Sunday, 31 May 2015

Campaign Letter #18: Problem Debt.

Thank you for contacting me regarding the problem of personal debt in this country.   It is a difficult issue and anybody who has fallen into problem debt has my sympathies.

Millions of people all over the UK are struggling with unsustainable levels of debt and it is important that they are given they help and support they need.  The Government has set up the Money Advice Service to provide free and impartial guidance to those struggling with debt or looking for advice on budgeting.  The Money Advice Service is also a major funder of free face-to-face debt advice - you may have already seen the Ask Ma campaign on television.

Young people in particular are vulnerable to the lure of easy answers to financial problems.  That is why it is so important that schools get over the relevancy of things to real life like interest figures.  Some payday lenders offer loans at rates of over 1000% - ridiculous rates which in their adverts they now attempt to avoid  mentioning altogether.

In response to this, Liberal Democrats in Government have given the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the power to cap the cost of payday loans and we have been supporting credit unions by removing unnecessary restrictions on their governance and allocating £38m to the Credit Union Expansion Project.  There are now over a million members of credit unions in the UK.  People have alternatives to payday lenders and we should all be getting that message out there.

If one falls into debt, there are various techniques that an individual may use to limit the damage.  An example from my own history occurred when I returned from a job to find my UK high-street bank had sold my debt (a £10 unauthorised overdraft) to a debt collection agency.  At that time I was living in Norway, so by the time the payment had arrived with the agency, it has missed another deadline and new fees were incurred.  This happened several times, resulting in me paying out far far more than the original tenner.
The situation was finally resolved when I wrote to the agency, informing them that a third payment had been made, it was to be a final payment in full settlement of all outstanding debt.  If I had to make further calls on the matter, these would be invoiced to them at £5 a minute.  If I had to write again, each letter would be invoiced at £50.  Their company would also be liable for any further damage caused to my credit history, should they pursue the issue.  Further contact would be taken as agreement to these terms.
Needless to say, that was the last I heard of it.  It was also the last that particular bank ever heard of me.

While in Government, Liberal Democrats have raised the income tax personal allowance to £10,600, giving over 27 million people a typical yearly tax cut of around £825.  Over 3 million of the lowest earners have been taken out of paying tax altogether.  In the next parliament, we want to go even further and raise the personal allowance to £12,500, giving a further tax cut of around £400 to the average worker.

It’s not just tax changes we’ve made to help those on lower pay.  We have increased the National Minimum Wage from £5.93 in 2010 to £6.50 in 2014/15, meaning someone earning NMW and working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year earns £1,067.40 more a year (pre-tax) than in 2010. From October 2015, we have made sure it will rise again to £6.70, the largest real-terms increase since 2008, and worth another £374.40 a year for someone working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year.

The economic crash under the last Labour Government led to our economy shrinking by 6%. Instead, Liberal Democrats in Government have a credible plan for the economy that has not only resulted in more people in work than ever before, but it is keeping interest rates and inflation down.  The cost of living is falling, meaning nurses and other public sector staff getting a 1% rise this year will benefit in real terms.

To summarise, there are times in all our lives that things go tight and we have to resort to extra credit.  It is really important that our education system alert people to what those interest APR numbers mean and that people understand there are far more options out that than the glossy CGI adverts that are all over daytime television.  Once in debt, there is government advice available from the Money Advice Service (MA) and charitable agencies like the Citizens' Advice (CAB). The Liberal Democrats are working hard to ensure that people, especially the lower paid, have more money in our pockets and a stable, growing economy where it is easier to judge our needs ahead.  If the lenders abuse their position (as has frequently been the case), debt amounts can be capped by law.

If you have further issues or questions, I will be pleased to hear from you.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #17: Housing

Thank you for contacting me about housing.   In Scotland, it is an issue that has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so if I did become your member of parliament in Westminster, my influence would be greater upon the state of housing in England, ironically enough.  The problems that we face within the United Kingdom as a whole are similar however.

