Greenock Telegraph 12th February 2021

We are all aware of the effects of Covid and the devastation it has had within our communities. It has led to poor health, both physical and mental, loss of jobs and financial hardship. The good news is that the vaccine rollout continues at pace and those that were considered the highest priority have almost entirely received their jag. But there are illnesses and conditions that also ruin health, wealth, and happiness. Conditions that can lead to loss of life, that we can’t produce a vaccine for. Within our society we have a hidden killer that goes unnoticed. Addiction to alcohol or drugs tends to be noticed, there is a change in behaviour and increasingly the medical profession, who not so long ago were dismissive of alcoholics and drug addicts, are intervening. And the earlier the intervention the better.

However, gambling addiction is the poor relative. Gambling addiction leads to all the heartaches I mentioned earlier but it can go almost unnoticed until it is too late. We need to start talking about it. We need to bring it out into the open and expose the ruthless predatory behaviour of the gambling industry. Gone are the days of punters in the bookies studying form and picking a few horses to back. Now we have online casinos operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Punters are emailed and messaged constantly to encourage them to bet more. Free bets and inducements are used to pile on the pressure. People at their wits end are driven to suicide and all the while we are faced with celebrity endorsements and blanket advertising at sporting events. We can’t grow a vaccine but we can and we must have a ban on advertising, reduction in stakes, end VIP rooms and provide help and support and education for those that have been affected and those whom the industry is so willing to groom to be the next generation of addicted gamblers. 

Greenock Telegraph 29th January 2021

It would be easy believe that the only two things that matter right now are COVID and Brexit. These two behemoths dominate the landscape and combined they block out any horizon. Which is a great shame because we are at our best when we seek to achieve progress and are constructing solutions rather than, as it currently feels, consumed by fighting fires. At a time when planning forward is difficult and the possibility of a holiday, or meeting friends and family is a remote one, what can we look forward to? I have a suggestion and before you run for the hills, please hear me out.

On May the 6th we have the election to the Scottish Parliament. Put the politics to one side, that is for you to decide upon. But elections are about the electorate, it’s your time to express your views, to back the candidate and party that you believe serves you, your community and your country best. The outcome will determine so many things that happen in Scotland over the next Parliamentary session. And that’s a choice you can make that goes beyond the immediate horizon. At their best, elections can be beacons of hope but that is entirely down to your participation. My ask is simple, register to vote, apply for a postal vote, and use it wisely. A postal vote can be used on the day at your polling place. I read a lot of nonsense in social media about postal votes being tampered with and people’s trust being eroded. I have used a postal vote for years. I have absolute faith in the mail service and Inverclyde Council to ensure my vote is recorded correctly.

From behind the barricades we can project our hopes and aspirations for the next four years. Don’t let COVID stop you voting.   

RVJB: The Robertson Centre, 16 Glasgow Rd, Paisley PA1 3QF.

Greenock Telegraph 15th January 2021

One of the most often repeated football related sayings is ‘taking one game at a time’. It’s used when teams are doing particularly well or particularly badly. Their focus needs to be on the next challenge, they can’t get ahead of themselves or they will fall at the next hurdle. But by taking each game as it comes, they hope to cope with it as best they can and either win the league or avoid relegation. And here we all are in 2021 and COVID-19 has locked us down again. We are reduced to living in the here and now with very limited ability to plan anything long term. The distraction of looking forward towards possible summer holidays or even just longer warmer days has been denied to us because our focus has to be on today.

Almost one year since the seriousness of the pandemic was first becoming clear we are still required to work at the very basics of washing our hands, wearing a mask, socially distancing and isolating. The vaccine will help but in itself it is not a magic wand. We still don’t know if the vaccines that have been approved, are neutralising or sterilising (killing the virus in the Nasopharynx) and unless it’s the latter then people who have been vaccinated can still carry and spread the virus. Lockdowns are hard and speaking as someone who lives alone, I understand the added pressures of isolation and the detriment to mental health of loneliness. In a study carried out last year it was clear that long life and good health is greatly increased by social contact and that’s exactly what we can’t have right now. But the alternative to obeying the guidelines is unthinkable. From the very beginning I have preached individual responsibility and that hasn’t changed. Tough as it is, we all need to double down and accept that. But we need business owners and employers to act in a responsible fashion too. Stretching the laws or seeking to exploit loopholes is criminal and ultimately counterproductive. Any action that increases the likelihood of spreading this virus also increases the chances of people dying. No employer has the right to put their employees or the public at risk. While individuals are responsible, a cooperative community mindset must also be to the fore if we are to overcome this pandemic and at the same time retain our physical and mental health. 

Greenock Telegraph 4th January 2021

I desperately wanted to start the new year looking forward with optimism, with clarity and with purpose. But it’s proving more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s that B word again. It’s haunted us for four years and now it’s threatening to be, not just the ghost of Christmas past, but present and most disappointingly future.

