Friday, 30 December 2011

Shocking picture of life in North Ayrshire

Figures published by the Scottish Public Health Observatory reveal a disturbing picture of life in North Ayrshire.

In addition to having Scotland’s highest unemployment, the Health and Wellbeing Profile for North Ayrshire has found the percentage of the population who are of working age is below the average for Scotland, indicating more and more local people are moving away from the area.  The percentage of those over the age of 65 in North Ayrshire is above the national average.

 With regards to life-expectancy, ‘all-cause mortality’ affecting all age groups, and mortality rates from coronary heart disease in those under the age of 75 are all ‘significantly worse’ than for Scotland as a whole.

The report indicates around 31 per cent of North Ayrshire adults smoke, compared to 25 per cent across Scotland, while the proportion of the population hospitalised for alcohol conditions is ‘significantly worse’ than the national average.  The same finding relates to the numbers of local people hospitalised for drug-related conditions.

Compared to Scotland as a whole, ‘significantly more’ adults in North Ayrshire claim some form of incapacity benefit or severe disability allowance.  The local area also has a ‘significantly higher’ than average percentage of people living in income-deprived areas and performs ‘significantly worse’ in terms of all economic indicators.

In addition, the Public Health Observatory investigation found levels of crime and the proportion of the North Ayrshire population in prison are above the Scottish average, with an estimated
670 people hospitalised last year following assaults, a rate ‘significantly above’ the average figure for Scotland.

The percentage of the local population living within 500 metres of a derelict site is ‘significantly worse’ than the Scottish level, whilst 18.5 per cent of the North Ayrshire public live within the 15 per cent ‘most access deprived’ areas in Scotland.

Merger and strike at James Watt College

Just days after the3towns revealed James Watt College must pay £49.2million for its North Ayrshire campus, which has a capital value of just £8.6million, the organisation announced it is to merge with Paisley’s Reid Kerr College and Clydebank College.

However, within hours of the merger news, staff at James Watt had taken strike action and passed a vote of no confidence in College Principal Sue Pinder, her management team and members of the College Board.

As reported previously by the3towns, James Watt College has reduced the number of courses it runs after receiving a funding cut of 10 per cent from the SNP Scottish Government.  A further 20 per cent cut is proposed for the next three years.  It is understood the plans to merge with Reid Kerr and Clydebank are motivated by financial rather than academic considerations.

Teaching staff at James Watt’s Kilwinning and Greenock facilities took strike action last Wednesday (December 21) over claims College management had failed to honour previously agreed settlements.  One member of staff indicated management were attempting to drive down salaries and reduce terms and conditions.

The staff member stated that, should College management refuse to enter into meaningful discussions, a programme of further strikes will be implemented in the New Year, possibly escalating to as much as three-day stoppages.    

Last week the3towns revealed the Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract for the purpose-built James Watt College Kilwinning Campus, signed in 1999, was for a building valued at £8.6million, but that figures released by the Scottish Government confirm the total to be paid to private companies by the college is £49.2million.  So far, James Watt has paid £15.6million, with £33.6million still outstanding.

Under the terms of PPP contracts, debts owed to the private companies that build and maintain facilities must be paid as set out in the legal documents.  James Watt College must make its PPP payments before putting in place the funding to deliver courses for students.    Irrespective of reduced funding from the Scottish Government, James Watt College must continue to pay its multi-million pound PPP bill.

Massive rise in long-term unemployment

Research by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) shows long-term unemployment in North Ayrshire has rocketed by a staggering 142 per cent since 2007, the year before the current economic crisis was triggered by the irresponsible actions of banks and financial institutions.

In November 2007 there were 430 local people registered as having been without work for more than 12 months - the figure now stands at 1,040.  In the past year alone the rate of long-term unemployed in North Ayrshire has risen by 20 per cent.

The STUC findings show the level of people without work for more than a year is rising faster in Scotland than any other nation or region of the UK, and that Scotland also has eight of the ten local authority areas showing the largest percentage increases in long-term unemployment over the past year.  With powers over the economy and employment still reserved to the Westminster Parliament in London, it can be argued Scotland is paying a very heavy price for continued membership of the British Union.

Commenting, Grahame Smith, STUC General Secretary said, “These figures help demonstrate the extent of the crisis in the Scottish labour market.  Following last week's Office for National Statistics (ONS) release, which confirmed the Scottish unemployment rate is now higher than the rest of the UK, we now learn that long-term unemployment is rising faster in Scotland than anywhere else.  It is totally unacceptable that over 26,000 Scots are facing at least their second Christmas on the dole.”

The ONS data confirmed North Ayrshire continues to have the highest unemployment in Scotland.

Grahame Smith concluded, “The STUC will next week publish figures to suggest that even these shocking statistics underplay the extent of the crisis.

“It is absolutely essential that Government at all levels redoubles its efforts to boost jobs and growth in the New Year.  Another 12 months of complacency will leave Scotland with a legacy of persistent, structural unemployment with all its associated human, social and financial costs.”

Public backs 'No Cuts - Tax the Rich' petition

The Scottish Socialist Party has revealed over 1,000 local people have signed petitions demanding an end to UK and Scottish Government cuts.

