Jobcentre Closures [20/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this debate.

In Inverclyde, we currently have two jobcentres: one in Greenock and another in Port Glasgow. Following the UK Government’s consultation, it was determined that the Port Glasgow jobcentre would close, while the Greenock office would be moved to an as yet undetermined location. I believe that this decision is short-sighted and sympathise with the views of staff at the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who have expressed understandable concerns regarding the impact of this change on their clients.

The Minister should know that Inverclyde has some of the worst levels of social deprivation in the UK. Some 26% of children in Inverclyde grow up in poverty; one in 10 lives in severe poverty; youth unemployment is more than double the UK rate; and the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance or required to find work on universal credit is double the rate in the UK as a whole.

It might be thought that such a set of circumstances would prompt the Government to grant additional support to the area. Instead, the UK Government’s response has been to cut benefits and halve the number of jobcentres in my constituency. A report issued by the Scottish Government found that Inverclyde will experience one of the most significant falls in welfare spending of any Scottish local authority relative to the size of its working-age population. By 2021, this will amount to an overall cut of £15 million—the equivalent of £298 per working-age adult.

Given the challenges that Inverclyde faces, I think it would be appropriate for the Minister to visit my constituency. That is why I wrote to him on 14 June and extended an invitation to meet not only me, but the jobcentre management to discuss the impact of the proposed closure on my constituents. And yes, I am still waiting for a reply. A ministerial visit would also be an opportunity for the UK Government to provide some much-needed assurances regarding the long-term future of the Greenock office and the vital service that it offers. I can see the Minister looking quizzically at me. Is he questioning what I am saying?

The Minister for Employment (Damien Hinds)

*Indicated dissent.

Ronnie Cowan MP

Okay. Is the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre about providing a better service for users? No, of course it is not. In the words of the Public and Commercial Services Union, the UK Government are “abandoning the unemployed” at a time when many people on lower incomes are facing uncertain futures with respect to their employment.

Danielle Rowley MP (Intervention)

On the issue of uncertain futures, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the closure of jobcentres such as mine in Dalkeith will affect women affected by the Pensions Act 2011, dealing the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—a double blow, which is unacceptable? Does he join me in wondering where those women will go to find the apprenticeships that Government Members suggest that they find?

Ronnie Cowan MP

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It is the classic double whammy that people are put into an impossible situation by the Government and then look for support from them and find that it has been taken away. As we all know, the apprenticeship scheme is just an aberration at the moment.

Unfortunately, all levels of poverty are rising. In-work poverty is on the rise, yet the Minister continues to argue that jobcentre mergers are needed to ensure that the welfare state

“works for those who need it and those who pay for it.”

That kind of irresponsible language detracts from the reality that those who need the service and those who pay for it are in fact the same people. Ultimately, the whole of society benefits if poverty and inequality are reduced. Jobcentres are supposed to be part of the solution.

Aside from the £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist party, the UK Government have made the case over the past seven years that drastic public spending cuts are a financial necessity. The plan to close jobcentres across the UK is part of a wider plan to sell £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2021. While it is easy to cut services and demonstrate savings made in the short term, it not so easy to quantify and predict the long-term impact of those changes.

Hannah Bardell MP (Intervention)

On the matter of property and quantifying decisions, does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to close an HMRC office in my Livingston constituency and an area of West Lothian that is significantly cheaper, and to move it to Edinburgh city centre in a record long-term contract of 20 to 25 years, is just sheer stupidity on the Government’s part and clearly a waste of public money?

Ronnie Cowan MP

I absolutely agree, and could not have put it better myself.

The UK Government have simply not made a convincing case that the proposed closures will benefit clients or society as a whole. Jobcentre staff have contacted me to say that the impact of the closures on disabled people has not been properly assessed. The Scottish Government have indicated that the closures are likely to push many vulnerable people into crisis. Will the Minister meet me in Inverclyde and show that the UK Government are actually listening to those concerns? We are about to set off into recess. I assure the Minister that I will clear my diary and cancel my holidays, and will be there whatever day he wishes to come and visit Inverclyde.

Drugs Debate [18/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—which apparently is one constituency—and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on their maiden speeches? I am sure they are already aware that the next time they speak they will not be listened to with such reverence. [Interruption.] I will do my best.

On drug policy reform, there are two problems we are trying to address: first, the crime surrounding illegal drugs, and, secondly, the harm done by addiction to drugs. The first technically looks quite easy. We could look to decriminalise and legislate for drugs; overnight we would take away all the power from the criminals. The second problem is harder, but would be easier when the victims are not being stigmatised and driven into the arms of criminals.

The Government report launched last Friday failed to address those core issues. Despite the few nods in the direction of healthcare, the UK Government have fundamentally missed the point again. The Home Secretary says she wants a strategy to deliver a drug-free society, and that, in a nutshell, is why it is seriously flawed, because the drugs are not the problem. We should be asking: why do people take drugs and why do some 10% of users develop an addiction? What leads people to abuse drugs? That is the issue. If Ministers think that coming down hard on criminals will remove drugs from society and therefore end the need for them, they are delusional. We have been trying that for years, and the situation has only got worse.

