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There is absolutely no place for hate crime or prejudice in our 21st century Scotland. We can no more and we will not indulge the bigots as they practise their intolerance and bigotry only to accuse others of being more intolerant and bigoted than they are. We must show that there is a better way. At a time when other parts of the world are becoming insular and some nations’ views are hardening, we need to show leadership and that there is still a bright light out there. We must show that progressive politics can be a way forward. Everyone in Scotland must be empowered to achieve their potential, irrespective of their race, faith, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Everyone has the right to be safe and to feel safe in their communities.
The Scotland that we all know has a very long history of welcoming people of all nationalities and faiths. As the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, said:
“As a nation, we have a long history of welcoming people of all nationalities and faiths, and we are committed to supporting their integration into our communities. That has assumed even more importance in the aftermath of the EU referendum”.
We need only to look at the 1,000 refugees who have settled here since October 2015 to see our openness and willingness to help people to integrate and become part of Scottish life. We have seen the success of that locally in my Paisley constituency, as families have been welcomed in our community. However, countless EU citizens have come to my constituency office after the Brexit result and asked me what their future holds. They have committed themselves and their families to our nation and contributed to it. We need to ensure that, as a nation, we continue to be welcoming and open, and that we do not descend into the hate-and-blame culture that there has been in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, we cannot remain complacent; we must always look to be better.
In 2015, the Scottish Government commissioned a report to consider the issues of hate crime, prejudice and community cohesion. Recommendations for improvement were made.
That brings us to today. There are many forms of prejudice. It can be abusive and lead to hate, but it can also be a physical barrier. A disabled person can have difficulty in gaining access to most aspects of life that others take for granted, whether that is access to employment, a building or transportation. Those things are all connected, of course. Without one, another cannot be achieved.
Many members will know that my wife Stacey has multiple sclerosis and mobility problems. When we go out, we tend to go to places where we know that there will be access. If we use her manual chair, things tend to be easier—not for me, but we all need a fitness programme. With the manual chair, we can access a train without help and, nine times out of 10, I can find a way to push our way just about anywhere.
Of course, that is not the point. The point is how Stacey and others manage it on their own. How can we ensure that all our people have access to all the same buildings and services and to employment?
Stacey often says to me that people with disabilities tend to be forgotten. They have a very active network of organisations working to improve things, and they tend to be very reasonable. Unlike other groups, they try to find solutions to problems in a very practical and reasoned manner. The problem with that is that they tend to be taken for granted by transport companies, entertainment venues and public organisations.
How many times have we seen a wheelchair user denied access to a bus or having to organise a train journey four hours before they actually have the journey? There is no spontaneity for the average wheelchair user—no quick wee train journey down to Largs on a lovely summer’s day, and no chance of being late for work and making a last-minute dash.
There are solutions. One would be for access panels throughout Scotland to be made statutory consultees in the planning process, so that they are in at planning level to ensure that buildings can be fully accessible. We could also ensure that transportation organisations consult them about service plans and rolling stock, whether rail or road. The reason why I welcome this debate is that it has given me an opportunity to discuss these issues and ensure that the voices of my disabled constituents are heard.
All that is against the backdrop of Tory so-called welfare reforms. The report of the UN Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities’ inquiry into disability rights and welfare reform said that
“The roll out of those policies included the issuing of statements by high-ranking officers that the reform was aimed at making the welfare system fairer to taxpayers and more balanced and transparent and reducing benefit fraud. Persons with disabilities have been regularly portrayed negatively as being dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers, who are paying ‘money for nothing’ ... the inquiry collected evidence that persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity. The inquiry also found no substantiation of the alleged benefit fraud by persons with disabilities.”
A more cynical man than me would call the reforms a form of discrimination and prejudice. Some might even go so far as to call them a hate crime.
The type of Scotland that I want to live in is one that does not care where someone lives or comes from, what lifestyle choices they have made or even what football team they support. The Scotland I want is one that tolerates everyone and offers opportunity for all. It will not happen overnight, but we must face the challenge to ensure that we pass on that bright light to the next generation of young Scots. During these dark times, we must continue to believe that there is always a better way forward.