Thursday, 24 December 2015

School meals over Christmas and New Year

One of North Ayrshire Council’s most-appreciated services will again operate over the Christmas holiday period.

Despite educational facilities being closed over Christmas and New Year, the meals service at 10 local schools will continue to provide nutritious dinners for pupils, at a cost of £2.00 per lunch.  No charge is applied for children who qualify for free school meals.

During the holiday break, free leisure facilities are also being provided at the schools.

The SNP-run council first trialled the holiday meals scheme in 2013 and, after it proved successful, rolled-out the service across North Ayrshire the following year.

The efforts of school-meals staff were recently recognised when NAC’s Facilities Management personnel won ‘Team of the Year’ at the 2015 Herald Society Awards.  The prize was given for work to “improve the lives of young people in North Ayrshire”.

The council’s SNP Cabinet Member with responsibility for the school-meals service, Ardrossan councillor Tony Gurney (pictured), said, “This scheme is one I am incredibly proud of and I’m not surprised at the recognition it is getting. It is thoroughly deserved.

“Since introducing it as a pilot project, it has gone from strength to strength.

“We recognise that we have a duty to our children all the year-round – not just when they are at school. We are leading the way with our holiday meals service and other councils are sitting-up and taking notice.

“North Ayrshire school pupils have always enjoyed a high standard of nutritious meals, and looking at the latest menu it is clear to see why we are considered one of the best.”

Lunch will be served from 12:30pm-1:00pm and the free leisure activities take place from 11:30am-12:30pm. The schools are open on December 29 and 30, and January 5 and 6.
Primary pupils can access the meals service at the school closest to where they live.  The schools taking part are:

Castlepark Primary
Dalry Primary
Dreghorn Primary
Elderbank Primary
Hayocks Primary
Loudoun Primary
Pennyburn Primary
St Bridgets Primary
Stanley Primary
Woodlands Primary

School meals will also to be provided free-of-charge at the Church of Nazarene in Glasgow Street, Ardrossan as part of the holiday meals service to accommodate pupils of Winton Primary and Ardeer Primary through the successful ‘Making a Meal of it’ community meals initiative.

Christmas chemists

NHS Ayrshire & Arran has announced the local chemists that will be open over the Christmas holiday period.

Doctors’ surgeries will be closed for four days, from Christmas Day until Tuesday, December 29, but a number of pharmacies will be open and able to provide medicines and answer questions relating to treatment of everyday ailments, such as coughs, colds and flu. NHS 24 also has a number of community pharmacists who are able to answer medicine and pharmacy-related questions over the phone on 111.

In addition to dispensing medication, local chemists can give advice on the best way to take medicines; supply emergency hormonal contraception; advise on diet and exercise; provide a private area to discuss sensitive issues; offer pregnancy testing; supervise methadone supply.

On Christmas Day all chemists will be closed except:

Shergill Pharmacy - 36 Caldon Road, Irvine (10:00am-12noon)
Lloyds Pharmacy - 154/156 High Street, Irvine (12noon-2:00pm)

On Boxing Day (December 26) the Three Towns pharmacies that will be open are:

Boots - 77 Dockhead Street, Saltcoats (10:00am–4:00pm)
Gallagher Pharmacy - 19 Dockhead Street, Saltcoats (9:00am-1:00pm and 1:30pm-5:00pm)
Lloyds Pharmacy - 28/30 New Street, Stevenston (9:00am-5:00pm)

Also open on Boxing Day are:

Well Pharmacy - 18/20 Main Street, Beith (9:00am-1:00pm)
Boots - 1 Fullarton Square, Irvine (9:00am-5:30pm)
Lloyds Pharmacy - 154/156 High Street, Irvine (9:00am-5:00pm)
Lloyds Pharmacy - 151 Main Street, Kilwinning (9:00am-5:00pm)
Superdrug - 6b Aitken Street, Largs (11:00am-5:00pm)
Morrisons Pharmacy - 4 Irvine Road, Largs (10:00am-4:00pm)
Lloyds Pharmacy - 110/112 Main Street, West Kilbride (8:45am-5:00pm)
Two North Ayrshire chemists are open on Sunday, December 27:

