Parliamentary Update: 15th September 2015
Before going through the highlights of the past few months, I would like to say thank you to those who placed their trust in me in May and voted to send me to Westminster. It is a huge honour, and I will carry out my role to the best of my ability. To those of you who voted for others, I hope to gain your trust over the coming months and years. My aim is, and has always been, to put the needs of this area first.
Welfare Reform and Work Bill
The UK Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill is making its way through the legislative process at the moment. 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 Welfare Reform and Work Bill Committee met yesterday to start the process of scrutinising the Bill, and we heard evidence from third sector organisations that raised concerns about the bill and further backed up calls for a review of the sanctions process. The Bill would no longer protect parents and families in receipt of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) who have young children from work related conditions - such as having to go to interviews or training at Jobcentres. Previously this was seen as too onerous for parents of young children but the proposed bill would remove this protection for parents of children over the age of one.
The current sanctions regime needs to be frozen immediately so that we can prevent families with young children being hit by potential sanctions. Having your benefits cut or stopped altogether, even for a short time, can throw hard up families into arrears with rent and bills that can take them months, or even years to recover from. The impact on those with babies and toddlers could be devastating.
It was revealed last month that more than 5,000 benefit dependent families in the constituency are now considered ‘over-indebted’. People are having their benefits stopped or cut for between four weeks and three years for a variety of reasons, including being late for a Jobcentre meeting or not applying for enough jobs.
Meanwhile, new figures showing the impact of cuts to tax credits have been released – with almost 26,000 children across Ayrshire set to be worse off as a result of changes announced in George Osborne’s budget. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have reported that the vast majority of children in poverty in the UK live in working households, and that the proposed increase in the minimum wage will not make up for these tax credit losses.
My colleagues and I will be bringing forward amendments to this Bill and continue to fight attacks on low income families.
Footage of yesterday’s evidence session can be viewed at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/f607e9f3-af86-4ecd-8119-4fb3f9a14dd9 and http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/739d8bb7-f2f5-4d60-8d88-98c9ade15c35.
Refugees from Syria and many other countries around the world have been risking their lives trying to get into Europe, and the situation has escalated over the summer. Thousands of people have drowned in the Mediterranean or suffocated in the backs of lorries, while others have been risking their lives each night in a desperate attempt to cross the Channel to reach Britain.
As the UK Government has finally been shamed into accepting a comparatively small number of people from camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries, I have written to David Cameron demanding that he work with other European leaders to find a sustainable long term solution. I have received hundreds of messages from constituents wanting to help, so I have opened my temporary constituency office up for donations of bedding and toiletries to pass on to organisations working with refugees in Scotland.
I have been staggered by the generosity and compassion of the people of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, and it is clear that the UK Government has been consistently out of step with public opinion. People are fleeing their homelands out of necessity, and the UK needs to play its part in helping them. We need European governments to stop squabbling and start cooperating on the creation of safe and legal routes to protection for people fleeing conflict and oppression. It is time the UK Government steps up and demonstrates some leadership on this issue.
Donations of blankets, duvets, towels, linens and basic toiletries can be dropped off at 21 Wellington Square between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. All donations will be passed on to Scottish charities working with refugees both here in Scotland, and overseas. Any financial donations should be made directly to the Scottish Refugee Council, Positive Action on Housing or the British Red Cross.
On a related note, while the troubles with the Eurotunnel have proved costly for some of our local businesses who rely on this key export route. Scotland exported £461 million of seafood to the EU last year, and fish commodities account for 59 per cent of all Scottish food export products. We have some fantastic producers and exporters here in Ayrshire, but their ability to sell their goods in Europe is crucial to their success.
It has been incredibly frustrating to find local businesses are being put in jeopardy by the chaos at Dover and Calais. The lengthy delays have resulted in food either arriving too late to be sold on, or multiple loads arriving at the same time, significantly affecting sales. Some businesses in the area have reported losses of up to £2,000 a day, which is clearly unsustainable and threatens local jobs.
I have been pressuring the UK Government to find a resolution, and have been calling for priority to be given to freight carrying perishable goods since the current crisis began. Working with colleagues in the Scottish Government, we have managed to secure a scheme which will see Kent Police prioritise fresh produce caught up in the delays, with lorries carrying livestock and fresh produce such as fish and meat being sent directly to their crossings, avoiding Operation Stack in Kent.
With the importance of this sector to the Ayrshire economy, I am delighted our concerns on this issue have been heeded. It is vital, however, that the UK Government takes the action needed to find a long term solution to the problem, and starts working with the rest of Europe to solve the appalling humanitarian situation which is at the heart of this situation.
