Saturday, 31 March 2012

Cameron 'too busy' to visit North Ayrshire

Prime Minister David Cameron turned down an invitation to visit North Ayrshire, citing “enormous pressure” on his diary.

Former MSP Campbell Martin, the Scottish Socialist Party candidate for the Ardrossan & Arran seat at May’s North Ayrshire Council Election, wrote to Mr Cameron in February, challenging him to come to North Ayrshire, which has Scotland’s highest level of unemployment.  The Prime Minister was in Troon last Friday (March 23) to address the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party Conference, and Mr Martin invited him to travel the extra few miles into North Ayrshire.

On David Cameron’s response, Campbell Martin said, “It’s what I expected.  The Prime Minister likes to talk tough, but he isn’t tough enough to come to North Ayrshire and face the people whose lives are being destroyed by the policies of his government.  In my letter, I challenged him to come here and see for himself the devastating consequences of his actions, but he isn’t up to that challenge.

“Cameron spoke to an adoring Tory audience in Troon Concert Hall, then sneaked out the backdoor to avoid coming face-to-face with any locals or protesters.  Meanwhile, just a few miles up the road, there are communities where the very fabric of society is crumbling because of savage cuts imposed by the UK Government.”

Mr Martin pointed out North Ayrshire already has over 1,500 people under the age of 24 without work, adding, “But David Cameron is too busy to come here and listen to them.  He isn’t interested in the damage he and his coalition government are doing.  He’s a multi-millionaire and the cuts don’t affect him and his family.  It’s ordinary men, women and children in places like North Ayrshire that are being forced to pay the price of bailing-out failed banks and the corrupt capitalist system.”

The Scottish Trades Union Congress has organised a demonstration in Troon on Saturday (March 24) on the second day of the Scottish Tory Conference.  Campbell Martin will address a meeting in the town’s Anchorage Hotel following what is expected to be one of Scotland’s largest protests against UK Government austerity measures.

Controversy over leisure company Magnum move

the3towns understands bosses of a local publicly-funded leisure company are set to fork-out scarce cash on creating state-of-the-art offices in a building due to be demolished in two years time.

North Ayrshire Leisure (NAL) is to move from its existing offices in Irvine town centre to establish a new base at the town’s Magnum Centre, despite the fact the Harbourside facility is earmarked for closure in 2014.  North Ayrshire Council plans to replace the Magnum with a new leisure centre on the site of the Irvine Townhouse, just a short distance from NAL’s current offices.

In addition to concerns over the move to the Magnum, fears were also being expressed in relation to costs associated with refitting offices and associated accommodation at the doomed centre.  Reports suggested North Ayrshire Leisure was set to build private showers for senior staff, with plans for new offices said to detail top of the range equipment and furniture.

North Ayrshire Leisure receives the bulk of its funding in the form of an annual multi-million pound grant from North Ayrshire Council, with a number of NAC councillors appointed to the board of the leisure company to oversee its actions.  One of the councillors tasked with monitoring NAL is Saltcoats & Stevenston Labour councillor Alan Munro, who recently blamed a diary mix-up after he claimed travel expenses for five separate Council committee meetings that he had not attended.

A North Ayrshire Council source who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity said, “This seems a very strange situation.  Everyone knows the Magnum is schedule to close in 2014, so why move there now, and why spend scarce money on what appears to be hi-spec offices?”

Lennon bomb plot trial latest

During the fourth week of the trial of two North Ayrshire men accused of plotting to kill Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other prominent supporters of the club, a witness said he could not remember what he’d previously told police, and indicated he did not want his evidence reported.

Alastair Wardrop was giving evidence on Friday (March 23) in the trial of Saltcoats man Neil McKenzie and Trevor Muirhead from Kilwinning, both of whom are accused of sending packages in the post with the intention of attempting to kill Neil Lennon, former Labour MSP Trish Godman and the late Paul McBride QC.

The court heard that Mr Wardrop had met Neil McKenzie while he was on remand in Barlinnie Prison last year – the witness is now serving a 20 month sentence having subsequently been convicted of dangerous driving and driving without a licence.  Under questioning from the prosecution, Mr Wardrop stated, “I am actually not wanting this reported if I'm telling what I'm telling because I'm going back to jail with 100 angry cons tonight that might actually kill me,” adding, “If it was on the telly perhaps you might not see me again.”

