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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 7:47 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 7:47 pm, 13th October 2008

I should start by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what Dr. Wright has just said in favour of democracy, so I shall delete that part from my speech.

It is a tremendous privilege to stand before the House today and have the opportunity to speak. I am only too well aware of the history of this place and of the number of highly respected Members who have represented my own beloved city of Glasgow and constituencies round about: some of them are here today. I thank the many Members who have warmly welcomed me to the House, and particularly Mr. Speaker for his help during the two months before I was sworn in; it is good to have a neighbouring Glasgow Member in such a key position. I was particularly keen to take part in this debate on democracy and human rights, but first I would like to make some opening remarks, as I believe is the custom.

The people of Glasgow, East elected me to send a message to the Prime Minister and now I am here to deliver it. That message is clear and simple: it is time for action to help hard-pressed households who, given soaring food and fuel bills, are struggling to make ends meet. During the by-election, Scottish National party pressure forced a U-turn on the 2p rise in road fuel duty. People are struggling to make ends meet, and an SNP success in Glenrothes would force more action over soaring household bills.

The swing that elected me to what was Labour's third safest seat shows that Labour's days of taking Scotland for granted are over. It is clear that people have had enough of the party's broken promises, and want a change for the better.

Less than four short months ago, I was happily taking part in debates in Glasgow city chambers, with the outlook of a quiet July and a holiday in prospect. However, as has been said,

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley."

We think that we have the future of ourselves, our economy and our country safely planned out, but events take a turn and we find ourselves not where we expected to be.

As I reflect on the past in this place, I particularly wish to mention my immediate predecessor, David Marshall. Although I had been a councillor in Glasgow for some 10 years, it was only when he became the Member for the newly created constituency of Glasgow, East in 2005 that our paths began to cross. I must say that in all my dealings with David Marshall I always found him to be helpful and courteous to me and to others, and I know that that was the experience of many who met him. Since my election, a number of constituents have approached me about a problem that David Marshall had been dealing with and asked me to take it up as well. I am more than happy to do that, particularly in the case of several asylum seekers whom David Marshall was helping and I seek to help as well.

Despite what is reputed to be the robust nature of Glasgow politics, many of the concerns of the two main parties there—the Scottish National party and Labour—are shared concerns. For example, in his maiden speech in June 1979, David Marshall referred to the poor state of many school buildings in the city. Twenty-nine years later, I am very much at one with him on that. He clearly believed that all children everywhere deserve a decent education in decent buildings, and I want to follow his example on that point. Just the other day, I received a letter from David Marshall wishing me well. That says a lot about him as a man. I am sure that the House would want to join me in wishing him a swift recovery from illness and a long and fulfilling retirement.

I understand that it is also customary on these occasions to mention one's constituency, and I would like to make a few points. I assume that a number of Members visited Glasgow, East in July—although I realise that some could not make it—and were able to see for themselves the success and the problems. It is certainly not an area of uniform devastation, as some have had us believe—in fact, it is a very mixed area, like so many others. Old heavy industry has largely gone, with some new manufacturing and service industries in its place, but still one sees the wide open spaces where the factories used to stand. We have to do something about that.

Much of the '50s and '60s housing has been refurbished or demolished, with new and better housing in its place. The Scottish Government are providing grant for new house building, which is very welcome, as are restrictions on the right to buy. However, our Government's powers are limited. We need to do something about that.

Some old schools have been combined and replaced with excellent modern facilities. However, there are still many popular schools with good educational attainment, despite the fact that inspector's report says that the buildings themselves are very poor. All that I hear from head teachers and their staff is that a modern building is a huge morale booster for teachers and pupils. Labour-controlled Glasgow city council has let the schools down for decades. We need to do something about that.

We look forward to the Commonwealth games coming to Glasgow, particularly to the east end, in 2014. Glasgow has done well in having many of the facilities in place already. It is encouraging that the Scottish Government and the city council, despite being of different political persuasions, are willing to work so closely together in having everything in place for the games. It would be even better if lottery funding could be released to fund a lasting legacy, as has happened with many similar events in England. However, I constantly hear complaints from youngsters about the lack of local affordable facilities, which they feel are too far away or too expensive. We need to do something about that.

