Tele column – 31st August 2018

As vice-chair of the All-party parliamentary groups on medical cannabis under prescription and drug policy reform I have been campaigning for changes to the UK drug laws. The problems that exist within society and the communities within, are not the drugs.  It’s the deprivation, isolation, loneliness and poverty, leading to anger, dissatisfaction, hopelessness and depression. One pound spent on harm reduction, saves three on health care further down the line and seven on the criminal justice system. It makes financial and humanitarian sense to provide care and guidance rather than prosecution. It is time that we reappraised our attitude to drugs and moved forward with a fact-based strategy that does not harm society but benefits it. We can’t win the war on drugs. We can and we must win the peace.

There are around 3900 Inverclyde women affected by the changes to women’s state pension. Many local woman along with women from all over the country have joined the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) movement and have done an outstanding job to make sure that this issue is not brushed aside. The UK Government have not contributed any funds to helping those affected. Together with my SNP colleagues I continue to apply pressure to the Government to explore affordable solutions. The women of the WASPI campaign have fulfilled their part of the bargain by being productive citizens, some of them having worked since they were 15 years old. And while working they paid their tax and national insurance. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.

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Back to the Future – Inverclyde’s Shipyards

As an elected politician I do what all good citizens do, I look at our society and wonder what can we do to improve it. My office deals with constituents every day that have problems related to housing, welfare, law and order, anti-social behaviour and a range of issues that blight our communities. We work hard and use every resource available to us to resolve as many of these cases as we can. The truth is that we can’t solve them all and people’s lives will continue to be detrimentally affected by them. I am continually reminded however that while we address each case on its own merit the root causes are often the same. Areas of high deprivation continue to show higher incidents of crime, drug abuse and alcohol abuse. People living there are less socially mobile while their educational achievements and aspirations can suffer. That isn’t a condemnation of individuals but the fact remains that people in communities that are impoverished have fewer opportunities, poorer health and die younger.

Yet we have a solution. It’s not a magic wand and it’s not simple but it works every single time and it benefits the individual and the community at large. If you look across the globe the areas of greatest deprivation are the areas with the highest unemployment. Jobs make communities, employment enriches people’s lives, people are happier, better adjusted and family homes become better places to grow up in. Children’s schooling improves as does their health. Employment can be the catalyst for change.

Unfortunately things are not going to get easier. Our society is changing and with the onset of autonomous vehicles and the gig economy, society is going to come under greater pressure. We face huge challenges within the workforce and it’s a matter that will need addressed but here and now in Inverclyde we have opportunities to bring jobs to the area. Jobs that can underpin our community and help create a more solid platform to move forward from. I know Riverside Inverclyde and local council officers are working incredibly hard to maximise our potential which is one of the reasons I get so frustrated when I hear people talking down the ability of local employers. The most recent and most high profile case is Ferguson Marine. When Jim McColl saved the yard from extinction he inherited seven employees. Less than four years later Ferguson Marine employ over three hundred and fifty people including over forty apprentices. That’s three hundred and fifty households benefiting. That’s neighbourhoods and communities that gain positivity.

The value of employment is not just financial and should never be underestimated. These four years have been difficult. While building ships Ferguson Marine have also been rebuilding their own facilities. They have invested in the yard, the buildings and the workforce. They operate in an extremely competitive market place and yet they are growing and diversifying too. The diversity is hugely important but it comes at a cost. Developing new technologies and building the first of any type of vessel, as Ferguson Marine are doing, essentially means you are building a prototype. In any industry this entails extra cost and a longer build time. The workforce may need re-skilled and the workplace re-tooled. It is simply more challenging and more costly in most aspects but the rewards in the long term can be worth it.

Negative and ill-informed publicity damages the reputation of the yard. Talking it down, keeping it small, undermines the potential of the yard, its ability to bid, to recruit and ultimately to be successful. Potential customers can be put off if a local yard is not supported by the media and politicians. People considering their next career move want to join an upbeat, vibrant, innovative environment but if that’s not the image being projected then they may move elsewhere. I am not asking for blind faith, nor am I offering pie in the sky projects with no anchor in reality, I am saying we should weigh up all the challenges and benefits and support the option that is best for our community.

Ferguson Marine is now a modern functioning shipyard, employing highly skilled and motivated people. It has pulled itself back from the abyss and has a bright future. That successful future will benefit Inverclyde in some very obvious ways and also in many intangible aspects of our community. How do we measure confidence, stability and aspiration? We as a community should be rallying to support Ferguson Marine and give it every chance to expand and grow. They have shown their commitment to Inverclyde, the Scottish Government have shown their commitment to Ferguson Marine, now it’s time that Inverclyde reciprocated.

Implementation of £2 stake on FOBTs

As vice-chair of the All-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) I am aware, from evidence and testimonies received, how these machines create gambling related harm and can leave lives in ruin.

While I welcome the efforts of the Minister for Sport in securing a £2 maximum unit stake, I am frustrated at the delays in bringing about the change.  I believe HM Treasury are the cause of these delays and every day it takes to enforce the change is another day for people to gamble hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds on FOBTs.

I urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use the upcoming UK Budget to outline when the implementation of a £2 maximum unit stake on FOBTs will occur.  I believe this should happen in early 2019 and no later.

