Susan Aitken: UK must listen to appeals after tragic hotel deaths

THE tragic events which unfolded in our city centre last Friday shook Glasgow to its core. My thoughts remain with those six people injured during this terrible incident and I wish them all a full and speedy recovery. But for the bravery of Police Scotland officers, the terrible incident at the Park Inn may have been much worse and I'm sure I speak for us all when I say how relieved I was at the news that PC David Whyte's condition had improved.

It's been said many times in recent days but so often our safety and security relies upon the bravery of officers like David who run towards danger when our instinct is to run away. There are reports also of tremendous courage shown by hotel staff and residents. It is inevitable that there will be a degree of confusion and speculation following major incidents such as that on West George Street.

The fact that this incident took place in a hotel used to house people seeking asylum during the Covid-19 pandemic and involved a person under the care of the UK Home Office brought that speculation to a reckless and dangerous level. Despite Police Scotland quickly ruling out a terrorist motive, many of you will have seen the attempts to exploit this tragedy and divide our communities. Since then the compassion and humanity shown by ordinary Glaswegians towards all those affected by this attack has made me deeply proud of our city.

Glasgow has no truck with the sinister opportunists who seek to break down the strength of our people and the cohesion in our city. We must continue not to be divided or allow the values which characterise our city to be abused. For 20 years Glasgow has been the only Scots local authority involved in the asylum dispersal programme.

Our experience of that system has been markedly different from many other UK areas. Those who have settled here have changed for the better the face of Glasgow, shown how multi-culturalism can flourish and become just the latest chapter in the hundreds of years of migration which make up this city's DNA. The outrage shown by ordinary citizens when it emerged that the Home Office's previous contractor, Serco, had planned to dump hundreds of asylum seekers on to our streets showed yet again that willingness to embrace new Glaswegians.

I, along with senior council officers, will continue to meet and discuss with ministers and civil servants of both the Scottish and UK governments the support and assistance required by those seeking asylum in our city, particularly as we begin to relax many of the lockdown restrictions. We will also continue to discuss our concerns and expectations with Mears, the company which provided asylum accommodation and support on behalf of the UK Government. The UK Government can be in no doubt as to our position here in Glasgow.

We have written repeatedly to successive ministers regarding the issue of asylum, be that the evictions, the legislation which prohibits us from assisting asylum seekers and, indeed, the conditions and support provided to those hundreds kept in hotels for the past 100 or so days. There must be plans in place to ensure that as we move out of lockdown no one is left destitute and that everyone is housed appropriately. It is crucial that, instead of threats of prosecution, local authorities across the UK are given the tools to provide support for asylum seekers.

And the UK Government must, finally, take this opportunity to change legislation to give asylum seekers the right to work, to support themselves and their families, live in dignity and use their skills to contribute to the city and national economies. The interventions by governments in response to the outbreak of this pandemic displayed flexibility and responsiveness for the benefit of our collective economic and social well-being. If the similar political will existed to change asylum policy and legislation, then it could be done.

I urge the UK Government to do so now, not just on behalf of the asylum seekers who live in Glasgow but for the wellbeing of the whole city. oIT was cheering this week to reach another milestone in the relaxation of lockdown restrictions and see our city centre return to some sense of normality. The re-opening of many of our retail outlets is crucial for our economy, jobs, the city's vibrancy and, after 100 days of lockdown, for our own well-being - as long as we all follow the rules about physical distancing and wearing a mask. Glasgow's city centre in recent times has been a totem of our renaissance after the dark decades which surrounded the decline of heavy industry.

All the research pre-Covid showed how attractive the city centre has been for investment and development, with the range and quality of shops a major attraction, and most shoppers eating or drinking during their shopping trip. It is home to tens of thousands of workers across numerous sectors and has the highest concentration of jobs in Scotland. Seeing it take those tentative steps to recovery on Monday was vital for our economy.

It was also important for our sense of what we are as a city. But I must stress that leaving lockdown remains fragile. The situation in Leicester, an urban area with the same population as Glasgow city, shows just how precarious things can be.

As critical as it is that our footfall-orientated businesses get back up and running as efficiently and effectively as possible, we need to do so in a safe manner; to protect our citizens and to protect jobs. Those visiting the city centre can see for themselves the measures we have put in place to help ensure safe access for people as lockdown eases and they start to return to work, to shop and to enjoy the leisure and hospitality opportunities within the city centre. These include closing some roads to traffic and the widening of footways to make it easier for people to move around and more readily access shops, businesses, community facilities and public transport hubs including Queen Street Station.

Pre-Covid, a majority of people already accessed Glasgow city centre by methods other than private car. Increasing that number even more in future will benefit everyone's health. To protect jobs, in a safe manner, the City Council and partners have developed a series of proposals, some requiring support from Scottish Government, which we will unveil in the weeks ahead.

We have an opportunity to transform our city centre for the better and we must grasp it.

In the meantime - enjoy getting back to the shops, but please do it safely.

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