Sometimes events at Westminster lend themselves to cross pollination. The themes discussed, the risks and solutions identified, cross over from one event to another quite comfortably. This week I attended three events that fell into that category. The select committee for transport took evidence around the collapse of the franchise for the east coast railway line. This is the third time it has collapsed. I chaired an event at the Royal Aeronautical Society on behalf of the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum with the snappy title ‘Next steps for planning and delivering major infrastructure projects in the UK’. And I attended a briefing from the minister in charge of defence procurement. All three events touched on the complexities of providing the correct outcome at the right price but also highlighted the potential social benefit to the communities where companies were granted the contracts. This is known as the prosperity weighting. We would all expect any government contract to provide value for money. After all they are spending tax payer’s money. But that reminds me of the saying “he knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. We can no longer say that the lowest bid is the best bid because it saves a few bob. Or that in the case of the east coast rail franchise the most profitable to the government is necessarily the best choice. Taking into consideration the prosperity weighting allows companies to highlight the number of jobs created, the benefit to the local community, the strengthening of the supply chain and all these factors should be just as important as the cost. All these things add to the value. Too often we see a project and all we hear is that it cost so many millions but the value to the community is often far greater than pounds and pence.
The casework and correspondence a Member of Parliament receives from constituents is varied and a lot of the time my office will signpost people to the relevant organisation or service for support. Therefore, I welcome the recent launch of two projects, in Inverclyde, which will offer advice and support for people looking to get into work and also assist those with financial needs.
The first project, Fair Start Scotland is a new service which will aim to help at least 38,000 people further removed from the labour market. Fair Start Scotland is being delivered collaboratively across a range of private, public and third sector delivery partners including a range of specialist providers to ensure people receive the right type of support for them. The project is funded by the Scottish Government with Scottish Ministers committing an additional £20m in each year of Parliament – committing up to £96 million overall. For more information please contact 0300 303 3381 or visit www.thewisegroup.co.uk/fairstart.
Secondly, the Inverclyde Delivering Effective Advice and Support (I:DEAS) project is funded by the European Social Fund and the Big Lottery Fund. To take part in the service the individual needs to be one of the following – living in a workless household, low income household or single parent household. Through partners such as CVS Inverclyde, Inverclyde HSCP, Financial Fitness, Barnardos and others, each participant will have an allocated mentor who will assist them with improving their finances and ensuring they have the skills to be able to continue with positive finances through their life. For more information please contact IDEASreferral@thewisegroup.co.uk.
There is a lot of positive work taking place in Inverclyde and its vital people are aware of the services and support available. Therefore, my constituency office is happy to assist constituents with issues and signpost them to the relevant projects such as I:DEAS and Fair Start Scotland.
Tele readers will be aware I’ve been campaigning on the issue of gambling addiction and gambling related harm for some time. As vice-chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) I’ve heard testimony and evidence from individuals whose lives have been adversely affected by these machines.
The losses people can occur gambling and using FOBT machines can be devastating and leave individuals and ultimately their families with large debts which impact their lives. This is why alongside colleagues on the APPG we have called on the Department for Culture to introduce a maximum unit stake on FOBTs to be £2 per spin. Research shows that FOBT problem gamblers could be imposing a cost of £1.5 billion on themselves, their families and their wider social networks. The report published by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (Cebr), found that those on lower incomes or in deprived areas are the main beneficiaries of a reduction to a £2 stake.
Alongside the Chair of the APPG on FOBTs, Carolyn Harris MP and Iain Duncan Smith MP we have lobbied the Gambling Commission, Secretary of State for Culture Matt Hancock MP and also wrote to HM Treasury to ensure they do not block any stake reduction to £2. The majority of MP’s on both sides of the House and in the Lords are in favour of a stake reduction. Therefore, I was pleased to read reports, earlier this week that HM Treasury have backed down in their opposition to reducing the maximum unit stake to £2. The reasoning for opposition was over how lost taxes would be replaced. It appears an announcement will be forthcoming and it’s hoped the hard-work of everyone involved will lead to a stake reduction.
However, a stake reduction on FOBTs is only a step in the right direction and I will continue to campaign for further action to address gambling related harm. Some of the areas of focus include the issue of young people and gambling; compulsory levy from bookmakers to GambleAware charity; the creation of a problem gambling clinic in Scotland and more inspections of gaming/gambling premises.
As I’ve previously highlighted, the mailbag of an MP can be both interesting and varied. From cases on housing to social security to immigration and visas there’s rarely a dull day. However, a lot of the correspondence my office receives is on three subjects – broadband, flooding and parking. If only we could solve these three issues then the caseload would be significantly lighter.
However, this is why the Scottish Government have invested significant sums of money in improving the infrastructure throughout the country. Currently, Inverclyde has 95.2% of households/premises connected to superfast broadband and the next stage is to see every home and business accessing superfast broadband by 2021. This is occurring through a £600 million investment confirmed by the Scottish Government. The Reaching 100% (R100) programme which will deliver fast and reliable internet.