In Scotland, according to figures from Shelter Scotland and The Scottish Government, over the past ten years 53,000 council homes have been lost from stock.  Since 1998, a total of 200,000 houses have been lost from the public stock and the decline is continuing.  The building of new council houses over recent years are reducing the rate of decline.  Overall however, with the inclusion of housing rented from Housing Associations, the stock of affordable housing for the past decade has been roughly static, which is also reflected in Scotland's population of about 5.2million people.  With population numbers starting to show a rising trend, obviously pressure will increase on housing stocks in the years to come.

Within the constituency, I am aware that the crash of 2008 all but halted private housing development in its tracks for years.  The Port of Leith Authority seems to have shelved many of its plans, with only small-scale activity around the Western Harbour at this time.  This has not stopped the price of housing rising over large parts of the city in comparison with 2009, forcing many who have recently found work within Edinburgh to commute from surrounding areas.  I also believe that the affordable housing to be linked with the planned redevelopment of the St.James Centre is to be created outside the city centre, again possibly leading to traffic and commuting concerns.

Everyone should have somewhere affordable to live and I strongly support the building of more social and affordable homes in the UK.

Over the past four decades, successive Conservative and Labour Governments have left us with a housing crisis and eroded our stock of social housing. Since 1979, 1.5 million social homes have been lost from the stock, 1.1 million under the Tories and a further 420,000 under Labour.

In contrast, Liberal Democrats in UK Government have worked hard to turn this around. We have built over 170,000 new social and affordable homes in this Parliament and brought a record number of empty homes back into use – over 100,000 since 2010 – reducing them to their lowest level for over a decade. As a result of our work, we will be the first Government for more than thirty years to leave office with more social and affordable homes than we started with. This is a small, but important, step in the right direction, turning around a downward trend that had lasted thirty years.

We have set out plans to boost affordable housing in the next Parliament by building 275,000 more affordable homes by 2020 – the fastest rate of affordable house building for more than 20 years. Going forward, we have set an important long-term target of increasing the rate of house building to 300,000 a year, built to the Zero Carbon standard.

Within the first year of the next Parliament, we will publish a long term plan to set out how we will achieve our goal and appoint a ministerial taskforce on housing to oversee this task. Our plan will include proposals for at least ten new “Garden Cities” in England, in areas where there is local support, providing tens of thousands of high quality new homes with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport.

We also want to bring forward more development on unwanted public sector sites through the Homes and Communities Agency, building on the progress we have already made in Government by releasing enough land to build over 103,000 new homes.

Our plans include proposals to help social housing providers, including councils, build more affordable homes to rent, with central government investment and local flexibility within the Housing Revenue Account. We also want to work with housing providers to design new models of affordable housing, to sit alongside the traditional social rented sector. This would include models that offer a path to ownership for low income working families.

It is no good making more affordable housing available if existing stocks are not fit for purpose.  Fuel poverty is a real problem, especially in Scotland.  That is why Liberal Democrats would ensure that all United Kingdom housing levels of insulation and energy efficiency would, by 2030, at least match the current Grade C standards.  Standards for new housing efficiency will also be reviewed and increased.

Councils in England would also be required to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans and work with councils to pilot techniques for capturing the increase in land value from the granting of planning permission.

In order to help young people to relocate for jobs more easily, the Liberal Democrats would introduce a Help-to Rent scheme, where the deposit required up front by private landlords could be borrowed from government-backed tenancy scheme.  This would be available to first-time renters under the age of thirty.

The housing crisis can be tackled, but we need clear political leadership to be able to achieve this. I am confident that Liberal Democrat plans for the future can build on our encouraging start in Government and deliver the homes Britain needs.

If you have any further comments or questions on this, or any other issue, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letter #16: Christian Persecution

Thank you for your letter on the subject of religious intolerance.

To pick up upon the first topic that you allude to: that of registrars performing same-sex marriage.

