The Advance of Alternative Routes to Education

“It comes down to a simple question – who do I want to teach my kids as they grow up?”

Ewan Gurr: ‘Home-school was already a success for some families’ (eveningtelegraph.co.uk)

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 25/01/2021

As many parents across Scotland expected, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon extended the period schools will be closed to most children until the middle of February. Last week, Ms Sturgeon said: “Our reluctant judgment is that community transmission is too high to allow a safe return to school on February 1.” Advocating home learning in today’s letters page, however, Home School Mum wrote: “I find joy in teaching my children but the level of micro-management by schoolteachers is unbearable.”

In the seventeenth century, Scotland became the first country to provide universal education for boys and girls. A century later, the UK had only six universities, four of which were in Scotland producing the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith and Andrew Bell. The latter graduated from St Andrews in 1774, became an Episcopalian priest and educationalist, eventually going to pioneer Madras College. Bell once said: “Give me twenty-four pupils today and I will give you twenty-four teachers tomorrow.”

Scotland – with direct support from the church – became the global pioneers of education. It was not until 1944 that UK Government Education Secretary, Rab Butler, ensured nationwide provision and, quoting former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, announced: “Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.” No one could have conceived when these words were uttered to what extent a pandemic would stretch the fabric of education to breaking point.  

In September and October 2020, various reports emerged across Scotland revealing that there had been a spike in the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from state education. Children already taught at home are the one demographic who have remained insulated from the turbulence of lockdown. I recently spoke to Dave and Cath Dickson from Lochee, who withdrew their three sons – Josh, Noah and Ethan – from state education over two years ago and are seeing incredible results.

Dave says: “It comes down to a simple choice – who do I want to teach my kids and who do I want them to become?” He adds: “I found there was a very short list and schoolteachers we met, nice though they were, did not make the list.” Dave, 34, feels education has lost its way and become too focused upon reaching university at the expense of character formation, skills development and a love for learning. Cath, 38, says: “Our boys love school and have developed a great relationship with each other.”

Cath described a structured day with their boys studying English, Maths, History, Science but also including quiet reading time, playing online chess as well as doing woodwork with their dad, Dave, who runs his own successful business. She says: “Education is integrated into our lives and it is tailored to suit their needs. It is not easy, it can be stressful at times but when you work through those challenges and see the benefits, it makes it clear how valuable this approach really is.”

Taking Poverty Back from the Professionals

“There is great power when real people experiencing real hardship take back the reins of the conversation from the professionals.”

Ewan Gurr: ‘Taking poverty back from the professionals’ – Evening Telegraph

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 18/01/2021

It is not every day a picture a friend took on her phone ends up on the front of a national paper, sparking a wide-ranging political debate on poverty and becoming a central topic in the dialogue at Prime Minister’s Questions. Such was the case when I watched PMQs and picked up The Guardian last Wednesday upon which said image was printed, revealing the dire contents of a free school meal for one of her daughters, which should have been valued at £30 but was estimated at only £5.

What has become clear is there is a problem concerning how we discuss poverty. Ruth Lister – a life peer in the House of Lords – wrote a book entitled ‘Poverty’ in which she states: “There are ethical issues involved when writing a book about poverty from a position of relative affluence.” Darren McGarvey, articulates this problem in his bestselling ‘Poverty Safari’ like this: “… the conversation about poverty is usually dominated by people with little direct experience of being poor.”

Take Marcus Rashford, who became the face of the free school meal campaign in 2020 and turned this photo viral after sharing it. Last year, he shared his story of growing up in poverty and prompted Government action. What Rashford has done is stellar but why did it take a person with status, a voice and a profile to awaken an anaesthetised public and political class in a year hamstrung by a global pandemic? Why are the voices of children and families experiencing poverty never enough?    

Let us remember, this is a footballer who earns in 10 days what the Prime Minister and Scotland’s First Minister earn combined in an entire year, who has bought five luxury properties in the last four months and earned himself a Sports Personality of the Year award and an MBE for driving this. Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently gushed: “He’s walking on water”. Meanwhile, people in poverty watch and wonder why their voice matters not.

