Parliamentary Update: 4th November 2015
Welfare Reform and Work Bill
The UK Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill passed its Stage 3 debate in the Commons last week with no substantive amendments. The Bill allows for the introduction of extensive changes to welfare benefits, tax credits and social housing rent levels. These will account for around 70% of the £12-13 billion in welfare savings identified in the Summer Budget 2015.
The Government was defeated in the House of Lords on two amendments to the Bill, one designed to delay the implementation of the Bill until the Government report on their response to the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ analysis of the impact of the Bill and consider mitigating action, and the other to introduce a three-year transitional protection for current tax credit recipients. The Government have indicated they will respond to these amendments in their Autumn Statement at the end of November.
As things currently stand, around 15,000 families in Ayrshire will feel the impact of the changes this Bill brings, including almost 26,000 children who live in households in receipt of tax credits. I, along with my colleagues in the SNP Parliamentary Group, will continue to make representations to Government to think again about these plans.
According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, almost one in five Scots is paid less than the Living Wage of £7.85 per hour. This figure rises significantly in some rural areas. In South Ayrshire 24.7 per cent of workers are earning below this level, and the figure rises to 26.3 per cent in East Ayrshire. The Living Wage is calculated to cover the basic costs of life in the UK.
There has been some real progress across Scotland, with more than 300 employers now accredited as paying the Living Wage to all their staff, but these figures show there is still some way to go in easing in-work poverty in our rural communities. As new jobs are created it is important that they pay enough to provide people with a decent standard of living, and employers who are already signed up are reporting increased staff morale, productivity and reduced absenteeism, not to mention the benefits of people having money in their pockets to spend in the local economy.
I have been delighted to have received such a great response from constituents to my call for donations for refugees. The idea behind the collection was to be able to provide refugees arriving in Scotland with some basic necessities. While local authorities are responsible for housing refugees placed in their care, the Scottish Refugee Council have informed us that this does not necessarily include items such as bedding, towels and toiletries. Of the donations we have received, much of the clothing, tents etc have been sent on to aid people displaced across Europe, while these household goods have been kept in preparation for people who are to be located here in Scotland as part of the UK Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS). I have now stopped collecting goods at my office, and any donations constituents still wish to make can be made through www.scotlandwelcomesrefugees.scot.
The VPRS is a scheme that has been set up as the UK Government’s response to the situation in Syria and involves UNHCR staff in the refugee camps around the Syrian border identifying particularly vulnerable people, such as children, victims of sexual abuse, the disabled and elderly, and victims of torture. The scheme does not give refuge to those who have already made their way to Europe. Individual refugees cannot apply to be resettled under this scheme and, if selected, are not treated in the same way as people who make their own way to the UK. People arriving under the VPRS will have been granted five years’ Humanitarian Protection status.
Many of you will have read in the local papers about refugees who have recently arrived in South Ayrshire. These refugees are not part of the VPRS, but have arrived in the UK under their own steam and are going through the process of claiming asylum. They have been temporarily placed in Ayrshire by a private contractor working for the Home Office, as part of an ongoing arrangement between the Home Office and a number of hotels across the UK. There is no requirement on the Home Office to consult with local authorities regarding the use of hotels for such short term contingency accommodation. Once their initial paperwork is completed, usually within three-four weeks, they will be relocated elsewhere in the UK, with the agreement of the receiving local authority.
I have been working with South Ayrshire Council and the Home Office to try and gain some clarity on the situation, and I have lodged parliamentary questions on this issue, as I believe the process is unsatisfactory for the refugees, the local council and for the local community. Meanwhile, I am confident that we can continue to extend our support to these people for the short time they will be with us.
Fairer Scotland Engagement Fund Extended
Small to medium-sized community groups and voluntary organisations are being encouraged to act now for a fairer Scotland by applying to the Fairer Scotland Engagement Fund. The Fund is now being opened up to organisations with an annual income of up to £250,000 to host a discussion and ensure as many voices as possible are heard. Eligible groups have to act fast though, as the extended deadline for applications is 16 November. Events should take place by 23 November and reports submitted by 27 November.
Through Fairer Scotland, the Scottish Government aims to create a place where people are healthier, happier and treated with respect; and where opportunities, wealth and power are spread more equally. To achieve this, Fairer Scotland needs YOUR views. Organising an event couldn’t be easier. Simply book a venue, invite at least five people, discuss the following questions and record their views:
• What are the issues that matter most to you?
• What do you think needs to be done?
• How can you and your community play a role in helping to shape our future?
The views you gather will be sent to the Scottish Government as part of a series of events and conversations to help create a fairer Scotland by 2030. Eligible costs for an event include venue hire, refreshments, interpreter, facilitator, childcare, equipment hire, travel expenses and promotional materials. In total, costs of £75 - £300 (or £500 for larger events) can be claimed. Constituted organisations with an annual income of up to £250,000 can apply, or larger organisations can apply on behalf of un-constituted groups.
The application process is straight-forward and you’ll know within two working days whether your application has been successful. The Application Form and Guidance Notes can be downloaded directly from the Voluntary Action Fund’s website (www.voluntaryactionfund.org.uk/funding-and-support/fairer-scotland-engagement-fund/) and staff are on hand if you need further assistance on 01383 620780, or email email@example.com. Applications should be submitted by 16 November 2015 to FairerScotland@vaf.org.uk.
English votes for English laws (EVEL)
Measures to restrict Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on ‘English-only’ issues were pushed through Parliament last week. EVEL will see the creation of new stages in the legislative process where the Speaker of the House will declare a Bill, or clause within a Bill, applies only to England, or to England and Wales “except for minor and consequential effects outside the area in question”. Once this has been established all MPs will continue to speak and vote on the existing legislative stages, but only relevant MPs will be allowed to vote on the new phases.
EVEL is presented as a solution for the “West Lothian Question” asked in 1977 by Tam Dalyell in advance of the home rule referendum. It has remained a theoretical concern since, although in practice, SNP MPs have applied a self-denying ordinance since devolution, reviewing bills on a case by case basis, and in the last century, the UK government has enjoyed a majority in England at all times except 1964–66 and February–October 1974.
There are concerns this move will create two classed of MP and could potentially politicise the role of the Speaker.
Issues around the move have already arisen, with the SNP Parliamentary Group asking for clarity from the UK Government over whether Scottish MPs will be prevented from voting on the future expansion of airport capacity after two senior MPs stated it would be an ‘England only matter’. Increased capacity at English airports impacts significantly on the connectivity of the whole of the UK, and have been promoted by the UK Government as a national infrastructure project. There are also question marks over whether members from Scottish constituencies could serve in Ministerial roles in the future.
Worryingly, the Leader of the House has repeatedly expressed satisfaction with the exclusion of minor and consequential effects. This means Scottish MPs may be discounted on laws with Barnett consequentials (where increased or reduced spending on for example, education in England and Wales results in a percentage increase or reduction on the amount of money the Scottish Parliament has to spend on education). We believe Scottish MPs should not be considered second class on bills with Barnett consequentials. How the EVEL proposals work in practice is yet to be seen.