Superdrug - 6b Aitken Street, Largs (11:00am-5:00pm)
Boots - 1 Fullarton Square, Irvine (11:00am-5:00pm)

Three Towns pharmacies open on Monday, December 28 are:

Gallagher Pharmacy - 6 Central Avenue, Ardrossan (9:00am-1:00pm and 2:00pm-6:00pm
Gallagher Pharmacy - 41 Glasgow Street, Ardrossan (9:00am-1:00pm and 2:00pm-6:00pm
Boots - 77 Dockhead Street, Saltcoats (9:00am-5.30pm)
Gallagher Pharmacy - 41 Hamilton Street, Saltcoats (9:00am-1:30pm and 2:00pm-5:30pm)
Gallagher Pharmacy - 13 New Street, Stevenston (9:00am-1:00pm and 2:00pm-5:30pm)

Anyone who urgently needs a doctor while GP surgeries are closed should call NHS 24 on 111. The same number applies for emergency dental treatment.

MP criticises benefit underpayments

North Ayrshire & Arran MP Patricia Gibson has expressed concern that errors and delays by the Tory-run Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) are resulting in families going hungry.

Mrs Gibson referred to a report published by the UK Parliament’s cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee, which warned that, while parts of the benefits system worked well, there is evidence of “too many errors and too many delays” in relation to payments being made to claimants. 

The committee of MPs also highlighted it had not been possible to fully scrutinise some benefit delays due to an “unacceptable” lack of information from the DWP about Employment and Support Allowance, Work Capability Assessments and mandatory reconsideration clearance-times.

Committee members noted that while the DWP has a target to reduce benefit overpayments, no target is in place to ensure claimants receive the full benefits to which they are entitled.  In the past financial year (2014/15), claimants were underpaid by a staggering £1.5bn.

Patricia Gibson, SNP MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said, “This should be remedied immediately as underpayments can have an enormous impact on claimants and their ability to pay for essentials.

“Some people wait up to six weeks to receive their first benefit payment under Universal Credit. This is totally unacceptable and can only ensure undue hardship is inflicted on some of our poorest and vulnerable constituents.”

Monday, 14 December 2015

UK spending-cuts to hit employment services

Local MSP Kenneth Gibson has written to UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to express “serious concerns” over Tory Government plans to slash funding by £40m for employment services in Scotland.

Following the Smith Commission, which was supposed to provide Scotland with enhanced devolution after independence was rejected in the 2014 referendum, the UK Government agreed to cede to the Scottish Parliament control over some employment services, such as the Work Programme and Work Choice.  However, the recent Spending Review announced by Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne revealed funding for such services will be dramatically cut over the next few years.

Kenneth Gibson, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee, said, “The Department for Work and Pensions intends to cut spending on Scottish programmes by around £40-million annually - around 75-percent.  This undermines the agreed aims of the Smith Commission and shows how sleekit the UK Government has become; devolving powers without the resources to deliver them.”

The SNP MSP for Cunninghame North noted, “This is in breach of the philosophy of ‘no detriment’, which is integral to the entire devolution process, whereby neither the UK nor Scotland should suffer financial loss when a power is devolved.

“Of course, the Tories have form on this: pre-Smith they devolved Council Tax benefit, minus £42-million a year, which councils and the SNP Government had to find from elsewhere, to the detriment of other budgets.

“This latest blow to Scotland shows how hollow the so-called 'Vow' to Scotland was.”

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Checking the cost of Christmas

Trading Standards officers in North Ayrshire are targeting local Post Offices to ensure people are not over-charged when sending letters in the run-up to Christmas.

A similar exercise last year resulted in three Post Offices receiving warning-letters after they failed to quote the correct price for postage on large letters. 

It is understood some letters were quoted at a price of £2.80, when the actual cost should have been £2.05, an overcharge of more than 25-percent.

