Parliamentary Update: 28th October 2016
TAX CREDIT FIASCO
As discussed in the last parliamentary update, I have had a number of constituents contact me over the past month in dire need because their tax credits had been stopped and they were facing accusations of fraud with no basis in reality. I had spoken to single parents who had 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 Concentrix, the private company working under contract to HMRC, only to be cut off.
I was pleased to have the opportunity this week to speak out on behalf of these constituents when the conduct of Concentrix was debated in Parliament. I was keen to ensure that the Government was left in no doubt as to where the responsibility for this fiasco lies. It was the government who devised the model to indiscriminately target low income families by awarding a contract to Concentrix based on payment for results, creating a clear conflict of interests, and encouraging bad practice. It was also the government, through HMRC, that supplied Concentrix with one and a half million claimant records flagged up as ‘high risk’ of being fraudulent.
I called for a full apology for the hardship and suffering that people have faced, a review of the ongoing policy of downsizing HMRC, and the introduction of Freephone numbers for claimants. I also called for legislative change to ensure this kind of debacle never happens again.
You can read the full debate at https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-26/debates/9DC288E8-BD7C-467E-908A-E774D7DF0AE2/Concentrix
During the debate on Concentrix, I again highlighted the tendency of this government to place the greatest burden of their austerity agenda on the shoulders of the most vulnerable, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in their treatment of disabled people and those with chronic illnesses. So I am absolutely delighted to take on the important role of SNP Westminster Group Spokesperson for Disabilities, which was announced this week.
The impact of this Government's welfare reforms and their obsession with austerity should never be underestimated - from issues around assessments for benefits to restrictions on access to motability, I'm keen to continue the work of the SNP in ensuring the voice of those with disabilities doesn't go unheard. I'm also keen to raise awareness of disabilities - some completely debilitating - which are unseen. Being dyslexic, I'm particularly interested in working on improving support in the workplace for people with hidden disabilities.
The SNP Scottish Government is currently spending £100 million a year on mitigating the worst effects of the cuts to welfare from the UK Government, but with some new powers over welfare spending being devolved to the Scottish Parliament it gives Scotland the opportunity to take a different approach to the Tories. The SNP is committed to putting dignity and respect at the heart of social security in Scotland and I’m keen to do everything I can at Westminster to improve the lives of disabled people across Scotland.
I am supporting an appeal for donations from South Ayrshire Foodbank next month and will be accepting donations of food into my constituency office between 11am and 3pm on week days between from 14th - 25th November.
We are particularly looking for donations of tinned or packet custard, tinned vegetables and fruit, tinned or packet potatoes, tinned main meals like curry, stew or chicken casserole, cereals like Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies or Weetabix, dried packet rice, diluting juice and biscuits. Tea, coffee and sugar are also needed.
Every day people in the UK go hungry for reasons ranging from redundancy to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income. A simple box of food makes a big difference, with foodbanks helping prevent crime, housing loss, family breakdown and mental health problems. People can be referred to the foodbank by a wide range of care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers and police, who identify people in crisis and issue them with a foodbank voucher, which can be redeemed for three days’ emergency food. It is a sad indictment of this Government's attitude to low income families that foodbanks are necessary in this day and age, but it is vital that we support them where we can.
Nuisance callers blight our society and cause significant distress, particularly to elderly and vulnerable people, and they are a regular feature in my mailbag from constituents. I am delighted that the Government will now legislate and introduce the measures proposed in the Unsolicited Marketing Communications (Company Directors): Ten Minute Rule Bill that my colleague, Patricia Gibson MP, brought forward last month.
UK Ministers have now agreed to her proposal to end the scourge of nuisance calls by legislating for company directors to be fined up to £500,000 each if they are found to be in breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. Prior to this, only businesses were liable for fines, many of which try to escape paying nuisance call penalties by declaring bankruptcy - a practice known as “phoenixing”- only to open up again under a new name. This will be an important step in tackling nuisance calls as company directors will no longer escape the consequences of their unlawful actions and I look forward to these changes coming into force from spring 2017.
To date, fines totalling almost £3.7million have been issued to companies behind nuisance marketing. This year alone, the ICO has fined firms responsible for more than 70 million calls and nearly 8 million spam text messages. Over 114,000 nuisance calls and texts were reported to ICO in the first nine months of 2016.
Reporting a nuisance call is simple: visit the ICO website at www.ico.org.uk or call their helpline on 0303 123 1113 and they will take it from there.
IMPACT OF BREXIT ON LOCAL COUNCILS
I have been looking into the cost of Brexit on South and East Ayrshire council areas, as the potential costs to the UK’s economy from leaving Europe continue to pile up. Figures obtained from East Ayrshire Council indicate that they currently receive almost £4m of EU funding for projects supporting employability, employment support for young people and SME business growth. These funds are on top of close to £2m of LEADER funding distributed to East Ayrshire projects every five years. South Ayrshire Council is looking at a figure of more than £8m for similar projects.
This brings home the magnitude of the Brexit vote. Councils across Scotland will be watching closely to how this situation develops over the coming months, particularly in terms of European funding sources. While the UK Government talks about Brexit meaning Brexit, the only certainty here is uncertainty. Councils are struggling to plan ahead or take steps to mitigate the impact of the potential loss of EU funding, and the hundreds of small community projects who rely on LEADER funding are facing a difficult future. This is a situation not of our making, and the UK Government needs to step up and protect the interests of local communities like ours.
INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM BILL
The Scottish Government has published a consultation on a draft Independence Referendum Bill. This does not mean there will be another Independence Referendum, but if there is another one it will not be because the result of the 2014 referendum has not been respected – it will be because the promises made to Scotland have not been kept.
The SNP Manifesto clearly stated that another referendum could be called “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.” It doesn't get clearer than that and, unlike the Conservatives, who committed to the single market in their 2015 general election manifesto, we will stand by our promises.
More information on the consultation can be found at https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/elections-and-constitutional-development-division/draft-referendum-bill.