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.

Post-Study Work Visa Debate [08/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for the Scottish Affairs Committee’s work on this most important subject.

In Scotland we usually associate depopulation with rural areas that struggle to create jobs and retain young people in their communities. Areas such as the highlands and islands and Argyll and Bute do indeed contend with depopulation and have done so for hundreds of years. However, what is less recognised is that my constituency of Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Scotland’s largest city, has some of the highest rates of depopulation in Scotland.

A report from Inverclyde Council concluded that Inverclyde’s rate of depopulation was proportionally higher than that of any local authority in the UK between 1981 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of young people in Inverclyde aged under 24 has fallen by 42%—almost double the rate of decline we have seen across Scotland as a whole. Since 1951, Inverclyde’s population has shrunk by more than 57,000 people and is projected to decline for at least 20 more years. There are no easy or simple solutions to that problem, but if we are to see Scotland and Inverclyde reach their full economic potential, we need people. To help to get those people, we need a favourable immigration policy that addresses our specific circumstances.

The UK Government told us that they are

“delivering an immigration system which works in the national interest and is fair to British citizens.”

Unfortunately, that is simply not a realistic appraisal of the effects of UK immigration policy. Whether it is spousal, work or post-study work visas, our immigration system does not work in the interests of Scotland or my constituency. The UK Government have also said:

“Uncontrolled, mass immigration also makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on public services and can drive down wages for people on low incomes.”

I assure the Minister that I am more concerned about uncontrolled emigration and its effects on social cohesion and our ability to maintain social services, as well as the way in which it stifles investment and employment opportunities. In fact, over the years, the immigrants who have chosen to live in Inverclyde have contributed far more to our community than they have taken out of it.

The UK Government’s lack of understanding of our situation derives from their interpretation of the “national interest” to mean the interests of the south-east of England. The UK’s nations have a range of needs, and my constituency is not well served by an immigration policy tailored to population pressures in the south-east of England. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government refuse to budge on post-study work visas, especially as there is overwhelming support for them to be reintroduced in Scotland. Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, says that

“it simply beggars belief that the UK Government is closing the door on an opportunity for talented international people to contribute to our economy.”

Pete Wishart MP (Intervention)

I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to our Committee’s very fine report on Scotland’s population and demography, which shows that Inverclyde is the second to last when it comes to immigration, with a projected -12% population change compared with the Scottish average. He is on to a very important point; there are regional variations in Scotland, but Scotland is way behind England when it comes to these things. I support him in saying we need to ensure we have these people coming to areas such as his.

Ronnie Cowan MP

I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention and for highlighting my point.

The inevitable result of the UK Government’s irrational commitment to reducing non-EEA migration is a Scotland that is less attractive to international students. The millions of pounds that those students contribute to our higher education sector will be under threat, and we will see a reduction in the influence and soft power we currently exert throughout the world. The frustrating aspect of this self-destructive policy is that it is entirely unnecessary and avoidable. We need only look to Canada, where regionally tailored visas are resulting in a more even distribution of migrants. If Canada and other countries can introduce regional variations in immigration policy, there is no reason the UK cannot do likewise.

The UK Government say the introduction of such a scheme would overcomplicate our immigration system. As the Minister is aware, Scotland previously introduced the Fresh Talent initiative, which allowed the Scottish Parliament, in partnership with the Home Office, to create a tailored policy to combat depopulation. The Fresh Talent initiative was not perfect, nor did it solve all of Scotland’s problems, but the fact that it existed at all is proof of the UK Government’s ability to introduce regional variations in our immigration policy if there is a political will to do so. I do not agree that there are insurmountable practical barriers to implementing such a policy.

If the UK Government will not listen to Scotland’s elected representatives, perhaps they will listen to the experts in Scotland’s higher education sector. Universities Scotland said that the UK has

“one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world.”

The University of Edinburgh warned that the removal of the post-study work visa was a “damaging” change that would lead to a

“‘brain drain’ of highly skilled global talent from Scotland.”

The principals of Glasgow University, Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University have also voiced their concerns and called for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa in Scotland. If the UK Government are intent on maintaining their current policy, they cannot claim that it truly represents all of the UK’s nations. The Scottish higher education sector and Scotland’s elected representatives have made it very clear: Scotland wants the post-study work visa to be reinstated. It is not too late for the Government to make this positive change.

