Highlands and Islands MSP appeals to public to stick to rules as lockdown eases

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, has contacted Police Scotland and Highland Council after complaints that the Loch-Ness-side village of Dores is being disturbed by large groups of people partying on the beach.

Mr Stewart was contacted by a constituent who was particularly concerned for those who were shielding in the area.

The MSP received reports that, in the last few days, there have been numerous groups, drinking, shouting, with music blaring and leaving litter and abandoned barbecues for the village to pick up.

With no toilet facilities, it was said that people were using the children’s playing field and going behind bushes where children play and that bottles were smashed on paths and in the woods and rubbish bags thrown into the fields.

According to the resident, last night the noise continued until late, prompting a call to the police.

Mr Stewart has also been sent photos of one of the gatherings and the mess that has been left behind.

“Obviously, in general, the public have behaved extremely well by sticking to the guidelines, but I am concerned that these gatherings could spark a second wave of Coronavirus,” said Mr Stewart, Scottish Labour’s Shadow Public Health Minister.

“I realise it’s been difficult for people, especially the young, but the last thing we need is for us to go back to square one and to be back into lockdown and for more lives to be put at risk.

“The police have been quick to respond to my contact yesterday and I do hope that they can ensure people visiting the area are doing so within the rules.”

Update: Police Scotland has said: “We will endeavour to increase patrols in the area and I would encourage local residents to report, via 101, any instances of anti social behaviour, littering or large gatherings at this location.”

  • https://www.scotland.police.uk/whats-happening/news/2020/may/statement-from-the-chief-constable-on-coronavirus-lockdown-changes

David Stewart welcomes official launch of process for dealing with bullying cases

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart is glad that NHS Highland has finally formally launched the Healing Process allowing present and past staff to register their bullying and harassment cases

“I have been pursuing how people can use this process to lodge their cases following concerns from a number of constituents,” commented Mr Stewart.

“Despite the challenges of Covid-19, this will allow the many people who have contacted me to register and to link up either virtually or by a meeting which uses social distancing.

“There are many who have lost or left their jobs, and in some cases had their careers ruined, and will be unable to go to an industrial tribunal due to a time-bar on cases and unable to afford a civil case.

“This is a long-awaited step to getting some sort of closure and perhaps compensation for many who have been badly affected by their experiences.”

  • The website can be accessed at: https://www.healing-process.co.uk
    The email address is healingprocess@cmpsolutions.com and the telephone line is 03333 445 892.

Further information on the Employee Assistance Programme can be accessed at: https://www.nhshighland.scot.nhs.uk/News/Pages/LaunchoftheEmployeeAssistanceProgrammeforNHSHighlandemployees.aspx


Saving air routes serving Caithness and Sutherland is essential

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart says it more important than ever that the Scottish Government looks seriously at a dual Public Service Obligation on Wick air routes in the light of the economic damage caused by Covid-19.

Mr Stewart backs Transport Secretary Michael Matheson’s pledge to support economic recovery within the transport sector and the broad economy.

Mr Matheson today outlined in Parliament the development of the Government’s Covid-19 Transport Transition Plan which will be phased as the country easing restrictions.

The Transport Secretary said it was the start of “an on-going conversation” about the transition phases in the transport system and the Government “must continue to engage with partners across the sector and beyond”.

Following the announcement which was this week based around public transport, walking and cycling, Mr Stewart encouraged Mr Matheson to spare some time to look in detail at the campaign from Caithness Chamber of Commerce to protect Wick’s air connectivity with routes to Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

“Caithness and Sutherland cannot be left without air links when restrictions end but it’s hard to see how these will survive unless the Scottish Government backs an aid package,” said Mr Stewart.

“This area’s economy relies not only on bus, rail and road links, but also on air links, bringing in tourists and workers.

“The very thought of going backwards without this essential aviation connection does not bear thinking about.”

Mr Stewart wrote to Mr Matheson, and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, after Loganair announced the axing of its Edinburgh-Wick service on Friday, March 27.

The MSP had previously asked the Scottish Government for swift action following the collapse of Flybe when the Wick-Aberdeen route was taken over by Eastern Airways which previously ran it under a franchise for Flybe. Mr Stewart argued that the Wick-Aberdeen service was fragile due to falling passenger numbers.

Mr Matheson previously said it was considering carefully the business case submitted by Caithness Chamber of Commerce.

