I am on the rota today which means I need to be available to cover anything that comes up. Prior to the chamber sitting I have an interview from a journalist based in New York but originally from Aberdeenshire. The subject matter is substance use in Scotland, and we have a wide-ranging discussion. The first business of the day is questions to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I bob on the back of a couple of questions about levelling up but don’t get taken. Not in a mood to take no for an answer and seeking clarification on the criteria and timescale of levelling up funding round two, I bob for topical questions and get in. Michael Gove’s answer was less than informative, and I shall pursue him further. We need clarity to enable Inverclyde to bid for local projects. The opposition day debate is led by the SNP and amidst all the distractions of Boris’s birthday parties we debate the cost of living. With the cost of food, fuel, energy all increasing the UK give should be protecting the most vulnerable in society but sadly we still protect the richest before the poorest. We called on the UK government to take immediate action with a package of measures to boost incomes and reverse rising poverty. The Liberal Democrats, Alba and the SDLP all voted with us, Labour abstained. The last vote was at 20:37.
My select committee takes evidence from academics and lawyers regarding the coronavirus act – two years after it was created. The lessons learned are that no country got it totally right, but Norway and New Zealand got it better than most and definitely better than the UK. When we legislate in haste gas, we did at the outset of Covid’s, it’s hard to legislate well. Therefore, rather than a two-year sunset clause (when we can debate keeping, changing or dropping parts of legislation), we should have much shorter ones and therefore speedier reviews. Three months is about right. And the finished legislation should be clear and understandable. There were two urgent questions. First on the Prime Minister’s latest party revelation. Presumably he recognised this one as a party because he had a cake with candles and people sang Happy Birthday to him. Then a question on Ukraine. It’s a worrying situation that we can’t allow to escalate.
Prior to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) I was on the panel for Five Live’s politics show. Nicky Campbell is the host, and we covered the disgraceful behaviour of the Prime Minster throughout the pandemic, the increase in the cost of loving and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It was a lively discussion with listeners phoning in their questions. PMQs was a bit too lively for the speaker who continually had to remind Conservative and Labour MPs to quieten down so questions and answers can be heard. The lack of meaningful debates at Westminster is shocking and so I took the opportunity to come home early. There is always plenty to do in Inverclyde.
I spoke with some local sports clubs about the availability of appropriate facilities. My playing days are over, but I love my sport and have never doubted the benefits to mental health that sport can provide. It’s not all about the mainstream sports and we need to see how we can accommodate the sport of choice for all.
I had meetings with ‘The Shed’ and ‘Man On’ and in the evening I was at The Beacon to watch Interiors. It’s a production by Vanishing Point and I am glad to see this world-renowned artist led theatre company are now located in Inverclyde.
As a child growing up in the sixties the Cold War was a regular news item, and the picture was painted of a free Western Europe backed up by the USA. While behind the iron curtain was the cold heartless communist regime with Moscow at its centre and spreading throughout the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Locally the tensions and misconceptions were heightened by the presence of the American naval base in the Holy Loch. The USSR posed a threat to the freedom of the West. This was an excuse for arms race and a proliferation of nuclear weapons. But the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and countries that had been consumed were once again free and recognised as independent sovereign nations. Amongst others Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Ukraine all emerged from under the control of Moscow. Russia embraced the accumulation of great wealth and infiltrated the economies of many countries, often with money of dubious sources. They were no longer perceived to be the enemy, not while they could pay top dollar for London property. Not while the tills rang out in Mayfair and Knightsbridge. And yet Moscow has grown uneasy over western influences on Russian domestic affairs. Their nervousness’s has resulted in incursions into Crimea after the Ukraine politically moved closer to Europe. And eight years later Crimea is annexed, the Ukraine is under threat, and we need to act. We must impose trade restrictions and hit the money men where it hurts then most, in their wallets. Russian individuals must be cut off from using the SWIFT banking payments system, a measure that will have real and measurable impact if imposed.
Ukraine is an independent sovereign nation and should be recognised and respected as such. This is not the Cold War reds under the beds, mentality. One premise of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act is that state borders should not be changed by force and although Ukraine is not part of NATO it must be protected. Diplomatic channels should be working night and day to avoid conflict as the continuation of Ukraine to function free from threats and external influences is paramount to avoiding a war on European soil.
An early start and off to Westminster with a spring in my step. Today is the day that we hold the UK Government to account over their simply appalling Elections Bill. It’s the only debate of the day and therefore should be at least 6 hours with votes added at the end. Two select committees have ripped into it and organisations such as Age UK, MENCAP, Sense, RNIB, Stonewall and the Runnymede Trust have all warned that this bill will place barriers in the way of their members which will reduce the number of people voting. Similar legislation in Northern Ireland saw a downturn which if extrapolated across the UK would see a reduction of voters in the region of 1.1 million. Experience has taught me that I should prepare no more than six minutes. Upon arriving I am staggered to see that three statements have been tabled. That’s three hours gone. My six minutes becomes 5 then 4 then none. And my exasperation grows. The Tory vote is carried in six votes. All opposition amendments are defeated, and the bill is passed. Democracy is weakened. My earlier jaunty demeanour is reduced to a sad hunched figure wandering back to my hotel at 22:30 in a bitterly cold London clutching an egg and cress sandwich and a pint of milk.
