Chirnsyde Community Initiative

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:08 pm on 4th October 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:08 pm, 4th October 2007

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-72, in the name of Bob Doris, on Glasgow Milton and Chirnsyde community initiative. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament praises the continued courage and determination of the local community in the Glasgow Milton area in standing up against organised crime; thanks community activists who have worked tirelessly to ensure that community facilities provided in the area are safe for the local community to use, and looks forward to the speedy reopening of the Chirnsyde Community Initiative with a new management committee that will provide a range of much-needed local services for the people of Milton and Ashfield.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 5:15 pm, 4th October 2007

Before I begin my speech, I must note that parliamentary privilege in this chamber is nowhere near as comprehensive as it is in Westminster, so we must all be careful about what we say.

It is a privilege to be able to facilitate this debate. Organised crime is a blight on our society and it affects the lives of far too many families and communities. In that respect, however, Glasgow Milton has suffered more than most. When organised crime takes a grip in the community, it does so for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that there are people who are prepared to make money off the back of the misery and suffering of others. It also requires a base from which to operate and flourish, and a community that is compliant—not through choice, but through fear.

In Glasgow Milton, there are said to be two main crime families of not just local, but city-wide, significance. They may even have national significance as part of an organised criminal network. One of the alleged crime families is the Lyons family. I mention them because a Mr Edward Lyons Snr was the co-ordinator of the Chirnsyde community initiative, which is mentioned in the motion, for a number of years. In fact, he was the co-ordinator until recently, when events last December brought his position there abruptly to an end.

The centre remains closed. Many locals believe that it was closed not before time and that the tragic events that led to its closure could have been far worse. When locals made repeated complaints over many years about alleged criminal activities taking place in and around the Chirnsyde centre and about the centre being used as a base for organised crime, they felt that their complaints fell on deaf ears. Seeming inaction by Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Police only added to their frustrations and fears that the council would not look at the Disclosure Scotland checks that were carried out to assess the suitability of staff who worked there—the council said that that was a matter for the Chirnsyde community initiative itself.

Locals knew that Edward Lyons Snr and other members of his family had been charged with the murder of Thomas McDonnell in the vicinity of the Chirnsyde community initiative and that the verdict was left at not proven amid fears of witness intimidation.

The fact that the centre has received more than £1 million of taxpayers' money in the past 10 years has only added insult to injury. The council pulled the centre's funding only after a tragic triple shooting last December at a garage on Balmore Road owned by David Lyons, the brother of Edward Lyons Snr, where Michael Lyons, nephew of Edward Lyons Snr, was shot dead and Stephen Lyons, the son of Edward Lyons Snr, and one other were seriously injured.

Court proceedings with regard to that shocking crime are pending and, for obvious reasons, I will be very careful what I say.

The MOT garage was beside the local primary school and, had the hit on the garage been carried out earlier, or had it gone badly wrong, who knows how many innocent young people or parents arriving to collect their children might have been caught up in the mayhem and carnage.

Given that the Chirnsyde initiative was another known location at which to find the Lyons family, it is only by the grace of God—or on the toss of a coin—that the initiative was not the location for the attack, which would have put staff and youngsters at risk of being caught up in terror. That is precisely why locals called not just for the closure of the Chirnsyde initiative but for its safe reopening. Nevertheless, the police, the council—and Bridget McConnell, the council's director of culture and leisure—acted too late to prevent such an escalation in gang violence, of which the local community activists had repeatedly warned. Being proven correct does not give those activists pleasure, but their belief that they were brushed off by officials makes them angry.

Organised crime needs a base in which to flourish. Chirnsyde might have been such a base, run at taxpayers' expense, but there is a fear that another base might remain.

In February 2006, there was a council by-election in Milton. During that campaign, when I acted as the election agent for Councillor McAllister, as he became, I received a number of anonymous survey returns that raised concerns about the Chirnsyde initiative. One respondent said that they would not send a rabid dog to the centre. Billy McAllister won the by-election on a ticket to clean up Milton. Following December's triple shooting, he received death threats for his attempts to do so.

Locals have put their lives on the line and their families in danger by taking a stand. I could give a number of examples of incidents that have left local campaigners terrified, but I do not want to bring back bad memories. Many are still living with the legacy of standing up against organised crime in their area. Indeed, on Saturday night, one local campaigner's car window was broken and his car was set on fire.

