Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Councillor's expenses list meetings he didn't attend

An investigation by the3towns has revealed a Labour councillor submitted expenses claims partly relating to three meetings of North Ayrshire Council’s Licensing Committee, none of which he attended.

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

Cllr Munro’s mileage claims list meetings of the Licensing Committee on June 15, August 3 and October 5, all 2010.  However, the official minutes of the meetings of June 15 and August 3 show the Labour councillor submitted apologies for absence.  The October 5 minute does not include Alan Munro’s name amongst the councillors who attended, although on that occasion no apologies were tendered for his absence.

On two of the claim forms – relating to June 15 and October 5 – Cllr Munro also claimed to have attended the Licensing Board – a separate body from the Licensing Committee – and meetings of the Labour Group of councillors.  However, on each of these days Mr Munro claimed for two separate journeys between his home in Stevenston and Council headquarters in Irvine, suggesting he attended morning meetings of the Licensing Board, returned home to Stevenston, failed to appear for afternoon meetings of the Licensing Committee, but did return to Irvine for Labour Group meetings.

On August 3 2010, Alan Munro again claimed a double journey between Stevenston and Irvine but, as previously stated, Council records for that day record him as having submitted ‘apologies for absence’ to the afternoon meeting he charged for attending.

the3towns’ investigation also uncovered that Cllr Munro submitted 34 separate mileage claims where he listed the reason for journeys as “Members Services”.  Despite councillors being told they must provide a “detailed description of approved duties” to which journeys relate, all 34 of Cllr Munro’s “Members Services” claims were paid by the Council, netting him £176.80.

For the calendar year of 2010, Alan Munro’s expenses claims record him travelling 1,691 miles, mainly between Stevenston and Irvine, which saw him paid £676.40.

In addition, for the financial year 2010/11, the Labour councillor charged the public purse £807.52 to cover phone and IT bills.  In total, Alan Munro’s expenses for the last financial year cost local taxpayers £1,570.  This was on top of his councillor’s salary of £16,233.

Methadone 'fix' groups still causing town centre concern

Saltcoats Community Council has sought the assistance of local MSP Kenneth Gibson to address problems associated with groups of Methadone users congregating in Saltcoats town centre.  The Heroin substitute is dispensed from local chemists and a number of people have contacted the3towns in the past regarding the numbers of users – and their dogs – who tend to gather in the town centre most weekday mornings.

At its meeting last week (June 23), the Community Council heard Mr Gibson had responded to their request for help by contacting the chief executive of NHS Ayrshire and Arran, Dr Wai-Yin Hatton.  In a letter read-out at the meeting, Kenneth Gibson said, “During the election campaign, I had more people complaining about issues of Methadone being dispensed via chemist shops in Saltcoats than any other issue in the town.”

Replying to the SNP MSP, Ms Hatton said, “[W]ithin Addiction Services, work has begun to review all people who are in receipt of a Methadone prescription in order to ascertain whether the level of supervision they receive is appropriate to their stage of recovery.  A potential outcome from this exercise would be that the numbers of people attending pharmacies at any given time could be reduced, which may help address some of the concerns.”

However, in his letter to the Community Council, Kenneth Gibson expressed the opinion that, despite Ms Hatton’s optimism, “[T]here is no certainty that this matter will be resolved and the ordinary people of Saltcoats will undoubtedly still have concerns about this issue and all that springs from it, not least the impact on the shops in the town, given that many people are less than enthusiastic about shopping when Methadone users are gathering in the mornings to get their fix.”

Following discussion on the matter, the Community Council noted Mr Gibson’s indication that he intended to meet with the local Health Board chairman, Professor Bill Stevely, where he would raise “how we can remove this problem from Saltcoats town centre for the good of all concerned.”

Burgess backs anti-sectarian laws

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess has welcomed Scottish Government proposals to introduce tougher sectarianism-related laws, but has also indicated her belief that it was right to postpone implementation of the legislation to allow for greater scrutiny.

Initially, the SNP Government hoped to have the laws in force before the start of the new football season, but First Minister Alex Salmond agreed last week to a six-month delay after a number of interested parties, including both Celtic and Rangers, expressed concerns that the legislation was being rushed and they had not been allowed sufficient time to feed-into the process.

