A Week in Parliament

May 2019 reflects 4 years since I was first elected as MP, creating some nostalgia.  The 2015 election was momentous in Scottish politics, with the election of 56 SNP MPs and the ending of “safe seats” in Scotland. I was fortunate to be the first Scottish MP elected, securing the then largest ever general election swing. That didn’t last long as other colleagues got swings bigger than could be shown on the “swingometer” they use on the TV!

Being naturally cautious, I hadn’t looked beyond the finishing line of the election, and suddenly arrangements were being made to travel to Westminster on the Monday and I had to get my head round my new role, including formally resigning my employment as a civil engineer. As I turned up nervously at Westminster I managed to make a news clip as it took several attempts for a revolving door to open as I pushed in vain against it.

I slowly felt my way into matters such as talking in the chamber, bobbing to ask questions, making speeches etc. This was in stark contrast to many other new MPs, particularly Tories who carry the air and confidence of belonging there. Through time you find out that the arrogance of many is not matched by talent. Equally some of the best speeches/orations I have witnessed have come from politicians where I disagreed with the points they were making. Hilary Benn’s speech about Libyan air strikes was one, and Michael Gove has delivered a couple of barnstormers. Yet both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are both really poor at delivering speeches and also really poor at thinking on their feet.

Another big ticket item for a new MP is your maiden speech with the pressure to talk up your entire constituency, not missing any areas out. It is amazing how many members of the public complemented me on it. I was also struck by the general goodwill of constituents when I was elected, many glad to see someone local being elected. [Although of course my predecessor Cathy Jamieson was local too]

Other personal positives for myself has been the requirement to learn more of wider world issues, and having to push myself out my comfort zone on talking on some of these matters. Trips to Qatar and Palestine trips are key examples of this and the Palestine trip in particular has given me an insight I would never have had otherwise. Clichéd but true is the fact the best aspect of being an MP is helping people and meeting some fantastic community groups, organisations and volunteers.

On the other side, the shock of 2017 snap election showed how vulnerable you and your staff really are, as I saw good colleagues lose their seats. That said, if the worst were to happen, I will always be lucky enough to say I won two general elections to represent the constituency I grew up in. I obviously harbour dreams of Scottish Independence, but while elected, I will do my best to work for all my constituents. This I think is illustrated by House of Commons statistics that put myself top of the league for Scottish MPs in terms of speaking contributions in this parliament.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Kiltwalk

I was pleased to take part in this year’s Glasgow Kiltwalk again. It is a great event to be part of, and into the bargain I was able to raise funds for the local charity Break The Silence. Any donations are topped up by 40% by the Sir Tom Hunter Foundation, and there is still time to donate if anyone feels inclined. It was also great to see Centrestage put on entertainment again – the songs at the right time just gives a wee boost. 

Independence Referendum

Nicola Sturgeon has announced an intention to hold another referendum before the end of the Scottish Parliamentary term in 2021. There are a few myths about a referendum -the most common one is “there is no mandate”. The reality is that the possibility of a referendum explicitly linked to a Brexit vote was included in the SNP manifesto. The SNP were elected in 2016 with a record vote share and subsequently there has been a vote in the Scottish Parliament calling for a referendum, so the mandate for one is clear.

But we were promised the last one was a “once in a generation “vote is the next most common refrain. The reality was that Alex Salmond said that “in his opinion.” There was nothing binding and circumstances change.

“The EU vote was a UK wide vote, and Scotland wasn’t on the ballot paper.” This is factually correct. However, again, the SNP made it clear that a UK vote that over rides a Scottish vote for Brexit could trigger another referendum. The key point here with the “UK wide vote” is also means accepting that Scotland’s vote never matters – we only get a Government or vote outcome based on how England votes. In my lifetime, in 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 2010, 2015 and 2017, Scotland has had Tory Governments that we did not vote for. In four other elections, Scotland did get a Labour Government that reflected the views of the majority of voters. However, our votes did not actually make a difference – if the Scottish votes and seats were discarded, there would still have been a Labour Government anyway due to the votes in England. We deserve a better democratic system.

“No-one wants another referendum” – this is also untrue. I accept many will not, but a clear majority in opinion polls do want another referendum, although there are differing views on how soon it should be.

On the pro-independence side there are also some myths- that the Scottish Parliament can “dissolve the union” in a vote. This is a fallacy as the new Parliament is not a continuation of the 1707 parliament. Another call is to simply declare independence (UDI). Such a process relies on other countries recognising Scotland as an independent country and without some form of vote that proves the majority of people want independence then most countries would not recognise our independence. This is why another vote is required. If Theresa May can bring back her vote several times, then who is she to deny our population a say in their future?

