Saturday, 30 July 2011

Councillor claimed almost £1,500 for journeys with no details

An Independent councillor was paid almost £1,500 in the last financial to cover journeys supposedly made on Council business, but 224 of the mileage claims, from a total of 331, did not provide the required ‘detailed description of approved duty’ to which the journeys related.

Dalry & West Kilbride councillor Elizabeth McLardy is already under pressure after being told by Council Chief Executive Elma Murray to ‘consider her position’ as Chair of the local authority’s Planning Committee after writing a letter to other councillors that appeared to ‘lobby’ for a change of use relating to land at Hunterston.

Now, Mrs McLardy is the latest North Ayrshire councillor to seek payment of public funds without providing details of meetings attended or approved duties carried-out.  In only seven of her 331 individual mileage claims submitted in 2010/11 did Cllr McLardy list specific meetings she had attended.  In most of the other claims, the Independent councillor recorded only the names of local towns, such as Irvine, Ardrossan, Largs and Kilwinning.

North Ayrshire Council’s Member’s Expenses Claim Form states councillors must “Clearly indicate which meeting you have attended or the relevant detail of the approved duty undertaken.”  The form also warns elected members that the claim form will “provide the necessary documentation for HM Revenue & Customs and internal and external audit”.  However, by listing only the names of towns – and no information relating to meetings attended or duties carried-out – it is not possible to verify the legitimacy of the majority of Cllr McLardy’s mileage claims, all of which were paid by the Council.

As previously reported by the3towns, similar claims were made by Labour councillors Peter McNamara and John Reid, while their party colleague Alan Munro submitted claims for five meetings he did not attend.  Cllr Munro’s claims have been reported to Strathclyde Police.

August 25 date for Saltcoats & Stevenston By-Election

North Ayrshire Council has issued a public notification naming the date for a by-election in the Saltcoats & Stevenston Ward – a full two months after the3towns revealed Labour councillor David Munn was to retire due to ill health.

The election to find Cllr Munn’s successor will take place on Thursday, August 25, with candidates having until 4:00pm on Wednesday, August 3 to submit nomination papers to the Electoral Returning Officer at Cunninghame House, the Council’s headquarters in Irvine.

The Labour Party has already announced its candidate, Saltcoats man Jim Montgomerie, and starts the contest as favourite.  However, the SNP will be hoping to carry forward its winning streak from the Scottish Parliament Election in May, when the party took both local constituencies, Cunninghame North and Cunninghame South.  The Saltcoats & Stevenston Council Ward straddles the two parliamentary constituencies, with Saltcoats in the North and Stevenston the South.

SNP sources this week indicated to the3towns that the party is likely to field Stevenston woman Nan Wallace as its candidate.  Mrs Wallace is a former councillor for Stevenston South, but lost-out at the last Council Election in 2007, when larger Wards and a Proportional Representation system of voting were introduced.

Elsewhere, the Conservatives are understood to be looking to North Ayrshire activist Chris Barr to carry the party’s hopes in an area that is not fertile territory for the Tories.  Also believed to be throwing his hat in the ring is Saltcoats man Jimmy Miller, who contested May’s Scottish Parliament Election in the West of Scotland Region for the All Scotland Pensioners’ Party.

Polling Stations in Saltcoats & Stevenston will be open between 7:00am and 10:00pm on August 25 to allow voters to elect a replacement for David Munn.  However, the winner will serve for just eight-months, as the next North Ayrshire Council Election, to elect all thirty councillors, is due to be held in May 2012.

Presently, Saltcoats & Stevenston is represented by Independent Ronnie McNicol, the SNP’s Willie Gibson and Alan Munro of the Labour Party.  Following revelations in the3towns, issues relating to Cllr Munro’s expenses claims for the financial year 2010/11 have been reported to Strathclyde Police.

Sport Minister opens Auchenharvie Ice Rink

Sports Minister, Shona Robison was in the Three Towns last week to officially open the new Auchenharvie Ice Rink.

Ms Robison, Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, cut the ribbon at the £3.9-million facility and saw performances by some of North Ayrshire’s most promising figure skaters, curlers, ice hockey players and speed skaters.
 
