I am writing this at midnight on Tuesday and the latest but not final thrashings of Brexit are just calming down. Nobody was surprised when the Conservative and Unionist United Kingdom Government lost its latest attempt to get a European Union Withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons by a whopping 149 votes. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we will debate the motion to leave without a deal and if that is defeated parliament agree to an extension to Article 50. This will need to be agreed by the European Union. At this point we have 17 days before we are scheduled to leave, we don’t have a deal and the UK Government don’t have a plan. None of this is a surprise. The sheer incompetence of the U.K. Government in dealing with the EU and the devolved administrations is clear for everyone to see. They went into negotiations with a belligerence and arrogance that defies all logic. At the heart of this shambles is the internal ructions of the Conservative and Unionist Party and yet the polling figures show that in England they are ten points ahead of Labour. In Scotland, the SNP is 19 points ahead of Labour. The choice is clear, a U.K. in the control of an incompetent broken Conservative and Unionist Party or an independent Scotland in the European Union.
When we talk about addiction we tend to think of drugs and alcohol. And these are only defined separately because one is illegal and the other isn’t. Gambling addiction is not as obvious but it is just as pernicious. In Inverclyde alone cash inserted into FOBTs in 2016 was £11,527,602. This led to losses of just under £3m. It is estimated that two people a day take their own lives due to a gambling addiction. While the legal alcohol market place is regulated and the illegal drug market is a law unto itself, gambling is legal and regulated but relies heavily on self-regulation. The gambling commission issues guidelines, not laws. While funding for gambling related harm activities is based on a voluntary contribution from book makers. On the up side there is a growing recognition of the damage gambling can do and moves are afoot to address it. I am pushing for a new gambling clinic to be established in Scotland once the one in Leeds is fully up and running. Advertisers are being questioned over adverts aimed at children and vulnerable adults. The quantity of adverts around sporting events is due to be addressed and ‘loot boxes’ in video games have been banned in a number of countries. I hope to bring forward a resolution at the SNP conference to ask the Conservative and Unionist UK government to do likewise and ban them or give the powers to the SNP Scottish government to do so. The recent GambleAware campaign focuses on males aged 16 to 34 who are already gambling at least twice a week and will target three areas of vulnerability, chasing losses, drunk gambling and bored gambling. This is a two year campaign to change attitudes and reduce gambling, it is not a prohibition model. Gambling addiction destroys lives and it is time we addressed the normalisation amongst adults, the grooming of children and the lack of support for those that are vulnerable to the damage it can cause.
The owners of the Inverkip Power Station, Scottish Power, have applied for planning permission for up to 650 houses/premises on the site. This does not mean that they will build them, it means if planning permission is granted that the land can then be marketed and sold with planning permission in place and therefore it increases in value. I have viewed this site and it is truly unique. Although close to the A78 it is secluded and peaceful. I think that this site offers so much more than most and with that in mind I have entered discussion with Alzheimer’s Scotland to gather their views on approaching prospective purchasers and asking them to include a ‘dementia village’ in their plans. Such villages have been muted around other parts of the U.K. and they already exist in other countries. They are designed to allow people with dementia to receive appropriate care and live their lives to the maximum. The entire village would be inhabited by residents and carers. It is estimated that over a million people in the U.K. will be living with dementia by 2025 and the need for practical methods of caring for people with dementia will continue to increase. I have asked Scottish Power to consider this when it comes to selling the land. I understand the council may look at this site and see a revenue source via council tax and I also understand that all budgets are stretched but I would hope they would see beyond the cash in hand and consider this as a long term investment in the citizens of Inverclyde.
On a cold wet miserable evening in Westminster we, once again, trooped through the voting lobbies in an attempt to shape the future of the U.K. I hope that history will look kindly on these attempts but it’s unlikely. The U.K. parliament voted to reject all amendments except an attempt to rule out a no deal and an intention to change the backstop proposal for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The proposals around the border will prove to be particularly sensitive as it affects the Good Friday Agreement. After two and a half years of posturing and prevarication the Prime Minister will now go back to the EU and attempt to remove the backstop and replace it with “alternative arrangements”. It’s worth noting that the EU and the Irish Government have already said they won’t re-negotiate. This may all seem like hypothetical nonsense but in the real world the money markets fluctuated as the amendments were voted on and it’s clear they don’t want a no deal. This mess has come about because of the inability of the U.K. Government to cooperate and consult with the devolved powers of the U.K. combined with their staggering arrogance toward the European Union. As we near the cliff edge, trade organisations have been voicing their concerns, this includes both road and rail freight, health service providers and food retailers. We are not there yet. We shall go through all of this all over again on February 13th. So all is not lost. As the father of the house, Ken Clarke said to me in the voting lobby (yes, Ken was voting with us) “are we planning on having a historic vote every week?” It certainly feels that way but this will end soon and as things are currently going, it won’t end well.
