MSP Martin Whitfield gave his first speech to Scottish Parliament last Thursday (June 3).

Martin Whitfield, MSP for South Scotland, full speech:

It is a great pleasure to speak in this education debate and to follow the most excellent first speech of Kaukab Stewart; a selfless speech in which she spoke highly of her love of her constituency—it was a pleasure to listen to it.

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Rightly, as is the custom, I open by thanking voters in South Scotland who entrusted their list vote to Labour and thanking Labour members who entrusted their vote to me for my place on the list. South Scotland is a magnificent area that is home to beauty, history, culture and people who care for one another. It is an area that, sadly, is too easily forgotten or overlooked by those in Government, but I and my Labour colleagues Carol Mochan and Colin Smyth will ensure that that does not happen in the Parliament.

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I thank Claudia Beamish, who represented South Scotland from 2016 until this year’s election. Claudia was a true force in the Parliament. In 2016, she moved the first amendment to ban fracking, and only this year she reminded the Government that it has not gone far enough to tackle fuel poverty and energy efficiency or to create enough skilled green jobs. Her work on climate change and her passion for caring for people and the planet will be remembered. I assure her that I and my Labour colleagues will continue to demand the same—and, indeed, more—from the Government.

I also thank Iain Gray, on his retirement as the constituency MSP for East Lothian. He was first elected to the Scottish Parliament for East Lothian in 2007, and he was re-elected in 2011 and again in 2016. In his time, he was Scottish Labour leader, held four ministerial posts and was convener of the Public Audit Committee. He was also shadow cabinet secretary for finance and then for education, skills and science. I owe much to Iain, and I believe that he fulfilled John F Kennedy’s adage that one man can make a difference and every man should try. Iain more than tried. He made a difference to East Lothian; he made a difference to Scotland, and he made a difference to people.

I need to turn to Covid, which is a subject that has touched everybody around the world. Far too many people—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and partners—have died. We will mourn that loss.

We rightly thank those who helped: those who worked in critical jobs, who volunteered, who went the extra mile and who walked the extra step. We applauded them and put-up posters, but we must not forget that those individuals need our support in return. They need support in the form of safer employment, better wages, better houses and better physical and mental health support.

In my first speech, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about those who will bear the memory of Covid the longest: the youngest in our society. As a primary school teacher, I spoke to my class about how, in the future, they will be asked as adults to recall the events of now. They will be asked by future generations to talk about lockdown, home schooling, social distancing, face masks and the loss. It will fall to them to give the human remembrance, emotion and empathy to the pictures, news reports, books and, probably, films. Just as teachers today ask those who lived through the war to tell young people what that was like, that task will fall to those who are young today—the ones who were told that the virus would not affect them as badly, the ones who were told to go back to school, the ones who were told to socially distance and the ones who were told to bubble in school but to play with who they want outside.

When I have chatted to young people, they have said that what they really want is to be listened to. They want to be listened to about what scares them. They ask, “Can I bring the virus home to my family? What is my future going to be? What are you leaving me?” They want to be listened to about their ideas. That is how we can get more state school pupils into university, and it is how the climate emergency can be combated. They want to be listened to about how they feel about exams. They want to be listened to so that they know that we understand their lives. As Stephen Covey, the American educationalist, said:

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”

As politicians, we frequently rush to be photographed with our young people, we meet them at climate rallies, and we support their campaigns. However, I believe that our young have the right to be heard and considered. We would do well to remember that in Parliament. As article 12 of the UNCRC says, every child has the right to express their views on matters that affect them, and for those views to be taken into consideration, not just listened to.

Today, I once more give young people an assurance that I have tried to adhere to all my adult life. I will listen to them, not—as happens so frequently—as a tick-box exercise in consultation and as part of making the decision makers feel good because they have spoken to some young people, but so that their views are considered as a step to doing something, as an integral part of the solution and as a foundation of an idea from today to make tomorrow better.

To Ben, who emailed me, I say yes, I will hold to account those who have put you through exams by any other name. I know that you live in a society where your grades are the most crucial thing for what your future holds.

Let me quote a little bit of Ben’s email:

“I apologise for how long and wordy this email has been. I find that I say quite a lot when I’m passionate about the topic! But I really hope you can understand where I am coming from with this and that you are able to do something so that progress can be made into changing Scotland’s education system for the better.”

Ben is a young person who knows the problem, but he seeks recourse not for himself but for other young people. I am reminded of Donald Dewar’s words about this place. He said:

“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”

For our young people, this is about more than politics and our laws. This is about the respect that we must have for our young people.