Said the SNP MSP, “The Scottish Government is committed to improving sports facilities across Scotland and through Sportscotland have invested £300,000 in this facility. I am delighted to be here to officially open the ice rink and see the end product of that funding first-hand.”

Ms Robison reflected on the role sport can play in community life, saying, “Facilities such as this will help to ensure people across North Ayrshire have more and better opportunities to participate in sport and also that we are setting Scotland on a path to a healthier future.”

Also in attendance at the official opening were local Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter, and North Ayrshire Provost Pat McPhee.  Said Cllr McPhee, “The fantastic new facility at Auchenharvie Leisure Centre replaces a 22-year-old rink, which, although popular with social skaters, offered very little opportunity for local clubs to train and develop.
 
"The Commonwealth Games and other major sporting events are fast approaching and here at North Ayrshire Council we are working with our partners to create a legacy from this and other major events, where everybody is active, involved and inspired.”

The Conservative councillor concluded, “By investing in this new ice rink, we are providing the foundations to enable talented local individuals to realise their sporting ambitions and aspirations.”
 
Louise Martin, Chair of Sportscotland, added, “The redevelopment of the Auchenharvie ice rink has had a fantastic impact on participation in the local community and I am really excited to hear how popular it has been since re-opening.
 
“Each of the partners should be congratulated on what is a wonderful facility, and I am delighted we were able to provide design and specification expertise, along with an award of £300,000 from our Sports Facilities Fund.
 
“By expanding the size of the rink, Auchenharvie is now able to host local and regional level ice hockey, ice dance, figure skating and speed skating competitions, as well as allowing club membership to increase. The curling community have also benefited from the inclusion of an additional lane, which will help to support the development of local clubs.”
 
Auchenharvie now provides the only ice skating facilities in North Ayrshire – the rink at the Magnum in Irvine was closed as part of a rationalisation programme carried out by the Council and North Ayrshire Leisure Limited, the arms-length company that operates public sports facilities on behalf of the local authority.

The new rink in Stevenston is just a few metres short of Olympic size, and boasts 360-degree protective glazing, two team dugouts, a designated spectator seating area and four team changing areas.
 
Work to extend and refurbish the facility took eleven months to complete, with the ice rink opened to the public at the end of March.

Clark condemns energy price hikes

Local MP Katy Clark has hit-out at energy companies who are “profiteering” while people struggle to pay gas and electricity bills.

Ms Clark’s comments came as British Gas and Scottish & Southern Energy confirmed they would be following Scottish Power with price rises of three and four times the rate of inflation.  In the past week, British Gas announced its charges would rise 18-percent for gas and 16-percent for electricity – which will result in an average increase of £192 for people who buy both gas and electricity from the company.

An angry Katy Clark told the3towns, “I am extremely disappointed at the latest announcement by British Gas to increase their prices for gas and electricity. This decision will harm families up and down the country at a time when, according to consumer organization ‘u-switch’, over three-quarters of British households are already rationing energy use over the winter months due to the cost.”

The Labour MP continued, “British Gas made profits of £740-million in the past twelve-months and there are media reports suggesting that their latest figures are going to show profits of up to £500-million in the first six months of this year.”  Last year the Managing Director of British Gas was paid in excess of £1.2 million.

“With average annual energy Bills increasing from £660 to £1,193 over the past five years, it is abundantly clear that the energy companies are profiteering whilst the vast majority of the public struggle to meet their energy needs,” said Ms Clark.

The North Ayrshire & Arran MP condemned the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government for its “failure to take any action” to curb the behaviour of energy companies, and called on Ministers to “look into alternative models of energy ownership.”

MSP in an RIB with the MRV

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess took to the high seas recently to see first-hand how the local Maritime Volunteer Service prepares for dealing with emergencies in waters off the Ayrshire coast.

Mrs Burgess used the first week of the Scottish Parliament’s Summer Recess to meet with the volunteers who man the high-speed Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) based at Irvine Harbour.  The SNP MSP, whose constituency includes Stevenston, was impressed with the skills of the Maritime Volunteers as they allowed her to accompany them on a training exercise – which earned the politician a certificate.

The Maritime Volunteer Service was formed in 1994 and trains people in internationally-recognised nautical skills.  The organisation also provides support to emergency services, both at sea and onshore, and takes part in initiatives that seek to stimulate interest in issues affecting maritime affairs.

