Stop Trident March

This weekend my SNP colleagues and I took to the streets of London to protest against the renewal of Trident. We marched behind a large banner emblazoned with MPs Against Trident.

There were people at the march from across the globe, a huge cross section of civic society. We marched alongside the Scottish CND and the organisers of the event were delighted to see MPs there making their voices heard.

Adding my voice to this demonstration was important to me. These acts of civil protest send a clear message to the UK Tory Government that renewing Trident is not in the best interest of the people of the UK and we know it!

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Westminster Diary 27 Feb

My first meeting of the week was with Katie Ghose, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Commission. We had an interesting discussion about extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, the timing of the EU referendum, single transferable votes (STV) and engaging the electorate in improving and taking part in the electoral process.

In the afternoon the Prime Minister gave a statement on the EU referendum. It was great fun to watch the Members on the Conservative benches not knowing whether to nod or shake their heads. Boris Johnson was like a child on the naughty step; grumpy and desperate to speak. Monday ended with an adjournment debate in the provision of emergency tow vehicles in the West Coast of Scotland. Some of the stories of near misses and vessels running aground, including a nuclear submarine, were terrifying.

On Tuesday my select committee took evidence from the High Speed Rail (HS2) executives and it was staggering to read the public submissions and see the many complaints regarding a frighteningly arrogant lack of engagement with the communities whose lives are most effected. I then spoke to the BBC micro:bit initiative about the scheme to encourage school pupils to get involved in computer coding, a subject very dear to my heart. Every secondary school in Inverclyde will have the opportunity to take part.

Tuesday afternoon I attended a briefing from the PHSO pressure group who wish to reform the ombudsman service. This is a classic case of people feeling that their voices are not being heard and ties in nicely with my select committees look at the HS2 railway. In the evening I attended a Westminster Hall debate on motability car scheme which will see over 30,000 people in Scotland lose their motability cars. Some terrible reports of people who are reliant on their vehicles having them removed. I closed the day with an Internal SNP Group meeting which are always interesting and informative.

On Wednesday I took the opportunity to talk in a Westminster Hall debate on biomass fuel. Locally we have private and public bodies using biomass boilers and we have West Coast Woodfuels supplying the wood chips. The issue had cross party support and hopefully will continue to make progress and help biomass secure a place in the mix of renewable energies we need to achieve our targets by 2020. That afternoon I attended the WASPI debate in the chamber and heard many passionate speeches in favour of a fair deal for those woman effected. Unfortunately it fell on deaf ears and the Government were unmoved.

Thursday morning was spent doing research in the House of Commons Library and the afternoon was taken up by another debate on European affairs. I travel back to Inverclyde on Thursday evening so I can attend constituency meetings on Friday.

Biomass Energy [24 February 2016]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for bringing forward this debate and for his continued work on biomass and renewable energy. I hope we can put cross-party pressure on the Government to do the right thing by the electorate of the United Kingdom.

It will be apparent to everyone present today that unabated climate change presents a major challenge to legislators in the UK and across the world. We must address the environmental health of our planet and the decarbonisation of our energy supply as priorities. Tackling the problem will require an unprecedented level of international co-operation. In some instances, our best course of action is to provide a positive example for other nations to follow, and I am proud of what Scotland has been able to achieve so far.
The Scottish Government are on track to meet their 42% emissions reduction target by 2020, and around half of Scotland’s current energy consumption is supplied by renewable wind power. We have also outperformed the UK on total emission reductions from a 1990 baseline in every year since 2010, and Sweden is the only European Union state to have outperformed Scotland. Professor Jim Skea, a member of the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change said:

“If you divide where Scotland is now, versus where it was in 1990, it is actually among the world leaders. That is unambiguous.”

The Scottish Government aim to have 100% of our electricity consumption generated from renewable sources by 2020. If we are to meet that ambitious target, biomass must play a key role in that transition. I welcome the Scottish Government’s strong commitment to this energy source.