Previously, officers from North Ayrshire Council’s Trading Standards department acted in a facilitating role, looking to educate and reinforce the legal obligations placed upon Post Offices to correctly assess postage costs.  However, this year, officers will take court action if any Post Office is found to be overcharging consumers.

Cllr Marie Burns, North Ayrshire’s SNP Cabinet Member for Economy and Employment, said, “Post Offices provide essential services to consumers, communities and businesses, and users of these services must have confidence that the items handled by the Post Office are weighed and measured accurately and priced correctly. 

 “While most Post Offices clearly work within the law and charge customers the correct amount, we have found some isolated cases where some counter staff are not measuring letters and parcels correctly prior to charging consumers.

 “We want to ensure that, during a busy time of year when many people will be using the Post Office to send Christmas cards and presents, they do not find themselves out of pocket.”

Permanent link with Campbeltown confirmed

Ardrossan SNP councillor Tony Gurney has welcomed news that the ferry service between the town and Campbeltown is to be made permanent.

Cllr Gurney Tweeted his delight as Transport Secretary Derek Mackay confirmed the initial pilot service between Ayrshire and Argyll will form a regular link in ferry services from next May.

Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) revealed it had carried around 10,000 passengers and 2,000 cars during the three-year pilot of the Ardrossan-Campbeltown link.

SNP Government Minister Derek Mackay said making the service permanent would be “a real boost for local economies,” and would, “support the tourist trade”. 

CalMac's Director of Operations, Drew Collier, noted, “Passenger-numbers on this route during the trial confirm the demand is there for a regular ferry link, and we look forward to delivering this service next year in support of local communities.”

Monday, 7 December 2015

MP votes against bombing Syria

Local MP Patricia Gibson has branded as “foolhardy” the UK Parliament’s decision to bomb Syria.

Mrs Gibson and her SNP colleagues unanimously voted against UK involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war, which sees disparate groups, including the barbaric Da’esh (ISIS), fighting for control of the country.

The Tory Government Motion, debated for ten-hours in the House of Commons last Wednesday (December 2), called for RAF bombers to join a two-year-long, American-led assault on areas of Syria controlled by Da’esh.  The Motion was supported by 66 Labour MPs, helping to secure a pro-war majority of 397 to 223.

Despite 97% of Scottish MPs voting against the bombing of Syria, aircraft based in Scotland were involved in an attack within one-hour of the decision in the UK Parliament.  Only the one Tory MP and one Liberal Democrat in Scotland backed the bombing.

Speaking after the debate, Patricia Gibson said, “To say that nothing should be done is not an option. However, acting when the consequences of action are not fully understood is foolhardy.  

“Military analysts made it clear that air strikes will not defeat ISIS. The Prime Minister claims there are 70,000 rebels ready to help.  However, despite repeated questioning, he was unable to spell-out who these fighters are, how many are ‘moderate’ and how many belong to rival jihadist elements as bad as those we want to defeat.”

Mrs Gibson is concerned British bombing will lead to even more civilian casualties, saying, “Despite claims that technology used by the RAF would minimise civilian casualties, we know from past experience that using high explosives in urban areas leads inevitably to innocent lives being lost.”

Within days, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed Mrs Gibson’s fears were a possibility, telling an English newspaper, “You can’t completely eliminate mistakes in wartime, but we do our best to ensure that any civilian damage is minimised.”

Rather than dropping bombs from 30,000-feet, Patricia Gibson argues, “The UK should press for Turkey to seal its borders to ISIS volunteers crossing into Syria and Iraq, and cut-off export of the oil and antiquities ISIS relies on to pay its fighters.”

The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran pointed-out that Jihadis who had trained and fought in Syria subsequently returned to Europe, playing major roles in the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.  Mrs Gibson says more work needs to be done “to counter radicalisation of Muslims in communities across Europe”.

Looking forward, the SNP MP stated, “The UK should press forward with diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war and work with the UN and others to develop a peace plan for the next round of talks between Syria’s Assad regime and opposition groups, which are due to take place this month.