Margaret Burgess has also spoken out in support of the Clyde Coastguard, and has condemned the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government’s decision to close the main Clyde base at Greenock.

Katy's vow to tackle forced marriage

Katy Clark, Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire & Arran, has vowed to support ‘Girls Rights Worldwide’, a campaign that seeks to end forced and early marriages.

Plan UK, the British organization behind the ‘Because I’m a Girl’ campaign, has recently published a report highlighting that 1-in-7 women in the developing world are married before the age of 15.  The research also shows that girls married early are more likely to experience violence and abuse, and are less likely to receive a good education.

Said Katy Clark, “It is completely unacceptable that in 2011 many girls across the world are being forced into marriage at a young age, with many led into a life of poverty and abuse.”

Ms Clark continued, “There are currently 75-million girls worldwide not in education and unable to reach their potential. I am therefore delighted to be able to take Plan UK’s vow to end early and forced marriage and would urge people in North Ayrshire and Arran to ensure these vital issues remain high on the public agenda.”

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Councillor charges - again - for Armistice Parade

Scrutiny by the3towns of expenses claimed by North Ayrshire councillors has revealed that a Labour member has again charged the public for attending a service to remember the dead of two World Wars.

Kilwinning councillor Margaret McDougall – also now a Labour MSP – submitted a claim in November 2009 for attending the town’s Armistice Parade, a situation that provoked strong public condemnation when reported by the3towns.  However, we can now disclose that, apparently undeterred, Mrs McDougall again submitted an expenses claim in relation to her attendance at the 2010 remembrance parade.

On both occasions the Labour councillor claimed for travel of 10 miles, which were paid by North Ayrshire Council, with Mrs McDougall pocketing £4.00 from each claim.  Jointly, from her roles as a councillor and an MSP, the Labour Party representative receives a salary of around £76,000.

In addition, the3towns has discovered that Margaret McDougall, whose home is in Kilwinning, also owns a property in Irvine, from which she receives a rental income.  In the edition of the Councillors’ Register of Interests available on the North Ayrshire Council web site, Mrs McDougall does not mention the second-home and the income it generates.

Margaret McDougall, a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee, has also previously submitted an expenses claim in relation to what she described on her Allowances Form as a “Meeting with MEP”.  However, the supposed meeting with a Member of the European Parliament took place on May 12, 2009 – after the Parliament had been dissolved ahead of the European Election on June 4, which meant there were no MEPs.  What Cllr McDougall had actually attended, and which she charged to the public purse, was a Labour Party campaign activity in support of its European Parliament candidates.

Mrs McDougall was surprisingly elected to the Scottish Parliament at the election last May, when many of Labour’s MSPs lost their seats in the SNP landslide.  The Kilwinning councillor had been placed third on the party’s West of Scotland Regional List, and was not expected to have any chance of election.  However, the extent of Labour’s humiliation in constituency seats meant the party was ‘compensated’ by candidates being elected from their Regional Lists.

Labour re-writing history over Town Hall

In the run-up to the August by-election to replace retired councillor David Munn, the local Labour Party is being accused of “attempting to re-write history” in relation to Saltcoats Town Hall.

A Saltcoats resident told the3towns of their surprise when someone representing the Labour Party knocked on their door last week and asked them to sign a petition to ‘Save Saltcoats Town Hall’.  Said the resident, “They must think we all zip up the back of the head.  Everyone knows it was the Labour Council that shut Saltcoats Town Hall, but now there is a by-election and they are trying to re-write history and portray themselves as trying to save the Town Hall.  They have no shame.”

The Saltcoats man added, “I challenged the guy about what the Labour Council had done, and he said he didn’t know anything about it.  He was from Ayr and said he had just been asked to come to Saltcoats and go door-to-door with the petition.”

The Town Hall has been at the centre of a controversy over what happened to a £3.1-million Council fund that was originally set aside for refurbishment works.

Independent Saltcoats & Stevenston councillor Ronnie McNicol has relentlessly pursued answers over the missing money and why the Town Hall was left to deteriorate, finally being closed to the public in April 2009.