The courageous and tireless work that community campaigners such as John McLean, Alex O'Kane and Charlie Traynor have carried out to draw attention to the possible inappropriate use of the Chirnsyde initiative must not go unnoticed; nor must the support of newspapers such as the Sunday Mail, which championed their campaign despite attempts to discredit them. I have evidence that the Glasgow City Council media affairs team described the campaigners as "bampots" to the press. Given events, I wonder who the bampots are now.

Elected representatives and the police must also be more willing to take communities' concerns forward when they are made known to them. If that happens, some good can come from the pain and suffering that people have endured. That also becomes my challenge as a new MSP.

The debate is about thanking people and looking forward. In that spirit, I urge Glasgow City Council to achieve the safe reopening of the newly named Ashgill community centre as soon as possible and to ensure that the pillars of the community that stood up against organised crime are involved in that. We also have to build up trust with the local police, which will take time. I pay tribute to operation reclaim, an initiative in the area based at St Augustine's playing fields that ran for six weeks over the summer. In particular, I pay tribute to the work of police constable Harry Faulds, who is trying his hardest to see the scheme extended. The area desperately needs such initiatives, and I call on Strathclyde Police and Glasgow City Council to look in the round about how to take the community forward.

In closing, I return to my two initial comments. First, in Milton there is a community that is managing to rise up and beat the fear that holds many communities back in tackling organised crime. Criminals use fear to keep communities across Scotland under siege and on their knees. We should all be truly thankful that there are people such as John McLean, Alex O'Kane and Charlie Traynor around.

Secondly, and finally, I hope that our new Government will look imaginatively, creatively and determinedly at ways to disrupt and destroy organised crime networks throughout Scotland that work nationally and internationally. I hope that it will also give much-needed support to communities not just in Glasgow, but throughout Scotland.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 5:22 pm, 4th October 2007

I congratulate Bob Doris on securing a debate on this particular area of the Maryhill constituency.

I am sure that many members who travel daily to Parliament from Glasgow and the west of Scotland are unaware that they pass by the Chirnsyde community initiative not long after the train leaves Glasgow Queen Street station.

The Chirnsyde facility is in the Ashfield area of my constituency and has been the subject of many allegations in the past few years. I must make it clear that Glasgow City Council did not run the Chirnsyde initiative—it was run by a management committee, although some of the funding for the centre came from the city council.

Unfortunately, the allegations that were made were never substantiated; nor were they ever absolutely tied to the day-to-day running of the centre. At the same time, criminal factions have been engaged in a dangerous turf war in the area. A family connection between one of those families and the centre existed, but once again there has never been proof that organised crime was linked directly to the facility, either before or after the events outlined in Mr Doris's contribution.

As the constituency MSP and one who has a passion for education and the ability of all our citizens to have the opportunity to use good, safe local facilities, I made a point of passing each and every allegation that I received on to the relevant agency—in spite of what Mr Doris said in his speech. I passed them on, whether that was to Strathclyde Police, Glasgow City Council or, on some occasions, to both.

Ashfield and the neighbouring community of Milton do not have the community facilities that they deserve, although that will be addressed in part by the new community campus that is currently under construction.

The Chirnsyde initiative provided a range of sport, leisure and educational facilities. It was a vital part of the community's infrastructure.

As a result of a fatal shooting in another district and amid renewed allegations about the alleged involvement of employees of the initiative, the city council took the decision—in my view it was the correct decision—to work with the management committee to close the centre to help address heightened concerns. As Mr Doris said, arrests have been made in connection with the shooting and a trial is pending.

The city council decided that the initiative should reopen in the summer, with a new name and a new management arrangement, and arranged to make repairs to the building to allow it to be used by the local community once more. Unfortunately, a spate of major vandalism, including break-ins and thefts of equipment, has prevented that from happening, although it has been possible to run some of the centre's activities from other venues in the area.

I understand that the building is now secure and that the department of regeneration services at the city council is considering the extent of the damage, which I understand is significant.

Let us hope that in the new year the centre will reopen in its new guise as the Ashfield centre as soon as possible, so that local people have access to safe, local services in their own community.

