Impact of post office closures on local communities

With the UK Budget approaching, now is the time for the UK Government to provide a multi-year subsidy for the Post Office so that Subpostmasters and communities, such as Inverclyde, have certainty and stability.

Closing Post Office branches can severely harm local communities, given many local businesses and the most vulnerable rely on it for access to cash and other services.

It’s important that the UK Government acts to create a healthy environment for the Post Office network so it can continue to provide a valuable contribution to our society.  This means providing the necessary funding and that Post Office Ltd agree to guarantee a minimum income for every Subpostmaster so their hard work pays off and running a Post Office becomes an attractive opportunity once again.

UK Government scraping pension triple lock

The UK already has the lowest state pension – as a proportion of pre-retirement wages – of all of our European neighbours. House of Commons Library research revealed that UK pensioners receive around a quarter (28%) of the average working wage when they retire. In stark contrast, pensioners in Luxembourg and Austria receive 90% of the average working wage.

By scrapping the triple lock on pensions, this UK Government has broken yet another manifesto commitment.  This follows on the WASPI campaigners continuing their fighting for pension justice and also pensioners in Inverclyde fighting against the changes to TV licence fees for over 70s.

A decade of Tory austerity cuts, coupled with one of the worst state pensions in the developed world, means that millions of our older people are already living in poverty. Scrapping the triple lock is another hammer blow for Inverclyde pensioners from the UK government.

Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP)

In December 2020, the Home Office and Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced the ARAP, which is designed to assist current or former locally employed staff in Afghanistan receive assistance or be offered relocation.

The scheme was launched on 1 April 2021 and replaces the previous Intimidation Policy that has operated since 2010. The ARAP will operate indefinitely. Both current or former locally employed staff employed by the UK Government assessed to be at serious risk of threat to life are eligible to apply, regardless of their length of service or employment status.

The Home Office have published an ARAP scheme factsheet on its operation, use of security checks and reasons for rejection.

Application is via an online form: Relocation to the United Kingdom Application (office.com). Applications can be made to the scheme from any country, including Afghanistan.

Advice can also be sought via the following email: localstaff-afghanistan@mod.gov.uk

Applications are processed and determined by the Afghan Threat and Risk Evaluations Unit, which is made up of officials from the MOD and FCDO. Responsibility for assessing the application (PDF) rests with the Department that employed the applicant.

Applicants who qualify for relocation may include a partner and any minor dependent children in their application. The details of which family members qualify, are set out in Home Office Additional Guidance on the eligibility of additional family members, June 2021 (PDF). In September 2021, the Government announced that those who are relocated to the UK under the ARAP will receive immediate indefinite leave to remain. Those who have already been relocated can apply free of charge to convert their temporary leave into indefinite leave.

The Commons Library Briefing on the Resettlement scheme for locally employed civilians in Afghanistan provides more detail on scheme.

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  

https://www.thenational.scot/politics/19519877.tories-standing-way-universal-basic-income-pilots-scotland/

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.

Dame Carol Black’s ‘Review of drugs part two’

Having read Dame Carol Black’s ‘Review of drugs part two’ several times now and having listened to her present and answer questions on the report, I find myself increasingly frustrated. Not at Dame Carol Black but within myself. The inadequacies of the existing system are laid bare for all to see within the report. Crucial areas that must be addressed are explained and thirty-two recommendations are detailed. Drug treatment and recovery support, funding, commissioning, diversion, employment, housing, mental and physical health, prevention, intervention and research, this report has recommendations for them all. And it is right and proper that we tackle drug policy in this way. Patching won’t do, we need reforms on a grand scale and in the hands of the people best placed to make them effective. For too long it has been designated as a matter for the judicial system and our health services have been left to pick up the pieces. This report puts health care at the heart of the solution and should be commended for doing so.      

But apart from making recommendations there is nothing else the report or I can do and that is the frustration. Dame Carol Black has been absolutely clear that if the UK Government starts picking and choosing which of her thirty-two recommendations to implement then it won’t work, and I applaud her for saying that. Too often we make do and mend with policies that need ripped up and rewritten. And the Misuse of Drugs act 1971 is a case in point. For fifty years it has made the situation worse.  But to expect the UK Government to have a sudden blinding flash of understanding and compassion is naïve. They won’t implement many of the recommendations, they will pick a few, dress up a few others, pay lip service to some and ignore the rest. And I say that with confidence and a heavy heart.

