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.

A Week in Parliament

Labour and the EU Withdrawal Bill

So we had several amendments to vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill. I listened to a 3 panel interview on Radio Scotland not long before voting would commence. Labour’s Paul Sweeney stated that Labour was leading the way (!) on the key issues and gave an example of his colleague Yvette Copper’s amendment. When it came to vote on their colleague’s amendment, backed by the Labour front bench, 14 Labour MPs and 2 former Labour MPs who have lost the whip voted against it. As the margin of defeat was 20, then just 11 of these MPs voting the other way would have defeated the Government. A key aspect of her amendment, one being to extend Article 50 was to allow Parliament to bring in additional bills and take back control rather it being just a Government function. That should be manna for opposition MPs. For the record all 35 SNP MPs backed that; Labour’s main amendment and also Labour’s Rachel Reeve’s amendment. Labour meanwhile abstained on the SNP amendment.

Brady Amendment

The PM said her deal was all that could be agreed with the EU. Then she whips her MPs to vote for an amendment that actually tears up her own agreement! An amendment that the EU say won’t work. Utter incompetence!

Immigration Bill and Labour

One piece of legislation the Tories have managed to get through parliament is the Immigration Bill – aimed at stopping free movement of people (which will ultimately harm any of our family members who want to travel and work abroad in the UK). It also sets unrealistic bars on the amount of income migrants have to have before being accepted. This earning threshold has already affected many of my constituents, and it is really difficult for people married to a non UK citizen to suddenly find their spouse is not welcome in the UK. With lower wages than many other parts of the UK, Scotland is affected once more by the London and South East England view that dominates UK Government.

We know immigration is a Tory obsession, but what of the Labour party, and Jeremy Corbyn? After their front bench spokesperson set out all that was wrong with the bill, but they were not going to vote against it. What?! After an internal backlash and absolute disbelief they put a one line whip on it, which really means, “vote if you can be bothered”. The bill passed by 65 votes but with 80 Labour MPs not voting, there was a possibility of a Government defeat or at the very least making the Government work to get it through. The clear message was that Labour do not actually care about EU citizens and freedom of movement. Given my wife, Cyndi is an EU national and I have several cases where EU citizens are already caught up in the UKs “hostile environment” then I take real umbrage to Labour’s lack of opposition.

It is clear that neither of the two main parties at Westminster are fit to govern. Surely Scotland has better options?

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

 

A Week in Parliament

Private Members Bill

I was glad to present my Private Members Bill on HELMS Green Deal mis-selling. I am genuinely angry for my constituents (and anyone else) who has been ripped off by this company regards their PV installations. This possible legislative process starts off with me having ten minutes to present the bill to parliament, for what is also known as the First Reading of a Bill. I then choose a date for the second reading where there should be a debate on the merits of my bill and ideally a vote. However, this is where yet again, the archaic Westminster system fails us. At present, the Government have not scheduled any additional “sitting Fridays” to allow private members bills to be debated. They keep promising to, but then pull the parliamentary motions that would allow them to be set. Additionally there is now such a backlog of Private Members Bills (including another of mine) that this one will effectively be at the back of the queue and unlikely to be debated. It is so frustrating when you hope to bring about change.

The one positive is that I was able to lay bare the key issues the UK Government have to take on board. It is customary for the responsible Minister to be in the chamber to hear the arguments put forth. However, I noted that for the first couple of minutes, the Minister wasn’t even listening – she was too busy chatting. Hopefully her officials took notice but the Ministerial attitude is disrespectful to the HELMS victims.

Special Constituency H.E.L.M.S. Drop-In Surgery

H.E.L.M.S. Action Group Ayrshire and Citizens Advice Bureau are teaming up with my office at The Gateway Centre in Kilmarnock on Wednesday 6th February between 4 – 8pm. These groups are calling for East Ayrshire residents who feel they may be affected by the Green Deal scandal to come to the event for advice, information, and support to make a formal complaint if required.