Having laid out the facts of the matter, I want, in the spirit of Mr Doris's motion, to place on record my appreciation of all those who work tirelessly for safe communities and safe local facilities throughout my constituency of Maryhill and my pledge to continue to support them.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 5:26 pm, 4th October 2007

I congratulate Bob Doris on securing the debate. It is an important issue for not only the community of Milton in Glasgow, but all communities that suffer from or have suffered from activities of the same nature. I also congratulate the local people, past and present, who Bob Doris has already mentioned; without them a serious situation would still be on-going.

I urge all parties—Glasgow City Council, the police, local groups and the community—to work together and to be transparent and open, because that is what the people in Milton and Chirnsyde want. They want transparency and openness to ensure that the situation does not arise again and that the bullying and intimidation that occurred in Milton and in Chirnsyde over the years never happens again.

I join Bob Doris in thanking the media, and the Sunday Mail in particular, whose voracious appetite for the truth kept the Chirnsyde story on the front pages. It made sure that the activists, who were desperate for some truth and transparency, were able to turn to someone. Without the Sunday Mail exposing what was going on in Chirnsyde, it would have disappeared from the public eye.

I first visited Chirnsyde when I was elected in 1999 and went there often. I also often visited Maryhill police station—so often that I think I was there more frequently than Glasgow's finest. I met community groups and individuals in the area, as well as Glasgow City Council. I was going to bring in my correspondence today, but it amounts to four box-loads and would be too much to bring into the chamber.

Bob Doris has given a report of some of the incidents that took place in Milton. The confidentiality that I owe to constituents prevents me from raising other incidents, including intimidation and threats by certain people who have been mentioned and by others who have not. From 1999 until a couple of months ago, certain people had a community minibus, which they drove around Chirnsyde while wearing bullet-proof vests. We all have ice cream vans and community buses visiting our areas. I did not know where they had got the bullet-proof vests from, but they were driving the community bus while wearing them. One has to ask to why.

When the recent shootings that Bob mentioned took place, I again asked Glasgow City Council to intervene and remove the minibus from Chirnsyde and close the community initiative. I was told that the council could not do that because it had no jurisdiction over the management committee of the Chirnsyde community initiative.

That community activists can do something is great, but questions must be answered when we reach the stage at which the council can do nothing about people wearing bullet-proof vests running about in minibuses. I have looked for answers. In fact, until the council recently impounded that minibus as a result of pressure from the local community relating to health and safety matters, it was being driven along the road to pick up kids to go to football clubs, and people were still wearing bullet-proof vests.

I conclude in the same spirit in which I started. We want a fresh start for Chirnsyde and Milton, but people must be accountable for their actions. I reiterate: we want truth and transparency about what has happened in the Chirnsyde area. It cannot be allowed to happen again. As elected members, we must ensure that our communities are safe. When communities come to us, we must ensure that they are given answers to the serious problems that they have raised.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 5:31 pm, 4th October 2007

I congratulate Bob Doris on securing this debate on the Glasgow Milton and Chirnsyde community initiative. Colleagues know that I am not a Glasgow member, so I will defer to the local knowledge of Patricia Ferguson, Bob Doris and other members. However, I am pleased to be able to support Glasgow members on the issue. In doing so, I would like to say something about organised crime in Scotland.

It is clear that the Milton community—members of which are here, I think—have endured a great deal. Ordinary people have been subjected to intimidation and the community has lived in fear of drug dealers and organised gangsters, as have other communities. That a community centre that was set up to improve neighbourhood well-being may have been at the centre of actions that have had completely the opposite effect is particularly chilling. Obviously, Glasgow City Council felt justified in shutting the centre down. The centre had been run at considerable cost to the taxpayers of not only Glasgow, but Scotland. The costs included £80,000 from the council. That serves as a reminder of the need for audit accountability and vigilance when third parties use public funds. Many community organisations are good—indeed, many in our constituencies do a fantastic job—but occasionally they get into trouble, sometimes through no fault of their own, sometimes because they are simply not up to things, and sometimes because of other circumstances. There is a real need for auditing and accountability when public funds are being used.

Glasgow City Council has voted to reopen the centre, but its plans appear to have been put on hold in the face of mindless vandalism. The ordinary people of the community, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, are sitting in the middle among the consequences of antisocial behaviour, gang warfare and organised crime. It is to be hoped that the centre can be reopened soon, and that it will have safe facilities and the required support.