The latest figures show the highest number of fatalities since comparable records began 24 years ago, with 50 a week across the UK and deaths from heroin doubling in three years, yet the Government have brushed aside the testimonies from the Anyone’s Child campaign. Anyone’s Child represents people who have lost relatives to drugs, and they now bravely argue for legalisation and regulation to prevent others from having to share their agony.

I welcome the talk about a renewed focus on the importance of evidence-based drug treatment services, and moves to address underlying factors such as inadequate housing, unemployment and mental health problems, but the Government’s big message is still about tough law enforcement. When are they going to comprehend that drug reform is a health issue, and that the war on drugs that has been waged for the past 100 years has failed? They will never bring it to an end when their primary focus is on stamping down on dealers and users. In continuing to do that, we marginalise the very people we should be seeking to help. It is a cowardly report and an opportunity lost.

We could be learning from certain events in history, but we seem to be ignoring them. We have already mentioned the fact that the USA banned alcohol, but the people there still wanted alcohol. The US Government could have licensed alcohol manufacturers, established a state-enforced quality control system with a recognised distribution network, and licensed premises in which to sell alcohol, all of which would have paid taxes to the Government. Instead, they introduced prohibition. That encouraged criminals to produce substances of dubious integrity that they sold at whatever price they liked in establishments that were unfit for purpose. Those activities were all fiercely protected by unrestrained violence. Crime rates soared, people died from consuming the product, addiction increased and rivals died in violent turf wars. Corruption was rampant and communities lived in fear. Does that sound familiar? Today’s war on drugs mirrors those processes, except that they are now being carried out on a far larger scale because we have encouraged them to grow over a far longer period of time. Stamping down hard on the criminals who control the growth, harvesting and distribution of drugs has only increased the levels of violence, fear and corruption that they use to hold on to and grow their marketplace.

Once we have started a war that we were never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult. The onus is on us to justify the time, the cost in human lives, the misery and the taxpayers’ money involved, and to justify why we started the war in the first place. If we cannot do that, the only option seems to be to plough on, doggedly proclaiming that we were right all along and steadfastly refusing to listen to alternative strategies aimed at resolving the issue. That is where we are now in the war on drugs. Rather like the generals in the first world war ordering tens of thousands of conscripts over the top in a futile show of strength, we cannot see a way out that would justify the losses and sacrifices that have been made. We therefore continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. We should note that when prohibition ended in 1933, the crime rate and the addiction rate plummeted.

Transform has published a report in response to the latest offering from the UK Government in which it points out that, according to the United Nations office on drugs and crime,

“taking a criminal justice-led approach to drugs creates a vast criminal market, siphons resources away from health, shifts drug dealing and trafficking around, switches users between drugs, and stigmatises and drives people who use drugs from seeking help.”

In other words, prohibition is a discredited and deadly way of making drugs stronger and more dangerous while funding organised crime.

The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse estimates that the combined cost to society of substance abuse is £15.4 billion a year. The cost in human lives and the suffering of addicts, their friends and families can never be quantified. As the war continues, we are seeing more addicts, more cost, more pain and no sign that things will improve. The current approach is not working, and we need a fundamental change of philosophy.

A growing body of well-informed people say that it is time to decriminalise and legalise drugs. These people are not lily-livered do-gooders or hippies left over from the ’60s; they are ex and current law enforcement officers. They have seen the problems up close and personal. They have spent decades locking people up, but they have come to the conclusion that their actions did not make a blind bit of difference. It is a tough call to recognise that they had it wrong, so the people from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—LEAP—should be listened to.

A week ago, I hosted a dinner in the House of Commons with 24 people around the table from the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Medical Association, The British Medical Journal, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the University of Cambridge, Transform, the Buchanan Institute, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords. Most of us self-administered psychoactive substances while we were there. All representatives spoke openly and honestly and the general consensus was that the current drugs policy is not working and that the war on drugs should be led by health, not criminal justice. Why is self-administrating a drug illegal? Technically, the answer is because we made that particular drug illegal and put it on a list. As I said, most of us self-administered psychoactive substances, but alcohol is not on the list. We have created a problem and now we cannot fix it—unless, of course, we decriminalised and controlled the production, quality and distribution of drugs. We could then tax them and use the money to provide better treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction services—rather like we do with alcohol, but hopefully much more effectively.

We have not always had our current attitudes towards drugs, and we have not always seen the violence and crime that surrounds drugs. A good few years ago, there was a regular annual festival of music and arts, and drug taking was a big part of the festival—it was acknowledged and accepted. The festival was frequented by many people, including a few celebrities. We probably know a few of their names: Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero—those kind of dudes. A hundred years ago, UK pharmacies would sell many products made from derivatives of heroin or cocaine. Cough mixtures contained opiates, and department stores sold heroin tins. In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, 13,000 people had a problem with drugs. After 46 years of the war on drugs, we now have 380,000, and yet the Government still want to pursue that policy.