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Brexit Extension

Eventually after all the lost votes, the fighting and debates, the Prime Minister hung about the EU long enough to get another extension to the leaving date. The October 31st deadline spurned a lot of comments about Halloween. This in turn led Twitter wags to point out that Killie Halloween (or Killieween)  is of course the last Friday in October so should that be the deadline? Given the way negotiations have went to date, I think giving Theresa May less days to operate with would not be a good thing! Still, hopefully I will now have a few weeks of not writing about the Brexit twists and turns.

Day Job

Still hopefully the UK Government will start to “get on with the day job”. I made an observation that this was a “Zombie Parliament”, paralysed due to Brexit. An example of how little main business happening in the main chamber was the fact that a Statutory Instrument to correct a previous oversight in the transfer of powers to the Scottish Government over marine renewable energy was held in the main chamber. A similar committee I served on took ten minutes maximum because everyone agreed with the proposals. Yet, the Government still decided to allocate up to an hour and a half in the main chamber. Utterly bizarre. I made another observation that there is other legislation they have been promising to change to make it easier for batteries which store electric energy to be deployed, but they haven’t yet done so. Matters like these are another aspect of the Brexit paralysis that the general public do not see, and I suspect it is a combination of Brexit taking up too much time in general but also the fact that many departments have lost key staff to the Department for Exiting the EU.

Looming Energy Crisis?

In answers to written questions, I have confirmation that half of the existing UK nuclear power stations will be shut down in the years 2023 and 2024. In follow up questions, asking what plans are in place to replace the power generation capacity of these stations, the opening part of the official Government answer was “There are a range of options for replacing this capacity over the coming decades.” How is this answer supposed to give confidence? The timeframe is clearly not decades, and to have replacement schemes, whether renewables or another technology, then planning should already be underway. A scheme will need outline design, planning permission, detailed design and construction. Therefore the timeframe for getting electricity generating is years in itself and so that process should be underway right now. Even the Hinkley point C project nuclear project will not start generating at 2025 at the earliest and actually has a timeframe deadline of 2033. So these critical matters it feels are not been dealt with at all and should be a concern for all of us if proper planning does not start soon. The UK Government have promised an Energy White Paper in the summer, so I will be scrutinising this closely.

 

A Week in Parliament

Each passing week continues with the Brexit deadlock with all indicative votes were defeated again. Clearly this cannot continue forever and I understand public frustrations. We do have to wonder that after more than two years of “No deal is better than a bad deal” and Theresa May promising her MPs over 100 times from the dispatch box that the UK will leave the EU on 29th March as to why Theresa May appears desperate to prevent a No Deal exit. Surely we can read from this that a No Deal Brexit really is a disaster? The sudden desire to have more meaningful talks with Jeremy Corbyn is an indication of her failure of leadership. At the last minute, she is trying to get Labour on board, probably as part of a blame game exercise. As I have noted before, given Jeremy Corbyn first called for Article 50 to be triggered the day after the referendum as he has always been against the EU.  Had she worked with him on a cross party basis at an early stage she may well have negotiated an agreement that got her the numbers.

While it does feel like groundhog day at Parliament, history continues to be made. Nick Boles, a former UK Government Minister tried to work on a cross party amendment, to ensure that the UK stayed within the single market and customs union when leaving the UK. From an SNP perspective we could see flaws in the amendment but voted for it as a cross party compromise which would be much better than crashing out. It was defeated by 21 votes and he blamed his own party and resigned the whip in the chamber immediately after the vote which is rare to see.

It is worth noting that 25 Labour MPs plus the Independent Group voted against these proposals so had they abstained or voted the other way the proposals would have easily passed. A second referendum was defeated by just 12 votes, with again 27 Labour MPs breaking their whip and voting against the motion. This is another ongoing strand of current politics - that none of the main UK parties can hold a unified position within their ranks and both have suffered many MPs quitting their party. Unstable politics is here to stay for a time yet.

Another piece of history was witnessing a tied vote. This does happen from time to time, and following convention the Speaker voted against with the Government. Yet for a time there was an obvious period where the sets of whips and the Speaker were debating what was going to happen. The next vote then on the main motion was carried by just one vote. This has Tory Brexiteers apoplectic – how can a motion be carried by just one vote they wailed. It’s so unfair! Yet, this was the same group of MPs whooping when the tied vote a few hours earlier was won by the Speaker’s casting vote. It seems a lack of self-awareness and complete hypocrisy will continue no end as will public frustrations I suspect.

