It is never a good start to the week when the first message you receive on your phone is from British Airways to inform you that your flight has been cancelled. A flurry of activity results in a noon flight being booked but it is 6am and I am wide awake! An unexpected opportunity to catch up on some correspondence. Not surprisingly the noon flight is full of members of the House of Commons and Lords. I am in the chamber for the debate on the Queen’s Speech and we finish with votes at 10pm.
In at 9am for the constitution meeting followed by informal discussions with a number of people who are looking for election to chair a select committee. Some of whom I have never met before in my life. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm (GRH) held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) and reconstituted itself. The campaign to control the gambling industry and make it responsible for the damage it causes while respecting people’s desire to enjoy a flutter goes on. It has been a big news week for GRH. I had a number of interviews relating to gambling in football. The most challenging being the Scottish Television one. It was recorded at 20:30 with the presenter and a journalist (Stephen McGowan, chief sports writer with the Daily Mail and fellow resident of Inverclyde) in a studio in Glasgow and me at Westminster in what amounts to little more than a broom cupboard with a camera, bright light and green screen. It’s hard to be part of a coherent conversation when you can’t see the body language of the presenter, but I think I made my point. The game must come before the gambling. I attended the APPG for woods and trees. It’s shocking how far behind the UK Government is in setting targets for reforestation. They are only talking about small scale projects while Africa is planting an 8,000 kilometre green wall right across the continent.
I start the day with an interview with Martyn McLaughlin of the Scotsman (a fellow Morton fan). Once again, the topic is gambling in football. I am hoping this will be an on-going conversation and it won’t require the brave actions of those within the game that are suffering to step up and risk possible expulsion and the subsequent loss of earnings. Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) was short and sharp as is the new way under the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. The Prime Minister was quick to criticise Scotland and indeed was talking down Scotland before Ian Blackford even got to his feet. I believe the phrase is ‘getting your retaliation in first’. There were five votes on Lord’s amendments to the European Union Withdrawal Bill. They were all defeated by the Conservative and Unionist Government who turned out in their droves to ensure we did not restore the rights of unaccompanied child refugees. In the same week as we remember those who died in the Holocaust we as the United Kingdom are denying unaccompanied children a safe haven. These kids are amongst the most vulnerable in the world, the UK government should hang its head in shame.
I was at Inverclyde Academy to support the ‘Inch by Inch’ campaign which aims to educate and support people to eat a healthier diet. Poverty often leads to a poor diet and obesity. Currently it is estimated that almost a third of children in Scotland are at risk of being overweight. The Scottish Government aims to half that by 2030. I was scheduled to attend the Great British High Street awards in Edinburgh as Kempock Street in Gourock was up for an award. But there was not enough time to fulfil my local commitments locally and travel to the awards.
I visited Peel Ports to see the progress they are making with the floating pontoon that is currently being built at the Inchgreen Dry Dock. In the afternoon I had a discussion on renewable energy in Inverclyde.
There is no pressure to be at Westminster so in keeping with my new year’s resolution I take the opportunity to stay in the constituency. The day easily and fruitfully consumed by constituency matters.
It’s a 5am start but luckily storm Brendan hasn’t affected travel arrangements so I am in my Westminster office by 9:30. Its straight to a meeting of the SNP finance and economy team and then I meet up with representatives of UK Finance to discuss the growing trend to charge for ATMs . We discuss the situation in Inverclyde and are seeking to see if we can benefit from the Community Access to Cash Initiative. As part of my continuing work relating to gambling related harm, I meet with the father of a boy who managed to rack up massive debts and was potentially suicidal. It is those lived experiences that fuel the passion in the All-Party Parliamentary Group to reduce the harm and make the gambling industry accountable. I had a catch up with End Our Pain and we swapped experiences regarding the provision of medical cannabis. Neither of us had good stories. The battle goes on. I finish the day by meeting up with Txell Bonnet, partner of Jordi Cuixart, President of Omnium Cultural who is serving nine years in jail for his connection with the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. The APPG for Catalonia has party support from the SNP, Labour and Conservatives.
I head in the opposite direction from Westminster and walk through the very upmarket Belgravia to the Caledonian Club. It’s an open forum to discuss the next steps for online gambling regulation in the UK. Amongst a wide range of topics, we discuss, advertising and protecting vulnerable groups. A quick walk back to Parliament means I am back in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. The new Speaker, Lindsey Hoyle, is being very strict on the time allocation for this weekly event. Hopefully, it will lead to it being less of a pantomime. Immediately after PMQs I am hosting an event on drugs policy reform. Three experts from the field brief a number of SNP MPs on all the latest outcomes and that allows us to plan future strategy while becoming better informed.