  • A PSO, under EU transport law, is a permitted state aid which maintains scheduled air services on routes vital for the economic development of the region they serve.

Highlands and Islands MSP urges people to celebrate kindness this Mental Health Awareness Week

Monday 18th May marks the launch of Mental Health Awareness Week, the UK’s national week to raise awareness of mental health.

The week, which is hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, is in its 20th year and runs from 18-24th May.

This year, the theme for the week is kindness and across the country, people will be celebrating kindness in a range of digital and creative ways within social distancing restrictions.

David Stewart MSP is backing the week and urging local people to think about how acts of kindness can help people’s mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking about his support for the week, David Stewart MSP said:

“The last couple of months, with all the uncertainty of the virus and the impact of lockdown, have been an extremely stressful and worrying time for many people across the Highlands and Islands. People who may have previously felt isolated in remote and rural communities may be feeling this even more acutely at this time, so it’s important they know that support is available to them.

“We know that across the region many people have also sadly faced the pain of losing loved ones to the virus or have fallen ill themselves, while others have seen their livelihoods put at risk or incomes reduced. All of this has put additional strain on people’s mental wellbeing.

“This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is putting the focus on kindness as a means of helping people through the pandemic and building a better society as we emerge from it. We see many acts of kindness in the Highlands and Islands all the time, but this week is an opportunity for people to reflect on their interactions with others and how they can try and be a little kinder during this unprecedented time.”

Mark Rowland Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said:

“This year may be the most important week we have ever hosted, as we deal with coping and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. We must do all we can to reduce the psychological and social impacts of the pandemic which could outlast the physical symptoms of the virus.

“At time when we must socially isolate, stories of kindness have helped spread a shared sense of connection and joy. The research backs this up – kindness is deeply connected to mental health. The message this Mental Health Awareness Week is that kindness matters. It matters to our mental health and it will matter hugely in the society we build from here – one that better protects our mental health.”

How to get involved online:

• Reflect on an act of kindness. Share your stories and pictures (with permission) of kindness during the week using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
• Use Mental Health Foundation resources in your family, school, workplace and community to join with thousands in practising acts of kindness to yourself and others during the week
• Share your ideas on how you think we could build a kinder society that would support our mental health using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
• For more information about this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week visit mentalhealth.org.uk/kindnessmatters or join the conversation on social media using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

MSP contacts banks for help on commercial borrowing rates

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, has contacted Scotland’s bank chiefs asking for their input to save businesses in the region who are facing unprecedented hardship, and possible collapse, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The MSP has been contacted by business owners appealing for help in getting Scotland’s banks to charge their commercial borrowers the Bank of England base rate of 0.1%.

Businesses are desperate for help and say the business interruption loans being heralded by the Scottish Government are not the answer with businesses struggling to get hold of their banks and, when they do, many of them are being asked to stump up collateral, such as their homes, to secure the business interruption loans.

Mr Stewart says further that the minority of businesses who are being offered the interruption loans are having to wait an inordinate amount of time for the loans to be processed, time most businesses don’t have right now.

David Stewart said “The concerns about the financial effect the COVID-19 outbreak is having on businesses in the Highlands and Islands region, and indeed throughout Scotland, is deepening day on day.

 “I have contacted the Scottish Government about this but their response has been weak. They say the interruption loans are available and that their hands are tied as the regulation of financial services is reserved to the UK Government.

 “This is not good enough.” continued Mr Stewart.

 “I appreciate many banks are offering to defer capital payments on commercial loans but this is not enough. On top of that, only a small number of those applying for business interruption loans are being approved.

 “Business owners want to see the Bank of England base rate applied to minimise debt going forward and potentially save thousands of them from collapse. Given the severity of the situation and the need for urgent action to be taken, I have now contacted the banks directly and I will be having discussions with them in coming days.”

MSP’s battle to protect plumber from million pound pension fund bill takes another twist

Mr Menzies and his wife Jennifer: “lives are on hold”.

AN INVERNESS plumber fighting an “outrageous” £1.2 million pension bill said his spirits soared this week after another plumbing firm commenced court action against the Scheme.

Murray Menzies and around 29 other unincorporated retired plumbers have been served with estimated financial demands from the £2.2bn Plumbing and Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme.

The demands, which ask employers to provide the full buy-out cost of their own and other employers’ liabilities, have in many cases threatened to financially ruin the recipients.