The SNP proposals would introduce two new offences on football-related behaviour regarded as offensive and threatening.  One deals with disorder inside football grounds, and extends to those travelling to and from stadiums - as well as fans watching games in pubs or on big screens outdoors.  The second offence deals with more serious threats, including those made on the internet, such as posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as fans’ websites.  Both offences would carry a maximum sentence of five years in jail.

Speaking to the3towns, Margaret Burgess said, This proposal deals with only one part of the sectarianism problem, an ugly side of it we have seen in the last few months, and which has presented a wrong image of Scotland to the rest of the world.”

The SNP MSP continued, “What is being proposed are tough new laws that could see offenders jailed for up to five years.   The two new offences would relate to behaviour that could incite religious, racial or other forms of hatred in and around football grounds and on the internet - but the Bill is only one piece of the jigsaw.”

Reflecting on recent incidents, where it is alleged explosive devices were posted from Saltcoats and Kilwinning to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other prominent supporters of the Glasgow club, Mrs Burgess said, “Tackling hate crime and sectarianism will take a lot more work right across the board and that work must continue.”

However, the member for Cunninghame South acknowledged it was right to postpone implementation of the proposed new laws, saying, “Concerns were raised that the legislation was being rushed through the Scottish Parliament, and I’m content that SNP Ministers have decided to allow several additional months for longer scrutiny and consideration of the proposals.”

Fears for Royal Mail - Katy Clark MP

North Ayrshire & Arran MP Katy Clark has attacked the UK Government over a new Act of Parliament that seeks to privatise the Royal Mail.

The Postal Services Act became law last week and means private companies will now be able to buy-up the most profitable parts of Royal Mail services, putting into jeopardy the continuation of uniform delivery charges, where it costs the same amount to send a letter to any location in the UK.

Katy Clark told the3towns, “I have very serious concerns about the long-term future of both Royal Mail and the Post Office network following the passing of the Postal Services Act. There are media reports that around a quarter of Royal Mail staff will face redundancy as a result of privatisation, and this number of job cuts cannot occur without a substantial knock-on effect on the service provided to Royal Mail customers.”

Supporting Ms Clark’s position, Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union, added, “The days are numbered for the Post Office network, postal deliveries and services as we know them.

“How the government can call breaking up and flogging the Royal Mail ‘securing the future of postal services’ beggars belief. This government is destroying public services and the fabric of our economy and society. They are taking a wrecking ball to anything in sight.”

Calls to save Clyde Coastguard

A local politician has called for the UK Government to re-think proposals that would see Scotland’s Coastguard operation reduced to just one base operating 24/7.

Margaret Burgess, MSP for Cunninghame South, made the call after the Westminster Transport Select Committee, which has a Tory majority, called on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government to withdraw its current plans, on the grounds that safety would be jeopardised.

Under current proposals, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Mike Penning, MP for Hemel Hempstead, has set-out a series of cost-cutting measures, which include slashing the Coastguard workforce by 50-percent, scrapping offshore rescue tugs, and retaining just eight of the UK’s nineteen coastguard rescue centres, with the one in Aberdeen being the only Scottish centre that would survive on a 24/7 basis.

Clyde Coastguard, including the facility in Ardrossan, would be closed under the Tory-Lib Dem plans.  A concerned Coastguard insider said, “The changes reflected in the consultation offer no place for Clyde Coastguard and it will close with the loss of many skilled, knowledgeable staff and vital emergency-service cover.  Under the proposals, there will be one single 24/7 Operations Centre based in Aberdeen that will cover mainland Scotland.  With local knowledge comes understanding, especially of the location, the conditions and the situation faced by someone needing local or regional assistance.  Under these plans, a rescue attempt in the rugged coastline off the west coast of Scotland would be handled by someone over 200miles away with no idea of the local place names, landmarks and other land that would aid locating a vessel or person in distress.”

Following the Commons Committee report last week, Margaret Burgess said, “This leaves Tory Government plans to cut our Coastguard services in tatters, and this should be their next U-turn.

“The Clyde is a busy waterway with a great deal of commercial and recreational activity.  It would be ridiculous to scrap the Clyde Coastguard station and pass responsibility to one on the other side of the country.

