Parliamentary Update: 10th October 2016
TAX CREDIT FIASCO
I have had a number of constituents contact me over the last few weeks in dire need because their tax credits had been stopped and they were facing accusations of fraud. On closer examination it transpired that Concentrix, the company contracted by HMRC to reduce the tax credit bill, had been indiscriminately stopping people’s tax credits, across the UK, and accusing them of fraud with no basis in reality.
I have spoken to single parents who have been accused of being married to one of their children, and one woman who was supposed to be having a relationship with her father. Many people weren’t even given an explanation, with some spending hours on hold to the company, only to be cut off.
I am pleased that the Tax Credit fraud and over-payment contract will now not be renewed. With millions of low and middle income families in receipt of tax credits, these indiscriminate accusations were causing real distress and hardship. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that HMRC, who have recalled all of the cases, are struggling to sort through the chaos, and my office is being told people may not have their tax credits reinstated for several weeks.
This whole episode leaves many questions to be answered about UK Government incompetence. There are reports that civil servants have now been drafted in to clean up the mess left behind – and this will come at a cost. The taxpayer has an absolute right to know how we got into this mess and what plans the UK Government has to sort it out
WOMEN AND THE STATE PENSION
I was delighted last week to accept a petition from the newly formed Ayrshire WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) group. They have collected hundreds of signatures in support of the national WASPI campaign against changes to pensions that are having an unfair impact on women born on the 1950s.
The UK Government has accelerated the process of equalisation of pension ages for men and women, which means that women born in the 1950s have lost thousands in pension payments without having sufficient time to plan for the changes. The petition calls on the House of Commons to urge the UK Government to make fair transitional arrangements for all women who have unfairly borne the burden of this increase to the State Pension age.
Ayrshire’s WASPI campaigners have every right to be upset and angry with the UK Government on this issue. It is a long-held principle that when pension changes occur people should be given the right amount of time to adjust their pension plans, and for the UK Government to accelerate these changes without making the time available for people to change their retirement plans is grossly unfair.
Anyone wishing to get involved in the campaign, or seeking more information, can contact the new group at email@example.com.
WEAR IT PINK
October marks Breast Cancer Awareness month and there will be many people around Ayrshire who will be taking part in Wear it Pink events. It is both a fun and serious campaign raising awareness and vital funds for breast cancer research.
50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK, and sadly around 11,500 women and 80 men will lose their lives to the disease. Through cutting-edge research, Breast Cancer Now are tackling the disease from all angles to ensure that, by 2050, everyone that develops the disease will live.
I am fully committed to standing up for everyone affected by the disease and I hope people in the local community will join me by wearing it pink on Friday 21 October to show their support. For more information or to register, visit www.wearitpink.org.
OPERATION REPORT HATE
I had the privilege to meet with members of the travelling community in Girvan last week in the run up to National Hate Crime Awareness Week (8-15 October).
The meeting was part of the national campaign Operation Report Hate, which seeks to highlight hate crimes against the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, and the need to report them. Since the EU referendum result there has been an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes and the GTR communities have been victims of such offences. However, hate crimes against GTR communities are severely underreported, which means these crimes remain the lowest of priorities.
The Traveller Movement are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and leading charities to raise awareness of hate crimes and ensure hate crimes against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are given the same public profile and recognition as other hate crimes.
There is no room for complacency here regarding potential attacks on our neighbours, no matter who they are or where they come from, and anyone intent on perpetrating hate crime in Scotland should know that they will feel the full force of the law.
UNDERGROUND COAL GASIFICATION (UCG)
The Scottish Government has announced that UCG will have no role in Scotland’s energy mix and has asked the UK Government to revoke all existing licences in Scotland. The unconventional method of extracting gas, which is distinct from fracking, was placed under a moratorium in 2015 while the Scottish Government reviewed evidence on its safety and environmental impact.
A report by Professor Campbell Gemmell was published last week, stating that the UCG industry has a history of pollution incidents and would make climate change targets harder to meet without a suitable storage method such as carbon capture. The UK government pulled the plug on a promised £1 billion carbon capture and storage project, which had been expected to go to Peterhead.
There are very few examples of UCG operating commercially, and where the technology has been used there has been serious environmental impacts including soil contamination and exposure to toxins. Mistakes in Australia were so bad that a number of prosecutions have been brought. It is my view that the Scottish Government have taken exactly the right position on this issue, and I await an evidenced based decision on fracking in the near future.