Additional vessel is a step in the right direction, says Isles MP

The addition of the vessel, MV Utne, to the Calmac fleet is a step in the right direction, says Isles MP Angus MacNeil.

“This is a welcome step in the right direction.”

Mr MacNeil welcomed the news that a deal has been reached to purchase a ferry for deployment on the Clyde and Hebrides network – a move that should relieve some of the current pressures on the network.

Deployment details will be confirmed by CalMac in due course, subject to the vessel achieving MCA certification and the completion of crew training and sea trials.  Engagement work is now underway with key stakeholders to develop detailed deployment, cascade and related timetables for the 2022 summer season.

Mr MacNeil said: “This is a welcome step in the right direction. The islands are popular and demand will keep growing but we also need a booking management system that gives different time-length opportunities for booking.”

The MV Utne has been earmarked for the Oban-Craignure route, and communities in Skye and the Western Isles will also benefit as a result of the cascade of vessels elsewhere on the network.

Isles MP meets with WICAS on the impact of the Universal Credit cut on island claimants

Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus MacNeil met with representatives from Western Isles Citizens Advice Service (WICAS) this week to discuss the impact of the cut to Universal Credit uplift on island claimants.

Mr MacNeil has already written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Riki Sunak MP urging the UK Government to retain the £20 uplift which has been a lifeline to more than 1,500 people in the Western Isles who have been claiming Universal Credit throughout the pandemic.

He also supported an Opposition Day Parliamentary Motion to cancel the cut, which was backed, but will not, unfortunately, prevent the UK Government from going ahead with the cut.

He said: “This week’s meeting with representatives from WICAS was extremely helpful in identifying the real daily impact that this cut will have on people who are already struggling financially. It is not right that so many people are kept on the edge of financial stress due to warped Tory money ideology.  The physical, mental and social well-being of too many people is impacted by the UK Government’s policy of keeping people in poverty.

“The whole WICAS team work extremely hard to provide key support and advice to those most in need.  They have also helped to bring in an incredible total of at least £870,000 to the Western Isles economy in the last year, a figure with a likely high multiplier effect.

“The team tell me that money is the main issue being raised with them by members of the community and the UK Government is about to make this worse.

“I will continue to press the UK Government to retain the uplift, although it seems unlikely they will back down.”

Hector Macleod, Western Isles Citizens Advice Service (WICAS) said: “WICAS are currently dealing with a sharp increase in contact from individuals with debt related issues, and are braced for a further wave of calls from clients when the £20 uplift of Universal Credit is withdrawn at the end of September.

“By the very nature of the uplift and subsequent withdrawal of this additional benefit, it will be the poorest in our society who will be affected most. WICAS call on all elected representatives to lobby the Government, and ask them to reconsider the removal of this crucial support and consider the impact on those most affected.”

In August 2021 there were 1,530 people on Universal Credit in Na h-Eileanan an Iar. 9.6% of the working-age population of the constituency (those aged 16-65).

In July, 632 people on Universal Credit in Na h-Eileanan an Iar were in employment, 41.3% of the total number on UC in the constituency.

The SNP have repeatedly called on the UK to make the uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits permanent and to extend an equivalent uplift to people claiming legacy benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseekers Allowance.

The UK Government confirmed the uplift to Universal Credit will be withdrawn at the end of September, just as the furlough scheme ends, and the OBR expects UK unemployment levels to peak.

Angus MacNeil MP had a virtual meeting with WICAS this week.

Isles MP writes urgently to the Ministry of Defence on disruption to GPS systems during military exercise

Angus MacNeil MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has written urgently to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seeking an immediate review of the current system of notification to the fishing industry of Naval exercises which require the Global Positioning System (GPS) to be disrupted.

Mr MacNeil was contacted by the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association (WIFA) who informed him of incidents in recent days when vessels in the Minch had received a less than 30 minute warning that GPS would be jammed leading to extreme disruption and potential danger.

NATO exercises Joint Warrior 21-2 and Dynamic Mariner 21 have been taking place on the west coast this week.

In a letter to the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace MP, Angus MacNeil said:

“I would urge you to review the current practice of advance notification to the fishing industry prior to the commencement of exercises when GPS or any other systems need to be disrupted.

“A less than 30 minute warning that GPS will be jammed is extremely disruptive and dangerous to the fishing industry and other marine users.

“It is vital that they are fully aware of times of jamming, at least 48 hours before, to enable the fishing industry to plan future commercial fishing operations safely to avoid seabed obstructions which could result in injury to crew or damage to the vessel if the vessel gets caught in any obstruction.

