Westminster Diary 30 January

Monday I visited the Imperial War Museum to talk about the Stanley Spencer paintings and drawings that they have, either on display or in storage. This was the first step towards investigating the viability of Inverclyde hosting an exhibition of Spencer’s work. My initial conclusion is that a suitable venue may be an issue. I attended the Public Accounts select committee as an observer to hear their evidence session on flooding. I was disappointed that no member pressed the witnesses on reforestation, so I took the opportunity at the end to approach the environmental agency. They were more than happy to discuss it. I attended the adjournment debate on pensions after the house had risen.

Tuesday was a day dominated by meetings. My select committee put the finishing touches to our report on English Votes for English Laws. I also attended the constitution group, all party parliamentary group for Scottish sport and also the SNP group.

On Wednesday I attended a briefing from the Ministry of Defence on the campaign against Daesh. Prior to Prime Ministers Questions, I was fortunate to get a question to Minister for the Cabinet Office. I asked the Government if they thought the constant delays to the Chilcot Report were acceptable. The delayed release of the Chilcot Report is an insult both to those involved in the conflict and to those who lost loved ones. It was during Prime Ministers Questions that David Cameron referred to the refugees at Calais as ‘a bunch of migrants’, demonstrating just how far removed from reality he is. I later spoke in a Westminster hall debate on the Syrian refugee resettlement process. There were a flurry of lobbying groups hosting evening events. I attended the bowel cancer awareness and later the carbon monoxide poisoning events.

On Thursday my day was dominant by the news that Texas Instruments are planning to pull out of Inverclyde. Most of the day was spent talking to various groups, organisations and individuals.

Friday. Back in the constituency. First event was to meet up with the Fire and Rescue team at Greenock Fire station. It was an eye opener for me to see the variety of work undertaken especially the link with the coastguard and diving units. I met WEvolution in their hall in Dempster Street. They are a movement of people with aspirations for a better life for themselves, their families and communities. It was both enjoyable and informative to meet up with them. The afternoon was spent contacting the agencies that help to resolve some of case work that my office takes on.

£41,305 of Lottery Funding for Inverclyde

The National Lottery Fund has been in touch this week to let me know that six groups in Inverclyde have recently been successful in applying to Awards for All Scotland, a joint programme between the Big Lottery Fund Scotland and SportScotland which gives groups a chance to apply for a grant of between £500 and £10,000 for projects that aim to help improve local communities and the lives of people most in need. These six groups have secured a total of £41,305 worth of funding.

Lyle Gateway received a £6468 grant. River Clyde Homes received a £9135 grant to organise social and information events for residents aged 75 and over. Kinship for the Future Respite received a £9500 grant for their Caravan project which provides respite for members of their group. Inverclyde Academy received a £2772 grant from for new methods of physical activity outwith the curriculum such as box-a-cise and body combat. Gourock Primary School received a £3430 grant to deliver a community schools golf project in partnership with Gourock Golf Club and Inverclyde Globetrotters received a £10,000 grant.

I am glad to see this money coming to Inverclyde and benefiting such a range of projects which will bring local people together, help people learn, improve local spaces and get people more active.

Beating Bowel Cancer

This week I attended a Westminster reception hosted by the charity Beating Bowel Cancer in a bid to raise awareness of the disease.

I joined my colleagues, bowel cancer patients and survivors, health professionals and members of the charity to hear more about how improving earlier diagnosis of the disease can increase survival rates. Bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer but this doesn’t have to be the case; if caught early over 90% of those diagnosed can survive more than five years. That figure drops to just 7% if they are diagnosed at a late stage.

It was good to hear Beating Bowel Cancer’s plans for the future and pleased to pledge my support for them. We all need to do our bit to keep bowel cancer at the forefront of the agenda and to ensure that the Government focuses on increasing efforts to improve early diagnosis rates, if the disease is to become a rare killer rather than one of biggest cancer killers in the country, as it is today.

