Month: May 2020
Greenock Telegraph [28/05/2020]
Access to Cash campaign
In Inverclyde, there has been a 52.5% drop-off in cash machine withdrawals as a result of ATMs converting from free to pay to use and the impact of Covid-19. This means there is potentially £11,291,778 less cash being withdrawn and spent in the local economy.
Today, I joined a cross-party group of 37 MPs, urging the government to bring forward promised action to protect access to cash as part of the COVID-19 recovery plans. A number of MPs have added their voice to calls from consumer groups and business organisations, urging the Chancellor to reverse the cuts made to the fee paid by banks to ensure their customers can access their own cash (known as the interchange fee).
I’ve been campaigning on the issue of Access to Cash since last year as in Inverclyde around 12 ATMs have become pay to access cash. This means in Inverclyde people are being charged up to £2, per transaction to access their own money from said machines.
Cash is a lifeline for millions and is a vital budgeting tool. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into stark realisation as many need others to food shop on their behalf while they self-isolate and as millions of people across the UK lose out on income.
HM Treasury could ensure the Payment System Regulator have the necessary powers to act over ATM provision and access to cash.
Greenock Telegraph 22nd May 2020
During the Coronavirus pandemic we have witnessed many changes to our society and our life habits. The way we live our lives both socially and in the working environment have been transformed. These changes have been necessary to avoid the worst outcome possible but unfortunately could not prevent all infections and subsequent deaths. The National Risk Register 2017 had a pandemic as the number one threat. It was identified as a flu pandemic but never the less many of the consequences had been considered. However, we don’t seem to have been best placed to deal with this pandemic and we didn’t react quickly to the nuances of this virus. The UK Government should have produced a new register in 2019 but as yet has not done so. Our reliance on the internet of things has grown during this crisis. There has been increased use of Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Zoom, Microsoft teams and phone companies are providing special offers for bundles of data. Even Westminster has embraced the use of teleconferencing and extended that to remote electronic voting. So it is worth noting that within the identified risks is a Cyber Attack and the register makes the point that “The scale of our dependence on cyberspace means that our prosperity, key infrastructure, places of work and our homes can all be affected by cyber-attacks.” My concern now is that we are building a greater dependency on a resource which may well be the harbinger of the next crisis. We should be making moves now to anticipate potential vulnerabilities and ensuring that the resilience plans in place are robust and effective before we find our health service, transport systems, retail outlets and supply chains, crippled by a virus of a completely different genre.
UK ‘virtual’ Parliament
Health not hubris
It was only a few short months ago that the concept of a hybrid/virtual UK parliament was almost inconceivable. But, as often happens, necessity has proven to be the mother of invention.
We currently have a solution in place that allows me to carry out my Parliamentary duties from my living room. This means I can take part in meetings and committees with MPs and staff around the U.K., I can take part in the proceedings in the House of Commons including asking questions of department heads and I can take part in debates and votes. The new methodology has not been without its problems and there have been occasions when sound quality has been poor. But that is understandable given the the short timescale that was available to put a system in place. Rather than technology specialists identifying the best of breed and then implementing that in MPs offices we have had to, as a matter of expediency, encompass a range of platforms and broadband providers. MPs have adapted to use what ever was available and in some cases their rather inelegant solutions have been found wanting. Despite its shortcomings, we should not throw away all that we have achieved in a misguided clamour to get back to the old normal at Westminster. Once parliament has fully physically reconvened at Westminster, as it will, we need to push forward. Turning back at this stage would undo all the good work that has been done.
Rather than look upon the current hybrid parliament as a temporary solution we should be using it as a platform to build on. The current hiccups should be addressed and rather than MPs having laptops, iPads, Macs and smartphones propped up on books with the ubiquitous library background and some very dodgy lighting, we should provide tried and tested kit to all MPs. After this crisis MPs having micro studios in their offices should be the norm. We continually tell the public that broadband speeds are good and will improve. Well lets prove that by ensuring each MPs office has superfast broadband. The benefits are many. MPs will travel less which saves time, effort ,money and reduces the damage that travel does to our planet. MPs can combine constituency work with chamber work on a daily basis. Access to a parliamentary life or career would be more accessible to those with a physical impairment. The technology could also be utilised for MPs to ‘meet’ during recess. Now is not the time to halt progress in some misguided attempt to prove that normal service has been resumed.
There have been a few problems and it always looks bad when an MPs sound is poor or a connection is lost while they are asking a question or contributing to a debate. But we must look at what we now have as the starting position and improve upon it. This is eminently achievable if we have the will to make it so. To abandon what we have or to stand still and not move forward would be a gross misjudgment.