"SNP MPs have battled against these cuts from day one. What’s required is local knowledge and local Coastguard services.  It is increasingly clear that we need local control, with devolution of the Coastguards as well as full responsibility for our coastal waters.”

Mrs Burgess concluded, “It’s time for the UK Government to ditch its cost-cutting plans, which would clearly put lives at risk.”

Council appoints new Finance director

North Ayrshire Council has appointed a new Corporate Director of Finance and Infrastructure.
Laura Friel is to replace Alasdair Herbert, who is retiring after 16 years' service with the local authority.  The latter part of Mr Herbert’s tenure has been marked by controversy, including the Council depositing £15-million in two Icelandic banks that subsequently collapsed, and paying-out over £200,000 to a fraudster who submitted a fake invoice.
Ms Friel leaves Renfrewshire Council, where she held the post of ‘Head of Change and Customer Services’, a position a North Ayrshire spokesperson suggested would stand her in good stead as NAC “undertakes an ambitious programme of change, focusing resources towards the most important Council services.”
The Corporate Director is a graduate of Glasgow University and has 25 years’ experience working within local government finance departments.  Commenting on her new appointment, Ms Friel said, “I am delighted to have been offered the post of Corporate Director of Finance and Infrastructure at North Ayrshire Council.
“I am really looking forward to working with my new colleagues to help deliver excellent services at a challenging, yet exciting, time for the public sector.”
Elma Murray, Chief Executive of North Ayrshire Council, added, "Laura will be a great addition to the corporate management team of the Council and we are all looking forward to her arrival.
“The position of Corporate Director of Finance and Infrastructure is a vital one to the future success of North Ayrshire Council.”
Ms Murray concluded, “I am confident that Laura's experience and success in progressing Renfrewshire Council's change programme will stand us in good stead as we continue with our own programme.”
That opinion was echoed by the political leader of the Council, Labour’s David O’Neill, who said, “Laura arrives in North Ayrshire at a time when many changes and challenges are necessary. Her experience will be invaluable and she will be an important addition to the Council over the next few years.”

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

As jobs are axed - Labour councillor hikes expenses by 230%

A senior member of North Ayrshire Council’s ruling Labour Executive has hiked his expenses claims by a staggering 230% over the last three years.

The shocking news comes just weeks after the3towns revealed the same group of Labour councillors had agreed to sack 54 workers in the local authority’s ‘Streetscene’ department, while as many as 88 classroom assistants are also believed to be facing redundancy.

Dalry & West Kilbride councillor John Reid, Deputy Leader of the Council, submitted expenses claims totalling £5,513 in the last financial year (2010/11).  The money was in addition to a salary of £24,353, which meant Cllr Reid’s total charge to the public purse for just one year came in at £29,866.

When calculated for the three financial years for which the3towns has secured figures under Freedom of Information legislation (2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11), John Reid has taken home an incredible £84,866 in salary and expenses.

Closer inspection of Cllr Reid’s expenses claims for the past year has also revealed the Labour man has been using taxis for most journeys he has undertaken on Council business.  Of his total expenses claim, almost £4,000 related to what is described on Council forms as ‘Other Travel’, the vast majority of which covered taxi journeys.

Like many of the expenses forms submitted by his Labour colleague Peter McNamara, reported in last week’s the3towns, Cllr Reid often failed to provide a detailed description of the approved council duty to which specific journeys related.  For expenses claims to be considered legitimate, councillors are told they must “Clearly indicate which meeting you have attended or the relevant detail of the approved duty undertaken”.  However, on many occasions John Reid simply recorded “Portfolio duties” where the detailed description should have been.

Cllr Reid also submitted three separate claim forms that contained only his name and an amount of money.  It is believed these forms were accompanied by invoices from a taxi company – totalling £241 – but no details as to how the journeys related to legitimate Council business.   Another of Cllr Reid’s forms contained one word, “Taxis”, and a claim for £145.

In addition to his role as Deputy Leader of the Council, John Reid is also the North Ayrshire representative on Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, the body tasked with encouraging people to use public transport.

On condition of anonymity, a Council official told the3towns that Cllr Reid’s use of taxis was permitted because he had “trouble walking”.

New move to smooth 'transfer of public assets'

In a move seen by some as Labour councillors pressing-ahead with plans to offload publicly-owned community centres and halls, this week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council’s ruling Executive will be asked to formalise a policy for the “Transfer of Assets to the Community”.