Judge Lord Turnbull told Wardrop his evidence was “required to be given in the same manner as any other witness”.  However, when questioned by Advocate depute Tim Niven-Smith about the discussions he had with Mr McKenzie, Mr Wardrop replied, “No, I'm not going to say anything about it then. So take what you will from that.”

The witness was then shown a police statement containing his signature, and he admitted writing a letter to the procurator fiscal about Mr McKenzie, but Mr Wardrop claimed he could not remember what he wrote in the letter or what he told police when they came to see him in prison.  He added that he could not remember what he did yesterday and therefore could not remember months ago.

Mr Niven-Smith asked, “Is there any particular reason you can't remember what you did yesterday?” To which Mr Wardrop answered, “I don't know, maybe I have got a malfunction with my brain or something wrong with my memory loss but I just can't seem to remember things.”

Friday’s proceedings closed with Mr Niven-Smith, for the Crown, dropping two of the charges against the accused.  They no longer face the charge of threatening to plant an Improvised Explosive Device outside the police station in Kilwinning, and of attempting to defeat the ends of justice by disposing of a quantity of cream peroxide and wiring.

Earlier in the week, the court heard evidence from Saltcoats man Neil McKenzie, in which he said he learned how to make a hoax bomb from watching an episode of the A-Team on television.

In a police interview played to the High Court, Mr McKenzie said the package addressed to Neil Lennon, which was found in Saltcoats on May 4 2011, contained wire, putty and a small watch.  Asked about suspect packages posted in March and April last year, Mr McKenzie said, “I knew about one going to Neil Lennon," adding, “I told folk how to make them.”

Mr McKenzie also told police the package to Mr Lennon was intended to be a hoax, adding that it had been “our” intention to put Ally McCoist's name on the back of it.

Mr McKenzie said he had seen on the internet how to mix peroxide to “make a flash”.  He also acknowledged that he had lied to police earlier in the interview about needing peroxide to dye his hair.

Confronted with evidence by detectives, Mr McKenzie admitted buying cheap watches and travel bottles but said these had since been thrown away.  He also admitted buying nails at B&Q in Stevenston on April 14 last year, which he said he needed to fix a fence.

The prosecution case has now concluded.  Mr Muirhead and Mr McKenzie deny all charges and the trial, before Lord Turnbull, continues.

SNP funding for North Ayrshire youth unemployment

North Ayrshire Council is to receive £828,000 towards tackling the area’s chronic youth unemployment.

The funding, revealed by Youth Employment Minister Angela Constance MSP, was welcomed by her local SNP colleagues, Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess and Tony Gurney, councillor for Ardrossan & Arran.

Confirming the local council would be able to decide how the money should be spent, Angela Constance said, “They have a number of options open to them on how best to direct this funding, but we all have the same objective - improving employment opportunities and therefore life chances of Scotland's young people.”

The SNP Minister also flagged-up where she thought the Tory-Lib Dem Government at Westminster could provide additional help, such as implementing a National Insurance holiday for employers who recruit young people.  “This is a relatively simple measure that could significantly enhance employment opportunities for young people”, said Ms Constance.

Local Government Minister Derek Mackay MSP added his support, saying, “On top of ensuring 25,000 modern apprenticeship opportunities in every year of this parliament, the SNP Government has already rolled out several tranches of the youth employment strategy fund since December towards schemes linked to the voluntary sector and young carers.

“Local authorities have a key role in meeting a national challenge and I am confident this funding will make a real difference to the future prospects of young people in North Ayrshire.”

Ardrossan & Arran SNP Councillor Tony Gurney said the new funding would be vital in helping “regenerate local economic prospects”.   Alluding to a possible change of ruling party at North Ayrshire Council, Cllr Gurney added, “It is unfortunate that the situation is so critical as to require this intervention from the Government but it is my hope that, after the local election in May, we will be able to address the problems with the local economy and implement fresh new ideas that will make a real difference to young people's lives.”

Margaret Burgess MSP also welcomed the funding, saying, “This is a boost for North Ayrshire’s young people who have been so badly affected by the draconian Westminster cuts and are desperate to contribute to society through work.
“Youth unemployment is a tragedy and councils have a key part to play in tackling it. The Scottish Government continues to support North Ayrshire and its young people and the challenge now is for NAC to use this money wisely and innovatively.”
The fund is to be used towards creating work opportunities in the local area, where over 1,500 people under the age of 24 are currently without a job.

MP critical over minimum wage and work programme

Local MP Katy Clark has criticised the UK Government over Budget proposals that will result in a real-terms cut in wages for the most poorly-paid workers.

