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Parliamentary Update: 29th April 2016

THE PRICE OF MILK


I had the opportunity this month to highlight the plight of some of our local dairy farmers in a Westminster debate on the dairy industry. Ayrshire is synonymous with dairy farming, but are farmers are in jeopardy as the current farmgate milk price crisis is threatening their livelihoods.

It costs around 28 pence to produce a litre of milk, but farmers contracted to supply a particular milk processor are only getting around 22 pence. And more than two thirds of our dairy farmers don’t have contracts. While their milk goes into the same cartons as their contracted neighbours, many farmers here in Ayrshire are getting as little as 14 pence per litre. This situation is clearly unsustainable.

I have called on the UK Government to urgently amend the remit and powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, who currently oversees the trading relationship between the big supermarket chains and their suppliers. While few dairy farms sell direct to the supermarkets, the current remit is of little use when looking at the price farmers are getting for their product. The Adjudicator is also unable to impose any penalties on retailers who breach the Code, rendering the role as toothless. Our farmers cannot and should not be expected to subsidise supermarkets selling milk at rock bottom prices to get people into their shops.

BOWEL CANCER AWARENESS


As April marks Bowel Cancer Awareness Month I was pleased to be able to support Bowel Cancer UK in urging more people to take part in bowel cancer screening and help save lives. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK, affecting both men and women. Every year over 41,000 people (one every 15 minutes) are diagnosed with bowel cancer and 16,200 people die of the disease.

Bowel cancer screening can save lives but at the moment in some areas of the UK only a third of those who receive a test complete it. Thousands of people are missing out on the chance to detect bowel cancer early when it is easier to treat.

As the local MP, I am totally committed to improving uptake rates for bowel cancer screening, both locally and nationally. I would urge everyone who is sent a bowel screening test to use it. Taking part in bowel cancer screening is the best way to get diagnosed early. If you are over 50, take the test when you receive it in the post. If you are younger, tell the people over 50 in your life to take the test. Early diagnosis really can save lives.

TAX AVOIDANCE – THE PANAMA PAPERS


The millions of documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca revealing details of how the rich hide their wealth from the taxman is undoubtedly one of the largest data breaches ever – but given that Mossack Fonseca is the world’s fourth largest provider of offshore services, this leak is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rooting out tax evasion and avoidance. The documents show that a number of wealthy UK residents have made use of offshore accounts in Panama to avoid paying their fair share of UK tax. This is scandalous, and my SNP colleagues and I have called on the Chancellor George Osborne to come before Parliament to outline what action he will take to end these totally indefensible practices.

More generally, the UK must play a bigger role in supporting international efforts on tax avoidance, not least of all to address the role of crown dependencies and overseas territories of the UK. The Prime Minister is due to host an anti-corruption summit in May 2016, and I hope that he will take that opportunity to fulfil a promise he made three years ago to clamp down on tax evasion and to publish details of UK-based companies that have advantageous tax arrangements in the UK's overseas territories. Thus far, he has failed to deliver on that promise.

SOUTH AYRSHIRE COUNCIL CHARGES


I was pleased to see Ayrshire Leader step in and offer to fund up to 90 per cent of the charges that many communities were facing for the use of stalls and equipment for gala days and other events. South Ayrshire Council’s attitude on this issue had left a number of rural communities facing the prospect of having to cancel their events, so it is good news that they are now in a much better position to cover the costs the Council are now imposing. The Leader funding is for this year only, however, so I am continuing to press the Council on this issue.

Unfortunately, the Council have hit some of our rural communities with a double whammy by now demanding community groups pay huge heating and lighting bills for community halls. It is my understanding that these bills far outweigh any income the groups have, and were delivered with no consultation or notice of the change in policy.

A spokesperson for South Ayrshire Council has given assurances that community halls will not be closed, and if community associations decide to stop managing their centres the Council will step in to take over their day-to-day running. Which begs the question of how much money the Council is actually expecting to save with this measure. It seems to be me to be extremely regrettable that these latest budgetary decisions are having such an impact on our rural communities for very little financial gain. It is disappointing that the Council seem so keen to abandon any existing goodwill held by our rural groups, particularly considering the fantastic work many of them are doing to make South Ayrshire such a great place to live.

