Westminster Diary 23 January

On Monday a change to my usual routine allowed me to work from Inverclyde, a welcome opportunity to spend time with constituents. I got the evening flight to London and managed to catch the end of business in the Chamber.

Tuesday was dominated by my Select Committee. We took evidence from Lord Strathclyde about the relationship between the Houses of Parliament. Later, I was in the chamber for Treasury questions. Late afternoon was the constitutional policy group, followed by an extremely interesting presentation from the Parliamentary and Science Group entitled “Flood management, is it an oxymoron?” followed by a question and answer session. Last event at 7pm was a presentation from the SECC which I attended to remind them that Inverclyde is just a short trip away!

During Wednesday’s PMQs Angus Robertson nailed David Cameron with questions about the UKs arms trade to Saudi Arabia. The PM was distinctly uncomfortable, you can tell when he is struggling as he turns and talks to the speaker’s chair rather than the chamber. I then met the Electoral Commission to discuss the date of the EU referendum, which the UK Government want in June. The SNP believe that September is fairer given the expected date of the 23rd of June is only 7 weeks after the Scottish Parliament election. Later I signed the Holocaust ‘Book of commitment’.

Thursday’s Select committee was all about the Kids Company report, I would have liked the report to have gone further as it falls short of linking the Conservative Government’s Big Society to the failings of the charity but with 6 Tories, 4 labour and 1 SNP it was always an uphill struggle. I met up with senior management of EE to discuss broadband and took the opportunity to have a conversation about BT’s acquisition of the company and what this means for jobs in Inverclyde. Finally, I met with Dr Malcolm Torry, a leading light in the campaign for a Citizen’s Wage. We spent time discussing the pros and cons of the policy. Back home on the evening flight.

First thing on Friday was a meeting with constituents to address their concerns followed by visiting the RBS mobile service in Kilmacolm. I was less than impressed with the facility, it was late, poorly parked and not accessible to the elderly or disabled. To compound that, the ATM in the old branch was not working, again. Then I visited Inverclyde Association for Mental Health, I was hugely impressed with their work and ambitious plans for the future. Later I met some friends from Quarriers charity and handed over the donations from my office opening, which they attended. The last formal event of the day was a discussion regarding the refugees settling in Inverclyde. I hope to talk on this issue in Westminster on Wednesday. The evening was of course a Burns event, what else.

Debt Awarenes Week: Help with Energy Bills

Next week is Debt Awareness Week when organisations around the country seek to raise awareness on the importance of dealing with debt. There are a lot of solutions and different ways to resolve any debt problems.

The independent charity, The Scottish Gas Energy Trust (SGET) as well as Scottish Gas and StepChange Debt Charity all offer free financial help and advice. SGET can provide grants to help pay off gas and electricity debts and to purchase energy efficient white goods.

January can be financially difficult time for many so I’d strongly encourage anyone who is worried about their energy bills to get in touch with the Scottish Gas Energy Trust to get any help and advice they may need. You don’t have to be a Scottish Gas customer to use this helpline and the help given is completely free.

The trust has provided more than £85 million of help and assistance to 175,000 people since it was established in 2004, you can contact the Trust on 01733 421 060 or via email on bget@charisgrants.com.

Westminster Diary 21 Jan

I have asked the paper to host this new space for me to lift the veil of confusion regarding what MPs do, particularly when we are in Westminster. With the advent of Parliament TV a lot of people think that is an MPs lot. Believe me there is a huge amount of work and research done before every visit I make to the chamber. It is like Muhamad Ali quote. “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” Of course my gym is the library and my road is a Continue reading “Westminster Diary 21 Jan”

Inverclyde’s Unemployment Continues to Fall as Scotland Outperforms the UK on Employment

New figures released this week from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that employment in Scotland is at a record high and outperforming the UK.

Today’s figures for December 2015 show that the total number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit in Inverclyde has fallen by 149 people since December 2014 and 61 people since November 2015. Claimants in Inverclyde aged between 18 and 24 have also decreased by 95 people since December 2014.

This comes as it is announced that employment levels in Scotland have risen to 2,631,000 and the employment rate has grown to 74.9 per cent, the highest rate of the four UK nations, and outperforms the UK as a whole. The new figures also show that youth unemployment in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level since 2006.