A Week in Parliament

Parliamentary Language and Behaviour

Westminster has long had a reputation for bad behaviour both in and out the chamber from MPs. This stems from outdated and sexist behaviour built up over time. Real steps are now being taken to try and stamp out bullying and sexual harassment. Yet, I still witness surprising behaviours. Clair Perry, Energy Minister was not happy at the way a Labour MP was behaving so she asked “does the Honourable Member want me to go down on my knees for him?” I hope I am not too prudish but it seemed to me to be an extraordinary thing to say at the dispatch box. Later in the session she claimed the Labour MP, Clive Lewis had been blowing kisses and winking at her. If he was then that seems a mix of childish, sexist and old fashioned behaviour. Making a sexual reference back at him might be her way of confronting sexism head on, but really?

Similarly, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom has an ongoing feud with the Speaker, intensified by his ruling that the Government cannot represent the same meaningful vote. It means that from the front bench she makes really cheeky remarks, intended solely to provoke and no other purpose. If we are to believe we are all “honourable members” who respect each other, then it is contradictory for someone with the position of Leader of the House to act in such a manner. I hope with heightened parliamentary tensions, matters don’t get any worse.

PM Statement

On a similar theme, the PM’s statement intended to pit the public against Parliament didn’t help. The whole choreography of the day was a joke – firstly she wrote a letter to the EU about extending Article 50 for a limited period, ignoring some of the scenarios she had set out in parliament, without updating Parliament and MPs finding out about her letter via the media. Then she addresses “the people” instead of Parliament and used language solely designed to whip up hostilities. It’s further evidence that rather than be collegiate, she is working on a combination of bullying and just wearing people down. Being resolute is one thing, being blindly dogmatic is something else.

And Another Thing

In the PM statement she said people are fed up about politicians talking about Brexit and that they would rather talk about the NHS and knife crime [in England]. It is like she doesn’t realise that the Tories have had control of the English NHS for almost 9 years. Or that is was the Tories who for 9 years have been cutting the English and Welsh police numbers. Or in Scotland’s case, the Tories vindictively made the Scottish Police and Fire services pay £175m VAT. It is like she forgets she is the one in charge!

Weekend Working

As the crisis builds, the SNP called for Parliament to be sitting the weekend following the EU council and also for the so called Brexit date. It is astonishing that the UK Government have resisted so far. I would rather not be in London, but needs must, and the Government dogma is hard to fathom.

 

A Week in Parliament

Brexit Comings and Goings

One of the latest proposals to get the DUP on board is for them to be involved in future trade deals. This is another U-turn and concession to the DUP – when I was on the Trade Bill Committee, one of the SNP asks was for the Scottish Government to have a say/final agreement on trade deals. This was voted down by the Conservatives and also the Labour front bencher leading on the bill, Barry Gardiner, also refused to back our amendment. His attitude was that trade deals should be left to Westminster and the Scottish Government had no right to have “a veto” ie leave it to the big boys and girls. That’s  “our place” in the union of equals. It is also an eye opener the leverage the DUP have compared to the 13 Scottish Tories. Also, despite claiming not to want Northern Ireland to be differently the DUP actually demand a whole load of differentials.

Legislation

We are still told the UK Government is prepared for a No Deal Brexit, although they now seem to admit that even to facilitate an agreed “deal” they need an extension of the Article 50 timetable. So if they need an extension to facilitate an agreement, then surely this means by default they cannot possibly be ready for the No Deal scenario? Legislation wise, there are major pieces of legislation still to be passed – the Trade Bill, Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Environmental Bill and Immigration Bill to name a few. Then there are all the outstanding statutory instruments so it is clear they are not at all ready for the different scenarios.

Ferry contracts

The latest on the ferry contract saga, is that the two main contractors expect around £30m compensation if the possible no deal Brexit is shunted down the line. They claim they have had to order extra fuel, and have changed timetables in advance of March 29th. Chris Grayling the Transport Secretary on the other hand consistently told us the UK Government were only making provision for extra sailings and if not required, money would not change hands. His incompetence simply knows no limits. The only successful thing he has done was to run Teresa May’s leadership bid for the Tory party. So in effect the complete lack of leadership at the top can also be attributed to him! It can only be co-incidence that someone who was close to the Prime Minster keeps his job despite so many disasters.

