NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Saturday 16th January 2016
So much of our city’s future success depends on the educational opportunities available to local children. In Nottingham we have to work very hard indeed to ensure local schools provide the best possible environment for learning. Djanogly City Academy has over 750 pupils and is now moving in the right direction, lifted out of the ‘special measures’ put in place following the sweeping cross-city report from OFSTED in 2013. A completely new management team led by Principal David Hooker have focused on recruiting excellent teaching staff and so when I met for an update with him on Friday afternoon it was good to hear of the new ethos, the emphasis on discipline and attendance and the work they have done to ensure that classrooms are a place where diligent learning should be rewarded. I also met with a cross-section of pupils of all ages to hear about how they feel more content with the pattern of the school day and the ‘can-do’ attitude from the team overall (pictured below with David Hooker and pupils).
There are some real issues I’ll be trying to help the school address, such as barriers to recruiting the most outstanding teaching staff and also some of the costs involved which ought to be channelled into the frontline. They have set an ambitious target for this year’s GCSE performance and I got the strong sense that the school has really turned a corner after a difficult period, with teaching staff now determined to grip the challenges they face – such as the extra work required when faced with 60% of pupils with English as an additional language. The Academy system places phenomenal emphasis on the ability of the school leadership to deliver and I hope that the new team will indeed drive the whole school on to better things.
- On Friday I visited the local charity Family Lives East Midlands, who work with parents around all aspects of family life, including child development, issues with schools and parenting support. Based at the premises they share with ‘PlayWorks’ in St Ann’s, Family Lives provide emotional support and parenting courses to families where social work or mental health professionals may not have the capacity to provide that additional support. The team updated me on their work (pictured below) and I was particularly interested to learn about their ‘befrienders’ scheme where trained volunteers will build relationships with parents and families who might be struggling. They are always keen to find new volunteers – if this is something you’d be interested in doing, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 0115 896 7700.
- If you live in Sneinton and want to be more involved in the future shape of the community then do go along to the “I Love Sneinton” event on 11th February between 4pm and 8pm at St Christopher’s Church Hall on Trent Road NG2 4GL where there will be a full update on the Sneinton Neighbourhood Plan.
- Nottingham City Council is next week launching its FREEsport The programme opens on 18th January and allows Nottingham City residents to try out a new sport for free for eight weeks. The programme will be open for the whole of 2016 – for further information on how you can sign up to the programme, visit the council’s website here.
- Thursday evening saw the launch of a new exhibition at the New Art Exchange on Gregory Boulevard by artist Larissa Sansour. I visited the exhibition on its opening day and found it to be incredibly thought-provoking. I highly recommend you visit the exhibition if you have time – it runs until 13th March and you can find further information here.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- When the Coalition Government raised tuition fees in 2012, it was done on the explicit understanding that measures would remain to ensure the most disadvantaged would still be helped with financial access higher education. An important one of these assurances came around Maintenance Grants; non-repayable grants of up to £3,387 for around 500,000 students with a household income of under £25,000. Although there was no mention of ending these grants in last year’s Conservative manifesto, in the 2015 Summer Budget George Osborne announced plans to replace them with a loan. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, while this would increase ‘cash in pocket’ while at university, it would make debt highest among students from the lowest income families. Ministers didn’t event let the full House of Commons debate this change. Instead, on Thursday the new regulations were scrutinised only in a Delegated Legislation Committee, which did not have the power to reject measures. So now we say ‘goodbye’ to these student maintenance grants which I think is deeply unfortunate.
- On Monday the Secretary of State for International Development was asked to make a statement on the current situation in Madaya and other besieged communities in Syria which are facing horrific suffering and starvation. 40,000 people are trapped in the town of Madaya, which has been besieged for six months. Only 10% of the UN’s requests to deliver aid to the 4.5 million Syrians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas have been granted. In the short term these communities need aid, and in the medium term there has to be a political solution and an end to the horrific civil war in Syria. A UN aid convoy, funded by the UK, made its way into Madaya on Monday and many residents ate their first full meal since the autumn.