“I am asking for urgent clarification of future intentions for blocking GPS or any other systems for the duration of this joint exercise.”

Duncan Macinnes, Secretary of WIFA said: “It’s totally unacceptable for the fishing industry being issued with a navigation warning that their GPS is being jammed within the next 30 minutes.

“This short notice presents a significant risk to vessels relying on GPS for avoiding underwater obstructions whilst they are towing and could result in vessels becoming entangled in obstructions that could result in injuries to crew or damage to vessels if their gear becomes entangled in obstructions.

“We welcome the prompt response of Angus MacNeil, MP, in raising this matter with the MOD so that proper procedures for notification of jamming GPS are issued well in advance of any future MOD exercises.”

Isles MP supports last minute strive to retain Universal Credit uplift

Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus MacNeil this week backed a Parliamentary Motion to cancel the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit – a change that will directly affect more than 1500 island residents.

In an Opposition Day debate in the Houses of Parliament, Mr MacNeil voted along with his SNP colleagues and other parties, while Conservative members abstained.

The results of the vote are non-binding and so the UK Government will now proceed to end the £20 a week uplift which has been a lifeline to 400 families with over 700 children in the Western Isles during the pandemic.

Mr MacNeil has written to the Chancellor the Exchequer Rishi Sunak urging a rethink and is due to meet with Western Isles Citizens Advice Service (WICAS) later this month to discuss this situation further.

He stated: “It is disappointing that although the motion to prevent the end of the Universal Credit uplift was backed, it will not prevent the UK Government from going ahead with the cut.

“Ending the uplift will effectively mean a pay cut for low paid workers and some of the poorest families and vulnerable children are about to have household income slashed.

“I will continue to press the UK Government to rethink and make the uplift permanent to prevent more families being plunged into poverty.”

MacNeil responds to positive signals from HIAL and Prospect

With news breaking that HIAL and Prospect are seemingly reaching a position of agreement, although quite what the detail is, the mood music seems positive from all sides.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus B MacNeil commented:

“For the first time in a very long time, it is good to see some positive news emerging over the issue of the ATMS project and the retention of island jobs. We can only hope that this ultimately means the Government gets to save £2 million each and every year and that jobs remain within Scotland’s island groups; vital, important and well paid jobs.

“It is great to see HIAL and Prospect coming together to work for the good of the area and try to find a common position. This is definitely a move in the right direction and people are now cautiously optimistic that the right outcome will happen, namely the retention of these jobs in our islands.”

MP urges UK Government to retain Universal Credit uplift

Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus MacNeil is appealing to the UK Government to retain the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit.

The plan remains to end this uplift which has been a lifeline to more than 1,500 people in the Western Isles who have been claiming Universal Credit throughout the pandemic.

Figures from Child Poverty Action Scotland (CPAG) state that the total figure includes more than 400 families and over 700 children.

Mr MacNeil is due to meet with Western Isles Citizens Advice Service (WICAS) later this month to discuss this situation further.

In a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Riki Sunak MP, Mr MacNeil said: “This uplift has been a lifeline for millions of families including many of my constituents in Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

“Ending the uplift will effectively mean a pay cut for low paid workers and some of the poorest families and vulnerable children are about to have household income slashed.

“On behalf of my constituents, I am urging the UK Government to maintain the uplift to Universal Credit and ensure that families on legacy benefits are no longer excluded. By making the uplift permanent, we could prevent many people from being plunged into poverty.”

The SNP have repeatedly called on the UK to make the uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits permanent and to extend an equivalent uplift to people claiming legacy benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseekers Allowance.

The UK Government confirmed the uplift to Universal Credit will be withdrawn at the end of September, just as the furlough scheme ends, and the OBR expects UK unemployment levels to peak.

Pause now and rethink on Barra Hub, says Isles MP

The proposed Barra & Vatersay Community Campus project has been put into further question. An update from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar highlights the difficulties the project now faces, with it being reassessed to look at options to make the delivery affordable.

Commenting Angus MacNeil MP said:

“It is very concerning to hear the Comhairle talk of the risks to the project arising from challenges with the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, along with the effects of Brexit.

“The availability and cost of key construction materials and concerns over the availability of supply chain subcontractors mean that there is a significant increase in costs, and they are looking at how they can prune the project.  The current proposal to demolish the school before any construction cannot now be allowed to happen, particularly considering the risks of pandemic flareups and further time delays.

