Tele Column – 18th March 2016

The last two weeks have been packed with a variety of events including the SNP conference, in which I spoke on the citizen’s income. Also, my select committee met on Sunday evening, in Edinburgh and then Monday to take evidence from the Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP. But that wasn’t two weeks that was just two days.

This week we shall be propelled into another budget statement and I have a Prime Minister question before that. I am pressing the Exchequer to free up the money held in dormant betting accounts to help gambling charities. My days are increasingly busy and demanding and sometimes it is hard to come up for air. We are up against a government with a majority and a government I oppose on almost everything they do. It can be draining to come back time and time again to fight their austerity ideology.

But if my life is busy and I am being pulled from pillar to post, last night’s adjournment debate was a sobering experience and left me feeling grounded. We debated the Clydebank blitz of March 13th and 14th 1941. Those are dates that many locals will recognise as Inverclyde suffered on those nights too. As I listened to Martin Docherty MP read out the names of all those that died in Clydebank I was minded of my Mum telling me she watched the bombers from her house in Paisley with her Grandad as he refused to go to the shelter and I remembered the suffering of Mary Bruce. Marys mum, Mary McCartney, died that night and Mary was pulled from the rubble 5 hours later. Both my Mum and Mary grew to be strong independent minded woman and are a credit to all that have shown such resilience and fortitude to become responsible and inspiring members of their communities. So my days are not too busy, too demanding or too despairing but filled with hopes and dreams and aspiration for Inverclyde. The past is written the future is ours to write.

Cabin Air Safety & Aerotoxic Syndrome

Many people in Inverclyde had been in touch asking me to attend a debate that was going on in Westminster Hall today [17/03]. Specifically two members of cabin crew who wanted to highlight that the aerotoxic syndrome symptoms have been about for some time. The debate was brought forward to raise awareness of safety for air crew and passengers and the presence of aerotoxic syndrome.

The problems stem from the risk of breathing in contaminated fumes from the aeroplanes engine. It is widely accepted that there will be times that toxins enter the cabin and currently there is no mechanisms in place to detect these fumes.

Welcoming a delegation from Kuwait

Today I had the pleasure of welcoming a delegation from Kuwait, who were visiting parliament in order to gain a greater understanding of the interaction between the UK Civil Service and the UK Parliament.

The aim of the trip was to enhance the delegation’s understanding of the structure, organisation and vision of the UK Civil Service. By the end of their visit they will have examined how the Civil Service Code drives the way in which the Civil Service recruits, develops and performance manages Civil Servants.

I was asked to speak specifically about my background and the work of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) Committee. I was joined by David Jones MP who also sits on the Committee and between the both of us we explained how the committee works, how we take inquiries, who gives evidence to these enquiries and our current inquiries and areas of interest.

Congratulations to Technology in Retirement!

Fantastic news for Inverclyde. You may have seen two weeks ago I was asking my constituents to lend their vote to a local community project called Technology in Retirement. Well it worked and they have won £44,350 worth of funding to extend and expand this project throughout Inverclyde.

Technology in Retirement will provide older people in Inverclyde with the opportunity, training and support to begin to use digital technology in their everyday lives. The project aims to conduct 2 hour sessions 4 times per week for a total of 48 weeks. They want to engage approximately 100 people in Inverclyde, each receiving at least 16 weeks of learning workshops, assistance to acquire broadband in their own homes, a loan of tablet for at least a day per week and access to the online community.

This project is going to make a huge difference to the lives of older people in Inverclyde and will go a long way to making them feel more connected with our community. If you voted, thank you very much! I am looking forward to following the project and seeing the great work that they will be doing.

Questioning the Prime Minister on Dormant Betting Accounts

Today during Prime Minister’s Questions I asked the Prime Minister to clarify his position on dormant betting accounts ahead of Chancellor George Osborne announcing his budget this afternoon.

This comes after the positive response from the Treasury on the issue of dormant betting accounts after I sent the Chancellor a letter calling for the UK Government to take action to ensure the proceeds of unclaimed winnings can be given to good causes.

A report for the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) in December 2010 recommended that the government consult with high street betting operators to establish a voluntary scheme or – failing that – to enact legislation that would require operators to give funds from dormant accounts and unclaimed winnings to good causes.