If we decriminalised or legalised drugs, the one issue we would be left with is the one that we should be addressing right now: why do some people become addicts? If we can solve that, we will go a long way to winning the war on drugs. So what do we know? Professor Bruce Alexander was used to performing experiments on rats and was familiar with the Skinner box, which was seen as a good place to study drug addiction. Scientists had perfected techniques to allow rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing a lever. That required tethering the rat to the ceiling of the box and implanting a needle into their jugular veins. The drug passed through the tube and the needle into the rats’ bloodstreams almost instantaneously when they pushed the lever. Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs. Then, along with his colleagues Robert Coambs, Patricia Hadaway and Barry Beyerstein, he created “Rat Park”. It was heaven for rats, with areas to move freely, dig, socialise and breed. He gave those rats two water bottles, one of which was laced with morphine. None of the rats developed an addiction. The environment that the rats lived in was clearly a factor—not the only factor, but a major one.

The obvious question is whether we have tried this experiment on humans, and the answer, unfortunately, is yes. We gave it a name: the Vietnam war. Hundreds of thousands of young men were shipped thousands of miles from home and dropped into a hell hole. The US military quickly realised that a large percentage of them were smoking pot, so they clamped down. The men turned to heroin, as it was harder for the authorities to find and confiscate. At the end of the Vietnam war, with a large number of heroin addicts about to be repatriated to their home towns and cities, the authorities expected a massive problem, but it did not happen. Once back home among their family and friends, the vast majority kicked their habit within a year. Those who did not were among those living in the poorest conditions or who had other issues that had led to their addiction in the first place.

We see the same behaviour of increased addiction where indigenous people were forced off their land and into reservations and camps by white settlers in the USA, Canada and Australia, so what can we do? As we talked about earlier, some countries have recently pursued alternative policies involving the decriminalisation of drug possession. Argentina, Estonia, Australia and Portugal have all taken a health-centred approach to the issue. Portugal decriminalised drug use, and drug addiction declined when the penalties for personal possession were removed. Rather than being criminalised, people are passed on to a “dissuasion committee”—I am not fond of the term, which sounds a bit Orwellian—consisting of members of the health, social work and law professions. Those considered to be addicts or problematic users are forwarded to treatment and rehabilitation programmes. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, within 10 years of implementing those policies the number of drug addicts in Portugal has halved. If the UK achieved the same success, the Buchanan Institute estimates that the financial saving would be around £7.7 billion a year.

For the record, I do not take illegal drugs—that is my choice—but if I chose to take them within the privacy of my home, I honestly do not see what harm it would do to society at large. How would arresting me improve anything? Yet we regularly prosecute people and, it has to be said, primarily poor people.

We seem to have one approach to law enforcement for rich city slickers sniffing a line of cocaine in their penthouse suite, and quite another for a kid smoking a joint on a council estate. It is no coincidence that the areas of the UK with the highest levels of social deprivation are the areas with the highest numbers of drug-related deaths. According to the Prison Reform Trust, one in 10 people in custody today is there because of a drugs-related offence. Some of our prisons have had serious problems with synthetic drugs, or spice, in recent years. Those with the least access to money and lawyers, those who are less socially mobile, will always be more vulnerable.

Our attitude to drug consumption has to change. Only then can we see that the issue is addiction, and addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. We must look to decriminalise and legislate. By doing so, we will take the power away from criminals and put the money into education, rehabilitation and reducing drug harm.

Organ Donation: Opt-Out System Debate [13/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

I am delighted to be having this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing it. He told us the moving stories of Max and Joe, bringing a human aspect to the debate. He underlined that deaths are preventable, but that although 66% of people in England would donate, only 39% are on the donor register. Combined with the knowledge that only a small number of people on the register of donors will be able to donate, that highlights the fact that there is clearly a lot of work to be done.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) added a few notes of caution, with the view of aiding an informed debate. There are always at least two sides to a debate, and being informed does us no harm. Unfortunately, she is no longer in her seat to hear me say so; to me, hanging on for an entire debate is important.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), speaking in his own inimitable style and even summing up the debate for me at one stage, told the story of Matthew, a 22-year-old man who unfortunately lost his life, and the feeling that had a system been in place back then, an operation could have been available and his life might have been saved. The hon. Gentleman also urged England to follow Wales’s lead by implementing a soft opt-out scheme.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about his nephew Peter, who required a kidney and fortunately got one, and is alive today due to that donation. Not everyone in Northern Ireland has been as fortunate. He also highlighted that one donor can save multiple lives.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke about missed targets, saying that no plan is perfect, which reminded me of the Churchill quote:

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

She also spoke passionately about the needs of those with cystic fibrosis.

