NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Saturday 27th February 2016
The starting gun on the European Union referendum has been fired; David Cameron announced that the vote will take place on Thursday 23rd June. The PM set out the ‘deal’ agreed by the other 27 members of the EU including a commitment to no longer sign up to ‘ever closer union’, safeguards for single market access and limits on EU migrants’ benefits. The Government are recommending that the UK remains part of the European Union on this basis.
Of course, there is already a strong case for Britain to remain ‘in’ and on Monday the Prime Minister made a statement in the Commons on the agreement that was reached. I raised the point with the Prime Minister (which you can see here, or by clicking on the picture below) that major economic upheaval could follow a so-called ‘Brexit’, as evidenced by the impact the risk is already having on the value of the pound in global markets.
Our membership of the EU has brought investment and jobs, as well as protection for workers, consumers and the environment. The short-term economic impact of leaving could be catastrophic. In my view, the EU does need reform, but we can only get the change we want if we are there negotiating for it. In the face of global economic uncertainty and threats to security, now is the time to work closely with our European partners to secure our joint prosperity, not to abandon them and go it alone. The overall period in which the UK has been in the EU has been an era of growth and prosperity, a choice we now must make to secure this for future generations.
- You may have seen last week that Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust has been chosen as the preferred long-term partner for Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, after the latter Trust was rated ‘inadequate’ in a recent Care Quality Commission inspection. As I stated previously, I am seeking assurances from the Government that Nottingham’s NHS Trust wouldn’t be saddled with the financial issues facing the Sherwood Forest Trust. So assurances have been received on this but I will continue to keep a close eye on the merger and press for the best financial deal possible – and I will be maintaining close contact with NUH Trust management as the merger progresses.
- From 15th February, the rollout of Universal Credit was extended to Jobcentre Plus offices in Nottingham City. All jobseekers aged 18 – 60 years and six months who are single, have no children and are making a new claim will receive Universal Credit. From April 2016, other changes will come into effect including the benefits freeze and the National Living Wage. Yet more changes to welfare payments could result from the Welfare Reform & Work Bill and the Housing and Planning Bill, both of which are currently going through Parliament. To help explain these changes and how they might affect city residents, Nottingham City Council have produced a guide to the welfare changes, which also includes contact details for advice agencies. You can download the guide from the City Council website here.
- Nottingham’s Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall have been successful in securing £1.5 million from the Arts Council England for a £3.3 million transformation project. Nottingham City Council will be providing the remainder of the funding needed to complete the works, which will seek to increase the daytime use of the spaces by improving meeting rooms, foyer spaces, the café bar and roof terraces. I welcome plans for the venue to expand their community and education programme by creating a new accessible, multi-purpose rehearsal space. I have previously discussed the importance of music education, and I hope this will be a step to improving access to music education in Nottingham. You can read more about the plans for the venue here.
- I went over to meet with the students at Bilborough Sixth Form College yesterday to speak to their Politics Society about current events and answer their questions about Parliament, what’s happening in the political parties at present and much more besides. Although the college isn’t in Nottingham East I know there are lots of young people locally studying there and it was good to see such enthusiastic interest in debate and current affairs!
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- At Foreign and Commonwealth Office Questions on Tuesday I raised the ongoing dispute in Kashmir with Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am very worried that this conflict has been now ongoing for decades with continued militarisation. In my question I urged the Government to use the UK’s expertise and capability to try and encourage confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan as a means towards a diplomatic solution. It is distressing to hear about human rights abuses and civilian deaths in the area and it is vital that a way forward is found for Kashmir’s people. You can see my question and the Minister’s answer here.
- On Tuesday the Government was asked to make a statement on their response to the final report of the independent Mental Health Taskforce. The Mental Health Taskforce was launched by NHS England last year, and its remit is to explore the variation in the availability of mental health services across England, to look at the outcomes for people who are using services, and to identify key priorities for improvement. Its report, published last week, provides a frank assessment of the state of mental health care. It contains a number of recommendations which, if implemented in full, could make a significant difference to services that have had to contend with funding cuts and staff shortages at a time of rising demand, leaving too many vulnerable people without the right care and support. For the thousands of patients who have been left to struggle without the right support, the Government must keep their promises and deliver these long overdue reforms.
- On Tuesday the House of Commons considered amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill made by the House of Lords. During the passage of the Bill the Opposition has secured significant concessions and defeated the Government on a number of occasions to exempt carers from the benefit cap; exempt Guardian’s Allowance from the benefit cap; exempt kinship carers from the two child limit on tax credits; and to defer the 1% rent reduction in social housing by a year for supported accommodation. The House of Lords also voted overwhelmingly to reinstate income as a measure of child poverty and prevent cuts to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) which could see disabled people £1500 a year worse off. I was delighted to see on Friday that the Government have backed down and tabled amendments to the Bill that reinstate a statutory duty to monitor income related child poverty against the existing four criteria.
- The Education and Adoption Bill and amendments from the House of Lords were discussed in the Commons this week, where the Government did accept, at least in part, some of the arguments made by Labour peers. Whilst I support many of the measures on adoption that are contained in the Bill, it fails to address the fundamental challenges in our education system. I know that parents are concerned about the crisis in school places, teacher supply and changes to the school assessment system. However, there are no answers in this Bill. Instead, the Bill is concerned with structures, and giving more powers to the Secretary of State for Education. I believe that partnership with parents is key to a strong education system and when their child’s school is to ‘academise’ or the academy’s sponsor is to be changed, parents should be consulted. I also believe that all schools should be treated equally with no preferential treatment of schools that are academies compared with maintained schools when either are failing or coasting. Unfortunately, amendments tabled on both these fronts were opposed by the Government.
- On Wednesday there was an Opposition Day debate on transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s, something I mentioned in a January MP Update, and which a number of constituents have emailed me about. The Government are accelerating the rise in women’s state pension age, which means some women seeing a rapid increase of up to 18 months in the time they are expected to work before becoming eligible for their state pension, even though they had spent the vast majority of their working lives planning for retirement at 60. As a result, there are some who got just two years’ notice that their pension age had jumped from 60 to 66. The issue is growing in prominence as women affected by both the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts begin to retire in July this year, with 2.6 million women standing to lose out. This has now been debated four times since December, and an e-petition on the subject has attracted more than 154,000 signatures. It is disgraceful that the Government is maintaining that it will not revisit the issue. I support the repeated calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for transitional arrangements for women adversely affected by the speeding up of the state pension age.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Over the coming weeks I’m intending to focus specifically on Nottingham education and schools, with a series of visits to hopefully give me a better insight into the current issues teachers, parents and governors are grappling with. I will be raising some of my findings with Ministers in Parliament.
On Friday I visited two local primary schools – Edale Rise Primary School in Sneinton Dale and Sycamore Primary Academy in St Ann’s. It was great to meet the headteachers at both schools to talk about their recent achievements. At Edale Rise, which is now making real progress, I got to sit in on their weekly Sunrise Award school assembly, where pupils are encouraged to celebrate each other’s achievements (pictured). At Sycamore Academy I was shown around Head of School James Colvin and saw their rigorous approach to learning (also pictured below in the classroom).
There are significant pressures on schools to raise performance and at primary level a new curriculum which has a strong focus on maths and literacy. I’d be interested to know your general thoughts on the current state of education and Nottingham schools: where do you think improvements could be made? Are there obstacles that the Department for Education should be tackling? Do we have too much testing and bureaucracy, or is it positive that parents have information about relative performance from school to school? Are we doing enough to emphasise teaching of values, behaviour and social interaction as well as academic topics? As I visit more schools in the coming weeks it would help to have any thoughts you might have.