A Week in Parliament

Armistice Remembrance Events

In the build up to the 100 year anniversary of the end of WW1 and the signing of the Armistice, I was delighted to attend the official opening of East Ayrshire’s Remembrance Garden. It is a fantastic turnaround of the former sunken garden at Holehouse Road, Kilmarnock. A poem was specially commissioned and it is engraved into the impressive entrances to the park. I was struck by the language in the poem – very much our local vernacular. It transpires this was because phrases were taken from letters from local people that were written during the war. A great way of localising the tribute.

I attended a remembrance event at William McIlvanney Campus, consisting of poems, song, drama and music.  It was fittingly emotional and respectful. I also got to saw the research undertaken by the various pupils and there was even a full uniform of a soldier from Kilmarnock on display. A great effort.

On Armistice Sunday, I laid a wreath at Kilmarnock Cenotaph. I am aware that there were many extra special efforts being made this year at memorials all over East Ayrshire, but as they all tend to take place at the same time, then it is not possible to attend the others. I did manage to Rugby Park where there was an afternoon service to remember the football players of the club who lost their lives in both wars. Well done to Ray Montgomerie for organising this.  One that has grown considerably in the past few years.

Westminster Recess

Yes, there was yet another Westminster recess – a November recess that actually only consists of two extra days that the Parliament is not sitting. It does seem strange and I know many members of the public view these things as additional holidays. However, an extra couple of days in the constituency and working in my office was welcome as it allowed me to catch up on casework with my hardworking staff.

Where I do take some issue, is that with Parliament only sitting on a Monday and Tuesday, then the Government tends to make business non-voting, allowing many MPs not to require to turn up. For example, to pad out business, they put on a general debate on Road Safety. A topic that is not unimportant, but there had been a Road Safety debate just two weeks previously in Westminster Hall, and another one programmed as backbench business. So how can this be a good use of parliamentary time in reality? As Transport Spokesperson I made these observations and challenged the Minister to provide updates on any actions from the recent debate on road safety, but from the non-answer it would seem any suggestions for improvement aren’t exactly being taking on board. Another example of UK Government inefficiency.

No.23

And the next weekly Ministerial resignation, number 23 out of the Government is Jo Johnson. I wonder when the farce will end? Given Jo is at the opposite political spectrum to his brother, I do wonder what family dinners will be like for the Johnsons!

These comments were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Killieween

Once again I was delighted to take part in the Spooky walk. Another fantastic effort by the volunteers. I also noticed how busy Kilmarnock was that night with loads of the young generation out and about in the pubs all dressed up. It is great to take ownership of the fact that our area is the only part of Scotland that celebrates Halloween on the last Friday of the month. And big kudos to David and staff at the Brass and Granite for organising the festival at the Howard Park on the Sunday, with free kids rides and face painting. If the crowds were anything to go by this is an event that grow in future years so well done to all involved. 

PMQ

I had the luck of being first in a PMQ session. The chance to set the tone for the day. From nowhere I initially stated “DUP” instead of “DWP” which was personally frustrating. However, the substance of my question was the DWP deciding my constituent Laura Nani who has stayed here since 1984, and has a British mother “does not have a right to reside”. When I challenged the PM on this and the impact of other EU citizens, the PM boldly stated that the UK Government are not rejecting anyone. Not only does she have no empathy, she “inadvertently mislead the house”. I would use stronger words, but this is the ridiculous code of the House of Commons and I would breach it by saying a fellow MP told lies.

Small Business Saturday

I managed to secure the visit of the small business Saturday promotional bus to Kilmarnock and was frustrated when I couldn’t attend myself as I was in London! However, it is worth checking out the interviews with local business people – they are the real lifeblood of our high streets, and even more so when we see the struggles of national chains. It might be clichéd, but shopping, eating, drinking and socialising locally is the only way to protect our town centres. 

Tracy Crouch

So the 22nd Minister to resign or be sacked was Tracy Crouch which makes a mockery of “strong and stable” Government. Hers was one of conviction due to the UK Government delaying a reduction in the fixed odds betting limits. She was widely regarded as nice and genuine politician so it is a shame to see her go.

Ministerial Response

After highlighting my frustration on having Ministers respond poorly in debates, I took part in a debate about aviation post Brexit. There is a Minister for Aviation but as she is a member of the House of Lords, she cannot speak in an MP debate, so MPs cannot question her directly or challenge her in a debate. What kind of Government system is this?!