 

HMRC related bogus calls

It’s worrying to learn that particularly elderly and vulnerable people in Inverclyde are being targeted by fraudsters and thieves. I would urge residents to be aware of such calls and if they suspect malicious activity to contact the police.

Also, HMRC are keen to know about such examples and you can report full details of the scam by email to phishing@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk, including the:

  • date of the call
  • phone number used
  • content of the call

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phishing-and-bogus-emails-hm-revenue-and-customs-examples/phishing-emails-and-bogus-contact-hm-revenue-and-customs-examples#bogus-phone-calls

 

 

Universal Credit sanctions

Statistics on benefit sanctions released last week revealed that the proportion of claimants sanctioned under Universal Credit (2.8%) is nearly ten times higher than under Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) (0.3%), and nearly 30 times higher than Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) (0.1%).

In Inverclyde, 159 claimants of Universal Credit were sanctioned in May 2018.  It was revealed that the average Universal Credit sanction lasts for longer than JSA and ESA sanctions.

The UK government’s Universal Credit system has been deeply flawed and harmful since its roll-out. 

With financial support being shamefully pulled from claimants who have already faced delays in Universal Credit, as well as the direct link between people who have been sanctioned and the rise in foodbank use and poverty, the UK government is pushing people into crisis.

I plan to visit the local Greenock jobcentre in the near future to learn more about the claimant commitment and the sanctions being imposed on individuals.

 

Discussion on drugs policy

When problematic drug users look for appropriate help it can sometimes be difficult to find. Family members are often reluctant to step forward in the early stages, hoping they will simply stop using and not wanting to out their family member or maybe a friend as a criminal. Even in the very early stages the criminal status gets in the way of recovery. The producer is a criminal, the distributor is a criminal, the supplier is a criminal, the small time dealer is a criminal. None of these people want the users to stop. And the users are powerless to alter the system that is dragging them under.

Kids are drawn into the chain of command. Selling a bit here and there to their mates and slowly being groomed to sell more. When you are a kid in a deprived estate surrounded by people using you may be in a position where you can see no way out. You may suffer from a lack of education or a poverty of aspiration. Yet you can sell pills in clubs and make a very tidy living from a young age. What are you going to do? You are trapped, as much a victim as any user. And you have no power over the supply, the usage or the system.

The law enforcement agencies that are charged with halting the production and supply are often required to put themselves in a position of extreme danger. Working undercover or running informants involves getting close to dangerous people with a lot to lose. The violence used by criminals to protect their share of the drug market is growing year upon year. Sending people to prison doesn’t rehabilitate them, it is more likely to condemn them to a life of crime and punishment. And the law enforcement agencies are powerless to alter the system that wastes their time, energy, abilities and taxpayers money.

Medical professionals and support workers are caught between a criminal justice system that prosecutes and persecutes in equal measures. Funding is often based on producing measurable results. Even if these results are not the most appropriate. Those seeking to help have their hands tied by a legal system constructed around the misuse of drugs act 1971. The obstacles placed in the way of establishing safe drug consumption rooms being a case in point. Bad legislation is harming people and stopping the help that they require from being provided. And the medics, the carers, the support workers are powerless to affect the change that is so obvious.

The problematic users, the kids on estates, the law enforcers, the medical professionals, the support workers, are all fighting a losing battle because they can’t change the system.

And that is why as drugs deaths increase, the crime rate surrounding drugs increases, the violence escalates year in year out and more and more people suffer, those responsible for the existing system should get on with fixing it. And the only people that can do that are the Members of Parliament at Westminster. The U.K. government has the power but it lacks the knowledge, the desire or the compassion to legislate for change that would revolutionise health care and relieve the burden from the judicial system. We have allowed this to happen. Largely by turning a blind eye to the problem. It is time to apologise to all the victims of the war on drugs and make those changes. MPs created the system. MPs can fix it. It is time to legalise, regulate, educate and support. We can’t win the war on drugs but we can win the peace.

Tele column – 17th August 2018

On Monday the 6th August it was 73 years since an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Out of a population of 350,000 as many as 180,000 people died. I had the privilege of meeting with a survivor of Hiroshima and her testimony is harrowing in the extreme. Suzuki Thurlow’s story should be enough to change the minds of those that support nuclear warfare but sadly it isn’t. But there is a growing body of thought that is saying nuclear weapons are now so outdated that they have no place in a modern defence strategy. As the world becomes increasingly dependent on digital technology, future wars will be digital. On the surface that seems more acceptable. We wouldn’t have the instant mass deaths and destruction. But the truth is that by taking out power grids, the internet, digital communications, the media and transport then entire countries can be brought to their knees. In a time when we live on a cycle of 24 hour news and depend on our mobile phones for business and personal communications, removing that connectivity would create panic at the same time as it would disable law enforcement. Our ability to grow and distribute food, our manufacturing capabilities and all the logistics around them would all be destroyed. Under those circumstances it wouldn’t take long for a country to disintegrate. While that makes a powerful argument for cyber war as an effective strategy it removes the need for nuclear war. The protagonists that continue to support nuclear warfare have to make a decision. Do they continue to support the nuclear arms race, including the new vanguard submarines, or do they now support cyber warfare and the starvation, civil uprising and lawlessness that would produce. I would like to think that common sense would prevail and they would give peace a chance but 73 years after Hiroshima I don’t see that happening.