Greenock Telegraph [30/11/2017]

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State Pension Age: Women [29/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

We recently heard from the Chancellor about how he had buckled under the immense lobbying pressure of his 13 Scottish Tory colleagues. That pressure supposedly made all the difference to his scrapping VAT payments for Scotland’s police and fire services. Perhaps the half-baked baker’s dozen could have another word in his ear to prove that they understand this situation and that they care about the WASPI women and are seeking to achieve justice for them. If the UK Government make no changes, this will simply show that the Scottish Tories are not as influential as they are made out to be, or that they simply do not care about the plight of the WASPI women. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) spoke as though he truly understood the problem, but will he follow us through the Lobby, or was it all just empty rhetoric?

Can you imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, what would happen if MPs born in the 1950s were not made aware of major changes to their pensions that resulted in their not receiving them until years later? If we debated that—and we would—the House would be full to the gunnels. MPs would be filling every single seat, and the steps in between. How quickly would this House find a political solution to that problem? How quick are we to vote ourselves a pay rise? That is the benchmark that the Government should be judged by. On behalf of the 5,700 WASPI women of Inverclyde, I want to tell the UK Government that we will keep on bringing these debates to the House, that we will continue to raise the issue in the press and that we will not go away until there has been a resolution to the plight of those affected by these pension changes.

The momentum of the WASPI campaign has not weakened. Next week, my office will host a meeting of the Inverclyde WASPI group as it maintains its work on attracting new volunteers and making sure that the affected women have access to advice and support. The campaign has already raised more than £100,000 to fund an initial legal campaign, and the Minister must surely be aware it is now too well organised and well funded for him to continue dismissing its concerns. According to the campaign, 196 Members have committed themselves to assisting it. This should be seen as a signal that the UK Government need to begin a dialogue with the WASPI women and that they have to start that dialogue now. The women are being very reasonable in asking for this opportunity. There may be many small steps along the way to achieving a solution, but the UK Government should see sense and take this first step willingly, rather than being dragged along by the undeniable force of public pressure. It is not too late for this Government to do the decent thing and make amends for this ill-advised, poorly administered and damaging policy.

Christmas Food Collection

From Thursday, November 30 to Saturday, December 2, more than 2,600 Tesco stores across the UK are taking part in the annual Food Collection, which encourages shoppers to donate long-life foods to help charities FareShare and The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network to give food and support to people who might otherwise go hungry this Christmas.

The food donated to foodbanks in The Trussell Trust’s network is given in emergency food parcels to people referred because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families. Food donated to FareShare is distributed to charities and community groups who use it to provide meals for vulnerable groups such as isolated older people and those in homeless shelters.

 

 

 

Westminster diary w/b 20th November

Monday 

I caught the seven twenty am flight and after catching up with emails, along with Norman Lamb MP, I had a meeting with representatives from ‘Anyone’s Child’. This group are members of the public that have suffered through the loss of life, ill health or prosecution of a loved one in connection with the current UK drug laws. We met them as a precursor to debate later in the week on drugs harm. I had the great pleasure of meeting up with Ricardo Baptista Leite and Rita Carmo Ferreira. I met them in Portugal earlier this year. Ricardo is an MP in the Portuguese parliament and along with Rita is organising and encouraging a network of parliamentarians to promote the end of HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis and Tuberculosis. In the afternoon I met with representatives of a pharmaceutical company that are promoting a version of buprenorphine which is used to treat opioid addiction. The afternoon was completed by my transport select committee which has a fixation with all things trains. The evening finished with votes just after nine pm.

Tuesday  

My Select Committee on the administration and constitution started the day with an investigation into the civil service and its recruitment policy. I attended a debate on pension age which of course covered women against state pension inequality (WASPI). I also went to an event to mark 50 years since Winnie Ewing was elected to Westminster. It is particularly poignant as Winnie is a resident of Inverclyde now. I then attended an event hosted by ‘Addaction’ which is a support service for alcohol and drug addiction. They have a fantastic web chat application on their website for anyone needing to discuss alcohol or drug issues. The day finished with five votes, each takes fourteen minutes. The last vote was at nine forty one pm precisely. 

Wednesday 

It’s budget day. That means the media descend on Westminster and security is ramped up considerably. It’s the one day when prime Ministers Question time is simply the warm up. I watched the budget from the tea room. This means I get a seat and can hear what’s being said. It also means I can judge the reaction from the Conservatives who, like me, have opted for the more civilised location. They are a very divided bunch. I spoke in a debate with the title ‘human and financial costs of drug addiction’. It was well supported and mostly well informed. There is support across the parties for Heroin Addiction Treatment rooms. I attended the alcohol health alliance ten year anniversary before speaking at a rally against fixed odd betting terminals. I found myself agreeing with Ian Duncan Smith who opposes these machines and is also calling for a two pound maximum stake. It was an early night and so I was home by eight pm. 