One of the organisations calling for a reinterpretation of how we discuss poverty is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), who released its UK Poverty Report last Friday. However, JRF is also advertising three Director roles at £98,000 a pop to help “deepen our understanding of the causes and nature of poverty”. So attractive are these roles that the Economic Advisor to the Chancellor shared the role online saying: “Great package”.

What my friend, who preferred not to be named, showed us last week is there is power when real people experiencing real hardship take back the reins of the conversation from the professionals. For as long as we continue to engage in the deification of those who no longer live in the jaws of poverty rather than amplifying the voices of those who still do, we restring the prevailing tapestry of inequality that prevents the elevation of the very people we should be seeking to emancipate.

Education Failings Extend Beyond Longer Holidays

“Once the global leader, a victim of the pandemic has been Scotland’s education system with its meteoric drop in standards.”

Ewan Gurr: Scottish education system a victim of coronavirus failings (eveningtelegraph.co.uk)

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 11/01/2021

When the Scottish Government announced in November its “cautious and limited” five-day amnesty for Christmas and the UK Government announced it had awarded medical authorisation for Covid-19 vaccines, it unleashed a welcome air of optimism in an otherwise bleak year. Then, one week before Christmas, a more potent variant emerged, the five-day offer was rescinded and whatever golden embers of hope had been reignited were again extinguished by the viral winds of coronavirus.

One of the victims of the pandemic has been Scotland’s education system. Once the global leader, it has experienced a meteoric drop in standards. In 2015, Scotland’s First Minister delivered a speech to educators stating she was willing to put her “neck on the line on education.” She added: “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this.” Last July, the Scottish Government shelved its flagship Education Bill and withdrew from international tables. Unfortunately, the report card is not looking good.

Last Monday, Nicola Sturgeon announced a new Scotland-wide lockdown and the closure of schools, described by her as “low-risk environments” for the virus, until February. Only a day earlier, the former UK Chief Inspector of Education Amanda Spielman wrote: “We cannot furlough young people’s learning…” Her words followed concerns raised by Scotland’s own Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, who said school closures pose a “risk to the wellbeing of children.”

However, concerned parents of Dundee schoolchildren state failings in education exceed the extension of Christmas holidays to February. Tim Hogan, whose eight and six-year-old children Chris and Tessa, attend Rosebank Primary School in Coldside, said: “Prior to Christmas, I asked my kids if they were cold in their classrooms and both told me that they were. They also said windows were being left open and pupils had to keep their coats on to remain warm.”

Tim, 51, said: “I sent my son in with a temperature gauge and he reported it was 14°C in the classroom, which is completely unacceptable.” He added: “I cannot imagine councillors and council employees working from home or in offices with windows open in freezing winter conditions, yet they deem this as appropriate for our children in schools.” Mr Hogan sent E-Mails to the Head Teacher, Manager of the Children and Families Service and the Convenor of Children and Families.

He received a response from the Convenor – Councillor Stewart Hunter – confirming the implementation of ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19): Guidance on Reducing Risks in Schools’. However, the guidance itself states: “The key requirement for local authorities is to work with schools to identify and implement local approaches that balance the need for fresh air in key parts of the school estate with the maintenance of adequate temperatures.” 

Mr Hogan, correctly, does not believe 14°C is an adequate temperature and expressed relief his children will be at home for next few weeks, adding: “At least I will know our bairns are not being taught in a fridge.”

The Myth of Scotland as a Nation of Europhiles

“Whilst the UK Government is currently lauding Britain’s new-found political independence, Scotland’s party of independence is itself filled with lamentation.”

Ewan Gurr: The myth of Scotland as a nation of Europhiles – Evening Telegraph

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 04/01/2021

I love Europe; its countries, cultures and coastlines and now we have officially left the political union with Brussels which has existed for the entire duration of my life, hiring German cars, drinking French wine, eating Italian food, attending Dutch festivals and visiting Spanish cousins will be no less of a feature in my future as it was in my past. However, whilst the UK Government is lauding Britain’s new-found political independence, Scotland’s party of independence is filled with lamentation.  

