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.

A Week in Parliament

That Accent Again

When walking through a corridor, a Labour MP stopped to say that she had completely understood the question I had asked that morning. She stated that when I get excited in the chamber, my accent gets stronger and I am “dreadful”. I am quite sure that my accent being possibly stronger stretches the definition of the word dreadful. However, she did at least add she likes to understand what I say because I can make some good points. A small crumb of comfort but it seems that after three years, my accent shouldn’t still be a novelty or have such an effect. The same day, apparently a new Government Minister asked our chief whip if I could go easy for his first outing at the dispatch box! Still I suppose it confirms I haven’t changed too much to fit into Westminster.

Pairing

I have written previously about not agreeing with the system of “pairing” ie agreeing with someone not to vote if they are unable to vote. There was controversy because the Government broke an agreement with Jo Swinson MP who is on maternity leave. The Government claim it was an administrative error, but seems to be straight out the dirty tricks department. The SNP don’t engage in pairing so we never have to trust the Tories to uphold a deal. It was poor form, and ironically it has given the Lib Dems a chance to get on the moral high ground. This is because their leader and former leader both missed a key EU vote the day before and were under pressure. With the Tories breaking the pairing they have allowed the irrelevant and incompetent Lib Dems to suddenly claim a moral high ground and positive publicity. That lack of judgement all round sums up the Tory Government incompetence.

 The Phantom MP

The vote the Lib Dems missed was recorded as 305-302, a narrow victory for the UK Government. However, when I looked at the voting statistics, only 304 MPs were listed as having voted. It looks like the tellers had got their count wrong. Imagine a major vote is still at risk of being subject to human counting error?! Had the 2 Lib Dems voted then it could have been a tie but the error would then be critical. What does it take to get electronic voting in that place?

Ian Paisley Junior

Another possible issue for the Tories is that Ian Paisley has been suspended from Parliament for 30 days. He gave a personal statement to the House and it was hard not to feel a bit sorry for him as he was very emotional. However, he was found guilty of not declaring £50,000 - £100,000 of trips to Sri Lanka and then lobbying the UK Government not to investigate Human Rights abuses in that country. When first accused of this, he denied the trips and threatened defamation to newspapers. When you realise what transpired then it shows that actions really are bigger than words. Also, Paisley has form for not declaring expenses and he deserves no sympathy whatsoever.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Following the resignation of David Davis, just 4 days into the job, the new Secretary for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, had the job of presenting the UK Government’s White Paper. And what a shambles the entire process was…the papers were given to the press to read under embargo. When he stood up to do his statement, 4 hours after the press received copies of the White Papers, MPs still did not have the chance to receive them. The Speaker adjourned the sitting for 5 minutes to allow MPs to pick up the report once the vote office was allowed to release them.

It must be remembered that the new Secretary was giving a statement on the White Papers, that we as MPs were then supposed to ask him questions on. A difficult task without the document in your hand. Even so, what I quickly established is that instead of any definitive proposals, all we have, after two years remember, is a set of wish-lists. By skim reading some paragraphs I was able to list a number of areas where the papers state the UK Government want to explore options with the EU. I listed the financial sector; air transport agreement; road haulier access; internal energy market; an arrangement with Euroatom [needed to get radio isotopes for cancer treatment]. These suggestions are blindingly obvious. It seems that David Davis’s 2 years of work has achieved nothing and now these need resolved by October, in just a few months’ time! 

Ester McVey/Universal Credit

The DWP Secretary of State gave a statement to the House of Commons giving her version of an audit report on the roll out of universal credit. Her comments distorted the report so much that the National Audit Office (NAO) head officials wrote an open letter to her correcting what she said. Under the archaic system of Westminster I cannot accuse the Secretary of lying but “inadvertently misleading the House”. She then came to the House of Commons to apologise and tried to take some moral high ground that she was so good for apologising. I am not sure that is how it works. When you interpret “pause” in a report to mean “speed up the rollout” then you are incompetent or disingenuous.

She also then explained all the wonderful changes they have made to the system: these changes weren’t of the Government’s doings but forced because the High Court ruled many measures illegal. The NAO report also confirms that there is no way to measure how effective universal credit is in helping people back into work, yet Tories still parrot lines that universal credit is helping thousands back into work despite the lack of evidence.

Gareth Southgate

England doing well at the world cup, resulted in a Tory MP requesting I sign a letter to the PM, requesting a knighthood for him. The premise seemed to be, that he is a ”nice guy” and “He has restored faith in the national team”. Eh, not my national team, and I don’t believe in nominating people for knighthoods. I wish Gareth well, but this request sums up the Westminster bubble.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

Priorities?

