Greenock Telegraph 27th August 2021

In the U.K. our state pension is protected by what is referred to as the triple lock. The triple lock guarantees that every year the state pension rises by the highest of inflation, wage growth or 2.5%.  Well, that’s the theory. Despite pensioner poverty increasing under the current Conservative and Unionist UK government, Boris Johnson’s treasury team are planning to break the triple lock and their manifesto promise to pensioners and cut the planned increase in pensions to below the rate of inflation.

Analysis from the House of Commons library, using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data, has revealed UK pensions are the least generous of every country in north west Europe. UK pensioners receive around a quarter (28%) of the average working wage when they retire – lower than all thirteen neighbouring countries, including Ireland (36%), Switzerland (44%), Norway (52%), Germany (52%), Sweden (53%), Finland (64%), Belgium (66%), Iceland (70%), Denmark (71%), France (74%), Netherlands (80%), Austria (90%) and Luxembourg (90%). And as a result, combined with a decade of Tory austerity cuts, pensioner poverty has risen further under the present Conservative and Unionist Government. We only need to look at the shabby treatment of the WASPI women to see just how little consideration is given to pensioners in the UK.    

The UK government’s own Households Below Average Income (HBAI) statistics show that UK pensioner poverty levels are on the rise, with 2.1million pensioners (18%) living in poverty after housing costs – an increase of 200,000 on 2018/19, and a 15 year high.

If we can’t look after those who have worked and contributed to our society for the majority of their lives, then what future are we all looking forward to?  The only way to keep pensioners safe from Tory cuts is for Scotland to become an independent country with the full powers needed to protect and improve the incomes of our pensioners.    

Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress [18th Aug – 21st Aug]

In my opinion the possibility of running a humane Basic Income pilot without the buy in of the DWP and HMRC does not exist. 

I hear claims that pilots are going ahead outside Scotland and this has been used by some to criticise the Scots government by implying that they could run pilots without the buy in of Westminster, but they just choose not to. 

I can’t see that.  

If we are to avoid treating the participants like laboratory rats, then we need to ensure that any transition into and out of a Basic Income pilot is fair and does not expose the participants to additional uncertainties.

The current welfare system has many flaws which result in unnecessary stress being placed on the people relying on it. Recurring re-evaluations like PIP and ESA add to the enduring feeling that recipients can be punished financially. We can’t add to that by asking people to participate in a pilot project which results in them being asked by the DWP to attend interviews under threat of sanctions for the duration of the programme. And we can’t have them investigated by HMRC because they have received an income for two years that HMRC don’t recognise and can’t compute. To do this would be to add to the pressures that we are actively seeking to reduce. This is not meant as a criticism of the staff of these departments but the instructions must come from the heart of the UK government to recognise Basic Income pilot schemes so the staff are empowered to work with them constructively.

If the UK government are so sure that Basic Income is a bad idea then I want them to prove it and if they are right, any properly run and evaluated pilot scheme would prove that. Then we can all pack up and go home. I shall be proven wrong and the call for Basic Income will subside.  

But they won’t because they know that a pilot scheme will underpin our belief that it is a humane, appropriate and affordable policy. And currently Westminster does not specialise is evidence based policies. Rather they choose to use their instinct over their intellect. And their instinct says that the best way for them to maintain and even increase the poverty gap between those with and those without is to support the status quo. After all, if your aim is to rule over people and you live in a world that suits you, that returns you to power on a regular basis, that maintains your position of privilege, why would you want to change it? 

The evidence from all previous Basic Income projects and similar schemes clearly says that people are not work shy and lazy, that people’s mental and physical health improves , that women are empowered, that children do better at school and that Basic Income gives people choices and doesn’t punish them for seeking further education or employment. It frees them to make life choices that suit them at different stages of life. It gives them the power to turn down zero hours contracts and the minimum wage. But all of this evidence is ignored and at a time when we are emerging from a pandemic and many people’s working practices could change, we actually have Tory MPs suggesting that working from home should mean people are paid less. I only offer that as one example of the mindset of those in power at Westminster. At a time when we should be offering a platform to grow from and a safety net for life, the UK government is looking for ways to reduce working income, which is mind boggling stupid.  Don’t they realise that means people pay less tax and have less to spend in their local economies? This creates a knock on effect and entire communities will suffer. Driving wages down has the opposite effect from Basic Income. 

This is just the typical behaviour of this Conservative and Unionist government, they walk the walk pretending to be something they aren’t, like competent or caring.  But then they open their mouths, and the truth comes out.