Institute for Government Report

The Institute for Government has published an assessment report on the current UK Government. It does not make good reading for the UK Government. They confirm that the Government is unprepared to leave the EU on March 29th without a deal, and also that there is no way the UK Government will have the proper preparations in place by December 2020, even if Teresa May somehow gets her withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

They observe on the turnover and chaos of Government – Amber Rudd is now the 5th Secretary for Work and Pensions since 2016 which shows why no-one can get a grip of Universal Credit. Only 8 ministers out of 29 remain in post since Teresa May became PM in 2016. Since the General Election of 2017, there has been 21 ministerial resignations. Half the cabinet were new to their posts in 2018. I defy anyone to say that this level of turnover is productive, and it shows the folly of Teresa May’s “strong and stable” slogan.

Private Members Bill Motion

As stated above, the UK Government has pulled the motion on provision of additional private member bill days a couple of times. One bonus of them doing that on a day when other legislation was under English Votes for English Laws meant I was able to make last minute plans to get back to my constituency earlier than usual. This meant being able to catch Killie’s victory against Rangers. A bonus of the chaotic Government for once!

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Those Votes

So, Teresa May’s withdrawal agreement proposals were rejected to the extent it was the biggest ever Government defeat in history. It shows why the UK Government fought in court to try to prevent MPs having a vote on this! So, she has lost on the principle of not allowing MPs to vote. Her Government is the first in history to be found in contempt of Parliament and now a record defeat of 230 votes.

Given other high court defeats when the Tory Government policies have been found to discriminate against the disabled; the failing universal credit system, the WASPI disgrace, yet another new policy that robs pensioners of income to name but a few, then it is clear she and her Government are completely incompetent. Any Prime Minister with a modicum of self-respect would resign or call a General Election the previous biggest Government defeat, on Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 led to an early General Election.

Meanwhile, incredibly, her Government won the cote of no confidence by 19 votes. This seems a decent margin until you realise that had the ten DUP MPs voted the other way then the Government would be defeated. Another example that the Tory party have bought the votes of the DUP by awarding an extra £1.5bn to Northern Ireland. Fair play to the DUP for hard negotiations. However, as Scotland gets no Barnett Consequential money from this, and Scotland has a real terms budget cut of £2bn, it is logical to say that we are suffering to allow the Tories to stay in power with that “bribe”. Yet, the 13 Scottish Tories seem content for this to happen. We really do get a raw deal from the current arrangements at Westminster.

 What Next?

I like to try and inform constituents as to what will happen next. Unfortunately no-one knows! The Prime Minister has offered constructive dialogue with other parties. However, this already feels like window dressing and not really an effort for dialogue for real proposals. I can see her coming back to Parliament and argue that the other parties couldn’t agree on matters or give concrete proposals so it is back to her deal or leaving with no deal. What she should be doing is ruling out a no deal scenario if it will be as bad as she says it will be and also extending the article 50 timeframe.

 Backstop Arrangements

One issue with the withdrawal agreement is that fishermen in Northern Ireland may get tariff free access to the single market but Scotland won’t. I put this to the Fishing Minster and he denied this – before later on having to correct the record and that I was correct. I made the same point to the Attorney General – the QC who provides the legal advice to the Government and he didn’t understand this aspect either. When the legal advisor to the cabinet is wrong on what is included in the Withdrawal Agreement, then surely this says it all about both the agreement and the level of competence of the UK Tory Government?

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

The Ship that didn’t sail

Readers may have read about the latest UK Government farce…the decision to award a ferry contract to a company that has no boats! I tried to get an urgent question on the subject, and one was granted, but in the name of the Labour Opposition. It has been established that the company has debts and no assets; no boats; no crew; the port of Ramsgate they are to operate from needs dredged before it can accommodate ferries; they have no licence yet or agreement that allows them to sail into Ostend Port which is supposed to be the end destination; one director had a company that was liquidated owing the taxman £600k; the chief executive ran a company that went bust with debts of £1.8m and one is under investigation by another UK Government department. And to top it all, their terms and conditions on their website was plagiarised from a pizza delivery company! Yet the Transport Secretary says that due diligence was done and he is happy to provide support to a new company!

