Blackford: Independence referendum could be in late 2021

The SNP Westminster leader said that the first priority of the Scottish Government would be to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP suggested that a vote could take place in late 2021. Jane Barlow/PA via PA Wire
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP suggested that a vote could take place in late 2021.

A Scottish independence referendum could take place “as early as late 2021”, according to Ian Blackford.

The SNP Westminster leader said, however, that the first priority of the Scottish Government is tackling the Covid crisis.

Blackford explained the “key” would be putting in place circumstances which would allow for an independence vote to be held.

Opposition parties described his comments as “reckless and wholly irresponsible”.

“It could be the case we could face a referendum as early as late 2021.”

Ian Blackford, SNP Westminster leader
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He said: “I want to see that referendum happen as quickly as is practically possible, I think it’s in everybody’s interest that that is the case.

“But of course we’ve got to get the election out the way, we need to make sure that the SNP are elected back into government again, that we reinforce that mandate for a referendum.

“There’s a bill that will be published over the coming weeks and that can be enacted once we’re on the other side of the election.

“Of course what I would say is that the first priority of the government is dealing with the Covid crisis, it’s about keeping people safe, it’s about the acceleration that we’ve seen with the vaccine programme, it’s about taking off the measures of lockdown as and when we can.

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“But we do that based on data, we do that based on evidence, we do that based on keeping people safe.

“When we’ve got to that position of safety, that would be the right time to have the referendum.”

He continued: “(Scottish constitution secretary Mike Russell) has talked about a six-month period once the legislation is triggered which could be in June, so it could be the case we could face a referendum as early as late 2021.

“But the key thing is that we put in place the circumstances that allow that to happen, whenever it happens, and that we have an inclusive debate with everybody in Scotland about the kind of country that they want to live in.

“And it is a choice of two futures. It’s the long-term damage of Brexit, it’s the impact of Tory austerity, or it’s about that economic recovery, that fairer Scotland, that greener Scotland that we want to see with Scotland being an independent country back into Europe.”

Blackford also warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he “cannot stand in the face of democracy” in the event that the SNP wins a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections in May.

He said: “Democracy has got to prevail and there’s been a long-held, cherished position that in Scotland sovereignty rests with the people.

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“There’s never been a situation in Scotland that sovereignty has rested with Westminster, has rested with Parliament, and you can go right back to the Declaration of Arbroath, the claim of right and everything that’s gone around that, that does demonstrate that in the end, it has to be about the will of the people, to be able to choose their own future.

“And I’d say to Boris Johnson or anybody else in the Tory party that they cannot stand in the face of democracy, they cannot stand in that will of the Scottish people to see their sovereignty enacted, to have that discussion, to have that debate and to make that determination as to whether or not we wish to be independent.

“And certainly that’s the case that if we win the election, and I’ll never take anything for granted, that we’d be making that case pretty robustly.

“We will support our colleagues in government in Edinburgh in making sure that we get what the Scottish people vote for.”

The SNP Westminster leader added: “I hope and believe that we can win a referendum and win it well, but I want to be able to bring Scotland together and there is a place for those that are on the other side to come on that journey with us and to contribute to Scotland’s story because it’s in all our interests to do that.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “The First Minister’s team claimed this week that it was irresponsible to try to remove her in the middle of a pandemic, despite all she’s done wrong.

“There is nothing more reckless and wholly irresponsible than pushing for another referendum as early as this year, when all our efforts should be on tackling Covid-19 and protecting jobs.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie said: “This suggestion from Ian Blackford is not just divisive politicking at a time when the country should be coming together, it’s a threat to divert resources away from the issues that really need it.”

FM calls for travellers arriving in Scotland to isolate for eight days

Nicola Sturgeon has called for urgent talks with the Prime Minister over the new Covid-19 variant.

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The First Minister has called on the Prime Minister to introduce a tougher four-nations approach to travel restrictions after six cases of the new Omicron variant were detected in Scotland.

In a joint-letter, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford called for a tightening of restrictions.

At a coronavirus briefing on Monday, Sturgeon explained that the proposed change would see people arriving in the UK from overseas being asked to self-isolate for a period of eight days.

They would then take a PCR test on day eight after their arrival, as well as on day two.

