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.

A Week in Parliament

PIP/Court Case

The UK Government recently lost yet another case in the high court in terms of how they treat the disabled. This time it was PIP assessments and how they are applied to people with mental health problems. The court found that found changes to the disability benefit system “blatantly discriminated” against people with mental health problemsThe only good thing the UK Government have done on the back of this December 2017 ruling is that they have decided not to appeal. This means that up to 160,000 people across the UK could be due benefits re-instated and backdated. If you believe you are one of those affected then please feel free to contact my office for advice. Overall it is another damning indictment of the policies implemented by the Tory UK Government given they have now lost several court cases.

Potholes, Road Tax and Taxing

Many constituents have expressed concerns about the number of potholes appearing after the winter conditions, as has the Kilmarnock Standard. Many people feel aggrieved that they are paying road tax and fuel duty but feel this doesn’t get re-invested in the roads. There is a truth in this. All road tax and fuel duty gets paid to the UK Government. It goes into a single line, called taxation as all taxes collected simply go into one big pot and is used to manage day to day spending.

The responsibility of the local roads is the council’s and the trunk road network is the responsibility of the Scottish Government in Scotland. The grant that comes from Westminster to Scotland does not reflect in any way the road and fuel taxes paid by residents. So, when Westminster imposes new taxes, they might say it is for specific spending but actually then the money just disappears into a pot.

Take tobacco tax: when it is argued that the tobacco tax contributes towards paying for the Health Service to treat people with tobacco related illnesses then that is not true as there is no methodology for allocating taxes in that way. It can be argued that this tax can change people’s behaviour and deter people from smoking and if it works that way, then that is a good thing but Government has to be clearer about all taxation.

Motability

The Motability scheme is a fantastic asset which clearly facilitates those with disabilities being able to access their own cars for transport. It turns out that “Motability Operations” is paying its chief executive £1.7m and they have £2.4bn in reserves. It is a shocking position and it turns out Ester McVey raised concerns 5 years ago, but it seems only when the story hit the Daily Mail, did the UK Government decide to take further action and request the National Audit Office do a review. For all those who have lost their cars due to Tory cutbacks then it must be particularly galling to have the scheme operate in this way, and hopefully the correct action will now follow.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Michelle Mone

One of my colleagues, Stewart MacDonald made a reference on twitter to the effect that Baroness Mone of Mayfair, has hardly done any work in the House of Lords since she was ennobled. This produced an angry reaction with her labelling him an “SNP MORON” and observing she will be a peer for life, whereas he is just an MP who could lose his seat. She thus highlighted perfectly the ridiculous situation of someone being appointed a Lord for life, while MPs live and die by election results.

That someone from the East End of Glasgow, and allegedly proud of that fact, takes a title of “Mayfair” also shows the ridiculous nature of the Lords.

Trade Bill

I was relieved to see the end of the Trade Bill Committee. It is important work but with four bill sessions in one week, it is very time consuming when taking into account the necessary reading and preparation. Another Westminster quirk I have noticed is that when opposition parties table amendments, the Government without fail votes them down. However, sometimes the Government then brings them back as Government amendments at the next stage, claiming to have listened to the scrutiny of the committee. I have still to reach an understanding of the logic of not accepting first time round.

Additionally, both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have stated that unless the bill is amended then they will not give it permission to be enacted in the relevant parliaments. I challenged the Minster on this several times and he acknowledged how clear I was on this aspect and that he was listening. Yet, I still do not know what changes he is willing to bring given he voted all amendments down. Once again, I can reflect and think there must be a more efficient way of doing things.

Restoration and Renewal of Westminster

The Westminster Parliament has taken a decision to spend billions of pounds to refurbish the place. It is obscene amounts of money and for the other parties, all they cared about was whether the refurbishment should be undertaken in a shorter timeframe. Some argued that it would not be right to consider a new build parliament as new build projects always go over budget. They argued that we should not decant as more work will be identified as needing done and therefore the decant will end up being longer. So on one hand they argue refurbishment is cheaper and on the other they acknowledge it is so complex that issues will arise.  It is clearly a ludicrous proposition to completely refurbish the place working around MPs and staff and obvious that costs are better estimated for a new build compared to refurbishment. We also had the absurd position of a Tory MP arguing that the fire risk to the place is not as great as made out…due to all the asbestos in the building! It seems my wish of a museum open all day every day will not happen.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