Local Visits

Away from the shambles of Westminster, the best part of my job is definitely visiting local organisations and businesses. Recently I visited UCan, who do inspirational work for people with learning disabilities; attended a Hillhouse supporters event, where I got to meet the hardworking staff and those local companies who provide support for the charity. I was also delighted to meet Dean, who runs Above Adventure, and by co-incidence just after our meeting got confirmation of £2m Scottish Government funding to allow the completion of the climbing facility at Woodstock Street. Fantastic news and well done to all involved.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

Eurotunnel/Seaborne

After I wrote about the Eurotunnel £33m settlement last week, an urgent question was granted in the House of Commons. It was asked to the Department of Transport, but the UK Government decided to put up the Health Secretary to respond instead! Suddenly we were told, it was not compensation but a good deal to keep the supply of medicines going in the event of a no deal. What absolute rubbish!

Those arguments fooled no-one. It was the first time that the reasoning for the additional contracts was this medicines based argument. If this were the case, surely the original ministerial statement would have covered that aspect? Or the two previous urgent questions? Or the 8 SNP oral questions at Transport Questions?

Given the frustrations at lack of answers, I made an application to put a case for an emergency debate. The process is that I have to give my reasons just to make an application. The speaker decides whether I will be allowed to make an application, which takes the form of a 3 minute speech. He then announces the decision as to whether to grant the debate and if so when it will take place. It is very rare to be granted an emergency debate, so I was glad firstly, just to be able to make my 3 minute pitch and then as much delighted and panicky that I was getting the debate as the first item of business! This meant I had minimal time to prepare a proper speech for the main debate. I then had a fear of dreaded not remembering all the things I needed to highlight and only talking a few minutes which would have missed the point of calling for the debate! There is so much to talk about that I was on my feet for half an hour although that also involved taking interventions from other MPs.

Apart from at least getting the transport secretary to the dispatch box, when I did my summing up I was able to conclude that we still did not get the answers we were looking for. However, he then came back and announced he had now decided to publish the main terms of agreement with Eurotunnel. What the annexes proved was that the medicine supply was a bluff and we as taxpayers will not see a penny of the £33m in the event of a withdrawal agreement being reached with the EU. Had I not secured the debate, this would have been hidden away.

£2.7bn Man

It has now been calculated that the decisions and mistakes from Chris Grayling as firstly Justice Secretary, and now as Transport Secretary have cost us, the taxpayers £2.7bn. How can he still be in a job?

Ayrshire Growth Deal

I was delighted to be at the Heads of Terms signing of this. A quarter of a billion pound investment committed to Ayrshire. This will generate thousands of jobs over a 10-15 year period. In East Ayrshire the focus is on manufacturing investment and an energy innovation centre so this could see many highly paid and skilled jobs coming to the area.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

 

A Week in Parliament

Seaborne (Again)

So the Seaborne Freight ferry deal collapsed. The Transport Secretary has continued to bluff that it didn’t really matter as it hadn’t cost the taxpayer any money. It is now confirmed that the shambolic non tender process has cost the taxpayer a £33m settlement with Eurotunnel. The worst thing is that the two contracts awarded for circa £45m each to existing providers only kick in if there is a no deal Brexit and the contracts are invoked. Thanks to Grayling’s complete incompetence, Eurotunnel get £33m without providing services! I honestly defy anyone to tell me Grayling deserves to be in post.

No Deal Vote

The SNP had an amendment to the UK Government motion on EU Withdrawal to rule out a No Deal Brexit. Labour backed the amendment as did other opposition parties. Meanwhile the Scottish Secretary who says he wants the UK Government to rule out a No Deal Brexit voted against it. After voting against it he stated that it was an SNP stunt, and actually the SNP really want a No Deal Brexit. What?! In his parallel world the SNP want a No Deal Brexit but cunningly put forward a proposal to rule it out, and while he definitely wants to rule out a No Deal Brexit, he does so by voting against a measure that would ensure No Deal is removed. I accept I am supposed to use my column to explain the workings in Parliament, but if any reader can explain the logic of the Scottish Secretary’s double speak I would be delighted!

Brexit Legislation

As part of Brexit preparations, the UK Government has to amend a lot of legislation and they are way behind schedule on this. Most legislation is changed by Delegated Legislation Committees – this is a way of amending existing primary legislation using what is termed “secondary” legislation. This is usually done in small committees. Some of these are deemed controversial enough that they need to be debated on the “floor of the house”, the main chamber. This highlighted another of the shambles of the workings of the UK Government, when at the last second they didn’t “move” the business for one committee at the last second. There was no prior notification, and I had spent all morning in preparation as I was leading for the SNP on the committee, as it related to transport. No apology. No explanation. A complete waste of the clerks time as well. It is also bizarre if it is supposedly critical legislation that they delay introducing it. It may be they feared a defeat as I had plenty of concerns to raise and both the SNP and Labour would have voted against. Just another indication of the lack of leadership and planning at Westminster. Just another day.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

The Splitters

Some Labour and Tory MPs have resigned from their parties. It seems Tory and Labour criticism just come from someone like myself but within the parties themselves! We really do have political turmoil- the Tory party is clearly split and these factions make good strategic government decision making impossible. The European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs actually have their own whip. So within the Tory Party is effectively another party making its own decisions. This is not good for stability and it weakens Theresa May as a leader of her own party let alone Government. 117 of the Tory MPs voted that they have no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Tory party. How then, are others supposed to have confidence?