I was told that over the time of the reception, four people would have died from bowel cancer; eight people would have been diagnosed with it. We must work together to change this.

Tax Credit Overpayments

There have been a few constituents who have recently got in touch with my office to tell me about problems they are facing when they come to file their annual tax credit renewal, especially those who will no longer be claiming tax credits.

If you are no longer going to claim tax credits you may think it is as easy as just not returning your annual declaration. However many people are falling into this trap and having to re-pay large sums of miss paid tax credits to HMRC.

Everyone should be well aware by now that your annual tax credit renewal must be in by the 31st of July however, even if you are no longer entitled to tax credits, you have to get your form back to HMRC by April otherwise you will be wrongly paid for June and July before your credits stop being paid automatically. With renewal forms being sent out between April and June this leaves claimants with little time to explain their circumstances and ultimately leads to overpayment.

This flaw in the system is leading to many people over claiming and leading to HMRC spending more money in order to recoup the tax credits that have been wrongly paid out.

Surly the wise thing to do would be to make it perfectly clear that if you are no longer going to be entitled to any kind of tax credit you must get your form in before the tax year is over in April to ensure you will not be over paid.

I am looking to obtain a better understanding of how many people this has affected before I raise it in Westminster. Therefore, if this has affected you please get in touch with my office on 01475 721 877 or you can visit us at 20 Crawfurd Street, Greenock, Inverclyde, PA15 1LJ.

Picture from HMRC.

Resettlement of Syrian Refugees Debate [28 Jan 2016]

Yesterday [28th Jan 2016] I spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on the Resettlement of Syrain Refugees. You can watch my speech here – http://goo.gl/D8ZD8P

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing a debate that will no doubt be followed closely by the many individuals and organisations around the UK who hold a relevant interest in this subject. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady, because I believe the debate today is an important opportunity for all Members to reflect on the process of resettling the Syrian refugees who will now be calling the UK home.

I also welcome the chance to discuss some of the measures being undertaken in my constituency of Inverclyde, and I hope we are able to share examples of best practice from all our local areas. I am aware that in some instances, there is a wide variation in the approach being taken to resettlement and we can improve the process by resolving the problems that have been identified as the first group of Syrian refugees are welcomed into our communities.

I am pleased to put on record that due to the efforts of the Scottish Government and Inverclyde council the resettlement program in my constituency has been an overall success. Inverclyde council’s previous experience in participating in the Afghan resettlement scheme has been invaluable in taking forward the practicalities of the Syrian resettlement. In that programme, Afghans fleeing persecution, including former British Army interpreters, have found a new home in Inverclyde. One Afghan couple was so delighted that their most recent child had been born in Scotland that they insisted on giving it a Scottish name—it may be the first Scots-Afghan baby born in my constituency.

Inverclyde Council has made an initial commitment to support 10 Syrian families over the five-year life of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Periodic reviews of the process will help to determine whether the council can make a further commitment to take more.

The first two families arrived in November 2015, and a third family arrived shortly afterwards. On arriving in Scotland, they were met at the airport by council staff and transported to Inverclyde, where they temporarily stayed in a hotel, before moving to permanent accommodation. Housing was provided by locally registered social landlords, and the three families now live within walking distance of each other. In placing the families in accommodation, the local authority felt that it was best to cluster them together, but not to concentrate them too much. That allows them to live within a comfortable distance of each other, but it also ensures that they can integrate more effectively with their neighbours.

Inverclyde Council has assisted the families by helping them to establish bank accounts and by registering them with local GPs and dental practices. I am pleased to report that, throughout the entire settlement process, there have been no major incidents or problems, and the Syrian families continue to settle into their new community.

I am proud of the people of Inverclyde, who have shown such generosity in offering clothing, food, cash and their time to support their new neighbours.

