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Parliamentary Update: 20th December 2016

At this time of year there is a temptation to look back and reflect on the events of 2016. If you take a glance at the news there can be little denying it has been a fairly dramatic period, and many are commenting on the political upheaval of the EU Referendum, the US Presidential election, the extremely troubling situation in the Middle East, and the refugee crisis it has sparked.

But I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the more positive aspects of the year gone by, and consider some of the fantastic community groups and voluntary organisations I have met over the past twelve months.

From South Ayrshire Women’s Aid to the Zone in Dalmellington, the team behind Buy Malcolm Sargent House to the Ballantrae Rural Initiative for Care in the Community, this constituency is jam packed with people who care about their neighbourhoods, and the people who live in them.

I would like to pay tribute to the volunteers who give up their time, often while juggling work and family commitments, to organise gala days and food bank collections, who sit on parent councils and community associations. They are the people who make this such a great place to live and work. They are the inspiration behind so many of the fantastic initiatives that are blossoming across the constituency and their contribution to the Ayrshire economy cannot be underestimated.

While for many, Christmas is a time to spend with family and friends, there are people opening their homes to neighbours, and helping those in need. And while it is a time for looking back, the example set by people across Ayrshire who spend their time working for the benefit of others is a fantastic reason to look ahead to the year to come.

The New Year gives us all the chance to get behind some of these initiatives. It is a time to start talking up the area, to start doing what we can to play our part in moving Ayrshire forward. Volunteer if you can, or support those who do if you can’t.

My office will be closed from Monday 26 December – Friday 6 January, but if you need urgent advice or support, please call 01292 288623 to leave a message, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

I hope Santa is good to you and that 2017 brings joy and happiness.

FOODBANK CHRISTMAS APPEAL

As we head into the festive season I have been delighted by the response to my appeal for food and toys for disadvantaged families. The appeal has now closed and all donations are being passed on to the food banks that operate within the constituency for distribution.

At Christmas the most important part of our day is often sharing food with our families and friends. Unfortunately, for too many families food poverty is not just a thing of Christmas past – thousands of people across Scotland will be relying on emergency food aid over this festive period.

Despite all of the denials from senior Tory Ministers, benefit delays and sanctions are a big driver of food bank use in Scotland – and the widely condemned sanctions regime is one of the single biggest reasons.

The Benefits Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill, put forward by my colleague, Mhairi Black MP, went before Parliament earlier this month. The Bill proposed that staff in Jobcentres across the UK would be required to take into account the impact of a sanction on personal circumstances such as caring commitments, the risk of homelessness or mental ill-health, before one can be issued.

There was widespread agreement that there are huge issues with the benefits sanctions regime, but Tory MPs spoke at length to oppose the Bill, and it lacked the 100 members needed to progress to the next stage in Parliament.

Food banks open at Christmas are a damning indictment of this uncaring Tory Government’s failed austerity policies. This Christmas the UK Government should do the decent, compassionate thing and halt the use of sanctions until they have got a grip on this discredited system.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

On a more positive note, I was delighted to attend the Second Reading of the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill in the House of Commons last week.

The Private Members Bill put forward by my colleague, Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP, secured cross-party support and will now proceed to subsequent parliamentary stages. The overwhelming support for the bill sends out a strong signal to women across the UK - that a life facing violence and abuse is not inevitable and that it can be prevented.

While this is only the start of the Parliamentary process, it is a great early Christmas present to women here in the UK and overseas.

RURAL BROADBAND VOUCHERS

I am also pleased to welcome the UK Government’s announcement of a new voucher scheme for rural broadband, after successive calls from my colleagues and I to introduce such a policy to tackle the widespread problem of poor quality rural broadband services.

This is a welcome step towards better connectivity for rural consumers and a clear acknowledgement that the government has listened to the SNP’s proposals for comprehensive measures to close the digital divide between rural and urban.

It is important, however, that the government do not use the announcement as a “smokescreen” to distract from the introduction of a Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband. Proposals for the design of the USO were published by Ofcom on Friday.

Scotland is at the leading edge of digital ambition throughout these isles. As new figures released in Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2016 report show, Superfast coverage in Scotland has shown the greatest improvement of anywhere in the UK, with a 14% year-on-year increase compared with just 7% for the other UK nations. There is still much to be done, but we are moving in the right direction.