- On Monday the Armed Forces Bill passed its remaining stages in the House of Commons. An Armed Forces Bill must be passed every five years to maintain the legal basis for our military to exist. In it, the decision was finally made to remove from the statute book a piece of legislation that discriminated against LGBT personnel. The law still referred to homosexuality as grounds for dismissal from the armed forces, despite the ban being lifted by the last Labour government in 2000. I welcomed the Government’s recognition of the need to bring the law up to date. The debate also provided the opportunity to continue to press the Government on compensation for military veterans who contract mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer which results from exposure to asbestos. During the committee stage of the Bill, the Government announced an improved compensation package. The debate on Monday gave the opportunity for MPs to seek assurances from the Government on the implementation of the new scheme. The amended Bill passed unopposed and will now be considered by the House of Lords.
- On Tuesday the House of Commons debated the Housing and Planning Bill, which I mentioned last week. I voted for amendments to protect secure tenancies for council tenants, to protect affordable homes with a one-for-one, like-for-like replacement in the local area for any homes sold under the extension of the right-to-buy, and for a clause that would place a duty on landlords to make their properties fit for human habitation. The Government voted against these amendments and they were defeated. The Bill passed its third reading by 309 votes to 216.
- On Wednesday I met with the UK Weighing Federation who are the trade association for all aspects of weights and measurements organisations, and also with representatives of Trading Standards UK responsible for enforcement of consumer rights. It sounds complicated, but the widespread deregulation of the rules which used to ensure that a ‘pint’ was actually a pint, and that a ‘litre’ of petrol or a kilo of food produce is actually of that amount, is causing growing concern. Because so many of our goods and services are internationally sourced, a lack of basic regulation with fewer and fewer Trading Standards Officers means that customers may not be getting what they pay for. Customer information is essential for markets to operate fairly and without this I worry that more and more people may be ripped off. I’d be interested to know if you share my suspicion that, in time, the rush to deregulate may not be in the interests of good business conduct.
- When campaigners want to bring their case to Parliament often a ‘lobby’ of MPs takes place and this week a lobby about the benefits system took place in Westminster Hall where I discussed the Government’s proposed changes to the work-related activity group in the Employment and Support Allowance. There are many local residents facing a concerning time because of changes to the disability social security system and I was interested to hear first-hand the impact that these proposals are likely to have.
- This week’s strike by Junior Doctors was incredibly unfortunate given that a sensible settlement should be possible if Government Ministers showed a little more willing to negotiate in a reasonable manner. Patients who had their appointments or operation cancelled this week are being contacted by the hospital with a new date shortly. In the meantime I hope that we can see some proper conciliation to avoid a situation where junior medics feel they have no option but to withdraw their working time. We rely on the incredible efforts, time commitment and talents of junior doctors to keep our NHS going, and while a move to a seven day service is of course necessary, Ministers have an obligation to find an acceptable transitional offer for the staff affected.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Worldwide stock exchanges are very jittery at the moment because of dampened economic activity, the Chinese adjustment to the cold realities of market sentiment and commodity markets where supply far exceeds demand – especially in the trade of oil. Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the oil market may well be partly designed to squeeze out investment in alternative energy generation, but the low price of oil is also hitting the finances of countries dependent on exports for their revenues. Add into this the imminent additional oil output of Iran into world markets as sanctions are relaxed, and it looks as though oil prices could fall even lower than their current depressed levels. While we might not want to complain about cheaper fuel costs in the short term, if our exporters can’t sell into these markets then business will find this a hard period ahead. Not surprisingly, George Osborne can’t wait to get his excuses in early. But should he have taken the gamble he did in the Autumn Statement assuming revenues would be so healthy here in the UK? I’d be interested to hear your views about the outlook for the economy, both locally and internationally, because 2016 could well be more than just a ‘pause’ in the long journey to recovery.