Mr Menzies (72) is appealing, with support from Highlands & Islands Labour MSP David Stewart, for changes to be made to the “flawed” legislation which he says is driving these debt notices known as Section 75 debt notices.

However, Pensions Minister Guy Opperman, who has overall responsibility for changing legislation, has said amendments cannot be made anytime soon.

It remains his heavily disputed argument that any such move could risk the scheme’s assets and jeopardise the pensions of remaining members in the scheme.

But news this week a yet-to-be-named company is gearing up to do battle with the pension scheme has given Mr Menzies and others contesting their bills “a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel”.

Mr Menzies said: “I have paid every penny that I was required to pay into to this pension scheme. It cannot have been Parliament’s intention when passing the legislation driving these flawed Section 75 demands to bankrupt ordinary employers who have done nothing wrong. This demand is outrageous.” 

The trustees of the Plumbing and Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme last year began issuing estimated debt notices.

Several plumber employers have written letters of complaint to the scheme over its handling of Section 75 employer exit debts, which the scheme only began collecting in 2019 despite regulations requiring their collection from 2005.

And now, one employer has raised proceedings against the scheme, seeking declarator that “no Section 75 debt is due”.

Mr Menzies with David Stewart MSP.

Mr Stewart, who took up Mr Menzies’ case late last year and scheduled talks in February with the Pension Minister and officials in Whitehall, said it was immeasurably difficult to find a way out for Mr Menzies – but it was a “scandal” and his support for Mr Menzies and others would go on until a way out was found.

He is writing again to Mr Opperman this week asking him to consider, at a time when Parliament has emergency powers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Moratorium on the Enforcement of the Section 75 debt notices.

He will argue “a delay of several years, say five, might allow an oversight to be corrected”.

He said: “I am really concerned for Mr Menzies and all the other plumbers whose lives are on hold and future bleak because of this legislation. A huge amount of sympathetic agreement exists for their plight but this legislation is still being enforced.”

Mr Stewart has written to Mr Opperman repeatedly on the issue as well as the Pensions Regulator, and various poverty action groups and others. He has also held meetings with the Pension Scheme CEO Kate Yates who is also unable to offer some resolution.

He said he was disappointed with Mr Opperman’s latest reply to his plea for an easement for Mr Menzies and the others.

Declining the MSP’s invitation to meet with Mr Menzies and other affected plumbers in the constituency, a section of Mr Opperman’s reply said: “due to both the COVID-19 impact and the Pensions Scheme Bill going through Parliament, I am unable to make that commitment”.

He said he sympathised with Mr Menzies but all measures to find a way out for him had failed, but he could repay the huge debt, if and when it is officially served upon him, in “instalments”.

He also confirmed Mr Menzies and the others had “to all intents and purposes met their responsibilities towards the scheme and paid contributions as and when they became due”.

However, he insisted if they were to be released from their Section 75 debts, a precedent could be set jeopardising the scheme for the remaining employers in the scheme.

This is contested by the Plumbing Employers Action Group (PEAG), which is campaigning against the legislation.

This group claims the pension scheme Trustees “publicly stated they were only expecting to collect 10 per cent of the Section 75 debts due, under which circumstances, these small sums are immaterial to a scheme with total assets of £2.2bn.”

Mr Opperman’s letter is being met with a blistering reply from Mr Menzies.

Mr Menzies’ letter, which Mr Stewart has agreed to pass on to the minister this week, says: “When an unexpected bill of a million quid lands on your doormat there’s not much left that can surprise you – except maybe when the minister with overall responsibility for waving it says ‘hey, don’t worry, it’s okay, we’ll let you pay it back instalments’.

“I would ask you Mr Opperman, where does a retired 72-year-old, whose only income is his state pension, find the money to pay off the outrageous sum of £1.2 million, even in instalments?”

He added: “Thank you for your sympathy but it isn’t going to save me from losing my family home nor from the financial ruin that awaits us”.












MSP asks First Minister to tackle insurance companies who’ve “wriggled out” of their obligations

The First Minster is to ask the Scottish Government Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, to have direct discussion with the insurance sector about companies who are “wriggling out of their obligations” to Scottish businesses.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, asked Nicola Sturgeon today at First Minister’s Questions about the problems firms were having claiming their business interruption insurance.

He said: “The First Minister will be well aware that thousands of small business across Scotland, from hotels to hardware stores, are trying to claim on their insurance policies because of interruption of their trading caused by the lockdown.

