Parliamentary Update: 10th April 2017
PERSONAL INDEPENDENCE PAYMENT
After weeks of pushing for a debate in Parliament over the Government’s changes to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), an emergency debate was finally secured at the end of March. Such a significant change to the support that is offered to disabled people should always have been subject to the scrutiny of Parliament. During this debate I noted that MPs from eight different political parties had signed a motion calling for the changes to be annulled. The proposed changes, which would make it more difficult for people with mental health conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia and autism, to qualify for financial support, were rejected in a recent court ruling and come after the Government made a promise not to make any further cuts to the social security budget. Despite this, the Government is determined to push ahead.
In the debate I argued that if a person needs help, they need help – regardless of the nature of their disability. I also made clear my concern that targeting people with mental health conditions sends a dangerous message that people with these conditions are less worthy of help than those with physical disabilities. As I had done previously in a letter to the Work and Pensions Secretary, I again urged the Government to back away from these changes, which will leave 150,000 vulnerable people without the support they rely on to live independent and fulfilling lives. Following the debate, the Second Independent Review of the Personal Independence Payment Assessment report was released by the Government – on the day before Parliament went on Easter recess – which concluded that there was a high level of dissatisfaction with the process, a lack of confidence from Health Professionals, and high levels of disputed award decisions, many of which were overturned at appeal.
You can find the full text of the debate, including my contributions, at:https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-29/debates/80B479C2-C920-4BB5-A785-BCE26664EB4B/PersonalIndependencePaymentRegulations?highlight=personal%20independence%20payment#contribution-A0D739B2-C135-48EF-B69F-047EE95BE4D4
I was deeply disappointed to hear about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision to close another 30 branches across Scotland, including in Cumnock, Girvan and Mauchline. This announcement comes after a period of rapid withdrawal from Ayrshire, leaving communities without any access to traditional banking whatsoever. RBS has now closed branches in Maybole, Dalmellington, and New Cumnock, in addition to withdrawals by Clydesdale Bank from Cumnock and Bank of Scotland from Maybole. We will soon be facing an absurd situation where there are no banks between Stranraer and Ayr, or between Dumfries and Kilmarnock, and residents will be forced to make round trips of up to 60 miles to access face-to-face banking.
These closures are justified by the banks as a response to the increasing use of online banking. However, we know that the RBS branches in Cumnock and Mauchline remain well-used with almost half of customers unable or choosing not to use online banking. More worryingly, this justification completely fails to acknowledge that there are many people – for example elderly, disabled or vulnerable people – who struggle to use online services. In addition, with unreliable internet access in some rural areas, using online banking is simply not possible for some people. In Dalmellington and Maybole we have seen quite clearly that providing ‘mobile banks’ is not a feasible solution. I have been told about disabled customers, unable to access these vehicles, being forced to conduct their banking in torrential rain in a car park. This is utterly unacceptable. As a result, along with Jeane Freeman MSP, I have demanded an urgent meeting with RBS Chief Executive Ross McEwan and will continue to do all that I can to fight these closures.
On the 29th of March, the Prime Minister formally triggered Article 50, beginning the process of the UK leaving the EU. Although I respect the outcome of the referendum, I do not believe that leaving the EU is in the interests of Scotland, or the UK as a whole. The UK Government has consistently ignored Scotland’s attempts to reach a UK-wide approach to Brexit, which respects the distinct wishes of the Scottish people. Failure to reach this very basic compromise does not bode well for the complex negotiations that are to come. It was troubling to see that, within days of triggering Article 50, and after 60 years of peace in Europe, there was already talk of going to war with Spain over the question of Gibraltar. At the same time, the Prime Minister and her colleagues were travelling overseas in search of new alliances with the likes of Saudi Arabia – a country where women are forbidden from driving and political opponents are regularly beheaded – and the Philippines, where the President has openly encouraged people to murder drug addicts. As the UK turns its back on our European neighbours and seeks new friendships with dictatorships and murderous regimes, I am gravely concerned about the direction of Brexit.
