Westminster diary w/b 13th November

Monday

This week is UK Parliament Week. The aim to encourage and increase, knowledge of and participation in the democratic process. A number of schools in Inverclyde have been taking part and so my first event of the week was to visit Inverclyde Academy. The pupils quizzed me on a range of subjects including immigration, Universal Credit and children’s rights. I caught the midday flight to London and was in time to attend a Westminster Hall debate. It was a petitions debate in response to two public petitions on the proposal for a second Scottish Independence referendum. As you would expect it was heavily attended by MPs that represent Scottish constituencies. Others were caught up in select committees or chamber business but it was still well attended and lively affair. I am continually disappointed that unionists MPs reasoning mostly revolves around their belief that Scotland isn’t very good and they don’t like the SNP. I would have hoped the debate would have focused more on their perceived benefits of being in the union, like being in the European Union.

Tuesday

The Select Committee for public administration and the constitution took evidence from the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. Part of their role is to scrutinise statistics that organisations produce so as they are accurate and can be quoted. They can intervene when politicians misuse statistics. The most recent example was when they took issue with the Secretary of State for Foreign Office, Boris Johnson over his claim that voting to leave the European Union would return £350 million pounds a week to the NHS. A figure which has been widely discredited. We then took evidence in private from senior civil servants regarding their training programmes. I left early to attend the urgent debate in the House of Commons on tax avoidance and evasion. It was galling to listen to some Conservative MPs defend tax avoidance because it was legal and completely ignore that it is immoral. Whether it be corporations or individuals we all have a duty to pay into a system that provides, health care, education, armed forces and the infrastructure of our society as we all benefit from them. This debate was followed by the first day of debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Votes continue long into the evening and I get home at ten to midnight.

Wednesday

The day starts with a 9am debate on a report recently compiled by the Lords Speaker’s committee on the reform of the House of Lords. Even this early the phrase turkeys voting for Christmas springs to mind. The proposal is for second unelected chamber of 600 members including 92 hereditary peers and 26 spiritual. Naturally, as I don’t live in the 18th century, I argued against this outcome. Prime Ministers Question time saw an unusually upbeat Prime Minister swipe away weak questioning from Mr Corbyn. She was evasive over a question from the SNP over the vat that police Scotland pay. We have been pursuing this for some time and shall continue to do so. I met with representatives of the multiple sclerosis society to discuss cannabis as a medicinal product. I had a meeting with narcotics anonymous and heard powerful testimony about addiction. I attended a briefing meeting from ‘missing people’ they work to reunite people who have gone missing with their family, friends and communities. A staggering 40,000 people go missing in Scotland each year. Many for a few hours or a day, some for much longer. I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia. Recent events in Catalonia have not shown up the Madrid Government in a good light. It was interesting to be briefed on the on-going situation by an ex Catalonian MP. In the evening I attended an event hosted by Peel Ports. They own the ocean terminal in Greenock along with other coastal land including the dry dock at Inchgreen. They were there to shout about their £750 million pound investment in Liverpool. I was there to take them to task over Inchgreen being moth balled for years when it could be generating jobs for the local community. Another late night.

Thursday

At 9am I chaired the ‘Festival of social science’ discussion on Basic Income. It was well attended and the audience were extremely comfortable with the subject matter. I met with representatives of ‘Release’ and we discussed drug use and the legal implications of a heroin addiction treatment room. That was followed by a lively debate in the House of Commons chamber on the roll out of Universal Credit. I caught the 6 p.m. flight home.

Friday

To round off Parliament week I attended Port Glasgow High School and St Stephens High School to take part in question and answers sessions from the pupils. I met with senior council officers from the health and social care partnerships. As we have budget cuts forced on us from the failed Tory austerity programme, nobody is put under more pressure than HSCP. I finished off the week with constituency casework.

Advertisements

Universal Credit [16/11/2017]

Ronnie Cowan MP

I was hoping to talk the House through a timeline that covered all aspects of requiring, claiming and receiving universal credit, but the time allotted will not allow me to do so. My constituency has had full roll-out for 12 months, so this is an abridged version based on what constituents have told me at first hand.

My archetypal constituent—I will call her Mrs Smith—is 50 and married. She lives in Port Glasgow and had been working at a local retail shop, but she has left on health grounds. Seeking support, Mrs Smith goes to her local jobcentre in Port Glasgow only to find that it has been shut. She instead walks three miles to the jobcentre at Greenock, but is surprised to learn that no one there can advise her on what benefits she is entitled to. She is told that the staff are not benefits-trained and are not even able to offer her options. Mrs Smith subsequently learns of universal credit from a welfare rights organisation, so she applies online. This would make Mrs Smith unlike the 15% of constituents surveyed by my office, who said that they could not use a computer or had great difficulties in doing so.

