Friday, 28 March 2014

Clydeport parent company tax avoidance

An investigation into the Peel Group, parent company of Clydeport, which owns Ardrossan Harbour, has revealed the organisation pays minimal rates of corporation tax.

In the last financial year, the Peel Group declared profits of more than £628m but paid no tax on the sum. Subsidiary company Peel Ports Investment Ltd paid no tax on profits of £104m, while Peel Holdings (Ports) Ltd racked-up profits of £34m and paid no tax.

In a complicated web of intermediate and parent companies, all of the businesses operated by the Peel Group ultimately trace back to Tokenhouse Ltd, which has reported assets totalling £18bn and has its registered office ‘offshore’ on the Isle of Man. Like many other large companies, such as Starbucks and Google, the Peel Group avoids tax liabilities in the UK through a process known as ‘base erosion and profit shifting’, which attributes profits to ‘offshore’ parent companies despite the trade that generated the profits having been carried out in the UK.

the3towns has previously reported the impact of Clydeport’s neglect at Ardrossan Harbour, which is still most prominently visible in a serious breach to the port’s breakwater. The above photo was taken in September 2011 but the breach remains unrepaired.

In July 2011 the3towns also revealed Clydeport had ‘dumped’ stones from the curved facade of Ardrossan’s historic Customs House, which had stood for 150 years at the entrance to the harbour area. In 2010, when permission was granted for the harbour’s owners to demolish the Customs House as part of a major regeneration project, North Ayrshire Council’s Planning Committee imposed a condition that the facade must be retained and incorporated into a proposed new development of office and residential space. The stonework was to have been numbered and stored safely until work on the proposed development commenced.

However, the3towns story of July 2011 showed Clydeport had left the stones lying exposed to the elements on the quayside at the harbour. Identifying numbers were no longer present, making it unlikely the historic part of the Grade ‘B’ listed Customs House could be incorporated into the proposed new-build structure.

Following our story, Clydeport moved the stones to what was described as a secure compound at the harbour, but in September of last year the3towns revealed the area was not secure and that some of the historic stonework was actually being used to prop open the gate of the compound.

Now, the3towns can also reveal that while the SNP Scottish Government is investing around £18m in new berthing and harbour infrastructure in Brodick, no funding is earmarked for the mainland port of the Arran ferry route, apparently because Ardrossan Harbour is in the private ownership of Clydeport.

Strong cross-winds in winter, coupled with a sharp-turn on entering the harbour mouth can make berthing difficult at Ardrossan, a situation that has led islanders to question the logic of investing so heavily in the publicly-owned infrastructure on Arran, while Clydeport apparently has no plans to upgrade facilities at Ardrossan.

Local 'jobs' with no pay

the3towns can reveal that the website to which local unemployed people are directed to look for work is still carrying ‘commission-only’ vacancies and other adverts that do not name employers or list a salary.

In 2012 we reported how Jobcentre-advertised vacancies in the local area, mainly for sales positions, recorded that people would be required to work on a “self employed” basis. The adverts added, “The company has given an assurance that this vacancy enables workers to achieve a wage equivalent to the National Minimum Wage rate”. However, as income was entirely dependent on commission accruing from sales, it was possible workers could be taking home much less than the hourly minimum wage.

The UK Department for Work and Pensions then privatised the Jobcentre website, paying Monster, an American corporation, £17m to establish a new web presence called the Universal Jobmatch site. In addition to the set-up cost, Monster is paid around £6m a year to operate the site.

Jobseekers are told they must sign-up for a Universal Jobmatch account, which involves using their own computers at home and agreeing to ‘cookies’ being placed on their system. ‘Cookies’ record activity on a computer and report it to the organisation that placed them on the system. It is then possible for Jobcentre staff to monitor an unemployed person’s activity in searching for work. Under a strict system introduced by the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government, if a Jobseeker is deemed not to be doing enough to find employment, they can be ‘sanctioned’ for anything up to 3 years. A sanction means all benefits are stopped, leaving people with absolutely no income.

However, despite what many Jobseekers have been told, singing-up for a Universal Jobmatch account is not mandatory, nor can a person be compelled to use their own computer and broadband to look for work. However, as of this month, Jobcentre advisers can, “if giving a good reason”, require claimants to use the site through a Jobseeker Direction. The unemployed person still does not have to allow their own personal computer to be used, but may be directed to use a pc at a public library or internet cafe. If the Jobseeker refuses, they can be recommended for a benefit sanction.

Despite the new element of compulsion to use the Universal Jobmatch site, the3towns can reveal there are still many adverts for jobs that pay ‘commission only’ and others that do not even reveal the name of the company to which a person should apply.

As of this week, a search of vacancies in the Three Towns area included one for a ‘self-employed’ driver, starting at 3.00am every morning to deliver newspapers to shops. Another sought a ‘self-employed’ door-to-door salesperson, selling the products of satellite broadcaster Sky, a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the richest people in the world. Another ad, for a Retail Development Executive to promote the products of Imperial Tobacco, listed no salary details. In addition to no guaranteed income, ‘self-employed’ workers are responsible for paying their own National Insurance and tax.

Also listed in the Three Towns area was a vacancy for a Leaflet Distributor, which stated “income is based on leaflets distributed”. Employment for this position is on a zero-hours contract, which does not guarantee any hours or pay. Despite this, the company say, “Due to the high number of applicants for each position we are currently receiving, you may not hear back from us if unsuccessful”.

The Universal Jobmatch site, which can be searched without singing-up for an account, also lists many vacancies that do not reveal the name of potential employers. Such adverts simply state “CV Library (Job Warehouse only)”. CV Library is a separate, privately-run ‘jobs board’. The company behind the site last year posted profits of £3.3m.

North Ayrshire continues to have some of the highest unemployment and poverty in the country.

