Parliamentary Update: 15th January 2016
Women and Pension Changes
The Westminster Parliament returned to business this month with a debate on an issue that has been generating a lot of emails for me - the equalisation of the state pension age, and the effect it will have on women born in the 1950s.
The Pensions Act 1995 legislated for the planned age rise to take place between April 2010 and 2020, but the Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the latter part of that timetable so that the state pension age for women will now reach 65 in November 2018. Many women find themselves doubly hit by these changes as the state pension age for both men and women rises to 67.
This is an issue that my SNP colleagues, in the last Parliament, warned the Government about and so it is disappointing that they have not taken on board the concerns, which I share, that were raised previously. Whilst I agree with the equalisation, the SNP do not support the unfair manner in which the changes were made - and have long called for a longer transitional period to protect retirement plans for women.
My colleague, Eilidh Whiteford MP, said back in 2011 that the issue was not only the pace of change, but it was about the context of a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by many women. I believe that the Government had an opportunity, whilst pursuing these changes, to tackle women's inequality in old age - but they have failed - at arbitrarily targeted women born in the 1950s.
The UK government have a lot of questions to answer, and I have joined with my colleagues to urge the Government to revisit the inequalities felt by women born in the 50s immediately.
This week the Delegated Legislation Committee at Westminster considered Government proposals to scrap means-tested student grants completely for students attending universities in England. The grants would be replaced by loans – a move which is expected to affect around half a million students. While the Scottish Government has protected maintenance grants for eligible students at Scottish universities, the National Union of Students has found that reductions in the amount of student maintenance grants awarded has already led to the overall Departmental Expenditure Limit for Scotland being reduced by around £50 million per year. Despite eight MPs voting against the proposals, it was supported by ten Conservative members.
I believe education should be about the ability to learn, and not the ability to pay. Scrapping this vital support for students at English universities only serves to saddle them with yet more debt and, as degree programmes at Scottish universities like our own University of the West of Scotland are typically a year longer than those in England, so prospective students from south of the Border could be put off applying to study here if it will leave them further in debt.
People will be rightly shocked that this matter has not been given the full and proper scrutiny by all MPs in the Commons, and it is deeply disappointing that the Tories have dodged a full debate on the issue by confining it to a back room in Parliament.
Despite the impact this move will have on our budget, the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring the protection of free tuition for Scottish students, and will continue to provide support for students through the maintenance grant as well as expanded the Education Maintenance Allowance and Modern Apprenticeship programmes.
Funeral costs have spiralled in recent years, with the average funeral in Scotland costing around £3,481 in 2014, compared to £1,815 in 2005 – a 92 per cent rise. South Ayrshire Council have just announced another hike in the cost of cremations and burials in order to make more than £70,000 worth of savings over the next two years.
In my opinion it is unacceptable that a grieving family dealing with the loss of a loved one should be put through the additional stress and worry of how they will pay for a funeral. This is a source of misery for many individuals and families who suddenly find themselves having to handle expensive funeral costs. That is why I have called for an official regulator for the industry – like there are for care home providers or paid carers - would level the playing field across the UK and will allow families to deal with their grief rather than worrying if they can afford a funeral.
The Scottish Government will be given powers over funeral payments through the Scotland Bill and has commissioned research into the best way to take this forward. The SNP lodged an amendment, which was supported by Labour, to the Scotland Bill to have better ability to help with funeral expenses but this amendment, like every other Scottish Amendment, was not accepted.
The fact hundreds of people across Ayrshire had to rely on food banks this Christmas is a depressing indictment of UK Government policies. DWP statistics show that in December 2014 3,274 people across the UK had their benefits stopped as a result of a sanction – not including those who already had a sanction in place.
Despite all of the denials from senior Tory Ministers, even David Mundell was forced to admit last year that 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. I support a moratorium on sanctions until a comprehensive review has been conducted into their use. The application of a sanction will almost always bring hardship for the person concerned but at Christmas this means additional stress and upset for low-income families.
Employment Support Allowance
I have called on the UK Government to reverse cuts to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) after a Parliamentary Review found that the changes would move disabled people further away from work. The review of the changes, which are due to come into effect in April 2017, looked into the UK Government’s proposed removal of the ESA work related activity component and whether it would help the Tories towards their manifesto commitment of halving the disability employment gap.
This policy is expected to make savings of £640 million but there is likely to be a severe knock-on impact to public services such as the NHS and social services as a result of people having nowhere else to turn, which begs the question whether any real savings will be made. These cuts are an outright attack on the 5,500 people in this constituency who are seriously ill, disabled or living with debilitating health problems. People in this group have been assessed as not fit for work by the Government’s own cruel work capability tests so it is hard to see how slashing their income will get them into work faster.
Weather conditions over the past few weeks have been particularly challenging for some in the constituency, and in some instances there have been cases of real devastation. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it has been for people to see their homes and their belongings ruined. The work of the police and the fire service has been fantastic, and I would like to thank the crew from HMS Gannet who helped evacuate people from a bus which got into trouble in Dailly.
The First Minister has announced new funding of over £12 million to be made available to help areas affected by severe weather, in addition to the £4 million already announced by the Deputy First Minister in his budget. This includes an extra £5.8 million to support households, business properties and charities directly affected by flood water with a grant of £1,500. In addition, businesses whose ability to trade has been severely affected by flooding will be able to apply for an additional grant of £3,000 funded by the Scottish Government and administered by local authorities. I urge all those affected to contact their local council.
But we must all be aware that winter is not yet over, and as temperatures drop it is important to make sure we are prepared. This means staying informed on imminent weather conditions, knowing what to do to get ready, such as having a working torch or knowing how to turn off your utilities, and watching out for those who are more vulnerable.