“Opting to drop more bombs on an already beleaguered nation without an exit strategy or a credible peace-building plan can only delay a lasting solution.”

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Scottish Water will stay publicly-owned

Local MSP Margaret Burgess has moved to reassure constituents concerned by headlines claiming water services could be privatised by the UK Tory Government.

Stories have appeared in English newspapers sold in Scotland, which report that Tory Chancellor George Osborne is looking to privatise water and sewerage services.  However, SNP MSP Mrs Burgess told the3towns, “Scottish Water delivers for Scotland as a publicly-owned corporation and it will remain in public hands.”

Provision of water and sewerage services is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and is overseen by the SNP Scottish Government.  Margaret Burgess said, “Scottish Water is performing well and there is no reason to change its status.

“Under present arrangements, Scottish Water provides services to households and charges are collected by councils.  This has meant that Scotland has amongst the lowest water and wastewater charges in the UK – ensuring these essential services are affordable for Scottish families.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South noted, “The Scottish Government is proud of keeping Scottish Water in public-ownership and of ensuring that prices are tightly regulated.”

In the current financial year (2015/16), household water-charges in Scotland are, on average, £39 cheaper than in England and Wales.

Friday, 27 November 2015

'Tory cuts still coming' warns Burgess

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess has welcomed the UK Tory Government’s decision not to implement proposed cuts to Tax Credits, but has warned that serious cuts to Scottish public spending will still be imposed by Westminster.

Last Wednesday’s Spending Review saw Tory Chancellor George Osborne bow to public pressure by announcing he would not go ahead with cuts to Tax Credits.  Had the cuts been implemented, some of the worst-paid workers in the country would have lost hundreds-of-pounds in desperately-needed income.

The Tax Credits u-turn took the headlines in national newspapers, with right-wing publications and broadcasters praising the Chancellor - some even announced this represented the ‘end of austerity’ – but closer examination of Tory plans showed Scotland’s day-to-day public services will still face a massive overall cut of six-percent.

Margaret Burgess told the3towns, “These UK cuts are ‘austerity of choice’.  They are being imposed, not because they are necessary, but because they form part of Tory Party ideology.”

The local SNP MSP said the Scottish Government had repeatedly shown that the UK’s deficit and debt could be brought-down without the need for huge public spending cuts, noting, “These cuts are damaging, needless and will hit the poorest hardest.”

Mrs Burgess outlined that the SNP Scottish Government will “continue to do everything within its power to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of the UK Government's austerity measures,” adding, “We want to use Scotland’s powers and resources to lift people out of poverty, not just continually mitigate as best we can.”

'Card, Check, Call' to beat bogus callers

Scottish Water is encouraging Three Towns residents to follow the ‘Card, Check and Call’ advice to stop bogus callers.

In dark, winter nights and with the approach of the festive season, the utilities company is advising people on how to recognise a genuine Scottish Water employee if they need to make a visit to local homes.

Scottish Water carried out more than 150,000 water-quality tests at customers’ taps last year to enable us to provide customers with clear, fresh drinking water.  The ongoing tests are carried out by a sampling team whose members arrive in recognisable vehicles and who will always have photographic identification.

The company advises local householders to follow the ‘Three Cs’ advice to beat bogus callers:

Card – Ask callers to pass their ID card through the letter-box in order to verify their identity.

Check – Check the identity card carefully. Is the photo on the card the same as the person at the door? Does the card contain the Scottish Water Customer Helpline number? Has the card been tampered with in any way? If you are not confident that they are a genuine caller, then send them away.

Call – If you are in any doubt about the caller's identity, the Scottish Water Customer Helpline on 0800 0778778. 

Customers are advised to contact utility companies by using phone numbers found in telephone directories or the internet, but never from ID cards or letters presented, because these could be false.

Anyone who still has suspicions should contact a neighbour or call the police.

Scottish Water’s Chief Operating Officer, Peter Farrer, said, “All of our employees carry identity cards, which they are more than happy to show when requested to do so.  