I turn to wider issues. Serious organised crime is a cancer that is eating away at the heart of local communities in my constituency and many others. The community that we are discussing is in Glasgow, but the impacts of organised crime are felt throughout Scotland and beyond. We are talking about international trade in drugs, money and people. Gangsters live the high life on the backs of ordinary people—on the backs of drug addicts, of legitimate businesses that cannot compete with them and of those who pay protection money. Sometimes I think that they must think that the rest of us walk about with the word "mug" written across our foreheads, as they have protected their wealth behind false businesses or apparently legitimate frontmen. They have thought of themselves as untouchable and beyond the law for too long. All members must change that perception.

We can do that in a number of ways. We can support members of the public in our communities who come to us with concerns. I know that many colleagues, including Robert Brown, with whom I discussed the issue earlier today, have taken up allegations with the police, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, councils and others. We can also support the work that the police do—not only that of community police officers, but that of the intelligence element of local forces and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. When we think about that agency's work so far and how we might judge its success, it is tempting to think about quantifiable things, such as conviction rates and the amount of drugs that have been seized, but its work in harassing key colourful Glasgow businessmen—I think that that is the phrase that is used—is equally important. Effective policing is not only about uniformed officers—it is also about forensic accountants and other experts.

The Justice Committee has asked about the availability of legal aid to known gangsters. Why should there not be some form of clawback of legal aid after someone has been found guilty of involvement in organised crime? Why should they not be pursued for fraudulent legal aid claims once they have been convicted?

Let us do all that we can to support our communities, so that the message goes out to those involved in organised crime and to others that it should not be easy for them to function in Scotland and that the police, communities, local authorities and politicians, working together, will stop them.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 5:35 pm, 4th October 2007

Four years ago, following the previous Scottish parliamentary election, I stood on a platform and condemned the failure of the Government and Glasgow City Council to act on the growing scandal of the Chirnsyde community initiative. It was absolutely clear then, and had been for some years, that the closure and restructuring of the centre was vital, so it is with some disappointment that I attend today's debate. There should have been no need for a debate today, as the problems of Chirnsyde could and should have been solved years ago.

The matter was not laid to rest, because the voices of the community were ignored. There is no doubt that, had the voices of courageous community activists and of the community in general been listened to, the scandal of Chirnsyde would have been ended. Why were the voices of the community ignored? All now agree that the individuals in question should not have been allowed to run a community centre and should not have been responsible for the distribution of vast sums of Government money.

I regret that I cannot say why the voices of the community were ignored, but the lessons for the new Government are clear: when a community speaks, it must be listened to, and when individuals with the courage of John McLean, Alex O'Kane or Charlie Traynor speak, they must be listened to. Organised crime must be tackled seriously; it cannot be wished away, ignored and placated. It must be tackled head on wherever it raises its ugly head and regardless of who may be embarrassed by its presence. We must also tackle the fundamental causes of crime: relative poverty, youth disenfranchisement and the feeling of abandonment.

Where now for Chirnsyde? The closure of the community centre is a remarkable achievement for the community activists and for Councillor Billy McAllister, but let us be under no illusion—it is not a victory. We cannot even claim that it is the end of the beginning. The closure of Chirnsyde is stalemate. To this day, the centre remains closed. Fear of vandalism is one reason why its reopening has been delayed. Where once major organised crime used Chirnsyde as its base, now petty crime prevents its reopening as a symbol of rebirth and a centre of regeneration—the heart of a thriving community in which youngsters could learn that there is more to life than alcohol, drugs and violence.

The re-engagement of the youth of Milton and Langhill would be the end of the beginning, as it would bring them back into the community and give them hope for a better future. However, the beginning of the end will come only when we tackle the root cause of crime in Scotland and eradicate poverty—when we drive the cancer of poverty from the heart of wealthy Scotland.

Can we do that? We should look across the seas to small independent nations such as Norway and Sweden, with their fairer distribution of wealth and lower crime rates, and at how they use their natural resources. When the people of Milton and Langhill ask when the beginning of the end will come and they will have the community for which they have worked, I say that it will come when we as a nation commit ourselves to ending poverty and to being all that we can be. It will come when we look at societies that distribute wealth fairly not in wonder, but as the natural state of affairs.