Town Hall renovation a step nearer

A major renovation of Saltcoats Town Hall will take a step closer this week when North Ayrshire Council’s ruling SNP Cabinet considers new funding proposals.

Councillors will hear that changes to the initial plan – including the relocation of 25 Social Services staff to the facility – will bring the total cost to £3.7m. The Council has secured £1.262m of external funding, which will be added to the initial £1.9m allocated in 2012 as a result of a Budget motion lodged by Saltcoats & Stevenston councillors Ronnie McNicol (Independent) and Willie Gibson (SNP), pictured above. The balance of £538,000 is to come from the local authority’s Capital Fund.

Once complete in 2016, the Town Hall will boast a 200-person main function hall, 100-seat lesser hall/marriage suite, a heritage space and civic exhibition area, visitor information point and modern office accommodation.

As previously reported by the3towns, a £3m revamp of the Town Hall was originally announced in early 2007 by the then Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council. However, after the local authority election in May 2007, at which the Labour administration was returned to power, the funding for renovation work was reduced to £1.9m, with the balance (£1.1m) being reallocated to a project for a new community centre at the Stevenson Institute in Largs.

As a result of Labour councillors’ inaction, Saltcoats Town Hall continued to deteriorate and was finally closed to the public. At a subsequent Council meeting, Cllr Ronnie McNicol forced the then Labour Leader, Cllr David O’Neill, to admit that the £1.9m had actually been removed from the local authority’s budget and Labour had no plans to do anything with the Town Hall. That remained the position of the Council until Ronnie McNicol and Willie Gibson secured funding of £1.9m in February 2012, which kick-started the current renovation project.

Plan to scale-back Noise Nuisance Team

North Ayrshire Council’s SNP Cabinet will this week consider a proposal to scale-back the Out of Hours Service that deals with complaints of noise nuisance.

In 2005 the local authority joined with councils in East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire to deliver a county-wide Out of Hours Noise Team. In a 12-month period officers dealt with over 1,000 complaints of noise nuisance in North Ayrshire alone.

However, initial Scottish Government direct-funding for the initiative ended in 2009, with the three councils then required to meet the cost from overall mainstream funds. As a result, the service was reduced in 2012 from four nights a week to just Saturday and Sunday nights. Between April 2013 and February 2014 the Team recorded 306 complaints in North Ayrshire (6 or 7 each weekend).

The current review of operations has been prompted by the decision of South Ayrshire Council to withdraw from the all-Ayrshire service as of April 1st. This left North Ayrshire Council with the options of attempting to run a joint service with East Ayrshire or to go it alone.

In a report to be considered by Cabinet members, Mr Craig Hatton, Corporate Director (Development & Environment), proposes a reduced service for North Ayrshire acting on its own. Mr Hatton’s recommendation to councillors calls for “A North Ayrshire stand-alone service responding where there is a history of nuisance on known days and times”. However, if implemented, the revised service will react only to “repeat complaints from the public”. There will be “no immediate call out service to the first complaint made by members of the public”.

The Corporate Director suggests “The public will register their complaint with Environmental Health and they will be given advice on how Environmental Health can help with their problem. Arrangements will be made to measure the noise levels and agree further action.”

By reducing the service to the public, Mr Hatton estimates the Council can save in the region of £15,000. According to the senior official, “The move to a North Ayrshire only service will have the benefit of being supported by only local Officers and the move to targeted interventions will mean complaints being dealt with more efficiently.”

Access to Council Tax info online

Three Towns residents can now keep up to date with their Council Tax by going online.

North Ayrshire Council has implemented a new facility that allows access to Council Tax accounts on a 24-hours basis, seven days a week.

A Council spokesperson explained, “Online accounts are quicker and cheaper to administer – and put residents in full control. Once registered, you can access a whole host of information including: your Council Tax details, records of individual payments, yearly summary statement, details of your Council Tax band and information on what to do if you have difficulty paying.”

The new online facility can be accessed here.

Cllr Ruth Maguire (pictured), the Council’s SNP Cabinet Member for Finance and Corporate Support, welcomed the development, saying, “It’s so much easier to keep on top of bills like this if you have all the information in one place. Online access allows people to see at a glance how much they are due and how much they have paid, as well as explaining what they should do if experiencing difficulty with payments.”

Council Tax levels in North Ayrshire have been frozen since the SNP was elected to government in 2007. Each year the Scottish Government provides local authorities with additional funding to offset any shortfall resulting from there being no rise in the Council Tax.

Call to tackle female genital mutilation

Local MP Katy Clark has spoken of the “barbarism” involved in female genital mutilation.

Ms Clark spoke to the3towns following a debate in Westminster Hall, in which she called on the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government to bring in tougher laws if current legislation is proved to be inadequate in preventing the practice.

Female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organisation as procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Around 25,000 girls are estimated to be at risk of female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom. Although both the UK and Scottish Government have legislated to outlaw the practice, no-one has yet been convicted under the current law.

Katy Clark said, “Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice which has no place in today’s world. It is a form of child abuse that can often have appalling life-long physical and psychological consequences for girls and women. It is of deep concern that so many girls and young women today remain at risk from female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom.”

However, the Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said she is “encouraged” that, in recent months, campaigns against female genital mutilation have been receiving a higher media profile and widespread public support. Ms Clark noted, “The UK and Scottish Government now need to build on this increased public awareness and take the measures necessary to eradicate this barbarism from our shores once and for all.”

For the UK Government, though, Norman Baker MP, Home Office Minister for Crime Prevention, appeared to suggest that he believes current legislation is adequate and was not considering tougher laws.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Local pipe band will honour war-dead

A North Ayrshire pipe band will travel later this year to Belgium where they will take part in a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Ypres.

