Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the week’s local council by-election results.
To receive The Week Outside Westminster in your inbox before it appears on the website, sign up to the email service
West Lothian Question
The West Lothian question reared its head again with a new report (pdf) for IPPR by Professor Jim Gallagher of Nuffield College, Oxford.
Outlining his preferred solution in the Telegraph, Gallagher argued:
“The best answer lies in changes to parliamentary processes for English legislation. This takes us down the arcane byways of Commons procedure: but it can be done, and would oblige a government to pay heed to English opinion.
“A variant of the plans Ken Clarke drew up for the Conservative Party in 2008 is entirely practicable. The trick is to set up a route through the Commons that involves English (or for some things maybe English and Welsh) committees at key points.
“All MPs would retain the same status, but certain committees could reflect only English views.”
SNP NATO u-turn?
As speculation grew over a potential u-turn in SNP policy towards an independent Scotland joining NATO, party members seemed to suggest they would do so, though only on the condition they would not have to be associated with nuclear weapons.
The stance drew derision from one time Scottish Labour MP, defence secretary and Secretary General of NATO, Lord Robertson, who declared:
“They can’t join with their own conditions attached. NATO membership is not a pick-and-mix menu from a sweetie shop.
“This is deadly serious global security we are talking about and the SNP would have to accept that the nuclear defence strategy of NATO is part of that.”
Meanwhile Phillips O’Brien, Director of the Scottish Centre for War Studies at the University of Glasgow wrote in the Scotsman:
“Reports that SNP party leaders are considering abandoning their policy of withdrawing from NATO in the run up to the 2014 independence referendum should not be a surprise, as it is only within NATO that the SNP’s defence policies can work militarily and politically.”
A spokesman for the SNP dismissed the debate as “mere speculation”.
• The legacy of collusion: Sam Marshall and Northern Ireland’s dirty war Beatrix Campbell
• Vote 2012: A tale of two Labour parties Ed Jacobs
Scottish local councils set to remain “male, pale and stale”
In a new study, Dr Meryl Kenny and Dr Fiona Mackay of Edinburgh University observed:
“Thirteen years after devolution heralded a ‘new dawn’ in women’s representation – with Nordic levels of women MSPs elected to the first Scottish Parliament – the story remains very different at local government level.
“Less than 1 in 4 candidates for next month’s local government elections are women, leaving the face of local politics looking decidedly ‘male, pale, and stale’ – 1 in 7 council wards is contested by men only.
“Whilst all-women shortlists have attracted controversy both north and south of the border, the continuation of these all-male shortlists and contests largely goes unnoticed. With local government in crisis around perceived problems of legitimacy, representativeness and quality, this raises questions as to the lessons learned, future prospects, and actions needed if there is to any real progress on women’s representation in Scotland.
“We argue that the time has come for tough action on women’s representation, or nothing is going to change anytime soon.
“What are the lessons learned from the Scottish Parliament’s success? First, change doesn’t happen on its own. The high numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament were not the result of luck or ‘trickle up’ or natural evolution, but were achieved through sustained campaigning and bold party action.
“In short, gender quotas work. But the puzzle remains: why haven’t quotas ‘caught on’ elsewhere in the political system? Currently, the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (34.8%), compared with only 22% of Scottish MPs, 17% Scottish MEPs, and 21.6% of Scottish local councillors.
“Of particular note are trends at the local level, where the percentage of women councillors has flatlined over the past four elections, hovering around 22% overall.
“Change can happen when there’s a shake-up of the system. Reformers had high hopes that the introduction of a PR-STV electoral system in local government in the run-up to the 2007 elections would rejuvenate local politics and provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected.
“However, progress did not materialise; instead, depressingly, it was more of the same. In fact, there was a marked drop in the number of women candidates selected and a small decrease in the number of women councillors elected.
“What are the prospects, then, for the local government elections in 2012? Supporters of STV, such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), had hoped that the unrealised progressive promise of STV would materialise in the second elections, once the new system had bedded down. The candidate lists have now been released, and our initial analysis of the raw figures shows that the numbers are virtually unchanged from 2007.
“None of the parties, with the exception of the Scottish Greens, have implemented effective equality measures. This suggests that the number of women likely to take up seats in local councils across Scotland will either stall or fall in 2012.
“Ethnic minority candidate breakdowns are not yet available, but the evidence suggests these numbers also will be low.”
Grim jobs news gets grimmer
With figures pointing to an extra 1,000 unemployed across Wales, an analysis by Claire Miller for the Western Mail revealed less than half of all permanent vacancies offer more than 24 hours a week with even fewer temporary vacancies doing so (only about 20%).
Responding to the findings, Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, said:
“A job with less than 24 hours or that is temporary is quite unattractive to someone on benefits particularly if they have children, as not only are your costs higher but the benefit regime is so much more complicated. We know from other statistics that temporary working is on the increase and part-time jobs as well.