It is encouraging to see unemployment in Inverclyde fall and is evidence that the Scottish Government are doing everything they can with the powers at their disposal to create jobs, support people back into work and boost the economy. The figures on youth employment are particularly welcome, it is good to see we are doing our best to ensure our young people are supported.

Photo by Colin Campbell

Scrap The Rape Clause

I would urge as many people as possible to visit www.scraptherapeclause.co.uk and add your voice to the many others calling upon the Government to drop this appalling proposal.

The UK Government’s current proposals would require a woman, who has a third child as a result of rape, to justify her position in order to avoid losing tax credits. The plan to restrict child tax credits to just two children for new claimants is due to commence in 2017 and is part of the Conservatives wider austerity agenda.

I am calling on everyone in Inverclyde to sign this House of Commons petition and put pressure on the Government to drop the appalling plans which are tantamount to social engineering. The SNP first identified the issue in July 2015 when the clause was buried in page of 88 of the Chancellor’s summer budget.

This proposal has no place in the twenty-first century and must be dropped immediately. To put a woman who has been raped in a position where she needs to declare that to a government official is just abhorrent. It also stigmatises the child involved, which is surely against the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Tory Britain: Scrapping Grants and Making Students Pay

Today in the House of Commons, thanks to an opposition day debate, we had the opportunity to discuss the scrapping of Student Maintenance Grants. Currently the tory government are planning to scrap these grants, that over half a million students currently benefit from, and instead replace them with loans. Sound familiar? It should, the Tories are doing the same thing with the NHS Bursary that I have written about previously.

There are some serious flaws with this method of paying for higher education and I hope to outline them below.

This cut is an outright assault on the ambitions of our population that has long been on the agenda of our Tory government. Just six years ago the Tories were saying how important the Student Maintenance Grants were in making education accessible whilst increasing the cost of tuition to £9,000 a year, now they are scrapping them.

I heard time and time again during the debate that although the grants were being scrapped the amount of money available to students will increase. Students will now be able to borrow £8,200 per year, a modest £800 increase of the £7,400 that is currently available. These figures mean nothing when you think about the £3,387 grant that will no longer be available to students. This money was crucial in paying for rent, food, bills and study materials, if anything it should be increased. Scrapping this grant but then adding £800 onto what has to be paid back is worthless.

The way this legislation has come about also shows shocking disregard for the democracy of the House. Instead of bringing this legislation to the floor and debating it properly it was pushed through the Third Delegated Legislation Committee in a small debate that lasted barely 90 minutes. When it came to a vote it just got through with 10 ayes to 8 nos. The Tories wanted this to be hidden away, pushed through without an adequate debate or proper coverage.

It is an unbelievable hypocrisy, that whilst George Osborne pushes through his austerity agenda, he is asking the poorest of our society to take on greater loans. It is also further evidence of Osborne’s elusive long term economic plan – when all else fails, borrow more.

Scrapping maintenance grants are going to have a devastating impact on social mobility, the Tories aren’t even hiding it any more, the government has already accepted that this change will mean students from poorer families will graduate with largest debts making sure the poorest of our society stay poor.

The truth is maintenance grants are not just simply free money. When you pursue higher education you are more likely to have a higher income, throughout your lifetime earnings you will more than pay back these grants through the taxes that you pay. People who access higher education contribute so much more to society, they have a higher level of entrepreneurial activity and experience less unemployment. Graduates are more likely to vote and participate in public debates. The benefits are endless and unquantifiable.

Scrapping maintenance grants is a desperate attempt by Osborne to find savings wherever he can because as a chancellor he has failed consistently to meet any target he has ever set himself. This proposed saving of £1.57 billion is a drop in the ocean compared to our £1.5 trillion worth of debt that has increased under Osborne’s time as Chancellor. Again Osborne has £ signs in his eyes with no idea of the actual worth.

Visiting Sainsbury’s

Last week I visited the local Sainsbury’s in Gourock to hear more about how they contribute to Inverclyde’s community. I also heard about the Active Kids initiative which aims to inspire healthy and active lifestyles. Customers earn vouchers which schools and clubs can then exchange for sporting and cooking equipment. The initiative is now in its tenth year and have donated £9122.37 worth of equipment and experience to schools specifically in Inverclyde.