Mrs Smith lodges her application today, 16 November. By 23 November, she realises that although the application has been lodged, there is in fact at least another month of waiting while the entitlement is calculated. At this point, Mrs Smith’s remaining savings are used up by rent, council tax, TV licence, utility bills and shopping—the usual things. Her husband works, but he has a low income and they are now struggling financially. It is worth reminding Members at this point that the Money Advice Service found in 2016 that more than 16 million people in the UK had less than £100 in savings.

As November presses on, Mrs Smith’s financial situation becomes more desperate as she has underestimated the amount of time it will take to receive support. Please remember that this story is based on real-life examples that my constituents have brought to me. People do not fall into universal credit trained; they learn as they go along. At the start of December, because of a long-standing commitment, she takes her granddaughter to the movies, using a credit card to pay. She is accumulating debt.

By mid-December, Mrs Smith applies for a crisis grant and considers visiting the local food bank. The constant pressure of having no money begins to creep into every facet of her life. She is stressed and her relationship with her husband is suffering. None the less, she makes it through to her first universal credit payment sometime after new year.

Mrs Smith’s husband is paid weekly and coupled with real-time income data, which means that her universal credit payment fluctuates wildly. She is now locked in a boom-and-bust cycle, with her universal credit sometimes falling to almost nothing, while in other months she receives eight weeks of income in one assessment period.

What will the future hold for the real-life constituents of Inverclyde, apart from the uncertainty, stress and poverty that this system inflicts upon them? I am politely asking the UK Government not to ignore the overwhelming evidence. Universal credit is not working. Saying that its predecessor was worse is no excuse. It does not help my constituents from week to week. The roll-out must be halted. Take the time to reform the fundamental flaws in universal credit and then implement a system that truly offers applicants the stability on which they can build their lives.

‘Flaws’ in Universal Credit

I have been contacted by dozens of constituents regarding Universal Credit, many of whom have highlighted the flaws in the current system.

It is worth reminding that in 2016 the Money Advice Service found that more than 16 million people in the UK had less than £100 in savings.

Universal Credit is not working and the roll-out must be halted.  Take that time to reform the fundamental flaws in Universal Credit and then implement a system that truly offer applicants the stability in which they can build their lives.

 

House of Lords Reform [15/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to add my voice to over 100 years of debate on the subject of reforming the House of Lords. The unresolved discussion on Lords reform has been going on for so long that an annual debate on the subject must surely now be considered a parliamentary tradition. In 1908, the Queen’s great-grandfather was the reigning monarch, while New Zealand had just become an independent country. It was also the year in which the Rosebery report made recommendations on how peers should be selected to the Lords. Such is the pace of change at Westminster that here we are, 110 years later, still tinkering around the edges of our bloated and unelected upper Chamber. After all that time, the proposed reforms before us today hardly seem worth the wait.

That is especially the case when we consider that it could take up to 15 years to reduce the size of the Lords to 600 Members. Why 600? I have read the report and nowhere does it explain why the Committee decided on 600. Did they consider how many Lords contribute to debates, Committees or groups? Some do. As was eloquently explained in the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), some make very valuable contributions, but do 600? When the Lords debated the issue, 61 Members took part—that is 61 out of the 799 currently eligible peers. When the Lord Speaker’s Committee launched a consultation, 62 Members contributed.

The reduction from 826 peers is undoubtedly progress, but we are merely reducing the size of the problem, not solving it. To underscore the timid nature of these proposals, new Members of the Lords would still have a guaranteed position for 15 years. We would retain 92 hereditary peers. We would retain the Lords Spiritual, 26 archbishops and bishops. We would retain the royal office-holders, Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Of course, reducing the peers to 600 but protecting the hereditary and spiritual peers would also mean they made up a greater proportion of the unelected House.

I ask hon. Members whether they are happy to go out into their constituencies and argue in favour of an upper House of unelected appointees with 15-year terms—a House that has no mechanism for the public to hold its Members to account, in which the ability or suitability of its Members is completely outwith the control of the electorate. Would they be happy to speak with constituents face to face and tell them that our modern Parliament should include unelected bishops and hereditary peers, the heirs of long-forgotten generals, admirals and landowning aristocracy? Where is the progress towards a balanced House, by gender, geography or religion? How do we know that minorities are represented? We do not, and we will not, because the Committee’s remit was to address only the size of the House. I acknowledge the good work done by the Committee, but its hands were tied before it even started to write.

