European Union (Withdrawal) Bill [04/12/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

Thank you, Dame Rosie. I shall attempt to keep my remarks within the time limit handed down by the Chair, at least 20 minutes ago.

As a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have been in the privileged position of being able to talk, both formally and informally, with constitutional and political experts about many things, including clause 11. As part of the process of formulating our latest report, the Committee’s Chair, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and I travelled to Edinburgh and took evidence from panels of experts over two days. It was an enlightening and informative experience.

Under clause 11, a potential 111 powers that could be devolved to Scotland will be held at Westminster until such time as the UK Parliament sees fit to devolve them. The UK Government’s stance is, “Trust us; we’ll do the right thing.” And trust them we have over the years: we trusted them to deliver the Calman report but they did not; we trusted them to deliver on the Smith commission but they did not; we looked to the Sewel convention and we saw right through it; and we listened to, and were influenced by, a vow that was not a vow.

In September 2014, the then Prime Minster David Cameron told us that we were a “family of nations”. We were told that Scotland could lead, not that the Government would attempt to put a lead on Scotland, but every amendment requested by SNP MPs, who were democratically elected to represent the citizens of Scotland, was voted down. When we voted to stay in the EU, our views were ignored. When we asked to sit at the table during the negotiations, we were snubbed. I can assure the Minister that the words “the cheque is in the post” and the promise that you will respect me in the morning will not work any more.

I am well aware of the cold, hard fact that the UK Government do not have to do anything, but Scotland is not a faithful hunting dog standing at its master’s heel, waiting on its orders. Scotland in the Union is a concept rooted in the past. The ties that bind us come from, in part, a shared history—a history of conflict and conquest—but the sun set on the empire a long time ago. It might come as a surprise to some, but 59 colonies have walked away from the empire and, as a new dawn rises, so does Scotland. We want a different future from the one set out for us, but Scotland cannot choose its own future when we have to seek permission to do so.

Clause 11 does not set out a timetable for transition. Professors Richard Rawlings and Alan Page have both raised concerns that clause 11 is described as a transition agreement, but that there is no provision for that in the Bill. Despite that, we are currently designing our Scotland. Civic Scotland, combined with academia and business, is already coming together to design the country we want to live in. Discussions in think-tanks and at public meetings about the Scotland we want to be are common occurrences. There is a growing awareness that Scotland, with the right powers, can reform our energy business, banking sector, and agriculture and fishing industries.

We could even negotiate our own trade deals, like Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands do. The Faroe Islands negotiate their own trade deals because the Danish Government respect and trust them. We could each define our own future and still be trading partners and valued neighbours, while continuing to help and support each other, but only if that is achieved through mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty. And there is the rub: clause 11 shows no respect or trust for Scotland or any of the devolved authorities. Dr Tobias Lock, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh Law School, has said:

“The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will result in a shift in balance between the powers Westminster has in practice and the powers Holyrood has in practice with Westminster’s powers being augmented and Holyrood’s staying the same.”

That concern is shared by Professor Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. She identifies that clause 11 is fundamentally a problem of trust. The UK Government do not trust the devolved Governments to refrain from using repatriated powers to create policy and regulatory divergence that might harm the UK’s internal market and create problems in trade negotiations. This, she argues, overlooks the considerable constitutional authority that the UK Parliament already retains over market regulation, trade, and the making and implementation of international treaties. For their part, the Scottish and Welsh Governments do not trust the commitment of the UK Government to devolve repatriated powers after Brexit and/or to agree and govern UK common frameworks on a genuinely co-operative basis. Once the existing imbalance has been augmented, when will it be realigned?

Scotland, if given the right powers, could negotiate with the European economic area and European Free Trade Association to seek what is best for Scotland but not detrimental to the rest of the UK. However, we are hamstrung by a UK Government who are scared of their own shadow, constantly looking over their shoulder and wondering from where the next challenge or crisis will emerge. We have a UK Government propped up by bluster and buffoonery.