During the December 2010 meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Cllr McNicol forced the local authority’s Labour administration to admit it had reduced the original Town Hall funding to £1.9-million in 2008, with the balance of £1.1-million being re-allocated to cover upgrading of the Stevenson Institute in Largs.  At the time of the cut, opposition councillors representing the Three Towns were assured the remaining money was sufficient to secure and upgrade the Town Hall.

In response to Ronnie McNicol’s questions last December, though, Council Leader David O’Neill confirmed there was no longer any money allocated to the project and that works would only be carried out when the Council “finds it has adequate funding”.

Subsequently, Saltcoats Town Hall appeared on a list of publicly-owned facilities that could be sold-off by the Labour-run local authority.  A religious organisation was named as a possible interested party, should the Council decide to sell.

However, at the February meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Ronnie McNicol asked Cllr O’Neill, “Between April 2008, when the Executive said there was still £1.9-million available for the Town Hall refurbishment, and December 2010, when the Leader admitted the Council did not have adequate money to carry out the work, where did the £1.9-million go?”

In response, and despite the question relating to what appeared to be the disappearance of almost £2-million of public money, Cllr O’Neill simply retorted, “The paper-trail for the decision-making process is clear, it is there for people to see.”  However, the Labour councillor failed to actually explain where the money to renovate Saltcoats Town Hall had gone.

Commenting last February, Ronnie McNicol said, “There are groups by the hundred that want to use Saltcoats Town Hall.  The Disabled Group that used the Town Hall had to stop meetings due to there being no adequate venue within the Three Towns.

“Labour councillors promised the people of Saltcoats a £3-million refurbishment of the Town Hall.  They then cut that to £1.9-million and then to absolutely nothing.  The Town Hall is now closed and Cllr O’Neill is unable or unwilling to say where the money has gone.

“That is public money and we need a detailed explanation of what happened to it.”

The Saltcoats householder who spoke last week with the Labour canvasser branded the party “hypocrites”, adding, “They are unbelievable.  It was Labour councillors that pulled the money for the Town Hall, and it was Labour councillors that then closed the Town Hall.  Now they want us to elect another Labour councillor and they are portraying themselves as wanting to save the Town Hall.  If it wasn’t for them the Town Hall would still be open.  They are nothing but hypocrites.”

Council boss tells councillor to 'consider position'

The Convener of North Ayrshire Council’s Planning Committee, Cllr Elizabeth McLardy, has been told she should consider her position after seeking external advice from planning ‘professionals’, and writing to every councillor ‘lobbying’ for the Hunterston peninsula to be re-designated to include leisure usage.

The slap-down for Cllr McLardy came from the local authority’s most senior official, Chief Executive Elma Murray, who responded to the Dalry & West Kilbride member’s letter by pointing out the Council’s own ‘professional’ planners did not share Mrs McLardy’s views regarding legislation covering the re-designation of land, such as Hunterston, which is zoned for ‘industrial’ usage in the National Planning Framework.

Ms Murray then concluded her response by stating, “You have not advised who has provided you with your advice, however I would suggest that if you wish to pursue this matter...your advisers meet with Council officers to discuss and clarify the respective positions,” and “you consider your role as Chair of the Planning Committee and in particular your relationship with the Council’s Legal and Planning officers as your official advisers.”

Cllr McLardy (Independent) had previously raised the possibility of land at Hunterston being re-designated for leisure use, prompting a national newspaper to mock-up a photo of happy children playing in a water-park overshadowed by the existing nuclear power station.  However, when the matter was raised at Council meetings, little support was forthcoming from other councillors.

The gist of Cllr McLardy’s subsequent letter to all members – also copied to the Council Chief Executive, the Solicitor to the Council, and the Planning Services Manager – was to challenge the local authority’s interpretation of Planning legislation.  However, the Chief Executive’s response made clear the Council’s belief that they were right, and Cllr McLardy’s esternal advisers were wrong.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a North Ayrshire Council official commented on the spat, saying, “As the Chair of the Planning Committee Cllr McLardy has a particular responsibility to the Council and, in particular, to the officials in the Planning Department.  It really isn’t appropriate for the Chair of Planning to be going outwith the Council to seek advice on planning matters.”