The Party has been conducting street stalls in Saltcoats and Irvine over recent weeks, where members of the public have queued to sign in support of the SSP’s call that ‘austerity measures’ should be halted and, instead, the Tory-Lib Dem Government should tax the super-wealthy to fund the deficit created after public money was used to bail-out failed banks and financial institutions.

Commenting, Campbell Martin, the SSP’s candidate for the North Ayrshire Council seat of Ardrossan & Arran said, “We would like to thank the local public for the fantastic support they have shown.  People are very angry that they are being forced to pay for an economic disaster they didn’t create.”

Mr Martin continued, “Right here in local towns we are seeing cuts to jobs, cuts to Council services, cuts to benefits, cuts to pensions, cuts to our children’s education, cuts even to the Health Service, and all to pay debts run up by millionaire and billionaire bankers and financial speculators in the City of London.

“That is completely unfair and has to stop.  Instead, we should be taxing the rich, taxing the bankers and the spivs and speculators.  There is no way the people of North Ayrshire should be paying the debts of some of the wealthiest people in Britain.”

The SSP point out that corporations and company directors avoid and evade paying around £120billion of taxes every year.  Said Campbell Martin, “There is no need for ordinary men, women and children in local towns to be suffering because of cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, the SNP Scottish Government and the Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council.  The super-wealthy caused the crisis and they should be paying for it.”

The strength of local public opinion, as expressed by the signatories to the SSP petitions, will be brought to the attention of UK and Scottish Government Ministers, along with the demand that savage cuts to the living standards of ordinary men, women and children must be stopped.

Katy raises plight of Farepak savers

Five years after the collapse of Christmas savings company Farepak – and with savers still to receive any compensation – local MP Katy Clark used a Members’ Debate in the House of Commons to raise the issue and call for victims to be compensated.

Ms Clark secured the debate and chose to use the time allocated to her to flag-up the plight of ordinary people – mainly women – who lost their entire savings when Farepak collapsed.  The Labour MP also called on the UK Government to consider stricter regulation of the entire prepayment industry. 

It was recently revealed that Farepak savers could expect to receive just 15p for every pound they lost when the company folded.  Meanwhile, costs related to the administration of Farepak are said to have reached £8.2million. 

Speaking after her debate, Ms Clark told the3towns, “We know that many of the victims of the Farepak collapse were on modest incomes and could ill-afford to lose the hundreds of pounds they were saving towards Christmas.  It is appalling that five years on, no compensation has been paid to victims while the cost of administration is increasing.  Almost 120,000 people thought they were being responsible by saving for Christmas, but they have no priority in the administration process, in a savings industry that is not currently regulated under the Financial Services Authority.”

The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran continued, “While I would like the Coalition Government to make the payment of compensation to victims a primary concern, I believe this is also an opportunity to consider better regulation of the wider prepayment industry, as it has become apparent that consumers and savers are at risk in this area.  

“In the case of Farepak, the documentation that was sent out to savers looked professional and much like that provided by Credit Unions and other such regulated organisations, misleading customers into thinking their money was safe.  People need to be made more aware of where the lines are currently drawn, that their money is not currently protected in these unregulated prepayment schemes as the Farepak fiasco has shown.”

Concluding, Katy Clark said, “Under present legislation, consumers are far down the list of creditors and are most at risk if a company collapses, often receiving very little from the distribution of assets under the administration process.  Administrators’ fees also have to be paid before any compensation can be awarded to consumers.  In light of the news that administration costs are sky-rocketing for Farepak, I am concerned that victims may not even receive 15p in the pound unless the Government steps in.  The Government has stepped in to bail out banks and victims of bank collapse, but the banks and their customers have a larger voice. We should be looking to have some sort of prepayment consumer protection in place, much like the ATOL system for travel companies.

“The Government should be protecting all savers in the same way to ensure we do not have a repeat of the Farepak situation in years to come.”

Police launch campaign against domestic abuse

‘Speak out for you, for them’ - that’s the plea from Strathclyde Police as the force launches its latest domestic abuse campaign ahead of Christmas holidays that can often results in raised household tensions.

As well as the victims of domestic abuse, the campaign also targets their family or friends, urging them to come forward and report any incidents to police or support agencies - particularly where children are involved.
In December 2009, the total number of domestic abuse incidents involving children was 1,301. A year later that figure had risen to 1,609, an increase of 21.2 per cent.

A spokesperson for Strathclyde Police said, “People with children, who find themselves trapped in a domestic abuse situation, may not realise the effect that abuse can have on their children who witness these incidents as they grow up.  The new campaign aims to be the final push for victims or their family and friends to report domestic abuse and to realise that it does not just affect them.

“Although domestic abuse happens all year round, the number of incidents reported during the festive period always increases.  This may be due to a number of factors -perhaps the added stress or financial difficulties that this season incurs.  However, there is never an excuse for domestic abuse and this crime is totally unacceptable at any time of year.”

