I was expecting the Northern Ireland Protocol to be front and central of business this week, but it appears that three years after leaving the European Union, the U.K. government is still making it up as it goes along. There is nothing substantial to debate or vote on. I used the time in Inverclyde dealing with case work and writing my column for the Greenock Telegraph.
I was in Edinburgh at the Cornerstone Centre in Saint John’s Church on Princes Street. The centre is a modern conference facility with a café, but the church is a magnificent neo-gothic protected category A listed building dating from 1816. The stained-glass windows are breath-taking. I am there to discuss the Scottish drug policy around cannabis. The event was hosted by the Scottish Psychedelic Research Group, the Scottish Cannabis Consortium and Recovering Justice. It was a wonderful opportunity to network with the farming community who are growing cannabis in Scotland, academia that are studying it, medical professionals who are open to its use and people with lived experience. As always at these events I came away wiser than I went in. I used the excellent tram system to get to the airport and caught the 8pm to London.
I was in the Order Paper at question number 12 for questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland. My question was grouped with question 5 so I knew I would definitely be taken. I reminded the minister that Scotland is a net energy exporter but, as a consequence of being in the UK, we face electricity costs which are 30% higher than those in the Netherlands or Germany. And asked him if he thinks it is right that while Scots face the highest energy bills in Europe, the UK Government allows energy companies to make billions in profits? He replied saying he didn’t accept my analysis but couldn’t or wouldn’t say what part he didn’t accept. I hung around in the chamber for Prime Minister’s Question which was a lacklustre affair. Fortunately after that I had a meeting with Scotland’s Drugs Minister, Angela Constance MSP. And along with other SNP MPs we had an interesting discussion around the development of drugs policy in Scotland. It’s always good to engage with people with a can do attitude, even if their brief is as tough as it gets. I dropped in on the Age U.K. Big Knit event that they run in partnership with Innocent Drinks. They have been running this event since 2003 and raised over £3 million pounds. I managed to acquire a tiny bobble hat in the Morton colours. I met up with Cruise Lines International and spoke with Karen from Barrhead Travel. It’s always good to hear a different perspective and she highlighted a few issues that I shall take up with the port providers. My final event of the day was the Electric Vehicle pavement tax event. They are campaigning to reduce the 20% VAT charge that is attracted to chargers for public use, while people charging from their own home only pay 5%. If we are to encourage people to purchase electronic vehicles, then we need to provide a public charging infrastructure that doesn’t disincentivise its use. Only 46% of households in Inverclyde can charge from their homes if they so choose.
My select committee took evidence from the Prime Minister’s recently appointed ethics adviser, Laurie Magnus. It’s a strange job being the ethics adviser to the Prime Minister when only the Prime Minister can hire you, approve or direct you to what should be investigated and determine what actions should be taken following your report. It certainly makes it very hard for an ethics adviser to hold the Prime Minister to account without losing his job. Maybe that’s why the two previous advisers both resigned. In the afternoon I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform to discuss experiences of cannabis regulation in the United States, with a focus on models that incorporate social and racial justice principles.
Back in the constituency today and I went on a site visit with Link Housing to see their development of the old Ravenscraig Hospital site. This was always a controversial scheme and it’s important that the developers continue to engage with the community during and after the completion of the project. I am reminded of the need for good broadband on a regular basis by constituents. To that end, I frequently meet with a range of providers, not just Openreach and Virgin. Today I met with CityFibre to discuss their contribution in this area.
Many people who care for a family member, loved one or friend, don’t see themselves as carers. Their perspective of a carer is someone who provides care all day, every day but the truth is that you can be working, there are no set number of hours that you have to provide care and there can be more than one person helping to provide care for an individual, and you are still a carer. You do not need to be in receipt of certain benefits like Carers Allowance, there is no means testing. Many unpaid carers combine their caring role with paid employment. There are no minimum number of hours of providing support to qualify as an unpaid carer.
Fortunately, within Inverclyde we have the Carers Centre at 68-70 Cathcart Street, Greenock to provide support for unpaid carers. They can advise you on how you can access the support that you need to fulfil your caring role. The Inverclyde Carers Centre run a series of events on a daily basis, such as the Young Carers Group (16-25), Men’s Health Group, knitting group, Health Walks, and a popular Carers Café. There is also a Carers Passport discount card, or you can access counselling, therapies such as Indian head massages, aromatherapy and health and wellbeing classes. They have something for everyone, and the strength gained by attending these event and networking amongst fellow carers is a crucial part of the process.
