A Week in Parliament

Strong and Stable Government?

Amber Rudd's resignation as Home Secretary for incompetence or lying about what she knew (take your pick) once again illustrates the bankruptcy of this Tory Government. In the past year, we have had Michael Fallon the defence secretary resign for inappropriate behaviour; her deputy PM, Damien Green, for lying about what he knew of a police investigation; Priti Patel, International Development Secretary for lying and covering up meetings she had in Israel and Justine Greening quitting as Education Secretary. Meanwhile, still in the cabinet is Chancellor Philip Hammond, who her election team side-lined at the general election, planning to sack him after the election; Greg Clark [who I think is OK] and was briefed against as “deadwood” to be cleared out; Jeremy Hunt with an enhanced brief despite the fact she wanted to move him. The new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, was previously demoted as May did not rate him and she seems stuck with the hapless Boris Johnson. Then there is David Davis, the Brexit Secretary who keeps threatening to resign. It is no wonder there are continued leaked cabinet rows, and I do not need to put any political slant on the cabinet comings and goings to advise that this does not make for good Government.

Money Laundering and Sanctions Bill

An important Bill went through Westminster, with a transparency amendment accepted. This amendment was to create Public registers of beneficial ownership of companies registered in British Overseas Territories. This is to start to provide transparency on who owns what regards companies. The SNP also supported this with the added bonus we might start to see who owns a lot of the land in Scotland which otherwise is hidden behind these companies registered on the offshore British Territories.

With the SNP supporting this, the Scottish Tory, Luke Graham made the ridiculous intervention that  this proves how the SNP respect the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament to make legislation as if this was a massive capitulation. It is obvious constitutionally that Westminster has sovereignty over certain matters. It is not what I want, but it is a fact. That is why when they have the power to make inroads on fraud and tax evasion we of course want Westminster to use these powers.

It is also why the SNP moved an amendment to start to clamp down on the Scottish Limited Partnerships and close off a money laundering tax evasion scheme. Sadly, the Scottish Tories voted with their counterparts to narrowly defeat the SNP amendment. If they put their money where their mouths were, then this would be enacted instead of yet another Government consultation on the matter. Mind you, Luke Graham also managed to interrupt this important debate process with a point of order to note that 1st May reflects 311 years since the Act of Union came into force. Further proof that all they are interested in is guerrilla warfare on the SNP rather than the matters in hand.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

Windrush Generation

It has correctly been highlighted as a scandal that people who came to the UK legally as British citizens are now being faced with deportation. It is a direct consequence of Teresa May’s stated desire to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. Of course their zeal is such is that it is always the innocent penalised. This has constituents in Kilmarnock and Loudoun, including a case I brought up in Parliament previously – a Falklands war veteran who was born in South Africa, when they were still part of the Commonwealth, had been refused a passport because he had insufficient documentation. Sufficient documentation to put his life on the line, but not enough for a passport. Says it all really.

As a footnote, the problematic legislation from 2014 was supported by the Labour party except for six rebels. So their fightback is a bit late.

Whose Fight is it?

Bill Grant MP at Scottish questions suggested that more can be achieved in co-operation rather “than picking a fight with one another”. He has a logic there except his inference is that the SNP are picking the fight. The reality is that it is the UK Government who are taking the SNP Government to court to challenge the Continuity Bill. Additionally the UK Government have redrafted legislation that states they will have consent to legislate in certain matters of the Scottish Parliament’s jurisdiction if

  1. The Scottish Parliament gives formal consent

  2. The Scottish Parliament does not debate a consent motion

  3. The Scottish Parliament REFUSES consent.

So yes means yes. Silence means yes. No means yes. It will be interesting to see what self-respecting Scottish MPs and subsequently MSPs are willing to vote for such legislation. It must also be remembered that we are fighting to preserve the powers of the Scottish Parliament as a constitution rather than the SNP Government in the here and now.

Robert Brown

I was saddened to hear the death of Robert Brown, the former councillor for the Crosshouse, Knockentiber and Kilmaurs Ward of Kilmarnock and Loudoun District Council. Along with another councillor, they were the first SNP politicians elected in the district. He was elected in 1977, with a great vote. Unfortunately he lost his seat in 1980, when there was a general swing against the SNP who struggled in the early 1980s. Even then he got 49.2% of the vote share. He was then re-elected in 1984 with a whopping 65% of the vote which really was a measure of the man.