I am suspicious of the need to physically have all MPs back in London and I shall not be rushing down. I suspect the real reason is that the UK Government is looking for a display of hubris, one that is designed to put pressure on businesses across the UK to also return to work. We are asking the pubic to accept a new normal and that is why when we attempt to lead from the front, we should be leading in a responsible manner, not grandstanding. Any rush back to Westminster, with the added pressure on transport and house staff that would entail, is irresponsible, ill conceived and potentially dangerous. And we have proven over the last few weeks that by embracing the technological solution and showing greater self discipline, the UK parliament can continue unhindered. It would be wrong of me to travel from Inverclyde to London and back again on a weekly basis. This virus has been contained to a lesser and greater extent by people isolating and I have no desire to undermine that. The UK parliament should be subjected to a public health risk assessment before anybody considers whether 650 MPs from all four corners of the U.K. should risk becoming infected and worse spreading the virus during travel and ultimately within our own constituencies.
Written question – Employment [18/05/2020]
To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, what discussions his Department has had with (a) businesses and (b) trade unions on (i) the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and (ii) reports of businesses re-hiring former employees and then placing those employees on furlough; and if he will make a statement. (46717)
Tabled on: 13 May 2020
The Treasury has discussions with a range of stakeholders, including business groups, trade union representatives, and more widely.
The Government values the diversity of views that these groups provide in the policy development process, including that of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
Rehired employees may be furloughed in certain circumstances. More information, including eligibility criteria, is available in the GOV.UK guidance.
The answer was submitted on 18 May 2020 at 16:47.
New testing site set to open Friday
A new mobile testing site run by the Army is set to open on Friday in Inverclyde.
The site, expected to be based at the Waterfront leisure centre, will provide coronavirus tests.
It is part of the UK Government’s testing programme to determine whether those with symptoms, however mild, have the virus.
This testing will allow symptomatic key workers, members of the public over the age of 65 and those members of the public who have to leave home to go to work, including the household members of each group, to know whether or not they have the virus.
This will in turn keep essential services running.
It runs alongside the existing health and social care key worker-testing programme. All HSCP, NHS and social care providers staff will continue to access the Port Glasgow testing facility.
The mobile testing facility, based initially in Greenock, will supplement the existing site at Glasgow Airport.
Visit this link to find out more about arranging a test: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-getting-tested/pages/arrange-a-test/
A Universal Basic Income to safeguard our future
If any good is to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic it may be that people are seriously questioning some of the fundamental characteristics of our society. Private businesses that pertained to be shining examples of capitalist ideology suddenly required to be bailed out by the UK Governments and ultimately that means by the taxpayer. If the taxpayer is going to pay for them in the bad times, then why does the taxpayer not own them in the good times? And now some of the people that earn the least money are being recognised as the most valuable contributors to our society. Many of them were deemed unskilled workers by the UK Government when they were putting together their immigration policy. Previously discarded as surplus to requirements, now we stand and applaud them. People who had jobs and a steady income and felt secure within themselves, have very quickly succumbed to feelings of vulnerability.
In part, the threat is from the virus but it is also due to the sudden realisation that their livelihoods were more precarious than they had ever imagined. While catching the virus is more likely in crowded housing and without a doubt people from deprived areas will die in greater numbers, COVID-19 has been a leveller amongst the middle and working class. As a result of this, one topic of debate, which has recurred over the years, has seen a surge in exposure and popularity. From Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man, 1792) to Martin Luther King and even Richard Milhous Nixon in the 1960s, the idea of a guaranteed minimum income found support. And while Nixon’s proposal included incentives to work, the basic principle was still the same. That is to say, nobody should be allowed to fall through the cracks and be abandoned by society. Everybody had the same basic rights and it was up to governments to ensure they were provided.
In the UK we have a good example to learn from. At a time of national crisis, the Beveridge report became the foundation for a future welfare state. It was radical but Beverage recognised the need when he said a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. And around the world today governments are investigating the possibilities of UBI and similar schemes. In the USA, Project 100 is giving 1,000 dollars to 100,000 families, Spain is planning a new targeted support – it is not a basic income due to its conditions, but does represent a desire to create policies which stretch beyond the immediate crisis. Brazil has implemented UBI for 59 million people and Pope Francis said in his Easter message “This may be a time for a universal basic wage”. While the world wakens up, the UK government buries its head in the sand and steadfastly refuses to consider that it may be wrong and that the UK can learn from other countries and we don’t need to be leading on everything. There is nothing wrong with following good examples. It is not a sign of weakness.
There are major questions to be answered and it is up to the UBI community to educate the politicians. And the first question we always ask is, how much will it cost? And even within the UBI community, at that point, heads go down. Many, including myself, will argue that it isn’t just about money. UBI provides choices to people. Provided with a financial safety net people are more likely so seek employment and or education opportunities. UBI does not get reduced in either outcome. Under UBI People are not financially disadvantaged for working and pilot schemes continually show that people are not indolent. Given the opportunity to improve their life people will take it. Pilot projects have also shown improved mental and physical health among the participants. Crime rates have dropped too. And while these are good factors to be encouraged for their own sake they also represent financial savings on the health care and judicial systems.
