among the faces in the shop doorways and closes this holiday season could well be someone who fought in the Armed Forces. As the old maxim goes, charity begins at home. Bob Geldof asked a question back in 1984 of the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia. Few ask the same question to those soldiers who have returned from combat to altered lives back in the UK; do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Exact figures for just how many people sleep rough on Edinburgh’s streets every night are difficult to compile due to the constant transient state they are in. Some “sofa surf” at the homes of friends and families, or gain temporary, sheltered or hostel accommodation. They become apparitions in the system. The best indicators the Scottish government are able to venture are lists of statistics of the number of applications for assistance made by people who had slept on the street the night before. This amounts to 39 people in Edinburgh during 2009-2010. This hardly offers a complete picture. Shelter Scotland put the figure for homeless people, those without homes, facing eviction or living in inadequate housing across Scotland at 40,000. The actual number of ex-servicemen and women among these who are homeless or otherwise sleeping rough remains contentious.

London-based charity Veterans Aid cites UK government statistics which claim there are only 450 ‘rough sleepers’ on the streets nationwide and only four per cent of these claim a military connection. Press officer Glyn Strong believes there is a gross over-exaggeration in the press about the number of veterans on the streets. With over 3,000 organisations in Britain working to support ex-service personnel, it’s an enticing prospect for many who claim to have been in the army to invent a service history to get help. Even so, if the facts are true, government figures show eighteen veterans are currently sleeping rough on the streets of Britain. Eighteen too many, in any case.

Instead of scouring the streets of Edinburgh to find a homeless veteran, we come to the Grassmarket in the city centre. Nestled between the relative silence of the snow-laden Greyfriars kirkyard and buzz of the Grassmarket, the Grassmarket Community Project is an unassuming building on the outside. Behind its facade, it is a hive of activity and industry. The project co-ordinator, Josiah Lockhart, explains that help for the “down and outs” of Edinburgh began with missions in the Grassmarket in the Victorian era. Even now, there are homeless shelters and hostels in the four corners of the Grassmarket itself, mostly in the closes behind it. Out of sight, out of mind?

The Grassmarket Community Project arose out of a partnership of two such historic missions; the Greyfriars Kirk and the Grassmarket Mission, both tracing their origins back to the 1800s. Their original purpose was to work with homeless adults, the Grassmarket being an area of the city where the poor and wealthy lived juxtaposed. The Community Project has now branched out to help adults facing social exclusion or struggling with addictions and mental illness too. As well as offering hot meals at its three weekly drop-in hours, it offers classes in cookery, textiles, woodwork, drama, art, IT, literacy. But Josiah Lockhart asked one important question five years ago: “Is the need we’re trying to meet the need of today?

“As time has gone by, the needs of people, what homelessness looks like has changed a lot. Issues are more to do with health and well-being and access to food. We’ve evolved over the past four years from being that mass-catering, queue-up service to one that’s a space, a community.”    

There’s a constant flurry of activity in the one room as people leave and return and new faces arrive. We sit talking as Christmas songs are played on a hi-fi in the corner and decorations are hung from the ceiling. One of the new faces rushes over to us especially to tell Josiah his good news. He has been given the all-clear by doctors for his cancer and finally has a meeting sorted to discuss his benefits. “I’m on a cloud nine” he beams. One woman who joins us at our table is Ellen.

A former Captain in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, Ellen Pain served as a senior nurse in the 1982 Falklands conflict. Speaking to her at the Project, she is visibly shaken when talking about her experiences. “[The war] That was enough for me,” she said. After returning to civilian life, she suffered a mental break down which tore her family life apart. Asking what life is like for her nowadays, she said, “Some days I’m fine. Others I’m not. This place is a big part of my life. When I’m in trouble, I head for here.” Ellen became heavily involved with volunteering when the Project first started up in its current location on the Grassmarket. She helps with the running of the various classes, particularly the art group.

Was she given much needed help when she was returned back in the UK? “No, because they don’t know how to deal with us. They help no body. Quite a lot of ex-servicemen come here. We all sit on a wee table to ourselves,” she says with a wheezy chuckle. “We talk our experiences out at the table.” Many of those she sits with are fellow Falklands vets. Some were, in a bizarre coincidence, wounded men she cared for. “Yes they remember me! Very strict they said I was. I was a Captain. I was very strict. My ward had to be spotless and my nurses.” Daring to ask, we enquire as to what Christmas holds for her. “I don’t have Christmas in my house. For me now, Christmas is for children.”