After two days of debating estimates – the allocation of money as per the budget, Parliament can vote on the proposed expenditure. These two days of debates are new, and came about from SNP pressure - under the old system, you were not actually allowed to talk about the estimate process or the sums of money. So the previous process was a debate in which the actual subject could not be debated!

Given the fact that the estimates match the budget, which means continued austerity and a real term budget cut of £2.6bn to Scotland’s budget it would seem daft for us not to do anything but vote against the proposals. Yet when it came to pushing matters to a vote, it was viewed as petty politics by some because England were playing a world cup match at the same time. No-one with any self-reflection was able to see that expecting politicians just to down tools because England were playing was possibly the wrong priorities.

Given all business and timings of debate are completely controlled by the UK Tory Government. Therefore, if the football was deemed such a priority then they could have scheduled business differently. Not that I am saying I think that business should be scheduled around England football matches, but it is a choice they can make.  Or, if they are really that concerned about the inefficient voting system then perhaps this just highlights the need for an electronic voting system.

It was interesting to see Tories shouting and swearing at various members of the SNP, myself included just for pushing the different votes. One aspect I pointed out to some Tories was that if the football was sooo important, and that we could only muster 33 votes and that it was clear Labour were abstaining then perhaps they needed to review having 300ish MPs voting against us!

Claim Of Right

The SNP brought forward a motion recognising the historical claim of right that the people of Scotland are sovereign. This dates back to the Declaration of Arbroath and the idea that the monarch had to represent the people and be answerable to them, else a new monarch would be chosen. In modern times it is about recognising wider democracy and that the will of the people must be recognised and acted on. In 2012, in Holyrood, the Tories voted against this even although it was agreed by all other parties. This time they have accepted it. This is welcome and could have ramifications when it comes to matters like another referendum when it means Westminster should not be a blocker on such matters.

Brexit Shambles Part 99

So the PM agreed a deal with her cabinet, but before it can advance, she was hit by more resignations. This is her 5th Cabinet Minister to have quit or been forced out which is remarkable in such a short space of time. With the different factions in the Tory party it is difficult to see how she can replace the Secretary Davis and the Ministers without there being more fallout. It seems quite clear that Teresa May is now running out of time as all her fudging starts to fall apart.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.

A Week in Parliament

To Vote or Not

There was a key infrastructure vote in Westminster on Heathrow. The SNP position, on which I was leading on was eventually to abstain. It was a curious position to find myself in – I have criticised Labour about some of the abstentions they have undertaken. So why take a neutral position?

On the positive side, the Scottish Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with Heathrow Airport. They have pledged to provide a pre-construction logistics hub in Scotland – with Prestwick the favourite location – and a minimum commitment of £300m construction and supply chain expenditure. FlyBe have expressed an interest in commercial operations from Prestwick to Heathrow if they can get slots. All the Business of Chambers in Scotland support expansion as do all Scottish Airports except the Gatwick owned Edinburgh airport. It is predicted up to 16,000 jobs could be created in Scotland in the long run if Heathrow gets an additional runway.

It is expected that “up to 15% of new slots will be available for domestic routes”. This is where I started to get a bit uneasy. Bizarrely, slots are sold to airlines. Then often what happens is that the airlines decide to scrap their domestic routes and use the slots for long haul routes instead. As a result, the only way the slots can be guaranteed to be retained for domestic routes is for the UK Government to put in place control measures – such as public service obligations for airport to airport routes. They indicated to me they are willing to do this if domestic routes start to disappear. This was simply not robust enough and the main reason that the SNP abstained. I observed that with so many businesses and airports in favour, I couldn’t vote to block. But without absolute commitments on connectivity, I couldn’t endorse it with a vote either.

There are some environmental concerns as well. One thing – they will be resolved in court as there will be judicial reviews undertaken. At least that will give certainty on those matters.

Save the Endangered Species

One of the new Scottish Lib Dem MPs is shall we say “slightly off the wall”. Recently at Foreign Office Questions, he raised the issue of the Scottish Wildcat, and the need to save it from extinction. As a rare Scottish indigenous species, I agree with him. However, he raised the matter as a follow up question on illegal wildlife crime. Why does he believe this is a matter for the Foreign Office and does he really think Boris Johnson is the man to save the wildcat?

Another recent contribution was a debate on “UK Intergovernmental Co-operation”. He stated that when he visits his sister in law in Northumberland “I think to myself, “I am in England. I can have a pint now and I will not be pulled over and not be done for it.” That’s an MP who gets to the heart of the serious issues! It is little wonder that the Lib Dems were previously tipped to be an endangered species themselves.

These thoughts were first published in the Kilmarnock Standard.