Chilcot Inquiry Debate [30/11/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

I am delighted finally to be speaking in this most important of debates.

From the outside looking in, many people assume that this place is corrupt. Let us be honest: politicians do not have a good reputation. I know the vast majority of MPs are hard-working, diligent and honest, but every example of corruption, perversion, laziness, greed or dishonesty does not just taint the perpetrator; it casts a shadow over all of us and this place. The only way to convince the citizens of the UK that they have a Parliament to be proud of is through ruthless honesty, even when it hurts. The alternative is an electorate who are dissatisfied and feel disfranchised, and so disengage from politics and politicians. We have a duty to support the mechanisms of a democracy. We must respect, cherish and protect them. We do not own them; we are simply guardians who pass them on to future generations. That is why we must investigate thoroughly any possibility that the principles we claim to hold so dear have been abused.

The Chilcot inquiry highlighted serious shortcomings and misgivings. The report stated that the UK invaded Iraq before all peaceful options had been investigated. We now know that there was no imminent threat from Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and that the reasons for our invasion were predicated on flawed intelligence. Crucially, this flawed intelligence was not challenged as it should have been. Quite astoundingly, there is no formal record of the decision and the grounds on which it was made that led to the invasion that started on 20 March 2003.

The rush to war was so fast that our troops did not have time to stockpile the necessary equipment—uniforms, boots and body armour. A lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles made it more dangerous for our forces. By July 2009, 179 members of our armed forces had died. We will never know how many Iraqis died, but conservative estimates suggest at least 150,000, with millions more displaced from their homes. How did this come about? How did this place get it so wrong? How were so many MPs misled?

In 2003, it was already US policy to change the regime in Iraq. Five years earlier, in 1998, President Clinton had signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act. It was,

“the policy of the U.S. to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”.

In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair threw his hat in with the US. Chilcot demonstrated clearly that Tony Blair bypassed his Cabinet, instead relying on his so-called “sofa government”. Key decisions on the future of the country were made in informal meetings, sometimes involving only a couple of the then Prime Minister’s friends, and without the input of senior members of the Cabinet. That is not how to solve a problem. The invasion of Iraq was an object lesson in how to escalate a problem. If the mission was to perpetuate instability in the middle east, it is mission accomplished.

The last line of the motion we are debating today is crucial. It calls on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to,

“report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.”

As I deliver this speech, our forces are involved in the battle of Mosul, so we can see that the ramifications of decisions made back in 2003 are still with us today.

In conclusion, we are voting today to instruct the Committee to,

“conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence”.

I would say to any Members who were here in 2003 that, with all due respect, their responsibility to the future should outweigh their duty to the past. Supporting the motion today can only enhance the reputation of this place. It should be welcomed by all fair-minded elected Members.

Child Cancer Debate [29/11/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate as we continue the fight against childhood cancer. I am aware that the petition, which is the subject of today’s debate, is primarily written with reference to the NHS in England. As a Scottish MP, Members will forgive me for using the debate as a chance to highlight some of the local champions in my constituency who have done so much to help raise awareness of childhood cancer. Whether we are in Scotland or England, and regardless of our party affiliation, I hope all Members can come together to provide constructive suggestions for the UK Government. I hope too that the Minister is receptive to those suggestions in the spirit in which they are given.

We know that childhood cancer is relatively rare, yet in Scotland around 150 children are diagnosed every year.

Stuart Donaldson MP (Intervention)

My constituent Sam Dorrance was five years old when he lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Sam’s brother, Ethan, who has raised £10,000 for CLIC Sargent, and also Sam’s family and friends who have raised more than £65,000 for Super Sam’s fund for research into high-grade brain tumours?

Ronnie Cowan MP

Absolutely. I had the privilege of meeting the family when they were here for the British Red Cross event a couple of weeks ago. They are an inspiration and an example to us all.

The 150 individual cases that I mentioned means 150 new families having to deal with the devastating consequences of illness every year. It is not only the health aspect of cancer that families must overcome, but the immense emotional and financial turmoil that the diagnosis can bring. Many parents will face extreme pressure on their relationship, in some instances leading to a breakdown of the family unit. Others will be forced to give up work. Combined with the additional costs of caring for a seriously ill child, it may mean that the family is pushed into poverty.