After four years of negotiating the Brexit deal “one of the easiest in human history” according to Liam Fox, Conservative and Unionist MP, we are instead giving up so much that we have benefitted from including our access to the Erasmus Scheme which offered student exchanges as well as school links, work experience and apprenticeships across Europe since 1987. Adam Tickell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said: “Leaving Erasmus is a real sadness. Over the years the Erasmus programme transformed the lives of thousands of young people.”

This deal will rip us out of the world’s largest single market and customs union, end our freedom of movement rights, and impose mountains of red tape, added costs and barriers to trade for Scottish businesses. Analysis shows the hard Tory Brexit will cut Scotland’s GDP by around 6.1%, costing more than £9billion or the equivalent of £1,600 for every person. The Associate Director for Immigration, Trade and EU Relations, at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Marley Morris, said that: “For a deal with the UK’s closest neighbour and largest trading partner, this agreement is remarkably weak. In many respects this agreement isn’t far off a no deal.” It is counter intuitive for me to act in any way that is detrimental to Inverclyde and Scotland therefore while Scotland continues to be ignored by the UK government, let me be absolutely clear, I shall continue to do everything that I can to bring clarity to a situation that has the potential to negatively impact on all our lives and in doing so I hope to provide a path to a more fruitful outcome. 

Greenock Telegraph 18th December 2020

While at school, one of Boris Johnson’s teacher wrote of him, he is “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”. Or to put it another way, he only thinks of himself (that’s the polite version).

The United Kingdom agreed to a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. The now Prime Minister has attempted to break that agreement and is now complaining that the contents are being quoted back at him. This is an agreement that he fought a leadership battle on, that he prorogued Parliament over, that he fought a general election on, which he pushed through parliament and got the Queen to sign. Is it any wonder that this self-serving chameleon is incapable of negotiating an exit deal from the European Union that doesn’t involve, chaos and confusion.

And where do we in Scotland stand? Who is looking after our interests at the negotiating table? The Scotland Office have refused to back calls for a single market and customs union in Scotland despite Northern Ireland being offered both. Despite continually saying that devolved Parliaments are being included and listened to it is clear that the polar opposite is true. The Prime Minister and his close cohorts are crashing the UK out of the EU. Michael Gove confirmed to me, last week, that the Sewell convention would be ignored and legislative consent from the Scottish Government would not be required. It’s clear to see that agreements and conventions are not considered to be worth the paper they are written on by this Conservative and Unionist government. How can anyone be expected to trust them? Politicians from a range of parties have tried to contribute positively to these negotiations but the superiority complex that abounds amongst the Prime Minister and his friends is stopping them from listening and there is a very grave danger that we will be left to pay the price. 

Greenock Telegraph 4th December 2020

I have struggled these last few weeks and it’s been hard to put my finger on what the problem was. I knew it was almost certainly due to limited social mobility during the pandemic but exactly what and how to resolve it wasn’t clear. We are all, or should be, mixing far less within our communities but measuring the effect of that is difficult, it is by its very essence, intangible.

While contemplating my own conflict I had the opportunity to attend an outdoor community event where everybody was respectful of the guidelines. And what a difference it made. The Friends of the Coves community are quietly and considerately breathing new life into the Coves Reservoir Nature Reserve. The next addition will be the James Watt Wander. Designed by local school pupil Laura Stewart, it will be developed close to the Mallard Crescent side of the reserve. I have high hopes for what can be achieved in terms of reforestation and wilding within Inverclyde but that’s for another day. I found that just being part of a local event, listening to the plans and witnessing the enthusiasm, reminded me how much I have missed all the local community driven events that made up so much of my diary prior to the pandemic.

When things ‘return to normal’ it won’t be the grandiose corridors or leather clad benches of Westminster that I am most grateful for, it will be the opportunity to meet up with the many precious local community groups that are the heartbeat of Inverclyde. From our much-underappreciated community councils to the many musical, environmental, mental health, sport and youth groups. Not forgetting my visits to our over stretched social housing providers and it has been far too long since I raided the tuck shop at the Jobcentre and met with staff there. When all is said and done, while big decisions are made at a national level it will be the local community that pulls us through and the local networks that are there for us when this is all over. It may be December, but I feel the spirit of spring is in the air already. Thank you. 

Greenock Telegraph 20th November 2020

During the Covid-19 pandemic governments around the globe have had to take many difficult decisions. Getting the right balance between protecting citizens health and supporting the economy has been amongst the hardest. And more specifically, deciding how money should be allocated to best support the economy is a minefield of complexities. There is no way to triage individual organisations and companies to decide which ones are viable and which ones are not. Instead assistance has been offered across sectors and some will have benefited more than others. And having said that, there had to be an evaluation process. Not just, how many livelihoods depend on a sector, although the importance of that should never be underestimated but what contribution does it make to our society. And that’s a hard call but I want to talk up the need to support our creative sector. Those that work in music, art and drama. A precarious existence at the best of times. Many have been excluded from any assistance during this crisis. I have often championed Basic Income and I have seen an increased need for one this year and not just in the creative sector. A sector whose value is often underestimated or taken for granted. Trying to judge how much pleasure, stimulation, motivation and inspiration we draw from a book, a painting, a play, a photograph and the myriad of other contributions that creatives provide, is impossible. But we know it happens. I know that at a personal level I turn to music, art and literature for comfort and strength. But Beethovens, McCartneys, Hemingways and Pratchetts don’t grow on trees, we need to invest in many if we are to enjoy the fruits of a few.