Labour MP Ms Clark also called on the Tory-Lib Dem administration to guarantee paid jobs for all young people who have been unemployed for 12 months or longer.

Presently, the Westminster Government operates a work experience programme, where young people undertake voluntary placements.  However, the scheme has received widespread criticism following revelations that anyone who withdraws from a placement is threatened with having their benefits stopped.  In light of this, the Labour Party has proposed the government should fund a guaranteed six-month paid job for all young people aged between 18 and 24.

Katy Clark said, “In North Ayrshire and Arran there are 150 young people who have been unemployed for over 12 months.  That’s a 173 per cent increase on 12 months ago.  With almost 20 people on Jobseekers Allowance for every vacancy in the area, for the vast majority of people the jobs are simply not available.

“The UK Government should be stepping in to guarantee a real job for these young people to ensure we do not end up with a lost generation.  A real job guarantee for 18 to 24 year-olds will give unemployed young people experience of the world of work and allow them to develop skills they will be able to use throughout their careers.

“A greater number of young people employed in North Ayrshire would also provide a real boost for the local economy.”

Ms Clark was also critical of Budget plans for the minimum wage, which saw the level frozen for those under the age of 21, and a below inflation increase of 1.8 per cent (11p an hour) for over 21s.   The freeze means 16 and 17 year-olds can still be paid as little as £3.68 an hour, with 18 to 20 year-olds on £4.98 – the over 21 rate is now £6.19.

Katy Clark said, “The Government have repeatedly spoken of making work pay, but their actions are failing to match their words.  With the Consumer Price Index currently measuring inflation at 3.4 per cent and the Retail Price Index at 3.7 per cent, the Government are essentially consigning millions of low paid workers to a pay cut at this difficult time. Young workers, in particular, are being especially hard hit.”

The Labour MP added, “As well as harming the living standards of the lowest paid, the Government’s proposals will also have a negative impact on the economy as workers will feel they have less money to spend.

“Instead of increasing the minimum wage by the lowest amount they feel they can get away with, the Government should be looking to equalise it for all ages and increase it to the living wage level of £7.20 an hour.”

Burgess attacks Housing Benefit reform

The Scottish Parliament last week heard that proposed UK Government changes to Housing Benefit will impact heavily on people in North Ayrshire.

The warning came from Margaret Burgess, SNP MSP for Cunninghame South, during a parliamentary debate on Housing Benefit Reform.  Mrs Burgess focussed on one particular aspect of the proposed changes, relating to single occupancy, and cautioned that “around 3000 people will be affected and will lose up to £10 a week”.

Mrs Burgess told the chamber, “I have no issue with people moving house if they want to do so, but I am concerned about forcing people to move simply for the crime of having a bedroom that is not being used.”

A former manager with Citizens Advice Scotland, Margaret Burgess added, “Making such people move is fundamentally wrong and is against everything that I thought that we in Scotland stood for.

“People should be able to have their home for the rest of their life, if they want. Unfortunately, that will no longer be the case for somebody who is poor. I have an issue with that.

“From my previous job I know that there is nothing more distressing than witnessing the despair of someone who is about to lose their home.  It is the final straw for them and comes at the end of a financial and mental struggle from which their health and relationships often never recover.”

Mrs Burgess noted, “Citizens Advice Scotland anticipates that demand for advice in such circumstances will increase, and it is right to point out that it is cheaper to provide good debt and welfare advice than it is to deal with homelessness and bankruptcy - and good advice has better social outcomes.

“I have seen it working at first hand and it truly makes a positive difference to people.  The poorest and most vulnerable are being penalised simply because they are poor and vulnerable, and that is absolutely unacceptable.”

The SNP MSP concluded her speech by arguing for powers over social security to be passed from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, which, she said, “would allow us to do much more for the most vulnerable of our citizens”.

NHS and NAC link-up on health initiative

NHS Ayrshire & Arran is to work in partnership with North Ayrshire Council to support health improvement and reduce inequalities in some of the local area’s most deprived communities, including Ardrossan.

The ABCD project is targeted at improving the health of children under the age of eight, and is focussed on finding out an area's assets, identifying what can be improved and developing community initiatives.

The team behind the project are to hold a free Easter ‘eggstravaganza’ to promote the work being done and to help get people involved in their communities. The Ardrossan event will take place between mid-day and 3:00pm on Wednesday, April 4 at the Whitlees Community Centre.

