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.
The weather experts are predicting a winter of discontent. Discontent, that is, for those of us who enjoy the first day of snow and then quickly get fed up with the disruption and increased fuel bills. Unlike Richard the 3rd we can’t rely on the son of York to brighten our winter. But we do have places we can turn to.
The Scottish Government, through Ready Scotland, have created a website where you can find out more on preparing for and managing disruption to our daily lives. This includes advice on how to create an emergency household plan and prepare an emergency kit. For further information please visit www.readyscotland.org.
Alongside this, the Energy Saving Trust Scotland website provide you with free, expert and impartial advice. Their website allows you to complete a home energy check as well as find out what grants or loans may be available for support at home. Simply visit www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/scotland or call Home Energy Scotland on 0808 808 2282.
Inverclyde Council recently announced they are planning to introduce a fleet of 4×4 vehicles to beat the bad weather this winter. Also, the local authority have published their Winter Maintenance Documents which can be viewed on their website, alongside a link to grit bin locations and an advice leaflet, provided by Transport Scotland, on clearing paths and driveways.
Finally, it also helps to be a good neighbour and keep an eye on each other, especially if you have an elderly or infirmed neighbour. Wrap up warm, take care and remember its only 146 days until spring.
Recently, I had the great privilege of meeting some remarkable men. Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Sànchez and Raul Romeva were arrested and are awaiting trial for sedition. I visited them in Lledoners prison, Catalonia. They expect to be tried in January and they expect to be sentenced to between 25 and 30 years each. The crime of sedition is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as ‘language or behaviour that is intended to persuade other people to oppose their government’. By that definition anyone that has ever criticised the U.K. government or the Scottish government could be imprisoned, tried and sentenced. I suspect our already overcrowded prison system would fail to cope with the mass influx. And I seriously wonder if there would be any adult in Scotland that could not be tried for such a crime. These three brave men along with four others, Josep Rull, Jordi Turull, Joaquim Forn, Oriol Junqueras and two women, Carme Forcadell and Dolors Bassa have been wrongly imprisoned. While speaking up for the process of democracy, they did not use violence and they did not incite it. They helped to facilitate and ensure a peaceful democratic debate and referendum. The Spanish authorities may not have liked the message they were hearing but no people or property were threatened or damaged in any way. Jordi Cuixart explained to me that he was simply a citizen exercising his right to free speech. Jordi Cuixart is the president of Òmnium which is a cultural movement in Catalonia. He is not a politician. He is an incredibly brave, optimistic, intelligent and humble man. I asked him how he managed to stay so positive and he explained that he lived in the moment and tried to make each moment happy. He engaged with prison life and other prisoners. He refuses to be beaten by the system he opposes. That is an extremely powerful message. These men and woman deserve the support of the United Nations, the European Union and all right minded governments. History tells us what happens when we stand idly by and allow human rights to be trampled. We should all be raising our voices in protest at this injustice.
Tomorrow, SNP activists shall be hosting street stalls and door knocking to gauge the opinion of Inverclyde residents on matters concerning the U.K.’s withdrawal from Europe, the Growth Commission and more. We do this on a regular basis but the reason I mention it is we are in conference season. That strange three week period when the political parties take it in turns to get together and blow their own trumpets. While the Conservative Party are singing different songs from different song sheets the Labour Party are marching to the beat of different drums. I feel sorry for activists when their leadership squabble and elected members bicker. Members and candidates jump on and off campaign causes and deliver deliberately vague messages while desperately seeking to identify the populace vote. Of course people can disagree but I get the feeling these manufactured conflicts are more about self-promotion than political idealism. At least when the SNP blow our own trumpets we are all playing the same tune. The SNP was founded to pursue Scotland’s independence and that has not changed. It always has been and always will be our raisin d’etre. But as sections of the media tried to create civil wars within the party, while ignoring the two obvious ones in the Tories and Labour, our resolve hardened. We are the custodians of our nation’s independence and nothing will be allowed to distract from that. Tomorrow’s conversations are part of a continual conversation between the SNP and the people of Scotland. And they are conversations, we are not just talking we are listening too. It’s a methodology we use because we believe it helps politicians engage with citizens. It’s taken us to ten years of government in Scotland and the giddy heights of MSP, MP and a councillor in each ward of the Inverclyde Council. Representation that once upon a time we could only have dreamed. That’s why tomorrow’s conversations are so important, from them we get a glimpse of the Scotland people want and don’t fall into the trap of forcing on them a political menagerie that only serves to support an outdated, crumbling and corrupt union.
The Scottish Government’s programme for government was published last week. It’s a comprehensive document outlining the areas of governance that we can influence from Holyrood and it’s a mixture of practical reality with enough aspiration to make me believe that, with the right strategy, Scotland can have a prosperous future. It is a rich and diverse programme encompassing many areas of life in Scotland. The key areas covered include national infrastructure, mental health, empowering head teachers and low carbon transport.
As in all things political it will not satisfy everybody and, as one has come to expect, the opposition parties were very quick to condemn it. So quick that I doubt they actually read the publication. It did however receive positive feedback from Friends of the Earth Scotland, Scottish Chamber of Commerce, the STUC, CBI Scotland, NUS Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Victim Support Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, NHS Research, Richmond Fellowship and a host of others. Whether you agree with all the plans outlined or not I hope you feel comforted that plans are being made in a considered fashion. I would ask you to compare and contrast the measured, constructive approach of the SNP Government at Holyrood and the chaotic, self-harming, devil take the hindmost attitude of those crashing the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The very rich and privileged will be safe. Their money will protect them. The rest of us are just expected to go along on this treacherous journey. My advice would be buckle up, it is going to be a bumpy ride.
As vice-chair of the All-party parliamentary groups on medical cannabis under prescription and drug policy reform I have been campaigning for changes to the UK drug laws. The problems that exist within society and the communities within, are not the drugs. It’s the deprivation, isolation, loneliness and poverty, leading to anger, dissatisfaction, hopelessness and depression. One pound spent on harm reduction, saves three on health care further down the line and seven on the criminal justice system. It makes financial and humanitarian sense to provide care and guidance rather than prosecution. It is time that we reappraised our attitude to drugs and moved forward with a fact-based strategy that does not harm society but benefits it. We can’t win the war on drugs. We can and we must win the peace.
There are around 3900 Inverclyde women affected by the changes to women’s state pension. Many local woman along with women from all over the country have joined the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) movement and have done an outstanding job to make sure that this issue is not brushed aside. The UK Government have not contributed any funds to helping those affected. Together with my SNP colleagues I continue to apply pressure to the Government to explore affordable solutions. 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. And while working they paid their tax and national insurance. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.