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The letter to Boris Johnson signed by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford. (Scottish Government)
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The First Minister said: “We believe this measure would be more effective in identifying cases of this variant, which result from overseas travel and therefore help us prevent further community transmission from imported cases.

“Now, as we know from earlier stages of the pandemic with so many people travelling to Scotland, and indeed to Wales via airports in England, anything less than a four-nations approach to requirements like this will be ineffective, so we hope that a four-nations agreement can be reached.

“A four-nations approach obviously requires the four-nations to discuss these issues together and hear the best advice available.

“So Mark Drakeford and I have also called on the Prime Minister today to immediately convene a COBRA meeting with representation from each nation to discuss what additional steps we might have to consider and how we work together to tackle this new risk.”

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Sturgeon also said confirmation has been sought that funding from the UK Treasury will be made available to any of the four nations in the event of further Covid protections being necessary.

She said: “Mark Drakeford and I are also conscious of the very real concern businesses and staff will feel at the possibility of further protections becoming necessary.

“Now, let me stress we all hope that this will not be necessary, but it is prudent to plan ahead and so we have also sought confirmation that should any further protections be necessary, Treasury funding would be available to any of the four nations that require to activate business support schemes.”


Six cases of new Covid-19 variant Omicron confirmed in Scotland

The Scottish Government revealed that six cases of the new variant have been identified.

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Covid-19: Six cases of new variant confirmed.

Six cases of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 have been identified in Scotland.

The Scottish Government revealed the positive cases on Monday.

Four are in the Lanarkshire area and two have been identified in Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Some of the new cases have no travel history, which suggests there is a degree of community transmission.

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Public Health Scotland and local health protection teams are supporting those involved and contact tracing is being undertaken to establish the origin of the virus and any individuals they have come into contact with in recent weeks.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf confirmed the news as he urged the public to “redouble their efforts”.

He said: “This will be a worrying time for the six people now identified as having the new variant.

“All will receive expert help and support and Public Health Scotland will undertake enhanced contact tracing in all cases.

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“This will help establish the origin of the virus and any further individuals they have come into contact with in recent weeks.

“There is still much to learn about the Omicron variant. 

“Questions remain about its severity, transmissibility and response to treatments or vaccines and scientists are working at pace to provide additional information. Until more is known we must be cautious and do everything we can to minimise the risk of spreading infection.

“We have already taken steps and are aligning with the new border restrictions being introduced by the UK Government which will require fully vaccinated arrivals to take a PCR test within two days of arrival and to self-isolate until a negative result is received.

“These measures will be introduced as soon as possible and kept under constant review. However, we reserve the right to go further if necessary. We are also adopting the expanded red list of countries identified by the UK Government.

“This will also be kept under review.”

Yousaf also highlighted the need for a booster shot for those that are eligible.

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He said: “We must now redouble our efforts to follow the basic rules that have served us well throughout the pandemic – wear a face covering on public transport and in all indoor settings for food and retail; open windows especially if you have people visiting at home; keep washing your hands regularly and thoroughly. 

“Work from home where possible, take regular lateral flow tests – especially before mixing with others outside your household.

“If you have symptoms, self-isolate and take a test and if contacted by Test and Protect or public health teams please co-operate and follow their advice. All close contacts of suspected Omicron cases will be advised to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

“And of course, if you are eligible for your booster, or are still to have any dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, please get vaccinated now.”

Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “We obviously have some travel history on some of the cases, I don’t have all of that detail available to me at this stage, but on some of the cases we are aware that there is no travel history involved on some of the cases.

“So what that tells us is that there must be a degree of community transmission of this particular strain of the virus in the absence of direct travel connection for some of the cases in the southern African area.

“So that obviously opens up further challenges for us in terms of interrupting the spread of this particular strain of the virus and that will be the focus of the contact tracing operation that is under way already.”

The first two cases in the UK – in Nottingham and Essex – were announced on Saturday, while a third Omicron case was detected in the UK on Sunday in a person with travel links to southern Africa.

Britain will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the variant first detected in South Africa amid concerns it could spread rapidly and partially evade existing jabs.

Man asked if he would ‘be on the news’ after raping disabled pensioner

Kyle McKenzie broke into the 83-year-old woman's house before attacking and raping her.

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Rapist: Man attacked pensioner in her own home.

