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Political Shadowing Scheme - Abigail Shadowing Kezia Dugdale MSP

Day One

My first shadowing day with Kezia Dugdale, MSP for the Lothian Region, consisted of attending two key events. The first was a debate in Scottish Parliament about a new policy introduced by the Crown Office in March 2018, concerning victims of rape who might be compelled to provide evidence to allow for a trial. The policy targets victims who might be reluctant to provide evidence, which could be due to several reasons. The second meeting, which was chaired by Kezia, brought together representatives from several women’s organizations to discuss the referendum to take place in Ireland on May 25, 2018, on abortion rights. Both events took place at Scottish Parliament where Kezia and her team conduct their daily business.

The debate in Scottish Parliament lasted approximately one hour and opened with a speech given by Kezia, in which she expressed her disagreement with the Crown Office’s approach to addressing claims of rape (I had previously been asked to provide input on the speech Kezia had prepared). She argued the new policy would discourage victims from coming forward with an allegation in the first place and would incorrectly place the onus for prosecution on the victim. Several other MSPs also provided input and the Solicitor General, who had been invited to participate, provided a response to questions raised and stressed that the new policy would try to balance the right of victims with the need to protect the public.

In preparation for the meeting on abortion rights, I was asked to write a short background piece on the referendum and a brief biographical note on each speaker, which was then provided to Kezia. Representatives from Engender, Alliance for Choice, Scottish Abortion Care Providers Group, and the Scottish Irish Abortion Rights Campaign participated in the event. The speakers explained how their organization has been involved in supporting women’s rights and how they may be able to support Irish citizens living in Scotland who are looking to participate in the referendum.

I was happy to have been assigned a task on my first day as the research I was asked to conduct allowed me to gain a better understanding of the history of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and of the underlying reasons for calling a referendum. The meeting itself was very interesting and heightened my awareness of the plight of women in Ireland who may seek an abortion and cannot legally do so without travelling elsewhere. One startling fact I learned is that in a circumstance where a woman in Ireland is undergoing chemotherapy and becomes pregnant, treatment is halted to avoid harming the unborn child; however, the woman does not have the choice to legally abort the pregnancy and continue with treatment (unless she travels outside of Ireland) as her life may not be in immediate danger. The outcome of the referendum scheduled for May 25th, will therefore prove crucial for many women living in Ireland.

In summary, my first day in Parliament gave me a good glimpse into the work of an MSP on a regular day of business and gave me a deeper understanding of some of the social justice issues they seek to address.

Day Two

On my second day shadowing Kezia Dugdale, I attended a meeting about a young man who died from his injuries early on New Years Day in 2017, following a violent attack by a 17-year-old outside a bar in Edinburgh. For confidentiality reasons, I will not detail what was discussed during the meeting; however, the overall purpose was to identify ways to lobby the appropriate offices or persons within the judicial system to bring about more accountability and transparency in court processes. As part of an action item from the meeting, I was asked to prepare a summary of results from a study concluded in 2005 (‘An Evaluation of the Pilot Victim Statement Schemes in Scotland’) regarding victim statements and to propose a list of questions that could be asked based on the results. This task heightened my awareness of the challenges of incorporating victim impact statements into the criminal justice system and the difficulty in measuring the impact on sentencing given that several factors influence the gravity of a sentence. The task also allowed me to work on producing succinct, yet comprehensive pieces of writing.

The second meeting I attended that day was scheduled to discuss the possibility of erecting a monument in honour of a female Scottish doctor who played a vital role during World War I. She provided all female staff relief hospitals to deal with the casualties of war and the epidemics that raged during that time. She also focused much of her efforts on improving the level of care offered to women. Participants at the meeting discussed the significance of honoring this person and how to proceed with plans to build a monument as funds would need to be secured to complete the project. I appreciated having the opportunity to attend as I likely would not have heard of this person in any other context.

Lastly, I was introduced to the caseworker system in Kezia’s office, which is used to respond to enquiries from constituents living in the Lothian Region. I had the opportunity to learn about the process and about the parameters surrounding the responses to constituents. As I was assigned the task of addressing one of the requests the office had recently received, I got the opportunity to conduct research to ensure that I understood the constituent’s issue correctly, to prepare a letter to a third-party organization to seek clarification on the issue, and to prepare a response to the constituent advising them that we are looking into the matter and would keep them abreast of any developments. Being able to work on requests from constituents is an excellent way to learn about the issues that matter most to voters. In addition, casework gives me the opportunity to understand the Labour Party’s views on issues as the responses provided to constituents reflect the party’s platform and vision.