The Isle of Cumbrae RBLS Pipe Band, which includes members from the Three Towns, will also play at the Menin Gate during the trip in October. Every evening since 1928 the ‘Last Post’ has been played at the gate in memory of the thousands of soldiers who died in the First World War but who have no known resting place. The soldiers’ names are recorded at the gate.

During their time there, band members will lay memorial crosses in remembrance of men from North Ayrshire who lost their lives.

There will be added significance to the band’s visit to Ypres, scene of one of the most intense and bloody conflicts of the entire war. Ypres and the Battle of La Bassee were amongst the first engagements of the terrible conflict that, at the time, was called ‘the war to end all wars’. Scottish soldiers, including many from North Ayrshire towns, were involved in the fighting, suffering significant numbers of dead and wounded.

The Isle of Cumbrae band will be in Belgium and northern France between October 17th and 20th, during which they will play at a number of remembrance events, including at Le Touret , Armentieres and Messines.

Previously the band visited Belgium in August 2007 when they took part in the unveiling ceremony of a monument in Zonnebeke, which was erected by the local council to commemorate the Scottish soldiers and those of Scottish descent who fought in Flanders and on the Western Front during the First World War.

The band would be pleased to hear from any local families or organisations who would wish a memorial cross laid in memory of anyone known to them who are commemorated at any of the memorials to the fallen of the ‘Great War’ – contact secretary@iocpb.org

Locals can hear the band on Sunday, March 23rd, when they will lead a parade along the seafront at Ardrossan to a remembrance service for the sailors who died when HMS Dasher sank in the Firth of Clyde between Ardrossan and Arran in 1943.

The Isle of Cumbrae RBLS Pipe Band holds practice sessions in Saltcoats and Kilwinning, and is always on the look-out for new recruits.

Care website wins national award

A groundbreaking website that has helped people find the best social care and community activities in the local area has won a national award.

North Ayrshire Council created the independent website careNA (here) last summer, working with partners, service users and care providers. Now, less than a year after it launched, the website has received national recognition, taking the Gold Award for Service Innovation and Improvement at the CoSLA excellence Awards last Thursday (March 13).

A North Ayrshire Council spokesperson said, “More than 30,000 people across North Ayrshire use care and support services each year, with many making important decisions on the type of care they receive for the first time. The careNA website was launched to provide a helpful and comprehensive guide to the services available. People can access careNA using their PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.”

The spokesperson revealed the site has already attracted 400,000 visits.

The Council’s SNP Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Cllr Anthea Dickson, said, “With the introduction of careNA people can find services that best serve their needs. The site provides individuals with clear and current information about which organisations are providing services in their area, as well as what sort of leisure activities are taking place.

“Feedback, comment and discussion is invited through a ‘contact us’ option and an associated Facebook page. Latest news and upcoming events provide an opportunity to raise the profile of key developments and events across North Ayrshire.”

NAC was the first local authority in the country to support the development of a site that showcases services and allows users to access information easily, in a single place. Cllr Dickson believes the initiative “represents true partnership between service users, carers, providers and the Council,” adding, “The benefits are not confined to those accessing care. The move towards personalisation has opened up many opportunities to those who provide different types of care. The careNA website gives them the chance to showcase their services to thousands of North Ayrshire residents absolutely free-of-charge. This is a fantastic opportunity to help the local economy, and support local service providers while ensuring individuals receive the right type of care.”

Of the Gold Award from the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities, Anthea Dickson said, “This is recognition of the hard work and innovation of our team”, while noting that the Council “continues to develop, implement and plan to improve the quality of people's lives in North Ayrshire.”

YES Scotland public meeting

A packed public meeting last week heard from three speakers outlining the positive case for an independent Scotland.

Held last Thursday (March 13) in the Nethermains Community Centre, Kilwinning, the meeting was addressed by Alex Neil MSP of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Richie Venton of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Jeane Freeman from Women for Independence. Ms Freeman was an advisor to former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.

Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Health in the SNP Scottish Government, told the meeting, “The Independence Referendum is not about a vote for the SNP. It’s a YES/NO vote on the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

“If we vote ‘YES’, the 2016 Scottish Election will decide who forms the first independent Scottish government for the following four years. If we vote ‘No’, we get a Tory Government – irrespective of who wins. That’s because even if Labour were to win, they can only win in England by adopting Tory policies - and if somehow we could get a ‘real’ Labour Government, then a few years later we’d have the Tories again undoing any good work that had been done.

“There’s no chance of Scotland voting for a Tory Government. So it’s either a ‘YES’ vote and the government we vote for, or a ‘No’ vote and permanent Tory government.”

Mr Neil, originally from Patna in East Ayrshire, listed some of the powers already held by the Scottish Parliament and showed how different Scottish policies were delivering for the people of Scotland, adding, “It works in Health and Education, so think how we would benefit from the same approach to pensions, social security, illegal wars and nuclear weapons on the Clyde. With independence, we can end the worst acts of right-wing Westminster governments, like the Bedroom Tax.”

Richie Venton told the meeting his experience as a trade union organiser and campaigner had convinced him that a ‘YES’ vote and independence are vital to deliver an improved standard of living for ordinary people rather than millionaires, noting, “Not since 1955 have Scots given a majority of their votes to the Tories, but since then we’ve suffered 34 years of Tory rule, with the Poll tax, the decimation of our industry and now the Bedroom Tax.

“Independence will allow us to shape a better future and a much-improved standard of living for ordinary people in this country. Scotland is extremely wealthy – the OECD says we would be the eighth-richest country in the world – and we will be more credit-worthy than the rest of the UK. Yet we are stuck in the fourth most-unequal country in the world, with the human catastrophe of 870,000 of our men, women and children living in poverty, and an absolute majority of these are in work.”

The veteran socialist campaigner said, “This ‘YES’ campaign is wider than the SNP. Voting ‘YES’ doesn't make you a Nationalist: it makes you a democrat, ensuring the Scottish people can elect the governments of their choice from 2016 onwards.

