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Parliamentary Update: 30th January 2017

DEBATE ON DIGITAL EQUIPMENT PENSION SCHEME

I was delighted to lead a debate this month on behalf of pensioners who used to work for Digital. More than 1,500 people worked at the plant on the edge of Ayr, and DEC was a major employer in the area from 1977 until it was wound down by Hewlett Packard around 2002. The assets and liabilities of the Digital Pension Plan were transferred to the Digital Section of the Hewlett Pack Ltd Retirement Benefits Plan.

There is a statutory requirement on defined benefit pension schemes - which provide pension benefits based on salary and length of service - to index pension payments in line with inflation but this requirement does not apply to benefits accrued before April 1997, and since 2002, Hewlett Packard has paid only two token 1% rises to Digital pensioners.

The UK Government’s Pensions Minister, Richard Harrington, has now committed to meet with Hewlett Packard and the pensioners’ association on this issue, and the forthcoming UK Government Green Paper on pension schemes presents us with an opportunity to explore pension inequality and sustainability more widely. I believe it is critical that we find a way to support providers and beneficiaries provide and receive dignity in retirement.

The debate in full can be read at https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-17/debates/B0AFFA0E-2E57-4902-BB13-F318AC677059/DigitalEquipmentLtdPensionScheme.

WOMEN AND THE STATE PENSION AGE

Staying with pensions, I was disappointed with the news that the administration at South Ayrshire Council were unable to put party squabbles aside and failed to back a motion supporting the WASPI women across Ayrshire.
The UK Government's acceleration of the process of equalisation of pension ages for men and women, coupled with the rise in the state pension age overall, means that women born in the 1950s have lost thousands in pension payments without having sufficient time to plan for the changes.

In line with councils across the UK, councillors debated a motion to support the women in their wards who have been unfairly impacted by this policy. While the issue has received cross-party support everywhere else, the Conservative and Labour councillors in South Ayrshire used the debate to blame the Scottish Government.

I have been working with some of the 5,000 women affected locally, and they have every right to be angry with South Ayrshire Council for their behaviour on this issue. Pension plans are made over decades and the UK Government has treated these women unfairly. They have it within their power to introduce better transitional arrangements and everyone’s voice is needed to encourage them to do so.

CUMNOCK BANK CLOSURE

I was hugely disappointed to be notified of yet another bank branch in the constituency that is set to close. The Clydesdale Bank are citing ‘a transformation in the way customers choose to bank’ as their reason for the closure of its branch in Cumnock, as well as a number of other branches across Scotland.

The closure of this branch comes hot on the heels of the Bank of Scotland closing its Maybole branch, and the Royal Bank of Scotland closing branches in Maybole and Dalmellington. In all cases, the move to mobile and online banking is given as a key reason for closure, but none of the banks so far have been able to quantify this increased usage in specific relation to their rural customers.

The number of rural bank branch closures is deeply concerning. It has a disproportionate impact on rural businesses who need good access to counter services just as much as urban businesses do, and for personal banking customers it means an expensive round trip to bank branches that can be many miles further away.

I will continue to work with local MSP Jeane Freeman on this issue, and we are looking to sit down with all the banks for a full and frank discussion about their plans for rural branches in the very near future.

DWP CLOSURE

Cumnock was dealt another blow when the Department of Work and Pensions’ announced proposals to close their Child Maintenance Group call centre in the town.

The 80 staff based at the Killoch House office were told last week about plans to close the site and transfer existing staff to other offices in Ayr and Kilmarnock by the end of the year. This is part of the UK Government’s decision to slash the Department for Work and Pensions estate across Scotland, which has included the closure of seventeen job centres across the country, five other ‘Back of House’ call centres and a centre for Health and Disability Assessments.

This announcement is extremely worrying for Cumnock and the staff currently working in Killoch House. While there has been some discussion regarding possible relocation to other sites, people are understandably concerned about their futures and the possibility of redundancies. I am particularly concerned about the knock-on impact of losing so many people from the local daytime economy, as cafes and shops will undoubtedly notice the loss in custom.

It is utterly disgraceful that the UK Government are planning to now scrap even more of the DWP estate in Scotland, on the back of recent HMRC cuts in Scotland, which we were told wouldn’t happen if Scotland rejected independence in 2014. The destruction of civil service jobs and buildings across Scotland must be immediately halted, and my colleagues at Westminster and I are demanding an urgent meeting with DWP Ministers on this issue. 

GUARDIAN SURGICAL

On a more positive note, I was delighted to hear that around 100 jobs have been secured as Guardian Surgical have found a viable way forward, with financial support from South Ayrshire Council.

Guardian Surgical, formerly known as BDF Healthcare, had announced plans to rationalise their operations in Scotland and it looked likely that they would close one of their two factories in the constituency. Last March the company, which produces single use surgical textiles for the healthcare sector, informed staff in Girvan and Patna that up to 100 jobs could go.

I met with representatives from the company and held talks with Scottish Enterprise and both East and South Ayrshire Councils in a bid to get the decision reversed, so I am particularly pleased that Guardian Surgical have managed to develop a business model that retains the expertise of the highly skilled staff here in Ayrshire.

BREXIT

As ever, Brexit continues to dominate both in the news and in Westminster. I was pleased this month by the decision of the Supreme Court that the UK Parliament must have the opportunity to vote on legislation before the UK can be taken out of the EU.

I and my colleagues in the SNP Group at Westminster will put forward 50 amendments to the UK government legislation to address the very serious concerns facing the UK and the very real issues that the UK government has, thus far, avoided.

A number of local employers have been raising concerns about the impact of Brexit on their businesses with me, particularly regarding uncertainty over trade arrangements and their ability to employ EU citizens as staff. I have also been hearing from people who have chosen to make their home here, or who are married to people from the EU, who are hugely worried they are going to be forced to leave. 

If Theresa May is intent on being true to her word that Scotland and the other devolved administrations are equal partners in this process, then now is the time to show it.

MOTABILITY

At this time of year it is often difficult for many people to get around, but for disabled people it is a year-round struggle, so it is important that we do everything possible to help them live independent lives.

During a debate on Employment Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payments in November last year - benefits designed to help those who cannot work because of a disability or long-term health condition – the Minister for Disability, Work and Health, Penny Mordaunt, indicated that eligibility for the Motability Car Scheme would be extended to more disabled people, such as those on the standard mobility rate of PIP, and I have called on the UK Government to clarify whether this scheme for people with disabilities is to be extended.

People with mobility issues should have access to the Motability scheme and every avenue should be explored to protect the independence of people who have more limited capabilities. A specially adapted vehicle can often be the only means of transport available to a disabled person and removing that creates further barriers to work.

I warmly welcome the direction that the Department for Work and Pensions appears to be going in and I hope the Minister will now provide the detail that disabled people need to continue to live their daily lives.

AYRSHIRE GROWTH DEAL

Along with my colleagues from the three other Ayrshire constituencies, I met with the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark MP, this month to discuss a possible Growth Deal for Ayrshire.

The Ayrshire Growth Deal has the potential to transform Ayrshire in terms of creating transport links, jobs, homes, skills and economic prosperity, and all four Ayrshire MPs are committed to working together to make it happen. This joint business venture between the three Ayrshire local authorities, aims to secure £350 million of funding from the Scottish and UK Governments to develop projects and help transform the economic prospects for Ayrshire.

The plan has already received support from the Scottish Government and we were keen to obtain a similar commitment from the UK Government to help move the process forward. Ayrshire has the potential to be lead the way when it comes to the regeneration of rural and coastal regions and governmental support of the AGD would signal the Government’s commitment to our rural communities.