A masked sex attacker raped a disabled woman in her home – then later asked police if he would end up in the news.

Kyle McKenzie used a boulder to help him break into the 83-year-old victim’s house through a window as she lay in bed sleeping at around 5am.

He pulled the bed covers from her and said “do not scream – do not resist” while brandishing a garden tool.

A judge heard how the pensioner, who has a pacemaker and is registered disabled, tried to fight off McKenzie who punched her several times in the head during a struggle.

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After he put the woman through a harrowing ordeal, the 23-year-old escaped out a window of the property in Glenrothes, Fife.

The widow managed to press her personal safety alarm and in a tearful call stated to a worker: “I have just been raped. Please – hurry, hurry.”

It was around a fortnight later before McKenzie was traced.

It emerged he had also broken into an elderly couple’s home shortly before the sex attack on June 25 last year.

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After being charged, McKenzie stated to police: “Allegation of rape? That will ruin me.

“Are the papers going to know my name?”

First offender McKenzie now face a lengthy stint behind bars after he pled guilty to charges of rape and housebreaking.

He will return to the dock next month.

Prosecutor Graeme Jessop told how the rape victim was partially deaf, registered disabled and lived alone at her home.

Mr Jessop: “She observed a man wearing all black clothing and balaclava while brandishing a garden tool.

“He continued to pull the bed covers from the woman, who became frightened and began to resist.

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“She grabbed his hand containing the weeding tool and discovered he was wearing rubber gloves.

“She began to struggle with McKenzie and was repeatedly punched to the head.”

The woman ended up on the floor at one stage.

She pleaded with the attacker: “You are going to kill me.”

He went on to rape the pensioner, who eventually managed to trigger her safety alarm.

Mr Jessop: “She describes ‘not being in this world’ for a number of minutes.”

It is thought McKenzie was spooked by the noise of the alarm and fled the scene.

An advisor at the Community Alarm Team at Fife Council managed to speak to the victim, who begged for help.

The woman was found to be “distressed, shocked and confused” when police initially met her.

She had suffered a number of bruises as a result of her ordeal.

DNA later linked McKenzie to the crime. 

The pattern from the sole of his Adidas trainers also matched a footwear mark found under the victim’s bedroom window.

Police discovered he had left a friend’s house in Kirkcaldy drunk hours before the rape.

This was a “relatively short distance” from the woman’s home and the house of a couple he stole a wine decanter from.

The hearing was told McKenzie lived between his brother’s house in Glenrothes and his girlfriend’s in Falkirk, Stirlingshire at the time.

McKenzie was remanded in custody by judge Lord Boyd and is due to be sentenced on December 20 in Edinburgh.

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Ice weather warning as number of homes left without power

The yellow warning was issued by the Met Office.

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A number of households have been left without power as a result of Storm Arwen.

A yellow warning for ice has been issued for the north-east of Scotland as cold weather sweeps the UK.

Drivers have been warned about some icy patches on untreated roads, whilst pedestrians and cyclists have been urged to take care on pavements and cycle paths.

The alert is in place until 10am on Monday.

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Monday: A yellow weather warning for ice has been put in place.

It comes as thousands of residents living in areas badly impacted by Storm Arwen have been left without power.

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Monday marked the third day for a number of people who had been impacted, whilst Scottish Water said on Sunday that around 3000 homes were without water supplies.

Energy firm SSE said it may take “several days” before power is fully restored to homes, adding the damage caused by Storm Arwen was ‘three times greater’ than the Beast from the East in 2018.

Schools in Aberdeenshire have also been closed for Monday and Tuesday to both pupils and staff due to the ongoing weather issues.

NHS Grampian also said that vaccination centres in Aberdeenshire would close on Monday and urged patients to rearrange appointments. 


Suspect charged and due in court after man stabbed in murder bid

Police launched an investigation after a 24-year-old man was found seriously injured following a disturbance in East Kilbride.

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Police: A suspect has been charged following an incident in East Kilbride last week.

A suspect has been charged after a man was stabbed in an attempted murder in South Lanarkshire.

Police launched an investigation after a 24-year-old man was found seriously injured following a disturbance in East Kilbride’s Calderwood Square on Wednesday, November 24.

On Monday, the force confirmed a man had been arrested and charged in connection with the incident.