“Householders shouldn’t let anyone into their home until they are sure of their identity.  Check through the peep-hole on your door; ask them to pass their ID card through the letter box.

“If you’re on your own and feel that you need more support then call a neighbour or a friend, and if you are at all worried about a caller, then please contact the police straight away. The advice is easy to remember - just three C’s – Card, Check and Call.”

Monday, 23 November 2015

Foodbank use soars

Shocking new figures from a UK-wide charity have revealed that over 2,000 North Ayrshire residents have been referred to local foodbanks in the past few months.

The Trussell Trust, which operates foodbanks in Ardrossan and Irvine, has found that over 60,000 people in Scotland relied on emergency food-aid in the last quarter of the year, with 44% of referrals resulting from Social Security sanctions or delays to benefits-payments being received.

Of a total 2,005 foodbank referrals in North Ayrshire, 643 related directly to starving children.

The news of more people starving as a result of UK Government cuts came as it was revealed that Tory ministers intend to increase military spending by a further £12bn, while the cost of upgrading Britain’s nuclear weapons of mass destruction is expected to rise by around £6bn, taking the total figure to over £120bn.

Reacting to the new figures showing the impact of severe poverty in North Ayrshire, local MSP Margaret Burgess said, “These are alarming: they represent 2,005 occasions where people in North Ayrshire were in such dire-straits that they could not afford to eat, and on almost 650 occasions this happened to a family with children.”

The SNP MSP for Cunninghame South said the figures confirm UK Government benefit changes and delays continue to be the most common reason for people seeking emergency food-aid, adding, “While Tory Ministers have their head in the sand on the issue, the Scottish Government recognises this link and is spending almost £300-million over three-years to mitigate Tory Social Security cuts.”

Mrs Burgess continued, “That any government would consider further cuts to the incomes of the poorest families in our society in the face of such clear evidence of rising poverty is appalling, yet George Osborne is set to plough-ahead with £12-billion more in Social Security cuts.”

Calling for the UK Tory Government to scrap planned cuts to Tax Credits, Margaret Burgess said she and the SNP Scottish Government will “not let up on our opposition to these callous cuts and, if they do go ahead, we stand ready to protect low-income households in Scotland.”

Officials mislead councillors

Published: November 20 2015.

Council officials have been caught misleading councillors by giving false information in response to a question on charges for hiring school facilities.

At the November 4th meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Kilwinning councillor Joe Cullinane asked, “How much has the Council charged Kilwinning Academy to hire their own school hall and music department for school events held outwith school hours in the last year?”

The question arose after Cllr Cullinane had been told the school was charged £933 to hire its own hall for a performance of the musical Grease.

Responding for the Council’s SNP administration, Cllr Alan Hill, Cabinet Member for Community and Culture, told Joe Cullinane, “Kilwinning Academy was charged £933.60, which was then internally credited-back to the school budget.  The school does not, therefore, incur charges to hire its own facilities.”

Cllr Hill’s response, which had been provided to him by unelected officials employed by the Council, stated, “This system is in place because the majority of lets in the school are to external organisations and this ensures that all lets are captured in the system.”

Labour’s Joe Cullinane queried the answer to his question, saying that the information provided by officials to Cllr Hill “did not appear to be the impression of the [Kilwinning Academy] Parent Council, nor the Headteacher”.

Cllr Hill, who is also Deputy Leader of the Council, indicated he would “seek further confirmation of the information provided”.

However, it has now been revealed that Kilwinning Academy did not receive-back the £933 it was charged for the hire of its own hall.

In a statement to the Irvine Herald newspaper, an unnamed Council spokesperson admitted the information provided to councillors Hill and Cullinane “was, in part, inaccurate”.  The spokesperson did not indicate which part of the information was incorrect, but the3towns understands it was the core element of the response, the claim that Kilwinning Academy had not been charged for hiring its own facility.

North Ayrshire Council has confirmed its current letting policy in relation to schools facilities is to be reviewed.

Cracks found in brickwork around nuclear reactor

Published: November 19 2015.

