Friday, 27 December 2013

St Matthew's games hall closed for another month

A question tabled by Ardrossan Independent councillor John Hunter has revealed that the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats will be out of use until late January.  Previously, a Council official had stated pupils would have access by December 16.

the3towns last month broke the news that the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy was closed on November 19, pending an investigation by structural engineers after cracks appeared in walls.  We subsequently revealed that, following the investigation, a section of wall at the games hall required the installation of additional steel supports.

Cllr Hunter used last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council to ask Education portfolio-holder Tony Gurney to explain how long the games hall would be out of action and what level of financial penalty would be levied by the Council against the private contractor responsible for maintaining the buildings at St Matthew's.

In response, Tony Gurney, a member of the SNP administration elected in May 2012, strongly criticised the Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract signed by the Council’s previous Labour administration.  Under the North Ayrshire Schools PPP Project, Labour councillors agreed to pay £380-million for the construction and maintenance of four schools, including St Matthew’s Academy and Stanley Primary School in Ardrossan.  the3towns recently revealed that Stanley is already too small to accommodate all pupils within its catchment area in the north of Ardrossan.  Both schools were opened to the public just six years ago.

Cllr Gurney also indicated the Council was clawing-back around £100 per day from the private maintenance contractor while the St Matthew’s games hall was out of use.  However, the Education spokesperson confirmed that, in turn, NAC had to compensate North Ayrshire Leisure Limited, the company formed to operate leisure facilities owned by North Ayrshire Council.  The St Matthew’s games hall forms part of the K:A Leisure Campus at the Saltcoats facility.  According to Cllr Gurney, these arrangements mean the net financial recompense to the Council during the period St Matthew’s games hall is unavailable is just £10.00 per day.

The SNP Cabinet member also referred to a possible wrangle over who would be responsible for meeting the cost of the significant structural repairs required to the walls of the games hall at the six-year-old school.

Illegal workers arrested

Five immigration offenders were arrested at a Saltcoats fast-food takeaway last Tuesday night (December 17) after a joint operation by the UK Border Agency and Police Scotland.

Another offender was arrested at a convenience store in Kilwiining as part of the same operation.

Police and immigration officers raided the Singh is King takeaway in Old Raise Road, Saltcoats, arresting three Indian men,  aged 24, 25 and 27.  All three were found to have overstayed their visas and were working illegally.  Two other Indian men who ran from the takeaway when police and Border Agency officials entered were subsequently detained nearby and were arrested.  A 24 year-old had overstayed his visa, while the other man, aged 33, was in the UK illegally.

A 34 year-old Indian man was also arrested at the Keystores in Gagarin Terrace in Kilwinning.  An inspection of documents indicated he also was in the country illegally.

The owners of Singh is King and the Kilwinning Keystores have been issued with a notice of potential liability of up to £10,000 for each illegal worker employed.  This represents a potential penalty of £50,000 for the Singh is King and £10,000 for Keystores.

Adam Scarcliffe from Home Office Immigration Enforcement said, “'Illegal working undercuts honest employers, defrauds the public purse and cheats legitimate job hunters out of employment opportunities.

“We are happy to work with employers to explain the simple checks that need to be carried out to establish a person's right to work in the UK.

“The message to those who choose to ignore the rules is clear: we will find you and you will face a heavy financial penalty.”

Council to publish expense-claims

North Ayrshire Council is to begin publishing monthly all expenses-claims submitted by councillors.

The move comes in response to a call from Three Towns Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter.

Cllr McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston) submitted a Motion to last week’s meeting of the Council, calling for the local authority to publish on its website all expenses-claims made by councillors.  As Ronnie McNicol later explained to the3towns, “The public pays these expenses and I think they have every right to see what councillors are claiming.”

The Independent councillor’s Motion, seconded by John Hunter (Ardrossan & Arran), called for such information to be made available every month, and also that the local authority publishes a list of attendance at meetings.  Cllr McNicol said, “This will allow the public to see who attends meetings and who doesn’t.”

During discussion of Cllr McNicol’s Motion, suggestions were made by some councillors that it might prove difficult to compile data on expenses-claims to allow monthly publication.  However, Ardrossan SNP councillor Tony Gurney, a university lecturer in Information Technology, confirmed it was a simple process to scan claim-forms submitted by councillors and to post them on the Council’s website.

On the conclusion of debate, councillors agreed to the proposals in Cllr McNicol’s Motion.

In 2011 the3towns revealed a Labour councillor had submitted five separate expenses-claims relating to meetings that official documents showed he had not attended.  The information came to light following a Freedom of Information request submitted by the3towns.

Saltcoats & Stevenston Labour councillor Alan Munro subsequently maintained that the five separate occasions on which he made mileage claims in relation to meetings he had not attended were the result of a diary mix-up.

Anger as MSP votes against Bedroom Tax help

A North Ayrshire-based Labour MSP has been criticised by community activists after voting against an SNP proposal to increase financial support for people affected by the Bedroom Tax.

Former Kilwinning councillor Margaret McDougall, now a Labour ‘List’ MSP for West of Scotland, joined with her party colleague Hanzala Malik and Tory MSP Murdo Fraser in opposing the Scottish Government plan to raise the funding available for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) to £20-million, the maximum allowed under current legislation.  Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone also opposed the move, but her objection was on the basis that the additional funding for DHPs would result in reductions to some environmental budgets.

The Bedroom Tax, imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, results in cuts to Housing Benefit for any public sector tenant who has more rooms in their home than they are deemed to need.  One ‘additional’ bedroom sees a cut of 14%, while two ‘extra’ rooms result in benefit being slashed by 25%.