Individuals may be protected by personal wealth that generates self-confidence and self-assurance, and supports a “devil may care” attitude—one that nudges us forward, assuring us that it will be all right on the night—but the vast majority of people in the UK are less well protected from the economic turmoil that lies ahead. They have concerns about jobs, pensions and visas. They have rightly turned to the UK Government time and again for reassurance, but their concerns are not being addressed. All that has been offered is a sickly mix of jingoistic imperialism. The Scottish Government wish to bring clarity and seek the powers to govern responsibly, but clause 11 does not provide that authority or opportunity. It must be amended forthwith, and the powers due to the Scottish Parliament—powers that will be best used by the Scottish Government, in the best interests of the citizens of Scotland—must be repatriated to the Scottish Parliament immediately after the UK leaves the European Union.

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State Pension Age: Women [29/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

We recently heard from the Chancellor about how he had buckled under the immense lobbying pressure of his 13 Scottish Tory colleagues. That pressure supposedly made all the difference to his scrapping VAT payments for Scotland’s police and fire services. Perhaps the half-baked baker’s dozen could have another word in his ear to prove that they understand this situation and that they care about the WASPI women and are seeking to achieve justice for them. If the UK Government make no changes, this will simply show that the Scottish Tories are not as influential as they are made out to be, or that they simply do not care about the plight of the WASPI women. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) spoke as though he truly understood the problem, but will he follow us through the Lobby, or was it all just empty rhetoric?

Can you imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, what would happen if MPs born in the 1950s were not made aware of major changes to their pensions that resulted in their not receiving them until years later? If we debated that—and we would—the House would be full to the gunnels. MPs would be filling every single seat, and the steps in between. How quickly would this House find a political solution to that problem? How quick are we to vote ourselves a pay rise? That is the benchmark that the Government should be judged by. On behalf of the 5,700 WASPI women of Inverclyde, I want to tell the UK Government that we will keep on bringing these debates to the House, that we will continue to raise the issue in the press and that we will not go away until there has been a resolution to the plight of those affected by these pension changes.

The momentum of the WASPI campaign has not weakened. Next week, my office will host a meeting of the Inverclyde WASPI group as it maintains its work on attracting new volunteers and making sure that the affected women have access to advice and support. The campaign has already raised more than £100,000 to fund an initial legal campaign, and the Minister must surely be aware it is now too well organised and well funded for him to continue dismissing its concerns. According to the campaign, 196 Members have committed themselves to assisting it. This should be seen as a signal that the UK Government need to begin a dialogue with the WASPI women and that they have to start that dialogue now. The women are being very reasonable in asking for this opportunity. There may be many small steps along the way to achieving a solution, but the UK Government should see sense and take this first step willingly, rather than being dragged along by the undeniable force of public pressure. It is not too late for this Government to do the decent thing and make amends for this ill-advised, poorly administered and damaging policy.

Drug Addiction [22/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

Thank you, Mr Gapes; I was hoping to have longer on my feet—I am sure you will understand that; but much of what I was going to say was elegantly covered by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), so I shall skip those parts of my speech.

The important point is that no financial cost that can be attributed to drug addiction comes close to matching the human cost. The deaths of loved ones, the sufferings of addicts, wasted lives and the associated suffering far outweigh any amount of money that has been spent fighting the war on drugs. Yet we continue to pour time, effort and money into a system that emphasises criminal prosecution. Since Mexico intensified its approach to drug law enforcement, more than 100,000 people have died and 20,000 are missing. The personal testimonies from members of Anyone’s Child are heartfelt and painful. It calls on the Government

“to regulate drugs to reduce the risk they pose”.

It says that,

“legal regulation doesn’t mean a free-for-all where drugs are widely available—our current laws have already achieved that”.