Proclaimers

People often ask me what it is like living in London – usually because they assume I can go sightseeing and/or attend shows etc. The truth is I am too busy working. However, one Thursday I took the opportunity to stay on and see the Proclaimers in concert. They were fantastic, and rounded the night off by finishing their set with “Joyful Kilmarnock Blues”. I can only imagine because I had been shouting for it all night! It would be great to see them back at Killie too.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Ministerial Responses

One of the supposed advantages of securing debates at Westminster is that it is obligatory to have a Minister respond at the end of the debate. This is intended to provide Government thoughts and answers to the person leading the debate and other points raised in other contributions. What this means in reality is that you are completely at the mercy of the competence and knowledge of the Minister responding. My colleague, Gavin Newlands, secured a debate on the HELMS mis-selling of the Green Deal leaving hundreds of my constituents out of pocket and tied to long term loans. However, the Minister responding didn’t have a clue about it and more or less waffled. During her speech she highlighted how many individual complaints have been lodged about HELMS installations. I was able to work out that was only about 10% of the installs. So I put it to her that is 90% of people have not complained - likely because they don’t know how to, or worse, may not be aware they have been potentially ripped off. Then the UK Government have a duty to contact these people to try to understand the bigger picture and provide assistance. She advised that she didn’t know if the UK Government had undertaken an investigation, but if they hadn’t they might consider it. The whole thrust of the debate was MPs calling on the UK Government to take action and therefore not leave it to individuals to act alone and to date, the UK Government have refused to look at collective action. So it is really worrying that a Minister cannot even listen to what is being said and process it logically.

Later that day, another colleague, Ronnie Cowan secured a debate on drugs policy. The Minister responding however advised that she “recuse” herself on issues to do with cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids due to her husband’s business interests. What is the point of a Minister responding when she cannot talk about matter which might come up in a debate? Constituents often complain to me about the poor answers Ministers give back to me after I have asked a question, this can be very annoying. However, I understand there is often a wider political game and the Ministers try not to give concessions in their question responses. Despite this, not being able to provide answers or detail in a debate that lasts an hour and a half is unforgivable. It also shows the real lack of talent within the UK Government at the moment. If these Ministers cannot provide policy detail in debates it means they do not know what is going on in the departments they are responsible for. It really is quite damning.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

I tend to use twitter for straightforward updates on my parliamentary work or visits I undertake. In a slight change of tack I highlighted what I thought was pretty absurd – a Scottish MP submitting a question to the Church of England Commissioner. However, as the matter related to an enquiry about commemorating WW1, it managed to cause a backlash as somehow it meant I do not think such commemoration important.

There are so many aspects of why I think there is no merit in a Scottish MP asking questions of the Church of England Commissioner. For a start, it is out with our locus. What if the answer that came back was the Church of England will be doing nothing? What could a Scottish based MP do between mid-October and November 11th to change things? Clearly nothing.

Also, the question was a staged one suggested by the person who was answering: every time the Church of England session is approaching, the Church of England Commissioner puts out suggested questions that an “MP might want to ask”. Therefore, if you submit one of these questions, it is in the knowledge it’s something they think is a good news story.

As for the fact I do not think commemoration important – I have laid a wreath every year I have been an elected official and for many years took part in the Newmilns parade as a member of the Scouts. I am well aware we are nearing the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War One. 2018 is also 100 years since the death of my great uncle in the war. I have had a portrait of him hanging in my house as a mark of respect to his sacrifice. Anyone checking my bookcase will also see a large number of books on World War One, many of which are about the experiences of those who participated in the war. So I am sorry if I offended people but my conscience is clear about the respect I give those who participated in that war in the armed services, medical services and all the other support workers. There is a disappointing irony in other politicians and accusing me of being blinded by nationalism but then use dead soldiers as part of their faux outrage.

 

Dover Trip

As we head towards Brexit I took a parliamentary trip to Dover to see first-hand how the port operates. The turnaround of ferries in such a short space of time and the number of lorries going in and out was incredible. All based on the fact that they do not necessarily need customs checks because of the current EU Customs arrangements. It has been well trailed that a no deal will cause havoc. They also confirmed that the UK Government’s current preferred option still leaves unresolved issues. As Transport Spokesperson I thought it worthwhile seeing and hearing things directly – it was also confirmation that I cannot take any glib assurances from the UK Government seriously.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Westminster has returned from Conference Recess, not with a bang, but a whimper in terms of UK Government Activity. On a personal note, I am as busy as ever. One piece of legislation they are bringing forward is an Agricultural Bill. I spoke on this bill, partly because I am on the DEFRA Committee. This is another bill which the Scottish Government have concerns over a “power grab”. Just politics? Well, no, the NFUS (who are non-political) took legal opinion on one aspect of the Bill that covers Scotland, and this confirmed that the way the bill is at present means that the UK Government can undermine the Scottish Government in terms of policy and support. And they are concerned about this. So why isn’t the Tory Government listening and being open to amendments?

