My work as the
MP for Ayr Carrick & Cumnock 2015-17
From the election in May 2015 to June 2017, I worked on more than 7,000 constituency queries - or approximately 10 new cases every single day.
Bank closures have been a major concern locally, as the big High Street banks undergo a reassessment of their business model and try and convince us all to bank online. Since May 2015 the constituency has faced five branch closures, and in each instance the bank involved has blamed the ‘the changing nature of how our customers interact with us’, but have so far failed to evidence this.
These decisions leave the communities involved high and dry, particularly in the cases of Maybole and Dalmellington, who are now left with no branches at all, and it makes banking extremely difficult, in particular for older folk and people without transport to access banking services, and for small businesses to manage their cash banking needs.
The loss of these valuable local facilities penalise the poor, the elderly and the disabled, and provide a considerable challenge to people in outlying areas with minimal mobile and internet access. I have repeatedly urged the major banks to reconsider their decisions to close branches across the constituency. I have held meetings with local communities to listen to their concerns and in every instance I have forced meetings with the banks to push for a rethink. There has been some progress made in ensuring what the banks leave behind assists their customers, and I am pleased that all the major banks have now signed agreements with the Post Office to allow customers to do their day-to-day banking. But there is no getting away from the fact that mobile banking services are unsuitable for disabled customers, press is being put on cash machine services, and people are facing round trips of in excess of 50 miles in order to discuss a bank loan, access a mortgage advisor, or simply open an account.
Disappointingly, the trend for closures is now hitting Cumnock, with the withdrawal from the town of both RBS and the Clydesdale Bank. I continue to work with my colleague, Jeane Freeman MSP on these most recent announcements, but find it completely unacceptable that we could be left in the situation where there are no bank branches between Dumfries and Kilmarnock, and between Stranraer and Ayr.
GALA DAY FUNDING
I was absolutely appalled by South Ayrshire Council’s decision to inflict charges on community groups for the use of stalls and equipment for gala days and other events. Many of these events already run at a loss, with community groups fundraising throughout the year in order to put them on. Others provide groups with a much needed opportunity to raise money and awareness, often supporting council interests such as local schools and community centres.
Apart from the opportunity these events give communities to come together, to raise money, to entertain families, there are a large number of small businesses and voluntary organisations that rely on gala days to raise funds, promote local produce and raise awareness of issues important to our communities. They also attract much needed visitors to South Ayrshire at a time when the Council is unable to organise a coherent tourism strategy.
There is no getting away from the fact that this is a punitive measure that is doing untold harm, particularly to our rural communities, while saving a very small amount of money for Council coffers. When it is coupled with moves to impose utility charges on some community halls, it has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about the role of community run facilities and events. Across South Ayrshire we have some terrific volunteers and community groups who give up their own time to run these halls and put on these events for the benefit of those around them, and local authorities should be supporting them, not robbing them of what little support they have given.
I have been doing all I can to support these groups, and have repeatedly challenged South Ayrshire Council to justify, and reconsider, these decisions. I have also pressed the council to look for solutions rather than simply sending out bills with little or no warning, throwing communities into disarray mere weeks before events are due to take place.
The decision on gala day funding saw a number of these events cancelled last year, but we have achieved some concessions for this year’s gala calendar, and through the dedication and teamwork of the volunteers involved, I hope to see an new innovative and community based approach to help the great tradition of gala days continue in the long term.
AYRSHIRE GROWTH DEAL
For some time now, I, and the other three SNP MPs for Ayrshire, have been determinedly pressuring the UK Government to back an Ayrshire Growth Deal. 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 have been 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 their commitment to our rural communities.
We met with the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark MP, earlier this year to discuss the possible Growth Deal for Ayrshire, organised a hugely successful Taste of Ayrshire event in Westminster to promote the deal, and I have also raised the issue with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke MP, on the floor of the House of Commons. I have even written to local Conservative MSP John Scott to enlist his help in persuading his UK Government colleagues of the merits of the plan.
Work continues on this issue, and my colleagues and I are determined to support the bid for a deal in whatever way we can.
WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality)
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.
Since the Government announced its unfair changes to the state pension age for women, the WASPI campaign has had my full backing. I have been working with some of the 5,000 women affected locally, and they have every right to be angry. 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 – as was shown by the independent research on the issue commissioned by the SNP.
As well as raining the issue with the Government, I have taken part in protests outside the Houses of Parliament in London and County Buildings in Ayr, supported the formation of the Ayrshire WASPI group and provided the local WASPI women with a meeting space in my own office. I was also delighted to present Parliament with their petition.
Work continues on this issue. One thing is for sure, the WASPI women are not going to let it lie, and they have my full support in this.