Thanks in part to that support, over 2,000 jobs in Scotland are now based in the biomass sector, and Scottish Renewables believes that the industry has

“massive potential for growth in the future.”

West Coast Woodfuels, a company located in my constituency of Inverclyde, is one such organisation, and it shows the potential for growth in the biomass sector. Founded by farmer Alastair McIntyre, it produces woodchip that is dried in specialised kilns and stored on site. The raw timber for the operation comes primarily from local and sustainable sources. The rise in demand means that the company is now selling its product to a range of public and private sector customers. The example of West Coast Woodfuels shows that biomass is most efficient as a source of energy when the producer and customer are located close to each other. The environmental benefits of biomass are reduced if stocks of wood are hauled great distances across the country to be turned into woodchip, only to be transported on as a source of fuel. A strong local market for biomass fuel, close to producers, minimises carbon emissions and is a healthier option for our environment.
The economic benefits to our local economies should also be self-evident. Biomass plants create jobs in the construction, operation and maintenance of facilities. Employment opportunities are also created in the supply chain, not only through transportation but in growing and harvesting raw materials. The benefits extend beyond the biomass industry and into the wider renewables sector. A report issued by NERA and Imperial College London concluded that biomass

“is a reliable and flexible power source that provides firm capacity. Including biomass as part of the generation mix is likely to lower the costs associated with adding more wind and solar power to the system. This means that it can enable the integration of other intermittent renewable technologies (by providing back up generation), and help to facilitate the phasing out of old coal-fired power stations, whose closure is putting pressure on security of supply.”

If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of the biomass sector, adequate support must be forthcoming from the UK Government.

I share the concerns of those in the renewables sector that the decline in UK Government support not only prevents the industry from meeting its full potential, but damages investor confidence. Had the UK Government maintained their previous levels of support, the viability of many projects would not be in question. The cuts undermine Scotland’s renewables ambition, they are bad for our environment, and they are hurting businesses and consumers in my constituency.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was widespread disappointment at the Government’s bringing forward of the closure date for the renewable heat incentive? It has caused problems for the poultry sector and major difficulties for many farmers, who will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman has either read my mind or read my speech over my shoulder, because I was about to move on to the renewable heat incentive. I was particularly disappointed by the Chancellor’s announcement that spending on the RHI would be some £690 million less than previously forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK Government’s own reports have shown that the RHI has been an important tool in pushing forward the decarbonisation agenda. Data issued by the Department of Energy and Climate Change found that two thirds of users would not have installed renewable heat technology without the RHI. It is therefore difficult to understand why the UK Government feel it necessary to make these changes, which are being imposed against expert industry advice and to the detriment of jobs, investment and the environment.

I regret that we can only scratch the surface of this broad subject in the time available today. I would like to discuss a range of further issues given the opportunity, including how best to incentivise biomass use, address air quality concerns and ensure biomass producers are fairly treated through the tendering and procurement process. Most importantly, I want to see the UK Government abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables.

David Mowat
The hon. Gentleman has a list of things that the UK Government need to do to enable Scotland to meet its ambitious renewables targets, but, as of this morning, we have a fiscal framework. Is he aware that the Scottish Government intend to put money into such schemes? Presumably they can now do that.

I have not read the entirety of the fiscal framework at this point in time, but there are some issues that are reserved and will have to be handled through Westminster.

David Mowat
Maybe I am misinformed, but my understanding is that this is a reserved matter, but the Scottish Government will be free to invest in their own choices. If this was one of those choices, they could do so.

The Scottish Government will now have more powers to raise taxes and spend tax revenue as they feel fit for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
My understanding of the devolution framework is that when something is within the competence of the UK Government, the Scottish Government are unable to invest in it. There are specific exemptions in the Scotland Bill for topping up benefits, but there is nothing about energy. We are talking in a purely hypothetical way about something that is impossible.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair)
Order. It is not really in order to intervene on an intervention, unless Mr Cowan allows you to do so. Are you allowing Mr Mowat to intervene, Mr Cowan?

