Scottish Parliament interviews: Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrat

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The Saint sat down with all the candidates in the constituency of North East Fife in today’s Scottish Parliamentary elections. Here’s what Willie Rennie, the local Liberal Democrat candidate and leader of the Scottish Lib Dems nationally, had to say on the issues important to students:

On why students should vote for him:

I think people should vote for the Liberal Democrats because I think they offer quite a positive vision for the future of Scotland, one where we’re trying to be the best again and it’s very optimistic. What we want to do is take Scottish education back up to being one of the best in the world again, with an investment in education of one penny on income tax, which is a modest sacrifice we’re asking people to make in exchange for a big return.
We want to invest in schools, nurseries, and colleges which have been savaged in recent years and getting Scottish education back up to being the best.

The next priority for us is guaranteeing civil liberties, making sure that we don’t have a repeat of the catastrophe of Police Scotland. We want to end industrial scale stop and search, the super-ID database that the SNP are planning and the guns in the streets with police officers. Those things we stood up for firmly in the last five years and we’ll continue to do so.

On Tuition fees:

First of all, on tuition fees, we get what we got wrong, we understood that. We’ve never been in favour of tuition fees in Scotland, we abolished them in 1999, we abolished the graduate endowment in 2007, with other parties, but we were there. The SNP have had a big transfer from grants to loans, and they said they would dump the debt but they’ve doubled it, what we want to do is take it back and make sure we increase the grants that are available, so we’re proposing an increase of grants by £30 million, £25 million for Higher Education students and £5 million for Further education students. That will make sure that we can reduce the amount of debt that young people leave university with. That’s part of a path of increasing grants for young people, based on ability to pay, so that we can encourage more people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
However, the biggest way to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university and higher education is to make sure that we improve the provisions at an early stage, so nursery education and a pupil premium in particular will be targeted at people from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they have a better chance of qualifying and going to university.
We’re proposing an increase of grants by £30 million, £25 million for Higher Education students and £5 million for Further education students.

On the HMO ban and accommodation:

It’s a tricky issue. The real answer is, however, is to increase the provision over all and there isn’t enough provision which is why we’re having the dilemma. To be cruel I suppose it [the HMO ban] is not the question we should be asking, I think it’s a micro-argument of the big argument which we should be resolving which is to increase the provision of housing overall.
The University’s right to increase the number of student residences, that’ll help take a bit of the pressure off and help reduce rents overall, because the market will be much more competitive as a result. That is, to me, the bigger answer, there is a huge conflict obviously, between traditional residents here and the University itself and we need to reduce that tension by increasing provision overall because currently, people are being pushed out of the town into other surrounding communities, with some people travelling very long distances to get to university. We need to bring that to an end by increasing provision within the town. That to me, is the answer.
Of course we need to look at the HMO arrangements, but I would rather focus on the bigger argument about provision overall.

To me, it’s the answer, the University is taking some steps along those lines but it needs to be much further, and it needs to be maintained as competitive so we can drive the prices down and students aren’t getting exploited.

On pressuring the University to provide more accommodation:

I think there does [need to be more done] but it needs to be maintained at a competitive price. Some of these student residences can be expensive and that’s why people might prefer moving out, but I think it’s better the more provision we’ve got and that’s why I’d encourage the University to go further and do more.

On town and gown relations:

I think the tensions will be, in part resolved by, making sure there’s more accommodation available locally, so that pressure doesn’t exist. So I wouldn’t blame individuals, I think it’s the decision makers at a strategic level that are to blame, which is the inability to foresee the number of students that are coming and therefore the accommodation demands that would come from that.

There are minorities on each side of the argument. The vast majority of people that I come across love the fact that it’s a university town, love the atmosphere, love the fact that you’ve got so many festivals here, because of the richness of the university. Of course there are minorities that will be anti-social, of course there are those who will want the big hand of the law to come crushing down, but that’s not representative of the majority of people in St Andrews, I think that everybody on both sides is incredibly tolerant and that’s what the kind of atmosphere we should encourage.

On Raisin Weekend:

I think that self-control is a good thing, I think people understand that the students want to have fun and I think actually the more the students themselves can police the arrangements the better it is, and if you think, by yourself that’s gone to far then try and bring it under control. I think it can be resolved by more policing if there are excesses and therefore complaints.

On Madras college:

I’m trying not to look for blame, I think there’s an opportunity, and I’ve had talks with ParentVoice and with STEPAL and I’m going to the see the community council soon. I think there is an opportunity to create a least an agreement about the process to reach an agreement on a site, so take a step back, get all the stakeholders involved and make sure everyone’s on the right footing, because everybody’s been through a lot of pain and distress and there’s quite a lot division in the town as a result of it and you feel it on the doorsteps. I think we need to take a step back and try and get it into some kind of process which we could all buy into. Even if we don’t all agree with the end result we can also understand that it’s been reached fairly.

We need to look at all the sites, nothing should be ruled out,we should be open and above board with the University and the council and everybody in the town about the best way to proceed. There is an opportunity and I see it as my role as the potential MSP to just try and pilot that.