My select committee took evidence from the National Audit Committee regarding expenditure in the Cabinet Office. I don’t know if it was tiredness or the numbers that were being quoted but something made my eyes water. The number of people employed in the cabinet office in 2015-16 was 2,300 and by 2020-21 it had grown to 9,800 and now costs £0.7 billion a year. Another cost is the £8.4 million to lease the Prime Ministers jet, that is before additional sortie costs. The Prime Minister’s self-gratification just goes on and on. In the afternoon the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Exploitation, heard from experts about children being exposed to pornography and the damage it has on them. The internet is a prime facilitator of much of it and serious regulation is required to protect children from inadvertently being subjected to pornography at an early age. Exposure to this material normalises violent and abusive behaviour and leads to stress, anger and sexual aggression later in life.
The usual Finance and Economy meeting is followed by Prime Minister’s questions. But not before we are treated to the spectacle of Christian Wakeford ‘crossing the floor’. The Conservative and Unionist MP for Bury South joined the Labour Party. The same MP who criticised the Labour Party for not representing working class communities and believes that the Conservative government has delivered for the people of this country. And to put a tin hat on it, he is the same MP that said if an elected member changes party then that should trigger a by-election. I agree with him on that, but I am not holding my breath. Much to some people’s surprise, it is the same Prime Minister as last week. Given the Prime Minister’s behaviour there were expectations that his own party would rip him down, but they are the same people that put him in power in the first place and so the circus continues. His performance was bullish and energetic. This is a man that clearly thinks he has been let off the hook. During the subsequent covid statement I questioned the Prime Minister’s ability to lead by showing a responsible attitude. No doubt the political manoeuvres shall continue but for the moment the Prime Minister looks to be safe. That is until the media reveal the next scandal.
PACAC was scheduled to take evidence from Alex Chisholm (Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary and the chief operating officer of the United Kingdom’s Civil Service) and Steve Barclay MP
(Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office) around the workings of the Cabinet Office including their handling of freedom of information requests. But before we started the chair issued a statement saying that Conservative and Union MPs had been bullied and blackmailed into supporting their Prime Minister. The allegations are that money, designated for important projects in their constituencies, could be withdrawn if they exercise their right and express discontent with the prime minister. We also heard that they are being threatened with smear stories. Understandably this took most of the headlines, but the evidence session also went well.
Today was mostly constituency casework briefings and an opportunity to catch up with local councillors.
Charles Dickens was famous for writing about the poverty of his time. So much so that the phrase Dickensian Poverty is often used to describe severe levels of deprivation. But Dickens didn’t use poverty for entertainment, he used it as a vehicle to explore human behaviour, good and bad. He utilised the circumstances of poverty and wealth as tools to explore and exhibit the behaviour of those immersed in them. There have been many excellent books, fact and fiction that dealt with poverty in a subjective manner without being exploitative. The recent article in Lad Bible is the opposite. It is what can only be described as poverty porn. It exploits a situation in an intrusive sensationalist way to promote itself. It’s subject matter is the Clune Park estate. Beyond stating the blindingly obvious that it is in a terrible state of disrepair and the council want to demolish it, the article descends into the gutter by publishing a heart rendering letter it found from a mother to her daughter. Presumably nobody gave their permission for this intrusion, just as the feelings of the people of Clune Park and the surrounding area were not considered. The article carries the standard photos and sad looking reporter but doesn’t address the issues, doesn’t suggest any solutions, is full of the usual cliches and ultimately is self serving and disposable. While I acknowledge that Inverclyde has areas of unacceptable deprivation, and nobody is hiding from that, using the unique circumstances around Clune Park as a reflection of Inverclyde without providing any balance is lazy, inaccurate and disingenuous to the people of Port Glasgow that rightly take a great deal of pride in their town.
Interested in helping more people from marginalised groups get into the workplace and making your organisation or business more inclusive?
The Workplace Equality Fund is now open for applications until 11 April.
Find out more and apply at www.equalityadvice.scot
The Home Heating Support fund has been launched to help Scots struggling with their energy bills amid a growing cost-of-living crisis. The Scottish Government scheme, administered by Advice Direct Scotland, is designed to prevent households falling into fuel poverty. The fund is open until 31 March and applications can be made on behalf of individuals by ‘referral partners’ through www.homeheatingadvice.scot. If you are aware of constituents who are struggling with their energy bills, their local council or housing association – or a charity who is supporting them – can refer them to the scheme.