EDF Energy has played-down safety concerns after cracks were found in brickwork around the core of the nuclear reactor at the Hunterston ‘B’ site.

The French-owned company said such cracks were “predictable” due to the age of the reactor and that there are “no safety implications”.

However, Lang Banks, Director of the World Wildlife Fund, pointed-out the latest development meant cracks had now been found around both of the Hunterston reactors.  Mr Banks said, “It's clear the problem is spreading and that we can expect this facility to become even more unreliable in the future.”

The anti-nuclear campaigner added, “News of more cracks in the country's ageing fleet of nuclear power stations underscores why we're right to be taking steps to harness cleaner, safer forms of energy.”

Fergus Ewing MSP, the SNP Scottish Government’s Energy Minister, commented, “The reactor operator has provided assurances that there are no immediate safety implications affecting Hunterston ‘B’, and that it is safe to continue generating electricity.

“At the same time, this development does illustrate that Scotland's nuclear facilities have a limited lifespan and we need to put in place longer term energy alternatives.

“Just yesterday the UK Government recognised, belatedly, that its policies have weakened energy security and pushed up bills, but they continue to miss opportunities to put in place new plans to address the gaps in UK energy policy, with few, if any, new actual incentives to drive energy generation. 

“Their policy is inconsistent in terms of getting the best deal for bill payers, incoherent in terms of reducing carbon emissions and is proving ineffectual in terms of ensuring security of supply.”

Colin Weir, EDF’s Station Director at Hunterson ‘B’, said, “Nuclear safety drives everything we do.  This means we work within very large safety margins.  The level of cracking, which is considered reasonable, is far below anything which would affect the reactor's safe operation.”

NAC rejects anti-trade-union law

Published: November 7 2015.

North Ayrshire Council has rejected UK Government plans to further restrict the right of workers to defend their wages and conditions.

Controversial Tory plans would see trade unions have to give police 14-days-notice of intended strike action, would require union stewards to wear armbands during a picket, and would force unions to provide advance notice to police of the content of any proposed texts, Facebook posts or Tweets relating to planned strike action.  In addition, a withdrawal of labour would only be permitted if more than 50% of union members voted for the action.  If the same criterion was applied to current Tory MPs, 270 of 330 would not have been elected.

In a motion that brought together councillors from the SNP administration and the Labour principal opposition group, NAC agreed that the Tory Trade Union Bill would “restrict the ability of this council to engage in good industrial relations practices with our workforce and their representatives”.

The motion, proposed by Labour’s Joe Cullinane and seconded by the SNP’s Alan Hill, set-out opposition to specific issues within the Bill, stating, “Council believes the collection of union dues through the check-off arrangement, from which the council receives income, is part of our collective and contractual arrangements with the trades unions and one which we will defend and support.

“Council commits not to use agency staff to break or weaken industrial action and to continue to support arrangements that afford trade union representatives sufficient resources to enable them to carry out their functions to ensure the continuation of good industrial relations.”

In supporting the SNP-Labour motion, councillors instructed that the Leader of the Council, the SNP’s Willie Gibson, should write to Sajid Javid, UK Tory Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, stating the council’s opposition to the Trade Union Bill.  Cllr Gibson will also write to the Scottish Government, outlining the Council’s position and urging the SNP administration­­ to “do whatever they can to support this approach across the public sector in Scotland.”

An amendment from North Ayrshire’s only Tory councillor, Tom Marshall, had sought to “welcome the provisions of the Trade Union Bill”, arguing that “Any resolution to wilfully not cooperate with the provisions of the Bill is an incitement to law-breaking."

The SNP-Labour motion opposing the Tories’ Trade Union Bill was passed by 21 votes to 3.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Council accused of blocking discussion over awards costs

Five councillors walked-out of a stormy North Ayrshire Council meeting last Wednesday (November 4) believing they had been blocked from discussing the cost to taxpayers of the local authority entering national workplace-related competitions and attending awards ceremonies.

Last month the3towns revealed North Ayrshire Council has spent £51,073 entering such competitions in the past year.  The figure was disclosed in response to a question from Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol (pictured).