It’s time for action on problem gambling – an issue that blights too many communities and households across Scotland. I am pleased to learn from the Treasury that they will consider my ideas of using dormant accounts to help good causes and help those hit by the problem. The time for talking is over, it’s time to take the necessary action and the Budget would be an opportunity to settle it.

The DCMS report six years ago recommended that the UK Government consult with high street betting operators on how money from dormant betting accounts could be utilised for good causes. Yet, in 2016 we are still no further forward as the UK Government has failed to take action on this important issue.

Rather than bolstering profit margins this unclaimed money could instead be put to good use and help make a positive difference to people’s lives. The UK government must make good on its commitment and finally take the action necessary to ensure the funds from dormant betting accounts and unclaimed winnings are given to good causes.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 at 12.20.06

Clydebank Blitz, 75th Year Commemorations

Yesterday in Westminster MP’s gathered to commemorate 75 years since the Clydebank Blitz. This comes after a weekend of local commemorations in Clydebank. There was a service from noon, on the anniversary of the day the ‘all clear’ sounded, in the House of Commons Chapel, followed by a reception in the State Rooms of the Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster.

This is the first time the House of Commons have commemorated the air raids on Clydebank. At these events I heard from survivors and relatives of survivors who told very touching stories about how they dealt with war.

The Clydebank Blitz saw destruction on a massive scale, with the largest loss of civilian life in Scotland’s modern history. 75 years on it’s important to remember the difficulties our community endured to protect our freedom in the face of fascist tyranny.

It was incredibly moving to hear real life stories of the Blitz, especially hearing the extraordinary strength and courage that it took to survive.

The evening’s debate was lead by Martin Docherty Hughs MP who delivered an incredibly powerful and moving speech, during which he named every person who had passed, the first time this has been done in the House of Commons.

Voting Against Changes to Tax Credits

Following my enquiries into tax credit overpayments yesterday the SNP group at Westminster highlighted an attempt by the Tories to force changes to tax credits through the House of Commons with as little debate as possible.

Last night I voted against a statutory instrument – a mechanism used to amend existing legislation – put forward by the UK government which aims to lower the threshold for the amount of income a person can earn before they start to lose tax credits.

This is yet another example of the Tories using underhand tactics to push through their austerity agenda without proper scrutiny or debate. This time the Tories wanted to drastically reduce the threshold for the amount an individual can earn before they start to lose tax credits.

Zero hours contracts, being self-employed, people changing jobs and returning from sickness or maternity – there are many reasons why a person’s income can fluctuate and it doesn’t necessarily mean a better paid job on a permanent basis.

These proposals could actually be a disincentive to work as increasing hours or earnings may also seem less worthwhile if there is a risk that tax credits will be adjusted straight away, then re-adjusted the following month, causing uncertainty and confusion when living on a low income. It’s clear the Tories’ welfare reforms are hitting the lowest paid the hardest.

Picture from HMRC

Westminster Diary 12 March

Monday 7th
The morning was taken up by meetings regarding a range of constituency manners. And the afternoon was given over to the Texas Instruments task force. This was held in the council buildings and attended by all participating bodies. It will be a long haul but hopefully we can come to a positive outcome.

Tuesday 8th
The Enterprise Bill encompassed an issue regarding the Magnox pensions and a number of constituents have brought this to my attention. I also attended the Scottish constitution group and a digital briefing for Scottish MPs. The library provide extremely good briefings and there were two this week that I attended. The first was entitled “replacing the UKs nuclear deterrent”. These things are a bit dry but very well informed and always useful to hear a non-political take. If anything, it reinforced my desire to rid our country of weapons of mass destruction.

Wednesday 9th
Breakfast with a few colleagues and a quick discussion around many issues of the day plus flat rental in and around Westminster. These occasions are always good for discussing policy but also the practicalities of a MPs day to day life. The easier the logistics of travel and living the more focused I can be on my job.

Senet, an organisation set up to promote responsible gambling standards, approached me for a meeting as I have been pursuing using the money in dormant bank accounts to fund gambling awareness. Responsible gambling has a place in our society. But when the fun stops, stop.

From a sensible discussion with responsible professionals I moved to Prime Ministers questions. Talk about sublime to ridiculous. Mr Cameron and Mr Corbyn become more like waring neighbours shouting at each other over the garden fence each week.