Included in activities on the day are: games, arts and crafts, competitions and a raffle, a giant inflatable slide, moonwalker bouncy fun for children, a play corner and information stalls.

NHS and Council staff urge everyone to “come along to find out more about the project and tell us what's good about Ardrossan”.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Election starting-gun fails to sound

The starting gun for May’s elections to North Ayrshire Council was officially sounded last Tuesday...or at least it should have been, but, at our publication deadline, visitors to the local authority’s web site would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the event.

Electoral Returning Officers across Scotland should have issued a formal declaration of the impending poll - which will take place on Thursday, May 3rd - but days later no notice of the North Ayrshire arrangements appeared to have been posted, either in local newspapers or on the Council’s own site.  Both East Ayrshire Council and South Ayrshire Council carried full details on their respective web sites and advertisements had been placed in newspapers covering their areas.

Prospective candidates should have been advised that, as of Wednesday (March 14), nomination papers were available from the Council’s Election Office at Cunninghame House in Irvine, and that papers must be returned by 4:00pm on Thursday, March 29.

Polling Places on May 3rd will be open between 7:00am and 10:00pm, and Ardrossan will have an additional one, with St Peter’s Primary School in South Isle Road being used for the first time.  In addition to voters living in adjacent streets, electors living in the Chapelhill Mount area will also now cast their vote at St Peter’s Primary.

The election will be conducted using the Single Transferable Vote system of Proportional Representation, where instead of placing an ‘X’ next to one candidate, voters rank their choices in order of preference, marking ‘1’ next to their first preference, ‘2’ for second preference and so on.

Two Wards, each electing four councillors, span the Three Towns – Ardrossan & Arran and Saltcoats & Stevenston.

Gala Day grant for Saltcoats community group

A Saltcoats community group received a huge financial boost when two councillors backed an application for grant funding at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council’s Three Towns & Arran Area Committee.

The MACKAN Tenants and Residents Association, which covers the area around New England Road, had asked for £700 from the Saltcoats Common Good Fund to help towards the costs of running a Gala Day.  However, a report for councillors on the Area Committee pointed out the town’s Common Good Fund had only £750 remaining for the current financial year, which ends in April.  The Council’s Solicitor also flagged up a concern, stating that the MACKAN group had indicated funds raised from the Gala Day would be used for the provision of a children’s play facility for their local area, which, the lawyer argued, would not benefit “ the whole community of Saltcoats”.  The solicitor concluded that, “for this reason funding would be difficult to substantiate legally.”

Despite the caution of officials, though, Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol and the SNP’s Willie Gibson told the committee of the beneficial work being done by the MACKAN group in the New England Road area, and indicated their support for the funding application.  Cllr Gibson, seconded by Cllr McNicol, moved that the MACKAN Tenant & Resident Group should received the full £700 requested, which was agreed by the committee.

The planned Gala Day is scheduled to be held in June, with funds raised going towards the creation of a children’s play area.  The community organisation indicated the grant from the Council would help cover the costs of trophies for a children's dance competition and a youth football tournament, fees for the provision of toilets for the gala day, fees for the provision of children's attractions and costs associated with provision of a disco.

Call for action on Ardrossan 'burial ground'

Campbell Martin, the Scottish Socialist Party candidate for the Ardrossan & Arran seat at May’s North Ayrshire Council Election, has called on the local authority to take action over a vandalised ‘burial ground’ next to a children’s play area.

The site, located between Adrossan’s Stanley Road and St Margaret’s Road, adjacent to the Laird Weir estate, was originally part of the Kirkhall farm before the north-ward expansion of the town.  In the 1950s, when Ardrossan Burgh Council decided to build new housing for rent on the northern side of Stanley Road, it is understood some stones from the burial ground were removed and the current, smaller commemoration area was created.

One of the removed stones is believed to have carried an inscription listing those who were originally buried in the plot.  It read:

'This burial-place was erected by Hugh Weir of Kirkhall.
Dorothia Hunter, his wife, died Sept. 26th, 1787, aged 67 years.
Hugh Weir died Jany. 9th 1800, aged 72 years.
Helen Ferry, wife of Robert Weir, died April 20th 1814, aged 56 years.
Robert Weir died July 31st, 1838, in the 81st year of his age.
Hugh Weir, died 26th April, 1898, aged 83 years.'

The site has since been subsumed by residential developments, the Stanley Road ‘swingpark’ and modern life.