At this point, I want to address the Minister. In the Government’s response to the e-petition, they say that children and teenagers with serious or critical illness such as cancer are also expected to apply for disability living allowance or personal independent payment. Is there some way we could have a simple process whereby a diagnosis becomes a tick in a box so that people do not have to apply for PIP or DLA? It should be a given that they need financial support. We know that and we should take one of those burdens off them.

Along with the child and the parents, siblings too will experience disruption in their own lives, including educational difficulties. Although we are able to quantify that there are 150 new cases in Scotland every year, we can never quantify the wide-ranging implications. It is encouraging that survival rates are improving, but I am sure we can all agree that we can always do more.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government are absolutely committed to providing the best possible care for children and young people with life-threatening illnesses in Scotland. I trust that different NHS bodies north and south of the border have a mechanism whereby they can share best practice on childhood cancer. Perhaps the Minister will outline whether that is indeed the case. Let us not stop at sharing best practice north and south of the border: we need pan-European, and in fact global, co-operation. It would be appalling to think that good substantial research anywhere in the world was not shared so that everybody could benefit from it.

In my constituency of Inverclyde, we have a champion who is helping to raise awareness of childhood cancer. Nathan Mowat was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia shortly before his fourth birthday. Since then he has endured hours of chemotherapy treatment and will need at least a further year of maintenance treatment. Chemotherapy can have a harsh effect on the human body. In Nathan’s case, it means that even a minor illness can now have serious ramifications for his health.

Nathan, with the support of his mum Gillian, his dad Paul and his sister Annabel, has managed to rally a huge amount of support within Inverclyde. In September, the Greenock Telegraph, Greenock Morton football club and a range of prominent local businesses and organisations pledged to glow gold and help Nathan raise awareness of childhood cancer. Glow gold was a great success, not only because it rallied community support, but because it made more people aware of the practical issues that people face as a result of childhood cancer. Whether in respect of bereavement, research, diagnosis or resources, we need an open discussion on how we can continue to improve our approach.

Finally, I thank Nathan for all his great work in Inverclyde. I look forward to seeing him fully overcome his illness. He will continue to inspire many people, and I am sure my parliamentary colleagues will join me in wishing him and his family the best for the future.

Disability Confident Inverclyde [04/11/2016]

This is a copy of the speech that I recently delivered at the Disability Confident Event at Greenock Town Hall. To find out more about the campaign please visit the following [link].

Thank you.

Firstly, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have a small part in supporting the Disability Confident campaign and today’s event.

I know that behind the scenes both Eileen McClafferty and Liz Hopkins have undertaken a huge amount of work in making today’s event a success – so I’d like to thank them for all their efforts.

I’m sure they would agree with me that there are disabled people who are already making important contributions to the workforce. People who have the skills and confidence to create success for themselves and for the organisations that they work for.

However there are still too many disabled people who have never had the opportunity to build their working confidence and to reach their full potential.

We know that around one in five people of working age in Scotland are disabled. Creating more inclusive workplaces and opportunities for disabled people is not only vital for individuals, it’s an economic necessity for the whole country.

If we are to be successful then employers must be disability confident. They need to be aware of what support is available so that they can remove the barriers that prevent disabled people from utilising their talents.

We must also recognise that some employers have fears about hiring disabled people – we need to reassure them and increase their understanding of what support is available.

Many common misconceptions about disability have become embedded in our society and it’s our job to break down those myths.

Disabled people have the same ambition, work ethic and career goals as anyone else, but what they have lacked is opportunity. My hope for the future is that we create a fairer and more inclusive society, one that values talent regardless of a person’s circumstances.

I know that the Scottish Government already has a number of programmes in place to help disabled people as they seek employment, including the Targeted Employment Recruitment Incentive – which is helping young people who are disabled or have additional support needs.

The Disability Confident campaign will complement this work but we should be clear that while much has already been done – there is an opportunity to do more.

Today is a starting point for many people – employers and employees.
If we want to see Inverclyde thriving again we will need to draw on all the expertise and commitment of our local employers.

If we want to see Inverclyde thriving again we need to create opportunities for everyone in our workforce, especially disabled workers.

So whether you are an employer or employee, I hope today’s event will help you to find out what support is available.

We can make Inverclyde thrive again. I look forward to working with Eileen, Liz and others in reducing the disability employment gap and I know that Inverclyde can lead the way on that positive change.