Thursday 

We had an informal meeting of the Public administration and constitution committee to discuss clause eleven of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Sounds dry but it was fascinating. I then met up with pupils from Clydeview Academy who were touring Westminster as part of their London trip. I was scheduled to speak on a debate on bullying immediately after so I took the opportunity to pick their brains on the subject. I used their feedback in the debate. I caught the six pm flight home. 

Friday  

I had a meeting with the builders Taylor Wimpey regarding a housing development In Kilmacolm. I visited St Columba’s High school to do a question and answer session with pupils and the met up with Inverclyde’ Street pastors to hear about their on-going work. My last engagement of the week was at Notre Dame High School this hear about their involvement in the UNICEF initiative ‘2017 outright campaign’ which focuses on children’s rights and specifically child refugees.

 

Tele column – 24th November 2017

Ask any politician why they got into politics and the answer will be that they wanted to serve their community and to make a difference. 

In May 2015 I was elected alongside 55 other SNP colleagues. For two years we lobbied, cajoled, encouraged and when necessary demanded that Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service were exempt from VAT. All our approaches were dismissed off hand. The situation arose because the various forces in Scotland were merged into one police force and one fire service. A legal anomaly meant that as a result of this change, they became liable to pay VAT.

There was a reasonable assumption that the UK Government would do the decent thing and remove the VAT liability. They refused, meaning Scotland’s police and fire services were the only such bodies in the UK being forced to pay VAT.

The SNP made 140 separate approaches to the Conservative Government regarding this issue. They have only now decided to overturn the tax liability because they can use it as a political point scoring exercise.

I am delighted that they have finally seen sense and will remove the VAT obligation but they have shamed themselves by claiming that the change occurred because of the 13 newly elected Scottish Conservative MPs.

By taking this stance Phillip Hammond is not serving the communities of Scotland, he is simply serving the Conservative Party.

This decision could and should have been made three years ago but it wasn’t politically expedient and as a result Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire Service have been wrongly discriminated against – to the cost of £140 million.

 

Action on FOBTs

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling estimate that in Inverclyde cash inserted into FOBTs in 2016 was £11,527,602.  This led to loses of just under £3m for that year alone. 

Through the work of the All-party parliamentary group we’ve taken evidence from a number of organisations and individuals who’ve been affected by gambling related harm and in-particular FOBTs.   The call for a £2 maximum stake on FOBTs is echoed by Members from all mainstream parties.

Gambling related harm is an issue which is rightly receiving more attention and it’s vital the Government listen to the many people who are highlighting how FOBTs are having a detrimental effect on society.

I urge people to respond to the Government’s consultation on ‘Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures’ and ensure they know that the maximum unit stake on FOBTs must be reduced to £2.  This will be a step in the right direction and help ensure less individuals and their families lives are ruined by these machines.

Consultation on proposals for changes to Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures – https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-proposals-for-changes-to-gaming-machines-and-social-responsibility-measures

 

Drug Addiction [22/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

Thank you, Mr Gapes; I was hoping to have longer on my feet—I am sure you will understand that; but much of what I was going to say was elegantly covered by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), so I shall skip those parts of my speech.

The important point is that no financial cost that can be attributed to drug addiction comes close to matching the human cost. The deaths of loved ones, the sufferings of addicts, wasted lives and the associated suffering far outweigh any amount of money that has been spent fighting the war on drugs. Yet we continue to pour time, effort and money into a system that emphasises criminal prosecution. Since Mexico intensified its approach to drug law enforcement, more than 100,000 people have died and 20,000 are missing. The personal testimonies from members of Anyone’s Child are heartfelt and painful. It calls on the Government

“to regulate drugs to reduce the risk they pose”.

It says that,

“legal regulation doesn’t mean a free-for-all where drugs are widely available—our current laws have already achieved that”.

We need to take control away from the criminal fraternity. Across the world for more than 50 years the war on drugs has killed the innocent and made the guilty rich. It has destroyed communities and compounded the difficulties faced in addressing addiction problems. As we know, the UK Government spend around £1.6 billion a year on drug law enforcement. As was pointed out earlier, even the Government know that their drug policy has failed. Last night I attended an event hosted by Addaction. A gentleman who is in recovery said, “As humans we judge. It keeps us safe. Before you judge try to see the person”.

What can the Government do? Safer drug consumption rooms, which we have talked about, are already saving lives in eight European countries as well as in Canada and Australia. They have been endorsed by the British Medical Association. Those facilities reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, and the risks of public drug use. No one has ever died of an overdose in a DCR anywhere in the world. That is the third time that statement has been heard this afternoon, and it will be heard again.