Each Christmas in my home is marked by Dickensian classics like ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ but the dissonance in recent political discourse between Holyrood and Westminster reminded me of an opening line from another of Dickens’ novels – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It reads: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

We – the electorate – are living in an equally dissonant tale but, in our case, it is one of two countries. On one hand, we had the UK Brexit negotiator Sir David Frost, who said: “Britain has just become a fully independent country again – deciding our own affairs for ourselves.” He optimistically added: “We have a great future before us. Now we can build a better country for us all.” On the other, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.”

The UK Government maintains we are entering “a spring of hope” whilst the Scottish Government appears to believe we are heading for a “winter of despair”. Indeed, this contrast was apparent in last week’s Holyrood and Westminster debates as the typically vanquished backbench Westminster voices of Sir Bill Cash, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Sir Iain Duncan Smith were unusually jovial whilst SNP MSPs like Bruce Crawford, Stewart Stevenson and Mike Russell elicited an air of despondency.

At Holyrood last week, Nicola Sturgeon said: “We will vote against a rotten Brexit that Scotland has rejected.” However, fishing communities like Banff and Buchan in Aberdeenshire, Whalsay and South Unst in Shetland and Lossiemouth in Moray decisively rejected Remain and, in 2017, some of these areas returned the highest number of Conservative MPs in Scotland since 1983. To, therefore, present a nation with over a million Leave voters as a homogenous bloc of Europhiles doesn’t wash. 

Ms Sturgeon – alongside Messrs Crawford, Stevenson and Russell – should remind themselves they each joined the SNP when it was a Eurosceptic party and they ignore the Euroscepticism within its ranks, and the country it governs, at its peril. If indeed Scotland becomes independent and has a referendum on EU readmission, it might just be the EU which repays the electricity bill for the light Scottish voters extinguish.

The Powerful Stories Behind the Statistics

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png
Left: Suzanne Harkins / Upper Right: Milly Graham / Lower Right: Peter Garrow

“With every passing week, month and year, I was encountering men, women and children experiencing poverty who shared their stories.”

All of us appreciate a story. They often act as a universal language which have the potential to both anchor us within the world and, on occasion, transport us to another place. The bestselling American author, Dean Koontz, once said: “As a lonely kid growing up in poverty and in the shadow of a violent alcoholic father, I found peace in books.” He adds: “Storytellers became my heroes because they provided escape, their characters made me feel less isolated [and] more connected to the human experience.”

In 2017, I realised with every passing week, month and year, I was encountering men, women and children experiencing poverty who felt able to share their painful stories with me. It was not only via my line of work but through encounters at the school gate, in coffee shops, at the supermarket or in my working-class community of Stobswell. These stories were not the kind you would necessarily feel comfortable sharing alongside your name and face in a newspaper, on television or on the radio.

However, these stories do, as Koontz observes, offer a window into a very specific realm of the human experience which it was important for the public to engage with. The challenge was to find a way to convey these experiences without exposing the individuals and so, in December 2017, I started sharing them in an anonymised format and thereafter on a weekly basis. In less than three days, the stories were shared over 3,200 times and reached over 350,000 people.

These stories can also be dangerous. For example, less than a month ago, the Director General of Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Neil Couling, was rattled by the story of a sanctioned bricklayer and responded to me saying: “You make these up right? Not real cases?” Mr Couling did not know he had met some of the people whose stories I shared like Milly Graham – a domestic violence-surviving single mum whose DWP experience was devastating.

And just over a week ago, I received a private message from the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, in response to a story about a family who told me they would be left without food over the festive period if they adhered to guidance stating they should not travel to and stay with the mother’s parents beyond Christmas Day. I responded informing Ms Sturgeon that, having sought my advice, I advised the couple to override restrictions and sent money via PayPal to cover any travel fine.

But there are many more stories like Suzanne, a middle-class mum who, along with her husband, lost her job and had to give up breastfeeding her six week old due to a lack of calories and inability to produce milk. There was Peter who turned down a job with Amazon because he did not want to work on a zero hours contract and was sanctioned for refusing viable employment and ended up securing work at Brewdog. These are the stories behind the statistics, names behind the numbers and faces behind the figures.

After a year like 2020, I am sad to say I will not be short of new material in 2021.

Today, I begin again…

03/01/2021

How Would Jesus Respond to Lockdown?