Chief Superintendent Bob Hamilton added, “Sadly, during each festive period domestic abuse incidents increase.  Even more shockingly, the incidents where children are involved have also increased.  As part of this campaign, we are asking victims - and families or friends of victims -to speak out, if not for you, for the children involved in these abusive situations. These children are viewing scenes that no child should ever see.”

CS Hamilton concluded, “I would urge people to seek help and to act before it’s too late.  If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse then please tell us so we can act on that information.

“We need the help of the public and we will take action wherever possible.  Please report it – your information can be given in confidence. You can report domestic abuse in person to the police, or to any of our partners and, if you wish, you can report it via our online third party remote reporting facility.

Dr Mairead Tagg of Women’s Aid supports the Police campaign, saying, “Christmas is a time when children should be happy and excited, not fearful and worried about what is happening at home.
Each year Women's Aid in Scotland supports thousands of women, children and young people affected by domestic abuse, and we are usually particularly busy in the aftermath of the Christmas period as families try to pick up the pieces after another ruined Christmas.”

Domestic abuse can be reported anonymously to Strathclyde Police through Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.  North Ayrshire Women’s Aid can be contacted (9:00am – 4:00pm) on 01294 602424.  The Scottish Women’s Aid Helpine number is 0800 027 1234.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Fresh uncertainty over Saltcoats care home

the3towns understands senior staff at North Ayrshire Council are urgently working to safeguard the homes of 62 residents at the Seabank Care Home in Saltcoats.

The home’s owners, Argus Care Group, were placed into administration on November 8, but days later issued a statement saying the new-build facility in Saltcoats would not be affected. Court-appointed administrators PKF said at the time, “With the full engagement of the landlord to the businesses, the Administrators have appointed two experienced care home operators to assist them in continuing to professionally operate the care homes. The homes have all been visited and assessed as to quality and standards of care and to ensure that residents, staff and relatives are fully informed. The intention is to manage the care homes to ensure that residents are disrupted as little as possible. Steps have been taken to stabilise the trading position and lines of communication have been opened with the relevant regulatory authorities. The Administrators are committed to ensuring that all care standards are maintained and that all homes remain open.”

However, a North Ayrshire Council source has told the3towns that senior members of the Social Services department have initiated plans to safeguard the interests of residents after uncertainty over the Saltcoats facility re-emerged.

In November, local MP Katy Clark told the3towns, “I am dismayed that yet another private care home operator has gone into administration. This is a very worrying situation for residents, their families and of course the staff.”

Ms Clark referred to “a worrying trend developing in the private care home sector” following the collapse of Southern Cross and then the Argus Group. Said the Labour MP, “We need to re-examine our relationship with private care home operators and make sure that we have the right model in place to look after our older people, and in my opinion the correct model is one operated by the public sector free from private firms looking to make a profit from caring for vulnerable people.”

At the time, Katy Clark sought assurances from the SNP Scottish Government on the continuity of care for her constituents at Seabank Care Home and to protect the jobs of staff at the facility. While administrators initially made positive statements about keeping open homes such as Seabank, it appears the situation may have changed over the last month.

Seabank Care Home is a new-build facility only completed in the summer. In addition to the 62-bed home, Argus Care Group also had permission to construct 18 ‘close-care’ apartments on the site in Canal Street.

The care and nursing home was registered to accommodate elderly residents, including those with dementia, mental health issues, physical disabilities and sensory impairments.

SNP MSP claimed £34,563 in expenses

Cunninghame North’s SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson claimed a staggering £34,563 in expenses last year.

Only three MSPs claimed more taxpayers’ cash than Mr Gibson, but those members incur exceptional travel costs representing Scotland’s most far-flung constituencies – Western Isles, Orkney and Cathness & Sutherland.

The latest Scottish Parliament figures, covering the financial year 2010/11, show Kenneth Gibson’s expenses claim was almost double that of Labour’s Irene Oldfather who represented the neighbouring seat of Cunninghame South – Mrs Oldfather claimed £17,455.

In addition to his salary of £57,521, Kenneth Gibson submitted mileage claims totalling over £5,000. Included in this total were regular claims for £1.00, which Mr Gibson charged the taxpayer to cover journeys between his home in Kilbirnie and his office in Dalry.

The SNP MSP, who represents a constituency that suffers some of Scotland’s highest levels of unemployment and poverty, also got the public to fork-out £297.10 to pay his car parking charges, and £312.66 for his ‘evening meals’.

Mr Gibson’s expenses claims also show that in the three months immediately before parliament was dissolved ahead of the May 2011 Election, the Cunninghame North MSP charged the public purse £1,027.99 for ‘postage stamps’ and ‘mailing costs’. The official figures also show that, just days before the dissolution of parliament, Kenneth Gibson transferred the sum of £3,548.45 from his publicly-provided ‘Office Cost’ budget into one covering ‘Staff Salaries’.

Kenneth Gibson’s wife, Patricia, an SNP councillor representing Greater Pollok on Glasgow City Council, declares in her Register of Interests that she receives remuneration from her role as a ‘Parliamentary Advisor to Kenneth Gibson MSP’.

The lowest expenses claim was made by Margo MacDonald, the Independent MSP for the Lothians. Mrs MacDonald claimed £2,908.