On Local authority cuts:

There is no doubt that local government is under extraordinary pressure, it’s received the bulk of the pain of the cuts, and they were forced into because the government decided if they increased the council tax at all, or to breach the agreement on teacher numbers or on social care, then they would lose £480 million so they were going to get hammered and they were forced to make those cuts. Rod Campbell can’t really pass the blame [on to Liberal Democrat councilors], of course there’s efficiencies that can be made in local government, I don’t think anyone would deny that and it’s been going on for some time already, you can’t just suddenly create £500 million worth.
As a result schools and local services have suffered and that’s why we’re saying that a penny on income tax is the best way to proceed, it’s to put money back into schools, nurseries, colleges and that way we can make a big difference.
I don’t think it’s right to blame, I think it’s better to try and look for a solution and the solution is to increase with penny on income tax.
There is no doubt that the SNP have been, despite their rhetoric, incredibly centralising, you just have to look at the police, it’s a clear example. The SNP can’t claim to be the friends of local government, they’ve forced them into massive cuts and that’s why they should just accept that they’ve got these things wrong rather than seek to blame opponents who happen to be running councils.
 A penny on income tax is the best way to proceed.

On University centralisation:

It was botched, it was a disaster. They started off with these big, bold plans, to get a vice like grip of universities – partly it was Mike Russell’s revenge for the audacity of the universities to say no to him in previous arguments, so he was getting his own back on them, which is a disgraceful way to behave for any minister, and Angela Constance, his successor, was left to pick up the mess, and she should have just dumped the bill rather than going through with it. She hollowed it out, and she took out most of the controversial bits and she had to make so many concessions that it was hardly worth going ahead with, so it was, a disaster.

I think they will find it very difficult to make another power grab on the universities because they made such a mess of that one.

On Independence, and accusations that he isn’t firm enough in support of the Union:

Why would I spend all my political life campaigning against independence, and then suddenly changed after we had won? She’s [Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader] talking utter nonsense. She never quotes me, she only quotes what other people have said about what I’ve said. What I said, and I said it in my conference speech last year, was that I and all liberal minded people, whether they voted for independence or not, to vote for the Lib Dems, what she seems to be saying is that even if you’re conservative minded, if you voted yes in the referendum, you should vote for the SNP. Now I don’t want the SNP to get anymore votes, she seems to be ordering people to vote for the SNP which is completely illogical if you’re trying to win an election.
I think she’s misguided and the reality is that the Conservative party will always put themselves first rather than the constitutional status of the country. For instance, you’ll remember, immediately after the referendum, David Cameron announced he was going to strip voting rights from Scottish MP’s, then, he decided he was going to try and take £7 billion away from the Scottish government in the fiscal framework over the next few years, and then he decided to portray a Scotsman, happened to be Alex Salmond on this occasion, as a pickpocket, so he’s stirring up anti-Scottish sentiment in England in order to win votes.
So if anybody’s a danger to the UK, it’s the Conservative Party.

We need to put those debates behind us, we won the referendum and we need to move on.

On climate change:

Nationally, I think the important thing to do is to advance low carbon transport, to challenge the Conservatives at Westminster, to restore the support for the renewable sector in Scotland.

We need to make sure that fracking doesn’t happen, we need to put an end to open-cast coal, which causes massive devastation to the landscape as well as adding to more fossil fuels that are used by the energy industry. But we also need to make sure that homes are warmer, far too many homes in this constituency are too cold, we need to make sure that we reduce the energy bills by improving insulation so we’d have a catch up fund for difficult-to-heat houses, particularly in rural areas. So those are the kind of things we need to do, as well as supporting the University in some of its energy projects, and making sure that the wider North East Fife contributes to the climate change agenda.

On accusations his party is divided over fracking:

The answer is that the party had a debate about the safety of fracking and I can understand the arguments that were made, the biggest objective is to make sure that we exceed our climate change target and opening up a new front on fossil fuels won’t help us achieve that, it’s illogical to so that. So therefore I provided firm leadership, saying “look, our top priority will be exceeding our climate change targets, and that’s inconsistent with fracking” so that’s why the fracking policy was changed.
I didn’t have an argument about what they reached in terms of safety, they can have that argument, I think the real objective for me would be to exceed our climate change targets, and I think the best way to do that is not to open up a new front on fossil fuels.
Our top priority will be exceeding our climate change targets, and that’s inconsistent with fracking.

On mental health:

Part of what we want to do is round about stigma, and the more that students stand up, the better it is, because then people feel more comfortable about coming forward and expressing their feelings and their concerns, but the NHS needs to change too and that’s why we want to invest £400 million over the next five years in mental health services. That’s in accident and emergency services, in the police, so you’ve got mental health professionals in both so that if people are facing a crisis, they’ve got the right support and we also need it in primary care so that at the early stage of a condition, it’s addressed and you don’t have to wait a long time to get treatment because catching it early, like any condition, is good. The final thing is improving child and adolescent mental health services; there’s no in-patient beds north of Dundee for children, that’s not good enough, we need to improve that.
we want to invest £400 million over the next five years in mental health services.

On international students:

I think with this, it’s dealing with it on a very pragmatic level, it’s getting underneath the skin of the arguments to understand the detail of how the UK is suffering through a short-sighted approach to post-study work visas. I think that’s what we need to try and change to make sure the UK understands that there is an economic benefit, it’s in their interest, not just the students’ interests but in their interest as well and that it won’t undermine the immigration targets because this is a targeted way to make sure we keep the most talented people, that we’re already educating, get some pay back from the fact that we are teaching educating these young people. That’s the way to do it, getting under the skin of the argument to make sure that we can move forward in a pragmatic way.

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