Day Three

My third day shadowing Kezia Dugdale exposed me to a variety of issues that are being discussed in Scottish Parliament, some of which are high on the Labour Party’s political agenda.

One of the aspects I have really appreciated about this shadowing scheme is that I have had the opportunity to provide input on the content and clarity of documents that will form part of a Member’s Bill. At the request of one of Kezia’s staff members who had conducted a significant amount of research on continuing care (for children) and prepared a document that explains the purpose of the Bill and benefits of amending the law, I reviewed the content of the document and provided input on the clarity and comprehensiveness of the text. It was encouraging to be asked for my opinion and for my comments to be heard and considered during the revision phase.

That day, I also had the opportunity to attend an Education and Skills Committee meeting as Kezia participated on behalf of a colleague who was absent that day. The meeting was held, in part, to discuss the services provided in the community, which affect the attainment and achievement of young people experiencing poverty. Representatives from organizations such as Aberlour Child Care Trust and Home-Start UK participated in the meeting, and they provided commentary, answers to enquiries from committee members, and information on work being done to improve the situation of children living below the poverty line.

The second meeting I attended was hosted by the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI). It was scheduled to discuss the government’s decision to increase the age of retirement for women to 65 to match that of men and the financial implications this will have on women born in the 1950s. WASPI is fighting for transitional change to lessen the impact on women who must now work additional years to receive a full pension or forfeit the full amount to retire on the date they originally intended. It was interesting to listen to the concerns brought forward at the meeting and to gain a better understanding as to how government decisions, which may appear “harmless” or simple, can significantly impact segments of the population in a variety of ways.

Lastly, I accompanied Kezia to an interview she did for the German equivalent of BBC1 Radio. She was asked a series of questions on her thoughts on Brexit and what it could mean for the UK and Scotland. It was interesting to see the non-office side of the job of an MSP as it made me understand the importance of public speaking and how challenging it can be to be interviewed without having previously been informed of the different topics that will be covered during the interview.

Day Four

The start of my fourth day shadowing Kezia Dugdale was an exciting one as we visited Broughton High School in Edinburgh where we received a student-led tour of the school and were given a performance on the violin, cello, and piano by a former Broughton student and two mentees who currently attend the high school. It was amazing to see these talented young individuals in their element, and it was nice to know that music was an important part of the curriculum at Broughton as I did not have that “luxury” when I was in school.

Following the performance, we attended a debate put on by some of the students. Their task was to convince the audience that Kezia should have/should not have gone to Australia to star in “I’m a Celebrity – Get me Out of Here” in November 2017 when Parliament was still in session. Students on both sides of the debate offered some great arguments and were very invested in their roles, even dressing up to play the part. The “for” motion won the debate, following a vote by those in the room. Watching this debate brought back memories of fun high school projects and reminded me how intelligent and good-humoured kids are.

Kezia then provided a brief overview of her career path and answered a series of questions from the students on various topics including her opinion on the attack on Syria in April 2018, what career she would have had she not gone into politics, and her thoughts on Theresa May and Donald Trump. It was great to see a politician interact with young students in a non-professional setting and answer questions in a way they would understand and could relate to.

That afternoon, I completed some casework (which I had previously been shown how to do). Through my research, I became familiar with the different stakeholders in the medical field that approve and/or are involved in recommending medications to be used on the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland. I also learned about some of the challenges individuals in Scotland face when they could possibly benefit from taking a drug that has been licensed for use in other European countries and cannot afford to travel elsewhere to pay for the drug using their personal savings. With this being my second time doing casework, it was interesting to see how large-scale national issues, which affect thousands of constituents, are addressed differently from issues that could be dealt with at a local level.

I ended my day with a brief visit to an office located near Parliament where party campaigning is done. I was tasked with the job of calling Labour party members to ask if they would be attending a rally that was taking place on May 12th, to speak out against Tory austerity and tax cuts. Some constituents I spoke with took the opportunity to share their thoughts on a few political matters and to express their support for the Labour Party.