In June 2016, an astonishing 172 Labour MPs voted to show no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. To be fair, Corbyn did win the subsequent leadership with a strong mandate from the Labour membership. He or Labour also performed much better than predicted in the 2017 General Election which quelled the rebellion for a bit. However, his leadership has been too poor in the eyes of Labour MPs and it is only a couple of weeks since 8 of his shadow ministers broke the whip over a European vote. Not disciplining them while taking action against others shows a level of hypocrisy and creates further party tensions. Given so many Labour MPs still do not think he is capable of being a leader and have openly stated he will not make a good Prime Minister then he would have the same problems as May in leading his party as a PM.

So now we have 11MPs from both parties who say “enough is enough”. It is expected that there will be more defections. It really is symbolic of the failings of the Westminster system and what in England is a failed two party state. I welcome any genuine political shake up that might arise. However, from my perspective, it just seems logical that Scotland could do better at running our own affairs. I also believe that completely autonomous Conservative and Labour parties in an independent Scotland would have a better chance at starting afresh, flourishing and attracting wider support.

ISIS Terrorist

Many people are glad that the Home Secretary revoked the UK citizenship for Shamima Begum. However, I disagree with the decision – the Home Secretary shouldn’t unilaterally decide these things. Far better to see she faces justice. I would also expect the authorities to try to understand how she was radicalised/indoctrinated, how Daesh [ISIS] operates and try to ensure others do not follow her example. Fair interrogations might reveal more names for the intelligence services, and ways to counteract Daesh. She also has a new born baby which presumably would be put in care of social services or wider family, rather than being brought up in a situation where the child will also be radicalised. Short sighted populism by a Home Secretary is a missed opportunity that could make the UK safer in the long term.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

That Bar Incident

Another MP has been accused of unacceptable behaviour in a bar and is being investigated by the Tory party. There is no doubt he was absolutely steaming drunk, and this begs the question about being drunk in and around the workplace. However, it is possible for MPs and staffers to go to such a bar when all their work is finished or at the very least, Parliament has finished for the day. It is natural for some people to have an after work drink with colleagues. However, at Westminster, with many staff being young, and MPs with no family home to return to, then the temptation to drink more regularly can happen. There are effectively only two bars in the complex and they are surprisingly small which indicates how few people of the thousands within the complex actually partake at a given time.

It is hard to believe that the drinking culture is not as bad as it used to be as previously there were more bars opening later. Yet, things are much better than the recent past. This latest incident indicates that there is still a long way to go in terms of behaviour and responsibility. I have met constituents in the evening and it can be sociable to have a discussion at Strangers or on the Terrace and makes for a pleasant visitor experience. That’s not enough to justify retaining the temptation, and I certainly fail to understand why bars are open during daytime core work hours. This latest incident rightly brings MP behaviours and culture into the spotlight – and inevitably tars us all with the same brush. For everybody’s sake, particularly those who have been on the receiving end of the alleged groping, this has to be properly investigated and lessons learned. Pre-emptive comments from colleagues putting “stress” as a reason for misbehaviour helps no-one and belittles the seriousness of the matters.

 Glasgow Airport Rail Link

There has been much SNP Government bashing over the fact the latest proposals for rail connections to Glasgow involve going via Paisley. A rail study demonstrated that an additional service direct from the airport would mean a reduction in rail services from Ayrshire due to the capacity issues on the bridges that serve Central Station. Therefore, I fully support the revised proposals and anyone from Ayrshire using rail should do likewise.

 February Recess

Parliament usually has a parliamentary recess in February. This has now been cancelled. I know many will be saying “it’s time they did more work” or “they get too many holidays anyway”. However, such a recess allows me to spend more time in my constituency. The big gripe I have about the cancellation is the number of workers at Westminster who will have made plans for that week only to have to cancel them. What if that was the only time they could get away with family? Worse, the Government is so chaotic we have had many days when business has collapsed early or it is padded out with general debates. It is just further confirmation of a Government in complete chaos.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.