Commenting on its current sad state, Campbell Martin said, “Action needs to be taken to, at the very least, tidy up the site. 

“It may well be the case that, as Ardrossan grew and new houses were built, the bodies of those buried in the plot were moved to another location.  I certainly hope that was the case because, if not, the current state of the site does not befit a place of burial.”

Mr Martin continued, “Even if the bodies were taken elsewhere, and what exists now is simply a commemoration, it may be time to relocate that, too.  You could certainly see the force of a position that argued it seems out of place in its location, next to a children’s playground and tucked between the rear of a convenience store and a fast-food takeaway.”

The former MSP believes that, whatever the situation, North Ayrshire Council should take immediate action to tidy-up the area, adding, “Even without any historical relevance, there is no way the site’s current state is acceptable.”

Investigation reveals national disgrace of 'care at home'

Almost a year after the3towns carried an Opinion column by Campbell Martin, headed ‘The disgrace of care at home in North Ayrshire’, the consumer group Which? has published a report on the standard of care provided for older people in their homes, labelling it “shocking and disgraceful”.

As is the case in North Ayrshire, Which? found local authorities across the UK had contracted much of the ‘care at home’ service to private companies, whose prime motivation was generating profit rather than providing care.  The Which? investigation discovered carers missed visits, left food out of people’s reach, did not give medication and left elderly residents lying in soiled beds.  Overall, Which? concluded that many senior citizens faced a “constant battle” to just get basic help.

Across the UK over half-a-million people rely on ‘care at home’ services, including help with washing, dressing, preparing meals and getting ready for bed.  During its investigation, Which? noted some “examples of excellent care”, but found that “too many people were being poorly served”.

One worker with a private care company said, “I've been in this profession for 10 years. The agency I work for doesn't pay travelling time, so it's rush, rush, rush and the time I spend travelling is taken from each customer.”

The carer continued, “Fifteen-minute visits used to be check calls or to give medication.  Now they're used to microwave a meal, empty a commode and travel to the next person.  It's impossible.”

The UK Home Care Association, which represents agencies providing many ‘care at home’ services, said its members were increasingly under pressure to cut the length of visits by councils wanting to save money.  Mike Padgham, the group's chairman, said, “The report supports our growing concern over state-funded homecare.  People and their families must be confident that they will receive dignified and effective care.  They must look to government and local councils to place the needs of elderly and disabled people at the forefront in the current economic climate, to avoid the concerning picture described in the Which? report.”

In Campbell Martin’s Opinion column from May 2011, the former MSP told the story of an 89 year-old Saltcoats man who was in receipt of a ‘care at home’ package delivered by a private company on behalf of North Ayrshire Council.

The article read:

“The man is now registered blind and has also had a catheter fitted. However, with adequate support, he is able to remain in his own home.

“The crucial words in the last sentence are ‘with adequate support’. North Ayrshire Council administers the provision of ‘care at home’ services for people like the man in our story. My understanding is that Council staff generally provide a very good level of service, but senior management at North Ayrshire – backed by the Labour councillors who run the Council – have embarked on privatising much of the ‘care at home’ work. According to figures presented in the Council’s budget for the current financial year, NAC anticipates ‘saving’ around £400,000 by withdrawing from directly providing care to approximately fifty-percent of local people who need it. Instead, they will continue to award contracts to private companies to provide the service.

“The motivation for these contractors, like all private companies, is to make money. Private ‘care at home’ companies often spend less time with ‘clients’, resulting in less being done for those requiring care. Such firms also pay their staff much less than the Council workers they replace, and many expect their employees to buy their own uniforms and use their own mobile phones when contacting the office. At least one such private company with a North Ayrshire Council contract also does not provide staff with ‘travel time’ between ‘clients’. In other words, it is impossible for staff to maintain the schedule of ‘visits’ unless they cut-short the time they spend with each ‘client’.

“Clients’ needs are assessed by the Council and our 89 year-old Saltcoats man needs four ‘visits’ per day. During these visits care staff should help him wash, dress and, crucially, ensure his catheter is emptied. Now, there is a very long list of failures relating to this man’s care but, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to restrict my references to just one day last week. Staff from the private company did not turn-up for the last two ‘visits’ of the day, meaning the man’s 73 year-old female neighbour – not a relative – had to make his dinner, prepare him for bed and ensure his catheter was emptied. This was far from the first time she’d had to perform the role of carer in such circumstances.