Business is slow but the threat of votes keeps me tied to the estate. I take the opportunity to catch up on the mountain of correspondence that continually threatens to overwhelm me. The chairs for the select committee process is ongoing which makes me very popular amongst fellow MPs as they seek my vote. I hide away in my office. People bothering you to vote for them! Imagine that. I catch the 19:45 flight and I am home at 22:00.
I have a meeting with residents of Ogilvie Homes followed by a discussion with Inverclyde Leisure regarding the plans for Whinhill Golf Course. Members have previously made representations to me. In the afternoon, I have a meeting with Crown Care. I take my turn to staff the office while member’s of my team attend training courses. I finish the week with constituency meetings.
Amidst the Brexit madness that is engulfing Westminster three other issues have been pushing themselves to the fore. Gambling related harm is rightly being debated and the UK Government is muting the idea of changes to the gambling act. It needs completely rewritten to be in line with the world of online gambling that we have now. The recent attempt by the big bookies to stream live English FA cup matches to only those that have a gambling account, was thankfully overturned in the face of cross-party outrage. Big reform is required and the sooner the better.
The delays in providing medical cannabis is unacceptable and the clamour for better education for GPs to allow them to prescribe is increasing. I had a meeting with the responsible minister (Baroness Blackwood). She is well informed, and I believe well-intentioned but if we are to catch up with Germany, Denmark, Canada, The Netherlands and other forward-looking nations then we need to prioritise clinical tests and on the back off those educate practitioners that have been left in the dark since the 1971 misuse of drugs act.
As was expected following the Labour party’s humiliation in the General Election they are blaming their leader. It’s difficult now to find any Labour members that admit they supported Jeremy Corbyn in the first place. It wasn’t like back in 2017, then he was the messiah, now he is in true Monty Python fashion just a very naughty boy. So, while we hurtle towards Brexit and the damage that will cause, the Labour Party are engaging in another round of navel gazing and trying to select a new leader that they can undermine with impunity. Meanwhile they don’t know where they stand in relation to indyref2 or the outcome of it. Not so much mixed messages more a complete lack of knowledge and engagement on the subject.
And not surprisingly the Prime Minister has declined a Section 30 request from the First Minister. The tone of his reply is derisory, and I expect he will now promise Scotland the earth in return for our undying loyalty. Remember the vow and how that worked out? Independence is coming and the UK Government have to realise that it benefits us all if we work with mutual respect to create a positive outcome. It’s coming yet for a ‘that.
The Gambling Commission has announced that gambling with credit cards is to be banned from April 2020.
The SNP has consistently called on the UK Government to bring forward a comprehensive strategy and key reforms that look further into education, research and treatment.
While today’s news is a welcome step in the right direction, this simply doesn’t go far enough to tackle the scourge of gambling-related harm on our communities.
Action to tackle problem gambling has been a long time coming and we are finally seeing agreement in parliament that change is required, but to date, the UK government has proven itself utterly incapable to tackle problem gambling.
If the Tory government continues to refuse to devolve these powers to Scotland, it must now seriously look to introduce a Gambling Act that is fit for the 21st century, to tackle gambling-related harm head-on.
The gambling industry must also provide further support. It’s time to properly explore education, research and treatment to help individuals and families who have been affected and devastated by the scourge of problem gambling.
Any progress on gambling is a positive thing, but this issue requires further robust action – rather than addressing problems as they arise, a new gambling act is required. I look forward to engaging with the gambling industry and the UK government in effectively tackling gambling-related harm.
Gambling Commission – Gambling on Credit Cards to be Banned from April 2020
I spent today in my constituency office catching up on correspondence and along with my office team, planning the best practice to handle our work load for the next five years. We aim to use the experience we have gained since 2015 to provide even better care and support for all constituents of Inverclyde.