“I welcome much of the SNP Government’s White Paper, such as commitments to end the Bedroom Tax, remove Trident nuclear weapons and transform childcare, but independence also provides the opportunity to embrace trade unions and embed into a national constitution the right for workers to organise, as well as a national minimum wage of £9.00 an hour for all workers and trainees.”

Another public meeting organised by the pro-independence YES Scotland campaign will take place on Monday (March 17) at 7.30pm in the Lounge, Main Street, Largs. Speakers are Annabelle Ewing MSP (SNP), Patrick Harvie MSP (Scottish Green Party) and Ivan McKee (Director of Business for Scotland).

Bowel cancer screening event

April is National Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and NHS Ayrshire & Arran is encouraging local people to talk about the illness.

The annual Bowel Screening Awareness event takes place on Friday, April 25th in the Alexander Fleming Education Centre at Crosshouse Hospital, with registration from 12-noon and the programme starting at 1pm: the event is open to everyone.

Now in its sixth year, the initiative seeks to raise awareness of the importance of prevention, screening and early detection of bowel cancer. Last year's star of the show - an inflatable walk-through bowel – will make a return appearance. The blow-up bowel allows visitors to learn about the various stages of colorectal cancer and other diseases. A number of information stands will also be available and people will have the chance to chat to staff.

The event is led by Mr Bob Diament, Colorectal Surgeon and Director of Ayrshire & Arran's bowel screening programme, while other contributors include a genetic counsellor, dietician and a former patient who has been through the journey of taking the test, a diagnosis of bowel cancer and subsequent treatment.

All local people between the ages of 50 and 74 receive a testing kit through the post every two years, on or around their birthday. Early diagnosis can make all the difference in treating bowel cancer. Since screening started in Ayrshire and Arran in September 2007, it has led to a diagnosis of bowel cancer in 313 patients.

Anyone interested in attending the free event should Fiona McTaggart, Bowel Screening Audit Facilitator on 01563 825869 or email fiona.mctaggart@aaaht.scot.nhs.uk.

Independence will benefit women

Following International Women’s Day last Saturday (March 8), local MSP Margaret Burgess has highlighted ‘six gains of independence’ for women – improved childcare, the minimum wage, equalities issues, pensions, benefits and economic opportunities.

Mrs Burgess said, “We know that independence will let us create a fairer, more prosperous country and the Scottish Government’s transformational childcare policies will allow us to increase female participation in the workforce, boosting the Scottish economy.

“Many women work in low-paid jobs and with our guarantee that the minimum wage will rise at least in line with inflation every year, we can make sure the lowest-paid in our society are treated fairly, improving the standard-of-living for families across Scotland.”

The SNP MSP added, “With independence, Scotland will have responsibility for equalities legislation, which will allow us to tackle the gender inequalities that have held women back for too long. As things stand, young women entering the workforce will have to work until they are 70, while life expectancy in Scotland is still lower than elsewhere. With independence, we will be able to make sure the retirement age reflects Scottish circumstances.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, said a ‘YES’ vote in September’s Independence Referendum will “protect the independence of women in the benefits system,” adding, “Under the Tory’s controversial welfare reform plans, Universal Credit will be paid in a single household payment, which could lead to a return of the ‘male breadwinner’ notion, leading to real hardship for many women and children. The Scottish Government would reverse those changes and protect the right of individuals to receive payments in their own right.

“Independence will allow us to create more employment opportunities for women. The latest figures show that female employment has risen by 62,000 in the last year. With the full powers of independence, we will be able to do so much more.”

MP seeks enquiry into 'on-call' health shifts

Katy Clark MP is to ask the SNP Scottish Government to undertake a study on the impact of ‘on-call’ shift patterns in the National Health Service.

The local MP will raise the issue after a constituent drew Ms Clark’s attention to an incident where there had been a fatality in a road traffic accident involving a junior doctor driving home from work. The MP believes some evidence suggests ‘on-call’ shift patterns have an impact on decision-making and may leave people at greater risk of being involved in accidents after such shifts.

Katy Clark said, “It is not just doctors who are required to work ‘on-call’ and are expected to travel afterwards; nurses and laboratory staff also have to work these tiring shifts. There do not appear to be any studies into the levels of accidents involving NHS staff in Scotland, so I am writing to Alex Neil MSP, the Scottish Health Minister, to urge him to look into this.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran revealed the British Medical Association had raised concerns about staff burnout and stress due to ‘on-call’ working. “The BMA highlighted that the increased pressures on all grades of clinical staff is increasing, and their health is suffering,” said Ms Clark. “I am also aware that there are deep concerns about this Tory-Lib Dem Government’s attempts to increase the retirement age. I have deep concerns that not only the quality of service will be put at risk, but NHS staff themselves may have their health jeopardised. On that basis, a study into the most ‘at risk’ medical professionals could not be more timely.”

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two convicted of Scott Blackwood murder

Two local men have been convicted of murdering Scott Blackwood (pictured) at his home in Wheatley Road, Saltcoats last July.

Last Friday (March 7), the jury at the High Court in Glasgow returned guilty verdicts to the charge of murder against Allan Nicol (36) and Thomas Moore (26). Both were sentenced to life imprisonment and will serve a minimum of 20 years before being eligible for parole.

Georgina Smith (22) was convicted on a lesser charge of culpable homicide and will be sentenced next month.

The five week trial heard graphic evidence of a sustained horrific attack on Mr Blackwood, described by friends as “a gentle giant that would have went out of his way to help anyone”. The prosecution said Nicol, Moore and Smith first attacked Scott at Nicol’s home on the night of July 3rd, before taking the badly-beaten man to his own home in Wheatley Road, where they continued the brutal assault.

Mr Blackwood was found dead on the morning of July 4th.