Despite the warm welcome offered by local residents and the range of services available from Inverclyde Council, however, challenges remain for the incoming Syrian families. Most notably, refugees may experience difficulties in seeking work, because of language difficulties or because their professional qualifications are not recognised in the UK. Furthermore, if refugees have been victims of torture, we must ensure that local authorities continue to have the necessary physical and mental health support services to enable them to settle and thrive.

I would like to turn briefly to the issue of asylum seeker dispersal areas. The UK Government have asked local authorities in Scotland whether they would like to become dispersal areas for incoming asylum seekers.

That is pertinent to the debate, because many of those fleeing Syria will have to make a claim for asylum before possibly being granted refugee status in the UK. As one of the few local authorities with a declining population, Inverclyde would usually give serious consideration to becoming a dispersal area, because that would be an opportunity to bring a younger population into our community.

The UK Government are, however, making their request without a commitment to provide funding to cover the cost of the additional support services that would be required. A properly thought-out and fully funded package of funding would likely see a number of Scottish councils willing to become dispersal areas, but authorities will be reluctant to risk the success they have already achieved in resettling Syrian refugees by taking on the many challenges of becoming an asylum seeker dispersal area without the required funding support. I hope the UK Government will consider those concerns as they move ahead with plans to establish more asylum seeker dispersal areas in Scotland.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent for securing the debate. I hope we will continue this discussion outside the Chamber over the next five years. In doing so, we will ensure that the resettlement program continues to build on the successes we have already achieved.

Texas Instruments

Having spoken to the Managing Director of Texas Instruments and also their representatives from America, yesterday, I agreed to respect their wishes and not pass comment until they had briefed all their staff on the employment situation. Texas Instrument has been part of Inverclyde for years and I was saddened to learn the news yesterday that they plan to move operations elsewhere.

I have since been in-touch with the Deputy First Minister and representatives of Texas Instruments to ensure that everything will be done to support the workforce.

I hope all interested parties can now work together to find a positive outcome and I will be offering my assistance to achieve the best for the workers and Inverclyde.

Over the next few days it will become clear what is happening, speculation and grand gestures at this stage do not help anyone. Having been made redundant myself once I am firm in my belief that the employees need the facts and the time to consider their situation. When I can help I shall be at their disposal.

Above all we must look into the future options for this plant to allow this workforce and manufacturing to stay in Inverclyde.

Marking Holocaust Memorial Day

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day last week I signed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Book of Commitment, in doing so I was pledging my commitment to Holocaust Memorial Day today. Today it is important that we honour those who were murdered during the Holocaust whilst paying our tributes to the extraordinary Holocaust survivors who work tirelessly to educate young people.

Today is significant as it marks the liberation of the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the largest mass murder in history.

This is the 71st anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the liberation of the concentration camps and with time passing it is vitally important that we continue to remember and learn from the awful events of the Holocaust whilst making a commitment to challenge any prejudice or intolerance in our society.

Pension Debate: Women Against State Pension Inequality

Ahead of next week’s debate on Pensions my office has received numerous letters, especially from women, who have serious concerns over the impact of the changes being made to State Pensions. The concern is these changes are taking place over too short a timeframe to allow those affected to make alternative pension arrangements.

I understand the need for the pension age to be equal between men and women, however these major changes must have a reasonable time frame in place to allow those affected to make suitable adjustments. Constituents who I have spoken to have planned their whole life around their pension, plans that are made decades in advance.

Currently older women will have to return to work to make ends meet, as their retirement plans have been disrupted by state pension age rises, this simply isn’t fair and in many cases is not possible through ill-health or care commitments.

In addition, the Government has made no attempt to address the lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by many women born in the 1950s and now women are at risk of further hardship under the new pension system. Pensions are not benefits, they are contracts which women born in the 1950s entered into aged 17. Fundamentally the 2011 Pensions Act represents a broken contract.