To be clear, I support the right of two adults to marry, regardless of their gender.

There is a school of thought that the registrars are employed to uphold the law of the land and their legal remit.  Personally I think that is a rather harsh approach.  I understand that recognition of same-sex marriage is although right, it is also a problem for some in society.  When that person is expected to conduct marriages that they were not expected to perform previously, I think a period of "grandfathering" of contracts should have been considered under these particular circumstances only.  All new and existing registrars should be expected to change to the new laws but those in a small minority who did object being allowed to stay on until their jobs came to a natural end.  I know that is controversial in both ways and is, I repeat, a personal view.

On the broader point, Liberal Democrats believe freedom of religion or belief and freedom not to practice a religion are fundamental and universal human rights. Liberal Democrats will always ensure the promotion and protection of human rights – including freedom of religion – is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy. We will ensure this is the case if we are in the next Government. I condemn religious persecution in any form.

It is a sad reality that where freedom of religion is under threat that generally other freedoms are under attack too. I believe governments across the world must ensure the right conditions so that everyone can freely practice their religion.

The recent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and Africa is very worrying. I’m pleased that the Liberal Democrats in Government have continued to draw attention to and denounce violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their beliefs.

We will continue to call for more open and inclusive societies as this is the best way of ensuring security for Christians and other believers. In Government we have worked with the Arab Partnership to strengthen political participation, the rule of law and sustainable and inclusive economic growth. We will continue to do so if we are back in Government.

It is very encouraging that last year UN Member States passed resolutions on freedom of religion or belief and combating intolerance. We have called upon all UN Member States to put these resolutions into practice so that no-one is persecuted or discriminated against on the grounds of their religion or belief. I was proud that in March the UK, alongside our EU partners, sponsored a successful resolution on Freedom of Religion at the UN Human Rights Council.

These resolutions will help countries work together to protect these fundamental human rights. The next Government must ensure these resolutions are put into practice and continue to work alongside the UN and EU and other multilateral organisations to achieve universal freedom of religion.

Liberal Democrats believe we must also raise individual cases directly with nations. We will continue to highlight practices and laws that discriminate against people on the basis of their religion or belief. We have already secured improvements through engagement with countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria. We will continue to work with the leaders of different faiths in the UK to increase our understanding of the issues.

Through Liberal International, Liberal Democrats are supporting those campaigning for freedom of belief, like Lebanon’s Future Movement, Egypt’s Democratic Front and even newer movements in the emerging democracies of the Middle East.

I think it is important also not to overlook persecution among friendly states too.  Wherever freedom of belief, non-belief or diversity of belief is threatened or suppressed, then our voice should be heard.  All should be free to practice worship in their own tradition, without harming others and in turn without fear of harm to themselves.

If you have any further issues or points you would like to raise, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats,
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #15: The Ten Pound Minimum Wage

Thank you for your e-mail on the national minimum wage.

Liberal Democrats believe that the success of our growing UK economy must be shared among all workers including those on low wages. We’re proud of our achievements with record numbers of people in work; wages pulling ahead of inflation and a more balanced economy emerging.

Helping low paid workers has been a priority for Liberal Democrats in Government. We fought hard to cut taxes for people on low and middle incomes. Going even further than our manifesto pledge to let people earn £10,000 tax free, we have increased the personal allowance to £10,600. We plan to do even more if in government again raising the personal allowance to at least £12,500, cutting taxes for those on low and middle incomes by around a further £400.

We’ve also ensured above inflation increases in the National Minimum Wage (NMW), with the adult rate due to increase by 20p to 6.70 per hour in October this year. In doing so we’ve worked with the Low Pay Commission to ensure that rises in the NMW don’t risk jobs. But we’ve also been clear that we expect the NMW to rise faster than inflation as the economy grows.