 

A Week in Parliament

Private Members Bill

In another busy Westminster Week I brought forward another private members bill. This is to try and help plumbing companies who have paid into a plumbing pension company for the benefit of their employees. Changes in Government legislation meant the way the fund is valued suggests it is underfunded and there are massive debts that require to be paid by the employers, up to several hundred thousand each. Yet the reality is the fund is able to pay its pension liabilities so it is a ridiculous position. I pointed out to the Government in my speech, Carillion has gotten away with a massive pension black hole while still paying their top staff handsomely, yet the Government is doing nothing to help these plumbers which include many local companies in Ayrshire. Indeed this so called debt contributed to a firm in Kilmarnock closing down before Christmas.

It is really difficult to get a private members bill through parliament as I have outlined previously. However, I have cross party support with my 11 co-sponsors coming from six political parties in total.  The Government are also due to publish a White Paper on possible changes sometime during Spring so I have said I will happily include any recommendations from the UK Government White paper to be able to take the matter forward.

Jeremy Corbyn and Tory Cuts

For the second time in a few weeks, at Prime Ministers’ Questions, the Prime Minister challenged Jeremy Corbyn about the poor performance of the Welsh NHS, under Labour. His response both times has been to highlight that the Welsh Budget is under pressure due to Tory cuts. Isn’t it amazing how he can see how Tory budget cuts impacts the operation of the Welsh Government but neither he or his colleagues admit the pressures the Scottish Government are under due to Tory budget cuts?!

Trade Bill Committee

I am serving on the bill committee for the Trade Bill. This is a bill supposedly to allow existing EU trade deals that the UK can access to be brought into UK law. Sounds simple, but the reality is that any EU deal might not be able to be applied directly and forms of renegotiation will be required. We had three evidence sessions from witnesses who have expressed these concerns. Many witnesses have also said that there is insufficient input in the legislation for the devolved Governments. Both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have said they will not give a Legislative Consent motion unless there are changes to the Bill. Indeed they co-drafted amendments which we have now submitted for debate. Bizarrely the Labour MPs have refused to back the amendments co-drafted by their Assembly Colleagues! One Welsh Labour MP on the Committee gave a great speech effectively supporting the amendments, talking about the need to protect the powers of the devolved Governments and then abstained when we pushed to a vote. It sums up the whole Brexit policy or lack of within the Labour Party at present and makes it harder to have full cross party co-operation.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Oh Crumbs

At Christmas I received a hamper that consisted of Fox’s Biscuits. It was anonymous, but we managed to establish that Fox’s is owned by the Two Sisters Food Group. And very co-incidentally, I am a member of the DEFRA Committee that is conducting an enquiry into the Two Sisters Food Group. It transpired that most members of the Committee also received a parcel. As it was way below the limit for declarations on my register of interests I could have kept it and not needed to do anything. However, it did not sit right, so I chose to donate to a local Foodbank. All the committee members felt similar, so we have all recorded this for full transparency and the Chief Executive has been sent a strong letter telling him never to repeat the exercise. Their excuse was that they do this for a number of external clients. However, I am not a client. I am troubled by the thought that this was deemed a good idea by the company and worse that someone thought sending boxes of biscuits will sway my opinion! I realise some people think MPs are “out for what they can” but biscuits?!

EU Bill

So, the EU Bill delivered another broken Tory promise. Given that the Scottish Tories agreed the clause on devolution was flawed, and Tory MSPs said likewise; the Secretary of State for Scotland committed to bringing forward an amendment to rectify matters. Paul Masterton MP had stated he could not vote for the Bill in its current format. Yet, no amendment came from the Government and they voted down a cross party amendment that was proposed instead. Now the commitment is that an amendment will be made in the House of Lords. How can it be credible to argue that “we know it is not fit for purpose” and that “we are disappointed at the UK Government missing deadlines” but also that you are satisfied it will all come together in the House of Lords?