This not a new debate. Basic Income as a theory has been around for hundreds of years in different forms it is often muted as an idea whose time has come. It was debated at Westminster in October 2020. And in that debate, I pointed out that the NHS did not just materialise out of thin air; it was not dreamt up one wet Wednesday afternoon in the Tea Room or designed on the back of a fag packet. The NHS was introduced on 5 July 1948, but prior to that half of Scotland’s land mass had already been covered by the Highlands and Islands Medical Service (HIMS), which had been set up in 1913. HIMS acted as a working blueprint for the NHS in Scotland. It was directly funded by the state and it had Ministers based centrally in a Scottish Office in Edinburgh. It was in all but name a pilot project, allowed to develop and grow; it uncovered unforeseen problems and fixed them. It ensured that, on day one of the NHS, the NHS was to all intents and purposes good to go.

When Beveridge wrote his report to design a post-world war 2 welfare system for the United Kingdom, he said “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” This is such a time, as we emerge from a world-wide pandemic, as furlough is withdrawn, as the GIG economy increases, we need a revolution in welfare. The Basic Income Earth Network shall this week, at its Glasgow based congress, explore all aspects of taking Basic Income from an idea to a reality. In an increasingly unequal society the UK government would do well to listen. 

Ronnie Cowan MP

Situation in Afghanistan

The seeds of failure that have produced the outcomes we are seeing today, go back twenty years and are partially caused by the main protagonists, UK and USA, having different objectives from day one. While the UK was driven by Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal intervention, continuing the practice of the UK being the world’s police force, he also saw an opportunity to destroy the poppy fields that produce 90% of the heroin that comes into the UK. These goals were miles apart from the USA who were primarily driven by retribution for the 9/11 attacks. For twenty years we have seen military operations in Afghanistan that have resulted in many service personnel being seriously injured and many have lost their lives. But it should be noted that Afghanistan has been a political failure rather than a military one. We were never prepared to commit to a campaign that would require to take decades if it was to be successful, as that was politically not acceptable. And as has become obvious in the last few months, we never designed an exit strategy that would guarantee the safety of those left behind. As a result the similarities between Afghanistan today and Vietnam in 1975 are striking.

The withdrawal of military support by western allies to the Government of Afghanistan, and the subsequent seizure of power by the Taliban, has exacerbated the refugee crisis in the region, which has seen significant numbers of people displaced, with more certain to flee in the short and medium-term. Reports coming out of the country describe wide-scale atrocities, including attacks on women, torture, and forced marriage. The UK should be fulfilling its humanitarian responsibilities by offering protection to those fleeing the Taliban. Instead, we now have a UK government dithering over what action should be taken. While Pakistan and Iran have taken 90% of the refugees, the UK has been turning them away. We have been slow to engage with the re-settlement schemes and we have neglected those eligible for the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme. Since April, ARAP has been in place to move Afghan staff to the UK who worked locally for the UK Government (known informally as the Afghan interpreters’ scheme). This group are in particular danger, but access to this scheme is limited, and has left many people who have supported the UK Government ineligible. The terms of this scheme must be urgently reviewed to ensure those who need it are able to access it.

The UK has a duty of responsibility that it can’t be allowed to walk away from. Many people fleeing Afghanistan, and those who have been in danger after the takeover by the Taliban, have relatives who are already refugees in the UK, but are unable to join them because of restrictive rules around refugee family reunion. The Home Office should change these rules to expand refugee family reunion, and ensure that people are able to join loved ones in the UK via this safe and legal route.  Up to now the behaviour of the Home Office has been shameful and their mix of incompetence and lack of compassion will result in more casualties of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

Ronnie Cowan MP

My thanks to the Refugee Council and the United Nations HCR for engaging with me on this subject. Their input is invaluable.

Greenock Telegraph 13th August 2021

My first car was a Morris Minor 1000. It was a thing of great beauty. It was impervious to all weather conditions. Come hail, rain, shine and snow that wee car never let me down. It cost me £60 and eventually I traded it in against a Vauxhall Chevette, followed by a Sunbeam Alpine and there followed a range of other cars. I am telling you this, so you don’t think I am immune to the needs for car ownership. I get it. I like my car. But I am also a cyclist. And I would like to cycle more. Unless you have been hiding your head in a cloud of petrol fumes emissions you will be aware that our precious tiny wee planet is slowly being destroyed by us. And to reverse the damage and give future generations a fighting chance we need to change our ways. The big energy companies are looking, more and more, to sustainable renewables, major manufacturers are overhauling packaging and supply chains. Recycle, up-cycle and bicycles are becoming more and more popular. These transitions don’t just happen. People need to change their mindset and then mend their ways. And it’s important that at all levels of government this is reinforced. The recent upgrading of the cycle path in Inverclyde has drawn some valid criticism and some ill-informed knee jerk reactions but it is important that we don’t lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. Changing the behaviour patterns of car drivers is never easy and we (and yes, I include myself) have gotten used to having the roads to ourselves. But that has to change, and the cycle path is important in that respect. It is not the prettiest I have ever seen and issues around safety must be addressed, but importantly it must be continually improved if we are to re-educate ourselves and transition to greener modes of transport. It may be a cycle pathway at this moment but it’s a pathway to a cleaner, more environmentally friendly, more socially aware future.