The official concluded, “If Cllr McLardy felt so strongly about this issue and wished to pursue her personal point of view, the right course of action would have been for her to resign as Chair and then take whatever external advice she wished.

“What is even more serious, though, is her letter to other councillors on the matter.  I can’t see how that action could not be an attempt to lobby opinion.  That, alone, is grounds for resignation.”

Katy's anger over Coastguard closure

Local MP Katy Clark has condemned the UK Government’s decision to close the Clyde Coastguard station at Greenock.

Ms Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, said, “I am extremely disappointed the Government has decided to go ahead with a measure that will put lives at risk.

“The Clyde station is one of the biggest and busiest in the UK and it will be a huge mistake if it is closed. We do not know yet exactly which station will take over the work, but it looks like whichever way they do it, the new location will have to cover an area bigger than the whole coastline of France.”

Continuing, Katy Clark flagged-up the potential loss of local knowledge that may arise from the Clyde closure, commenting, “There is a very real threat that safety will be jeopardised by this closure and the loss of the local knowledge which has been built up by coastguards who have developed this information over many years. If this closure goes ahead they will now lose their jobs and this knowledge will go with them. ”

 In all, it is projected 31 posts could be axed if the Greenock closure is confirmed.  Said Ms Clark, “The Tory-Lib Dem Government’s decision to close the Clyde station seems to be based more on politics and convenience, given the building’s lease is coming to an end, than on operational issues.”

Katy Clark’s position was supported by Stuart Atkinson, Clyde representative of the PCS Union, who said, “PCS Members at Clyde Coastguard Station are in shock over the announcement to close the station but would like thank all those who have offered their support during the campaign.

“Under the current proposals, Clyde Coastguard will close in the financial Year 2012/13.  Nothing has been made public as to how this will be achieved and how the Maritime and Coastguard Agency hope to safeguard the seafarers and public during the transition. 

“Members and supporters will require time to study the latest proposals in detail before a full response can be given.  However, the campaign goes on, and a further twelve-week period of consultation has started. Contact has been made with local politicians who are bewildered by the decision to close the station, but who are fully behind our campaign to save a Coastguard station in the Clyde area.”

Mr Atkinson continued, “Clyde Coastguard is the busiest Station in Scotland and one the busiest in the UK.  It looks after a vast area of coastline between the Isle of Tiree in the North and the Mull of Galloway in the south, including all the sea lochs and the River Clyde as far as the centre of Glasgow. Because of the topography, communications in some areas are poor and therefore local knowledge is essential to affecting a successful rescue.”

The Union official concluded, “If the closure goes ahead there will be no Coastguard Station on the west coast mainland of Scotland or, indeed, in the central belt of Scotland, as Forth Coastguard is also to be closed. It is proposed that the Stations in Stornoway and Belfast will look after the entire west Coast of Scotland with support for a yet to be acquired Marine Operations Centre in the Southampton area.

“I would ask members of the public to write to their MPs, MSPs and the Minster for Shipping, Mike Penning, to express their concerns over this closure.”

Healthcare Awards

 NHS Ayrshire & Arran is looking for nominations for this year’s Military and Civilian Health Partnership Awards.

The annual awards celebrate people, projects and initiatives from the Defence Medical Services, the NHS, and private and voluntary organisations that provide health and social care to serving military personnel.

NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s Executive Medical Director, Professor Bob Masterton, is also the Health Board’s executive lead for Veterans’ issues.  Speaking this week, Professor Masterton said, “These awards are an opportunity to promote and recognise the work of NHS Ayrshire & Arran staff and our partner organisations who provide care to the armed forces in Scotland. I hope local people will take a look at the categories and consider if they know someone who fits the bill for a nomination.”
Cabinet Secretary for Health, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, added, “This is an excellent and unique opportunity to recognise and celebrate the tremendous standard of service that both our armed forces and our health service provide.
“There are nine categories of award, including separate awards for healthcare civilian, Regular and Reservist of the year, mental health, veterans’ care and deployed healthcare.”

Ms Sturgeon concluded, “I want to see as many Scots as possible get the recognition they deserve, so if there is a team or individual you know shows the skill, dedication and commitment to be recognised in any of the categories, then please put in a nomination.”