Five years ago, the UK Government released a paper entitled “EU and International Issues” the paper extolled what it claimed were the many benefits to Scotland of the UK’s membership of the EU. It said “The UK uses its influence within the EU to Scotland’s advantage on a whole host of issues of particular interest to people and businesses in Scotland, such as budget contributions, fisheries, agricultural subsidies and Structural Funds. Scotland benefits from this and from the UK’s strong voice in Europe, where it contributes to and participates in discussions and negotiations from its position within the UK.” And look where we are now. Scotland and Inverclyde overwhelmingly voted to remain in the E.U. and yet we are being ripped out. The Conservative and Unionist Party has engaged in a civil war and the casualties will be the citizens of the U.K. When the Labour Party should have been holding the U.K. Government to account, it was incapacitated by indecision. Even now with less than ten weeks to go Labour can’t unite on a peoples vote and they lodged a vote of no confidence at a time when they knew it would fail! The U.K. Government should now rule out a “No Deal”. The Prime Minister should request an extension to the Article 50 process from the E.U. And the UK Government should bring forward a proposal to legislate for a second EU Referendum based on the full knowledge of what leaving the E.U. actually entails. But unless they have a blinding epiphany of self-awareness they won’t do any of those things. If we can take one thing from this Brexit debacle it is that Westminster is not fit for purpose and has no interest in legislating for the good of the people of Scotland. Fortunately we have another option. And when that option is put in front of us, as it will, we can choose Scotland. What could possibly be better for Scotland than the people of Scotland legislating for the people of Scotland?
There will be no time allowed to ease into this political New Year. It has already hit the ground running and before the end of January decisions shall have been made that will make the political landscape a lot clearer. Brexit should come to a head on the 17th of January and once the dust has settled then the path or paths forward will be decided. It is impossible to predict exactly what the outcome will be. The last two years have been a shambles in terms of negotiations and planning for withdrawal from the European Union, which does not fill me full of hope. But my inbox is dominated by two topics. Brexit and Universal Credit. As Inverclyde was one of the first to start rolling out U.C. we are now over two years into the process and over 4,000 people in Inverclyde are experiencing it. It has proven inadequate as a social security system and has been woefully underfunded from the start. Problems in the processes continue to undermine the good it could be doing and rather than stop and fix the system the Conservative and Unionist U.K. government is now moving the remaining people on the legacy system onto U.C. This will mean over 7,000 additional recipients in Inverclyde alone. Based on the evidence I have seen in my constituency office since November 2016 , I fear things are about to get a lot worse. Of course such a bleak future is just one possibility. The future is ours to write and given the powers, the mindset and the opportunity, the future for Scotland and generations of Scots can be brighter, braver and bolder. We just have to take the opportunity when it comes and it is coming.
I recently used this column to highlight the many issues with Universal Credit (U.C.) and I make no apologies for returning to that topic again. And I shall continue to assert pressure on the Conservative and Unionist UK Government to halt the roll out and fix U.C. before it damages more households throughout the U.K. The lengthy delay in receiving your first payment and the issue around receiving your wages 4 weekly which means at least once a year you receive no U.C. payment as the system thinks you’ve had two wages in a month are just two fixable examples.
As a replacement for the current welfare system it is massively underfunded and contains serious logistical flaws that need fixed. I am raising a petition at Westminster to ensure that U.C. stays on the agenda. Obviously, the more publicity I can get the better for the cause but what I will not do is use a vulnerable individual or family who are already being punished by this system to get a front page story.
My office will continue to handle the growing number of U.C. cases that people bring to me. This is the single biggest issue, away from Brexit, which is affecting people in Inverclyde. The facts are that in Inverclyde we have over 4,000 people on U.C. with another 7,000 on legacy benefits and my office is receiving cases on a daily basis. Last week, I met with Citizens Advice Scotland to discuss the policy and the funding which is required to assist and support people in Inverclyde.
Finally, if you would like to add your name in support of the public petition then please visit my constituency office (20 Crawfurd Street, Greenock, PA15 1LJ) or contact my office on 01475 721 877 and we can send you out a copy of the petition.