The Gourock store also raise money for Ardgowan Hospice, totalling £800 in the last 6 months. I am glad that Inverclyde’s highstreets accommodate both small and large businesses alike and I am always encouraged when businesses within our area do their bit to give back to our community.

Small Businesses See A Boost

During Christmas 2015, Scotland was the only part of the UK to show an increase in people visiting shops. The Scottish Retail Consortium has published figures that show that in December footfall in Scottish shops increased by 0.2%. This is the best performance since April last year and compares to a fall of 2.2% across the rest of the UK.

These figures should be encouraging for Scotland’s retail sector, not only has footfall increased but our retail sector is leading the UK in December last year. I have written a lot about our commitment to supporting small businesses – the Scottish Government are currently supporting a record number of almost 100,000 enterprises through the Small Business Bonus Scheme.

Over 3,000 businesses joined the scheme this year and figures show that the amount of money saved by small business properties through the scheme has more than doubled over the last eight years, increasing from 68m in 2008/09 to £174m in 2015/16.

This is an encouraging start to 2016, proving that Scotland is an ideal place to do business which creates jobs, boosts growth and supports local communities.

Picture from @sage_solar

UK Government Failing Frontline NHS Workforce

As an elected member of parliament of the United Kingdom I can attend and speak on any debates that the House has. Yesterday saw the implementation of English Votes for English Laws, it was the first time that I was barred from voting on an issue within the chamber. Despite this I will continue to take great interest in legislation that is making its way through parliament regardless of its certification. One such change currently going through parliament that I feel strongly about is the change to the NHS Bursary. Despite this being a change in England – the SNP Government in Scotland are protecting our NHS from this change – these changes, through the budget, have direct consequential impacts on Scotland. The NHS is also something I feel incredibly strongly about and I will reserve my right to pass judgement on any legislation making its way through parliament which affects our precious National Health Service.

As part of the Autumn Statement George Osborne made clear that no part of the NHS in England is safe from the Tory’s austerity agenda. Osborne outlined plans to change the system in which we fund student nurses in England, changing their bursary to a loan that would need to be repaid.

The NHS Bursary is currently helping 80,000 healthcare students with their studies and paying them for the time that they contribute to the NHS. Student nurses spend 50% of their time in clinical practice working directly with patients and their families. These placements run much longer than the standard academic year. Student Nurses and Midwives frequently work long weeks, 12 hour shifts including weekends and nightshifts providing care and support in every part of the NHS. When they are not on placement they are studying, improving their care and preparing for their exams.

Jon Skewes of the Royal College of Midwives has claimed that the changes to the bursary will leave Student Midwives with £65,000 worth of debt for a three year degree programme, explaining that these fees “will deter great future midwives that the NHS so badly needs”. The Government is proposing the bursary will not be available for students starting their course on or after September 2017, saving £826 million. This is a classic case of spreadsheet management where the exchequer can calculate the cost but have no grasp of the value.

Currently the bursary allows many people to come to nursing at a later point in life and this is reflected in the figures. Student nurses and midwives are usually older than other undergraduates as nursing is a profession many come to later in life. For example 5% of full-time first degree students in the UK are 30 or over, this raises to 28% in bursary holders. Many students will be simultaneously studying and supporting their family. Taking away this funding will make this profession inaccessible to a demographic that it currently supports.

It could also have a negative impact on the cultural diversity of our nurses with 14% of nursing students coming from a Black Ethnic group compared to 6% of overall students, a number that is in serious need of improvement.

This comes as Junior Doctors in England are taking to the streets in protest over the Tory’s plans for the NHS and is just another example of the extreme overhauling of the NHS in England without any proper conversation or consultation with the health professionals that work within the NHS.

This is lazy economics from Osborne. His cut at all costs attitude could lead to student health care professionals having to pay to work for the NHS. The opportunity to take a nursing or midwifery course within NHS England will depend on your ability to pay, rather than your ability and desire to learn. And even then unless nurses pay improves, many who do manage to graduate will never be in a position to pay their loans back.

The Scottish Government has made a commitment to maintain the NHS Bursary meaning that people who study in Scotland will not be affected by this cut as the change is based on your location of study. However we can’t turn our back on NHS England and must lend them our support at this critical time.