I have been contacted by many people in my constituency who are worried about the status of EU nationals living in the area. We still have no confirmation from the Government that the rights of these people, who have chosen to live, work, study and raise families in Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, will be protected in the Brexit agreement. It is for this reason that I joined the newly-formed ‘Brexpat’ All Party Parliamentary Group in Westminster. As Vice-Chair of this group, I will push the Government not to use EU nationals living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU, as bargaining chips in the negotiations. These people, both in the UK and abroad, contribute to society and deserve to know immediately that they will be allowed to remain where they are.
Brexit also holds a great deal of uncertainty for businesses in the constituency. Many of Ayrshire’s industries – food and drink, aerospace, tourism – are entangled with EU laws and regulations. They also employ large numbers of EU nationals. Leaving the EU, therefore, is likely to be a complex and costly process for these businesses. Alongside other MPs and MSPs that represent Ayrshire, I have organised an event on Thursday 13th April which will bring together local and national businesses to discuss the implications of Brexit. I look forward to hearing their views and ensuring that, as Parliament begins the long process of scrutinising the Brexit negotiations, their future successes are secured.
WHIRLPOOL TUMBLE DRYERS
At the end of March I attended a meeting about the issue of tumble dryers made by Whirlpool which have been deemed a fire risk. Families in this constituency, and across the country, have had their homes destroyed by fires that started as a result of these faulty machines. During the meeting, which Whirlpool did not attend, I agreed to sponsor an application for a debate in Parliament that would urge the Government to issue a full recall of these faulty products. Whirlpool themselves have admitted that the machines are a hazard, and yet they remain in peoples’ homes. Although the company has made modifications to some of the affected machines, it is not yet clear if this solves the problem, and there are still hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of machines that remain dangerous.
Whirlpool and Trading Standards can, and should, recall the faulty tumble dryers. But this power is also held by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I will therefore be urging the UK Government to take action and call for a full recall to ensure that no more damage is done, and no lives are lost.
In the meantime, a petition has been launched to push the Government on this subject. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, it must be considered for a parliamentary debate and we will be one step closer to ensuring public safety. To sign this, please visit: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/169835
THE FUTURE OF LOCAL NEWS PROVISION
I had the opportunity recently to take part in a debate in Parliament on the future of local and regional news provision. In my speech I highlighted the importance of local news to communities and the concerns people hold for the future of this valuable service. More than half of parliamentary constituencies across the UK now do not have a daily local newspaper. Circulation figures are plummeting, readers are now consuming their news online, journalism jobs are being cut and offices are closing. Journalists have admitted that as they are stretched thinner and thinner, the quality of this local journalism suffers. In these circumstances, many local news outlets have been forced to allow themselves to be subsumed by larger media groups. Shockingly, just four publishers now account for almost 75% of all local newspapers in the UK. This lack of competition and singular view of the world is not healthy for a functioning democracy and is something we should all be concerned about. Furthermore, if a paper’s ownership has no vested interest in the community it serves and is only concerned with making a profit, it is inevitable that some publications do more harm than good, with the visible shift from informative, community-focussed news to tabloid sensationalism.
I firmly believe that quality, impartial and robust local news provision is absolutely essential to holding communities together and promoting a healthy democratic discourse. With this now at risk, I hope that we can all do more to support local news.
For the full text of the debate, please visit: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-30/debates/B069F48A-DFC6-48A8-A1BD-BA9AB827E5E9/LocalAndRegionalNews?highlight=local%20news#contribution-0DA6155A-CC65-4D16-93F3-7B73B3B05C5F
TURNBERRY HOLIDAY PARK
On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of opening the new Ailsa Craig Bar and Restaurant at Turnberry Holiday Park near Girvan. After some significant upgrades over the last few years, a rather rare day of good weather, and the magnificent view across to Ailsa Craig, the holiday park looked absolutely fantastic. Another highlight was the new indoor swimming pool which is a great asset to the venue. In addition to that, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the staff and guest Jan Parkes who’s family have owned a caravan at the site for more than 40 years. Here’s to many more years of great memories!