As the3towns previously reported, Labour councillors recently revived plans to sell or pass to voluntary groups ownership of many public halls and community buildings, possibly including the Whitlees Centre in Ardrossan, Saltcoats Town Hall and Stevenston’s Hayocks Hall.  Despite such proposals having been soundly rejected by councillors of all parties when they were presented in a costly report compiled for the Council by consultants Grant Thornton, a further report to last month’s meeting of the Full Council raised the issue once again.  On a vote, the Labour position to establish Working Groups to re-examine the issue was passed by just one vote.

Now, labour councillors are to receive a briefing from Mr Alasdair Herbert, Corporate Director – Finance, which sets out a “Policy for the Transfer of Assets to the Community”.  In the document, Mr Herbert says the policy is required “in order to establish clear principles and to encourage the transfer of assets to the community where this will be appropriate.” 

Mr Herbert further states there has been substantial interest noted by community groups or operators of Council owned properties for the transfer of the assets in which they have an interest.”  The now ditched Grant Thornton report recommend most public halls earmarked for transfer should be passed to the North Ayrshire Federation of Community Associations.

The Finance Director’s paper, which will be presented to Labour members of the Executive at their meeting on Tuesday (June 21), says, “As part of the improved management of Council assets, a Property Asset Management plan has been drafted, as well as a Policy for the Acquisition and Disposal of Assets. These documents do not cover the considerations and detail required by community groups or potential receivers of Council assets. A separate policy specifically for the Transfer of Assets to the Community is required as the Council’s extant document on that subject. Irrespective of any overall decisions by the Council on the potential transfer or disposal of assets to certain groups or associations, a policy is still required in order to treat individual requests with transparency and fairness.”

Mr Herbert adds that, legally, a “Council may transfer assets for less than their market value, should certain criteria be met,” and recommends the Executive adopt “the policy [that] will establish criteria for the transfer of assets to the community and thereby encourage community groups to seek the transfers of assets they use and take on the responsibility for their operation.” 

At the Council meeting where Labour proposals squeezed through by one vote, Three Towns Independents John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol, along with the SNP Group, indicated their belief that public halls and community centres should remain owned and operated by the democratically elected Council.

'Raise Army recruitment age' - Katy Clark MP

Katy Clark MP has supported a UK Parliament Motion that calls on the Government to raise the age at which someone can join the armed forces.

Presently, the UK is the only country in mainland Europe that recruits people as young as sixteen.  Then, once a youngster has signed-up and completed their initial six-month period of training, they are not allowed to voluntarily leave the forces until they have served for four years beyond their eighteenth birthday.

 Speaking to the3towns, Katy Clark said, “I believe it is important that proper protection is given to sixteen and seventeen year-olds who choose to serve in the armed forces. Ordinarily, contracts are not enforceable against minors.  However, with regard to the armed services, sixteen and seventeen year-olds currently can be held to a decision that, after six months, they are unable to reverse, and which could lead to them entering into active service in a combat role.”

Ms Clark, Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, concluded, “Sixteen or seventeen is too young for people to make a potentially life or death decision, and it is high time this situation was amended so that those under the age of eighteen are allowed to leave the army at a suitable time of their choosing, should they wish to do so.”

Katy Clark is a supporting signatory to Early Day Motion 781, which calls on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK Government to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and raise to eighteen the minimum age at which British armed forces recruit.

Council doing its bit for the environment

North Ayrshire Council has said its purchase of seven ‘eco-friendly’ vans shows its “commitment to the environment”.

The new vans – standard Ford Transits fitted with an innovative hybrid drive system – will replace diesel-powered vehicles used by the Council's Building Services.
Said a Council spokesperson, “At a time of increasing awareness of environmental issues - and fuel costs - the hybrid vans deliver reductions in fuel consumption of up to 20-percent, saving around £700 a year per vehicle and reducing carbon emissions.”

Cllr Tom Barr, the local authority’s Environment portfolio-holder added, “The purchase of this fleet of hybrid vans once again shows the Council's commitment to energy efficiency.
“It is important to remember that the benefits of energy efficiency are twofold. Not only do we ensure that we are doing our best to save the environment from the effects of carbon emissions – we are saving money while doing so. This is especially important at a time when finances are tight.”