I took the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State (a)how much lobbying had Scottish Tory MPs had done to recover £160m EU money that was supposed to come to Scotland but withheld by Westminster to go down south and (b) how much of that money they had secured for Scotland. The answer is nothing but I was lambasted by the Secretary of State, Gove, who was shouting at me about how he meets the hard working Tory MPs at Agricultural shows but never SNP MPs. I believe that an absolute tirade from the dispatch box while avoiding the question means you have hit a raw nerve! I will now invite the Secretary of State to the Newmilns Cattle Show, so he can meet me at one in my constituency!

 

Voting Franchise

The Tories are supporting an overseas voters bill. At present if you live outside the UK although you were a UK citizen, you can vote for up to 15 years after leaving the UK. The Tories want to remove the 15 year limit. Why? Because the majority of the people who are beyond the 15 year limit are pensioners and therefore more likely to vote Tory. What is disgraceful is that they refuse to give the vote to EU citizens and other foreign nationals living and working here. So, people working, and paying taxes do not get a right to vote on political policies that directly affect them, but some-one who may never have paid a single penny in tax in the UK will get a vote for life. By contrast the Scottish Government use a residency rule, so basically if you stay in Scotland for a set period and are paying taxes, you will get a vote. 

 

Electric Car Charge Fund

I asked the Transport Minister about the allocation of money from a £400m fund for new electric charge-points. I pointed out that Scotland is clearly rural and our landmass is almost 2/3 the size of England. Therefore any fair allocation of money across the UK needs to consider this. His answer? Barnett formula ie 8% of the fund. This is further proof that Barnett is not a protection but a way of giving Scotland a small slice of the cake.

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Local Events

In my final week of the “conference recess” I managed further local activities. I attended the open day at the Ayrshire Muslim Education Centre. It was a great event, warm welcome, some education and inspiring words….and fantastic food. It was great to see so many members of the wider community pop in for a visit. I have to admit to being slightly embarrassed at taking a doggy bag of food home, but it seemed rude to say no!

I managed a visit to Brodie Engineering, a company born and bred in Kilmarnock. They do fantastic work in refurbishing out of date rolling stock; repairing crash damaged engines and carriages, manufacturing specialist engineering kit for the rail industry and travelling all over the UK to help with specialist repairs. The rolling stock they refurbish comes from all over the UK as well, so they are a fantastic asset to Kilmarnock. Companies like this not only provide valuable skilled jobs, but due to the fact that they partner with other European companies, it means there can also be accommodation and catering spin offs for other companies in the area. It was great to be able to see success first hand.

I also took part in a workshop organised by EACHa, to look at building on a previous report that made recommendations on what needs to be done to tackle homelessness (and associated causes/symptoms such as addition issues). It is inspiring to be amongst so many members of the community working to change things for the better. It gives hope. However, there was also a reality check of one contributor, who is recovering from addiction and was able to advise that he did not see any of the progress that some of the contributors were stating has happened since the last workshop in May. So, there is still a long journey to go. However, with the will in the room, and the leadership and determination of the Rev David Cameron, I am still confident we can make real progress in helping those who need it, to improve their lives, and life chances.

Tory Conference

I was interested so see how much the SNP were referenced at the Tory Conference…David Mundell took a break from talking about Independence to talk about how “Nicola should get on with the day job” and that she should stop talking about independence; Ruth Davidson spoke about independence and how the Tories will block a referendum and Teresa May herself launched a broadside at Nicola Sturgeon too. It shows that for a party in opposition at Westminster, we must be doing something to be referenced on the main stage so much for what is a UK (or more accurately England and Wales) Tory Conference. I am tempted to suggest the Prime Minster stick to dancing, but perhaps not. I like when people can have a laugh at their own expense, and in that regard the Dancing Queen idea could be commended. However, does anyone think that performance and idea was well executed?

A Week in Parliament

Charity – Memories are Better Than Dreams

One of the joys of my job is meeting inspirational people who provide valuable help and support for others. At Sainsbury’s in Stewarton, I met representatives from the charity “Memories are Better Than Dreams”, who is their “Local Charity of the Year”. Sarah Lynes and Aileen Crichton work in palliative care in Crosshouse hospital and started the charity after being contacted by parents who hadn’t been able to afford a headstone for their child. They have progressed to providing special events/activities that meet the wishes of children and provide lasting family memories. I can only imagine that this work is so rewarding but also sometimes harrowing as well.