“Had the neighbour not done the work for which the private company is paid by the Council (as we fund the Council it is us who pay them), the man would have had no food from lunchtime one day until breakfast the next. Disgracefully, his catheter would not have been emptied either, with potentially fatal consequences.

“On a number of occasions when this private company has failed to deliver the care for which they are paid, the man’s neighbour has had to call-out staff from the Council’s Alert service, resulting in a double-hit on public finances – we pay the private care company and also fund Alert.

“North Ayrshire Council has consistently been advised of the failures relating to the care of this vulnerable man, but they still happen on an almost daily basis. If a child was left without food and care for almost 24-hours, and through that was exposed to a potentially life-threatening situation, then people would be facing prosecution.

“While North Ayrshire Council is looking to ‘save’ money by privatising services, the level of care being provided to some of our elderly relatives, friends and neighbours is nothing short of a disgrace.

“The incident described above – just one of many – is completely unacceptable, and North Ayrshire Council cannot claim it does not know such appalling failures in care are happening: our 89 year-old man’s neighbour has kept a log and has regularly complained to the local authority.”

Campbell Martin’s article concluded: “Do we have to wait until someone dies before action is taken?”

Return of Council's Iceland money

North Ayrshire Council could be in line to receive-back some of the money it invested in Icelandic banks that subsequently collapsed.

The winding-up committee for Glitnir bank has announced it will release £527.3m to ‘preferred creditors’, which, thanks to a decision by the Reykjavik District Court in April 2011, will include 53 UK local authorities, including North Ayrshire Council.  However, the3towns understands the repayments will be made into ‘escrow accounts’, which will then make monthly payments to creditors.  Escrow is a  an arrangement where an independent and trusted third-party receives and disburses money for ‘transacting parties’, with the timing of disbursement by the third-party dependent on the fulfillment of contractually-agreed conditions.

North Ayrshire Council deposited £5m with Glitnir, and a further £10m with Landsbanki.  In September of 2011, NAC officials told councillors they expected to receive-back around 95 per cent of the Landsbanki deposit, phased over 2011 to 2018.  The Glitnir recovery figure was put at 100 per cent, but the Council report stated this money was expected “in December 2011”.

Back in October 2008, the3towns flagged-up questions over how North Ayrshire Council came to lodge £15m of tax-payers money with two Icelandic banks - a full year after at least one international credit rating agency warned it had concerns over imbalances in the Icelandic banking system.  At that time, an English local authority, Brighton & Hove Council, had also withdrawn its funds from an Icelandic bank because it believed the interest rate being offered was “too good to be true”.

the3towns reported how Fitch Ratings Ltd first raised concerns over Icelandic banks in 2006, and again flagged up doubts on April 1 2008, stating: “While Fitch believes that the [Icelandic] banks' liquidity is currently sufficient, diminishing confidence in the sector has increased the risk of unanticipated calls on liquidity while severely restricting funding options.”

As a result of its concerns, Fitch Ratings Ltd also issued what it calls a “Rating Watch Negative” in relation to Icelandic banks, which an independent financial consultant confirmed to the3towns is essentially a warning against investment.

The consultant also indicated that Fitch was one of the biggest and most influential credit ratings agencies in the world - one of just three Nationally Recognised Statistical Rating Organisations (NRSRO) designated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission - and that most financial advisors acting on behalf of public bodies in the UK should have been aware of the concerns raised by the company.

In addition to the warnings issued by Fitch, it also emerged that in July of 2008 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a report on Icelandic banks, which warned of “impenetrable ownership structures“ and “questionable lending practices“, citing the conclusion of several analysts that the Icelandic central bank was too small to support the debts incurred by private sector banks.

In a statement issued in October 2008, North Ayrshire Council confirmed it deposited £15m with two Icelandic banks “within the last 12 months,” which was well after the initial warning issued by Fitch Ratings Ltd and the withdrawal of funds from Iceland by Brighton & Hove Council.

The North Ayrshire Council statement also claimed that, “At the time of investment these [Icelandic] banks provided a good return at minimum risk”.  However, the financial consultant with whom the3towns spoke in 2008 said, “The rate of return being offered by Icelandic banks was certainly better than was being offered by banks in this country, so it would be attractive to organisations like North Ayrshire Council who were looking for a good return on their investment.

“That said, though, it is potentially misleading for the Council to say there was minimal risk.  There is always an increased risk when investments are made with overseas banks that fall outwith the regulation of the UK Financial Services Authority, and if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is - as Brighton & Hove Council rightly believed.