Cllr Barr concluded, “Should the new eco vans prove a success, they could be extended across the Council's transport fleet.”
The Hybrid Drive system fitted to the new vans recovers energy normally lost during braking and deceleration. A battery stores the energy before an electric motor redirects it to the rear wheels – making the vans extremely efficient. Because the hybrid system is entirely self-powered, the vans never need to be plugged in for a battery charge. And unlike pure electric vehicles, hybrids are not restricted to low mileage duties.
North Ayrshire's seven hybrids are part funded by Transport Scotland's Low Carbon Vehicle Procurement Support Scheme (LCVPSS), which enables public sector bodies to purchase electric and hybrid vehicles for extensive operational trials.

MSP backs rugby initiative

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess has given her support to an initiative that hopes to encourage local youngsters to take up rugby.

Mrs Burgess was at Auchenharvie in Stevenston last Saturday to see how a Rugby Open Day offered an opportunity to sample a sport that often plays second fiddle to football in the local area.  Throughout the day, youngsters could try their hand at the sport and were able to receive expert tuition from members of local clubs.

Commenting, Margaret Burgess told the3towns, “I welcome the Open Day, which offers free coaching and the opportunity to watch more experienced players.  Similarly, the event’s wider aim of encouraging awareness and involvement in sporting activity – in this case, rugby – is admirable.”

Mrs Burgess continued, “As a local community and as a country, our long-term goal must be to motivate and encourage more and more children and young adults to participate in sport and physical activity. Apart from the obvious health and fitness gains, it is a vital route to building confidence, self-esteem and social skills in the community.

“Whether it’s about celebrating achievement and aiming for the peaks of sporting excellence or more about fitness, recreation and having fun, encouraging participation in sport is the way ahead.”

The SNP MSP congratulated those behind the initiative and reflected on the “valuable contribution” the Open Day had made to encouraging more people to take part in physical activity in general, and rugby in particular.

Hospital volunteers thanked

Hospital volunteers from North Ayrshire last week received a thank you from NHS Ayrshire & Arran, which included a dinner and entertainment.

The event at Crosshouse Hospital was provided by the Health Board to mark another year in which volunteers had raised “amazing sums of money” through various fundraising ventures.  The volunteers also operate shops, cafes and trolley services at Crosshouse, the Ayrshire Maternity Unit and at Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine.

Speaking on the night, Professor Bill Stevely, Chairman of Ayrshire & Arran NHS Board, thanked all the volunteers for their continued commitment and enthusiasm in the various roles they perform.

In addition to the hospital volunteers representatives of other groups were also in attendance, including Macmillan Cancer Information and Support Service, Patient-Carer Panel and Buddy Support Public Partnership Forums (North and East Ayrshire), and Patient Quality Improvement Partnership Hospital Patients’ Council Welcomers.

For NHS Ayrshire & Arran, Andrew Moore, Assistant Director of Nursing, said, “Our volunteers make a real difference to the daily lives of our patients, visitors and staff. Their enthusiasm and commitment are a remarkable example of genuine and caring volunteering.”

Volunteers from across North Ayrshire declared the night “a great success” and particularly highlighted the entertainment provided from a group of young people - ‘Mini-Intro’ - from Alloway Parish Church.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Action over 'dodgy' landlords

A Saltcoats man looks set to be removed from the North Ayrshire Register of Landlords, after he was convicted at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court on a charge of ‘harassing a tenant’.

Graham Rankin, whose landlord registration relates to a property at 11 Winton Circus in Saltcoats, was fined £500 in January of this year after being convicted of the offence under Section 22 of the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984 - 'Unlawful eviction and harassment of occupier'.

This week’s meeting of the North Ayrshire Licensing Board will hear that, following the conviction, Mr Rankin failed to notify the local Council of his change in circumstances, which landlords are required to do.  Councillors on the Board will also be told that North Ayrshire officials then wrote to Mr Rankin, reminding him of his obligation and asking that he reply within 14 days.  However, the letter was returned, unopened, to the Council.

In light of the circumstances, North Ayrshire Council legal officers are to ask members of the Licensing Board to consider whether or not Mr Rankin remains a ‘fit and proper person’ to hold a Landlord Registration. 