Hopefully, we shall soon be coming to terms with life post COVID and while we rightly thank the frontline workers for all their hard work and dedication while keeping us physically safe and well, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the creatives for nurturing our souls and safeguarding our mental health at this time too. 

Greenock Telegraph 6th November 2020

I was heartened to receive a joint email this week from religious leaders across Scotland. They were unanimous in expressing their ‘shared concerns about the potential consequences of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill’. Their concerns are four-fold.

Firstly, the UK Government breaking international law. Secondly, the passing of legislation without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Thirdly, the way in which the Good Friday agreement is being undermined and fourthly, the position that Her Majesty’s government is putting the Queen in by asking her to sign legislation which is unlawful. It is disgraceful that the Conservative and Unionists have embarked on this damaging programme. And I am delighted that they have been called out by church leaders. The damage extends across the UK and is particularly harmful to Scotland. It undermines the devolution settlement and the agreed ways of working across the UK following our exit from the EU. It risks more uncertainty and confusion for businesses and consumers. It encourages harmful deregulation without democratic accountability or proper Parliamentary scrutiny. While it explicitly gives UK Ministers wide new powers in currently devolved areas of economic support. The irony of a UK Government that continually accuses the SNP of seeking grievances to promote independence, dreaming up the UK internal market bill should not be lost on anyone. It’s proof, if proof is needed, of the arrogant self-serving nature of One Nation Conservatism which serves only one master and that’s the Conservative and Unionist government. 

Greenock Telegraph 23rd October 2020

Recently, I was talking to primary kids about the internet and in particular internet behaviour and safety. And it struck me that these wide eyed, innocent kids, full of hope and expectations, technologically savvy and comfortably embracing the great internet of things, would some-day be nostalgic about TikTok!

And it got me thinking about the iconic things of my childhood and why they are still precious to me. And I don’t mean the few family photos of me, my mum, my dad and siblings that I have. Or the leather cuff link box that was my dad’s that I hold and draw comfort from because I know his hands held it too. I mean the shared iconography of the society of my childhood. Like the orange jubbly ice block, the chopper bike, Sportsnight with Coleman (remember the theme tune?), Subbuteo (which was always played on the floor in my house despite being table top football) and vinyl records. When we are young we live life with the expectation that the way things are, is how they will always be. And the younger we are the more true that is. But as we grow older we start to look to the future and in the 1960s we were told that in the future we would have bigger but slimmer TVs, and that we could be in instant contact with each other regardless of where we are in the World. And while those predictions along with home computers, e-banking, e-mails and many others came true, I never did get my jet pack!

Now I can buy multi packs of Cornettos, my bicycle corners far better than a chopper ever did, I can access sport all day, every day, Fifa 2021 is undoubtedly easier on my knees and I can access and listen to music on the go. But are the new things better? Yes of course they are but they don’t resonate with me because I now know they are transient. And if that applies to the good things then it is true to say it must also apply to the bad. Today’s bad will be history’s Sinclair C5. Uncomfortable and expensive but transient and hopefully, to be learned from.

When we come out of Covid, don’t let go of the lessons we have learned about the values of community, family, good mental health, access to open spaces and freedom to travel. Don’t confine them to the memory box. They should define our aspirations for the future and if that could include a jet pack I would be for ever grateful.

Greenock Telegraph 9th October 2020

The issue of renewable energy is one that I have pursued since I was first elected in 2015. I wrote a paper called ‘The Island of Inverclyde’ which highlighted the potential for renewable energy industries in Inverclyde in 2016 and it is as relevant today as it was then.

The Scottish Government has stated that renewable and low carbon energy will provide the foundation of our future energy system, offering Scotland a huge opportunity for economic and industrial growth. The recent announcement by the Scottish Government that nearly £1.6 billion will be directed to support up to 5,000 jobs and tackle fuel poverty is at the heart of plans to drive Scotland’s green recovery and end our contribution to climate change. As part of an enhanced Green New Deal, the investment will transform heat and energy efficiency of buildings and rapidly accelerate the decarbonisation of an area which makes up a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. An additional £500 million is being invested in Scotland’s natural economy including £150 million to help deliver a 50% increase in woodland creation by 2024 and an extra £150 million for flood risk management, which is vital to increasing climate change resilience.

Following these announcements, I had already engaged with the Scottish Government to highlight the potential for Inverclyde and so I was delighted to hear this week that the Prime Minister is a new convert to renewables. From talking them down and under investing in them for decades, the Conservatives have seen the light and its generated by wind power. Hopefully, this is not just hot air from the Tories and this will present me with another opportunity, to pursue the UK government to invest in renewable energy projects in Inverclyde. No stone will remain unturned. Jobs are crucial if we are to reverse the population decline and create a more prosperous future.