Confidence, because the UK Government just don’t get the issue of drug addiction or harm. And while the administration of it is held within the Home Office that shall continue to be the case. And a heavy heart because as people within the drug rehabilitation community keep telling me, ‘you keep on talking and we keep on dying’.

This is not Dame Carol Black’s fault. Her remit was deliberately precise. She was not allowed to recommend any new legislation. Which effectively neuters her report. How can she be expected to identify improvements in a system which is tied up and gagged by the law if she can’t suggest changes to the law? But Dame Carol Black has a good go at that by recommending a new structure for the mechanics of government, which if it was allowed to function could within itself produce the required legislation. And I am sure Dame Carol Black would be very happy with that outcome. She feeds in all the good ideas and the UK Government put them through a mincer and come up with the solutions she proposed, implements them and take the credit. To be honest I would be more than happy if that happened. But I just can’t see it because one recommendation is the creation of a new central Drugs Unit. This unit will be placed “in whatever department or joint arrangement seems appropriate”.  Unless that department is the Department for Health and Social Care then it is in my opinion a nonstarter. The intransigence of the Home Office has been a feature of this UK Government and I can’t see that changing any day now. I expect warm words for Dame Carol Black’s report, which could be seen as progress, but I don’t expect the UK Government will do anything other than launch enquiries, form committees,  divert the responsibility and talk about budgets and constraints. The UK Home Office is where good ideas go to die.        

At the start of her report Dame Carol Black says the UK ‘Government faces an unavoidable choice: invest in tackling the problem or keep paying for the consequences. A whole-system approach is needed’.  And she is absolutely correct. So, go on Kit Malthouse, agree to all thirty two recommendations, fund them and put the power of implementation into the appropriate departments and prove me one hundred percent wrong, please.   

https://www.thenational.scot/news/19475791.drugs-deaths-uks-pick-and-mix-approach-will-lead-loss-life/

Level 0 from 19 July

People should continue to follow public health measures to protect one another as all of Scotland prepares to move to Level 0 at 00:01 on Monday 19 July.

Confirming the change to Level 0, the First Minister urged people to adhere to protective measures and sensible precautions to suppress coronavirus (COVID-19) to help create conditions that allow Scotland to move beyond Level 0 on 9 August.

From 00:01 on Monday 19 July, physical distancing in Level 0 will reduce to 1 metre in all indoor public settings and outdoors. Additionally, informal social gatherings of up to 15 people from 15 households will be permitted outdoors without physical distancing. Gatherings of up to 10 people from four households will be permitted in all indoor public settings with 1 metre physical distancing.

Other easings to Level 0 taking effect at that time include:

  • under-12s will no longer count towards the number of households that can gather indoors in public spaces and homes
  • hospitality settings can open till midnight, if their current licence permits that, and customers will no longer be required to pre-book a two-hour slot to go to a pub or restaurant but will still be required to provide contact details to assist Test & Protect
  • up to 200 people will be able to gather at weddings and funerals

https://www.gov.scot/news/level-0-from-19-july/

Scottish Government Nature Restoration Fund opens

Scottish Government has made £1 million of capital funding available this year to support projects over £20 000 value.

The application round is open until midnight 27th July 2021 – How to Apply.

News release 6 July 2021

The Fund

The Nature Restoration Fund (NRF) is a competitive fund. It encourages applications from projects that support actions that help nature recover across Scotland. The Fund has 2 themes:

  1. Making Space for Nature (urban focused nature based solutions for biodiversity and climate change); and
  2. Helping nature recover (rural focused biodiversity enhancement, climate resilience and reinstatement).

Applications are now invited for projects that support nature recovery and address climate change and/or its impacts. All projects must be completed before 31st March 2022.

Applications are invited – How to Apply.

If you have any questions about the fund, please email NRF@nature.scot in the first instance.

https://www.nature.scot/scottish-government-nature-restoration-fund