I was simply slow in getting back to my feet; I have absolutely no issue with the hon. Gentleman intervening. It is a topic of conversation, but when Scotland is independent, we will then take care of our own energy resources and will use them in a way that is most efficient for the people of Scotland. Until that time, there are certain issues that will remain reserved to Westminster and we will have limited power over what we can do about it.
Most importantly, I want the UK Government to abandon their policy of managed decline in support for renewables. Scotland is ambitious and we take the responsibility to tackle climate change seriously. It is time for the UK Government to do likewise.

Biomass as a source of renewable energy

Today I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on the benefits of biomass as a source of renewable energy. Biomass is a process of using organic matters as a source of energy such as woodchip or agricultural by products.

Currently over 2,000 jobs in Scotland are now based in the biomass sector and Scottish Renewables believes the industry has “massive potential for growth in the future.” This comes as George Osborne has announcement that spending on the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) would be around £690 million less than previously forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The social, economic and environmental benefits of integrating biomass fuels into to our local communities here in Inverclyde is endless. Biomass plants create jobs directly through construction and in the operation and maintenance of facilities. Employment opportunities are also created in the supply chain through transportation but also in growing and harvesting raw materials.

Local company, West Coast Woodfuels, founded by farmer Alastair McIntyre, demonstrates the potential for growth in the biomass sector in Inverclyde. There is a potential to create a strong local market for biomass fuel, close to producers, minimising carbon emissions which in turn is a healthier option for our environment.

Scotland is ambitious and we take our responsibility to tackle climate change seriously – it’s time for the UK Government to do likewise.

Your Vote Matters

The Scottish Parliament election in May will be the first where 16 and 17 year olds will have the right to vote following the unanimous passage of the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill in June last year. Scotland is only the second country in the European Union to lower the voting age to 16 for national elections.

The latest poll for TNS-BRMB shows that those aged between 16-24 are least likely to be ‘certain to vote’ in the Scottish Parliament election – with a net rating of 62 per cent, compared to 83 per cent for those aged 55-64. These findings are mirrored in the latest Survation poll for the Daily Record – which finds that 48.8 per cent of 16-34 year olds say they ‘would definitely vote’ in the election, compared to 83.4 per cent of those aged 55 and above.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that our young people know they can take part in the Scottish Parliament elections. I am delighted that voting rights for 16 and 17 year olds are now extended to Scottish Parliament elections.

The Scottish independence referendum was an incredible breakthrough for democracy in allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. One of the most inspiring aspects of the referendum campaign was the way so many young people got involved with politics for the first time – more than 100,000 16 and 17 year olds used their vote in 2014.

I see day in and day out how the UK Government at Westminster punish young people, ignoring their needs, restricting their access to benefits and the minimum wage because they have no say in the democratic process.

With less than three months to go until the Scottish Parliament election, there has never been a more important time to make sure that you are registered to vote. People have until 18 April to register and you can do it online at www.registertovote.scot.

Stop Trident Demo on Saturday

This Saturday I will be joining the Stop Trident demonstration as Parliament prepares to make a decision on whether to replace Trident later in 2016. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has arranged a march from London’s Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square from 12pm on Saturday the 27th of February 2016.

This year parliament will decide whether or not to replace Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons system. It is clear that opposition to Trident is growing, public meetings and protests are taking place right across the UK to make this opposition clear to the government.

It is my firm held belief that while there is an austerity agenda being imposed upon our communities, the idea of replacing a cold war relic, weapons of mass destruction that cost up to £200 billion is obscene.

This money should be spent investing within our communities or addressing our real security needs. The government itself has said that the major threats are terrorism, cyberwarfare and climate change.

By joining in with the demonstration this Saturday I will be making my continued opposition to Trident clear to the UK Government!

Clydesdale Bank Spirit of the Community Awards 2016

I want to encourage community projects in Inverclyde to enter the Clydesdale Bank Spirit of the Community Awards 2016 programme. The awards are now in their fourth year and could see community projects share a funding boost of £75,000. Five projects will be selected in each of the three categories and all 15 winners will be awarded £5,000 each.