There were a few false starts, but now that the Welsh Government’s soft opt-out is up and running, the Scottish Government have announced plans to do the same thing. An independent evaluation of the implementation of the Welsh opt-out system is due to be published in December 2017, and we believe that the numbers will be encouraging, but if even one donor has been identified, it must be worth it. The British Medical Association has stated that it believes that over time, an opt-out scheme promotes more positive social attitudes to donations, so it may well be that we will not see the benefits for a few years to come.

I believe that the most important people in this debate are the many waiting for a donor—those whose lives are poorer or even on the line as they wait, and wait. This is not solely about saving lives; it is about improving them. One donation does not simply save or improve one life; it has a knock-on effect. My colleague Iain Fraser would not have been born if his father Sandy had not received a kidney many years ago. I thank Sandy Fraser for his ongoing commitment and work in his capacity as the chairman of the Scottish Kidney Federation.

I ask Members: if they had a loved one, as many of us do, whose life could be transformed by receiving an organ donation, would they not turn over every single stone and investigate every possibility in order to identify a donor? I hope that is what we are about to do. In my view, a soft opt-out scheme is the path to go down, but whatever comes of this debate, it must stimulate discussion. We should all make our wishes known to our friends and family. When my time comes, as it will, please take whatever you want.

WASPI Debate [05/07/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

What a difference a few months can make in politics. At the start of June the Prime Minister told us that there is no magic money tree. At the start of July the UK Government could magically find £1 billion to save her career—at least for the short term. Of course, if things do not go to plan it is helpful to have a safety net to fall back on. That is a luxury that many women have not been given, since the UK Government unfairly and unexpectedly changed their pension rights. Those women are often forced to accept low-paid and insecure work because some employers are unwilling to take on workers who are close to retirement age. The resulting financial hardship has forced some to sell their homes. Others have developed health problems, or have had aggravations of existing long-term health conditions, because of the stress and anxiety of their situation. Too many still face an uncertain future.

It is estimated that around 3,900 women have been affected in my constituency. Local campaigners such as Elizabeth McQuarrie have done a tremendous job of making sure that the issue is not brushed aside by the Government. If it were not for our local WASPI campaign many more women would be caught out by the pension changes, some of whom stand to lose £35,000 over five years. If the UK Government can find £1 billion to help save the Prime Minister, why have they not devoted a single penny to helping the 2.6 million women affected by unfair pension changes?

Affordable solutions are available. An independent report commissioned by the Scottish National party outlined five options that the UK Government could take to mitigate the impact of the changes. The research found that for £8 billion over five years we could return to the original timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995. It concluded that the money could come from the national insurance fund, which is predicted to have a surplus of £30 billion by the end of 2017-18.

The women of the WASPI campaign have fulfilled their part of the bargain by being productive citizens, some of them having worked since they were 15 years old. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.

Brexit Negotiations [26/06/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

I add my congratulations to Members who have made their maiden speeches this evening—particularly those who have hung around and listened to the rest of the debate.

I once drove through a snowstorm to get from Darlington to Jedburgh. I clearly remember driving up Carter Bar, which leads over the border between Scotland and England. When I reached the top, I was chuffed to bits: I had manoeuvred a rear-wheel-drive automatic through difficult terrain in a snowstorm. Then the reality dawned on me: the second half of the journey would be the hard bit. A steep decline, twisting and turning with no road markings and every chance of running off the road—that is what lay ahead, and that is my Brexit allegory.

The Prime Minister and her cohorts, blinded with power, have marched us to the top of the hill, only to discover that in this case it is a cliff edge. Over time, plenty of people have negotiated difficult journeys but I fear that the Brexit journey that lies ahead will be particularly dangerous. Those leading it will not admit just how hard it is going to be. They should be seeking out every pitfall and identifying all the hazards—instead, we are being fed a diatribe of jingoistic clichés.

The situation was a mess before the Prime Minister called a general election but now her selfish actions have complicated matters beyond anyone’s wildest nightmare. No one will form a coalition with this precarious Government; the Democratic Unionists have chosen to provide their votes when it suits them, supplying a billion pounds’ worth of tissues when it all goes wrong.

This brave new world seems to be based on an, “We did it before and we can do it again” empire mentality, flag waving and patriotism. As we turn our backs on the European Union and seek to create new trade agreements, we will require diplomacy and negotiating skills, which so far have been conspicuously absent in the whole Brexit mess. That is one reason why I have been delighted to hear that politicians across the EU have in increasing numbers been prepared to add their support for Scotland to remain in the EU and the single market. While the UK was committed to the EU, those same voices remained silent: they respected the UK and its position. However, by serving article 50 to leave the EU, the UK has turned its back on the EU and the single market. As a result, the loyalty of previous partners has been lost.

Where is Scotland’s influence in these negotiations? While Scotland makes up only 8.6% of the population of the UK, the Scottish fishing zone represents over 60% of UK waters—the fourth largest sea area in EU core waters. Scotland has 32% of the UK’s land area. We provide 40% of wind, wave and solar energy production; 47% of the open cast coal production; 62% of the timber production; 65% of the natural gas production; 81% of the untapped coal reserves; 92% of the hydro-electric power; 96.5% of the crude oil production; and 100% of the Scotch whisky industry. Yet we have no voice. If these negotiations are to have any credibility, the Scottish Government must have a place at the negotiations. Anything less is a flagrant disregard of the democratic standings of the United Kingdom.