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “A 29-year-old man has been arrested and charged in connection with the attempted murder of a 24-year-old man who was found seriously injured in Calderwood Square, East Kilbride, on Wednesday, November 24.

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“He is due to appear at Hamilton Sheriff Court on Monday, November 29.”

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Hundreds of seal pups killed at nature reserve in Storm Arwen

St Abb’s Head in the Scottish Borders is run by the National Trust for Scotland.

St Abb's Head National Nature Reserve via Facebook
St Abb’s Head: Hundreds of seal pups died in Storm Arwen.

Hundreds of seal pups have died at a nature reserve during Storm Arwen.

A spokesperson for St Abb’s Head in the Scottish Borders said they had “never seen” damage of such scale before.

They said in a small area of bay at Pettico Wick there were 224 dead pups in the water, with more washing ashore.

A further survey will be carried out this week on other colonies in the area, but the spokesperson said “it doesn’t look good”.

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The nature reserve is run by the National Trust for Scotland.

In 2007 there was no colony at all, but last year it saw a record number of 1806 pups recorded.

In a post on Facebook, the spokesperson for St Abb’s Head said: “Having worked on seal colonies for ten years I’ve never seen a storm cause damage on anything like this scale before.

“Unfortunately it appears we have lost the majority of our seal pups to this storm.

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“This is a risk grey seals take with their breeding strategy, pupping at this time of year when storms are most frequent.

“But for this kind of phenomenal storm to hit at the peak of pupping is exceptional.”


Insulate Britain protester taken to hospital on 13-day hunger strike

Emma Smart has been moved to the hospital wing at HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Surrey, on Friday.

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HMP Bronzefield.

An Insulate Britain protester who has been on hunger strike in prison for 13 days is being given hospital treatment, the campaign group said.

Emma Smart, 44, from Weymouth in Dorset, was moved to the hospital wing at HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Surrey, on Friday.

She was jailed for four months on November 17 for breaching an injunction and immediately vowed to stop eating until the Government moves to insulate homes.

Ms Smart’s husband, Andy Smith, told the PA news agency that she is “feeling a bit weak but she’s still in good spirits”.

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In a statement released by Insulate Britain, Smart said: “The window of my cell in the hospital wing is blocked up and there is little natural light, in my previous cell I could see the birds and trees that line the prison fence.

“I have less time to go outside in the prison yard for exercise now.

“All of this is testing my resolve to continue, but I feel that not eating is the only thing I can do from prison to draw attention to those who will have to make the choice between heating and eating this winter.”

Insulate Britain members, including Ms Smart’s husband, are to stage a 24-hour fast outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday morning in solidarity with her, the group said.

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Mr Smith, 45, told PA: “She is feeling a bit weak but she’s still in good spirits.

“I think a hunger strike is about 80% mental (strength) so as long as she’s doing OK mentally I think she’ll probably continue on her hunger strike until the Government make a meaningful statement as to whether they’re going to insulate the homes of Britain or not.”

He said his wife had been relocated to the hospital wing so that prison staff could more easily monitor her health.

“I last spoke to her yesterday but she’s recently had her telephone rights revoked so it’s increasingly difficult to speak to her,” he said, adding that it was not clear why the prison had taken the step.

Mr Smith said: “It is quite difficult, but also aware that other things are difficult.

“We’ve made difficult decisions throughout the last three years. We didn’t step lightly into making decisions to be arrested, we didn’t step lightly into making decisions not to have any children…

“There’s clearly a lot of inaction coming from our Government, they’re not taking the steps that are needed to combat the climate crisis that we’re in, and they would rather just chuck people in prison than actually face up and deal with those problems.”

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Ms Smart is one of nine members of the group jailed for breaching an injunction designed to prevent the road blockades which have sparked anger among motorists and others affected by the protests.

They appeared at the High Court on November 17 after they admitted breaching an injunction by taking part in a blockade at junction 25 of the M25 during the morning rush hour on October 8.

They received sentences of between three and six months and ordered to pay £5000 in costs each.

A further nine Insulate Britain protesters are to appear at the High Court on December 14 to face a charge of contempt of court.

Insulate Britain began a wave of protests in September and supporters have blocked the M25, roads in London including around Parliament, roads in Birmingham and Manchester and around the Port of Dover in Kent.