The categories are: Innovation and service development; Education and training; Health improvement and promotion; Mental health; Healthcare reservist of the year; Healthcare regular of the year; Healthcare civilian of the year; Care of veterans; Deployed healthcare.

Individuals or teams can self nominate, or be nominated by others.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Munro could face police probe over expenses

Following this newspaper’s revelations regarding Labour councillor Alan Munro having submitted five separate expenses claims relating to meetings that official documents show he did not attend, the3towns understands the matter has now been reported to Strathclyde Police.

Over the last two weeks the3towns has detailed how Cllr Munro, who represents Saltcoats & Stevenston, submitted mileage claims – and was paid by the Council – for five return journeys between his home in Stevenston and North Ayrshire Council headquarters in Irvine.  However, official Council minutes show the Labour man did not attend the meetings to which he claimed his journeys related.

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.  However, the local authority’s official minute of that meeting indicates Cllr Munro did not attend and, in fact, submitted apologies for his absence.

Next, 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 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, in fact, submitted apologies for absence.

Strathclyde Police have confirmed a complaint has been received alleging “serious misconduct” on the part of a North Ayrshire councillor. 

Councillors praise new Heritage Centre

Ardrossan & Arran Independent councillor John Hunter has welcomed the new-look Heritage Centre in Saltcoats, which was officially opened last week with a ‘Doon the Watter’ exhibition looking back at the tourist heyday of Clyde Coast towns.

Cllr Hunter and his Three Towns Independent colleague Ronnie McNicol attended the opening of the Centre, formerly the North Ayrshire Museum, and declared the new facility, “Well worth a visit.”

North Ayrshire Provost Pat McPhee performed the official opening ceremony, and later said, “We have already had a lot of fantastic feedback about the new Heritage Centre. Most people have been very positive, finding it very useful to have so many different elements under one roof.”

The Provost continued, “North Ayrshire's recent history is intrinsically linked with tourism and people visiting the area, and indeed moving here from Glasgow, so having an exhibition on 'Doon the Watter' is a fitting way to officially open the new Heritage Centre.”

To mark the opening of the facility, North Ayrshire Council has launched a photograph competition to find what could turn out to be the nostalgic images of the future. Local people are being invited to consider what brings people 'doon the watter' in 2011.
 
Anyone with a camera is asked to take a photograph of the part of North Ayrshire they think is important to visitors, and which should be remembered down the years. The winning entries will form a new Heritage Centre postcard set.
 
There are prizes of photographic vouchers for each of the category winners along with a grand prize of a 'photographic assignment' on the Waverley paddlesteamer. The competition closes at noon on July 29 2011. Entries should be sent, along with the photographer’s age, area and address to: communications@north-ayrshire.gov.uk.
 
Said John Hunter, “The ‘Doon the Watter’ exhibition shows us how our towns looked when hundreds of people used to flock here for short breaks and holidays.  It’s of great interest to anyone who has an interest in local history and who enjoys a bit of nostalgia.”

Katy calls on Government to ditch Murdoch Sky bid

Labour MP Katy Clark has again raised concerns over the UK Government’s apparent support for Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy 100-percent of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

Ms Clark has consistently called for the Murdoch bid to be blocked, given that the Australian/American billionaire already owns a substantial stake in the broadcaster, in addition to British newspapers the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times.  Mr Murdoch also owns the News of the World, but closed-down the Sunday tabloid this week after further revelations over senior executives having sanctioned the hacking of mobile phones, including those belonging to a murder victim and soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, despite serious questions over the amount of media outlets already owned by Murdoch’s News International, and over whether or not those associated with the billionaire’s organisation are ‘fit and proper’ people to operate a broadcasting licence, UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt still appears to back the proposed deal.

Commenting on the issue, Katy Clark said, “I am very worried at the prospect of one organisation having such a large voice in the United Kingdom.

“Many people have raised very legitimate points on the implications of one organisation owning so large a stake of the media market in the United Kingdom. Concerns regarding the independence of Sky News and its long-term future as a separate organisation from BSkyB have not been addressed and, unfortunately, it has been clear for some time that the Government supports this takeover.”

Ms Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has written to Prime Minister David Cameron, making known her feelings on the matter.