“However, several insurers have been accused of wriggling out of their obligations which puts the future of many businesses at risk.

“Will the First Minister meet with insurance companies and spell out that leadership and social responsibility are crucial during the pandemic so that we can still have a functioning economy when the lockdown ends?”

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I am very clear insurance companies, like everybody else who has a responsibility right now, should play fair and should understand the difficulties that businesses are having through no fault of their own.

“I send that message without equivocation. I think anyone trying to wriggle out of obligations right now is doing a disservice to the challenge that all of us are facing and dealing with.

“Certainly, I am happy to ask the Finance Secretary to have a more direct discussion with the insurance sector just to make sure there is an understanding and to make sure there is nothing further that we can do to in terms of guidance to provide clarity about what people should be doing and how they should be acting.”

Afterwards Mr Stewart added: “I am grateful that the First Minister recognises the problem and hope that any discussion with the insurance sector can bring home how devastating it is for companies who have had their claims for business interruption insurance turned down.

““Companies who can’t claim are at risk of going under sooner and that puts the whole local economy at risk.”

Last month Mr Stewart found widespread frustration and concern from Highlands and Islands firms over delays in accessing loans and a refusal to pay out on business interruption insurance.

The MSP wrote to business groups across his area asking if banks were making it harder to get business interruption loans and if insurers were refusing to pay out for claims on business interruption insurance policies.

Among those to respond to the MSP’s request, were Chambers of Commerce in Caithness, Moray, Lochaber and Mid-Argyll.

Highlands and Islands MSP Hits Back At Scottish Government Over “Uncaring” HIE Comments

David Stewart, Scottish Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, has hit back at the Scottish Government over their “uncaring” comments regarding business support and funding for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) amidst the coronavirus crisis.

In a response to a written Parliamentary Questions from David Stewart, the SNP Scottish Government refused to commit to reversing the 5% or £2.954m funding cut to HIE this financial year to support economic recovering in the region following the Coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak.

Rejecting Mr Stewart’s calls for additional Scottish Government support for the economic and community development agency, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Highlands and Islands Enterprise can raise its own income to supplement the funding allocated”.

 Commenting David Stewart MSP said:

“The Scottish Government’s refusal to reverse the nearly £3m budget cut to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and their view that  they can simply raise their own income to supplement the funding allocation has revealed how uncaring this government is to the disastrous economic impact that Covid-19 is having on the region.

“HIE’s primary source of funding is Grant in Aid (GIA) and other forms of income (e.g. grants) from the Scottish Government and this is why a 5% budget cut at this time will do so much harm to the regions economy.

“HIE is able to source additional income from rents, loan interest, European Union funding and generate capital receipts from loan repayments and the sale of assets.  However, these additional income streams are now under coming under threat due to COVID-19 and consequently there may be a significant reduction in income opportunities this year and going forward.”

“The Scottish Government must listen to the needs of businesses and communities in the Highland and Islands and reverse the cuts to HIE to help the region recover from the damage being caused by Covid-19.”



Fire sprinkler legislation first launched by MSP’s bill should become law next year

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, should see his campaign for installing fire sprinklers in all social housing come to fruition next year with the implementation of new Scottish Government regulations.

Mr Stewart has received a letter from Local Government, Housing and Planning Minister, Kevin Stewart, saying that sprinklers will be a requirement in all new build social housing, flats, maisonettes and larger multi-occupancy dwellings including where care is provided.

The regional MSP has heard that the Building Scotland (Amendment) Regulations 2020 are being worked up by solicitors and include clear definitions for new social housing.

David Stewart was told in 2018 that the Scottish Government was taking forward his campaign for greater fire safety methods in social housing.

“I am glad that the government is working on implementing this and I have now been told the new regulations should come into force by May next year,” said David Stewart.

“Fire sprinklers have been proven time and time again to be effective in the fight against fire and I know that this move will save lives.

“There has always been strong backing for these plans from the public, the industry and other MSPs, especially in the light of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

“I would still like retro-fitting sprinklers in older properties to be considered, and although that is my longer term hope, I understand the problems this would pose.

“As yet I am not aware if the outbreak of Covid 19 has affected the schedule to implement this, but I do hope not.”

David Stewart previously proposed a Member’s Bill which would require fire sprinkler systems to be installed into all new-build social housing across Scotland, as a method of tackling Scotland’s high rates of fire death and injury.