I end by congratulating the courageous individuals who stood and fought for their community.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 5:39 pm, 4th October 2007

I am grateful to Bob Doris for bringing this issue to Parliament's attention and for ensuring that none of us forget the brave and committed actions that local people are taking and—as we have heard—have taken, not just in Glasgow but throughout the country, to make their communities safer and stronger.

It is important to stress that most of Scotland's communities are safe, but too many are blighted by antisocial behaviour, and some are plagued by serious crime. Many of our most disadvantaged areas are hit hardest. Bob Doris and other members from across the party divide have made those points loud and clear. It is imperative that we reclaim our streets and communities from a thuggish minority who cause so much misery for the law-abiding majority.

Other members, such as Margaret Smith, have made the point before that, in the work that the police do, it is essential that all local communities share their concerns with the police and work with them. The police will investigate and take action on evidence that is provided to substantiate any allegations that are put to them. That is not a matter for a minister, it is a matter for the police, therefore I will not comment on any of the individuals who have—appropriately—been mentioned by members. That would not be appropriate for me, as a minister.

A safe and strong community is not just one that is safe from crime and free from antisocial behaviour; it is also one that has a secure and welcoming environment and that has access to high-quality services and amenities. I am pleased that Glasgow City Council has apparently agreed to continue to explore ways in which to support the Chirnsyde initiative. Bill Wilson and Patricia Ferguson touched on that during the debate, and Patricia Ferguson mentioned the issue of vandalism to the property, which suggests that the problems have not yet been solved. I understand that the local community planning partnership has ring fenced funding to address that, although there are still challenges.

I congratulate all the local activists on their efforts, and I encourage them to do all that they can to send out a clear message to criminal groups that it is the local residents who will win the battle, not gangs of thugs.

Bob Doris mentioned disclosure. I think that it is correct that Glasgow City Council is responsible for ensuring that an individual is a suitable person to be in charge of children and young people.

Many members have mentioned organised crime. I will share some facts with the chamber. The first meeting of the serious organised crime task force will take place on 22 October, and its membership will include the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, HM Revenue and Customs, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Lord Advocate. The task force's remit will include the identification of priorities for tackling serious organised crime in Scotland and improving co-ordination between the law enforcement agencies and others, such as the Security Industry Authority, which regulates the private security industry. That will come into effect from 1 November and will, I believe, make its mark.

There has been success for the Scottish police forces. There were nearly 25,000 seizures of drugs in 2005—an increase of 50 per cent since 1999. The number of arrests has also risen substantially. I pay tribute to every person who has been involved in bringing drug dealers to justice. That is, by no means, a political point, as all parties are united in their desire to ensure that those efforts are repeated and improved on as time goes on.

Combating serious organised crime and tackling organised crime groups is a top priority for the Government and the Scottish police service. The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 allows the Crown to recover profits from people with a criminal lifestyle and, since its implementation in 2003, £16 million has been recovered from criminals.

I was interested in Margaret Smith's suggestion at the end of her speech—which was, of necessity, short—that those who are convicted and who have been in receipt of legal aid should be subject to a clawback. I give Margaret Smith an undertaking that if that cannot already be done, I will look into it and see whether we can explore it as a possibility. I will get back to her on that.

We are determined to track down illegal assets and to deprive criminals of their cash and possessions. I recall raising that issue some years ago. To be fair, the Government took action on it, with support from across the political divide.

Bill Wilson quite rightly mentioned the underlying causes of crime and their relation to poverty. We have made it clear that the three Ds—drink, drugs and deprivation—are the root causes of a great deal of our crime. Everyone would admit that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has been extremely active in promoting that message, and I hope and believe that his action is helping to change attitudes in Scotland.

I add my voice to those of members who have congratulated specific individuals. Although I will not name those people, they have plainly acted with courage, perhaps at some risk to their personal safety. We as a Government will continue to place a high priority on promoting community safety and tackling antisocial behaviour. However, we want to give young people more choices and chances in life and thereby promote better behaviour. Prevention is surely better than cure.

I thank Bob Doris for facilitating the debate. I am sure that the message that has been conveyed by members of all parties this evening will find its way to the authorities and will, I hope, contribute to the development of a stronger, safer Scotland.

Meeting closed at 17:46.