Anyone removed from the Landlord Register has the right to appeal the decision to a Sheriff.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Licensing Board will hear two further cases where officials recommend action is taken against people applying for registration as landlords.

In the first, which relates to a property at 9 Sharlee Wynd in West Kilbride, councillors will be told that the applicant for Landlord Registration, Mr Jason Cleary, gave his address as a flat in Benalmadena, Spain, and, in the section on the application form where any convictions should be declared, had written “Drugs, Glasgow, 1 January 2002”.  No further details were provided of the conviction or sentence received.

Further investigations by North Ayrshire Council then uncovered that Mr Cleary was not resident in Spain but, in fact, had been in a Scottish prison since June 2010, having been convicted at the High Court in Glasgow in relation to the supply of Heroin.  Council officials have indicated that Cleary was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and was described by the Judge as “a career drug dealer”.  Papers submitted to the North Ayrshire Licensing Board reveal Jason Cleary’s previous convictions, which include: July 1999 - sentenced at Dingwall Sheriff Court to 2 years in prison for dealing in amphetamine; and March 2003 - sentenced at Glasgow High Court to 4 years for an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, concerning the supply of controlled drugs, aggravated by being on Bail.

Officials recommend Mr Cleary’s landlord application is refused.

The second case proposes that an Irvine company, R & J Properties Scotland Ltd, be removed from the Register.

In a report to the Licensing Board, legal officials of North Ayrshire Council detail that R & J Properties Scotland Ltd applied for Registration of a property at 6 Stronsay Way, Broomlands, Irvine, declaring the company was “both the owners of the house and acting as Agents”. The company also indicated there were no relevant criminal convictions relating to the application.

However, when Council officials contacted R & J Properties regarding their application, a member of staff indicated that, in fact, the house was owned by a Mr Tannahill, who was currently in prison.  In addition, the company employee stated that Mr Tannahill “was not getting out any time soon”.
R & J Properties then made a second application, which stated that the applicant was Allan Kenneth Tannahill and that his home address was the property in Broomlands.  In fact, Mr Tannahill was sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2009, with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 11 years, after being convicted of the murder of his wife.  The offence took place at the property for which a Landlord Registration was being sought.

Officials will recommend to councillors on the Licensing Board that R & J Properties Scotland Ltd should be removed from the Register of Landlords under Section 89 of the Antisocial Behaviour etc. (Scotland) Act 2004.

Katy's concern for care home residents

North Ayrshire & Arran MP Katy Clark has voiced concern over the financial situation at Southern Cross Healthcare, the UK’s biggest provider of care homes, including the Three Towns Care Home in Stevenston’s Afton Road

Southern Cross is understood to have broken rental agreements with its landlords and was said to be looking at possibly having to close a number of facilities.  The company got into serious financial trouble after its former parent organisation, American venture capitalists Blackstone, sold all of its care homes at the peak of the property boom, securing multi-million pound profits for directors and bumper dividends for shareholders.  However, Southern Cross then had to lease-back the homes in order to continue trading and, it is understood, the lease agreements it signed included annual rent increases which the company can no longer afford.

Speaking to the3towns, Katy Clark pointed out how the predicament of Southern Cross illustrated “the danger of relying on the private sector to provide essential services.”

Said Ms Clark, “Southern Cross is the biggest private provider of care homes in Scotland, with four homes in North Ayrshire.  The news of their financial difficulties will have caused significant stress for thousands of vulnerable residents and their families.”

The Labour MP added, “What has happened at Southern Cross is yet another example of the dangers of putting the provision of essential services in the hands of private companies. When things like this happen it reminds us of how vulnerable we are when their business plans fail and they go bust.”

Ms Clark concluded, “Over the next few weeks we need to assist the vulnerable families affected in this case. I am therefore seeking assurances that there will be continuity of care for my constituents in the four local homes - Moorpark Place (Kilbirnie), Spiers Care Home (Beith), the Three Towns Care Home (Stevenston) and Warren Park (Largs).”

A Spokesperson for Southern Cross said, “The company remains in discussions with its landlords and banks.”