Liberal Democrats want to do even more for low paid workers. We want to see further increases in the National Minimum Wage, see more employers who can afford to do so pay at the Living Wage and put the Living Wage on a stronger footing. To achieve this we would again ask the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage, without damaging employment opportunities. We would continue with this approach, rather than committing to raise the NMW to any set amount.

While all of us wish to see people paid well for their work, many of the nation's small employers simply would not be able to afford the extra pay burden that a £10 minimum wage would impose upon them.  The economy is made up of far more than just international corporations and government public services.

We would also improve enforcement action and clamp down on abuses by employers seeking to avoid paying the minimum wage, reviewing practices such as unpaid internships.  It is important that if a person works, that they are fairly and legally paid for their efforts.

To promote the Living Wage, we would establish an independent review to consult on how to set a fair Living Wage across all sectors. We will pay this Living Wage in all central government departments and their agencies from April 2016, and encourage other public sector employers to do likewise. In particular we would work with local government to promote paying a Living Wage.

It is interesting to note that while the SNP are campaigning to end austerity at Westminster, their ministers at Holyrood want to change public workers' contracts to end weekend pay.  This led to the recent strikes at the National Museum of Scotland.  The change would cut wages of low-paid workers by £7million.  Meanwhile last year, the Scottish Government underspent on our national budget by £440million.

If you have any further issues or questions you would like to raise, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #14: Traidcraft

Thank you so much for contacting me and raising my awareness of Traidcraft.

Liberal Democrats have a proud record of helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.  It is only thanks to the Liberal Democrats in Government that the UK became the first G8 country to meet the 40 year old promise to spend 0.7% of our national income on international aid. This is already helping developing countries to be safer, more stable and prosperous.

It was my Liberal Democrat colleague, Michael Moore MP, who put forward the successful bill to enshrine in law our 0.7% commitment on development aid. UK aid protects 3 million people each year from poverty; has vaccinated 55 million children against preventable diseases and stopped 250,000 new-born babies dying needlessly. It helps more people access anti-AIDS drugs and sent over 10 million children to school last year. Going back on our commitment would cost lives.

As committed internationalists, Liberal Democrats are dedicated to ensuring the UK leads the way in helping other countries tackle tax dodging and unscrupulous companies that abuse workers and communities. Most UK companies operate responsibly abroad but sadly a minority do not. This seriously harms those they should be helping and damages the UK’s reputation.

If I may, I would like to discuss my reaction to the Traidcraft video you asked me to watch.  Such examples arise far too often.  One has to ask through, why is it allowed to occur?  As it said in the video, if such things happened to you and me in the UK, we would have recourse to the law and the companies would be forced to pay compensation and clean up the mess.  Sadly in many nations, the rule of law does not exist in any effective manner.  In order to address this issue, the Department for International Development (DfID) have been helping many developing nations raise their own standards of legislation and enforcement, develop Financial Intelligence Units and continue to work closely with them in order to monitor the activity of UK companies, encouraging them to act in lawful and transparent manner.  The Bribery Act is not restricted to companies just operating in this country but applies also to individuals and UK companies on a global basis.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has currently thirty projects, including in Brazil, Colombia and China, promoting the rule of law and transparency in business dealings.

While I am not saying that everything is splendid, I would wish you to be aware of ongoing efforts to not only improve the behaviour and standards of UK enterprises overseas, but to help other nations raise their own standards so that normal people may have recourse to justice when it is needed.  I can assure you, that as a person who is employed to work on a global basis, companies take every measure to raise with their employees the importance of acting legally and ethically at all times.  The consequences for not doing so can be dire.

I was proud that at last year’s G8 summit the UK reached an agreement with other major countries to crack down on tax dodging by setting up an automatic exchange of information between tax authorities.

In Government, Liberal Democrats have ensured UK companies are held to account wherever they operate.  We have made tackling tax avoidance a top priority and secured a record £23.9 billion from clamping down on tax dodging and fraud.  We need to share these lessons with other countries because we can only tackle the global problem by working together. We are helping developing countries increase their tax revenues by supporting tax capacity projects and working with international organisations such as the African Tax Administration Forum, the World Bank and the OECD to provide technical assistance.