Clothing 'scammers' back in the Three Towns

A commercial company that operates door-to-door collections of second-hand clothes, claiming the garments will benefit the poor in Eastern European countries, has been back in the Three Towns over the past week.

The company – Second Hand Ltd – previously distributed fliers that looked like those used by charities, but has now changed its approach and is leaving sealed plastic envelopes which even-more-closely mimic those used by organisations like Breast Cancer UK.  The Second Hand Ltd envelopes contain a bag, into which it asks householders to put clothes, blankets, shoes, handbags, cosmetics, toiletries and perfumes.

Despite the company making clear it not a charity, Second Hand Ltd gives the impression that any donations of clothes will be given to the needy when, in fact, they are sold in Eastern European markets with all profits retained by the firm.

The website listed for Second Hand Ltd consist of just one page, which displays an “under construction” image, while the company’s address, as listed in Companies House records, is currently being advertised as a ‘Nail Studio’.

UK charities estimate commercial companies who mimic their collection methods are costing genuine good causes millions-of-pounds every year.  

£16m investment unveiled at Ayrshire Central Hospital

NHS Ayrshire and Arran has opened new and refurbished facilities at Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine.

The Health Board last week announced the former outpatients’ department had been fully refurbished and - along with a newly built extension - is now providing a range of services from a reception, three consulting rooms and six interview rooms.

Other areas of the same building have also seen extensive work, which has created rooms for anticoagulant clinics, paediatric clinics, joint rheumatology, podiatry, nail surgery, dietetics, nurse specialist for epilepsy, speech therapy, phlebotomy, endocrine clinic and a new vasectomy clinic.

Within the redevelopment some services have been relocated to a new extension, including dermatology; care of the elderly; stroke clinic; travel medicine; urology; urology nurse specialist service; continence nurses; general medicine; chest medicine; gastroenterology; infectious diseases; renal; rheumatology; and rheumatology nurse specialist.

In addition, there is now a Central Decontamination Unit (CDU), which deals with cleaning, inspection and assembly, and packaging and sterilisation of reusable surgical instruments and medical devices. According to the Health Board, the CDU deals, on average, with 2.8 million to 2.9 million surgical instruments and medical devices each year. Staff are trained not only in highly-specialised cleaning and sterilising procedures, but also on how to recognise and assemble  that is returned for re-processing.  Each piece of equipment is logged and given its own unique identifying number so that, at any time, the equipment can be traced and the full cleaning and sterilising history can be provided.

There is also a new Gallery dining room and kitchen, which offers meals and snacks for patients, visitors and staff. Seating in the new facility has been increased from 100 to 150, with an outside patio area accommodating a further 30 people.

Patients and relatives are also enjoying a traditional treat, with the dining room offering afternoon tea – complete with a cake stand - from 2:00pm until 4:00pm each day. As well as the cakes, tea is served in a china tea pot and is accompanied with a single-stemmed flower in a vase.

Commenting on the changes at Ayrshire Central, Jim Crichton, Director of Primary Care and Mental Health Services, said, “While our work for planning the new health facility at Ayrshire Central Hospital continues we are still committed to improving the site. Along with new buildings we have completed a massive refurbishment programme. Our staff and patients now enjoy more pleasant surroundings with lots more open space, natural lighting and modern facilities.

“We believe it is important to provide the right services as close to people’s homes as possible and that is why we have invested more than £16 million in improving the Ayrshire Central Hospital site.”

MP's concern over 'web blocking'

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has challenged the Tory-Lib Dem Government over proposals contained in the Digital Economy Act.

Under the legislation, Government could force internet service providers to ‘block’ websites and even disconnect individual users who had been accused of breaching copyright laws.  The draconian action could be taken against someone who had unwittingly downloaded a song or movie from a seemingly legitimate site.

Outlining her concerns, Katy Clark told the3towns, “The debate about web-blocking appears to have been going on behind closed doors. While it is important that copyright law is respected and observed, any action taken against those in breach of the law should only take place after a robust and transparent judicial process. I am very concerned that new regulations would place far too much power in the hands of the copyright holders.

“One organisation, Consumer Focus, has already said that in a number of instances web-blocking would be a disproportionate response to breaches of copyright law and the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, has recently published a report expressing concerns about the provisions included in the Digital Economy Act.”