In July I attended a parliamentary event held by Cancer Research UK to speak to the charity about how MPs can keep cancer at the top of the new parliament’s agenda. With one in two people now set to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, the charity says the political drive to beat the disease must keep pace with the progress in research.
UK cancer survival rates are still lagging behind other countries and too many cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully. We cannot underestimate the devastating impact cancer will have on people in this area now and in the future, so it gives me hope to hear that Cancer Research UK’s pioneering research is turning the tables on the disease.
The outlook for new and better cancer treatments is bright, but one life lost to this terrible disease is one too many and that is why I have become a Breast Cancer Ambassador, and why I am supporting Cancer Research UK in their mission to beat cancer sooner.
For more information please visit www.cruk.org.
South Ayrshire Back to School Bank
Over the summer I met with Nicola Cramond, a businesswoman and parent from Sundrum, who launched the South Ayrshire Back to School Bank during the school holidays. The project is part of a web of community groups across Scotland who all aim to provide dignity to youngsters from low income families through collecting and distributing new items of school clothing, bags, shoes and stationery.
The rise in food bank use across Ayrshire has been an issue for some time now. Hard up families are struggling to put food on the table and cuts in benefits, zero hours contacts and low wages all conspire to making raising children a real challenge for many. Add in the stress of trying to find money for school kit and people in poverty can reach breaking point. Initiatives like this are being forced to fill the gap left by repeated attacks on the welfare state. Families are referred to this serviced from a number of agencies, including the Ayrshire Foodbank, Seascape, Barnardos or various South Ayrshire Council agencies. More than 50 families were referred to the service in the first three weeks of its inception, and this is a problem that is not going away anytime soon.
The project is accepting donations at a number of retail outlets across South Ayrshire, and this hasn’t stopped with the kids going back to school. Nicola is already planning for the run up to winter, and is looking for donations of school coats and boots, as well as hats, scarfs and gloves. Donations can be made at Morrisons in Ayr or at Shooze with Sole in Ayr and Troon. More information on the project can be found at the South Ayrshire Back to School Bank on Facebook.
RBS Branch Closure
I was extremely disappointed to learn of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s move to close their branch in Maybole. While it is not the ‘last branch in town’, Maybole High Street can ill afford another vacant building. RBS are blaming the closure on ‘changing customer trends’ and have said that transactions at the branch have fallen by around a fifth since 2011. However, this drop in over the counter business is well below the UK-wide decline of 36 per cent since 2010.
There is a national trend toward online banking, and RBS’ outgoing chairman has claimed that the Reading to Paddington commuter train is their busiest branch as more and more people move to banking on their smartphone, but by claiming that closures of rural branches are being driven by increased use of technology is to ignore the challenges that customers from outlying areas face when attempting to access digital technology. Many of the people affected by this closure will struggle to use online banking due to inadequate broadband coverage and mobile phone signals.
RBS are providing a basic banking service through the Post Office in Maybole, which itself has moved into the local petrol station. However, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a serious loss of a valuable local facility that will penalise the poor, the elderly and the disabled. I have written the CEO of RBS seeking assurances on support for staff facing redundancy, and the provision of mobile banking services.
Crisis in Farming
I have recently met with representatives of NFU Scotland on a family run farm near Mauchline to see first-hand the workings of a dairy, beef and sheep farm as well as one which has cropping enterprises. I would like to extend my thanks to the Taylor family for their hospitality.
Family farming is vital to the local economy, with the Taylor’s enterprise using the services of 43 businesses with over two thirds being within 15 miles of the farm. We discussed the challenges faced by farmers such as pricing, food labelling, retailer power, red tape, agricultural education and rural broadband.
This was a really useful visit and has highlighted the crisis facing our farmers just now. It is not just low milk prices and dealing with the big supermarkets that is putting our agricultural sector in jeopardy. We need greater transparency about where our food comes from and the UK Government needs to recognise that the supply chain is not working. Urgent measures are needed to address this crisis before more of our farmers are forced out of business.
The 2016 Scottish Parliament election 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 this year. The Electoral Commission have launched a campaign to maximise voter registration amongst young people who will be 16 by the time of the election.
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. More than 100,000 16 and 17 year olds used their vote last year. I am hoping we can retain that level of political engagement next year. So I am urging all eligible young people to register to vote and to get involved in making decisions about our country. Registering is easy and will only take five minutes online at http://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.