Jobcentre Plus Office Closures [16/03/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate, not least because it is the only time that anyone from Inverclyde will be afforded the opportunity to have a say on the proposed closure of the Port Glasgow jobcentre.

As the Minister will already be aware, the decision to close one of my constituency’s two jobcentres was not put out to consultation because the distance between the Greenock and Port Glasgow jobcentres is less than three miles. By my reckoning it is 2.6 miles between the two buildings as the crow flies, and 2.84 miles if one measures the actual route that one would need to take along the road network. For the sake of an additional 250 metres it is hard to understand why the UK Government would not consult on this decision so that service users could outline how the changes affect them.

Or maybe the UK Government simply do not care what service users think, otherwise the obvious course of action would have been to undertake a consultation on all closures. By setting up the consultation criteria in the way that they have, the UK Government have manufactured the result they wanted: namely, only 30 job- centres out of the 183 affected by the changes will be subject to consultation. We all know that the reality of this situation is that the closure decision has absolutely nothing to do with providing a Government service. Rather, it is part of the UK Government’s goal of selling £4.5 billion-worth of Government land and property by 2020-21.

Over the course of the previous Parliament, the DWP estate shrunk by 17%, with the Government intent on reducing the size by a further 20%. I fully appreciate the need for any Government to spend public funds wisely, but the decision to slash the number of jobcentres will most definitely have a negative impact on my constituents. The most obvious consideration is the additional travel costs that service users will face in getting to their appointments. This will barely register as small change for a UK Government Minister or indeed an MP, but it is an unwanted additional expense for someone already struggling on a low income.

Constituents will also be burdened with increased travel times, which in turn puts them at an increased risk of being sanctioned under the DWP’s draconian and uncompromising rules. Again, the Minister may say, “It’s only three miles’ difference. What’s the big deal?”

One issue that may have been identified had a local consultation taken place is that the only main road between Greenock and Port Glasgow is liable to flooding at certain times of the year. It may block traffic once or twice a year, but one missed appointment is all it takes to be sanctioned. I want to say that I support the staff of the Port Glasgow jobcentre, who are fulfilling their support roles as best they can with the guidance handed to them from ministerial level. I am aware that they have their own reservations about the closure and how it will affect their clients. In the words of Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union:

“Jobcentres provide a lifeline for unemployed people and forcing them to travel further is not only unfair, it undermines support to get them back to work.”

A report from the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 93% of respondents to a survey of service users thought that the process for applying for PIP was stressful: 80% experienced difficulties in completing the claim form, while 82% felt that the application process had a negative impact on their health. Will Minister explain how closing one of my constituency’s two jobcentres will improve that experience for service users?

We can highlight the lack of consultation and the specific practical issues surrounding this closure. My fear, however, is that the issue highlights, once again, a more general problem—the UK Government’s complete lack of compassion or genuine concern for vulnerable people. Instead they pursue spreadsheet politics where the only thing that matters is the bottom line.

I hope that the debate will not conclude with a meaningless regurgitation of the Government’s policy. At the very least the Minister should have the intellectual honesty to come to the Chamber and admit that the experience of service users is not a consideration in the closure decision. My constituents deserve that. I support the calls for closures to be suspended until a wider consultation is conducted, so that we can properly assess the impact of the decision on all our constituents.

Rural Broadband [21/02/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing today’s debate. Although the content of my email inbox varies, the issue of broadband always remains one of the most important issues affecting my constituency. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is here today. Our constituencies share a border and sometimes I feel that, as we are on the fringe of what is known as the central belt, people believe that the benefits of the big cities fall to us too; I assure the House that they do not. Like other Members, I am regularly contacted by constituents who are frustrated by slow internet speeds and the way in which broadband infrastructure is being implemented in their area.

As has been discussed in previous debates, constituents are frustrated because they do not consider broadband to be a luxury. It is seen as the fourth utility, essential for business, entertainment and education. If we accept that view, we must give constituents the same right to it as they have to gas, electricity and water. We would never consider telling our constituents, “We know that your water only comes on during certain parts of the day, but we hope to have full water supply rolled out to all properties by 2020.” Constituents would not find that acceptable. Equally, we cannot expect them quietly to tolerate an inadequate fourth utility. I understand that there is no technological magic wand that we can wave over areas with poor connectivity. However, we need to ensure that all tiers of government, including local authorities, are provided with the necessary funding for roll-out to be undertaken as quickly as possible.