Whilst chatting to Ellen, a man with a limp sits next to us at our table. Affectionately named Mickey by the other volunteers, Michael Glancy explains he chipped a bone on his foot after slipping on the ice. He, too, is an ex-serviceman. Serving in the Royal Artillery in Kosovo as a young man of nineteen, his life was turned upside down with the close deaths of his father and uncle. Since arriving through the doors of the Project at the drop-in clinics, he has developed aspirations to rejoin the Army to train men like the younger man he was a decade previous. Not only that, he wants to go to college to study sports science. These two volunteers, both of military backgrounds, are just two of over a hundred people who congregate at the centre in any given week, taking part in and leading classes.

On a tour of the building by Josiah, we encounter woodwork leader Tommy Steel supervising a group in the workshop. Having had some machinery donated and some bought by the Project, the centre is run on the profits of workshop sales. Some of the volunteers are soldering designs onto wood. Others are hurriedly completing an order for shutters for a church conversion in Fife. Speaking to him briefly, he told us: “We need to change people’s lives for the better. We run the project as a business so we have financial incomes to achieve. We also have environmental outcomes.”

Starting in humble beginnings in a portacabin in the kirkyard, the business entails the recycling of church pews into high quality furniture. The wood is collected from churches all over Scotland and used to produce products ranging from gift items like candle holders and chopping boards up to household furniture like coffee tables and chairs. Tommy was part of the pilot project and has watched as the work of the volunteers has evolved into commissions, selling to notable names as Finance Minister John Swinney, and exhibitions.

 “The guys get a lot out of it. It’s not just about teaching woodwork. It’s the confidence, the self-esteem, the purpose in life. Recently, a large number of people have come off medication as a direction result of attending here.

“Medication for depression, mental illness. Through coming here, they’ve put structure back into their life and come off their medication.” One of the volunteers Tommy closely with had walked in off the street for the drop-in clinic and eventually left to study furniture making and upholstery.

With such schemes not made available by the MOD or British government as they are in countries like the United States and Australia, what does this mean for troops returning back to Britain with no prospects? Not all but a small minority – so small they cannot be accurately counted – fade into the ether and are forgotten. It is social projects like the Grassmarket Community Project that provide a stepping stone for those in a desperate situation to better themselves. This is felt no more so than at Christmas.

It is too early to tell how the cycle will touch soldiers currently deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the future either. There are over 5.5m veterans in the UK. There are the regrettable few that failed to blend back into civilian life as seamlessly as the 96% of ex-servicemen who did. It is these Glyn Strong believes are disproportionately reported in the British press. “One homeless veteran is still one too many” she concedes. Just how many serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will make a similarly uneasy transition back into civilian life is yet to be known. It will be Edinburgh’s long-established charitable organisations who will likely bear the strain of getting those without homes or those without shelter living on the streets back on their feet this Christmas. In attending independently-run groups like the Grassmarket Community Project, those living rough on the streets or in sheltered accommodation, veteran or otherwise, will have company and a warm environment to be keep their spirits bright this Yule tide.

 *Statistics for Edinburgh from Bethany Christian Trust.

Tea in the Park for music festival revellers?

by David Walsh

Festival goers in Scotland are to foot the bill for alcohol-fuelled disturbances at musical festivals under the proposed Alcohol Bill voted on at Holyrood today.

One of the clauses of the bill will see the introduction of a “clear-up tax” spike on temporary licence holders which will mean that festivals such as T in the Park in Fife will become subject to the new law.

MSPs passed the revised bill outlining measures to redress the estimated £3bn costs in health care in Scotland due to alcohol-related conditions.

Festival revellers will be hit by tax spike.
Festival revellers at T in the Park will be hit by tax spike.

The tax, called a social responsibility levy, has been agreed upon and will see the proceeds of alcohol sales contribute to the costs of policing and health care incurred by drink-related activities in the wider community.

Key measures of the bill have been passed but the flagship policy on minimum pricing has been definitively rejected by MSPs in a 76-49 final vote against the policy. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives all voted against the SNP policy in a move described by the Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon as crude party politics.

The minister had urged MSPs to agree to a renewed attempt to introduce the minimum pricing of alcohol after it was defeated by the Scottish Parliament back in September.