I only met Robert in later years, and he was as enthusiastic as ever. You couldn’t get by his street without being invited in for a chat! Personable, and always ready with cards to give out with Burns quotes he was one of those larger than life characters. My condolences to his family. It was hard work by the likes of Robert all those years ago that was to pave the way for the likes of myself to have any chance of being elected.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Syria Update

Taking part in airstrikes in Syria without prior parliamentary approval broke convention set from the Falklands conflict onwards. Clearly the Tories were frightened of losing a vote but as it transpired, the majority of Labour MPs made it clear that had there been a vote they would have voted in favour.

The SNP had led the calls for parliamentary recall but this was resisted. Theresa May made the ridiculous argument that a parliamentary session would jeopardise the mission…even although Trump tweeted to the world that he would be launching missiles! I put this point to the PM after she had made a statement. I also observed that they were acting differently regards Yemen, where Saudi Arabia used white phosphorous. And yet, the UK still sell arms to Saudi Arabia! Additionally, Saudi Arabia has used barrel bombs – bombs which are illegal, and another reason the UK used to take action against Assad. So there is rank hypocrisy across the entire decision. Worst of all, with chemical weapon inspectors due to arrive in Syria the next day, it made sense to allow them to fulfil their duties.

If there were chemical weapons used, and there are known chemical weapon factories, then an argument can be made for taking these out with minimum casualties. However, there is still no long term plan and nothing to show that this will prevent further chemical attacks. Additionally, absolute proof about the initial attack and who undertook the attack is outstanding.

In a bizarre admission that parliament scrutiny had been denied the PM herself applied for an emergency debate on Syria. Given that the Government control business then it was utterly farcical that they tried to choose that route. The Speaker rejected her request and instead granted the emergency debate to a Labour backbencher. Of course, the SNP had also put in a request for an emergency debate. To show how crazy things are with Labour at Westminster they then opted not to push their debate to a vote at the end. It was the SNP who had to force a vote, which Labour abstained on. Just think…Labour were granted an emergency debate on Syria, with the whole premise being that there hadn’t been enough consideration given to the matter. If that was the reasoning for the debate, then surely they should have voted accordingly?

The Tories now argue too that the Prime Minster giving a statement and taking questions for over 3 hours and a 3 hour emergency debate means that sufficient parliamentary time was allocated to the Syrian situation. The reality is that the Prime Minister ducked any hard questions and the emergency debate was oversubscribed and many MPs including myself were not called to speak. Many others didn’t even bother putting their names in as they knew only a few would get the chance to speak.

The final concern on all this, is that while the UK may “only” have fired 8 missiles [which each costs £800,000] without approval of parliament. This could now be a slippery slope for future interventions.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

Easter Recess

Recess

Easter recess allows more to be done in the constituency. I was delighted to formally open the Portland in Galston. The refurbishment of this is a fantastic outcome for a building that had become a derelict eyesore. Some of the disruption may have been painful but we now have a first floor occupied by local businesses, a community room with lots of community events planned and another retail unit available for lease. A real hub.

I visited the “Wednesday Waffle” in Onthank. This is a community run group which offers a hot meal to everyone attending, and many activities including trips out. They have branched out into doing cooking lessons on a Thursday, and teaching how to cook healthy meals on a budget.

I also attended the Town Centre Partnership Board Meeting to hear the work being undertaken with Celebrate Kilmarnock. I am really looking forward to further town centre events this year, with for example Killie-ween and K-Fest. Additionally, ambitious plans are being formulated for community ownership and running of buildings with the aims of regeneration, events and the night time economy.

I planned a visit to the CHIP (Community Health Improvement Partnership) van to have a health check and see their good work undertaken. Unfortunately, the van itself failed its own health check and had to be put off road for repairs. Next time!

Rail Ownership

It was interesting to read Colin Smyth MSP’s press release that commuters from Ayrshire overpay on the rail when compared randomly to a route in France, proving the need for “Labour’s policy” on rail nationalisation. Nothing to say how this would actually lower fares which would be welcome. The fact that there are 8 state owned rail companies operating in the UK, shows state owned railways work. However, Labour politicians conveniently forget it was Labour UK Governments who in the Railway Acts of 2000 and 2005 refused to allow public sector bids or outright ownership.

They also refused to allow Scotland to have the powers to do so. After coming to power in 2007, the SNP asked three UK Governments for the powers for public sector bids but were rebuffed. This is why we have the Dutch owned Abellio operating Scotrail. However, after the SNP made sure the powers for public sector bids were included in the Smith Commission proposals we have been able to commit to the preparation of a public sector bid.