Revealed: Another PPP scandal in North Ayrshire

the3towns can this week reveal the figures behind another Public Private Partnership (PPP) scandal in North Ayrshire.

This newspaper has previously reported on North Ayrshire Council’s Schools PPP contract, which saw the local authority’s Labour administration sign a deal with a private sector consortium to build and maintain four new schools, including St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats and Stanley Primary in Ardrossan. The value of the four school buildings was £80million, but the contract signed by North Ayrshire Council was for a total of £380million, meaning the cash-strapped local authority is committed to pay £10million a year, for 30 years, to maintain just four schools.

Now, the3towns can reveal a similar story in relation to the North Ayrshire campus of James Watt College. The contract for the purpose-built college was signed in 1999, with the new building valued at £8.6million. However, figures released by the Scottish Government confirm that, under the PPP deal agreed at the time, James Watt College must pay a total of £49.2million.

So far, the College has already paid £15.6million, with £33.6million still outstanding.

PPP started out as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) under the Tory Government of John Major. In opposition the Labour Party was against the scheme, but once in government the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown simply changed the name and used it to fund the building of new schools and hospitals. Labour claimed credit for providing new public sector facilities, but PFI/PPP schemes saddle taxpayers with huge financial burdens for years to come and generate massive profits for the private companies who build and maintain the structures.

Under the terms of PPP contracts, debts owed to private companies must be paid as set out in the legal documents, which means that while organisations like North Ayrshire Council have made 400 workers redundant and have cut services to communities, the local authority continues to fork-out £10million a year to the private companies involved in the deal.

Similarly, James Watt College in Kilwinning must make its PPP payments before putting in place the funding to deliver courses for students. Last year the college cut the number of courses it provides following a 10 per cent reduction in funding from the SNP Scottish Government. A further 20 per cent cut is proposed for the next three years. Irrespective of reduced funding, James Watt College must continue to pay its multi-million pound PPP bill.

Fans' fury at Saltcoats Vics officials

Following the resignation of Iain McMillan and Stevie Wilson, the management team behind the resurgence of Saltcoats Victoria, a deep divide appears to have opened at the club, with fans expressing their anger over the departures and pointing the finger of blame at the club Chairman, Raymond Montgomerie, and his brother, Labour councillor Jim Montgomerie.

On a Junior Football web forum, a number of posters have condemned actions they believe led to the ousting of McMillan and Wilson along with three long-serving committee members. Concerns are also expressed over whether or not the team will be able to continue its good run of results under a new manager. The club this week announced the appointment of Davie Adams as the new boss. Mr Adams’ main management experience so far has been at Under-19 level.

One other issue raised by fans is the length of time the Seasiders have had to play home games at the Ardeer Stadium in Stevenston, after North Ayrshire Council imposed a ban on the use of Campbell Park . One poster to the football web site says, “Silky and Stevie [McMillan and Wilson] had built up a good squad and were getting results with a limited budget, having to play away at Ardeer every week.

“From what I hear, it was not the Council who were the problem about Saltcoats getting back to Campbell Park. There was a slight hiccup over the power supply, but the main problem is Saltcoats signing the lease from the Council over the demands of a certain office bearer, whose brother is vice president and has just been elected a councillor for the ruling Labour Party. One would have thought he would have been able to smooth things over. Who would have believed a politician not delivering on promises a few weeks after being elected?”

Regarding the recent resignations, the poster continues, “The biggest blow for Saltcoats is the loss of the two Eddies and Wullie the goalie (for those of you of a certain vintage). These were the boys that do everything around the ground and for the club while the figure-head [Raymond Montgomerie] spends his time at Rugby Park.

“Ardeer were making noises about not surviving into the next season due to lack of support, with the loss of a talented management team and three dedicated committee men, this will leave Saltcoats in an equally dangerous position.”

Responding to the post, another fan says, “I can't believe this has happened. Stevie and Iain did a wonderful job at Saltcoats, turning a club that had finished bottom, second-bottom of the league for many years under a fair few managers into a team that challenged for promotion and finished third, only 3 points behind Dalry last season. Also, two appearances in the 3rd round of the Scottish Cup. I should add, rebuilding the squad from scratch on appointment. This season would have been their third campaign and with games in hand it would have been interesting to see where Saltcoats could have ended up under the guidance of the two managers.”

The post continues, “These guys did a tremendous job for Saltcoats and poured vast amounts of effort and time into the club. They had every player playing for them and commitment was second to none from the guys on the field. I never saw any player speak back to them and they had massive respect from the lads. Something that you hardly ever see these days and I suppose that's where the positive results where built from.”

The fan concludes, “My finger points at the chairman, that bloke Raymond Montgomerie, who only appears at games when the success starts to show...even though I've noticed the same bloke in every picture in the paper and websites representing the development of Campbell Park. I'm aware it was the committee and volunteers down at the park with paintbrushes - I never once saw Montgomerie. He has torn apart a strong management/playing team and solid club.”

Another Saltcoats fan takes a similar view, stating, “Take a hint Raymond - those Kilmarnock days of yours are long gone, so are your Saltcoats ones.”