“It is also the case that when concerns began to be raised about the liquidity of Icelandic banks - in the case if Fitch Ratings, as far back as 2006 - whoever was advising North Ayrshire Council should have suggested it might be an idea to break up the £15m investment, bringing much, if not all of it back to the UK, and minimising the amount that could be at risk if things went wrong in Iceland, as ultimately they did.”

SSP plan Cameron protest

The Scottish Socialist Party is preparing to lead a protest in Troon next Saturday (March 24) when Prime Minister David Cameron visits the Ayrshire town to address the Spring Conference of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party.

Taking a leading role in the protest will be Campbell Martin, the party’s candidate for the Ardrossan & Arran seat at May’s North Ayrshire Council Election.  Mr Martin said, “David Cameron and his party are responsible for devastating lives and whole communities here in Ayrshire, and while he’s in the vicinity we intend to make him aware of the anger felt locally.”

The SSP have been conducting street stalls in local town centres, where people have queued to sign petitions against UK Government cuts and what the party describes as “the crime” of mass unemployment.  Campbell Martin said, “Time and again people have stopped to tell us how the savage austerity measures imposed by Cameron’s government have affected them and their families, through unemployment, benefit cuts, reduced wages and lack of opportunity for young people, both in the workplace and in colleges.

“On behalf of those local people, the SSP will be in Troon next Saturday to make our voices and our anger heard.  He may swan into Prestwick Airport and be back home in London by Saturday night, but during his brief time in Ayrshire Mr Cameron will be made well aware of the strength of opposition to his policies, and of the determination of the Scottish Socialist Party to fight back on behalf of local people here in Ayrshire.”

Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, Campbell Martin wrote to Mr Cameron, challenging him to “come the few miles up the road to North Ayrshire and visit the scene of his crimes.”  Mr Martin told the3towns, “As yet, David Cameron has not got round to replying to my letter.  He is a busy man, though, what with all that unemployment and poverty to create.”

Lennon 'bomb plot' trial continues

The trial of two North Ayrshire men accused of attempting to kill Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other prominent supporters of the club has completed its third week at the High Court in Glasgow. 

The two men, Neil McKenzie of Saltcoats and Trevor Muirhead from Kilwinning, deny all of the charges against them.

On Friday (March 16), the jury heard evidence from a Strathclyde Police officer who told of a search at Trevor Muirhead’s house, during which a mobile phone was seized.  The officer indicated that the phone contained a text message sent in the early hours of April 16 2011 to someone called ‘Mac’, and which read: “Sorry about the time m8. Our package was in Pennyburn last night waiting on navy bomb disposobal (sic).”  This was the day after the interception in Kilwinning of a suspect package addressed to Paul McBride QC, a prominent Celtic supporter who died of natural causes two weeks ago while on a visit to Pakistan.

Earlier in the week, the court heard how a suspicious package sent to another Celtic supporter, former Labour MSP Trish Godman, was found to contain a very small quantity of primary explosive.

During evidence, explosives analyst Kevin Sanders said packages sent to Neil Lennon and Paul McBride were found to be “not viable” as improvised explosive devices.  Mr Sanders, a senior forensic explosives officer, previously told the court that the packages sent to Mr Lennon and Ms Godman could have been put together by the same person or group, and that one of the packages sent to Mr Lennon contained 248 nails - substantially more than the others.

Another package, addressed to Neil Lennon at Celtic Park, had been collected from a postbox in Saltcoats and was later discovered to be a hoax device.

Mr Saunders indicated that, in his opinion, the construction of the various pieces of mail was “similar”, adding “They were constructed with similar components in a similar way. It is possible they were constructed by the same person or group of people working to a common plan.  They were made to look like an Improvised Explosive Device.”

The court heard that ingredients in an explosive said to be in the packages were “widely available”, and that ‘recipes’ to make Tri-Acetone Tri-Peroxide (TATP) could be found on the internet.  Substances such as peroxide could be used to form TATP.

Mr Muirhead and Mr McKenzie are alleged to have planned to “assault and murder” Mr Lennon, Ms Godman and Mr McBride between March 1 and April 15 last year.

The charges against the two men claim they sent another suspected bomb to the offices of Cairde na h'Eireann (Friends of Ireland) in the Gallowgate, Glasgow, and that they made and possessed Triacetone Triperoxide with the intent to endanger life.

Mr Muirhead and Mr McKenzie deny all charges. The trial, before Lord Turnbull, continues.