Pathologist Dr Julie McAdam said head injuries inflicted on Scott were consistent with car crash victims or those who had fallen from a great height, adding, “Mr Blackwood was the victim of a sustained attack using blunt force and sharp instruments, so he would have attempted to defend himself. The injuries to his hands and arms are very much defensive injuries.”

Scott Blackwood was originally from Ardrossan.

Death-knell for Seafield School

Social care charity Quarriers has confirmed the closure of Seafield School in Ardrossan.

A further two North Ayrshire children’s homes – Merton House in Largs and Williamfield in Irvine – will also close their doors for the last time. In total, 69 workers are currently employed at the three sites.

Quarriers say Seafield was no longer “financially viable” and that the facilities in Largs and Irvine largely provide support to children on placements at the Ardrossan school.

Local MP Katy Clark expressed her disappointment at the announcement, saying, “We have known that Quarriers has been considering the drastic step of closing the North Ayrshire facilities since January, and it was hoped that a plan could be put in place to prevent this [but] there has been a lack of political will in the public sector to use these types of service.”

Ms Clark said Quarriers provide “exceptionally high quality care” but that “local authorities no longer seem to want the form of school being offered, particularly in light of some historic scandals”.

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran added, “Increasingly, fewer children were being placed at Seafield by local authorities despite the quality of care and the steps taken by staff to try and save the school. I know the unions UNISON and EIS, who represent staff at the facilities, were both pushing hard for Quarriers to provide alternative business plans, and to lobby local authorities and the Scottish Government but this apparently failed to materialise.”

For Quarriers, acting Chief Executive Alice Drife said, “After carefully considering a number of alternative options for Seafield School in Ardrossan and two children's homes - Merton House in Largs and Williamfield in Irvine - we are reluctantly announcing the closure of the three services.

"We do understand this will be a difficult time for everyone associated with the services. However, we have been unable to put Seafield on a sustainable financial footing. As the two children's homes support some children at the school these will sadly also close.”

The charity indicated that, by the end of this month, Seafield will have accumulated a deficit of more than £400,000.

Ms Drife said the charity’s policy is to redeploy staff, where possible, and support those who will need to find alternative work. The acting Chief Executive noted, “Quarriers would not have made this decision if there had been a viable alternative.”

Labour opposed Council Tax help

Local MSP Margaret Burgess has slammed Labour MSPs for voting against the SNP Government’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme.

Mrs Burgess said the actions of the Labour MSPs could have meant thousands of local people lost-out on the benefit that helps some of the poorest people in North Ayrshire.

After the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government announced a welfare change that meant people on basic benefits – as little as £71.00 a week - would have to pay something towards their Council Tax bill, the SNP Scottish Government introduced the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, which replaced the Council Tax benefit scrapped by Westminster. The SNP’s actions meant the poorest members of society were not made even worse-off. As of September 2013, thousands of North Ayrshire residents were receiving Council Tax reductions, including 6,890 people aged 65 years or over, 9,230 single-female households and 2,990 lone parents.

However, at last week’s meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, Labour MSPs did not support the regulations necessary to implement the Council Tax Reduction Scheme for another year. The committee has a majority of SNP members, so Labour MSPs were unsuccessful in their attempt to derail help for some of the poorest people in the country.

Margaret Burgess said, “Thankfully, my SNP colleagues backed the Scottish Government’s efforts to work with North Ayrshire Council and other local authorities to support some of the poorest households with their Council Tax bills.

“This is not the first time Labour MSPs have voted against help for people who would otherwise be hit by UK cuts to funding for Council Tax benefit – they did so at the same committee last December.”

Mrs Burgess, MSP for Cunninghame South, noted, “The funding to support thousands of North Ayrshire people is part of a partnership between the Scottish Government and local authorities across Scotland. Of course, the support is only necessary because of UK cuts that are hitting our most vulnerable people hardest.

“A ‘YES’ vote in September will ensure that the Scottish Parliament no longer has to mop up the mess created by bad UK Government policies.”

Building business skills

Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the national body tasked with supporting the enhancement of skills within Scottish businesses, is to hold a ‘networking session’ in Ayrshire.

The event - Discover How Skills Can Work for Your Business – will be held at the Park Hotel in Kilmarnock on Monday, March 17th from 8:00am until mid-day. An SDS spokesperson explained, “It takes a lot of hard work and determination to build a business but there is a range of support to help you on your way. This free networking session will give you a chance to mix with other local businesses as well as hear about what local and national public sector support is available.

“There is lots of funding on offer to help you recruit the right people, develop your existing workforce and plan for the future. This is the perfect day out to help your business grow – can you afford not to be there?”

The day starts with breakfast, followed by a presentation from the Local Employer Engagement Forum, detailing local support available to employers. There will also be presentations from Business Gateway, City & Guilds, Ayrshire College and the Employer Support Executive.

Further information on the event is available here or by calling Skills Development Scotland on 0800 783 6000.

Minister slams UK welfare reforms

Margaret Burgess MSP says UK Government welfare reforms are “harming the living standards of poor and vulnerable people in North Ayrshire”.

Mrs Burgess spoke to the3towns after addressing the Scottish Parliament in her capacity as the Minister for Welfare in the SNP Scottish Government. The local MSP said, “UK reforms are creating deep concern and anxiety and are leaving already vulnerable people at risk of extreme poverty and exclusion.

“The Trussell Trust, which supports North Ayrshire foodbanks, has confirmed that over 50,000 people in Scotland received assistance from them in the last ten months.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, said Tory-Lib Dem welfare reforms are “unjust”, adding, “The UK Government talks about the ‘moral case’ for welfare reform but that is a sham. What is evident is that more and more people in my constituency and across Scotland are struggling to cope and are being flung into a downward spiral of misery. Where is the morality in that?”