Weather permitting, this Saturday will see Saltcoats Vics play their first home game at Campbell Park in over three years. Their opponents are Ardeer Thistle, the side that allowed them to share their Stevenston ground over recent seasons.

'Put interests of local people before the bankers' - SSP

Campbell Martin, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) candidate for Ardrossan & Arran, has warned further cuts to jobs and services by North Ayrshire Council will compound the district's already high levels of poverty and deprivation.

The SNP Scottish Government has received a funding cut from Westminster of £1.3billion, which will mean resources provided to councils for the next financial year will again be reduced. Commenting, Campbell Martin said, “North Ayrshire Council will set its budget in February, and with an election in May the Labour administration will try to avoid mentioning the word ‘cuts’, but rest assured, whatever form of words they use to disguise the reality, there will be further cuts to services and possibly jobs.

“All of the so-called ‘big four’ political parties – SNP, Labour, Tory, Lib Dem – whole-heartedly support the idea of ‘austerity measures’, which are actually savage cuts imposed on ordinary men, women and children in order to pay a financial deficit caused by public funds being used to bail–out failed banks.

“By complying with the Tory-Lib Dem and SNP demands for more cuts, the Labour administration of the Council will be forcing people in North Ayrshire, already amongst the poorest communities in Scotland, to pay the debts of millionaire and billionaire bankers and financial speculators.”

Mr Martin continued, “The SSP is the only party standing with the people and opposing cuts. North Ayrshire has the highest unemployment in Scotland, youth unemployment is going through the roof, we have the second-highest level of children living in severe poverty, yet when North Ayrshire Council sets its budget in February, Labour, SNP, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors will all sign-up to further cuts for local people and communities.”

Campbell Martin concluded, “Councillors elected to represent local people should do just that, represent the interests of ordinary men, women and children in towns like Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston. Councillors should be prepared to say ‘no’ to cuts, and should instead set a budget that meets the needs of local people.

“Setting another ‘cuts budget’ will be doing the Tories’ dirty work for them, and will punish local families, many with children already living in severe poverty according to figures for North Ayrshire produced by the charity Save the Children.”

Calls for action on soaring unemployment

Two politicians have united in calls for more to be done to tackle increasing unemployment in the local area.

With the latest figures showing the number out of work in Scotland has soared to 229,000 – youth unemployment has risen by 2,000 per week since July – local MSP Margaret Burgess is to seek a meeting with Angela Constance, the newly-appointed Scottish Government Minister for Youth Employment.

Said Mrs Burgess, “With Westminster’s draconian cuts, these are tough times. But it is vital that the Scottish Government continues to do everything it can to improve the youth employment situation.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, believes the new Minister must prioritise discussions with key partners in relation to how best-results can be achieved from an additional £30million of investment announced last week by First Minister Alex Salmond. Mrs Burgess also flagged-up the SNP Government’s commitment to creating 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships a year, and their ‘guarantee’ of a training or learning place for all 16-19 year-olds.

However, the former Citizens Advice Bureau manager admits more needs to be done to tackle youth unemployment, saying, “This constituency is suffering and I want to discuss this with the new Youth Employment Minister.”

The latest unemployment figures have led to criticism of the SNP Government, which had previously claimed responsibility for the Scottish level of those without work being lower than for the UK as whole – that position has now been reversed, with the Scottish figure standing at 8.5 per cent compared to 8.3 per cent for the UK.

Almost half of those out of work in Scotland are young people, aged between 16 and 24, with youth joblessness showing a dramatic rise of 27 per cent, from 89,000 in July to 113,000 now.

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has called on both the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments to take action.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show there are now 3,644 people on Jobseekers Allowance in North Ayrshire and Arran, a 6.7 per cent increase on the previous year. The number of long-term unemployed in the local area – those without work for more than 12 months – has increased by 20 per cent from the same period in 2010, and now stands at 740.

Katy Clark said, “It has been clear for some time that the current economic approach being taken by the Government is hurting the people of North Ayrshire and Arran. The number of people unemployed for over 12 months is particularly troubling as it indicates that for more and more people lasting damage is being done.

“The latest statistics also demonstrate that the Scottish Government has failed to take the measures necessary to protect people’s jobs. Action urgently needs to be taken now by both the UK and Scottish Governments to restore economic growth and bring investment to North Ayrshire. I will be doing all I can in Parliament to ensure that this takes place.”

Labour MP Ms Clark met last week with Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, to discuss the increasing problem of unemployment in North Ayrshire.

Carers face financial hardship

Carers are being pushed to breaking point. That is the conclusion of a report, published last week by Carers UK, and supported by local MP Katy Clark.

The new report - The Costs of Caring: how money worries are pushing carers to breaking point – reveals over 6 million people are providing unpaid care or support for family members, friends or neighbours, and that many are struggling to make ends meet.

Of 4,282 carers surveyed Carers UK, 43 per cent said they had fallen into debt, with 47 per cent describing their financial situation as having an adverse affect on their health and well-being. More than 50 per cent of carers are officially ‘fuel poor’, spending over 10 per cent of their income on paying heating bills.