Therefore, I met with representatives of Digital Scotland to discuss broadband access and speeds in Inverclyde. One area of particular attention is in Inverkip where a number of blackspots highlight poor broadband speeds. This has led to the creation of a new broadband cabinet for an area which is hopefully coming ‘online’ in late May. Many see broadband as the fourth utility and something which is essential to communicate with family overseas, work from home and download/watch digital content. For more information on superfast broadband please visit www.scotlandsuperfast.com.
Last week, Glasgow City Council approved a motion to commend the work of the Health and Social Care Partnership, the third sector and others in supporting people impacted by drug use, including their families and communities. Glasgow is looking to pilot the UKs first safe injection facility, otherwise known as a drug consumption room. I have campaigned on drug policy reform for some time and believe we must firstly treat the issue as a health problem rather than a criminal justice one. However, the powers currently lie at Westminster and the UK Government have no immediate plans to either introduce a drug consumption room or transfer the powers to the Scottish Parliament.
After the Catalonian referendum on the 1st of October 2017 some people that either felt the need to align themselves with Spain or maybe just wanted to childishly attempt to annoy those of us that support the Catalonian’s right to self-determination, posted the Spanish flag on social media. They were comfortable to align themselves with Spain despite the brutality that was inflicted upon citizens attempting to exercise their democratic right to vote. Media images of police beating people to the ground and throwing people down stairs didn’t deter their support. They seemed to see the Catalonia referendum as some perverse rerun of Scotland’s referendum in 2014. They gloried in a victory that echoed their own. As things have progressed the Spanish state has continued to usurp democracy. The Spanish Government’s latest act has been to seek the arrest and imprisonment of independence supporting politicians. Their crime was that they supported the democratic use of the ballot box. Spain’s Supreme Court has already remanded in custody five Catalan politicians, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Raül Romeva, Dolors Bassa and the former Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell. Another target, Marta Rovira, failed to appear in court and has fled the country. One ex-Catalan minister, Clara Ponsati, has been working in Scotland as an economics researcher at Saint Andrew’s University. The Spanish Government has issued a European Arrest Warrant for Clara Ponsati and (at the time of writing) she is planning to hand herself in to the Scottish Police. The process for a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) is governed in the UK by the Extradition Act 2003 – a UK piece of legislation under international law. Subject to procedural checks the warrant is actioned by the Crown Office/Procurator Fiscal – independently of government. Anyone subject to an EAW is able to challenge their extradition in court and judges and sheriffs can refuse to grant the extradition on a range of grounds – including whether the offences are extraditable offences, whether there are extraneous circumstances (such as race, gender or political opinions) and they must also consider human rights implications. To ensure the integrity of the process, Scottish Government ministers will be limited in what can be said in the event that there is an arrest in Scotland. This silence must not be interpreted as compliance. St Andrews University has described the EAW as “a politically motivated attack on free speech” and I would echo that view. The Catalonian politicians are being persecuted for their political beliefs and we should all stand united against such discrimination, regardless of our views on Scotland’s independence.
It is like something out of a novel. An ex Russian spy is poisoned. We don’t know by whom and we don’t know how. But that doesn’t stop the media sensationalism of the story. Initially local police attended the scene but that has escalated to personnel in large, bright, protective suits and we now have armed military personnel at and around the scene. What a soldier armed with an automatic rifle is supposed to do when confronted by an airborne nerve gas I do not know. If they are there to make the local populace feel safer, then someone has to redefine the threat. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia has no connection to the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The Russian authorities have asked for a sample of the poison and we have refused. And amidst all the headlines and theories we have a strange conundrum. Both the UK and USA have officially said they think Russia is involved but hinted that it may not have been Government sanctioned. Sergei Skripal was a double agent. I am no expert but I am guessing that he has a few enemies. So while the media focuses on Salisbury thousands are killed in Syria by Russian bombing raids. They aren’t as intriguing as the assassination of a spy and they aren’t as close to home as Salisbury but they along with the Turkish offensive against the Kurds is where we should be taking Russia to task. While the attacks on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are appalling that does not excuse us from ignoring the atrocities that are being perpetrated on the people of Syria and the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people. But then again the U.K. is embroiled in the Middle East and a long hard look at that situation may shine a light on our misjudgements and the consequences to thousands of nameless victims. It’s much safer to focus on what looks like a plot from a 1960s movie and portray Russia as all bad and Britain as the good guy in all its red, white and blue glory.