Extreme weather warnings are not what you want to waken up to at 6am when you are set to travel to London. But apart from it still being dark at 8:30am there was no signs of any storms and my journey is unaffected by the weather. The storm clouds are only metaphorical and are gathering over Westminster. Even when he was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson’s grasp of foreign affairs was famously tenuous and now with President Trump at his fully belligerent ill thought out worst, we need leaders that have the gravitas and diplomatic skills of articulate considered adults to manage the situation that is brewing in the middle east. But we have Johnson and Trump! What could possibly go wrong? The morning is taken up with catch up meetings following recess. Treasury questions are a sickening display of self-congratulations from a Tory government whose self-belief is clearly not kept in check by any obvious self-awareness. There is a statement on the middle east. Too often when we speak of diplomacy it is bracketed with pressure. Diplomatic pressure is not diplomatic negotiations. What can I do to you is not the same as what can I do for you? It was good to hear the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace MP, say that the best people to run Iran are the people of Iran. The day ended at 9pm with three new clauses to the European Union Withdrawal Agreement all being defeated by the Government.
The deputy speaker elections are ongoing. It strikes me that MPs lobbying MPs from other parties to vote for them can be a particularly obsequious process. Out of nowhere they all have a burning desire to tell me about their Scottish ancestry and love for the old country. Jog on. Scottish questions was an exercise in sycophancy for Scottish Conservatives aided and abetted by the one Labour MP with a Scottish seat. Instead of representing Scotland they continually talk it down, undermining their own nation in order to prop up their own careers. Off campus, I had an interesting meeting with Baroness Blackwood (Parliamentary under Secretary of State for life science). The discussion was about the provision of medical cannabis under prescription on the NHS. We agreed on most of the requirements that were still to be met and within her role she is moving the discussion and provision of a solution forward. We got into this mess because of the Home Ooffice’s lack of understanding and reluctance to change. Hopefully, now that it is a health issue, progress will be quicker.
There was an Urgent Question on the new deal between the English FA and the gambling industry that requires people to register with a bookmaker before they can watch FA cup matches. I bobbed for a question and as I am the vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm I was taken quite early. The current deal with the FA will lead to vulnerable gamblers being hounded by the gambling industry. I implored the minister to create a new gambling act and to coordinate with people with lived experience of gambling related harm during its creation.
I visited Jericho House to talk to people taking part in the recovery programme. I had a site visit of Diodes Incorporated followed by a quick photo opportunity with the Tele for a story about broadband. I squeezed in the Watt Talk at the Watt Institution. And I visited the jobcentre to catch up with staff there. On Saturday I shall be attending the Scouts Awards Evening in the Town Hall.
Many politicians will be only too happy to take the praise if we ever manage to improve on the appalling number of drug related deaths in Scotland but if we are ever to achieve that we need to stop the blame game, stick to the facts and make the changes that will effect an improvement. Then we can all claim we were responsible for the improvements. As it is, we should all be admitting that we are responsible for the failings. Only then can we rip the political machinations out of the process. Recognise the actions required to bring about change for the common good and implement that change. Then we can pat ourselves on the back and indulge in our own self importance. We have tried and failed to open a Drug Consumption Room in Glasgow. DCRs (sometimes known as Safe Drug Consumption Rooms or Overdose Prevention Facilities) have saved lives in every country that they have been established. They have reduced crime and been cost effective in treating problematic drug use. And yet in the U.K. we still refuse to licence them. I would have hoped that at the very least the U.K. government would have recognised that DCRs are worthy of investigation and that running a pilot project would be worthwhile. It is almost two years since I clashed with the Home Office over their lack of knowledge on the effectiveness and the availability of DCRs globally, but I truly hope that what appears to be a softening of their resistance is genuine and that they have finally taken onboard the evidence accrued from foreign shores. But it mustn’t end there. GPs require training so they can comfortably prescribe medical cannabis. Companies need incentives to develop medical cannabis products that can be dispensed, and the law needs changed to protect people from prosecution. Decriminalisation will remove the stigma and reduce the pressure on law enforcement agencies, but we need to invest in rehabilitation centres and provide shelter. Homelessness, poverty and abuse are the drivers that fuel problematic drug use. We must address them if we are to create an environment for the wider solution. If political parties can get together and get behind these proposals, all of which have been successful in other countries, then we can improve the situation and drive down the death rate. We can reduce the harm and we can free up the police force to fight crime. We will save both the NHS and the criminal justice system money and time and we will have created a society where problematic drug use is recognised and treated as a health issue. In the coming weeks I am visiting Jericho House in Greenock to hear first hand the lived experience of the the service users and I am hosting a briefing for MPs at Westminster by the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation and other organisations involved in reform and rehabilitation. A New Year offers renewed hope and if we work together then maybe this can be the year that we finally drag the U.K. drug policy out of the dark ages.
Ronnie Cowan MP
Vice-chair of APPG on drug policy reform