Here we are, skirting around the issue and ignoring the core question of whether we should even have an unelected Chamber. What does that say about the nature of Westminster? The “mother of Parliaments” has spawned many legislatures around the world, many of which have long overtaken us in their ability to reform and adapt to the changed needs of their political systems. Westminster, on the other hand, limply staggers on without any of the energy or imagination that characterises other Parliaments.

Luke Graham MP [Intervention]

We have heard comments from my side of the House in favour of reform, but the hon. Gentleman is characterising Westminster as something that limply goes on with no energy. This is the Parliament that brought in the NHS. It has introduced hundreds of technological innovations, spawned justice systems around the world and led the world in many innovations. To say that our Parliament is without energy and “limply staggers on” is unfair.

Ronnie Cowan MP 

The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly. When did we introduce the NHS? It was in the 1950s. The last time I checked, this was 2017.

The buildings that make up this Parliament are themselves reflective of what is happening here. They are rotten and crumbling. According to a headline in The Guardian:

“Parliament’s buildings risk ‘catastrophic failure’ without urgent repairs”.

It is estimated that the final repair bill may be more than £3.5 billion. We know, however, that the problems facing this place are deeper than crumbling masonry and decaying stonework. The institutions themselves are in need of urgent repair but, with another opportunity to genuinely reform the House of Lords, we have decided instead to paper over the cracks. We have had a century of debates like this one on deciding what colour and pattern that paper will be, yet the cracks remain underneath.

Limiting the length of terms, reducing the size of the Chamber and minimising the number of appointments the Prime Minister can make represents progress, but they are the smallest possible first steps towards reforming the Lords into a Chamber fit for 21st-century democracy. Lord Burns said that these proposals are a

“radical yet achievable solution to the excessive size of the House of Lords”.

With respect to Lord Burns and the Lord Speaker’s Committee, these proposals are not radical and will only reinforce public anger at and scepticism of Westminster politics. Most people will simply look at this situation and see a Committee of Lords concluding that the privileged position of other peers should be more or less protected.

I know that Members from all parts of the House want genuine reform, but let us be realistic: the UK Government have no authority and are barely surviving. As the country moves steadily closer to a Brexit cliff edge, Parliament has neither the time nor the political energy to tackle Lords reform when so much else is happening. Meanwhile, people in my constituency of Inverclyde and across Scotland will look at Lords reform as just another example of this Parliament’s inability to change. They may soon decide that powers resting here may be better placed in a unicameral Parliament—and that Parliament is in Edinburgh.

Westminster diary w/b 6th November

Monday 

The morning and most of the afternoon was taken up by preparing for and attending the select committee on transport. Despite parts of transport being devolved there is still sufficient reserved to warrant close scrutiny. I am hopeful that the transport committee will investigate and report on freight haulage and in particular look at our port authorities. In the evening I am winding up on a debate on transport in the North. It’s a Labour debate so the North is the North of England. Performing such tasks is one of the roles of the third party and winding up can be fun as it’s a guaranteed slot, I don’t have to bob up and down and I get ten minutes. The down side is it ten pm before I am finished.

Tuesday 

My day starts with the select committee on administration and the constitution. We take evidence regarding the effectiveness of the civil service. It was disappointing to hear that the civil service has difficulty recruiting senior personnel and retaining them. The civil service is going to be stretched to the limit during the withdrawal from the EU and senior civil servants in particular will be expected to handle a large workload. I had a meeting with BT and then with the SNP group leader. In the evening I was invited to an event on the charter of the forests in the Speaker’s rooms by John McDonnell MP the opposition Shadow Chancellor. We have a mutual friend in Guy Standing and an interest in basic income. The charter of the forests is about land ownership for the common good as was part of the Magna Carta eight hundred years ago.  

Wednesday 

I am up at the crack of dawn to catch the red eye to Glasgow. I then drive through to Edinburgh to meet up with committee members to take evidence around Brexit and in particular clause 11 which deals with repatriation of powers from the EU. We talk to a host of people from academia, civil service and politicians. Part of the day was hosted in the Scottish Parliament but part of it has to be off site as a Westminster committee can’t legally act as a committee in the Scottish Parliament and vice versa. In the evening I have a working meal with a range of politicians from across the parties.  