All in all, I would say that today was probably my most interesting day as it was the most unique.

Day Five

On May 16th, my fifth day shadowing Kezia Dugdale, I accompanied her to a brief session where she was filmed, along with two colleagues, discussing Parliament’s decision to make female hygiene products (i.e tampons and towels/pads) available free of charge in all bathrooms in the Parliament building (in Edinburgh), including those used by the public. The clips will soon be shown online. The decision made by Parliament is intended to remove barriers that would have previously prevented women from participating fully in their day. While I support this move, I look forward to a day where female hygiene products are offered at no cost or at a low cost (outside of Parliament) as girls and women must purchase these items every month simply because they are female; for those living below the poverty line, this can be a burden. I am aware that the cost (including VAT) of female hygiene products is currently on the agenda of the UK Parliament, so I am hopeful that more changes are to come.

That day, I also had the opportunity to write a draft press release regarding an event that will be held on June 22nd, to commemorate the life of Jo Cox, a former Labour Member of Parliament (MP) who was murdered in June 2016. Mrs Cox was on her way to a surgery appointment when she was stabbed and shot by a man whose intentions appear to have been politically motivated. In 2017, her husband spearheaded an initiative called The Great Get Together, which is a series of events held over one weekend where people gather to celebrate Mrs Cox’s legacy.

To write the press release and ensure that I had a fair understanding of the background of the story, I conducted some research on some of the work Mrs Cox did as a British MP. I also watched a brief clip of a speech she delivered in June 2015, in which she spoke about the fact that despite the diversity in her constituencies, they had more in common than that which divided them. The draft I prepared will be reviewed by a staff member in Kezia’s office who is responsible for press releases and I will be provided with feedback so that I can understand how best to write them. In connection to the press release, I was also asked to prepare a motion for Parliament, using previous motions as a guide.

As I enjoy writing, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to helps Kezia’s office in a way that allows me to employ and improve my writing skills.

Day Six

Friday, June 15th, was my last day in Parliament with Kezia Dugdale as part of the CRER Political Shadowing Scheme and it turned out to be an eventful one. That morning, Kezia held a surgery outside the main entrance of a Morrisons supermarket, which attracted several individuals from her constituency who shared concerns about various issues that affect them. I took note of the issues they brought to Kezia’s attention and she later followed-up with them to address their points. What I appreciated the most about attending this surgery was that I was able to see, first-hand, the interaction between Kezia and her constituents in a context in which some of them were clearly displeased about the state of current affairs.

Upon return to the office, I accompanied Kezia to a meeting with a constituent who raised concerns about the fact that her close relative was forced to wait more than one year to undergo diagnostic testing for possible cancer. I drafted the meeting minutes and had the opportunity to prepare letters to NHS Lothian, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, and to the constituent to explain the steps we had taken to address her concerns. To ensure these letters included all relevant information, I conducted research on standards for wait times, on the rights of patients, and on wait time statistics specific to the Lothian Region and Scotland. This research allowed me to gain a better understanding of NHS standards and of the challenges faced by some regions in delivering adequate health services.

In addition, as I had previously mentioned to Kezia that I enjoy researching and am interested in human rights, she asked me to prepare a briefing on World Refugee Day as she would be speaking on the topic in Parliament in the days to follow. I provided Kezia with a two-page briefing, which included the purpose of World Refugee Week/Day, statistics on the number of people worldwide who classify as refugees, and the steps Scotland has taken to alleviate the challenges faced by refugees.

To close, I would like to comment briefly on CRER’s Political Shadowing Scheme and working with Kezia in Scottish Parliament. Whilst it may not seem like much to shadow a politician for six days over the course of several months, the breadth of knowledge I have gained from exposure to various political issues during this period is invaluable. I learned not only about issues in health care, education or social justice, but also about the way in which politicians and their staff work together to solve problems, improve standards, and ensure that breaches in policy or legislation are addressed appropriately. Moreover, during my time shadowing Kezia, I was able to determine whether I could envision myself working as a politician and could also identify the skills I would need to improve upon if I choose to enter politics. I am extremely grateful I was given this opportunity to participate in the CRER scheme and am very happy I was paired with Kezia Dugdale.

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