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Updates from Holyrood

Alison writes a regular column for local newspapers in the North East to keep residents updated with the latest goings on at Holyrood, and on her work on important issues from around the region. Below you can find a recent column, along with links to those from previous months.

Flooding leaves the government floundering

For a few weeks now the North East has been battered by the elements. Flooding in particular has devastated parts of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

Roads, rail links, even air travel were all affected due to flooding. People needed to be evacuated from their homes, businesses were devastated and some schools and roads are yet to re-open. Nearly a thousand homes were left without power.

But with this destruction came positivity. I was greatly heartened by all of the stories of individuals and businesses providing help to those who suffered and are still suffering from the effects of the floods. Charities provided and continue to provide much needed support to those in need. Council staff gave up their free time to assist the efforts. It is this show of community spirit that makes me proud to call the North East my home.

It was disappointing however, that it took the Scottish Government far too long to wake up to the fact that we, here in the North East, needed support. Contrary to the response by the local councils, the Scottish Government decided that the only support they could offer was the promise of funding to deal with the aftermath. While that is, of course, welcome, additional resources would have gone a long way during the worst of flooding, for Aberdeenshire Council, in particular, who stretched themselves thin dealing with wide-ranging issues. I wrote to the finance secretary to ask for support in this regard but I have yet to even receive a response.

In the last week, the Scottish Government has expanded on what ministers consider appropriate response to emergencies, such as this most recent flooding. The Bellwin Scheme is a discretionary scheme to give financial assistance to councils who face an undue financial burden as a result of large-scale emergencies. The scheme was triggered in response to the flooding, but it is by no means an automatic system. My colleague, Willie Rennie, recently outlined two examples when the Bellwin scheme let people down. In November 2012, Comrie was badly flooded, however, the support from Bellwin Scheme was denied to Perth and Kinross Council a year later by the Scottish Government because it did not meet the criteria required. And just last year, in July 2015 after flash flooding caused considerable damage in Alyth, the Deputy First Minister announced he had again triggered the scheme so the council could claim back financial aid which is still yet to receive. The Scottish Government website states that the scheme's purpose is not to put right all the ill effects of an incident. Arguably this is where the cost to the local authorities lie. We have successfully argued for a review of the scheme, and look forward to an improved financial support scheme for our hard hit councils.

Residents and businesses will be able to apply for grants of £1500 (£3000 for businesses) to deal with damage to the individual properties. But this is likely to be a lengthy process. Cold weather, snow and ice have been predicted by the Met Office for the North East and is likely to cause further issues. I hope that the Scottish Government will hurry up.

College reform hits part-time students hardest

Ever since the SNP took over as the party of government, the number of students enrolling in Scotland's colleges has been consistently falling. Colleges have been merged, funding for places has been slashed. Figures released last week showed that 152,000 fewer students studied in Scotland last year compared to 2007/8. And the Scottish Government admits that this is a result of deliberate action to cut part-time places. This is a disgrace.

Part-time study allows flexibility and access to many, varied groups of people in society. Unfortunately College cuts disproportionately impact on women, people with disabilities and additional learning needs, mature students, parents, carers and those who perhaps cannot afford to study full time or require additional skills.

Yet the Scottish Government takes deliberate steps to deny people this important opportunity to learn. They claim that education is important to them, but their action tells the opposite story.

Bill is an attempt to interfere with our universities

The controversial Higher Education Governance Bill is now making its way through parliament, with the stage 1 proceedings taking place last week. Scottish Liberal Democrats voted against the bill, but unfortunately the government's majority means that the bill will proceed to stage 2 of the three-stage process.

From the very beginning I have been concerned about this bill and its potential effect on the standing of our universities nationally and globally. As introduced, this bill would grant ministers the power to amend universities' constitutions and determine selection processes, the length of appointments and pay rates. In addition to this, the bill would also enable ministers to make further changes to ruling councils without further primary legislation. My very real fear is that our universities may no longer be seen as autonomous bodies, free from political influence, and free to undertake their world-renowned teaching and research.

During the stage 1 debate, the government announced it intended to remove two of the most controversial sections of the bill. These two sections would allow ministers to modify the composition of university governing bodies and academic boards. While I am looking forward to seeing government's amendments at stage 2 to remove these provisions, I will continue to call for the scrapping of the bill in its entirety. It is still my view that in this instance the government is legislating, not because it should or needs to, but because it can.

My Holyrood Columns