Church and State

I believe in everyone’s freedom to practice religion. However, I raised a point in the Commons that at a UK level, with Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, then this is the only parliament in the world apart from Iran that has religious clerics as part of their legislature. I also pointed out that time is allocated in the House of Commons for Questions on the Church of England. One MP is appointed to be the Commissioner for the Church of England and so answers the questions on their behalf. Bizarrely in a typical Westminster fashion, she circulates questions “that we might want to ask” to submit to her for answering. Hardly likely to put her on the spot! My request was to have a debate about the merits of moving away from a medieval set up and separate church and UK state at Parliament level. Apparently I raised an “extremely controversial idea, which would have significant constitutional implications”. That sounds interesting to me!

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Firstly Happy New Year to all. I was glad to get a break over the festive period before ramping things up in the days after Ne’erday. I also extend gratitude and sympathy to all those who didn’t get a holiday – the emergency service workers, NHS workers, those in the hospitality trade run off their feet. Hopefully you all managed decent downtime at some point.

New Year resumes with political parties trying to generate headlines. The actual stories are often weak and need further analysis though.  

Ambulance Call Outs

Some ambulance call outs are undertaken by a single staff member. There are protocols surrounding this and over a four year period, this accounted for 1.5% of call outs, in line with the “only in exceptional circumstances” guidelines. However, the running headline based on a Tory press release was that there were 10,000 such call outs. While the total is correct, reporting that way is aimed at engendering alarm. I understand why the Tories requested the information and it is a legitimate exercise to challenge the Government if there are failings. However, to spin a problem that doesn’t exist is not right – it is not fair on staff or the general public.

The reporting of this resulted in a constituent going public on social media about the excellent response he had received when doing a call out for his late wife. She unfortunately was not able to be saved but he had nothing but good words to say about the service he received and that ultimately there were five people in attendance. That he felt he had to resort to public sharing though does highlight the fact that we as politicians need to be careful how we put data in the public domain.

Scottish NHS

While doctors in England are complaining of their hospitals resembling third world conditions then it could be seen that once again the Scottish NHS is the best performing in the UK. That is not to say there are not pressures in the Scottish NHS. Despite the record levels of funding there are clearly still financial constraints and pressures due to the Westminster austerity agenda as well as Brexit impact on staffing. However, the hard working NHS staff in Scotland have performed admirably, despite higher patient numbers and the facts speak for themselves.

Ayrshire Growth Deal / Government Correspondence

A full two months after writing to the Chancellor, I got a rejection letter from the Chancellor regards a request to include the Ayrshire Growth Deal in the Autumn Budget. I am still awaiting a ministerial response from Michael Gove for a letter sent on 9th October, and one from Claire Perry sent on 7th November on separate matters. I am following up on this unacceptable response time and it beggars belief there is not even a system of initial acknowledgement. By contrast, my letter to a Scottish Government Minister had a 3 week turnaround including the holiday period. And yet we are supposed to believe the UK Government has not been completely consumed by Brexit!

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard

A Week in Parliament

Holiday Spirit

I am glad to be able to spend a couple of weeks in the constituency. I know it will go by too quickly. Hopefully, readers too are able to enjoy the holiday period. Family Christmas and Hogmanay with my friends is my treat. I know when I return to Westminster I am straight back to a Bill Committee on the Trade Bill as well as further investigations and reporting as a member of the DEFRA Committee. So it might be a bit indulgent, but I know I need to recharge the batteries a bit.

Another One Bites the Dust

After an extended period the deputy prime minister resigned [was sacked] after he was found to have breached the Ministerial Code. He hadn’t done anything illegal even if he had watched legal pornography on his computer although there are so many strands that arise from this. Firstly, can anyone name a workplace that would not discipline or more likely sack someone for watching pornography in work time? If it wasn’t Damien Green and a staff member instead as he said, surely he would want to know who was doing this on his computer in his office?

Then we have to consider he lied about circumstances and police contact. He clearly went for the “say something, repeat it and don’t back down approach”. This was only undone by a retired policeman releasing the true information. And the attitude of Damien Green’s colleagues? They claim it wasn’t right for that information to be released. After the expense scandal before I was elected, I worry that there are still some politicians who get more excited about how misdoings are revealed rather than the misdoings themselves.