When Hunter S Thompson said “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstances” he was undoubtedly talking about Jeremy Corbyn. When it comes to Labour’s position on Brexit it is fair to say, that just like regrets, they have had a few. Before the EU Referendum Labour policy was to support continued membership of the EU. They were a party split and amongst their ranks there were a few ‘Leave’ advocates including Gisela Stuart, Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey but not Jeremy. However, after the EU Referendum Jeremy issued a three line whip for Labour MPs to vote in favour of triggering Article 50. Ahead of the General Election their manifesto included an ambiguous commitment to the “benefits of the single market” rather than “membership of the single market.” After the General Election Senior Labour figures have expressed a variety of different views on Brexit. They include, negotiate access to the single market, but not membership (Corbyn). Retain single market membership during transition period (Starmer). Retain single market membership permanently (Watson). Then they declared being open to the possibility of a formal single market membership, but added, access is the most important issue (Corbyn again). Then the UK should prioritise full access of the single market (Corbyn, yes him again). Soon after the Sunday Herald reported that Ian Murray would bring a motion to Scottish Labour conference, calling on members to support the UK “remaining permanently in the European single market and customs union.” And at the time of going to press, Labour have declared their support for the UK being in a new, permanent customs union with the EU. They also expressed support for a “new and strong relationship with the single market”, but not membership. And that is definitely, finally Jeremy Corbyn’s position. But he is a man that once chaired the all-party parliamentary group on the campaign for nuclear disarmament and changed his mind to facilitate becoming leader of his party. As Groucho Marx once said “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
As the snow fell this week I was glad that my days of driving tens of thousands of miles a year, as part of my job, are behind me. I remember one journey from Darlington to Jedburgh on a dark snowy Wednesday night. I had to drive over Carter’s Bar which takes you from England into Scotland with the border at the very top. I managed to manoeuvre a rear wheel drive automatic up the steep and winding hill. Moving from side to side to gain grip and patiently edging forward. When I got to the top I was delighted. And then the reality hit me. The second half of the journey was going to be even more difficult. Downhill, twists and turns, a lack of road markings and signage obliterated by driving snow. Any momentum built up, unlike on the ascent, made the descent more treacherous. I couldn’t let the vehicle run away from me and so I had to keep it in check at every turn. And that readers is my Brexit allegory. The picture that was painted looked good. Getting to the leaving point was achieved, with a struggle, but the next stage of the journey, to reach its destination, is treacherous. We risk damaging the vehicle beyond repair. And now when we need strong leadership and we seek to gain confidence from those in charge we discover that the Secretary of State for Scotland, our man at the top table, either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell us that a damning report outlining the damage to Scotland existed. Another example, if we need one, that we can’t rely on lapdogs and sycophants to represent Scotland at UK government level. When we needed a terrier we got a poodle. If the UK Government wants us to go on a journey with them they could at least provide a map, a destination and some strong leadership.
To boldly go…
Those of you that have been paying attention will have noticed that I have a healthy interest in space and in particular the Apollo missions. I remember as a kid trying and possibly failing to explain to my Gran why space travel was important and how it would benefit humankind (to be honest in the sixties we said mankind, we were less politically correct). Her reluctance to embrace it was well founded in common sense. Why spend money on going to the moon when we could spend it on issues that matter on Earth. Or as Gill Scott Heron the black American soul and jazz poet wrote “No hot water, no toilets, no lights but Whitey’s on the moon.” I admit I was just a little star struck by rockets and science fiction but ultimately, was I right?
We gained satellites and therefore GPS and telecommunications networks the likes of which we never had before. Artificial limbs are being developed based in robot technology developed by NASA. Water purification systems developed to provide astronauts with clean water are now used in third world countries. We have developed, materials, instruments, manufacturing techniques and foods. And never to be forgotten or underestimated, international collaboration between the USA, Europe, Russia and China.
But, in the end, I think what makes space so inviting is that it’s all about taking on challenges and coming up with solutions. If we could bottle that mentality and focus it on Earth we could eradicate poverty, provide food, water and shelter for everyone on this planet. We could harness the energy from clean renewable energy and decontaminate what we have already poisoned. To do that we would need to start each new project with a blank piece of paper and not be tied to the current systems and processes that perpetuate the problems. Space may be the final frontier but the lessons we learn there must bear fruit on Mother Earth if any of it is going to make sense. Live long and prosper.
I didn’t vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. I still think we should do everything we can to stay in the single market. That’s two sentences you will never hear Jeremy Corbyn say, at least not this month. And that is a major problem. In these challenging times we need strong opposition. We need to hold the United Kingdom’s Government to account. We need to ensure they are questioning their decisions and ensuring the best outcome for everyone. But instead, while the Conservative Government at Westminster is stumbling and falling towards a hard, or even no deal, Brexit, the Labour Party is in complete disarray. When they should be getting on with the day job they are too busy fighting amongst themselves and pursuing their own self-interest. The idea of being elected to serve their communities comes way down the list after, fighting over their policies on Brexit and Trident. Their party is being consumed by Momentum and the Parliamentary Labour Party squabble and bicker. At this stage of a government one would expect the opposition to be well ahead in the opinion polls but Labour are not. Despite this they continue to call for a General Election and local branches are on an ‘election footing’. Meanwhile we drift out of the European Union and the single market. Soon we will be adrift and paying the price of this feeble excuse of an opposition. It’s ironic that a party that fought the Scottish referendum side by side with the Conservative and Unionist Party can’t even fight side by side with each other now.