“When we lock down our ability to love our neighbours, we invite a more vicious pandemic than the current one.”

Ewan Gurr: ‘Society must once again treat people with humanity’ – Evening Telegraph

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 21/12/2020

History will refer to 2020 as the year of the pandemic but later this week we receive the gift of a welcome rest. And given Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, I have reflected upon how Jesus himself would have responded to the pandemic on the basis that viral outbreaks were commonplace in first century Palestine when he walked the earth.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Jesus delivering his signature sermon commonly known as the sermon on the mount. He describes as “blessed” the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted. He calls them “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”. It was unusual to hear a Rabbi deliver such a bombastic manifesto for marginalised Jews living under Roman occupation and his audience were entranced.  

But how did his audience know he really meant it? Matthew 7 captures the climactic crescendo of Jesus’ signature sermon as he says: “By their fruit you will recognise them” and “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man…” It is almost as if Jesus is inviting his marginalised audience to test the integrity of his words and find out if he is the real deal. No sooner had Jesus set foot off the mountain than he is confronted by his first prospect – a leper.

Leprosy was the pandemic of Jesus’ day. Lepers were excluded, unsightly and unwanted individuals so you can imagine Jesus’ invitation ringing in their ears. However, Levitical law was a lot like our government guidance. Lepers were required to wear a mark around their neck like our face masks, they had to shout “unclean” as track and trace to anyone who came into close proximity, to listen to Jesus he would have to socially distance from the crowd, and he had to self-isolate until recovered, if that ever even happened.

In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says: “[Leprosy] is a terrible progressive death in which the sufferer dies by inches.” In 2009, while volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, I was invited to visit the leper colony founded by Mother Teresa in 1958. The colony is a self-sustaining enterprise where those there build, make and sell craft goods like the head scarves worn by the nuns. Like Jesus’ treatment of the leper, they are valued as welcome communal citizens.

Jesus had every reason to socially distance but instead touched the man because, he knew, as the Apostle Paul later wrote: “The letter [of the law] kills but the spirit gives life.”. If there is anything we can learn from Christ at Christmas, it is that when we distance ourselves and lock down our ability to love our neighbours, we are inviting upon ourselves a more vicious pandemic than the one we are currently enduring. It is time to reopen society, return to treating people with humanity and yes, also shield the vulnerable and elderly.

This may not be a popular column but nor was Jesus radical message and it led to his crucifixion.

Scotland Must Reckon with Child Abuse

“We need to deal with historic child sex abuse and ensure we do not repeat mistakes perpetrated in the past.”

Ewan Gurr: ‘Conversation required to deal with historic abuse’ – Evening Telegraph

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 21/12/2020

Historic child abuse is not a subject anyone should feel comfortable with. According to child abuse survivor and campaigner, Dave Sharp, Scotland has yet to reckon with an issue that has long existed below the surface of our illusion of a civilised society. Please consider this opening line as your health warning because this column is about unearth one of the most chilling experiences I have ever come across.

Born in 1959, Dave Sharp lost his mother early in life and was placed under the care of the Catholic church, where he spent the first 16 years of his life. He lived in Nazareth House in East Ayrshire and also Midlothian, both of which are now being investigated as a significant part of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, but his most vivid experiences of child abuse occurred at St Ninian’s in Fife, which was run by the Catholic order of Irish Christian brothers.

Dave, now 62 years old, recalls with devastating clarity hearing screams from outside his room as the priests and brothers would drag young boys from their beds before physically and sexually abusing them. The abuse Dave experienced started at the age of 10 years old and he recalls being trafficked to priests all over Scotland and Ireland. In one horrific experience, he was blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back and hung from a noose in a shower room before being beaten and raped.

Having escaped the clutches of St Ninian’s at 16 years of age after years of abuse, Dave fell into 25 years of drug addiction and 20 years of homelessness in over 50 homeless centres from Leeds to Liverpool and London. Whilst living on the streets of London as a young man, he recalls nights when expensive cars would draw up and pick up some of his friends as rent boys. They would ask Dave to hold their rucksacks telling him they would return in an hour but he recalls some never did.