I met with Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell and Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Damien Hinds at the Scotland Office in London to discuss UK Government support for the restoration of former open cast mines in Ayrshire, and across Scotland.
Despite undertaking to work with the Scottish Government to find a solution enabling the restoration of opencast sites, the UK Government has continued to reject all suggestions for a solution.
While the meeting was constructive, it is extremely frustrating that the UK Government continues to come up with reasons not to help communities across Scotland blighted by former opencast mines which lie abandoned following the collapse of the industry. Coal companies have left many parts of the constituency scarred through their negligence to restore sites and it is simply not feasible to expect local authorities to be able to shoulder the burden alone.
I was also pleased to meet with the Industrial Communities Alliance to discuss issues around de-industrialisation of mining and other Scottish communities, the Government’ s Industrial Strategy Green Paper, and the way forward for communities left behind.
The Scottish Coal Industry Taskforce has worked hard to come up with solutions, but every attempt to get the UK Government to step up has been met with excuses. Despite receiving the revenues when times were good, they now appear to be passing the buck to the Scottish Government when it comes to footing the bill to make it right. I will continue to work on this issue, as we just cannot allow huge swathes of the countryside to be left like this.
Windfarms continue to be high on my agenda, and I am working closely with a number of individuals and community representatives to support them with their concerns and issue. The Scottish Government’s policy on renewable energy tries to strike a careful balance between maximising Scotland’s huge green energy potential and protecting some of our most scenic landscapes and wild land areas, but it is clear that many believe the Carrick and Doon Valley area has now reached saturation point as a number of new windfarm projects have come online in recent years.
I firmly believe that Scotland can continue to be a world leader when it comes to renewable energy, and that this will boost our economy, create jobs and protect our environment, but I am also of the opinion that windfarm projects must not be to the detriment of local people and their communities, and will continue to put pressure on windfarm developers to resolve issues as they arise and to work with communities to ensure any plans have widespread support.
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.
In addition, the parent company, Berendsen PLC, have been so impressed with the way the public sector agencies have worked together to support the plants that they are now looking to make a substantial investment in South Ayrshire through other ventures. Plans are well underway to create a distribution hub at Prestwick Airport which will help support their international markets and their factory in Wales, as well as contributing to the overall sustainability for the Girvan plant.
A77 CAIRNRYAN - AYR
A major feature of my mailbag has been complaints about Transport Scotland using weekend closures of the A77 as its preferred method of dealing with road repairs on the trunk road between the port at Cairnryan and Ayr. While I acknowledge the necessity for these repairs, the persistent closing of the road entirely, and the subsequent diverting of ferry traffic onto small rural roads around Carrick, is having a significant impact on local businesses and communities.
Transport Scotland have limited options where the road width means that a traffic light or convoy system would endanger road workers, but more needs to be done to ensure that the full closure of the A77 only happens when no other option is available. To this end I, along with my colleague Jeane Freeman MSP, arranged a roundtable meeting with Transport Scotland, Ayrshire Roads Alliance and local business representatives. The meeting was an opportunity for the agencies to listen to the concerns of the local community, and as a result they are working on improving their consultation process to make it more meaningful. More meetings are planned and I am optimistic we will be able to get a resolution to this issue.
On a related note, I was pleased to see the Scottish Government’s budget for the next year including funding for the long-awaited bypass at Maybole. This development will help the town’s ambitious renovation plans, and I am sure I am not alone in looking forward to seeing the town flourish following Heritage Lottery funding of just under £2m.This money will be used to repair important historic buildings located within the town’s conservation area, improving up to 75 properties, shopfronts and public spaces, making the town attractive for people and investment
TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND INTERNET CONNECTIVITY
We are lucky enough to live in an area with outstanding natural beauty, but with that comes real issues around telecommunications and internet connectivity. Areas like the village of Barr have been suffering more than most, and I have been working with community representatives for over a year now trying to get some resolution to the problems they are facing. In the course of this work it has become clear that Barr is a village that has been badly let down by a number of organisations and services.
I met with representatives from BT to try and resolve some of the issues, and organised a round table community event, which was very productive and involved agencies responsible for telecoms, broadband, and some wider community issues, such as roads and access to health and emergency services. It was useful to get everyone in one room to try and reach some agreement on how we can all support the villagers to improve the economic development and sustainability of the community there. I do not expect many of the issues to be resolved overnight, but I do believe we are now moving in the right direction to ensure the future of the village
Elsewhere in the constituency the roll out of superfast broadband continues apace, with Digital Scotland supporting areas not currently benefiting from commercial roll-out, but there are clearly issues in many areas, and some serious questions have been asked about BT and Openreach. I have raised the issue of BT’s service standards in Parliament and Ofcom has now announced that BT has agreed to their requirements for the legal separation of its network division Openreach. BT has agreed to all of the changes needed to address Ofcom’s competition concerns which were set out as part of the Strategic Review of Digital Communications.