Videos showing furious motorists dragging the climate activists away from the blockades have gone viral on a number of occasions.

The group is demanding that the Government insulate Britain’s “leaky homes” and end deaths it says are caused by winter fuel shortages.


More than two thirds of people ‘support doubling child payment’

Campaigners said many families are facing a difficult winter.

Dominic Lipinski via PA Media
Poll: Calls to double the Scottish Child Payment.

More than two thirds of people think next month’s Scottish Government budget should be used to double a benefit payment made to poorer families, according to new research for anti-poverty campaigners.

The polling, conducted for the End Child Poverty coalition in Scotland, found that once “don’t knows” were excluded, 68% of people in Scotland support doubling the Scottish Child Payment, a £10-per-week-per-child benefit.

Coalition members said that many families are facing a really difficult winter and that next month’s draft budget is a “golden opportunity” to support them and raise the payment to £20.

The survey, carried out by Survation, found that even when people who responded “don’t know” were included, more than half (57%) of people agreed that the benefit should be doubled.

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The Scottish Government has already pledged to increase the payment to £20 within the lifetime of the parliament and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in September that it will happen “sooner rather than later”.

Peter Kelly, director of Poverty Alliance, said: “In Scotland, people believe in protecting one another and in doing the right thing. As this new polling makes clear, they overwhelmingly support taking action now to stem the rising tide of child poverty.

“Children and families living in the grip of poverty right now simply cannot wait. Scottish ministers must listen to people across the country who are calling on them to do the right thing, and double the Scottish Child Payment now.”

The latest poll comes after more than 100 charities, faith groups and trade unions wrote to Finance Secretary Kate Forbes earlier this month urging her to use the upcoming draft budget to double the Scottish Child Payment.

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The Scottish Child Payment is currently paid at £10 per week for each child under six in families in receipt of a qualifying benefit such as Universal Credit.

Commenting on the latest poll, Claire Telfer, head of Scotland, Save the Children, said: “We know that many families with young children in Scotland are struggling to make ends meet, parents are going without food or not putting the heating on, to care for their children.

“As a society we can – and must – do better. Next month’s budget is a golden opportunity to act now and support families and drive down poverty by doubling the Scottish Child Payment.”

The poll of 1045 people was carried out in mid-November.

Polly Jones, head of Scotland, Trussell Trust, said: “Families across Scotland are facing a really difficult winter. Right now, food banks in the Trussell Trust network in Scotland are giving out a food parcel every three minutes to people in crisis.

“This isn’t right, especially when we have the power to change this. Doubling the Scottish Child Payment now would be a huge boost to Scotland’s struggling families and I hope ministers will listen to the public and act.”

Other members of the End Child Poverty coalition in Scotland include Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Children in Scotland, Home Start, Barnardo’s, Children 1st, Oxfam, One Parent Families Scotland and Action for Children.

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The Scottish Government is being asked for comment.

Silverburn owners in talks over selling shopping centre for £140m

Silverburn, based in Pollok, Glasgow, was originally bought by Hammerson for around £300m in 2009.

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Silverburn: Could be sold for £140m.

Retail property giant Hammerson is in talks over the sale of the Silverburn shopping centre near Glasgow for around £140m.

Shares in the company moved higher on Monday after it confirmed talks over the disposal of the site, which is a 50-50 joint venture Hammerson holds with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB).

Silverburn, based in Pollok, Glasgow, was originally bought by Hammerson for around £300m in 2009.

However, the owner of Birmingham’s Bullring has been weighed down by dwindling valuations for retail properties in recent years.

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It told investors in August that its short-term priority is to sell non-core parts of its real estate portfolio.

The group said any sale would help to strengthen its balance and enable it to “recycle capital for investment”.

Hammerson sold its remaining retail parks operation, which included sites in Middlesbrough and Falkirk, to Canadian investor Brookfield for £330m as part of its disposal programme.

In a statement, Hammerson said: “There can be no certainty that a transaction will take place, but the company confirms the pricing under discussion is £140m, which would represent a class 2 transaction.

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“The company will provide a further update in due course, if appropriate.”

It comes after Hammerson revealed last month that the number of shoppers heading to its sites has improved to between 15% and 20% below pre-Covid levels.

Shares in Hammerson were 3.1% higher at 31.42p after the markets opened on Monday morning.


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