But we have to acknowledge that ultimately it has to be costed properly and luckily there are many talented people who have done just that. Annie Miller in her book ‘A Basic Income Handbook’ provides a plethora of detailed examples and scenarios, Dr Malcolm Torry in ‘Why we need a Citizen’s Basic Income’, Professor Guy Standing in ‘Basic Income and How We Can Make It Happen’, Rutger Bregman in ‘Utopia For Realists’ and Stewart Lansley in ‘A Sharing Economy’, all further the case. They are all far more qualified to crunch the numbers than I am and I acknowledge that other experts will hold different views. And the RSA’s work over the last few years, including their important work in Fife for A Basic Income for Scotland and current thinking on how we bridge from the current crisis to the future, is helping to shape the policy landscape, in Scotland and across the UK. It is crucial that the UBI community take this opportunity even though it is in the most unfortunate of circumstances, to take the next step and define the definitive scheme. Because the real issue is that until we decide what the scheme is going to look like, then accurate costs will elude us.
Even within the UBI community you will not find 100% agreement on all aspects of UBI. There are a range of definitions and permutations. I attended a UBI conference in Lisbon about four years ago and we spent 30 minutes defining the word unconditional because some people refer to UBI as Unconditional Basic Income and some prefer Citizen’s Basic Income. The truth is that even though the concept has been around for hundreds of years we still don’t have one definitive definition. It’s like a bag of liquorice allsorts. We agree we like liquorice, but which is your favourite sweet? And the current crisis has added to the debate but also the confusion. Instead of making the choice easier it has added extra sweets to the bag, temporary UBI and recovery UBI being the new kids on the block. I have little time for either. By their own admission they have a short lifespan and therefore they are not unconditional. They would exist under the conditions that define their timespan. Be that a period defined as a recovery period or be that a set period of time, most likely a few months. When that condition changes UBI would cease to exist.
It’s not all bad. Temporary could transition into permanent once the benefits were fully understood and temporary would involve the development of a system to handle the money transfer from Government to citizens and that in itself would be a good thing because that would require the development of the appropriate database and the setting up of bank accounts. These are both important pillars in the infrastructure for UBI. I am personally sceptical that the database could be created in the sort of timescale that would be required to implement a UBI during this crisis but that should not put us off. We should start the process because we shall face other crisis and we should be learning from COVID-19 and putting into place safeguards for the future and that is exactly what UBI is, a safeguard. And before we design the scheme we need to define the criteria which must surely be to protect and nurture every member of our society by providing financial security that allows social mobility. And if you are still thinking that the cost of a UBI will be too high, I would say that ultimately the cost of not having one, will be far higher.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Member of Parliament for Inverclyde
Article appears on RSA website – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/05/a-universal-basic-income-to-safeguard-our-future
Written question – Travel [11/05/2020]
To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, what information his Department holds on the number of people who received a cash refund for cancelled holidays within the required 14-day period as a result of the covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement. (41524)
Tabled on: 29 April 2020
The Government recognises the challenges businesses and consumers are experiencing regarding refunds for cancelled holidays and flights. We appreciate the distress and frustration consumers may be experiencing.
The department does not hold this information, we are, however working closely with the sector, the regulator and consumer groups to help ensure airlines deliver on their commitments.
The answer was submitted on 11 May 2020 at 15:57.
Greenock Telegraph 8th May 2020
Before the Covid-19 crisis has even started to draw to a close there are those that want to start an inquiry into how we got it wrong. I understand that reaction. I have been critical of a number of actions and lack of actions by the UK Government and there will be a time for that debate.
Much has been said about the higher death rate in Inverclyde. It is almost three times the national average and I believe there are reasons, that existed long before the current health crisis, that have driven up our unacceptable death rate. These reasons need addressed but they have needed addressed for some time and they won’t be fixed before the end of his crisis. Now is not the time to look over our shoulders to see where we came from. The obstacles are in front of us. And even if we are critical of the course of action that got us here, we can’t ignore the fact that we still have responsibilities as individuals to act in a manner that can reduce the spread of infection and therefore reduce the burden on the frontline workers and ultimately reduce the deaths. Increasingly, I am contacted with accounts of people gathering in groups and not observing social distancing. In relation to the population of Inverclyde it is very small numbers that are letting us down, but it always is. Anti-social behaviour is always confined to a small number of ignorant selfish people and it’s never acceptable, but now, in the current health crisis, it could prove to be deadly. It may be hard to visualise that, but this virus is transmitted through our community from person to person. And that may be via surfaces as well as being airborne. Isolation and distancing remove the chance of it travelling. 2020 may yet prove to be the year of perfect hindsight but in the here and now we need to face up to the practical aspects of how we can all help.
Please stay safe and stay healthy.
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