In a recent interview with the BBC, she said: “There is vast and growing support outside parliament for minimum pricing and that’s why, even at this late stage, I call on the opposition parties to put party politics aside and vote for something that is in the interests of improving public health.”

The 45p per unit minimum proposed by the SNP government back in September was part of the already revised legislation package. It was estimated that its introduction would see a reduction of 50 fewer deaths a year and hospital emissions by 1200 a year.

The vote on the bill comes in a week where Scotland has seen it’s alcohol exports to China strengthened in a new deal between the two countries. Only whisky produced in Scotland will be marketed as Scotch to Chinese consumers, Asia’s second largest food and drink market. The Scotsman has reported that shipments of Scotch to China currently generate £80m in revenue a year.

Edinburgh protesters: “No ifs, not buts, no public sector cuts!”

By David Walsh

Teachers, parents and pupils angrily demonstrated in Edinburgh today, joining public sector workers from across Scotland to protest against proposed cuts in public services.

A demonstrator on East Market Street protesting against budget cuts to education funding.

The demonstration, organised by the Scottish Trade Union Council and the Educational Insitute of Scotland, attracted over 20,000 protesters from as far away as Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

Alison Thornton, Local Association secretary of the EIS for Edinburgh: “The STUC, and obviously the trade unions that form the STUC, want to raise the public’s awareness that you can’t just keep cutting, cutting and cutting. It will get to the stage where key services such as health, education and so on cannot be delivered.”

It is well proven that, for example in education, for every pound you invest in the early stages of education, you reap ten fold the savings when you are beyond the normal educational establishment.”

The Coalition government’s spending review announced on Wednesday in Westminster has provoked outcry in the public sector as vital services such as education and the NHS face stark budget cuts. A projected £3bn is to be snipped from Scottish funding over the next four years.

The planned budget cuts are to be introduced by the Chancellor, George Osborne, as part of austerity measures unseen since the Second World War.

The SNP government has come under fire for failing to legislate some of its manifesto promises for education. Among its achievements since its election in 2007  have been the building and refurbishment of over 300 schools as well a record number of primary one to primary three pupils in classes of 18.

A recent article published in Edinburgh Evening News revealed that 40% of Edinburgh schools have primary one classes greater than the recommended government cap of 25 pupils.

The Scottish Executive at Holyrood was unwilling to comment on how budget cuts will impact on Scottish schools in the coming future. They wish to wait instead for the impending Scottish budget to be published next month.

Protesters gathered outside City of Edinburgh municipal buildings on East Market Street in Edinburgh’s city centre at 11am this morning. The march then progressed down the Mound and onto Prince’s Street, bringing public transport on the city’s busiest bus corridor to a standstill.

Marchers finally assembled for a rally at the Ross Bandstand in Prince’s Street gardens where STUC delegates, guest speakers and other unions addressed the crowd.

Addressing the crowd, Joy Dunn, president of the STUC, stressed the importance of the protest: “It is more important than ever before, after this week’s comprehensive spending review announcement, that we continue with the campaign.”

“[George] Osborne repeated over and over again, that the cuts and the brunt of the cuts would be carried by those with the broadest shoulders. You’ll often find that people with the broadest shoulders have the fattest wallets.”

Criticising the Cameron government, she said that his “cabinet of millionaires know the price of everything but the value of building.”

Dunn further warned of the dangers of “returning to the dark days of Thatcher.”

Tories playing family fortunes

By David Walsh

David Cameron has defended planned welfare cuts by calling for the country to ‘pull together‘ in his first key note conference speech since becoming PM.

The PM urged Britons to adopt ‘a spirit of activism’ as he outlined his vision for the next five years of government.

Speaking at conference, Cameron said: ‘Changing the government is not enough. We need to change how we think about ourselves and our role in society,’ adding ‘Your country needs you.’

Cameron was expected to pacify party activists following stiff opposition to child benefit cuts announced yesterday on high earner families.

David Cameron with his wife and daughter at Birmingham Moor Street Station, 5th October.

Plans to withhold benefits to more than a million wealthy families, earning more than £44,000, were described as ‘fair’ by the Premier yesterday but provoked backlash from some party activists.

In an interview with the BBC, he admitted that imposing taxes on families earning £44,000 or more was going to be unpopular but ‘it was the right thing to do.’