Another strand is David Davis the Brexit Secretary saying he would resign if Damian Green was sacked. It turns out his principles did not extend to following through and backing his friend.

Meanwhile, Westminster is also trying to get to grips with sexual harassment claims and an obvious lack of policy for this. A cross party group has worked together to define clearer rules, regulations and importantly, an independent way for accusations to be lodged and investigated. They took evidence from experts in this field and produced a report…except Labour have refused to sign it off. When a ministerial statement was given on this subject on the last day of parliament, it was clear there were splits on the Labour party about this and many of their MPs were calling for the report to be published in some form rather than be blocked which is what their leadership appears to want. It is extremely rare in Westminster for all parties to unite in a consistent manner and so,

Finally, the serious debate to be had about pornography, what is acceptable, what it does for woman’s’ rights given how most of it is portrayed and the availability to a switched on digital generation and how that then shapes attitudes to sex. This is a debate to return to.

Killie and Stevie

It is great to see the turnaround under Stevie Clarke. Hopefully the good work continues through the holiday period. I am a fan of a winter break after New Year when fans are skint and the weather often awful. However, I was shocked to find out a token two week break is followed by Killie having the Scottish Cup ‘pay at gate’ match then two midweek home games against St Johnstone, and Dundee, which will be poor crowds, with  Aberdeen away in-between! We also had midweek December away to Ross County which is the longest trip in the Premiership and a home televised game to Rangers causing more inconvenience. It is scandalous and something I intend to bring up with the All Party Group on Scottish Sports at Westminster. How difficult is it for the SPFL to get a fans’ perspective?

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard 28 December 2017

A Week in Parliament

Brexit Vote

The Government were defeated on an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which was designed to ensure that a final vote on the Brexit deal is voted on by Parliament and able to be challenged. It was a narrow vote, 309-305 which made it quite dramatic. I “man marked” the tellers on the Aye lobby so I would know instantly if the Government were going to be defeated and enjoyed seeing it happen.

The first question at Prime Ministers Questions that day was a Tory whip planted question [Another drawback of getting a PMQ if you are a Tory - their whips often take over]. This question was intended to suggest that there was no need for the Tory rebels to vote for the amendment as there would be an overall vote anyway. So it seemed that the day was being stage managed to quell the rebellion and maybe even persuade Dominic Green not to push his amendment to a vote.

It was also confirmed there were real intimidating tactics from the Tory whips too. One rebel was sacked from his position as vice chair of the party. The problem they now have is that these rebels now feel they have nothing to lose in other matters, and could be dangerous internal enemies.

Something I was able to witness first hand was the entire group of Tory whips standing at the glass doors of the No voting lobby just staring and trying to eyeball any of the rebels as they cast their vote in the opposite lobby. It seemed so childish for what is important business. 

Additionally, the chancellor steered one of the planned rebels into the voting lobby he wanted her to vote in. Frankly this is immoral but it has been accepted over the years at Westminster that a nudge at the right time can be used to force someone into the lobby you want them to go in. It is probably another reason that they are resistant to electronic voting!

Labour and Brexit

Those following Brexit and the Labour party will see that they have no agreed position or alternative to the Tory position of withdrawal from the single market. I had an interesting conversation with a Labour MP, who lamented it was easy for me as my party had a clear position so voting was easy. He meanwhile, has to really study amendments to see if there are ones he wants to either vote against his whip on, or where the Labour whips try to force abstention. Much has been said about SNP party discipline, but I am happy with a unified position where no whip strong arm tactics are required.

WASPI

Another week, another WASPI defeat for the Tory Government. This time I took the opportunity to highlight figures from the House of Commons library I got that shows up to the year 2025, the corporation tax, inheritance tax, capital gains and savings tax giveaways will cost the Treasury £66bn pounds. Why is it they resist transitional payments so much?

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard 21 December 2017

A Week in Parliament

Prime Minister Questions

I came out the ballot with a question to ask the Prime Minister. You are aware that this is technically the set piece occasion that more people watch relevant to Parliament. So you want to be drawn…and then once you are drawn, you start to worry about what question to go on, how to frame it and how successful it will be or otherwise.