Given the committee all work fulltime, any additional volunteer help would be greatly assisted. It may be for example you can provide help with their website rather than being part of the other activities. They can be contacted on Facebook or my office would be willing to co-ordinate any enquiries. Once again, a big well done to the group and to all the others who have contributed to the fundraising activities over the years.

Recess Activities

Again, I am using a recess from Westminster to enable me to be out and about locally. As well as working in my office when I can I have managed to attend the official opening of Bonnyton Thistle’s Townholm facility. That same day I was then hot footing it to Newmilns Food Festival which had another fantastic turnout.

I popped in to a meeting of Pubwatch – a collaboration of 11 pubs in Kilmarnock who work together on initiates and information sharing to make our pubs, clubs (and streets) safer and more enjoyable. What shone through more than anything to me was their love and passion for the town. They are also as a collective organising the next Killie Halloween weekend event which will be great, and are already  working on K-Fest 2019. Further examples of these publicans and establishments going above and beyond is the defibrillator initiative from Brass and Granite, who have managed to raise money and provide defibrillators for some local schools. Meanwhile the Rock Hard Diner have been organising clothes and toiletries collections for the homeless. Any donations gratefully accepted.

At Pubwatch, I discussed an initiative I will be working with them on – “Parliament in the Pub”. I will be hosting open surgeries, within a number of the pubs on a monthly or so basis. The idea being to be visible and available for a chat in a relaxed setting. They do say politics is one of the matters not to be discussed in pubs so we will see how this progresses. My first venture will be in First Edition, with a date still to be confirmed.

I hosted a “supermarket surgery” in Stewarton, another venture to be available in a public setting. One I will be repeating as it was an enjoyable experience.

I also made the unveiling of the “Trust in Killie” History board a Rugby Park. An enjoyable day that happened to coincide with that last minute winner from Stuart Findlay.

A Week in Parliament

TMD Friction

While covered elsewhere within the paper, I have to repeat my disappointment about the decision to close the factory TMD Friction in Hurlford. I am conscious that a “consultation” is ongoing before a final decision is made, but the reality is that the parent company have made that decision. Yet again, it would appear that from a national company perspective, it makes more economic sense to consolidate on the one site, at Hartlepool than continue with the two operations. This numbers game just ignores the human impact on the local workers and the wider community impact. It is the hardest aspect to deal with as an MP – with bankruptcy, the stops can be pulled out to find a buyer and try and keep a company going as a going concern. Loans and grants can be sought after. When a company starts making internal decisions on relocation, then it is much harder to change the outcome. That’s not to say these decisions once intimated should be accepted. It is my job and others to challenge such proposals and see if better alternative solutions can be found. This work will continue.

Fisheries Enquiry

The Fisheries Minister, George Eustice was back in front of the EFRA Committee. Some of the questioning was on a “No Dea “ scenario, and the Minister was robust saying they had planned for such an outcome and could cope with it. When pressed on modelling of the impact of a no deal, he then stated that they couldn’t do modelling as it was “too difficult”! He stated that as they didn’t know what tariffs would be applied then they couldn’t do any modelling, (which is just nonsense).  I pressed further on what considerations he had given to export arrangements under a no deal, as 3/4 of the seafood caught by UK fishermen gets exported to the EU, and relies on “just in time delivery”. He then explained they couldn’t consider the impact of this as they won’t know the readiness or processes the other EU countries will have in place. So, in short, he says they are ready, but that they don’t know what will happen because it is too complicated. So, that’s all that sorted then!

Broadband Funding

Telecoms is a matter reserved to the UK. Therefore, while the Scottish Government has taken responsibility for the roll out in Scotland, it is ultimately a Westminster function. Scotland has nearly 2/3 the landmass that England has, a greater rurality, and of course all the islands and so more complicated to cover with superfast broadband and mobile coverage. Yet, when I asked the Minister why does Scotland get less than a fifth of the broadband funding awarded to England, she could not explain the methodology.

For the record, when looking at Great Britain as a whole, Wales has 9% landmass and gets 10% of the UK Government funding; Scotland has 35% landmass and 14% of the funding but England with 56% landmass receives 76% of the funding. No-one can argue that is fair or logical.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

End of Recess

Recess has ended and this means the return to Westminster. Of course being Westminster, Parliament sits for just seven days before breaking up for “conference recess” which is then a three week break to allow one week for each of the UK wide parties to have their party conferences. It is a crazy system, and amongst it all, you have to question Parliament not sitting for a week to allow the Liberal Democrats, with just 12 MPs to have a national conference.