In some instances, companies have indicated that it is not commercially viable for them to build the infrastructure that would deliver superfast broadband to certain areas. In my own constituency, Wemyss Bay, Inverkip and Kilmacolm have been particularly affected by that commercial gap. By the way, Kilmacolm got piped clean water only in 1878. Some may be surprised to know that Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Glasgow, is relevant to a debate on rural broadband. My constituency is, in fact, Scotland in microcosm. Most of the population lives on a relatively thin strip of land, where we have densely populated towns with large housing estates. That area is hemmed in by the coast and undeveloped hills. Surrounding the most populated areas we have farmland, which includes sheep and llama farms. We have sustainable forestry providing fuel for biomass heating, and rural villages, along with smallholdings and isolated farm houses. The sort of obstacles that inhibit full roll-out of superfast broadband all exist in Inverclyde, and include the river, hills, flooding and sparsely populated areas. However, Inverclyde’s diverse geography, along with its limited size, actually makes it an ideal location for pilot schemes or for testing more effective ways in which to roll out superfast broadband; so I urge broadband providers to come to Inverclyde and prove how good they are. Ultimately, if we cannot meet the challenges of getting superfast broadband to Kilmacolm or Inverkip, those of providing an equivalent service in Argyll or Sutherland will be insurmountable.

What other potential solutions are there, and, more importantly, are they economically viable? Virgin Media’s Project Lightning includes the village of Kilmacolm, and I am looking forward to seeing how well that progresses. Recently Vodafone, in conjunction with Telefonica UK Limited, announced that a new base station is planned in the Wemyss Bay area. I am hoping that that is a step towards providing 21st century coverage to the surrounding area. Satellite solutions undoubtedly have their place, and I have recently brought the National Farmers Union of Scotland together with satellite solution providers.

Inverclyde is much like many other constituencies. We have many suppliers, not necessarily working together, fighting for the most profitable section of the market, while the more rural areas are neglected. When the day comes that Inverclyde has 99.9% coverage, I shall be knocking at the Minister’s door and speaking up for the 0.1%: no household left behind. We have a fragmented approach when we need a joined-up solution. MPs are grappling with the technology and trying to find bespoke solutions for their constituency, when the UK Government, instead of abdicating responsibility, should be overseeing the roll-out, defining best practice and funding the less commercial areas.

Immigration Rules: Spouses and Partners Debate [31/01/2017]

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate today. It has been more than three years since spousal visa rules have been debated in Parliament, so I am sure that Members will agree that the debate is long overdue. Although my constituency has a declining population and a low number of migrants, my inbox is still regularly punctuated by spousal visa cases. The people who come to me for assistance generally assume that it is a straightforward process for a UK citizen to bring a spouse from outside the European economic area into their own country. It is a reasonable assumption to make, but the sad reality is that UK spousal visa rules are not straightforward or logical; they are arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory, and they constitute disproportionate interference in genuine spousal relationships.

The policy has led to the rise of so-called Skype families, where children can maintain contact with one of their parents only by using the online messaging system Skype, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) explained. The policy has had many negative consequences and it should make us reflect on the social contract that should exist between the UK Government and citizens. If citizens pay their taxes and act within the law, the Government have an obligation to protect their rights, including the right to a family life.

However, it is clear that the Government are failing in that obligation by standing in the way of UK citizens who have married partners from outside the EEA. The rationale for that policy is that the Government want to prevent migrants from becoming a burden on the state—the value of the person being determined only by how much money they have. My understanding was that the Tory party believed in small, limited government that gives citizens the maximum freedom to pursue their lives. Yet the Government are obstructing citizens’ most fundamental relationships: those between spouses and between parents and children.

Ryan Shorthouse, the founder and director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue, went so far as to say that the rules are not conservative and that they damage society by splitting up the key ingredient of a compassionate society, the family. The system does not work and does not deliver positive results for the UK or its citizens. I do not expect the Minister suddenly to deviate from the Government’s irrational commitment to reducing net migration, but at the very least I would like to see changes to the spousal visa application process.

First, the minimum salary requirement has to be reduced so that it more accurately reflects the wages of all UK citizens, not just the richest. Research conducted by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the financial requirement disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and those outside London. It is estimated that 41% of people in Scotland would be ineligible to sponsor a non-EEA family member, compared with 27% in London. Paradoxically, that means that the UK Government have created an immigration system where getting access to the areas with the highest population pressures is easier than getting access to Scotland, which has lower average wages than London but is in desperate need of more people.

The Home Office might feel generous in stating that any deficiency in income can be topped up with savings. If a sponsor has a shortfall in income of £2,000, the Home Office formula would require them to have £21,000 in savings to meet the financial requirement. That is an absurd amount, considering that more than 16 million people in the UK and almost half the people of Scotland have less than £100 in savings. The Government can hide behind the income threshold analysis outlined by the Migration Advisory Committee, but that would simply be an exercise in dehumanising my constituents and trying to put a monetary value on the family relationships of UK citizens.

Secondly, the Government must reduce the application fees, which are large and increasing. From March 2016 they rose by an unjustifiable 25%. To apply for a spousal visa in person now costs £1,311, while phoning the international helpline costs £1.37 a minute. When the £500-per-person NHS levy is taken into consideration, families can easily spend between £5,000 and £10,000 on fees over a five-year period, and possibly more, depending on how many children they have. Far from being a burden on the state, spouses of UK citizens are paying exceptional amounts of money just to have their applications considered.