In preparing this speech, I was encouraged to read some of those made by Members in the past. I was struck that in at least two I found concern about one of the main issues that concerns me today—the widening gap in our society between the rich and the poor. As I listened to Prime Minister's Questions last week, I noted the suggestion that things started to go seriously wrong in 1979. I will leave it to others to judge whether that is the case, but it seems to me that since that date some in our society have done incredibly well and some have done extremely badly, and that that trend has continued almost seamlessly no matter which party has been in power.

One maiden speech that I read referred to

"a Budget which took from the needy to give to the greedy and which made the rich richer and the poor poorer."—[ Hansard, 14 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 699.]

That was from David Marshall in 1979. This is from another maiden speech:

"This is all because the Government's philosophy is that the rich must get richer by way of tax cuts and that the poor must become poorer to ensure true prosperity."—[ Hansard, 27 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 1241.]

That was from the then Member for Dunfermline, East in 1983. Both statements are criticisms with which I wholeheartedly agree. When a new measure is brought to this house by whatever Government in the coming years, that is the measure against which I will judge them. I will ask myself, "Does this measure narrow or widen the gap between rich and poor?" We are clearly in difficult economic times in this country and throughout the world. Yes, there may be a need for belt tightening by many of us, but if that does happen, it must be those who have least who tighten their belts least and those who have most who tighten their belts most.

Let me turn to the subject of the debate: democracy and human rights. I am the most recently elected member of this House, so I have been most recently subjected to the democratic process. I would not go so far as to say that that gives me the strongest mandate of any politician in Scotland, but it does say something about how people in Scotland are thinking at this time. A growing number of voters in Glasgow, East support independence, and, despite scaremongering in some quarters, they are not afraid to vote for the party of independence. For too long, Unionist parties have sought to instil fear in the people of Scotland if they dared even to think of independence, but those scare tactics work only for so long because people eventually see through them. In this by-election, many people broke with family tradition when they voted. No longer are the people of Glasgow, East looking backwards—rather, they are looking forward in hope.

The two countries where I have lived most to date have been Scotland and Nepal; whether England will overtake Nepal remains to be seen. In the 1980s, Nepal had a ruling monarch with elected representatives, but the latter had little power. Political parties were not even allowed, so every candidate was an independent—allegedly. However, party tensions still lay below the surface. I remember sitting in my flat in Kathmandu during an election when a random stone came flying through the window. Human rights there were clearly limited, not least in the religious field. It was against the law to change one's religion, and baptisms of new believers were generally carried out secretly at night. The most open I was able to be about my faith was at Christmas, when outdoor carol singing was allowed. However, I was still nervous that every time we went round a corner the police would be standing there. Clearly, other countries around the world have even less democracy and fewer human rights than Nepal. I am glad to say that the situation in Nepal has greatly improved over recent years, although that country still has its fair share of problems.

In Scotland we have a variety of voting systems for each of the four main levels of representation: Europe, Westminster, the national Government and local councils. While most of that will be familiar to Members here, it is the relatively new local council system that I want to bring to their attention and commend to them. It is a system of proportional representation by single transferable vote. It has been relatively well understood by the electorate, with very few spoiled papers. It is already used by some trade unions and pensions funds. It combines an emphasis on the individual candidate and on the political party—a balance that no other system is able to achieve. I want to commend the two parties in the previous Scottish coalition for combining to introduce that excellent system in my country. I hope that it can be extended elsewhere.

In conclusion, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your forbearance and Members of all parties for their warm welcome.

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Jane Birkby
Posted on 15 Oct 2008 12:12 am (Report this annotation)

A very good speech, I wish he represented me, and I hope all those fat cat MPs in this house take note of what he said, for he spoke a good truth about the wealth gap.