The afternoon involved the Whisky trade debate in Westminster Hall and my second Library talk of the week. This one was on the Barnett formula. I think a few of the MPs that represent English constituencies were a little surprised by what they heard.

I then witnessed a rare defeat for the government (Sunday trading) which goes to show that party lines are no always adhered to. That brought the business of the day to a close, and a day that includes discussions around gambling and alcohol and their place in our society helps remind me that sometimes life, like politics, is a balancing act.

Thursday 10th March
I got the opportunity to respond to the Minister’s statement on apprenticeships. Business for the afternoon was fluid, so I sat in the chamber listening to a debate on Northern Ireland in anticipation of a debate on recording parliamentary acts on calfskins (vellum) that I was down to speak on. My debate was cancelled. It will come back and I will be ready.

Friday 11th March
A day for casework and catch up with my team. A couple of meetings with constituents and local businesses.

Saturday 12th
First day of SNP conference in Glasgow.

Trident Briefing

This week I attended a briefing session in the House of Commons on Trident and I wanted to share some of the information with you. Some of it is overly simplistic, however I believe we would all benefit from a deeper understanding of the current situation and what the prospects of replacing trident in the future are.

Trident is the colloquial term used for the UK nuclear deterrent which can also be referred to as weapons of mass destruction. Trident as a whole comprises of; four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), Trident II D5 missiles and warheads which are routinely based at HM Navel Base Clyde. In-service maintenance happens at Faslane and deep maintenance or refits take place in Devonport. The nuclear warheads are built and maintained at AWE sites in Aldermaston and Burghfield.

Trident is the UK’s only nuclear platform. Each submarine deploys with 8 operational missiles with up to 40 warheads. Since 1969 the UK has operated a posture of continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD). Decision making is a sovereign matter for the UK and the system is operationally independent.

The Successor programme is about the design, development and manufacture of four new submarines. The first will enter service in the early 2030s and have at least a 30-year service life. It does not replace Trident or the warheads, which will be deployed aboard the new submarines in a Common Missile Compartment being developed with the US. The US Trident SLEP will extend the life of Trident until the early 2040s. Decisions on a next generation missile not required until 2020s and decision on replacing warheads not expected until the end of the decade.

So the decision to replace or scrap our missiles and warheads will be happening by the end of the decade and in order to prepare for this debate it is vital that we look at all the options in front of us now.

Traditional notions of deterrence are no longer credible against non-state actors like Al-Qaeda or more recently Daesh and especially now that we are in an age of modern, advanced warfare in which cyber-attacks and drone operations are increasingly becoming the norm.

As technology and specifically military technology evolves we are seeing an increased use of underwater drone technologies and cyber capabilities that could render submarine-based nuclear systems obsolete, a prospect that is highly likely within the lifetime of the Successor programme.

Scotland could act as a beacon for the world, disarmament would serve as a positive example to other nuclear capable states.

A great deal has been said about the cost however the bottom line is the cost is prohibitive and would better be spent on either improving the UK’s conventional military capabilities or in other areas such as health and education.

Lastly it is important to note that replacing the deterrent would breach customary international law and specifically the UK’s obligations towards disarmament under Article VI of the NPT.

There are viable alternatives such as moving towards unilateral disarmament which is not only an option but an obligation under the UK’s current disarmament commitments.

Image from Defence Images

Urgent Question on Apprenticeship Levy

Today I spoke on behalf of the SNP to bring an urgent question before the Minister for Business Innovation and Skills, Nick Boles MP.

The government is introducing the apprenticeship levy to help fund three million new apprenticeships by 2020. The levy will be applied to all industries in the UK, replacing all apprenticeship funding currently provided by the government for companies of all sizes.

Today I called on the UK Government to reconsider the economic impacts of the Apprentice Levy and the impact its measures it will have on Scotland. This comes just a week after Scottish Apprenticeship Week when I visited Ferguson Marine, in Port Glasgow, to see the important work being done by our apprentices in Inverclyde.

The levy is a matter of fundamental concern, it encroaches on our devolved responsibilities and is causing concern for employers and has come under criticism from a wide number of organisations including CBI and the Chartered Institute of Taxation. The UK Government has still to provide clarity on how Scotland’s share of levy raised will be calculated and transferred to the Scottish Government.