After multiple overdoses, Dave describes an encounter he believes he had with God which became a turning point in his life. He became drug-free and launched a charity called SAFE to campaign against child abuse, even meeting with the late Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Archbishop Philip Tartaglia. In August 2016, he stood outside St Andrews Cathedral for ten days chained to an eight-foot cross handing out leaflets to church-goers and passers-by to raise awareness of child sexual abuse in Scotland.

Two months later, in October 2016, Scotland’s First Minister committed to identifying how Scotland could love its most vulnerable children and give them the childhood they deserve. As the Independent Care Review – now called The Promise – begins to take shape, Dave says: “This has the potential to be a game-changer.” He says: “We need a national conversation to help deal with historic child sex abuse and ensure we do not repeat in future the same mistakes perpetrated in the past.”

The Five MSPs I Believe We Will Miss | Part 3/5

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 16/11/2020

I first met Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins in the aftermath of his election to the Scottish Parliament in 2016. Mr Tomkins, a professor at the University of Glasgow School of Law, was a campaigner for the union prior to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and was later appointed by the Conservatives to the Smith Commission, which oversaw the devolution of powers enshrined in the Scotland Act 2016. Our paths crossed during the time he held the social security portfolio for the Scottish Conservatives. 

As the head of a leading charity working with people experiencing poverty across Scotland, I often received a volley of abuse for engaging with Conservative politicians like Professor Tomkins as if I was courting the executioner at a public beheading. A potent manifestation of this was when I invited the then Scottish Secretary and MP for Dumfriesshire – David Mundell – to open a foodbank in his constituency in 2015. Mr Mundell was sadly confronted by 150 protestors wielding potatoes and placards.

Adam Tomkins would, therefore, have had reason to exert caution when I invited him to Scotland’s busiest foodbank in his own constituency in 2017. To the contrary, he accepted and sought to understand what drives foodbank use. Reflecting on that meeting and where we are now, he says: “ The SNP do not appear remotely interested in ending hunger.” He adds: “They appear more content in using it as a weapon for what they perceive to be the failed UK state rather than solving the problem.”

It is for precisely this reason Professor Tomkins is leaving Holyrood. He says: “I am getting out of politics because social problems are weaponised down constitutional lines and I have seen this no more than in the area of drug deaths.” An issue of great concern to people in Dundee, he adds: “The SNP became interested in safe injection rooms only when they realised they could not deliver it so, rather than talking about what they can do, they spend their time arguing about the one thing they cannot do.”

A major area of concern for a number of opposition politicians has been the manner in which the Scottish Government’s flagship Education Bill was shelved in July by John Swinney. Professor Tomkins says: “ Yet again, we’ve failed to reform Scotland’s education making them the centres of global excellence they were again anticipated to be and what is SNP’s answer? Their answer is to take us out of international table.” He says: “It is an absolute shambles.”

However, Professor Tomkins is not pessimistic concerning the future of Scottish politics. Instead, he says: “Everything is to play for. I just wish we could get to a point where we can have an honest and robust conversation about social policy that is not about the constitution. I actually think that is more important to Scotland’s future.”

Five MSPs I Believe We Will Miss | Part 2/5

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 09/11/2020

Neil Findlay has lived through one of the most turbulent periods in the entire history of the Scottish Labour Party. Since being elected as a councillor in 2003, his party has lost control of governance at Westminster and Holyrood as well as becoming the third party in Scotland. Describing their affiliation with Better Together in 2014 as “a fundamental error” that resulted in the loss of 40 out of 41 MPs a year later, he says: “2015 was brutal. It rocked the Labour Party to its core and we have never recovered from that.”

From the point of nomination to his election, Neil humbly describes the whole process as “a complete fluke” outlining the very moment when, campaigning in his community, it dawned on him he was in with a chance and a friend told him he should buy a suit. He has since served as a spokesperson under Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy and Richard Leonard and says: “When I was elected, I only expected to be at Holyrood for one session and my pledge was to give it a go. ”

He has been a rigorous campaigner around women’s mesh implants, the blacklisting of construction workers, justice for miners and the reopening of the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital. Findlay also spoke at over 65 public meetings ahead of the 2014 referendum and led Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in Scotland in 2015. On the latter, he says: “Being involved in Jeremy’s campaign was one of the most fulfilling and compelling of my time in the Labour Party.”