Thirdly, it is time to simplify the application process. By that I do not mean simply making it an online process. A typical document that applicants are expected to complete is the FLR(M) application form, which is 81 pages. It covers every aspect of a person’s life—where they have lived, their relationships, their housing situation and their personal finances. Aside from the unnecessary and intrusive questioning, applicants are asked if they have been involved in genocide, war crimes or terrorist activities. It would be helpful for the Minister to outline how many war criminals have been apprehended thanks to question 10.8 in the spousal visa application.

In conjunction with a more streamlined application process, I would like the Minister to consider relaxing the rules on evidence requirements. For instance, applicants are required to provide original hard copies of documents in support of their application. We live in an age when payslips, bank statements and bills are increasingly moving online. Little guidance is available through official channels and applicants are forced towards often unreliable and out-of-date sources on the internet to learn what documents they need to provide.

The infamous inflexibility of visa assessors makes the process even more difficult, as applicants know that one small and even insignificant mistake can lead to a refusal with life-changing ramifications. The Minister will be pleased to know that I have brought a copy of the 81-page application form with me today. I invite him to take it with him, complete it and prepare the evidence that he would need to submit a successful application for himself and a partner and children. As a highly paid Minister, he cannot understand the years of uncertainty and financial pressure that the process creates for UK citizens and their families. Completing the application will, however, give him a limited understanding of how his laborious system works in practice.

Time constrains me from touching on the many other issues associated with spousal visa rules. I regret that I cannot highlight even some of the absurd situations that my constituents have experienced because of the inflexibility that is at the heart of the policy. A drastic change of attitude is required at the Home Office. It should stop treating UK citizens and their families as if they have done something wrong and need to justify their existence, and as if they are unwelcome in the UK. UK citizens deserve the Department’s support, no matter whom they marry. Freedom to marry and live with a loved one should not be reserved for those who have the money. If the Minister is content to divide families then let him keep the rules. If not, let him reform them as a matter of urgency. Families in the UK have suffered enough.

I want finally to thank my researcher, Colin MacDonald. He was born in the USA to a Scottish mother, was raised in Australia and now lives in Scotland with his wonderful Chinese Singaporean wife. If Colin says that the system is overly complicated, expensive and discriminatory, the Government should listen, because he knows it inside out. His tireless commitment to helping others has gone a long way to reuniting wives with their husbands and children with their parents.

Broadband USO Debate [15/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

People consider broadband to be the fourth utility. Just as they turn on a tap and get water, flick a switch for electricity or turn a dial for gas, people’s lifestyle and expectations have been geared to broadband. It is not sold as a luxury, it is a requirement for entertainment, education and trade.

Few people have any real concept of the journey or technology behind water, electricity and gas before it is presented as a consumer product. It is no different with broadband. Consumers may not know the technical details of how these utilities work, but they know that dirty water is unacceptable. Broadband that is too slow fits into the same category. All the technical babble belongs to the technicians. They use it, maybe ironically, to speed up conversations. The customers, in their house or workplace, do not want excuses or apologies, they just want broadband to do the job.

We have progressed from speeds of 56 kilobits per second, which allowed us to access the first basic web browsers. We have transitioned to the introduction of wi-fi services and the rapid growth of users accessing the internet via mobile devices. We no longer live in a world where families crowd around the wireless to listen to “The Ovaltineys”. Families expect to be able to watch a movie, surf the internet, interact on social media and play games with people across the globe, all at the same time.

In 2006, BT introduced broadband services of up to 8 megabits per second. Now many homes and businesses can access 200. Ten years from now in 2026, after another 10 years of progress, will we be able to say that our technology has advanced faster than in the past 10 years? It may be difficult to predict, but we need to identify what the internet will be used for in the future.

Will the internet be used to control a greater range of household items that integrate with each other, or perhaps to experience the next generation of augmented or virtual reality? Predicting the future is not easy. Back in the 1960s, I was promised we would all have jet packs. To my eternal sadness, that did not happen. [Interruption.] I definitely did not get mine. We can only make educated guesses at some of the uses, but we can categorically guarantee that 10 megabits per second will not cut it. It shows a staggering lack of ambition and absolutely no foresight.

Scotland is proposing 30 megabits per second, Europe is working towards 30. Up and down the UK, we are still enlarging roads built in the 1960s because we never foresaw the amount of traffic that they would carry. We need to be clear sighted and understand that the broadband strategy we are developing now will affect our capabilities in 20 or 30 years.

With our current level of knowledge, we have no excuse not to build a super-broadband highway that can carry superfast broadband to every user. Importantly, it must be built so that it can be shared by suppliers and is easily accessible for upgrades. The problem is not in the laboratories, it does not lie with the technicians or scientists, it is about digging up roads. A utilities tunnel that carries all utilities and can be partitioned off so that each is separate would help.