Mrs Burgess, formerly a manager with Citizens Advice Scotland, said, “It is shameful that in the 21st century we have people who are in desperate straits because of the UK’s relentless and unfair policies. Rather than helping them, the UK Government’s plans are punishing the most vulnerable in our society.

“It is estimated that the reduction in welfare expenditure in Scotland could reach as much as £4.5-billion by 2015.

“In the meantime, the Scottish Government is taking direct action and delivering real support to help people deal with the cuts and changes to welfare provision. That includes investing at least £258-million over the period from 2013-14 to 2015-16 to mitigate the worst impact of these reforms.”

However, Mrs Burgess pointed-out that Westminster is also cutting the Scottish Government’s budget, which meant money used by the SNP to mitigate the effects of UK welfare reforms results in less being available for other priorities. Mrs Burgess explained, “For example, we could have used this money to invest more in health and education – and in growing Scotland’s economy.

“With a ‘YES’ vote and independence, we can take decisions about welfare that will ensure fair and decent support for people in Scotland.”

Scottish Water's work for Climate Week

Scottish Water has been doing its bit in the local area to support Climate Week (March 3rd - 9th), the country’s biggest climate change campaign, which aims to inspire a new wave of action to create a sustainable future.

Over the week – and throughout 2014 – the publicly-owned water company has been highlighting its actions to deliver low-carbon services for customers, achieving a 10 per cent reduction in its carbon emissions over the last seven years through steps such as reducing the amount of water that leaks from pipes, increased renewable energy generation, energy efficiency and the recycling of sludge (the leftover solid material from wastewater treatment).

In addition, Scottish Water has also been promoting sustainable land management, working with landowners to reduce potential pollution of water supply sources, which can make water more difficult to treat before being supplied to customers.

Although Scotland has plentiful resources of raw water, the treatment and distribution of water is very energy-intensive and the heating of water counts for a sizeable share of energy use: research by the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change shows that 18 per cent of domestic energy is used for heating water. By using less water, customers can save money on energy bills.

Mark Williams, Scottish Water’s Head of Environmental Science and Regulation, said, “Climate Week 2014 is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate what we are doing to build a sustainable Scottish Water. That means being able to deliver on our customers’ expectations of high-quality water and waste services whenever and wherever they are required well into the future, while supporting Scotland’s economy and environment.

“Projects like our £250-million investment in improvements to the river water quality and natural environment of the River Clyde is just one of the ways in which we’re looking to do even more, while helping communities and customers by playing our part in tackling flooding and dealing with the impact of heavy rainfall.

“It’s why we’re also increasing the amount of renewable energy we generate, which is helping to provide more of the power needed for our treatment works.

“Our volunteering programme gives our 3,500 employees opportunities to spend two days every year helping with community initiatives around Scotland – a way of giving something back in the spirit of a sustainable Scotland, while helping to build value and trust in the services provided by Scottish Water.”

Kevin Steele, Climate Week’s founder, noted, “Climate Week mobilises leadership at every level to combat climate change, and the hundreds of thousands of people taking part are showing the leadership that exists across the country to help us live and work more sustainably.”

Friday, 7 March 2014

Who wrote letter criticising 29 councillors?

An investigation by the3towns has revealed remarkable similarities between the handwriting in a controversial letter and that of a serving North Ayrshire councillor.

The letter, published in good faith by the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald newspaper, purports to be from a Stevenston resident called ‘John Knowls’. However, no-one of that name – or with the more conventional spelling ‘Knowles’ – appears on the Electoral Register for Stevenston.

Relating to the then live issue of a proposed merger between Auchenharvie Academy and Ardrossan Academy, the letter from ‘John Knowls’ praises one councillor – Labour’s Jim Montgomerie (Saltcoats & Stevenston) – and condemns the other 29 elected representatives for not responding to e-mails allegedly sent by ‘Mr Knowls’. The letter states that only Cllr Montgomerie replied to the e-mail, saying, “Could you please give me your phone nos (sic) and I will contact you”.

According to ‘Mr Knowls’ in the letter published by the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald, he immediately provided his contact number to Cllr Montgomerie and “Five minutes later my phone rang and it was Councillor Montgomerie. We chatted for about 10 minutes, I was very happy with what he said he made a lot of sense. But the important thing, the thing that stood out against the rest of the Councillors is that he replied straight away and also took the time to phone me.”

Subsequently, Three Towns Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter wrote to the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald in letters that asked ‘Mr Knowls’ to contact them. Cllr McNicol and Cllr Hunter indicated they had not received an initial e-mail from ‘John Knowls’. There was no response to their request for contact.

the3towns understands that other councillors had also not received an e-mail from ‘John Knowls’. According to a North Ayrshire Council source, the local authority’s e-mail system had no record of e-mails sent to councillors by ‘Mr Knowls’. At last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Ronnie McNicol asked if it was likely that the Council’s IT system would be unable to find any trace of an e-mail sent to all 30 councillors. The response was that such a situation would be unlikely.

Now, the3towns has compared the handwriting in the ‘John Knowls’ letter with that of a serving Labour councillor in a note to a constituent. As can be seen from the photos, below, there are remarkable similarities.

 


A Council source told the3towns, “This casts a whole new light on the ‘Knowls’ letter. I think the matter requires further investigation. The letter condemned 29 councillors for not bothering to reply to an e-mail from a local resident. That is a serious matter.”

Public meeting on Scottish independence

A top-level panel will address a public meeting in Kilwinning next week – Thursday, March 13th – on the subject of Scottish independence.

The meeting, which starts at 7:30pm in Nethermain’s Community Centre, will hear from Alex Neil MSP (Scotland’s Health Secretary), Jeanne Freeman (former Special Advisor to Labour First Minister Jack McConnell) and Richie Venton (Ayrshire Organiser for the Scottish Socialist Party).

The event is billed as ‘the ideal opportunity for anyone who is undecided on independence to have their questions answered’.