Margaret's maiden speech focusses on jobs

Cunninghame South’s new MSP, the SNP’s Margaret Burgess, used her maiden speech in Parliament to highlight the desperate need for jobs in local communities, but also took time to mention her predecessor, Labour’s Irene Oldfather, and to wish her well.

Mrs Burgess reflected on North Ayrshire’s consistently high level of unemployment, and rejected opposition parties’ claims that the SNP had not focussed on jobs during the recent election campaign, saying, “It was the SNP’s proposals on jobs that got me elected. We heard from members last week that we did not mention jobs during the election campaign, but we did—it was jobs, jobs, jobs. That is why I am here - people liked what the SNP was saying on jobs.”

Continuing, Margaret Burgess said, “I want to say something about those who have no jobs, because it focuses on why we are all here. Every day in my work with the Citizens Advice Bureau, I saw the impact that unemployment has on individuals and their families - the relationships that break down, the mental health problems, the bills that cannot be paid, the homes that are lost and the intolerable strain on families. The SNP’s job creation programme will make things better for those people.

“Youth unemployment is at crisis-level in Cunninghame South, which is causing a large section of young people to become disengaged from their communities. I have spoken with many of those young people, who say that they lie in bed all day because there is nothing to get up for - they have given up. Those people are our future, which is why we need to make things better for them.”

Mrs Burgess, a former leader of the SNP group of councillors in North Ayrshire, called on local authorities to agree a policy of no compulsory redundancies, saying, “The public sector is the biggest employer in North Ayrshire. We all acknowledge there are tough times ahead, with the looming Westminster cuts, but we need to persuade local authorities to agree a policy of no compulsory redundancies. The Scottish Government has done that for its services and we need to make local authorities do it too.”

Mrs Burgess added, “At North Ayrshire Council dozens of classroom assistants and school staff are being made compulsorily redundant. I have to say that decision was opposed by the SNP Group on the Council. Our public sector workers and their families need reassurance and stability, not uncertainty. There has to be another way for them.”

The member for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, also flagged-up how upgrading of the A737 trunk road would benefit local businesses and communities.  Then, returning to the issue of youth unemployment, Mrs Burgess said, “The SNP proposes 25,000 modern apprenticeships a year for the next five years, which will make a big difference. The key point for me is that those apprenticeships will be linked to real jobs. In the past, we have seen too many supposed job-creation schemes from Westminster that have provided only what I call kiddy-on jobs, which offer the young person neither skills nor opportunities. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must ensure that the modern apprenticeships in our constituencies are linked to real jobs, and I will certainly monitor that in Cunninghame South.”

Concluding her first speech to the Scottish Parliament, Margaret Burgess said, “The strategy the Cabinet Secretary [John Swinney] has presented today is the right way forward. We will get Scotland’s economy growing to deliver prosperity and a more sustainable future, but we all - members in the chamber, people in local authorities, businesses, our young people and every agency in Scotland - need to work together. It must be a collective effort. However, like many others in the Parliament, I believe that Scotland will really flourish only with the economic levers and powers of independence.”

Local unemployment: 23 Jobseekers for every vacancy

Katy Clark MP has expressed “deep concern” as the latest unemployment figures again show North Ayrshire to be amongst the worst-affected areas in the UK.

 The damning figures indicate there are 3,606 local people claiming Jobseekers Allowance, while Jobcentres in North Ayrshire recorded just 157 vacancies – meaning there are 23 unemployed people for every job.  The official government statistics also record over 1,000 local people under the age of 24 are without work.

Commenting, Katy Clark told the3towns, “A report in October 2010 from credit-rating agency Experian highlighted that North Ayrshire would be one of the areas hardest-hit by the UK Government’s cuts and, unfortunately, that prediction appears to be borne-out by events. These latest statistics show that, at present, there are 23 people seeking work for every job vacancy that becomes available. For many of those unlucky enough to find themselves unemployed at the current time, the opportunities to get back to work simply do not exist.”

Ms Clark, Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, concluded, “I hope the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government realises the harm its current economic course is causing to households and communities across North Ayrshire, and urgently changes course before further damage is done.”

Supporting Katy Clark’s position, Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said, “These latest figures indicate that the UK Government’s economic policies are not working for the people of North Ayrshire and Arran. With spending cuts just starting to take effect and expected to lead to heavy job losses later this year, we are very concerned things could potentially get worse before they get better.”