We need to take control away from the criminal fraternity. Across the world for more than 50 years the war on drugs has killed the innocent and made the guilty rich. It has destroyed communities and compounded the difficulties faced in addressing addiction problems. As we know, the UK Government spend around £1.6 billion a year on drug law enforcement. As was pointed out earlier, even the Government know that their drug policy has failed. Last night I attended an event hosted by Addaction. A gentleman who is in recovery said, “As humans we judge. It keeps us safe. Before you judge try to see the person”.

What can the Government do? Safer drug consumption rooms, which we have talked about, are already saving lives in eight European countries as well as in Canada and Australia. They have been endorsed by the British Medical Association. Those facilities reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, and the risks of public drug use. No one has ever died of an overdose in a DCR anywhere in the world. That is the third time that statement has been heard this afternoon, and it will be heard again.

Heroin-assisted treatment is also being successfully implemented in several European countries, and is endorsed by the British Medical Association. In 2016, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated that,

“central government funding should be provided to support heroin-assisted treatment”

for patients for whom other forms of opioid substitution treatment have not been effective. I think that there is agreement here about that, but the Government have failed to act on that request.

Specialist drug checking services can allow people at nightclubs and festivals to find out what is in their batch. Data from recent UK trials showed that one in five people found that they did not have the drug that they expected, and 80% of that group then chose to use a smaller quantity, avoid mixing it with other substances, or dispose of their batch altogether.

Perhaps a financial justification is required, rather than a humanitarian one: researchers in the US Office of National Drug Control Policy have confirmed what has already been said about expenditure on treatment being more than paid for elsewhere, as they estimate that $1 spent on substance abuse treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in law enforcement costs. Not only does drug abuse treatment save lives—it saves billions of dollars as well.

While drug use continues across society we must note that addiction can and does affect people from all walks of life. Only 10% percent of drug users will develop an addiction, and addiction does not respect race, creed, colour, religion, gender or financial standing. However, as is often the case, it is the poorest who suffer the most. In 2008, the Scottish Government published the national drugs strategy for Scotland, “The Road to Recovery”. That set out a new strategic direction for tackling problem drug use, based on treatment services promoting recovery. The Scottish Government have invested £689 million to tackle problem drug and alcohol use since 2008, and education has been an important part of the strategy.

Kirstene Hair MP (Intervention)

Drug-related deaths are a particular problem in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined, including in my constituency, where they are rapidly increasing—at a faster rate than in England and Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish Government need to get serious about addressing problems in NHS Scotland, such as the staff shortages in Angus, and the problems that Police Scotland face?

Mike Gapes MP (Chair)

Order. The hon. Lady is making an intervention, not a speech, and I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Inverclyde would respond to it briefly.

Ronnie Cowan MP

I shall cover that point right now: Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell has announced a refreshing of Scotland’s drugs strategy. We will not be complacent about what we have achieved, and we will continue to take an evidence-based approach, and to improve what we are doing in Scotland. We have been working on the seek, keep and treat framework, a joint initiative between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Drugs Forum, which will examine the operational implications of engaging with older drug users and how to encourage them into services and keep them in treatment.

For many people it is heroin, cocaine or cannabis that are classified as drugs; but we must not ignore alcohol. Alcohol addiction is one of the most damaging forms of drug addiction.

Mike Gapes MP (Chair)

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman coming to the end of his remarks? Perhaps he can give his last sentence; otherwise the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) will not be able to make a speech.

Ronnie Cowan MP

Absolutely, Mr Gapes.

In conclusion, if we spend money to address addiction problems as a health issue, that will not only bring about better results, but will prove to be less expensive than our current strategy, which criminalises and stigmatises people with addiction problems.

-ends-

Notes

My full speaking notes for the debate can be found here.

Universal Credit [16/11/2017]

Ronnie Cowan MP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Lords Reform [15/11/2017]

 

Ronnie Cowan MP

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Graham MP [Intervention]

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

Ronnie Cowan MP 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.