NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Sunday 8th November 2015
This morning I attended the Nottinghamshire Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Victoria Embankment and laid a wreath in memory of those who have fought and died in conflicts past and present. There was a very large turnout from many residents, friends of the Royal British Legion, and those who have served in our armed forces.
Decisions to enter into combat situations must never be taken lightly – and Britain has always played its part in peace-keeping, rescue missions and fighting against tyranny. I am deeply conscious that in today’s dangerous world there are times when it can become necessary to ask those serving in the forces to step into harm’s way and defend the values which we hold dear in society. We should never under-estimate the enormity of the tasks we require of our military and I know that the vast majority of residents in Nottingham East are proud to pay tribute to the men and women who have served and still serve in the army, navy and air force.
- Mental health is still stigmatised and mental healthcare is still on the fringes on the NHS. On a number of indicators, Nottingham suffers from a greater incidence of mental health problems and mental illness than the national average, so programmes like ‘Wellbeing+’ in Sherwood remain important sources of support for those with or at risk of developing mental health issues. I enjoyed meeting manager April Brown on Thursday, who explained to me how the project both supports those with mental health problems, and directs them towards services to help them get their lives back under control, from therapy to employment advice. With waiting lists of up to a year for therapy, Wellbeing+ fill the critical gap between diagnosis and treatment. They clearly provide indispensable support for the 800 people a year they work with.
- On Thursday I was invited to Rosehill School in St Ann’s – a community special school for children from age 4 to 19 diagnosed with an autism spectrum learning disorder. It was great to have the chance to meet students and learn about the school’s new curriculum. Fenella Dowler, Cheryl Steele and all of the staff are involved in incredibly important work and doing what they can to enable students to be ready for independent living. The key challenge is now to get more support from the wider community to help students to access internships and work placements to ensure a smooth transition into adulthood. I was impressed with the tour I was given by some of the students themselves around the school’s outstanding facilities. With growing numbers and demand rising rapidly, Rosehill School is a key institution for the whole of the community and I believe by identifying the skills of their students in the longer term we can help build productive lives for these young people.
- I received a briefing this week informing me that Nottingham City is amongst the worst affected places in the country for pneumonia amongst the over-65s. If you are aged over 65 or have a long-term health condition you are eligible for a ‘pneumo jab’ on the NHS; give your GP a call before NHS comes under pressure through the winter.
- This week I caught up with Pete McGavin, the newly appointed Interim Chief Executive of Healthwatch Nottingham, an independent organisation that endeavours to give a voice to people’s views on health and social care. We discussed some of their forthcoming investigations and inquiries and my long-held view that we need to have strategic oversight of the massive £800million NHS budget spent in Nottingham. I’m glad that Healthwatch are building their profil and able to provide some accountability for the NHS locally.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- On Thursday the Transport Secretary made a statement in the House of Commons regarding the suspension of flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. The Minister stated that the Government are reaching the view that a bomb on board may be the probable cause of the loss of the Russian Metrojet flight and hundreds of deaths on Saturday 31st October, and all UK operated flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh have subsequently been suspended. There is no question that the safety of British people must be the highest priority and I support the action that has been taken. The Government has stated that interim arrangements will be put in place so that people can return home, although there are clearly logistical issues arising in Egypt with this. An estimated 20,000 British citizens and nationals are currently in Sharm el-Sheikh, and it will be important that arrangements are put in place to provide those affected with regular and prompt updates, as well as a simple process for seeking official assistance.
- On Monday the House of Commons debated the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill. There are parts of the Bill which I welcome such as measures that would restrict the operation of rogue private landlords and letting agents. However, there are also parts of the Bill I cannot support and I am concerned the Bill will not help most people struggling to buy their own homes, will mean a severe loss of affordable homes, and will weaken the obligation of private developers to contribute towards the building of new affordable homes. The Bill extends right-to-buy to housing associations funded by the forced sale of affordable council homes. I believe this is unworkable and wrong and would lead to a severe and irreversible loss of affordable homes across England at a time when they are most needed. The Bill also contains measures for ‘starter homes’. While I support the aim of ‘starter homes’ – to make home ownership more accessible – I am concerned that under the Government’s plans they will be unaffordable for most young people and families on ordinary incomes. We are facing a housing crisis in this country – many people cannot afford a home, can barely afford their rents and, in the worst cases, are sleeping rough. Home-ownership has fallen every year since 2010, last year there were the fewest affordable homes built in over two decades, and there has been a 36% increase in homelessness. While I support help for more people, particularly young people, to own their own homes, the Bill does nothing to correct the causes of the Government’s failure on housing and in many areas will make the housing crisis much worse. I therefore voted against the Bill on Monday.
- On Wednesday the House of Commons debated an Opposition motion on policing. The Prime Minister promised to protect frontline policing but 17,000 police officers have been lost since 2010, of which 12,000 were from the operational frontline, and neighbourhood policing has been particularly badly hit. I am very concerned by reports that the police budget could be cut by up to 25 per cent in the Comprehensive Spending Review later this month. Cuts of this scale could leave England and Wales with many fewer officers. We could see the disappearance of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) and the end of visible neighbourhood policing as we have known it. Frontline policing has already been cut over the past five years which has had a real impact on the police’s ability to do their job. Moreover, crime is changing and moving away from traditional forms such as burglary and car theft and is increasingly being replaced by cyber crime. While of course I support sensible savings and senior police chiefs and the Police Federation acknowledge further efficiency savings are possible. Efficiency savings of 5 to 10 per cent would be difficult but doable through greater collaboration between forces and an overhaul of policing technology. I am concerned that cuts of over ten per cent, however, could put public safety at risk. I supported the Opposition motion on Wednesday which called on the Government to secure a funding settlement for the police that maintains frontline services and does not compromise public safety. Unfortunately, the Government opposed the motion on this vital issue and it was defeated.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
You may have seen on the news that the Home Office published a draft Bill to consolidate and update the investigatory powers available to law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies. There have been huge changes in technology which have left our laws outdated, and made the job of the police and security services in keeping us safe harder. I’m conscious that many people are sceptical about whether government agencies should have certain rights to examine data and communications, which is why I wanted to ask your opinion about how best to strike the right balance.
It’s obvious that we now face growing threats, internationally and domestically, and we therefore cannot leave the police and security services with any blind spots when it comes to tackling terrorism, child exploitation, serious online fraud, and the location of missing people. However, I believe that strong powers must be offset by strong safeguards for the public to protect privacy and long-held liberties.
The previous draft Bill in 2012 caused serious misgivings but it does appear that the Government have backed down on some of those aspects, with this new draft Bill including much stronger safeguards and a new two-stage process for authorising interception warrants, requiring formal approval from a judge. This warrant process seems to have the merits of both providing public and political accountability, as well as the independence that is needed to build trust in the system.
Do you think that the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is a “snooper’s charter” and paves the way for mass surveillance? Or do you believe the proposals that have been brought forward in this draft Bill have broadly got a difficult balance right and taken into account legitimate concerns?
I’m going to look at the detail of the draft Bill and listen to the views on both sides of the argument. The proposals will now go forward for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament before the Government proceed any further with them. In the meantime, any views you might have would be very welcome.