It’s funny how the world does continue when parliament doesn’t sit, which probably doesn’t reflect well on parliamentarians! However, parliament can be recalled if there is a subject serious enough to merit it. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the Assembly has now broken a world record for the longest period of not sitting/functioning. It beggars belief it has not sat for circa 600 days. The UK Government really needs to do something to break the deadlock. Of course when they are propped up at Westminster by the DUP, then they are not exactly seen as a neutral participant in any talks. Just another sideshow of the grubby DUP deal.

KillieCast

I was pleased but apprehensive to do my first ever podcast interview with Ross Manson for KillieCast. Ross and Andy Kerr do fortnightly community podcasts, giving a round-up of what is going on in and around Killie. Even if you don’t want to hear my interview, they are well worth following/listening to. They are casual, light-hearted, but full of useful information. It is really great to see too young guys who care so much about the town and the community that they want to showcase this. You can subscribe to the podcast FREE on SoundCloud (http://bit.ly/killiecast) and iTunes (http://bit.ly/kcitunes). 

 Pylon

Andy from KillieCast also highlighted that he is in Pylon, which is playing in Glasgow on September 15th. For those who don’t know, it is a show, with musical accompaniment all about living in Shortlees, the concerns of locals about possible increased cancer risk due to the electricity pylons that one time weaved their way right through Shortlees. When I saw it at the Palace Theatre, it blew me away. There is a real mix of humour, and sadness associated with real life. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend going to Glasgow to see it, and if you have already seen it, you will know it is well worth another viewing. I wish all the best to all taking part. It has been a fantastic effort to get to this stage.

Jeremy Corbyn Tour

As part of his summer, Jeremy Corbyn did a quick tour of Scotland. He visited a number of constituencies where Labour believe they have a chance to beat the SNP at the next election. Nothing wrong with that – we all aim to win as many seats as possible. Yet, if Jeremy Corbyn really aspires to be a Prime Minister, then it is Tory seats they need to win. How many Tory seats were visited this time or even the last time he did such a tour? None! Surely Tory seats should also be targeted and that as a platform for calling out the UK Government policies we agree are harmful?

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Broadband drop in and update

I am aware that despite the extensive roll out of broadband locally, those who do not have access to it are immensely frustrated. To that end I hosted a drop in surgery in Merito, Dunlop. The venue is Scotland’s first operational community owned pub, which is now also a community facility.

It was well attended and the good news for many was that they are now in a programme for Fibre to Premises. This will then allow them to access speeds way in excess of the norm. This work is part of an ongoing package using money “clawed back” from BT – the 2017 programme had stipulations that if more people connected to superfast than was predicted, then BT had to return money to the taxpayer. So this is funding provision to additional premises.

If anyone, particularly in rural areas wish to see where they are on a programme, they can log onto a website, www.scotlandsuperfast.com/yourstreet to see if your cabinet has been enabled or is due to be. Digital Scotland at the event were able to provide additional information, so if you wish to find out more, please contact my office. One caveat is that there are a number of properties who will be included in the close out R100 programme. This is the Scottish Government commitment to provide superfast broadband to all properties by December 2021. As this programme is still being developed and subject to procurement, then exact dates cannot be predicted for those properties and at this stage, they are included within that December 2021 horizon.

HELMS

With regards those who have suffered Green Deal mis-selling by the company HELMS, I have submitted a number of written parliamentary questions. I have now used those questions as evidence to call on the Secretary of State to undertake an investigation that looks at collective redress for all those affected. My key point is that this was a Government initiative that was exploited, partly because the oversight and governance was not adequate enough. Therefore, it is only right that the Government takes action to rectify matters.

I have established that 97% of those with Green Deal finance in Kilmarnock and Loudoun have loans that have a payback period of more than 20 years. If the process was explained properly I bet no-one would take a loan out for 20-25 years just to save a little money on energy. This is because the Green Deal “Golden Rule” is that energy savings in the FIRST YEAR only need to be greater than that year’s payback for it to be deemed value for money. No wonder the company went for long term loans to keep the annual repayment figures down. With such a high rate of these long term loans, then this should have caused a red flag to the governance arrangements but it didn’t. A total shambles and I will keep pursuing the UK Government. If you have been affected and not made contact with either my office or the Citizens Advise Bureau then please get in touch.