However, at last Wednesday’s Council meeting, Cllr McNicol had tabled a further question, asking for confirmation from the SNP administration that the figure given in response to his first question included all costs related to entering competitions and attending awards ceremonies, such as “entry fee, cost of table at award ceremony, return travel to award ceremony, overnight accommodation/subsistence”.  The Independent councillor also wanted to know from which Council budget the £51,073 had come.

Council Chief Executive Elma Murray indicated that for the matter to be discussed again, Standing Orders would have to be suspended.  Standing Orders are the rules that govern how meetings of the Council operate, one of which states issues cannot be discussed again within six-months of the Council having taken a decision on the matter.  Ms Murray judged that the previous question and answer on costs of entering competitions and attending awards ceremonies constituted the matter having been decided by the Council.

In light of this decision, Cllr McNicol tabled a motion to suspend Standing Orders.  This would have allowed the second question to be heard.  However, suspension of Standing Orders requires a two-thirds majority of all councillors present and voting at a meeting.  With 29 councillors in attendance, a two-thirds majority would have required 20 votes.

When a vote was taken last Wednesday, all non-SNP councillors voted to suspend Standing Orders and allow further discussion on the costs of entering competitions and attending awards ceremonies, but with just 17 opposition members the total fell short of the required figure.

Despite minutes of the meeting showing no declarations of a party whip having been applied, all 12 SNP councillors decided to abstain in the vote.

With Cllr McNicol’s question therefore blocked from being heard, the Saltcoats & Stevenston member angrily walked-out of the meeting, followed by Liz McLardy (Independent – North Coast), Jim Montgomerie (Labour – Saltcoats & Stevenston) and Alan Munro (Labour – Saltcoats & Stevenston). 

Cllr John Hunter (Independent – Ardrossan & Arran) had tabled a question on Non-Domestic Rates and subsequently also left the meeting after asking his question.

Previously, Ronnie McNicol had questioned whether expenditure of over £50,000 in relation to entering competitions and attending awards ceremonies represented the best use of public money given North Ayrshire’s position as one of the most-deprived areas in Scotland.

Since November 2014 the council has entered 90 awards-contests, giving an average cost per entry of £567.

Friday, 16 October 2015

NAC: questions over costly consultant

Senior management of North Ayrshire Council face questions over a controversial external appointment of a consultant that, it has been revealed, cost local taxpayers £180,000 over little more than a year.

The matter initially came to light some months ago following concerns expressed by Three Towns Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter.  The shocking level of payment to the consultant was revealed this week in a council response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald.

However, in addition to the huge cost involved, a North Ayrshire Council employee who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity has claimed high-quality candidates were rejected in order that Mrs Sally Agass (pictured) could be brought-in as a consultant.

The insider said, “The job Sally Agass was originally employed to do was advertised externally as a full-time post, and there were very good candidates interviewed for the job.  There were at least two who were more than qualified to do the job, but the decision had already been taken to bring-in Sally Agass to do it.”

Mrs Agass is a former official with Waltham Forest Council in London and more recently has worked as a local government consultant.  She was employed by North Ayrshire Council through an organisation called Solace Group, which is actually the Society of Local Government Chief Executives, a body that represents council chief executives and senior managers.

In 2012, Elma Murray, NAC’s chief executive, was Chair of Solace Scotland, the Scottish branch of the London-based group that supplied Mrs Agass to the North Ayrshire local authority and which received payment for her services.  Solace subsequently paid Sally Agass.

Solace describes its work as providing its members “with opportunities for professional development and seek[ing] to influence debate around the future of public services to ensure that policy and legislation are informed by the experience and expertise of our members”.

The NAC source who spoke to the3towns said, “It has been an open secret that very senior managers wanted Sally Agass brought-in.  There are Solace links in all of this.”

The council employee claimed that employing one of the applicants for the originally-advertised post would have cost around £50,000, instead of the £180,000 paid to Solace for the services of Sally Agass.