It is fantastic that the Liberal Democrats in Government have ensured that developing countries are protected from exploitative ‘vulture funds’. This is when creditors extract harsh and unfair payments from poor countries.  UK courts will never again be able to be used by vulture funds to exploit poor countries.

To have international credibility we need to ensure our own house is in order. Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced plans to hold businesses to account by cutting down on bogus owners and directors and creating a list of true company owners.

Liberal Democrats are leading the way in getting big businesses to take responsibility and I know we will continue to do so after the next general election. If we are back in Government we will ensure companies pay fair taxes in developing countries and ensure that UK and EU development aid, free trade and investment agreements support environmentally sustainable investment. We would also extend the existing requirement for country-by-country reporting from banks and extractive industries to all UK listed companies.  We would also ensure that the good work already underway in DfID, the FCO and law enforcement agencies will continue.

If you have further comments or questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats,
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #13: Cycling

Thank you for contacting me about cycling. I have responded to the Vote Bike’s survey and was happy to support all of the measures they are calling for.

As a recent convert to cycling around Edinburgh, for both pleasure and commuting, I know how important it is to raise awareness of the benefits that cycling holds.  Obviously, as city planning is a devolved matter, I cannot make decisions upon this matter directly but you may rely upon my support in encouraging cycling across the entire UK.  Locally, I am particularly keen to see proper cycle paths completed along Leith Walk and Lower Granton Road.  In Edinburgh we have many excellent cycling routes but far more should be done to connect them up fully.

I am proud of the Liberal Democrat record in Government on cycling.  Since 2010, we have invested £588m in cycling, including match funding, almost trebling the investment the last Labour Government made in the previous Parliament. We spent a further £159m in 2012 to create better cycle links for communities, improve cycle facilities at railway stations and create more cycle-friendly layouts at road junctions.

We also introduced a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy to ensure there is a clear plan to support cycling and walking schemes and spell out how they will be paid for. It will also build on the £1.5m we made available to support the Active Travel Consortium to build capacity in local government to deliver local cycling and walking strategies.

Making our roads as safe as possible for cyclists is vital and I want to see more done on road safety and a greater roll-out of Trixi mirrors at busy junctions (which this Government has started), so that more people can be encouraged to ride on our roads with confidence.

Going forward, Liberal Democrats want to implement the measures contained in the Get Britain Cycling report; update planning laws so that all new developments are designed around walking, cycling and public transport; and increase the amount spent per head on cycling to £10 per head within existing budgets.

I see cycling as very much part of the nation's future, both for general fitness but also as a part of reducing pollution in our cities.  I do believe that Edinburgh Council's initiative to restrict most speed limits to 20mph on our roads with also help to make our roads more safe.

If you have any further issues or questions you would like to raise, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #12: Trident

Thank you for your letter on Trident.  Below I will both set out Liberal Democrat and my own thoughts on Trident and nuclear weapons.

Party policy first: The Liberal Democrats are united as being against Trident. As a party,
the majority of members wish to continue along the lines of multi-lateral disarmament and that is current party policy. This means that while it is our policy not to renew Trident, it is party policy
to retain some form of nuclear deterrent.  After this election, we would carry out a review to consider all options, including complete nuclear disarmament, would be on the table.

There is a large minority within the party who support unilateral disarmament, owing to our complete opposition to any ownership of nuclear weapons. I am part of that minority and I have a record of campaigning within the party for a change to our current policy.

To answer your question then, I would vote both against Trident and Britain's continued ownership of any form of nuclear weapons. If elected, I would also use the position to campaign against the
continued ownership by other nuclear-armed nations as well.

I have also stated my views on nuclear weapons on the CND website. I am gravely concerned that the current situation in the Ukraine will be used as justification to continue with the Successor boat project.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith