Greenock Telegraph 28th August 2020

One of the first things the then speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, told me is that there is nothing wrong with repetition. With the current discussions around Inchgreen and Freeports, while we look to see what the world and the workplace will look like post COVID-19, I thought it was time for a quick reprise of Inverclyde and industry.

The days of mass shipbuilding on the Clyde have gone. That is not to say the world doesn’t need new ships but our coast line has been given up to housing, bingo halls, cinemas, swimming pools, retail parks and light industry. All things that are welcome but do not need a coastal location. The logistics of re-establishing ship building has been made harder by these actions. We should be looking at more niche targeted maritime areas. The Caledonian MacBrayne fleet needs overhauled. Not with massive one off boats but multiple basic vessels. And we should be fighting tooth and nail to protect what we have before that too is consumed by a lack of vision. Freeports need to be defined as they do have a reputation for tax evasion. It’s also dubious that they contribute to a national economy therefore government money would be harder to attract. In truth, staying in the single European market was always a better option.

On a recent walk round the cut I was pleased to see new culverts being put in place and investment in the water capture system. I still have hopes that hydro power could return to Inverclyde. However I was disappointed to see how bare the hills remain. As the world wakens up to climate change we should be playing our part in Reforesting the hills and there is a spin off in job creation and supply chain. While we repeat the same stories we must do so with an eye on the future. It’s ours for the making.

A vision of 2020

Many of you will have watched the BBC Disclosure programme (17th August) about Inverclyde titled “Scotland’s Covid capital”. Rather than rush to press, I have bided my time and taken time to consider my views. The old adage ‘to see ourselves as others see us’ may be true but we also have to consider, is it a fair representation? I have watched it three times now and I have mixed views.

The premise of the programme was that Inverclyde was suffering from health issues, high unemployment, high crimes figures and drug related problems before the pandemic and that because we started from such a deprived position then obviously we were always going to suffer more. Professor Jude Robinson described the preconditions and the onset of Covid19 as a perfect storm. And she asked the crucial question why Inverclyde was not identified as being significantly at risk before the Covid crisis?

And I agree. From day one I have said that the areas of highest deprivation in the UK will suffer most from the Covid19 pandemic (Greenock Telegraph 24th April 2020). Poorer health, cramped housing, comorbidity will all be factors in the spread rate and ultimately the number of deaths. If that is true for the entire UK then it stands to reason that within Inverclyde the same thing can be said. But we need the evidence to back that up. As the pandemic evolved, it took a few months before Covid figures were available for Inverclyde, initially all we had were the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde figures and that is no use when trying to identify hot spots in Inverclyde. We cant target solutions to the areas that need them most if Inverclyde is continually treated as part of a much larger health board when it comes to such matters. We need to be as precise as possible when identifying areas that require targeted help. And to take that to its logical conclusion, the Covid infection rates must be made available by each post code. Then we will have a better picture of where the worst affected areas are and that will help us to understand why they are so badly affected and what action must be taken. Simply saying its bad Inverclyde wide isn’t good enough.

The programme makers also insinuated that locally we hadn’t done enough to address these issues and they targeted the council for particular criticism. Of course once we start the blame game fingers get pointed in every direction and solutions become thin on the ground.

The programme then went on to look at the response to the crisis from the voluntary sector.  Pre Covid we already had a vibrant voluntary sector in Inverclyde. It responded and was augmented by new organisations. That fills me with pride and despair in equal measures. The dependency on volunteers highlights areas of need that are not being fulfilled by the paid sector. And that’s poor in two ways. Why are we not funding our paid sector sufficiently to address the problems and why do the problems exist in the first place? Are we resolving problems or are we managing the decline. A perfect example is the growth in the need for mental health support. I am delighted that these organisations exist but saddened that they increasingly have to.

While the programme was keen to point out the problems, I failed to hear any solutions? They quite correctly highlighted unemployment. And while I agree that unemployment is a scourge on our society and poverty is at the heart of the matter, I think it was misleading to say “Inverclyde wasn’t always like this. It’s history is rich with heavy industry. With shipyards here employing thousands of people in its heyday.” As if those were better times. I can guarantee you that the housing was poorer, health was poorer and life expectancy was shorter. A Covid pandemic in those days would have been unstoppable.

Nostalgia can blind us to the truth and harping back to any time as the good old days is often over simplistic. But I am emphatically not denying that unemployment is absolutely a prime factor in poor health, high crime rates and addiction, it is also amongst the most difficult problems to fix. But the upside is that if we solve that one problem then it will have a knock on effect and reduce poverty and deprivation which in turn will address health issues, crime levels and addiction.

If Covid has taught us anything, and the Disclosure documentary highlighted it, it’s that we have a crying need to build a stronger more robust society that not only benefits us all on a daily basis but will be better placed to respond during times of crisis, whatever they may be.

In 2015 I described Inverclyde as an island and said we should look to solve our own problems. Industries should be aggressively lobbied to locate here. Renewable energy can be at the heart of that and the coastline can be utilised in a range of ways from shipbuilding, repair and decommissioning. We can build turbines and platforms, we can build anything we put our mind to. The river can support recreational activities for locals and tourists. Our hills are crying out for reforestation and hydro schemes. But as Covid has taught us we can’t expect a knight in shining armour to come riding in to save us. I think the most pertinent line from the programme was the last one. “When inverclyde needed help, it helped itself.”

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: what you need to do from 1 September

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is changing from 1 September:

  • CJRS will pay 70% of usual wages up to a cap of £2,187.50 per month for the hours furloughed employees do not work.
  • Employers in your constituency will still need to pay their furloughed employees at least 80% of their usual wages for the hours they do not work, up to a cap of £2,500 per month. Employers in your constituency will need to fund the difference between this and the CJRS grant themselves.
  • The caps are proportional to the hours not worked. For example, if the employee is furloughed for half their usual hours in September, the employer is entitled to claim 70% of their usual wages for the hours they do not work up to £1,093.75 (50% of the £2,187.50 cap).

Employers in your constituency will continue to have to pay furloughed employees’ National Insurance (NI) and pension contributions from their own funds.

Further guidance and live webinars offering more support on changes to the scheme and how they impact employers are available to book online.

We’d be grateful if customers only contact us if they can’t find the information they need from GOV.UK. This will leave our phone lines and webchat service open for those who need them most.

Greenock Telegraph 14th August 2020

I was delighted to read in the Greenock Telegraph (10th August) about the Al Allouh family and how they have found ‘safety and freedom’ in Inverclyde. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to flee a war zone. How terrible must it be before deciding that you must leave your own country and everything that is familiar to you. And what courage must it take to face the dangers and uncertainties that such an action will undoubtedly invoke. Inverclyde Council have done a magnificent job, housing and supporting nearly 40 families and providing a haven where their children can grow and gain an education.

Conversely, the UK Government is now utilising the Royal Navy to intercept people fleeing persecution and death, people risking everything in rubber dinghies attempting the perilous crossing of the English Channel, often containing young children huddled close to terrified parents. And the UK is sending them back to France. Those that would turn their back on these refugees often wrongly assume that refugees should seek refuge in the first country they come to. The United Nations Refugee Convention does not make this requirement and UK case law support this interpretation. Understandably many of them want to put as many miles as possible between them and the troubles they are fleeing from.

As the Proclaimers say in their song Scotland’s Story “All through the story the immigrants came, the Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane, from Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine, We’re all Scotland’s story and we are all worth the same.” Inverclyde should be proud to add Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan to that list.

Second Self Employment Income Support Scheme Grant

The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) opens again for claims from 17 August, when eligible self-employed constituents can claim their second, and final, taxable SEISS grant.

We will contact people living in your constituency (by letter, SMS and/or email) to invite them to claim from a specified date, if they meet the eligibility criteria. The eligibility criteria for the second grant is the same as for the first grant – so as long as their business is still being adversely affected by coronavirus, constituents eligible for the first grant will be able to apply again. Applicants will be asked to confirm that their business has been adversely affected by coronavirus at any time since 14 July, and that they intend to continue trading this tax year.

If people don’t hear from HMRC, but think they are eligible, they can use the online claim process to check whether they can claim.

If a constituent’s responsibilities as a new parent meant they did not submit a tax return for 2018/2019, or their trading profits in 2018/19 were less than their other income (and they were therefore ineligible for SEISS), they may now be able to claim.

Eligibility includes:

  • caring for a child within 12 months of birth, or adoption placement
  • pregnancy or childbirth, within 26 weeks of the date of giving birth
  • a stillbirth after more than 24 weeks of pregnancy

For new parents, their 2017-18 or both 2016-17 and 2017-18 self-assessment returns can now be used to asses eligibility and grant calculation. If these changes mean someone could now be eligible, they need to confirm to HMRC that being a new parent affected their trading profits or total income in the tax year 2018 to 2019. These changes mean new parents may now be able to claim for the first SEISS grant, the second SEISS grant, or both (depending on when their businesses may have been adversely affected by Coronavirus) when applications open for the second grant.