Ms Clark concluded, “I hope the Government listens to these voices and does not introduce rash regulations, which could have potentially damaging consequences.”

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Revealed: Councillor claimed for more meetings he didn't attend

Saltcoats & Stevenston Labour councillor Alan Munro is facing calls for his resignation after the3towns last week reported he had submitted expenses claims partly relating to Council meetings he did not attend.

Now, however, the3towns can reveal things are about to get even worse for the under pressure councillor.  Further investigations by this newspaper into claims submitted by Alan Munro have confirmed an additional three occasions in the past financial year where the Labour man claimed public money for travelling to and from meetings that official records show he did not attend.

The mileage claims relate to a meeting of North Ayrshire Council’s Licensing Committee in August of last year, and two meetings of the Scrutiny Committee.

For the Scrutiny Committee on January 25, Cllr Munro’s expenses forms show he claimed, and was paid, for a 13 mile round trip between his home in Stevenston and Council headquarters in Irvine.  However, the local authority’s official minute of that meeting indicates Cllr Munro did not attend and, in fact, submitted apologies for his absence.

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

Then, for August 17 2010, an expenses claim submitted by Cllr Munro charged the public for another 13 mile round trip between Stevenston and Irvine, this time to attend a meeting of the Licensing Committee.  In this claim, the Labour councillor even listed times of departure and arrival – yet the official minute of the meeting shows Alan Munro did not attend and submitted apologies for absence.

Last week the3towns revealed a similar story relating to a Licensing Committee meeting held on August 3 2010.  On that occasion, Cllr Munro also submitted a claim for a 13 mile journey, but Council records again show he did not attend and had actually submitted apologies.

On another occasion, the Saltcoats & Stevenston councillor 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 date, and no reports or minutes exist in Council records.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Council official told the3towns, “Any allegation relating to a councillor or member of staff claiming and being paid allowances to which they were not entitled would be taken very seriously, and a full investigation would be carried out to determine the facts.  As far as I am aware, no complaint regarding claims made by any councillor has been received.”

McNicol calls for town centre regeneration

Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol has called for increased efforts to regenerate Saltcoats town centre.

Speaking to the3towns, Cllr McNicol said, “There have been targeted initiatives recently, which focussed on aspects of the town centre, such as Irvine Bay’s ‘shopfronts’ project, where a number of business premises saw their frontage upgraded, but in the current economic climate, more needs to be done to safeguard the businesses we have and to attract new enterprises.”

The Saltcoats & Stevenston councillor flagged-up recent business closures in Hamilton Street, saying, “Right next door to each other, we’ve seen the pet shop and an estate agent close, which means a significant area of retail space is now vacant.  Hamilton Street forms a very important part of Saltcoats’ overall shopping centre, so it’s vital that prominent retail properties do not lie empty.”

Cllr McNicol, who helped establish a Saltcoats traders group, added, “Clearly it falls to property owners and their agents to market the vacant shops in Saltcoats town centre, but everyone, and every organisation with an interest in the town has to focus on what they can do to help.  The Council can ensure the area is as clean and attractive as possible, while Irvine Bay may need to look again at what further initiatives can be undertaken to regenerate facilities, consolidate existing shops and attract businesses to come to Saltcoats.”

Ronnie McNicol has also fought to establish what the Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council has done with £3-million originally set-aside to refurbish Saltcoats Town Hall in Countess Street.  Said the Independent councillor, “The £3-million was reduced to £2-million and now the Labour Executive says there is no money for the project and the Town Hall has been closed.  I’ve repeatedly asked where our £3-million has gone, but the Leader of the Council, Labour’s David O’Neill, has failed to answer.  However long it takes, I will continue to pursue answers over where this money has gone. ”

Cllr McNicol indicated the Town Hall was an “integral part of the town centre,” and stated that Labour councillors allowing the community building to close was “a slap in the face to the people of Saltcoats.”

Concluding, Ronnie McNicol highlighted the power of individual shoppers, saying, “What keeps businesses going in these tough economic times is money in the till, and each of us can play our part in safeguarding what we have in the town centre by shopping locally.

“It may be a cliché, but it’s also true – if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.  So let’s use our local shops and businesses, and help regenerate the Three Towns’ main shopping centre.”