The report also found that Carers Allowance, at just £55.55 per week, is one of the lowest ‘key benefits’, but that many carers do not receive any financial support because they either don’t see themselves as ‘a carer’ or have not been provided with information that would help them claim their entitlement.

Commenting, Katy Clark said, “I am extremely worried by the findings of this report, which demonstrate the struggle experienced by families and individuals of all ages who are having to care for or support a loved one.

“The costs of caring for someone who is frail, has a serious illness or a disability are inevitably going to be higher than the average cost of living. Energy bills and general household expenses are likely to be higher and specialist equipment may be required, which can often be expensive. Carers frequently leave paid-employment to look after someone close to them, resulting in an often drastic cut in family income. I am particularly appalled at the proportion of individuals who are considered fuel poor. People with an illness or disability should not have to cut back on essential costs such as food and heating, and this report indicates 45 per cent of those surveyed are having to make this choice.”

The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran revealed UK Government figures showed almost 1,000 people in her constituency are in receipt of Carers Allowance, equivalent to around 1.6 per cent of the local working age population. Said Ms Clark, “I am concerned there might be greater numbers of carers in the area who are not claiming the benefits they are entitled to, due to a lack of adequate information. The evidence presented by Carers UK shows the increasing cost of living from rising food and fuel prices are making it increasingly difficult for carers and their families to stay on top of their finances.”

Katy Clark concluded, “It is clear the current level of Carers Allowance is insufficient and needs proper reassessment in recognition of the important work that carers do.”

Super-fast broadband heading to the Three Towns

News that ‘super-fast’ broadband is coming to the Three Towns area has been welcomed by local MP Katy Clark.

Ms Clark was reacting to an announcement by BT that revealed the Ardrossan and Saltcoats internet exchange is to be included in the next phase of the UK-wide roll-out of a fibre-broadband programme. BT says more than 14,500 local homes and business will benefit from ‘significantly faster’ broadband speeds. The ‘Openreach’ network uses a mixture of technology known as ‘fibre to the cabinet’ (FTTC) and ‘fibre to the premises’ (FTTP), which currently provides download speeds of 40mb per second, which are expected to rise to 100mb per second by the Spring of 2012.

Speaking to the3towns, Katy Clark said, “This is welcome news for those whose internet services are provided by the Ardrossan and Saltcoats exchange. It is a much-needed investment that could provide greater opportunities for both families and businesses through faster internet connections.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran continued, “Hopefully it will improve local firms’ competitiveness, encourage growth, attract more business and ultimately bring more jobs to the area as communication channels and productivity become more efficient. Firms’ overheads can be reduced as large files can be transferred more easily and more flexible working practices can be adopted.”

Ms Clark expressed the hope that other parts of her constituency will also receive the technology upgrade in the near future, but was concerned over a lack of a clear timeline for rural areas, adding “It is vital that both the UK and Scottish governments continue to work with broadband companies to ensure these targets are met, particularly in rural areas, which are severely under-represented in this latest phase of investment by BT.”

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Storms batter the Three Towns

Winds gusting to 80mph battered the Three Towns last Thursday (December 8).

The storms brought chaos to travel, with all Clyde ferries cancelled and one double-decker bus overturning near Dalgarven on the Kilwinning-Dalry road.  Thankfully, the driver and attendant were uninjured: there were no passengers onboard at the time.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats were filmed for Scottish and UK-wide news programmes, with massive waves crashing over the harbour wall at Ardrossan, and submerging the main Glasgow-Largs railway line adjacent to the East Promenade in Saltcoats.  All passenger trains were cancelled as the winds and waves increased throughout Thursday morning.

Coastguard were called to assist a trawler in Ardrossan Harbour, after the storm-force winds caused the vessel to break its mooring ropes.

In late afternoon a turbine at the Ardrossan Windfarm burst into flames, apparently after a breaking mechanism could not cope with the strength of the winds.

Many local residents who work in Glasgow found major problems when attempting to get home.  Buses and trains were cancelled, while Strathclyde Police and the Scottish Government issued warnings to avoid driving.  the3towns understands most city centre businesses allowed workers to leave early in order that they could travel before the peak of the storm hit in late afternoon.  However, one local man told us his employer, an insurance company linked to the Royal Bank of Scotland, advised staff that if they left early, they would either have to take it as a holiday or make up their hours by working for free next week. 

Around lunchtime on Thursday, the3towns posted two short videos showing the storm at Ardrossan Harbour.  The videos are available on the3towns Facebook page. 

SSP: Martin to stand in Ardrossan & Arran

The Scottish Socialist Party has announced the first of its candidates for next May’s North Ayrshire Council Election.

Campbell Martin has been selected for the Ardrossan & Arran seat.

Mr Martin brings a wealth of experience to the role, having previously been elected as the councillor for Ardrossan North, and as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for West of Scotland.

Commenting on his selection, Campbell Martin said, “I’m delighted to be representing the Scottish Socialist Party.  The SSP is the only party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with workers and the ordinary people of towns like Ardrossan.  Labour in government helped cause the economic crisis, the Tories are now punishing the poor, the SNP showed its true colours last week by crossing workers’ picket lines, and the Lib Dems are propping-up the Tory Government of millionaires in London.”