After Labour’s broken promises, it was the SNP who delivered a half hour service to Glasgow. It was the SNP who invested to end the practice of trains dumping toilet waste directly on the tracks [which still happens on some English services!]. Years of underinvestment in the rail sector has led to some of the network issues that contribute to delays and station skipping on the Kilmarnock-Glasgow services. That’s not to say Abellio are blameless and I will always challenge them on this. Another issue going forward is that the UK Government have allocated £600m less than required for rail upgrades in Scotland. So, there are many reasons which affect prices and services. I wish more politicians understood.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Another week and another Prime Minister Question:  I chose to go on the breaking news that the Tories are ducking from the use of stolen personal data by companies to target voters in the EU referendum. I highlighted that Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary was the figurehead for the VoteLeave campaign. Michael Gove, Environment Secretary was Co-convener of the campaign body. Turns out their campaign director praised the work of one of the companies now involved in the stolen personal data issue – he said they couldn’t have won “without them”. It is therefore clear that top UK Ministers must have known about the dodgy tactics being used.

The Prime Minister seems to think this is about trying to overturn the result of the referendum. It is not...it is about finding out who has been involved in illegal activities, who is trying to thwart democracy and importantly stopping it happening again. Another whistle-blower has confirmed that an organisation, BeLeave, aimed at younger voters was registered as a completely separate political organisation. However, it shared the same offices as VoteLeave; VoteLeave managed all its so called expenses and £600,000 spend and did all its administration. In what world could this be a separate organisation that has claimed under electoral law not to have worked with the VoteLeave campaign?

Then we have £425,000 of money from a Conservative led group being transferred to the DUP in Northern Ireland. We don’t know how all this money was spent but we do know it was spent supporting the campaign in the UK. Another clear dodge to get round spending limits. People may not be aware but donors to parties in Northern Ireland have been allowed to remain secret due to the historical troubles. The theory being that donors could then be targeted. The Electoral Commission said this is outdated and recommended a retrospective date of 2014 to be used for full declarations of donors and spending by parties in Northern Ireland. The Tory Government refused to abide by this and instead chose a date of 2017, meaning no requirement for the DUP to give full details of their 2016 £425,000 spend. I am clearly biased in my politics, but I defy anybody not to say this stinks to high heaven and is worrying when politicians and parties think they can behave how they want.

And to cap it all off, the Prime Minister’s personal secretary attacked one of the whistle-blowers by outing him as gay. Did the Prime Minster take responsibility? No.  She said it was a personal statement and nothing to do with her. Eh, the personal statement was from an official government email. I genuinely despair at the so called leadership of the UK.

Ayrshire Growth Deal

I was glad the UK Government made a positive announcement on the £350m Ayrshire Growth Deal. However, a pledge to “open talks” is hardly earth shattering. Rest assured along with fellow Ayrshire MPs I will continue to push them on timescales and money. Of course the work done by Willie Coffey MSP and his colleagues have already secured the support of the Scottish Government.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Lobby Fodder

In the political brickbat exchanges the new Scottish Tories have often been referred to as “lobby fodder”. Rather than standing up for Scotland getting concessions from the UK Government as they promised they seem to be there only to help prop it up. This was perfectly illustrated when they voted with their Government on a proposal that saw English schoolkids lose out on free school meals. However, as well as being a matter that does not directly affect their constituents, their votes effectively do not count. Under the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) process, their votes do not count as Scottish votes get removed in a second count system where they only consider the votes of English MPs. It was also clear that many of them did not realise the pointlessness of voting nor why some of my colleagues were gently mocking them. Proof indeed that lobby fodder is an apt description.

Bill Committee

I served on yet another Bill Committee, the Energy Tariffs Bill. This is the legislation to implement a maximum price that people will pay on their energy bills. On this bill committee, I reflected again on the performance of these committees. Even these committees put together to do line by line scrutiny and debate on the new laws being enacted get filled by lobby fodder. Both Labour and the Tories appoint MPs to the committee whose sole job is to sit through the sessions and vote when needed. The Minister responsible for steering the bill through committee has to work really hard answering all queries. The Labour shadow minister also works really hard and apart from that there might be a couple of backbench MPs who have an interest in the subject and engage positively. From an SNP perspective, we only have one or two MPs on such committees. Therefore, to do the job properly we have to work really hard, studying the entire bill, reading briefings and weighing up the pros and cons. I am happy to work hard but it is an eye opener to see other backbenchers just mark time.

Russia

The recent nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy raises many concerns. We always have to be cynical when we are told who we should believe and some people recall the false assertions that led to the Iraq war. However, given there has been no credible response from Russia and all western nations believe that Russia was behind the attack then they must have some culpability.