THE BETTING INDUSTRY


I hosted a breakfast briefing in Westminster earlier this month looking at the promotion of diversity and skills in the betting industry. The event, organised by William Hill, was attended by MPs and Lords from across the political divide.

The main focus of the event was around tackling misperceptions of the betting industry as a predominantly male domain, but there were also discussions around the work William Hill are doing within local communities and a number of concerns were raised around problem gambling, which provided the opportunity to hear about the measures the industry are taking to play their part in identifying and assisting vulnerable people whose gambling is getting out of control.

I think it is really important to engage with the gambling industry to air our concerns and have positive discussions to challenge perceptions and encourage them to step up and do the right thing. The sector has come a long way over the past twenty years, and I found it helpful to hear about some of the initiatives William Hill are involved with, particularly their work with dementia awareness.

UNACCOMPANIED CHILD REFUGEES


The Tories voted down an amendment to the Immigration Bill this week that would have required the UK to accept at least 3000 child refugees, providing safety and stability to children for whom conflicts in their home countries are far beyond their understanding or control. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children estimate that there are currently 24,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. The UK Government has so far failed to make any clear commitment to resettle its fair share of these vulnerable children.

Tabled by Lord Dubs, himself a refugee who arrived in the UK as one of almost 10,000 Jewish children saved by the Kindertransport in 1939, the amendment was defeated by 294 votes to 276. It is my view that, by refusing to give shelter to children fleeing war, the UK Government have yet again shown a complete lack of compassion. By failing to act on this issue, they have condemned thousands of refugee children to a desperate future.

An estimated 10,000 children disappeared in Europe last year. Unaccompanied child refugees are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse, and this Government is failing them. We have a moral obligation to these vulnerable kids. They have fled war and persecution. They have lost everything, and they need our help. By abdicating responsibility, the UK Government has failed to show the leadership that is needed to tackle this humanitarian crisis.

UNIVERSAL CREDITS


I have written to Stephen Crabb, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, asking for answers on how he intends tackle the problems surrounding the roll-out of Universal Credits, and I have asked him to look again at the devastating consequences the cuts to work allowances will have on families across the UK.

The Tories’ flagship new benefit has been plagued with delays and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been written off for IT failures yet Stephen Crabb insists that he remains fully committed to the rollout – now expected to be completed by 2021.

The current austerity agenda is being made out of choice rather than necessity. The Universal Credit idea once sold as a simpler system, aimed to ease entry into work and increase the incentive to work, is about to backfire. But any benefit of the new system has been tarnished by the Summer Budget, as even though the cuts to tax credits have been scrapped, they will continue in Universal Credit, leaving a much less generous benefit than tax credits.

If Stephen Crabb really wants to sort out the mess that Iain Duncan Smith left behind, he needs to take action to protect low-income workers, particularly to support lone parents and second earners. There needs to be a fundamental rethink on the Tories’ flagship welfare reform and Stephen Crabb must outline exactly how he intends to solve the Universal Credit catastrophe.

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS


As I am sure you are aware, polling for the Scottish Parliament elections take place next Thursday.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament is done under a system called the Additional Member System (AMS), which is a hybrid voting system. It combines elements of First Past the Post where you mark an X next to the candidate you want to represent you in your constituency, and proportional representation, where you select from a list of candidates for each party who represent a larger regional constituency, in our case the South of Scotland. Under this system you get two votes – one for a candidate and one for a party. Each constituency returns a single candidate, in the style of First Past the Post. The votes for the party list candidates are then allocated on top of these constituency seats to ‘top up’ the number of seats won by each party to represent their share of the votes proportionally. These are the “additional members.

Whatever your political beliefs and whichever party you support, I would urge everyone to cast their vote on Thursday and take this opportunity to make your voice heard in Holyrood.