A petition by the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) Campaign, which I support, has been signed by many women in Inverclyde. The petition calls on the UK Government to make fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s and has attracted more than 100,000 signatures. If you have been affected or not you can sign the petition here – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/110776

There needs to be better transitional arrangements for these women and I am urging the Tory government to act now.

Tele Column – 22nd January 2016

“Money makes the world go round” so sang Liza Minnelli. She could have added and the money goes round and round. I earn, I spend and the money I spend becomes somebody else’s earnings and they spend and so it goes on.

Much has been said and written recently about public finances and what money is spent in Scotland and Continue reading “Tele Column – 22nd January 2016”

Lessons From A Positive Campaign

In The article “EU referendum: Brexit makes winning a Scottish independence referendum more difficult” published on 7th January 2016 Bernard Jenkin makes the completely unfounded proclamation that “the 2014 referendum saw bitter division in workplaces, families, villages and communities across Scotland. The idea of opening up another Scottish political civil war is unappealing to most Scottish voters” when what actually happened was the electorate of Scotland engaged in a wide ranging political discussion centred around our countries identity as a small Northern European nation of the 21st century.

Sometimes the discussions were heated and voices may have been raised and there may even have been some unpleasantness but nothing worse than I hear in the House of Commons day in day out.

The idea that this was “a civil war” is preposterous. Undaunted Bernard goes on to state that the SNP leadership don’t want another referendum they cannot win. Not exactly earth shattering. Why would they? He then rubbishes the pro-independence campaign and points out, as if he needs to, that despite amongst other things a “blind surge of support” that the pro-independence YES campaign lost.

Let’s look at that “blind surge of support”. The YES campaign came from 29% (YouGov August 2013) to 45% because the citizens of Scotland read, listened, questioned and educated themselves. And, as is their right, changed their minds from NO to YES. This was quite an achievement bearing in mind that this was against a backdrop of mainstream media bias and civil service interference, both supporting the NO campaign.

I wonder if during the upcoming EU referendum Bernard will describe a progressive move towards a vote to leave the EU as “blind”. Will he be so disingenuous of those that agree with him? He then identifies two reasons why the YES campaign failed. Currency, we could kick that around all day and not agree but I shall concede that it could have been handled differently and the UK government could have handled it more honestly but to declare that Scotland “relies on a massive subsidy from England” is outrageous.

During the referendum GERS (government expenditure and revenue Scotland) showed that on average, Scotland paid £400 more in tax per person to the UK Treasury than elsewhere in the UK last year (2013 / 2014). That was the 34th year in which Scotland had contributed more than the rest of the UK and is a testament to the inherent strengths of the Scottish economy.

And then Bernard throws all reason out the window and instead goes for cheap jibes. The usual lazy braveheart reference, which we have all come to expect, clumsily paired with a glib and rather forced “fakeheart” once again disrespecting the sincerity of the informed free will of the citizens of Scotland.

But the maligning rhetoric is then overtaken by inaccuracies. The assertions that; “the SNP took all but two Scottish seats in the 2015 general election”, “Westminster has devolved the new powers on the Scottish Parliament.” “most of the SNP’s 100,000 new members comprise the new Corbynista-type, anti-English radicals.” Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

To then state that another referendum is to “placate the anti-English rage in their own party” is to completely misrepresent the SNP memberships feeling towards England and the English. I think of all the inaccuracies that is the one that grates most with me. Bernard falls into the trap of portraying the members of the pro-independence movement as face painted radicals, devoid of the intellect to weigh up the pros and cons, driven by dislike and grievances.

I have no idea how he came to those conclusions or what his input to the Better Together campaign was but he should have spent more time conversing with the wider Scottish electorate to gain a more rounded view.

I don’t agree with Bernard on a number of things but maybe when we discuss this article, as we will, he will agree that his article of the 7th of January 2016 was not his finest and that to convince the pro EU voters to change their minds he shall need to be less dismissive of their views and be more prepared to engage in a respectful dialogue.

Picture from Alf Melin