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.