Apparently, Sebastian Coe, the successful athlete used to competing and doing television interviews went completely blank with his first PMQ. I also heard recently about a Tory who got so many questions in a short space of time, on his last effort ended up asking a really bland one about asparagus farmers. This was because his whips wouldn’t allow awkward questions to be asked.

Fortunately, I had no constraints – no-one in the SNP interferes and of course I am allowed to criticise the Government. I opted to compare the concessions the DUP have gained from the UK Government, to the Scottish Tories. I highlighted that the Scottish Budget has been cut by £2.5bn pounds in real terms, [confirmed by the independent House of Commons Library], we are due £140m VAT refund for Police and Fire Services, £200m CAP convergence and £600m rail budget shortfall. This I suggested means that each Scottish Tory MP costs Scotland £265m. It is a real eye opener when put together.

According to an article in a book by Paul Flynn MP, you should make your point and then finish on a question that is completely unanswerable. I achieved this by asking the PM if we “can free transfer them?” This rounded my question off as I started with a football analogy and finished it that way and of course the PM cannot physically answer. At the time it seemed to work and so I sat down relieved. Such is the nature of PMQs I could not hear the PM response due to a mix of laughter, shouting and cat calling, but I was confident that I did not agree with her answer!

DUP/Brexit

Well, what a farce that when the PM is ready to announce she has concluded the first phase of talks, the DUP tell her they are not happy and she has to come home with her tail between her legs. The DUP claim they will not accept any regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the UK. Yet, they want to have a different corporation tax so they can set it at the same rate as Ireland; they want to have a VAT regime different from the UK so they can match Ireland; they do not recognise the 1967 Abortion Act, and citizens in Northern Ireland can claim and Irish passport and hence an EU passport when other UK citizens cannot. So, there is no chance of ever knowing what the DUP really want.

Luckily a fudge was agreed at the end of the week but it still does not bode well for the future.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard 14 December 2017

My thoughts on the Autumn Budget Statement

My overall feeling about the budget was one of disappointment, both from a local perspective and from a Scotland wide perspective.

The big ask from a local point of view was the UK Government to match the Scottish Government’s commitment to the Ayrshire Growth Deal. Never mind finance, the Ayrshire Growth Deal did not even get a mention. This is a real disappointment and only recently I challenged the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, with my concern he was prioritising a deal for the Borders - the Borderland Deal. Well my concerns were correct as the Chancellor name checked the Borderlands deal. Incredibly he announced a new package of city deals to be implemented for Northern Ireland which we can only assume is outside the £1bn already allocated as part of the DUP deal.

The Chancellor also refused to lift the public sector pay cap. This affects employees in Scotland and also means that given the Scottish Government have pledged to lift the pay cap, they need to do so on a reduced budget.

Granting a VAT exemption on the Scottish Police and Fire Services was long overdue and welcome. Remember they have granted exemptions for the National Crime Agency, Police Service Northern Ireland, Highways England and Academy Schools England then it was obvious this could have been done before now. Indeed the current Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland previously voted against an SNP clause to a Finance Bill that would have provided the necessary exemption. To give the credit for the change to the new Scottish Tory MPs was laughable, but worryingly confirmation that the Tory UK Government were simply punishing an SNP Government and playing politics with our emergency services. This is further illustrated by the refusal to repay the money already paid to HMRC, £140m in total.

The only other Scottish policy announcement was one for the oil and gas sector, which is predicted to give the Treasury more money, so cannot be classed as any form of financial support.

So, despite being hailed as a Ruth Davidson fuelled giveaway for Scotland, we have been badly overlooked. Even the headline figure of £2bn of Barnett Consequentials has been shown not to stack up, with £1.1bn to be repaid to the Treasury.

Yet, he found £3bn in Brexit preparations to add to the £40bn they are now promising the EU and he found £3.2bn in stamp duty giveaways for first time buyers in England on properties up to £300k and £500k in London. There are already calls for the Scottish Government to follow suit, but how many first time buyers cannot get a house because they can afford a £300k mortgage but not the land and building tax? It is further proof how out of touch the Tory Government really is.

The Chancellor spoke for an hour, delivered well over 8,000 words and only about 100 (1%) directly covered Scotland. That in itself is probably testament to the real “power” of the additional 12 Scottish Tory MPs.

 

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