On the Council Election Mr Martin said: “I was proud to represent the people of Ardrossan as their councillor and then as an MSP.  Now I’m asking to be allowed to work on their behalf again.

“This election comes at a crucial time for local government.  All of the so-called big-four political parties – Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Labour – are committed to slashing council budgets even further, which will result in more local workers losing their jobs, and vital services either cut to the bone or completely scrapped.

“The SSP is the only party prepared to fight against these cuts.  We are the only party that has been on the streets of local towns, building support from the local public for our programme of defiance to cuts being imposed by the UK and Scottish governments, and by the Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council.

“Rather than forcing the people of North Ayrshire to pay debts run-up by millionaire and billionaire bankers and financial speculators in London, we should be taxing the super-wealthy, the people who caused the economic crisis in the first place.

“In Scotland, if we even just applied a modest, additional 10 per cent tax on the 100 richest people, it would generate income of £1.6billion, which is more than the entire amount being cut from council budgets by the SNP Government in Edinburgh.

“There is no need for cuts, but it is only the SSP that is prepared to put people before profits and fight for the services our local communities desperately need.”

Campbell Martin concluded: “The Ardrossan & Arran Ward will elect four councillors next May, and I acknowledge the good work done by existing councillors John Hunter and Tony Gurney.  I hope both are returned at the election.  I would, though, ask the people of Ardrossan to also give me their support on May 3rd, so that I can once again represent them and fight for the interests of the town.”

In addition to having been elected as Councillor for Ardrossan North and MSP for West of Scotland, Campbell Martin also formerly held the positions of Whips Administrator to the SNP Parliamentary Group at the Scottish Parliament, Secretary to the SNP Shadow Cabinet, and Secretary of the SNP Parliamentary Group.

Munro 'declares an interest' in expenses report

Two members of North Ayrshire Council’s Scrutiny Committee ‘declared an interest’ and left last week’s meeting at the point where the body was due to discuss a report on Councillors’ expenses claims.

Labour councillor Alan Munro (Saltcoats & Stevenston) and Independent Jean Highgate (Beith & Kilbirnie) both intimated they had an interest in the issue to be discussed, which related to an Internal Audit report into expenses claims submitted by councillors, which were subsequently found to be ‘erroneous’.   A nationally-agreed Code of Conduct requires councillors to declare if they have an interest in any matter to be discussed by a Council or any of its committees.  Only when a matter is deemed to be sufficiently serious are councillors then required to leave the meeting and take no part in discussions.

As reported last week by the3towns, the Internal Audit report into councillors’ expenses claims confirmed that one elected member had claimed mileage in relation to meetings they had not attended.  Previously, the3towns revealed Cllr Alan Munro had submitted five separate expenses claims relating to meetings that official documents show he did not attend.

On January 25 2010, Cllr Munro charged the public purse for a 13 mile journey (Stevenston-Irvine-Stevenston), which his claim said he had made to attend a meeting of the Council’s Scrutiny Committee, but the local authority’s official minute of that meeting indicates he did not attend and, in fact, submitted apologies for his absence.

On April 13 2010, the Saltcoats & Stevenston councillor recorded on an expenses form that he had attended a meeting of the Licensing Committee, but no other members of the Committee claimed for a meeting on that date, and no reports or minutes exist in Council records.

Then, in relation to the Scrutiny Committee meeting of April 19 2010, Alan Munro again submitted a claim for 13 miles. On that occasion no apologies for absence were submitted but the official minute does not list Cllr Munro’s name amongst those who attended.

On a further two separate occasions in August 2010 (3rd and 17th), Cllr Munro again submitted expenses claims for 13 mile journeys, both times to attend meetings of the Licensing Committee. However, on both occasions the official minute of the meetings indicate he did not attend and had actually submitted apologies for his absence.

Strathclyde Police and the Scottish Public Standards Commissioner have both confirmed to the3towns that investigations are continuing into mileage claims submitted to North Ayrshire Council by Alan Munro.

the3towns further understands that a number of North Ayrshire councillors have been ordered to repay various amounts of money relating to expenses they had claimed but which it was subsequently found they were not entitled.

North Ayrshire Council’s internal audit of councillors’ expenses was carried out after an investigation by the3towns revealed a number of concerns regarding money claimed and paid to elected members, including for meetings not attended, journeys without a valid reason, and un-receipted mileage claims. 

Still on the road despite 12 penalty points

As Strathclyde Police launch their annual campaign to stop drink-driving over the festive season, official DVLA figures, seen by the3towns, show there are currently three people in the Three Towns who have 12 or more penalty points on their driving licence, but who are still entitled to drive.

Normally when a driver reaches 12 penalty points, for whatever reason, they are automatically banned from driving.  However, the3towns understands Sheriffs have discretion in relation to imposing a ban, and a plea of undue hardship can sometimes lead to an offender being allowed to keep their licence.

Figures from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency reveal two Ardrossan motorists have crossed the 12 point total but are still allowed to drive.  Stevenston has one driver in that position.