The plans received overwhelming support, with 94% of the consultation responses in favour and over 50 MSPs, from across all five political parties, signed up in support of the Bill’s final proposal.

The Scottish Government then announced it would include the requirement for fire sprinklers in social housing as part of their response to the recommendations from the Building and Fire Safety Review Panels.

Minister Kevin Stewart told the MSP the intention was to put the changes to regulations before parliament before the summer recess, with amendments and work with the construction sector following afterwards.

The Minister is to keep the MSP updated on progress of The Building Scotland (Amendment) Regulations 2020.

Businesses react to MSP’s call for details on delay in loans and non-payment of insurance claims

MSP David Stewart has found widespread frustration and concern from Highlands and Islands firms over delays in accessing loans and a refusal to pay out on business interruption insurance.

Mr Stewart, who represents the region which includes Moray, wrote to business groups across his area asking if banks were making it harder to get business interruption loans and if insurers were refusing to pay out for claims on business interruption insurance policies.

So far, among those to respond to the MSP’s request, have been Chambers of Commerce in Caithness, Moray, Lochaber and Mid-Argyll.

Caithness, Lochaber and Mid-Argyll confirmed they had heard about problems and noted frustration over their members applying for bank and business interruption loans and confirmed some reported insurance claims were not being met. As a result, Mr Stewart is looking into one individual case and awaiting more details from the organisations.

Jane MacLeod, of Mid Argyll Chamber of Commerce, had also been made aware of many businesses unable to claim business interruption insurance.

She told Mr Stewart; “One local hotelier said ‘my policy, like many other businesses, states ‘Infectious Disease’ as a reason with the usual list. Plague is listed but it has to come from within the business and not outside in. If it came from inside I would have a personal liability in that I allowed it into the workforce.”  The hotelier went on to say ‘Blatant avoidance’ “.

Moray Chamber of Commerce’s Chief Executive, Sarah Medcraf, told the MSP: “I have not come across one business who has been able to claim on their insurance for this”.

She went on to give examples of responses from insurance companies including:

  •  “Unfortunately, there is no cover in place which would allow you to claim for this particular pandemic, sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
  • “To clarify, COVID-19 is not covered under our standard Business Interruption policies and, as the chancellor said, you cannot retrospectively change insurance contracts at this time without threatening the future of the insurance industry.”
  • “Unfortunately, there’s no cover for this type of loss on your policy. You’re right, we’ve been busy with queries, worrying times. The only cover, Liability &/or Business Interruption, for a specified disease would be if the disease originated at your premises or within a five-mile radius.”

Trudy Morris, Chief Executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce said: “We are deeply concerned that even businesses who believed they had purchased appropriate insurance cover are not having success in making claims. We are finding that either businesses are being told they are not covered as COVID-19 was not named on their policy, or because it has not been confirmed on their premises.

“While we appreciate the pressures that the insurance industry will be facing at this time, it is disheartening that many businesses have paid a premium for this kind of cover only to discover that their claims are being denied. It is incumbent on the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to find a solution to this issue and ensure that businesses can survive this crisis.”

Mr Stewart commented: “I can understand that this is difficult for the insurance industry which is under great strain, but yet again businesses are being strangled by the small print.

“If companies can’t claim they are at risk of going under sooner and that puts the whole local economy at risk.”

Mr Stewart is writing to the Association of British Insurers with all the replies he has received asking for it to examine what it can do to relieve the strain on companies.

Moray Chamber of Commerce explained there was also a delay of up to 12 weeks for the UK Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS)

Mr Stewart added: “Again a wait of three months could be the death knell for many of our businesses and I am writing to the Scottish Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, with this information asking if pressure can be applied to speed up the process.”

Ms Medcraf added that the banks appeared to be pointing customers to every product in their offering before offering CBILS, and some were waiting in call lines for hours to talk about their problems.

She said: “This delay in accessing funding is simply not acceptable. Businesses need cash now. Many are already struggling with cashflow due to paying staff weekly and the Job Retention Scheme not being set up fully yet to claim back.

“I think about the short space of time the Governments have had to create these policies, overall they are good.

“But there are some huge flaws with businesses and people falling through the gaps, as well as accessibility to cash.

“I believe the banks have now been advised that they are not able to ask for personal guarantees if it is under £250k which is welcome. Many would not have to borrow additionally at all if the grant scheme threshold was released.”