Heroin-assisted treatment is also being successfully implemented in several European countries, and is endorsed by the British Medical Association. In 2016, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated that,

“central government funding should be provided to support heroin-assisted treatment”

for patients for whom other forms of opioid substitution treatment have not been effective. I think that there is agreement here about that, but the Government have failed to act on that request.

Specialist drug checking services can allow people at nightclubs and festivals to find out what is in their batch. Data from recent UK trials showed that one in five people found that they did not have the drug that they expected, and 80% of that group then chose to use a smaller quantity, avoid mixing it with other substances, or dispose of their batch altogether.

Perhaps a financial justification is required, rather than a humanitarian one: researchers in the US Office of National Drug Control Policy have confirmed what has already been said about expenditure on treatment being more than paid for elsewhere, as they estimate that $1 spent on substance abuse treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in law enforcement costs. Not only does drug abuse treatment save lives—it saves billions of dollars as well.

While drug use continues across society we must note that addiction can and does affect people from all walks of life. Only 10% percent of drug users will develop an addiction, and addiction does not respect race, creed, colour, religion, gender or financial standing. However, as is often the case, it is the poorest who suffer the most. In 2008, the Scottish Government published the national drugs strategy for Scotland, “The Road to Recovery”. That set out a new strategic direction for tackling problem drug use, based on treatment services promoting recovery. The Scottish Government have invested £689 million to tackle problem drug and alcohol use since 2008, and education has been an important part of the strategy.

Kirstene Hair MP (Intervention)

Drug-related deaths are a particular problem in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined, including in my constituency, where they are rapidly increasing—at a faster rate than in England and Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish Government need to get serious about addressing problems in NHS Scotland, such as the staff shortages in Angus, and the problems that Police Scotland face?

Mike Gapes MP (Chair)

Order. The hon. Lady is making an intervention, not a speech, and I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Inverclyde would respond to it briefly.

Ronnie Cowan MP

I shall cover that point right now: Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell has announced a refreshing of Scotland’s drugs strategy. We will not be complacent about what we have achieved, and we will continue to take an evidence-based approach, and to improve what we are doing in Scotland. We have been working on the seek, keep and treat framework, a joint initiative between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Drugs Forum, which will examine the operational implications of engaging with older drug users and how to encourage them into services and keep them in treatment.

For many people it is heroin, cocaine or cannabis that are classified as drugs; but we must not ignore alcohol. Alcohol addiction is one of the most damaging forms of drug addiction.

Mike Gapes MP (Chair)

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman coming to the end of his remarks? Perhaps he can give his last sentence; otherwise the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) will not be able to make a speech.

Ronnie Cowan MP

Absolutely, Mr Gapes.

In conclusion, if we spend money to address addiction problems as a health issue, that will not only bring about better results, but will prove to be less expensive than our current strategy, which criminalises and stigmatises people with addiction problems.

-ends-

Notes

My full speaking notes for the debate can be found here.

UK Budget

It’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, that both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland turned down invitations to visit Inverclyde to discuss the UK Budget.  This would have been an opportunity for them to see how their decisions to cut the Scottish block grant will have a direct impact on people’s lives here in Inverclyde.

As we know, the biggest threat to Scotland’s economy is the continuation of austerity and a hard Tory Brexit.  Scotland’s budget is expected to fall by 9.2% (£2.9 billion) in real terms over the 10 years to 2019-20.  These cuts from the UK Budget will have a detrimental effect on the most disadvantaged individuals in society and a large portion of my Inverclyde constituents.

Nevertheless, Scotland has strong economy, and compares favourably with the UK and internationally on key economic indicators.

I note the Government are starting to listen to my concerns and those from MP’s across the Chamber that Universal Credit (UC) needs drastic changes and welcome the removal of the 7 day grace period when initially applying for UC.  However, more needs to be done to ensure the system is fair and supports my Inverclyde constituents who are claiming welfare support.

 

UK Govt Response to Basic Income

It’s disappointing but not surprising that the UK Government have completely dismissed basic income before even undertaking any research on the subject.  The contrasts dramatically to the Scottish Government’s approach to look into the feasibility of a basic income by undertaking research and also working with local authorities who wish to pilot such a scheme.

Only last week, I chaired a discussion at Westminster where the University of London City, through the European Social Survey, highlighted the growing awareness and support for basic income, throughout the world and across the political spectrum.

Basic income is an idea which has been around for centuries but is becoming more prevalent with the increase in people working in the gig economy.  It’s time the Chancellor listened to the growing support for introducing a basic income and ensure the Government take action.