Thursday 

Was very similar to Wednesday only with different witnesses and I managed to squeeze in a quick tour of the Scottish Parliament. It’s a building that I like more each time I visit it. The day in parliament ends at five, unfortunately it’s a very slow drive home due to traffic. In the evening I hosted an event with Tommy Sheppard MP at the Beacon.  

Friday 

I have a joint meeting with Stuart McMillan MSP and Scottish Enterprise followed by a meeting about Scottish housing. I drop in to the Inverclyde Association for Mental Health new building on Mearns Street to discuss the new Greenock Health and Care Centre. I have an interview for a documentary about basic income in Scotland and then a meeting with Scottish renewables.

On Sunday, I shall be laying wreaths at the war memorials in Well Park and at the Cross of Lorraine.

 

Tele column – 10th November 2017

In the same week as the BBC announced it was going to erect a statue of George Orwell outside its premises, Gordon Brown has launched his latest book. I couldn’t help but see the correlation between these two events. Orwell once worked for the BBC. He was responsible for creating propaganda relating to the United Kingdom’s involvement in India. This period of his life most certainly influenced his views as expressed through his novel nineteen eighty four where government manipulates the truth and rewrites history to support its views of the day and admonish it from any blame for previous wrong doings. Orwell was therefore acutely aware of this and despised it. Since leaving office, Gordon Brown has written extensively of his time as a Member of Parliament, including his time in the cabinet and as Prime Minister. His time in office had many trials and tribulations and Mr Brown was found wanting on more than one occasion and now he is working very hard to distance himself from his shortcomings. The banking crisis, according to Mr Brown, was nothing to do with him and yet it is widely believed that the regulator was put under political pressure not to be heavy handed or intrusive with banks such as HBOS and Northern Rock.

And now he claims the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iraq war was nothing to do with him. He blames the Americans for not sharing a report. This revisionism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There were many voices raised in protest. Hans Blix stated that the weapons of mass destruction argument was flawed and unproven. Mr Brown must have known the real reason was regime change. And he supported this war despite the lack of any plan to rebuild Iraq post war.

On Sunday I, like many politicians, will lay wreaths at war memorials and I can’t help but think that wearing a poppy and laying wreaths is not enough. Politicians should pay tribute to those that paid the ultimate price by working to avoid military intervention, rather than sending our armed forces into areas of conflict and then wiping our hands of any liability. There is no room for revisionism in war. We should learn from our mistakes and we should never put ourselves into a position where it is convenient to forget.

Ofcom announcement on consumer support

I welcome the news from Ofcom that consumers will receive money back from their providers for slow repairs, missed appointments and delayed installations, without having to claim it. 

My constituents continue to raise concerns regarding a perceived lack of support from the deliverer of broadband and they want improved service and faster speeds from their provider.

I look forward to these rules taking effect and hope it will provide people in Inverclyde with better broadband and telecoms.

https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2017/automatic-compensation?utm_source=updates&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=autocomp

 

UK Parliament Week

UK Parliament Week is a great opportunity to engage with local schools and I look forward to talking with Inverclyde pupils.

It’s important to discuss the role of a Member of Parliament and also to allow pupils and constituents to directly meet with their elected representatives.  Ultimately, MP’s are elected to represent their constituents and raise their concerns and issues in Parliament.

  • Parliament Week began in 2011 with a small number of events held across the country.
  • This year’s Parliament Week (13–19 November) will see more events than ever, with over 380,000 people taking part from almost every parliamentary constituency. Nearly 5,000 organisations – including schools, uniformed groups and religious organisations – have registered a parliament-related event.

 

Universal Credit in Inverclyde

People applying for Universal Credit are being forced to wait for at least six weeks before they receive any payment.

This payment delay is having a dramatic and negative impact on applicants from Inverclyde. Scottish Government figures show a 35% increase in the number of crisis grants issued in Inverclyde, while Inverclyde Foodbank is reporting a 70% spike in the number of people requiring urgent assistance.

Evidence from my survey also suggests that online-only systems exclude the most vulnerable. 15% of those surveyed said they could not use a computer at all or only with great difficulty. 33% said they would not be able to go online or use a phone line to get specialist information without help. A similar proportion said they could not fill a form in over the phone or online without help. Over half of those who have contacted my office about Universal Credit did not receive their proper payment by the 6 week point at which it should be made.

The disastrous roll-out of Universal Credit is fast becoming Theresa May’s poll tax – for the sake of those affected in Inverclyde the roll-out needs to be halted as a matter of urgency.