“I think it will make it extremely difficult for anyone looking for work. People are working several jobs with short or flexible hours. It becomes extremely difficult to find a way out of poverty; it’s hard to up-skill or gain more training when working long hours or uncertain hours.
“You have to start asking questions about the wellbeing of children or families if you have that combination.”
Reacting to the Western Mail’s findings that one in 14 jobs advertised are on flexible contracts which could potentially see someone working between one hour and full time hours any given week, Winckler continued:
“We’ve interviewed people in the past who are in these so-called flexible hours jobs and if you have one of these jobs, you don’t know from one week to the next how much money you’re getting and you don’t know if you need someone to pick up your children or if you’ll be able to go to a night class or visit someone in hospital.
“It’s not just that you work for your hours, it seems you sell your life to these jobs and if you refuse to do those hours, there might be someone else willing to.”
Hain savages “pretty vile” Tory candidates
As shadow Welsh secretary, Peter Hain, launched an outspoken attack on the Welsh Conservatives for fielding candidates he dubbed “pretty vile”, first minister and leader of Welsh Labour, Carwyn Jones, urged supporters to use May 3rd to send a message to Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
Speaking in Newport this week he declared:
“The local elections on May 3rd are vital for Welsh Labour – they are vital elections for Wales. Will your local council work with the Welsh Labour government to shield the most vulnerable from the Tory assault? If it is Labour-run, then yes it will.
“Will your local council put education first, and ensure more money and support is reaching the classroom? If it is Labour-run, then yes it will.
“Will your local councillors be accessible, visible, will they listen to you and act on your priorities? If they are Welsh Labour councillors, then yes, they will.
“And of course, only a vote for Labour will send a message to David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
“Only a vote for Labour will send a message that they need to act – as we are doing here in Wales – to tackle rising youth unemployment.
“Only a vote for Labour will send a message that Wales rejects the Tory/Lib Dem budget which gave tax breaks for millionaires, paid for by tax rises for our pensioners, and by the cruel cutting of support for families in work struggling to make ends meet.”
It was also reported more than 90 candidates across Wales had already been elected unopposed as the deadline for nominations formally closed.
NI education system “failing” children with autism
A new report by the National Autistic Society for Northern Ireland concluded the education system is “failing” children with autism.
In a survey of parents, the report found:
• 80% said a lack of support had harmed their children’s social and communication skills;
• 65% said a lack of support had affected their child’s mental health;
• 49% said they did not have enough information when choosing an educational placement for their child.
In calling for Stormont to develop a coherent special educational needs strategy, Shirelle Stewart, co-director of the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland, commented:
“We hope that this campaign will enable children with autism to access an A* education that sets them up for life. Every area of Northern Ireland needs to have education provision that understands autism.
“It is completely unacceptable that so many parents have to battle to secure their child’s fundamental right to an education. The proposed reforms to the special educational needs system will shape the future of a generation of children with SEN so the Northern Ireland Assembly must listen to parents when they say that the system must do better to meet their needs.”
All quiet on the Stormont front
Meanwhile, as rumours circulated that Parliament would rise earlier than expected before the Queen’s Speech as a result of a lack of activity in the Commons in particular, one minister at Stormont seemed to suggest the same problem was happening there.
Speaking to the Newsletter, Alliance leader and justice minister, David Ford, explained:
“Committees are quite busy, but the Assembly in plenary [full] session is doing relatively little real business.
“Probably at this stage we should be allowing more time for committee meetings and only one day for plenary, whereas later in the session the committees could be turning back to the plenary sessions.
“We should probably be a bit more flexible in the timetable although, frankly, if you listen to what Naomi Long [Alliance MP] is saying about Westminster at the moment, the House of Commons hasn’t been exactly busy doing real business recently either.
“There are peaks and troughs and we haven’t really got the handle of how we smooth out those peaks and troughs yet. I can remember in the past, when we weren’t being paid a full salary, saying that I looked forward to a day when we could justify the salary that we are being paid.
“I think there’s still a concern among the public when you see the business being done here [at the Assembly] that we’re not yet fully earning the salaries that are set.”
There were four by-elections this week:
• Goresbrook Ward, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham: Lab hold.
– Lab 1113; BNP 593; UKIP 91; Con 81; LD 48. Swing of 5.3% from BNP to Lab since 2010.
• Plaistow Ward, Chester District Council: Con hold.
– Con 455; LD 408. Swing of 14.4% from Con to LD since 2011.
• Spitalfields & Banglatown Ward, London Borough of Tower Hamlets: Ind gain from Lab
– Ind 1030; Lab 981; Con 140; Green 99; LD 39. Swing: N/A.
• Watlington Ward, Oxfordshire County Council: Con hold.
– Con 865; LD 259; Lab 157; UKIP 110. Swing of 5.1% from Con to LD since 2009.