Take the House of Commons and add nine political parties of differing origin, four varieties of countries and a couple of matured outposts of the empire. Blend in the potential for an extension of Article 50, a possible vote of no confidence, a hint of a general election and tip in the UK Government’s reluctance to publish legal advice and then leave it all to one side to soak. Mix a revolving door of cabinet ministers with a pinch of duplicity and a teaspoon of deceit. Add a soupcon of ambition and a large dollop of arrogance. Now put it all together for 40 hours in the heat of debate then wrap it in media darlings and egotists and you won’t get a plan for Brexit because what you have is a recipe for disaster. The chefs have left in disgust, the kitchens on fire and the larder is empty. And if you think this article is getting a tad ridiculous then it is nothing as bad as the reality that is the House of Commons right now. In all seriousness we have had 896 days to negotiate a responsible exit from the European Union and the long and short of it is that we have not. From day one the devolved parliaments were ignored, entire nations that voted to remain were snubbed. Infighting in the Conservative and Unionist Party created a multi headed snake. Splits in the Labour Party created an internal atmosphere of mistrust leaving them ineffective as an opposition. And all the while the Democratic Unionist Party sold its votes until they actually meant something, at which point they reverted to type and withdrew their support. This is no way to run a country. You couldn’t run any competent organisation like that. What Brexit has done is show up the shortcomings and ineptness of Westminster. Left to its own devices historically it has muddled through and over the years damage limitation has been the order of the day. But now, that it has to stand up and be counted, now that it has to be shrewd and savvy, now that it has to negotiate and compromise, it has been left wanting. Wanting for leadership, cohesion, courage and even compassion. We can and we must do better than this if Scotland is going to thrive. We must acknowledge that the answers to Scotland’s future do not reside at Westminster.
Over the years different UK governments of various constructs have attempted to modify and amend the welfare system. The most recent and most ambitious is Universal Credit (UC). Inverclyde has had what is termed ‘full roll out’ since November 2016. But it isn’t finished yet and potentially 6,910 people in Inverclyde still need to be migrated from the old system.
UC was introduced to simplify the benefits system. The roll out has been fraught with complications and there continue to be problems around access to online recording of data, time-lapse in receiving payments and those payments being an accurate reflection of the recipient’s requirements.
Our local Job Centre staff work tirelessly, under very difficult conditions, to support a system that has been massively underfunded. And the UK government’s response is to close Jobcentres across the UK, including Port Glasgow.
Meanwhile welfare spending on poor people dropped by 25% during the decade of austerity, cuts to benefits that disabled people receive were significant. Cuts include, tax credits (£4.6bn), universal credit (£3.6bn), child benefit (£3.4bn), disability benefits (£2.8bn), ESA and incapacity benefit (£2bn) and housing benefit (£2.3bn).
The Trussell Trust tell me that in Inverclyde between 1st April 2018 and 30th September 2018 in Inverclyde, 3,013 three-day emergency food supplies were given to local people in crisis. Across the UK, foodbanks in The Trussell Trust network distributed 658,048 three day emergency food supplies to help people in crisis, a rise of 13% for the same period last year. It is worth noting that the Trussell Trust is a charity, it is not part of the welfare system.
It is time to stop the roll out and fix the system. Anyone for Universal Basic Income?
In every town of Inverclyde we have permanent war memorials to those who died in armed conflict during the First and Second World War. There are many more memorials in clubs, schools and organisations that are specific to smaller more defined group of people. The prevalence of war memorials came to fruition after the ‘Great War’ as it was hoped it would be the war to end all wars. Sadly we were wrong and one hundred years later wars still rage. Their shape and size has changed and fortunately for most of us living in Inverclyde we have never had to experience war at first hand. But continue they do and members of the armed forces continue to pay the ultimate price, often because of incompetent politicians. I recently visited the Heritage Centre on Cathcart Street to view their Armistice Day commemoration that is made from hundreds of handmade poppies and I met teachers and pupils of Inverclyde Academy who have resurrected the war memorial from the old Greenock High School. On Saturday I shall attend a service at Saint Giles cathedral in Edinburgh and on Sunday, amongst other public engagements, I shall lay wreaths at the war memorials in the Wellpark and at the Cross of Lorraine. Each year we, quite correctly, remember those that died but this year we also give thanks that we are commemorating the end of a war. Our community has physically changed a great deal since 1918, a lot of it for the better, but there are still roads and buildings that existed then. Houses that young men left and never returned to. Roads leading out of town and ultimately to the front line in Belgium, France and beyond. And I can only hope that many returned. Imagine the joy on Armistice Day 1918 when peace was declared. How great were the celebrations when serving personnel returned safely home. Commemoration is not just about paying respect to those who fell, it’s about doing everything we can to maintain a peace that they fought for. And that’s not one day or week in November, its everyday of every year. We should never forget and we must always work to ensure that we never repeat the mistakes that led to war and sacrifice.