The recent suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party over his handling of anti-Semitism during his leadership tenure has been met with concern by allies. Findlay says the Labour Party’s handling of the issue “was not good enough by far.” He adds: “However that does not make Jeremy an anti-Semite or a racist.” He believes Jeremy Corbyn should be reinstated and says: “Keir Starmer was elected on a platform of uniting the party and I would suggest this is not the way to do that.”

When asked why he is standing down, Findlay says: “Life is too short. A few years ago, my wife had breast cancer and it really genuinely did cause me to reassess my life.” He is also scathing in his assessment of the current state of politics, saying: “Scottish politics is scarred to a poisonous extent with many torn between and an unattractive independence position and an unsustainable status quo. Every issue from dog shit to international crime is viewed through the lens of the constitution.”

In conclusion, I ask if he has any regrets. He said: “Yes, I regret the decision to support the centralisation of Police Scotland.” He adds: “That was a bad decision which, if I had the chance, I would vote the other way. ”

Holyrood will, in my view, be much poorer without the presence of Neil Findlay.

Five MSPs I Believe We Will Miss

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 02/11/2020

In six months time, we will elect the people who will lead our nation forward over the coming five years. However, May 2021 will see an exodus of a number of eminently qualified and capable politicians, many of whom were elected to the Scottish Parliament over two decades ago to mark the new dawn of devolution in Scotland.

For that sole reason, I have met with and interviewed five politicians of various political stripes over the last month, each of whom I deeply respect and all of whom are leaving the political limelight for various reasons, both good and bad. From today, and for the five Mondays of November, we talk to some of the best political minds in Scotland about how politics as usual has forever changed.

From a former Cabinet minister to a current one situated at the heart of the Scottish Government , and from a leading Scottish Conservative to a Scottish Labour MSP, we hear from those leading our country to those on opposition benches about their successes but also about tough moments of failure and regret. Today, I share part one a five-week series on the five MSPs I believe we will miss.

1/5: Alex Neil (Scottish National Party)

Alex Neil is one of the longest-serving and, in my opinion, most principled politicians in Scotland but he will step down in May 2021 as one of only 25 remaining MSPs who were part of the original intake elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. We meet for lunch in the elaborate-yet-empty Holyrood Hotel but independence is not on the menu. We chew instead upon domestic matters whilst reflecting upon a decorated career that also saw him serve in the Cabinets of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

One of the issues the Scottish Government has been taking some heat over prior to our meeting is the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which has elicited a higher response than any other piece of proposed legislation. Commenting on it, Mr Neil says: “The biggest challenge is it was poorly drafted and is unlikely to succeed in its current form. It requires a total overhaul and another issue is accommodation and what protections are in place for those who choose to express strong views freely.”

Mr Neil reflects upon the legislation passed on same sex marriage in 2014, which implemented protections to ensure churches would not be penalised for refusing to deliver same sex ceremonies on the grounds of conscience or theological beliefs, and he believes this has been a mark of success. Having himself spoken to Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, about his own concerns related to the Bill, Mr Neil believes similar provisions are needed to protect genuine people from prosecution.

I ask also what he considers to be his crowning political achievement. He shares about a concern raised whilst in his role as Cabinet Secretary for Health about deaf children, whose ability to fully participate in life and education was significantly diminished due to a lack of access to cochlear implants. Contrary to the wishes of some health officials, he used £8 million out of a £12 billion Health budget to ensure their availability because he believed strongly in getting it right for every deaf child.

Alex Neil says: “A few months later, I was sitting in a restaurant in Glasgow having lunch with a friend and a gentleman approached me who was the father of a deaf child.” Mr Neil adds: “He told me that this issue had caused intolerable suffering for his young son but the new implant he managed to access made such a difference and absolutely transformed his life and he just wanted to express his gratitude on behalf of his son as well as his wider family.”

I ask finally what one thing Alex Neil hopes the Scottish Government will make a political priority following his time in Parliament. He says: “The one thing we must focus on is poverty and particularly child poverty, which is at the root of most social problems.” In conclusion, Mr Neil states: “ Eliminating poverty will transform and lead Scotland forward.