One aspect is clear – we need to get Russian dirty money out the UK. My former colleague, Roger Mullin tried to bring in legislation to end Scottish Limited Partnerships. This is a system that allows companies to be set up with little information in the public domain. They are used for laundering money gained from criminal activities and change is long overdue. The UK Tory Government must act now and I know the SNP will be pushing hard on this. Needless to say, the Tories need to think long and hard from who they receive political donations from.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

I don’t think there is ever a typical week at Westminster other than “busy”. Monday had me sitting in on the Prime Minister’s statement of update of progress on EU negotiations. I challenged her to explain why if all the agreements were going so well, she was bringing in legislation for HGVs that is based on a “No Deal” scenario. You know you have asked a left field question when Boris Johnson put his hand up and muttered at me as in “what a stupid question”. Naturally it was just the fact that he didn’t know what I was referring to. The Prime Minister had to concede that they are making contingency plans. There is no doubt there is a real risk of a no deal and the Government are miles away from any real preparations.

I then summed up in a debate on the merits of insuring cars rather than drivers. Theoretically this makes it easier for drivers to access other cars and could possibly bring down insurance costs for younger drivers. However, it is not that simple and even in the US where technically it is the car that is insured, each driver has to have liability insurance. Additionally there are age restrictions put on some insurance policies so the same problems for young drivers in terms of cost and availability still exist.

Tuesday morning had me summing up on the debate about the merger of the Scottish Division of British Transport Police into Police Scotland. Both the Tories and Labour are against this idea. As apparently, if the Scottish Division is merged into Police Scotland as a rail division then they will not be able to co-operate cross border. It makes no sense, given there is plenty of cross border counter terrorism working ongoing elsewhere.  

Tuesday afternoon had me doing a front bench speech on the Energy Tariffs Bill. This is the legislation to bring in a cap on the rates people pay for their energy costs. At present, the poorer households, the most vulnerable and elderly tend not to switch companies or see what deal they can get from their supplier. This means that those with the lowest incomes are actually subsidising the energy bills of the richest, which clearly makes no sense. The Competitions and Markets Authority reckoned that those on standard variable tariffs overpaid a collective £1.4bn in 2016. That is a huge sum of money and why I support a cap.

Wednesday saw a DEFRA Committee investigation to the false labelling of real fur as faux fur, which is truly shocking. I dashed out of this and managed to get a question to David Mundell at Scottish Questions. The afternoon was spent with me being part of a cross committee group agreeing a report on air quality.

Three days, 2 chamber questions, 3 debates and 2 select committee meetings as well as squeezing in other meetings sure makes the week go past quickly. I was glad to be back in my constituency office for a catch up on Thursday.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

Court Charges

I used my role at parliament and a personal case in order to raise what I see as a serious issue. Last year I was served a notice from “The London Compliance Centre” demanding hundreds of pounds for a court fine that had been served on me. Within the letter was threats of a summary warrant and seizing of goods. My first instinct was that this would be a scam, but looking into it a bit further, this company did indeed act on behalf of the courts. It turns out someone on a bus was caught travelling without a ticket and gave his name as Alan Brown and a London address. As he did not respond to any letters he was then fined in court in his absence.

The fine then goes to the collection company and as they could not get Alan Brown at that address they apparently just randomly decide on another Alan Brown. What really illustrates the randomness is that they contacted me at my Galston address! They argued I had to prove I was not the person and not on the bus, which is actually quite difficult to do. I managed to get the court officer to confirm it was incorrect and she was cancelling proceedings.

So to my surprise months later another company has contacted me to serve a warrant on my property to recover the money. Contact information they provided were not answered either.

So my point to the UK Government is that they are allowing a court system to operate which allows people to be classed as guilty rather than presumed innocent and they and Transport for London are effectively in partnership with private collection companies whose sole purpose is to extract money from people and they do not care who. It is quite clear to me that many innocent people will have stumped up hundreds of pounds fearing the consequences if they didn’t. Welcome to modern Britain! I was advised to get a debate on the matter and certainly will be doing so. If any constituents are suffering from such companies then I will be happy to try and assist if they contact my office. I might also have to find out how many other Alan Browns they may have contacted!

Boris and the Border

If ever there was another sign that the Foreign Secretary was clueless then it was the fact that he compared a possible future border set up within Ireland as being no different to the invisible congestion charging border between Camden and Westminster. When you have one country within the EU and the other outside, then it is a little more complicated than congestion charging. Again it shows the blasé don’t care, don’t understand attitude of the man. Not that I can ever forget him stating that a pound spent in Camden is of more value than a pound spent in Strathclyde. So he really has no care for any other region or nation within the UK and we are supposed to trust him with Foreign Affairs!