Inverclyde Carers Centre can help unpaid carers access a short break. Many of the registered carers have enjoyed a night or weekend away, or they can access other resources to give them some time out from their caring role.
Caring for someone can be an onerous task no matter how much you love that person and reaching out for support will help you and ultimately the person you are caring for to cope better.
The morning was consumed by briefings and bobbing for questions on asylum seekers but I was not taken. I was going to ask what the U.K. Government was doing regarding providing a clear path for asylum seekers to navigate the Home Office process. I know they plan to clear backlog by the end of the year, but many have already been in the system for over 12 months already and an extra ten months will have an increasing detrimental effect on their already fragile mental health. I bobbed for questions on pre-payment meters . Despite warm words the situation still exists where people are forced onto prepayment meters. I was taken and asked the minister when he was going to take responsibility for the situation as so far he has blamed the utility companies, Ofgem and the Labour government of thirteen years ago. I know some of society’s problems are deep routed because of bad policies made by previous governments and will take decades to undo but this only requires new legislation to ban forced pre-payment meters.
Another early start as I am on the 9am Eurostar train to Brussels with my select committee colleagues. As always, these trips provide an opportunity for us to work together and on this occasion, we are scrutinising the European Union’s implementation of international agreements. Despite leaving the EU the United Kingdom still has to be fully up to speed with all the treaties and trade deals. We are engaging with both the EU and the U.K. representatives that are based in Brussels. Today we met the Ambassador to Belgium, Martin Shearman, members of the Belgian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, Belgian Foreign Affairs Officials, members of the Walloon Regional Parliament. It’s safe to say with a federal system of government based on language and geography and hosting the European Parliament, trade deals and international agreements go through a complicated process before being passed into law. And yet it works and each region has the same authority.
Today was spent in the European Parliament building, which is clean, modern and massive. One corridor is seven hundred metres long!
During the second day of the trip we met with, Lindsey Appleby, head of the U.K. mission to the EU. Then we met the trade Team and EU Parliament team before leaving the British Embassy to go to the European Parliament to meet officials from the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee. In the afternoon we met David McAllister MEP. David is half Scottish and half German. He chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Professor Danuta Hubner MEP explained the working of the committee for International Trade. The European Parliament’s research service walked us through their remit which includes running the library and scrutinising the executive, carrying out impact assessments and trying to add value. After two days of taking on information nonstop it was good to get on the Eurostar for London and have time to absorb everything I had learned.
Because I had to travel from Brussels to London last night I had to travel back home today. I took advantage of being in London and dropped in on two events being hosted by colleagues. Amy Callaghan MP has an event where she promoted removing VAT from sunscreen. Skin cancer is a big problem and anything we can do to reduce the numbers is welcomed. Reducing the cost of sunscreen will encourage more people to use it. Alison Thewliss MP had an event along with the Lancet magazine promoting the benefits of breast feeding. I got home around 6pm after popping into my office to catch up on local events.
My first meeting was with Stuart Jamieson from Inverclyde Council to discuss a host of local issues. These are regular meetings which allow us both to keep the other up to speed. I then met with the landlords of the Amazon site to hear was prospects they are pursuing. Unfortunately, my next meeting has been cancelled overnight but there are always plenty of other issue to be addressed so the time was not wasted. In the evening, I attended the Ardgowan bowling club Burns supper. It’s the first one since Covid and hopefully a sign that things are mostly returning to normal.
When I first started working in information technology the ability to connect one computer to another was basic to say the least. We used a phone handset to call a person in the other location, they answered the phone and then we left the line open, and the computers used the phone line. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t reliable. Technology has moved on at a great pace and the demand to use it is stretching the capabilities to the limit. These days everybody wants ultra fast fibre optic broadband to the house as we download movies, music and sport in different rooms while browsing the internet, emailing relatives around the globe and doing our online shopping. Back in the day this was science fiction but now it’s routine. The infrastructure to supply this is almost entirely controlled and managed by Openreach and Virgin Media. There are other suppliers, but physical infrastructure ownership is very limited. In Germany, the companies responsible for the rollout had to provide the service to the more rural areas first and then made their money extending into urban settings. Unfortunately, in the U.K. we allowed the suppliers to sell into the most densely populated areas first and as a result we have ‘not spots’ dotted around on the fringes or outside towns and cities. There have been incentives to encourage take up to such a degree that additional fibre has been blown but as the demand for speed increases the infrastructure has struggled to keep up. It’s a constant battle between demand and availability. While the figures show that Inverclyde generally has good broadband connectivity, I fully understand that is not enjoyed by all. I am working with providers to get better faster and stable access for all.
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