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Parliamentary Update: 10th March 2016

EU REFERENDUM

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is to be held on Thursday 23 June. While there are arguments to be had around the unsuitability of the timing of this referendum, I want to be clear that I believe that continued European Union membership is overwhelmingly in Scotland's best interests.

EU membership for Scotland ensures greater protection for the environment, workers’ rights, business opportunities and chances for students to study abroad. We have long been a committed and engaged member of the EU and this has been a vibrant source of social, cultural and economic benefit over the last 40 years. In turn, we can be proud of the many contributions that the people of Scotland have made to the peace and prosperity of the EU.

Opinion polls suggest that support for the EU is higher in Scotland than across the UK as a whole, and for Scotland to be taken out of the EU against the will of its people would be democratically indefensible. I will be campaigning to ensure our continued membership of the European Union and making sure that the case to stay in the EU is made positively and constructively.

BANK OF SCOTLAND

I was extremely disappointed to learn of the decision to close the Bank of Scotland branch in Maybole. The partly taxpayer-owned Lloyds Banking Group are blaming the ‘the changing nature of how our customers interact with us’, but have so far failed to evidence this in relation to the closure of what is now the last bank in Maybole.

This decision leaves the people in Maybole high and dry. It is a severe blow to a town already reeling from the closure of its Royal Bank of Scotland branch last year. It is real pity to see what used to be a major Scottish institution withdrawing from Maybole, particularly when the town is undergoing regeneration investment and the imminent arrival of the long awaited Maybole bypass. Maybole is a town trying hard to rejuvenate and this decision hampers the efforts of all involved. It will make it very difficult in particular for older folk and people without transport to access banking services and for small businesses to manage their cash banking needs.

This is a serious loss of a valuable local facility that will penalise the poor, the elderly and the disabled. I have written to the CEO of Lloyds twice now, expressing these concerns and the disproportionate impact this decision will certainly have Maybole and the surrounding area but am yet to receive anything other than the most cursory of responses. I will continue to support the local community in their dealings with the bank, and to find some way of ensuring that the people of Maybole can continue to access appropriate banking facilities.

WELFARE REFORM

Many will know that I have been heavily involved in the SNP’s response to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill which has been making its way through parliament over the last few months. I was privileged to be able to speak in a number of debates on various aspects of the Bill in recent weeks, not least a debate on the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

Claimants of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – which provides financial assistance to people with a serious health condition or disability that prevents them from working – are required to undergo a WCA in order for the DWP to determine if they qualify for the benefit or if they are deemed ‘fit for work’ and no longer eligible for support. I have long expressed concerns about the WCA and have called for the system to be scrapped completely due to the hardship and distress it causes to sick and disabled people by protracted delays and poor decision making. .

I used the opportunity to highlight the difficulties faced by people living with and surviving cancer when it comes to applying for benefits. Survival rates for people with cancer are improving, but we have to recognise that ’not dying’ is not the same as ‘being well’. While the terminally ill and people undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy are exempt from these often degrading and cruel assessments, six months after treatment has ended they are back to having to jump through hoops to get support.

The Work Capability Assessment is too rigid. There are recurring problems with getting appropriate medical background information about claimants' conditions, ensuring that people are placed in the right category, and the accuracy of the assessments themselves. Our social security system should support people towards work, but it should also be a safety net that affords dignity to those who are not fit for work - not just those who will never return to work, but also those with long term conditions, and those who need time to recover from serious illness or injury.

It is hugely disappointing that the Government rejected all amendments which sought to alleviate the issues with this Bill, both from the opposition benches and the Lords. It seems this pernicious piece of legislation is set to pass all the hurdles I and my colleagues have put in its path.

VOTES AT 16

The Scottish Parliament election in May will be the first where 16 and 17 year olds will have the right to vote following the unanimous passage of the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill in June last year. Scotland is only the second country in the European Union to lower the voting age to 16 for national elections.

The latest poll for TNS-BRMB shows that those aged between 16-24 are least likely to be ‘certain to vote’ in the Scottish Parliament election – with a net rating of 62 per cent, compared to 83 per cent for those aged 55-64. These findings are mirrored in the latest Survation poll for the Daily Record – which finds that 48.8 per cent of 16-34 year olds say they ‘would definitely vote’ in the election, compared to 83.4 per cent of those aged 55 and above.

It is hugely important that our young people know they can take a full part in Scottish Parliament elections. Their opinions matter, their voices should be heard, and their votes can make a difference to how our country is run. One of the most inspiring aspects of the referendum campaign was the way so many young people got involved with politics for the first time - more than 100,000 16 and 17 year olds used their vote in 2014. Young people got sidelined in the UK General Election, but I am hoping we can return to that high level of political engagement in May.

With less than two months to go until the Scottish Parliament election, there has never been a more important time to make sure that you are registered to vote. People have until 18 April to register and you can do it online at www.registertovote.scot.

NEW EMPLOYMENT FIGURES

I was pleased to see new figures showing youth unemployment in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock has fallen by almost 15 per cent in the last year. According to House of Commons Library calculations, the proportion of 18-24 year olds claiming Job Seekers Allowance or not in work and claiming Universal Credits in the constituency fell 14.6 per cent since February 2015. And the good news is complemented by corresponding figures on claimants of all ages across the constituency, where a drop of 11.7 per cent was recorded for the same period.

These are encouraging figures which show that determined efforts to reduce youth unemployment are paying off – more young people are in work and the overall number of people not working or seeking work is continuing to fall. Coupled with the latest Office for National Statistics figures showing more Scots are in work than ever before, outperforming the rest of the UK, it is clear that the Scottish Government’s investment in the economy – including vital public infrastructure investment – is paying off. However, despite Scotland resoundingly rejecting austerity, the UK Government’s damaging cuts remain a serious threat to these efforts.

Our priority has to be growing the economy and getting people back to work, not punishing the working poor by signing up to the Tory austerity programme, and victimising claimants with an unfair sanctions system.

COUNCIL TAX REFORMS

Council tax reforms announced by the Scottish Government last week will make the system fairer, more progressive and locally empowering, and will see the incomes of thousands of low income families boosted across Ayrshire. From April 2017, the rates paid by those in the four highest council tax bands (E, F, G and H) will be adjusted in a move that will generate £100 million a year. The additional revenue will be invested in schools through future local government settlements.

The proposals, which build on the recommendations of the Commission on Local Tax Reform, will see the average band E household pay around £2 per week more and the average household in the highest band pay around £10 a week more. The reforms will provide additional support for those on low incomes, with low income families across all bands seeing an extension of the council tax reduction scheme. There will also be additional support for low income households, including many pensioners, living in higher band properties to ensure they do not see any increase in their bills as a result of these changes. In total, over three quarters of households will pay no more or less than they do under the current system.

The council tax freeze has helped households across Ayrshire keep bills affordable during difficult economic times, while ensuring that councils received the funding require to provide the services people need, and I’m pleased it is staying in place for another year. These reforms to council tax bands will mean that there will be no change next year for three out of four households and households will still pay less than they would be paying had the council tax freeze not been in place. Overall, these proposals will protect household incomes, support investment in our schools, make local taxation fairer and ensure local authorities continue to be properly funded while becoming more accountable.