Another twist is that under EU law contracts of this value need to be put out to EU wide competitive tender. The Department of Transport used a regulation for emergency procurement for unforeseeable circumstances. Given they say they have been planning for a “No Deal” Brexit for well over two years, then it cannot be an unforeseen outcome! I observed to the Secretary that if it is a contract for emergency purposes then it should go to a company with a track record. His response is that they won’t get paid if they don’t deliver and it is only 10% of the contract anyway. The whole point he misses is that it is a contract for an emergency situation so if the company doesn’t deliver then the emergency situation is not dealt with either! He could not explain to me what effect this 10% would have on the Port of Dover given how time sensitive it is. He also has not yet explained how such a company was identified for direct negotiation. This fiasco has more to run yet.

The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, is responsible for delayed drone legislation which may have prevented the Gatwick incident; awarded an HS2 contract to Carillion even although there were signs they were going bankrupt; responsible for Northern Rail and Thameslink rail delays and timetable issues in England and allowed Virgin/Stagecoach to walk away from the East Coast Mainline owing the taxpayer £2bn pounds. How can one man be so incompetent?

Killie FC – 150 Years Old

Happy birthday to Kilmarnock FC. Many people will know I am a genuine fan, having ran a supporters bus for more than half my life and at one time, chair of the Supporters Association. It is great to see the improvements in the team under Stevie Clarke, the fans enjoying themselves again and the increase in attendances. There is no doubt that Killie doing well helps the local economy. Here’s hoping for success in 2019!

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

The Vote Chaos

So we have a UK Tory Government that is the first Government in UK history to be found in contempt of Parliament. Then a week later Teresa May pulls the vote on the EU Brexit “deal” because it is so bad a concept that she has no chance of getting it through Parliament. Anyone watching proceedings would see how coward like the Government were in their handling – they dared not put a votable motion to Parliament to allow them to suspend the debate/vote. Instead they used a procedure that their whip didn’t “move” the business of the day. Therefore the agenda simply collapsed. Imagine, such a critical vote delayed by such a weak tactic? This is further proof that the Prime Minister lives in a parallel universe – what took her so long to realise the vote would be lost? Yet in the same parallel universe she travels round Europe looking for concessions she has been told she won’t need. All she is doing is a reckless delaying tactic to try and scare MPs with what she thinks will be a literal Deal or No Deal choice as the clock ticks. What a way to deal with the biggest peacetime parliamentary decision. What should be remembered also is the UK fought in court to try and stop MPs having a vote on the outcome. We now know why – to stop any defeat and allow them to bulldoze anything through parliament.

The Backstop

Part of the deal is the Irish “backstop” arrangements – this means that there is a chance that Northern Ireland will get to remain in the single market and customs union and so be able to sell goods into the EU with no tariffs. Meanwhile in Scotland we will be subject to tariffs in such a scenario. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Northern Ireland will have business advantages over the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, the Scottish Secretary David Mundell, argued specifically that Scotland could not get any such preferential status. He also recently wrote to the Prime Minister saying he would resign if Northern Ireland got treated differently from the rest of the UK. He hasn’t resigned and worse, he is now arguing we accept such a deal that the UK Government’s own analysis shows the UK will be poorer compared to the current arrangements. Why is he arguing we should back a deal that will make us poorer?

Talents of the Tories

I have made observations on the quality of some of the Ministers. Another example is the current QC “forgot” to declare £400k of earnings he made outside his MP role. Yet he is deemed the correct candidate to be the top law advisor to the UK Government?!

Additionally, I was party to a current Government Minister telling one of my colleagues they should have “got the b**tards out the party when they had the chance”. What a damning indictment from the heart of the party trusted with ruling the UK. Is it any wonder I advocate a different direction for Scotland?

These views were first expressed in the Kilmarnock Standard.