“Perhaps this is an opportunity to take stock and have real community engagement.  We saw over the summer with the popular online petitions from young locals, Eoghan Macleod and Aaron MacArthur that a lot of people have many reservations about this project.

“I think even the Scottish Government must be having questions over this project as it is now almost four months since I wrote to John Swinney MSP, Deputy First Minister on this matter and I have yet to receive a response.  Such is the difficulty of the proposals. 

“Up to now expenditure on this project has been on pen and paperwork, no costs have been incurred on demolition or construction.  Now that this project is being reassessed perhaps it is time for the Comhairle and others to go back to the drawing board and have proper community engagement rather than imposition – by fully and properly involving the people, particularly as St Brendan’s Care Home/Hospital has been a pressing need for years now.  The wrong project could be millions of pounds of damaging wrongness.”

ENDS

Isles MP welcomes islands reconnection to mainland electricity network

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus MacNeil has welcomed the completion of the project to replace the subsea electricity cable between Skye and Harris.

The £28 million project has now reconnected Lewis and Harris to the mainland electricity network.

For the last 10 months, Lewis and Harris have been relying entirely on the Power Stations in Stornoway and local wind farms have been unable to export energy.

Angus MacNeil MP said: “I would like to commend the SSEN teams for completing this large-scale, complex project on time and ensuring that the islands are reconnected to the mainland electricity network.

“I would also like to commend the teams at Battery Point and Arnish Power Stations which have been at full-duty operation to maintain a safe, secure and reliable supply of electricity to keep our island homes and businesses connected.

“I am also pleased to hear that plans are moving forward on strategic subsea investment projects in the islands including an upgrade to the circuit between Skye and Uist, and also the proposed 600MW HVDC transmission link to the islands.”

MP speaks directly to Defence Secretary on Linda Norgrove Foundation workers in Afghanistan

Angus MacNeil MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar spoke directly with Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace MP yesterday (Wednesday) regarding the plight of Linda Norgrove Foundation staff who are currently still in Afghanistan.

Mr MacNeil has been in regular contact with the Norgrove family who live on the Isle of Lewis and are currently trying to secure safe evacuation of their two employees and one family connected with them, including a husband and a baby.

The current situation is that Mr MacNeil has relayed all details directly to the Defence Minister in a meeting and all details have also been sent to the Home Office.

The situation at Kabul Airport and also on travel on the roads remains extremely precarious.

Mr MacNeil said: “I have relayed the details of the Linda Norgrove Foundation staff directly to the Secretary of State for Defence. This is an extremely volatile situation that is changing rapidly.”

The charity Nowzad, which has membership locally, have also called on Mr MacNeil for assistance in ensuring workers can safely leave Afghanistan. Visas have now been secured and a cargo plane is on standby, yet there are now difficulties arising in getting to the airport. This situation is rapidly changing and Mr MacNeil had contacted the Home Office and has now be redirected to the Ministry of Defence.

Isles MP welcomes Transport Minister’s timely visit to the islands

Isles MP Angus MacNeil welcomes Transport Minister Graham Dey as he visits the islands this week and hopes he will engage closely on the key transport problems facing the islands at this time.

  • The loss of HIAL Air Traffic Control jobs in the islands
  • Ferry construction and the current booking system

Speaking ahead of Mr Dey’s arrival, Mr MacNeil said: “It is good that the Minister is coming to visit the islands as he gets to know this part of Scotland.

“Obviously the number one issue of the moment for many is the likelihood of the Government losing £2m each and every year from HIAL moving jobs to Inverness.

“Hopefully the new agreement with the SNP and the Greens gives the space for the Government to reassess whether needlessly wasting £2m each and every year and removing about £1m in wages from the island economies from the Hebrides to Shetland, is the best value for money.

“This is also a time when we need to be pressing on with ferry construction and look to yards that can do this.

“It is also an opportunity for the Minister to hear about booking windows, or indeed to look at devolving power over when parts of the car deck are released on ferry bookings to the islands.

“We should release about 70% in the beginning, about 20% a month before a sailing, a further 8-9% about a week before the sailing and then on the last day the final 1 or 2%.  This would give the variety of travellers – whether leisure, business or emergency – the possibility of moving backwards and forwards.

“I hope the Minister is in a listening mode and also the Scottish Government is in a mode to devolve things such as booking windows to island councils, who could set the structures in conjunction with Calmac as to how we could better use the ferries so that everyone has access and no one is resented for booking early on for a justifiable holiday.”