In other North Ayrshire towns, Kilwinning, Dalry and Beith have one driver each who would normally have been banned, while Irvine has six.  The Isle of Arran has one motorist with 12 or more points on their licence.

Elsewhere, Kilmarnock has four drivers who would normally have been banned, Glasgow has 87, and in London there are 794 motorists on the road despite having 12 or more points on their licence.

Bus now more expensive than the train

An investigation by the3towns has revealed that fares on local Stagecoach buses are now mile-for-mile more expensive than those charged for train journeys.

A ‘cheap’ day-return between Ardrossan and Irvine on a Stagecoach bus has increased by 40p since August – from £2.60 to £3.00. Travel on Stagecoach now works out at the equivalent of 18p per mile.  Meanwhile, return train journeys between Ardrossan and Glasgow cost just 12p per mile.

Buses were traditionally the cheaper option in terms of public transport, but privatisation of the industry under the Thatcher Tory Government of the 1980s led to predatory companies, like Stagecoach, buying up their competition, leaving them as sole operators in some areas, including North Ayrshire.  Stagecoach now has the monopoly of bus travel in the local area and can set fares in the knowledge there is no competition.

The Perth-based bus company is owned by two of Scotland’s richest people, brother and sister, Brian Souter and Ann Gloag.  In the last financial year, the regional bus division of Stagecoach Group saw operating profits rise by 21 per cent to £153.1million.

Overall, Stagecoach Group revenues rose 10 per cent to £2.4billion, with profits totalling £240.2million.

Brian Souter donated £500,000 to the Scottish National Party before last May’s Scottish Parliament Election.

The reader who first raised with the3towns their concerns over rises in Stagecoach bus fares commented, “I knew the bus fare kept going up and up, but until you investigated, I hadn’t realised the difference between bus and train fares.”

The local man concluded, “There is no chance of the government intervening and providing us with a better, cheaper bus service, not while Stagecoach has the monopoly and gives hundreds-of-thousands of pounds to the SNP.” 

Home Heat Helpline launched

North Ayrshire & Arran MP Katy Clark this week highlighted the launch of a free information and advice helpline that could help many families and individuals manage and make savings on their fuel bills over the winter months.

The Home Heat Helpline is a Freephone number that has been set up for individuals worried about the soaring cost of gas and electricity, and how they are going to stay warm through the coldest period of the year. 

The helpline provides an opportunity to speak to an expert advisor who will be able to provide information on benefits, payment schemes and grant entitlements, as well as suggesting ways to make homes more energy efficient. 

Home Heat Helpline is supported by Coronation Street actress Kym Marsh, who before finding success as a singer and actress, was herself a single-parent who struggled to pay fuel bills.  The helpline was launched last Thursday (December 8).

Speaking to the3towns, Katy Clark said, “For too many people the cost of fuel has become unacceptably expensive, whichever energy company they use.  I welcome the launch of this Helpline managed by the Energy Retail Association and hope it provides clarity on costs and entitlements, as well as a useful port of call for those who are worrying about trying to reduce the cost heating their homes this winter.”

Labour MP Ms Clark concluded, “In light of ever-increasing energy prices from the big six energy companies and a lack of transparency in the sector, increasing numbers of people are becoming fuel poor and are being forced to make difficult choices to meet the increasing costs of living.  I welcome that this number is free to call and hope that it will alert many people to savings they are entitled to, enabling them to adequately heat their homes this winter.”

NHS: Be Ready for Winter

NHS Ayrshire & Arran is launching its ‘Be Ready for Winter’ campaign by advising us to re-stock our medicine cabinet, order repeat prescriptions and know when our GP surgery will be open and closed over the festive holidays.

Liz Moore, NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s Director of Integrated Care and Emergency Services said, “We want as many people to be as prepared as possible for the festive period by following the campaign’s top tips. This should help reduce pressure on our emergency and hospital services over the festive period.”

This year GP surgeries will be closed for four days at Christmas (December 24-27) and for four days again at New Year (December 31-January 3).  If someone needs to see a GP on these days and can’t wait until their own surgery is open again, they are advised to call NHS Ayrshire Doctors on Call (NHS ADOC) on 08454 24 24 24.

The four key steps recommended in the ‘Be Ready for Winter’ campaign are:
Restock your winter medicine cabinet: Many children and adults pick up common winter ailments such as a cold or flu-like illness. These can often be effectively treated at home with readily available medicine. Parents are reminded to restock their medicine cabinet with remedies suitable for children.

Use your local pharmacy: Pharmacist can offer advice or help if you have run out of any prescribed medication. You can also collect medicine for minor ailments or illnesses.

Make sure you have repeat prescriptions: If you or someone you care for needs medicines regularly, make sure you order and collect repeat prescriptions in good time to ensure you or your family have enough medicine to last over the Christmas holiday period.

Know when your family doctor (GP) surgery will be open: Your local doctor’s surgery will be open on Friday December 23 then closed for four days during the Christmas period; it will re-open on Wednesday December 28.  The surgery will be shut again from Saturday December 31, and will re-open on Wednesday, January 4, 2012.