NEW BENEFITS CHANGES
At the start of April a new raft of changes to the social security system took effect and are due to have a significant impact on the lives of many people across the constituency and the country. Sadly, life is set to get a lot tougher, not better, for these people and I believe that some of the changes could be devastating. Leading charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have warned that the ‘two-child limit’ on Universal Credit and child tax credit risks pushing 200,000 children into poverty. Whatever your political beliefs, whatever your opinions on social security, I cannot understand how a Government can intentionally, with calculation, impose poverty on innocent children and I will oppose these changes because it is the right thing to do. Child poverty is already rising, and with the health, success and happiness of our children’s future at stake, the Government must reconsider this approach.
Under the new rules, certain benefits have been capped at a ‘two-child limit’ with the exception of children conceived as a result of rape. This leaves parents in the stomach-churning and distressing position of having to prove to the Department of Work and Pensions that their child was the result of a horrific attack – all so that these poor parents can buy food and clothes for their children.
The new Universal Credit scheme also continues to be rolled out across the UK and, each step of the way, it has faced a barrage of criticism from across the spectrum. A debate was scheduled on the national rollout, in which I was due to speak, but this was postponed as a result of the tragic attack on Westminster which took place that day. I will therefore be speaking on this issue in the coming weeks. There are numerous fundamental flaws with Universal Credit, including the six-week wait for an initial payment which leaves claimants penniless, relying on food banks and running up rent arrears – thus having a knock-on impact on private landlords. One of the requirements to claim Universal Credit is that claimants undertake 35 hours per week searching for a job online. In many rural constituencies across the country there is no reliable internet connection. As we all know, the cost of public transport continues to rise, and austerity has led to the closure of libraries across the country. How, then, are people in rural areas with no internet connection, who already live in poverty, supposed to carry out these 35 hours of online job searching? The requirement also fails to consider the needs of those who lack computer skills due to illiteracy, disability or other complex needs. These are just a handful of the issues that Universal Credit entails, and I will therefore continue to do all that I can to ensure that those who need help, get it.
On Friday 28th April I will be hosting a Welfare Surgery at Ayr Town Hall which will be open to constituents looking for advice or assistance in relation to welfare. The event will take place between 1pm and 3pm and will be attended by numerous organisations that can provide support. I look forward to listening to the concerns of constituents and enabling them to link up with the organisations that can help.
Organisations attending include Ayr Housing Aid, East Ayrshire Carers Centre, South Ayrshire Foodbank, Action on Hearing Loss, StepChange, Ayrshire Housing, Barnardo’s, South Ayrshire Women’s Aid, Combat Stress, and many others.
Unfortunately South Ayrshire Council have deemed the event a political one and will not send any representatives. This is disappointing as the event will provide a valuable opportunity for constituents to gain advice and support. I am the MP for all constituents in Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, regardless of political persuasion, and the sole purpose of this event is to provide specific, targeted help to those constituents who need it. Representatives from East Ayrshire Council, on the other hand, will be in attendance.
In March I had a fantastic evening in Maybole taking part in The Lantern Parade which was organised as part of the wider Maybole 500 project. The sun had been shining all day and the atmosphere was brilliant. It was great to see the people of Maybole celebrating their rich and colourful history, 500 years after receiving Burgh status in 1516. Carrick Rural Arts Group spent weeks working with local clubs and schools, over the course of dozens of workshops in order to create the range of lanterns on show. The M500 project will continue organising events until August and I hope that the success of The Lantern Parade is echoed in all future events. It is initiatives like this one that really bring communities together and build a sense of belonging, and I hope that the people of Maybole are proud of what they have achieved.