Katy calls for info on Farepak failure to prosecute

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has written to Norman Lamb, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, requesting that information be released on the decision not to prosecute anyone in relation to the collapse of the company behind the Farepak savings scheme.

Around 120,000 people lost substantial amounts of money when the Farepak Christmas Savings firm went into liquidation in October 2006.  With an average loss of around £400, many of the mainly working-class savers, and their children, saw Christmas plans destroyed.  Almost six years later, none of the savers have received any money back and, although there are now legal moves attempting to block the nine former directors of Farepak from taking on similar roles in other companies, no-one has been charged in relation to the collapse.

Katy Clark said, “Years later the Farepak savers are still waiting for justice.  Victims have yet to receive any money back from the administrators and no-one has been held accountable for the hardship many families faced over Christmas 2006.”

The Labour MP added, “Despite very serious claims of mismanagement, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills decided not to refer the case to either the Crown Prosecution Service or the Serious Fraud Office.”

Explaining her request for the relevant Minister to provide information on how he reached his decision, Katy Clark said, “I believe it is only right that those affected are given all the facts as to why this was the case.”

A victim of the Farepak collapse told the3towns, “This was a case of robbing the poor to pay the rich and all those involved belong behind bars.   These evil men took money from poor people each week and used the money to pay for their lavish lifestyle.  Then, when Christmas arrived there was no money for the hampers that 120,000 working-class families had paid for in good faith, these scoundrels had stolen the money.

MSP's concern over welfare reform

Local SNP MSP Margaret Burgess has tabled a Parliamentary Motion expressing her “grave concern” over the findings of a report by the charity Save the Children, which concluded that UK Government changes to welfare benefits “could force thousands of children in Scotland into poverty”.

North Ayrshire already has Scotland’s second-highest level of children living in severe poverty, but Mrs Burgess believes the introduction of a Universal Credit could make things even worse.  The Cunninghame South MSP told the3towns, “As it stands, the introduction of the new Universal Credit could force thousands of children in Scotland, including many in North Ayrshire, into poverty.

“It could be a missed opportunity to boost the incomes of working families, drive-down child poverty, and boost the employment prospects of hundreds-of-thousands of mothers who want to work.”

Of the proposal from the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, Mrs Burgess said, “The Universal Credit will make some single parents on low pay and some second earners, a large majority of whom are women, substantially worse off.
“These are women earning a wage that is crucial in keeping many households out of poverty, but according to the charities Save The Children and One Parent Families Scotland, over 96,000 working single parents across Scotland face being pushed below the breadline.  Some families could be up to £68 a week worse off under the changes.”

Margaret Burgess has a wealth of experience in the area of benefits and welfare reform, having previously been a manager with Citizens Advice Scotland.  “The Universal Credit is meant to streamline current benefits and tax credits into one system,” said the MSP, “but its impact on family incomes will be complex and vary by family type and size, and by housing and childcare costs.   Some will see increased incomes and improved work incentives, but it will actually make some working parents worse off – unless action is taken.

Mrs Burgess explained, “My Parliamentary Motion calls on the UK Government to address these concerns by providing extra funding for Universal Credit to help all parents maximise their income through work, so that they can lift themselves and their children out of poverty.”

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Fairground proposal for former St Peters site

Strong public opposition is expected to an application for a temporary Public Entertainment licence received by North Ayrshire Council.

Lodged in the name of Mr Albert Sedgwick, the application seeks permission to operate a fairground on the shore-front site of the former St Peters Primary School in Ardrossan’s South Crescent Road.  If granted by the Council, the fairground would operate for six weeks between March 31 and May 11 of this year.

The site, believed to still be in the ownership of McLaughlin Construction, an Irvine-based building firm, has lain empty since the old St Peters Primary – the original Ardrossan Academy – was demolished in April 2004.  St Peters’ pupils moved to a purpose-built school in South Isle Road, Ardrossan in 1995.

Currently, the land to which the fairground application relates is fenced-off at the boundary with South Crescent Road and is bordered on each side by residential properties.  The back of the plot adjoins South Beach railway station but there is no existing access to the platform.

Council documents show Mr Sedgwick’s application was received by the local authority on February 27.  Under the terms of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 and Miscellaneous Licensing, anyone who wishes to object to the proposals for a temporary fairground on the site of the former St Peters Primary School must do so within 28 days of the application being lodged.

the3towns understands local councillors have already expressed concerns over the application.