Alex Neil, originally from Patna in East Ayrshire, said, “A ‘YES’ vote gives us the chance to build a fairer and more prosperous Scotland , to rid ourselves of Westminster welfare cuts, like the Bedroom Tax, and to stop Trident nuclear weapons being based on the Clyde .

“Voting ‘No’ means we will continue to have our finances cut to ribbons by London. Voting ‘No’ means we have an uncertain future in a bankrupt United Kingdom, which will use a ‘No’ vote to deny the Scottish Parliament any further powers.”

Jeane Freeman is a Labour voter and founding member of ‘Women for Independence’. She believes that women's experience of the British Union is one of inequality because of decisions made outside of Scotland, adding, “The question is – who do we believe has the better chance of giving us the opportunities, the policies and the laws to take us forward and address our hopes for ourselves, our families and our communities?

“For me, the answer to that question is us - the people who live in Scotland. We are our best bet.”

Richie Venton of the Scottish Socialist Party will be a well-known face to many locals from his time manning street-stalls in Saltcoats, Kilwinning and Irvine. The SSP has been at the forefront locally of campaigns opposing cuts to public services and the imposition of the Bedroom Tax. Since its creation in 1997 the Scottish Socialist Party has championed the cause of an independent socialist Scotland.

Mr Venton said, “A ‘YES’ vote is a means to a very desirable end. It is a vote for democracy, for the actual right to choose and elect your preferred government and to then fight for measures like a decent living minimum wage for all at 16, with equal pay for women. It opens the path to vast improvements in the rights and living standards of the working class of Scotland - which have absolutely no prospect of being achieved under a Miliband Labour Government, let alone some computation of the Tories, Lib Dems or UKIP.”

Katy's concerns over pensions and benefits

Katy Clark MP has described as “pitiful” UK Government ‘increases’ to pensions and benefits, which at just 1% - below the current rate of inflation – represent a real-terms cut for some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The Labour MP recently used a debate in the House of Commons to raise her concerns and condemn the Tory-Lib Dem Government’s inadequate ‘increases’ to pensions and benefits. In particular, she referred to the government’s change to the measure of inflation used to uprate benefits - from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) – which has left many people even worse-off.

Ms Clark explained, “The changes the Government has introduced since 2010 have been of huge significance for millions of the poorest in our country. Under the last Labour Government, most benefits were up-rated in line with RPI. Shortly after taking office, though, the Coalition announced it would be changing to CPI. Every year since 2010, RPI has been higher than CPI and the gap between those figures has made a real difference to pensions and benefits. The danger with the change is the cumulative impact over many years. In 2010 the RPI figure was 4.6 percent. That went up to 5.6 percent in 2011, down to 2.6 percent in 2012 and was 3.2 percent last year. The equivalent CPI figures were lower in each of those years, which has meant that some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society have ended up with less money in their pocket.”

The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, had made much of the decision to introduce a ‘triple-lock guarantee’ for the basic state pension – which means it will be uprated by whichever figure is greater between the rate of inflation, average wage rises or 2.5%. However, Ms Clark points out, “The uncomfortable truth is that the triple-lock was introduced alongside the change from RPI to CPI, so the basic state pension increases in 2012 and 2013 were lower than they would have been if the previous system had been used. By 2015, the basic state pension will therefore be £1.11 a week lower than it would have been if it had risen in line with RPI.”

Referring to the impact on other groups in society, Katy Clark said, “Next year, Carers’ Allowance will be £1.69 per week lower than it would have been under RPI, with carers £255.84 worse off by April 2015 as a result. Those receiving both the higher rate mobility and care components of disability living allowance will be £571.48 worse off by the same date.

“From April 2013, the Coalition slashed the annual uplifts for a range of benefits to just one-percent. This included Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is the primary income replacement benefit for disabled people. The Government has exempted from the cap the higher rate care component paid to the most severely disabled people, supposedly shielding the vulnerable from it. Unfortunately, however, this is a deceptive sleight of hand. ESA is paid in two parts—a basic rate, plus an additional component—and although the additional component of £35.75 is exempt from the one-percent cap, the basic rate of £72.40 is not. Therefore, over-25s in receipt of the care component of ESA will receive £5.11 a week less than they would have received if it had increased in line with RPI.”

Ms Clark said, “These cuts matter, because they are having a real impact on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.

“Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Government reduced the percentage of people living in absolute poverty from 28 percent of the population to 15 percent. During that time, 2.3-million children and 2-million pensioners were lifted out of poverty.

“Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that investment in the social security system was the primary factor behind that reduction in poverty. By slashing social security benefits the Government risks putting some of the most vulnerable people in society back below the poverty line.”

Margaret welcomes continued Council Tax freeze

Local MSP Margaret Burgess has welcomed the SNP Government’s continued funding of a freeze to the level of Council Tax paid by hard-pressed families in North Ayrshire.

Council Tax bills in Scotland have been frozen since the SNP was elected to government in 2007.

Reacting to news that the measure will continue, the MSP for Cunninghame South said, “This is the seventh successive year of a fully-funded Council Tax freeze. In this challenging economic climate, this is good news for communities and households in North Ayrshire.

“In the face of the biggest reduction in public spending imposed by Westminster on any Scottish Government, the partnership with North Ayrshire, as with other councils, is delivering real benefits for our people.” North Ayrshire Council is also now controlled by an SNP administration.

Mrs Burgess noted, “As part of the funding package, NAC will receive extra money for additional responsibilities, including funding for those affected by the Bedroom Tax, Council Tax benefit reforms, free school meals and childcare expansion.”

The funding provided by the Scottish Government includes £343m for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, £51m for childcare, and £20m for Discretionary Housing Payments to help top-up Housing Benefit for those facing hardship as a result of the Bedroom Tax.