How many times have constituents said, “Last week the electricity board came and dug up the street, the month before it was the water board, now it’s broadband. Don’t you guys talk to each other?” The answer is no, they do not. Historically, our approach has been too ad hoc, too focused on the immediate job in front of us instead of the wider needs. Over time, that lack of strategic planning has been very costly. Can the UK Government honestly say that a USO of 10 megabits is ambitious? I think we can do better. That is why I want the UK Government to take responsibility. Simply facilitating greater competition within the market will not necessarily lead to all the results we want on the ground. Many of my constituents are not getting the best possible broadband infrastructure because service providers have deemed that certain areas are not commercially viable.

My constituents expect results, and they are impatient at being left behind. A broadband USO should be something exciting—a policy that represents technological innovation and an ambitious drive towards the future. If we settle for just 10 megabits per second, I am sorry to say that the UK Government’s USO will be remembered only as an “unsuitably slow option”.

Homelessness Debate [14/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

What does homelessness actually entail? In the words of Rachel Moran in her excellent book, “Paid For”,

“The word ‘homeless’ seems to present the condition as a single lack, but homelessness is actually many individual deficiencies combined. The worst of them are emotional; but to mention the physical challenges first: the single worst bodily aspect of homelessness is exhaustion. It is caused by several factors, including sleep-deprivation, hunger and a constant need to remain on the move.”

This explanation of homelessness is insightful, because it shows us just how inadequate the word “homeless” is. To live without a fridge, cooker, television, shower, sofa or bed is a struggle that homeless people contend with daily. It might start with sleeping on a friend’s sofa, then another friend’s; but then a week-long stay becomes a day here, a day there, until the night comes when there is no sofa available, and instead a doorway is used, probably nearby at first, but then the person drifts; and one day they have to acknowledge that they are homeless. It does not start that way. We all see homeless people, but we never suspect that we will become one. How damaging to a person’s self-esteem and mental health is that moment when homelessness becomes an acknowledged reality? How does anyone find their way back?

In Scotland, the number of homelessness applications is decreasing, from a peak of over 60,000 in 2005-06 to 34,600 in 2015-16. Some 294 of these applications were made in my constituency, and that is 294 too many. We have made progress, but Shelter Scotland has indicated that there has been no underlying change in the drivers of homelessness. Almost half of those who have made homelessness applications in Scotland are single males, and 16% are single females with a child. Shamefully, many of those people are ex-service personnel—people who have made the highest commitment to serve their country but have not received the support they deserve.

Although homelessness is primarily tackled by the UK and devolved Governments, local authorities also play an important role. Scottish local authorities have been hindered by policies born in this place, such as the right to buy, which was not reinforced by a need to build. According to Scottish Government statistics, we have lost over 450,000 homes from the social rented sector as a result of the right to buy, and thousands of the homes that remain are of dubious quality. It is estimated that about one in 10 households in Scotland are affected by dampness or condensation. Thankfully, the Scottish Government have ended the right to buy, and more than 16,000 new homes have been built in the last year—a rate higher than the UK average.

I hope to see this issue prioritised as a matter of public policy across the UK, particularly as homelessness is increasingly being stigmatised. Recently, The Huffington Post reported that Crisis spoke to 458 people who were sleeping rough or had slept rough in the last year and said they were facing “ever-more hostile streets”. Councils, developers, businesses and other organisations are deploying “defensive architecture”, including iron and concrete studs placed in flat areas to prevent homeless people from finding a place to sleep. It makes me wonder what the threat is and why we need to defend ourselves from it. A compassionate society should not be deploying medieval-style defences against vulnerable people who need assistance. So-called defensive architecture is dehumanising and sends a clear message: “go away, disappear, you’re not wanted”.

Homelessness is an issue of priorities. Instead of encouraging developers to build luxury apartments, some of which are bought up as investments and never lived in, we should be building social housing. Our welfare system must also be tailored in a compassionate way that enables people to have a platform on which to build their own lives. Our current system does not provide that support. A universal basic income could be a solution to address social ills and protect the most vulnerable from becoming homeless. At the very least we should be exploring that possibility, instead of tinkering around the edges of a system that is in need of a more fundamental reform. I will concede, however, that homelessness is a complex issue, and one that cannot be eliminated just by burying it with money and legislation. Homelessness is not only an issue of housing; it is also the product of inequality, poverty, domestic abuse, family breakdown and addiction. It can happen to anyone from any background.

In conclusion, we should never allow ourselves to accept homelessness as an inevitable result of a modern society. It is not inevitable and it does not need to happen. Complacency on the part of the UK Government will result in a failure to tackle this issue. Rising living costs, stagnating wages and the UK’s mismanaged welfare system are putting increased pressure on homelessness services. My fear is that the progress made at Holyrood is being undermined by welfare decisions taken at Westminster. Ultimately, people sleeping rough tonight do not care whether local authorities, devolved Administrations or the UK Government have the power to help them; they just need support. It is up to all elected Members across the UK to ensure they receive that support.