Police and SNP praised after Ardrossan incident

Strathclyde Police – and the SNP Government – have been praised following an alleged violent incident last week in Ardrossan.

An eyewitness to the disturbance claimed a youth entered a house in Chapelhill Mount and threatened the female occupant, before assaulting the woman as she tried to remove him from her home.  The woman, who did not know the youth, managed to call her husband and the police as the youth then shouted and swore outside the property.  It is alleged the young man also threw a stone, smashing the livingroom window of the house.

According to the witness, “People in surrounding houses heard the commotion and came out to help the woman.  Then her husband arrived and grappled the youth to the ground, where he restrained him until the police arrived.”

The witness continued, “It only took the police around three-minutes to get to the scene and eventually there were three marked and one unmarked vehicle with officers.  It was great to see them respond so quickly.”

Concluding, the Chapelhill Mount resident stated, “The police have been criticised in the past for their slow response times, but this time they were right there when they were needed.  They are due praise, and so is Alex Salmond and the SNP Government.  They said they would put 1,000 extra police on the street and I think we saw the benefit of that last Wednesday in Chapelhill Mount.”

Another witness also praised the husband of the woman who it is alleged was assaulted, saying, “He did well to just restrain the guy.  A lot of other people would have battered him for assaulting their wife.  He showed great restraint and should be praised for that.”

However, there was also criticism for North Ayrshire Council’s Community Warden Service and a local shop.  One resident said, “It happened on a Wednesday, the day every Warden has off.  It looks like nobody explained to the guy that no-one is supposed to misbehave on a Wednesday – it’s ‘no crime Wednesday’ in North Ayrshire.”

Alluding to a claim the youth involved in the incident may have been drunk at the time, the witness concluded, “It would help if the shop in the area would only sell alcohol to over-21s, instead of to 18 year-olds, because some of them are buying it for underagers.”

the3towns understands a 15 year-old was arrested at the scene of the alleged incident last Wednesday and that a report will be submitted to the Procurator Fiscal.

Councillor pockets £70,000 in 3 years

Figures secured by the3towns under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that the Three Towns’ most expensive councillor, Labour’s Peter McNamara, has pocketed a total of £70,996 from the public purse over the past three financial years (2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11).

Broken down, the figure shows Cllr McNamara’s salary over the three years came to £60,387 and that he claimed a further £10,609 in expenses.

In the most recent financial year (2010/2011), Peter McNamara was paid a Council salary of £20,294 and charged the public purse a further £3,259 in expenses, which included £2,243 for travel, £801 to cover phone and IT bills, £90.83 for accommodation, and £32.83 for meals.

Closer examination of the figures released to the3towns by North Ayrshire Council following a Freedom of Information request has also raised a number of questions relating to expenses claims submitted by Cllr McNamara.  As in previous years, Mr McNamara claimed public money for attending meetings of an organisation called Youthlink Scotland.  However, the Labour councillor was never appointed to represent the local authority on Youthlink Scotland, and the organisation does not appear on the list of ‘outside bodies’ for which councillors can legitimately claim expenses to attend meetings.

In addition, further mileage claims made by Cllr McNamara – for which he was paid a total of £496 – do not provide any details of why it was necessary for him to make the journeys in relation to his role as an elected member of North Ayrshire Council.  In order for a mileage claim to be accepted as legitimate, councillors are told they must provide a “detailed description of [the] approved duty” to which their trip related.  However, on 30 separate occasions Peter McNamara simply recorded “Cunninghame House” on claim forms.  Each of the forms submitted by Mr McNamara carried a warning on the front page that councillors must “clearly indicate which meeting you have attended or the relevant detail of the approved duty undertaken.” 

On another 39 occasions Cllr McNamara claimed for trips, the reason for which he listed as “portfolio business”.  Again, these claims appear to run contrary to the requirement to provide a “detailed description” of the approved duties to which journeys relate.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a North Ayrshire Council official told the3towns, “It certainly seems to be the case that Councillor McNamara’s claims have insufficient detail for them to have been authorised for payment.  Councillors know they should indicate what meeting they attended or official they met with, or what particular duty they carried out that required them to make the journey they claim for.  On the occasions you [the3towns] have highlighted, Councillor McNamara clearly has not done that.”