Earning cash from waste

SNP-controlled North Ayrshire Council has revealed it could earn up to a million-pounds over the next five years by selling fumes from decomposing waste.

Landfill gas – mainly methane and carbon dioxide – from the municipal dump at Shewalton, outside Irvine, is now bringing in £200,000 a year. Gas from the compacted waste is converted to electricity after being piped underground to a generator station. In the past, the vapours were extracted through small metal ‘chimneys’ and were burned, rather than being released into the atmosphere.

A 650-metre pipeline transports the gas under the busy A78 trunk road to a unit that turns it into power for the national grid. The Council had to obtain permission from Transport Scotland and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to install the pipeline.

While the new scheme offers financial benefits, North Ayrshire Council says it remains committed to a strategy of “working towards zero waste” as part of ongoing national initiatives. The Council continues to be one of Scotland’s highest-performing authorities for waste recycling and says such measures “are always given priority over the incineration of residual waste to generate energy”.

Ardrossan & Arran councillor Tony Gurney, the Council’s SNP Cabinet member for Environment and Infrastructure, said, “This is a win-win situation for us in North Ayrshire. All local authorities need to generate less waste, recycle more and safely maximise the use of the resources left in residual waste in line with the local and national Zero Waste Plans.

“Removing the gas in the way we do is environmentally friendly. Converting it to electricity in a generator plant, which is just along the road, is a model of efficiency.

“Energy providers buy the electricity from us for the national grid and we use the proceeds to fund our landfill operations. I can’t imagine a simpler way of demonstrating renewable energy.”

Ayrshire College wins marketing award

Ayrshire College has won a national award for an integrated marketing campaign to rebrand the new educational body at the College Development Network Marketing Awards 2014.

The college was formed last year through a merger between Ayr College, Kilmarnock College and the North Ayrshire campus of James Watt College. The new facility’s marketing team won a Gold Award for their work in rebranding the three previously independent bodies as Ayrshire College. The team also took home a Silver Award for the College’s course prospectus. The annual awards recognise and celebrate excellent marketing practice in colleges throughout Scotland.

The Gold Award was for the research and development of the new Ayrshire College brand, which included a new website, Facebook and Twitter, advertising and PR campaign, external and internal signage, and an internal communications plan. Judges described the competition entry as “an extremely challenging project, which was approached in a consultative and pragmatic manner, and was well researched and managed”.

Shelagh McLachlan, Ayrshire College’s Marketing and PR Manager, said, “We are delighted to receive this prestigious award in a very competitive category where the standard is always high. Many colleges across Scotland were involved in mergers last year, which required a rebrand of their new regional college. To win the Gold Award for our rebranding campaign is a great achievement and we have had excellent feedback on our brand.

“The second award was for our prospectus and this was particularly special because it was chosen by a group of student judges.”

Refurbishment to start at Council HQ

A Stevenston company has won a £1.3m contract to refurbish part of North Ayrshire Council’s headquarters in Irvine.

James Frew Ltd saw–off five other bidders to secure the work that will see a major upgrade to the ground floor and second floor east-wing of Cunninghame House. The work follows a ‘first phase’ of the Council's ‘office accommodation rationalisation and modernisation strategy’, which involved refurbishment of Bridgegate House adjacent to Irvine Cross. Once ‘first phase’ work was complete, staff from the Council’s Revenues and Benefits section transferred to Bridgegate House, allowing the local authority to progress to the next phase involving the internal refurbishment of Cunninghame House.

A Council spokesperson said, “Completion of the Cunninghame House refurbishment project will facilitate the disposal of other operational property assets, including the sale of buildings and land at Perceton House [which will] deliver recurring revenue savings.”

The Council carried out a formal tender exercise in relation to the latest phase of refurbishment works, which resulted in 33 expressions of interest. Fourteen of the companies subsequently submitted a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire. From that group, six companies were invited to tender, with James Frew Ltd securing the work as the lowest bidder at £1,301,839.

Work at Cunninghame House is due to begin later this month and is expected to take around 6 months.

Labour councillors could cost North Ayrshire £5m



Action by Labour councillors on the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) could result in North Ayrshire losing-out on over £5m next year.
The shocking news came after Labour councillors forced through a change to the way Scotland’s 32 local authorities receive funding from the SNP Scottish Government. Until now the funding has been awarded on a ‘needs basis’ with North Ayrshire benefitting because of the area’s high levels of unemployment and poverty. However, Labour councillors were able to amend the funding system to a ‘flat share’, which will result in councils effectively receiving the same share of funding as in the current financial year (2014/15) irrespective of needs within specific areas.
CoSLA is the umbrella body representing all Scottish local authorities, with representation from the political parties that run each of the 32 councils. However, the same Labour councillors that managed to amend the method of funding are also currently considering a move to break away and form their own body. For many years Labour dominated CoSLA, but the party’s power was severely diminished after the last Council Elections in 2012, at which the SNP made advances in most areas.
Reacting to the news that the actions of Labour councillors could cost North Ayrshire £5m next year, Cllr Willie Gibson (pictured), SNP Leader of North Ayrshire Council said, “Normally, the amount of money each council receives is determined by the Local Government Distribution Formula. This is usually updated to maintain fairness. It’s highly unusual for that not to be done, but Labour council leaders proposed and voted for the resolution not to update, and this is now CoSLA’s policy.
“John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, has written to all council leaders providing the detail of what the decision not to update would mean for each local authority. He also asked council leaders to confirm this is the action they want to take. That detail – pushed through by Labour councillors - stands to cost this area more than £5million.”
Cllr Gibson has called on Labour representatives on CoSLA to reconsider their actions and “put things right” before areas of high deprivation, such as North Ayrshire, lose out on badly-needed additional funding.
The President of CoSLA is Labour councillor David O’Neill who is also a serving councillor on North Ayrshire Council, representing Irvine west.