Registered charities and not for profit organisations are invited to enter their projects into the awards scheme under one of three categories: projects which help people to have a healthy relationship with money, projects which help people to improve their local environment and projects which help people into employment.

I would encourage any organisation that is eligible to apply for the Community Awards Funding. I am happy to see awards that recognise the vital contribution that voluntary and charitable projects make to our communities in Inverclyde.

These awards could really make a huge difference to projects in Inverclyde. The extra money will allow organisations to up skill people for the workplace, promote a healthy relationship with money and protect the environment.

For further information about the Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank Foundation’s Spirit of the Community Awards or to enter, people can visit www.cbonline.co.uk/foundation or go into their local Clydesdale Bank branch to receive an application form. The closing date for applications is Friday 8 April 2016 and the winners will be announced in summer 2016.

Universal Credit Must Have Freephone Number

Today I have added my voice to calls for a freephone number to be established immediately following reports that individuals applying for Universal Credit will be charged 45p a minute to make a claim.

This comes as Neil Gray MP has written to Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith to ask that he set up a no-charge number “as soon as possible” for Universal Credit.

At the start of the month I wrote to the the Department for Work and Pensions to ask “how many telephone calls his Department received to its benefit helplines from people in Inverclyde in 2015” and was told that this information is not available.

Making someone pay to access vital public services is a real indicator that the UK Government has no idea of the desperate situations that people claiming Universal Credits are in.

Under current structures there is no cost to make a claim over the phone for those applying for JSA and ESA so why should there be a charge for Universal Credit?

These phone calls are often needed to discuss complicated issues with claimants left on hold for long periods of time meaning they can end up costing those already on little to no income an extortionate amount.

The problem is exacerbated further when you consider internet and connectivity problems in rural areas. Ian Duncan Smith and the DWP must establish a freephone number for Universal Credit immediately.

Picture from Department of Work & Pensions

Tele Column – 19th February 2016

Westminster has been in recess this week which allows me to do more locally. It was great to meet up with so many local voluntary sector and social enterprise groups at the event organised by CVS Inverclyde at The Beacon Arts Centre. On a beautiful clear day the Beacon really comes into its own as a wonderful venue for such events.

I continue to engage with both Texas Instruments and the Bank of Scotland regarding future closures and have been talking to the owners of Valley Park regarding its future use. It’s a shame to see what was once such a vibrant estate fall into disrepair and I hope the new owners can work constructively with all local and national organisations to breathe life back into the valley.

My apologies to those that have been kind enough to ask me to attend local events that I have had to decline. When the opportunity arises I do try to pack in as much as I can locally but often dates clash and I confess that occasionally I recharge with a quiet night and a movie. This evening I shall be at a Burns supper and on Sunday I shall attend the Rig Arts Poets@War Heritage event. I raised an early day motion highlighting the war poetry project funding and I am looking forward to seeing the finished product.

I have been seen shuffling around town recently but can confirm that this is nothing to do with the wear and tear of Westminster life but entirely due to breaking a rib playing rugby. My thanks (once again) to the wonderful staff at A&E and H North of the IRH.

Toil, Taste & Testimony

**There’s still time to visit the Dutch Gable House and have a look around. They’re open until Wednesday 24th February between 11am – 2pm (excluding Sunday 21st).**

Yesterday I went along to the Toil, Taste & Testimony exhibition currently on at the Dutch Gable House in Greenock.

From the trying and squalid conditions of the Vennel and its surrounding area in the 19th century, to the foreign allies and prisoners of war who alighted at Greenock and Gourock during the WW2, this exhibition documents a fascinating period of Inverclyde’s history through the lens and oral testimony.

The exhibition also explores the lives of the women who worked both world wars in the shipyards, signal stations and sugar refineries.

Over 50 images are on display, many of which have never been seen before. The images featured in this exhibition were gathered from the Imperial War Museum and the National Library of Scotland.

The project encourages exploration of Inverclyde Council’s new Coastal heritage Trail, which runs from Kelburn to Wemyss Bay.