Discretionary Housing Payments can be used by councils to assist people in financial difficulties, such as tenants whose benefit has been cut as a result of the Bedroom Tax, which often leads to rent arrears.  Two Labour-controlled councils have already issued eviction notices to tenants in such a position, although no evictions have yet been carried out.  SNP-controlled North Ayrshire Council has given a commitment that there will be no evictions resulting from rent arrears accruing due to the Bedroom Tax, so long as tenants work with officials to address any issues.

At last week’s meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, MSPs were asked to support an SNP motion, which stated, The Committee is disappointed that factors outwith the Scottish Government’s control have delayed certain aspects of the Home Energy Efficiency Programme.  Whilst we acknowledge the importance of funding energy efficiency measures we support the Scottish Government’s proposed budget transfer from the Home Energy Efficiency Programme (coupled with savings from the enterprise bodies and other budget lines) to provide support to people as a result of the impact of the UK Government’s under occupation of social housing charges (the bedroom tax).”  The SNP has a majority on the Committee, so the motion supporting additional funding to help victims of the Bedroom Tax was passed, despite the opposition of Labour, Tory and Green members.

Reacting to the Committee vote, community activist Alan Wyllie of the ‘No2BedroomTax’ campaign said, “We are extremely disappointed to hear that two Labour MSPs voted against the Scottish Government's proposal to increase Discretionary Housing Payment budgets by £20-million.  This is a massive own-goal by the Labour Party in Scotland.”

Mr Wyllie pointed out that an increase to DHP funding was supported by housing charity Shelter Scotland and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, adding, “The Bedroom Tax is a vile policy that has no place in a modern society.  It is having a devastating effect on our communities and is hitting hardest some of the most vulnerable in our society.  The news that MSPs voted against increased funding for those affected by the Bedroom Tax will hurt and anger tenants who expected Labour MSPs to stand up for them against Tory policy from Westminster.”

Jim Buntin, Co-Convener of ‘No2BedroomTax’, tied-in the actions of Margaret McDougall and Hanzala Malik with a recent House of Commons vote on abolishing the Bedroom Tax, where 47 Labour MPs failed to turn-up, resulting in the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government winning by just 26 votes.  Mr Buntin said, “This is the second time Labour has let us down in the past few months and I find it so disappointing.  It leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.”

The vote by Labour MSPs against additional financial help for people affected by the Bedroom Tax was also criticised by local SNP MSP Margaret Burgess, who said, “Labour’s inability to put aside political posturing and help victims of the Bedroom Tax is an utter disgrace.  Coming so soon after their MPs failed to show up in a close vote to scrap the policy altogether, it shows that Labour simply does not regard helping people affected by the Bedroom Tax as a priority.”

Mrs Burgess, also the Scottish Government Minister for Housing & Welfare, added, “The SNP has given a firm commitment to scrap the Bedroom Tax in the first year of an independent Scotland.  A ‘YES’ vote in next year’s Independence Referendum is a vote to rid Scotland of the Bedroom Tax once and for all, and to make sure that such disastrous measures can never again be imposed on Scotland by Westminster politicians.”

NAC budget set for 2014/15

North Ayrshire Council’s SNP administration is to invest a further £6-million in developing and protecting essential frontline services over the next financial year.

All 30 councillors, including the principle opposition group of Labour members, recently reached agreement on how the local authority’s budget for 2014/15 should be spent. 

A special meeting of the Council earlier this month heard all departmental budgets were facing significant pressures resulting from “a real reduction in financial resources” coupled with increased demand for services, particularly in relation to meeting the needs of North Ayrshire’s growing elderly population and vulnerable children.

The majority of money made available to councils comes in the form of funding from the SNP Scottish Government.  However, under the current devolved settlement, the Scottish Government receives its funding in the form of a block-grant from Westminster.  With the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government slashing billions-of-pounds from the money provided to the Scottish Government, this has resulted in knock-on financial reductions for local authorities.

An NAC spokesperson said that in addition to reduced financial resources and increased demand for services, Welfare reforms introduced by the UK Government were adding to the burdens on the Council.  However, the spokesperson noted, “Despite these pressures, the 2014/15 budget will protect Council jobs, invest an additional £6.2-million in revenue expenditure next year and confirm £242-million of investment in capital projects up until 2022/23.”

In addition, the agreed budget targets £400,000 towards improving outcomes for children and young people, including a review of future delivery of Educational Services.

Cllr Willie Gibson, Leader of North Ayrshire Council, said, “The budget reflects the Council’s commitment to finding innovative solutions to help us protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.

“Prudent financial management, even in the current economic climate, means that we will still spend significant resources in meeting the needs of the communities of North Ayrshire, including more than £313-million in the delivery of frontline services and more than £242-million of investment in our schools, regeneration, roads, lighting, and improvements to our buildings.”

Cllr Ruth Maguire, SNP Cabinet member for Finance and Corporate Support, added, “This budget is all about doing things differently and looking at Council services in the round – how our services affect the lives of North Ayrshire residents and the outcomes our services achieve.

“For example, North Ayrshire pupils’ educational achievement and attainment has improved considerably over the last five years, and we celebrate that.  We are, however, even more ambitious for our young people and want to see them do even better.  We want them to have the very best opportunities in life and therefore we are investing in how we make that happen.”

However, with a reduced income, North Ayrshire Council has to make ‘efficiencies’ in order to balance the books.  The Council estimate savings of around £18-million will have to be made over the years 2014-2017, with just short of £1.5-million earmarked for the coming financial year and £961,000 identified for the two years 2015-17, leaving a funding gap of £16-million.

Local Labour MP Katy Clark said any further cuts to Council services “will mean great pain in our communities and I am really concerned about the impact it will have.”