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

Prime Ministers Questions

Once more, I secured a Prime Minister Question. I opted to raise the matter of a Tory fundraising dinner, the Black and White Party. It was widely reported in newspapers that there were auctions to buy events with the top ranking Tory parliamentarians. I accept that newspaper reports are no guarantee of accuracy.  However, I wanted the Prime Minister to clarify.

On the day, the Speaker abruptly interrupted.  He said that the PM didn’t have to answer as I was “suggesting that the presence of a Member of Parliament was bought” and when I referred to newspapers he confirmed the PM did not have to answer. Rather disappointingly she chose not to answer…I would have thought a Prime Minister capable of doing a rebuttal at the dispatch box.

I should have made clear to the Speaker I was not saying they were “bought” in a bribery type of way. However, the point of the auction was that people bought time with the Government Ministers - £30,000 paid to have a visit to the Churchill War Rooms with the Defence Secretary; £55,000 to shadow the Prime Minister for the day; £15,000 for dinner with Ruth Davidson. All money raised would go to Tory party funds. I am well aware that political parties have to raise money to fight elections and there are rules about donations to aid transparency. Equally I know many people are uncomfortable about so many Government Ministers being able to offer such time out their diaries when they are (a) supposed to be running the UK Government and (b) negotiating the exit from the EU.

Overall on the social media, then it was either deemed a good talking point or ridiculous and out of order depending on your political viewpoint! Interestingly a few MPs approached me afterwards, including a Tory MP, who thought the question should have stood without interruption.

Lastly, the Black and White Party/Ball has been widely reported on a number of times. I would suspect that had the papers got it so blatantly wrong then they would have been challenged/reported by now.

Reading Room/UK Government Analysis

I had the joy of going into the secure room and handing over my mobile phone in order to be able to scrutinise the papers the Government has prepared for Brexit. This includes modelling the financial impact of various possible deals that might be agreed post Brexit. I am not allowed to report directly what is in the papers – even although they have been leaked. Suffice to say, there is not one scenario  that involves leaving the single market and customs agreement that does not predict a financial loss to the UK economy as a whole and Scotland in particular. Yet, despite this, 62 Tory MPs have demanded leaving the single market and customs union as soon as possible is a must. It is just incredible how blinkered and demanding this cohort are and it does not bode well for the future.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

Child Poverty

Child Poverty

The Standard ran an article about child poverty levels and the worrying statistics about how many local people who may be affected. The measure used by Child Poverty Action Scotland suggests 1 in 4 children locally are deemed to be living in poverty. That is truly shocking. Commentary was allowed from politicians, including myself. I was interested in Brian Whittle’s response – the Scottish Government simply need to offer more support to families living in poverty. Easily said, but the truth is that the Tories at Westminster cut Scotland’s budget by £2.6bn in real terms; the Tories have cut benefit payments, and at the same time the Tories at Westminster have cut corporation tax for the rich companies; cut inheritance tax for millionaires and cut capital gains tax. Meanwhile, the SNP Government is having to find the bedroom tax and council tax benefit relief removed by the Tories The Scottish Tory MSPs are also against the SNPs new progressive tax system, which means those working on low wages will now pay less tax giving them greater spending power and of course helping mitigate those who fall in the “in-work-poverty” category.

Another suggestion from Brian was to cut the number of people smoking. He is absolutely correct, which is why laws were changed on the marketing and selling of cigarettes in Scotland. Wouldn’t it be good if the tax Westminster receives on tobacco actually was ring fenced for health spending including smoking cessation? Another good suggestion was that the SNP should focus on the education attainment gap. Actually, that is a stated priority. Although changing generational inequality does not happen overnight. It is why the SNP have allocated educational attainment funding to schools. The SNP have also protected and improved the educational maintenance allowance. The Tories? Of course they have cut this funding altogether in England, which then contributes to a shrinking Scottish budget.

When you have children going hungry then this clearly affects the educational attainment gap. Foodbanks do great work, but are a symptom of a wider problem. Centrestage locally do fantastic work under their motto of Fun, Food and Folk. However, again, this ties back to the bigger picture of imposed cuts and choices.

The SNP are further increasing the free childcare provision. This makes it easier for people to return to work; clearly means more money in their pockets that would otherwise need to be used to pay for childcare and also benefits children giving some better learning and social skills that they would otherwise already be behind children from more affluent backgrounds.

My office is now seeing the impact of the roll out of universal credit with people waiting too long for their money and in some cases losing money altogether due to blunders in the system.

I believe all politicians want to see an end to child poverty. However, cutting spend, and cutting taxes at the same time is an impossible way to do it, and “actions speak louder than words”. This is why I believe the two Governments need to be compared.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.