I strongly welcome this focus on ensuring a step change in quality of service, but this must result in improving rural connectivity, and I have called for the UK Government to revise its proposed Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband so that it will encourage providers to push fibre further.
By maintaining pressure on the Government to take action on the issue of rural connectivity, my SNP colleagues and I were successful in forcing the introduction of a voucher scheme for rural broadband. This is a welcome step towards better connectivity for rural consumers and a clear acknowledgement that the government has listened to our proposals for comprehensive measures to close the digital divide between rural and urban.
DIGITAL EQUIPMENT PENSION SCHEME
More than 1,500 people worked at the Digital Engineering 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.
Towards the end of 2016 I was contacted by a number of constituents who were former employees of Digital who are now seeing the value of their pension scheme reduce year on year. Although indexation of pensions was not guaranteed, Digital made it their practice to award increases even though they were not legally bound to do so. Staff were reassured that this custom would continue when Compaq acquired Digital in 1998, and they continued to pay discretionary increases to their pensioners. However, this practice ended when Hewlett Packard to over the scheme.
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.
I raised the issue with the UK Government’s Pensions Minister, Richard Harrington, met with Hewlett Packard, and led a debate on the issue. The Minister has now committed to meet with Hewlett Packard and the pensioners’ association on this issue, and I continue to press him for action. I believe it is critical that we find a way to support providers and beneficiaries provide and receive dignity in retirement.
Cumnock was dealt a 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 in January 2017 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, and I have met with trade union representatives to hear their concerns. 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.
THE PRICE OF MILK
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 have been getting as little as 14 pence per litre. This situation is clearly unsustainable.
I have questioned the UK Government on this issue and I have called them 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.
I have also raised the issue with the Scottish Government to see what more can be done to support uncontracted farmers, with particular regard to processing facilities which would enable them to diversify and add value to their products.
I met with representatives of NFU Scotland on a local family run farm to see first-hand the workings of a dairy, beef and sheep farm as well as one which has cropping enterprises. Family farming is vital to the local economy, with many farms using the services of as many as 40 other local businesses. We discussed the challenges faced by farmers such as pricing, food labelling, retailer power, red tape, agricultural education and rural broadband.
It is not just low milk prices and dealing with the big supermarkets that is putting our agricultural sector in jeopardy. We need greater transparency about where our food comes from and the UK Government needs to recognise that the supply chain is not working. Urgent measures are needed to address this crisis before more of our farmers are forced out of business.
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.
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. Along with Alan Brown MP and Dr Philippa Whitford MP, I hosted a meeting with local businesses to discuss the impact of Brexit on their futures in the area. The event, which was attended by leading figures in business from across Ayrshire, was convened at NATS in Prestwick and included presentations, a panel discussion and a question and answer session.
The discussion was dominated by concerns around the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and doubts that any new trade deals would provide the same benefits as those already in place. The implications of Brexit for farming, which plays a major role in Ayrshire’s economy, and education were repeatedly raised, highlighting the uncertainty facing these important industries. With no clarity from the UK government on the status of EU nationals living and working in Scotland post-Brexit, attendees also voiced their concerns around workforce shortages and the need for an arrangement that allows young people to travel abroad for work.
It was a pleasure to meet with the business leaders and entrepreneurs who contribute so much to our area. The high turnout reflected the real and understandable fears around Brexit and what the future holds for businesses in Ayrshire and across Scotland, and shows that the UK government has failed to reassure industries, that there is a lack of confidence in the UK’s negotiating abilities, and that business owners, and the public in general, need answers from the government fast.
Listening to the deep concerns of the businesses that are so vital to Ayrshire’s economy was troubling. I will, however, take on board all the issues discussed and ensure that these inform our actions going forward.
I have also been looking into the cost of Brexit on South and East Ayrshire council areas, as the potential costs to the UK’s economy from leaving Europe continue to pile up. Figures obtained from East Ayrshire Council indicate that they currently receive almost £4m of EU funding for projects supporting employability, employment support for young people and SME business growth. These funds are on top of close to £2m of LEADER funding distributed to East Ayrshire projects every five years. South Ayrshire Council is looking at a figure of more than £8m for similar projects.
This brings home the magnitude of the Brexit vote. Councils across Scotland will be watching closely to how this situation develops over the coming months, particularly in terms of European funding sources. While the UK Government talks about Brexit meaning Brexit, the only certainty here is uncertainty. Councils are struggling to plan ahead or take steps to mitigate the impact of the potential loss of EU funding, and the hundreds of small community projects who rely on LEADER funding are facing a difficult future. This is a situation not of our making, and the UK Government needs to step up and protect the interests of local communities like ours.