NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE MP – Sunday 1st May 2016
(for more news also see my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/chrislesliemp )
The big vote in Parliament this week came on the question of child refugees stranded across Europe. The Government’s Immigration Bill came back from the House of Lords where Peers had tried to temper the legislation with amendments that would have had a humanising, more civilising impact, but all opposition amendments were rejected.
The amendment that received the most attention was the so-called ‘Dubs amendment’, which asked the Home Secretary to allow 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from Europe to be given sanctuary in the UK. Lord Alf Dubs, who fled Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport, tabled this important amendment, which aimed to protect vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, of which an estimated 10,000 have already gone missing.
I supported the Dubs Amendment, but the Government defeated it (294-276), sticking to the line that relocating anyone already in Europe creates an incentive for people to make the dangerous journey in the first place. Even if there is an element of an argument there, it doesn’t diminish the urgency of the needs of those individual children who need help now – and there are better ways of managing the crisis than turning a blind eye to the fate of these children. Yvette Cooper made this case powerfully during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, which you can see here.
Our treatment of some immigrants and asylum seekers in the UK is far from satisfactory. While it is of course necessary for us to have properly controlled and managed immigration systems especially for economic migration, we have to always be sensitive to humanitarian and genuine asylum needs.
When this Bill comes back again in the coming days I really hope Ministers can think through some alternative options that will ensure Britain does its part in helping the most vulnerable children stranded and at risk on our continent.
- Across the city of Nottingham there is unity in respect and solidarity for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy and the families who have fought so hard for truth and justice. The jury’s verdict confirmed that the 96 fans were killed unlawfully during the scenes at the FA Cup semi-final between Forest and Liverpool in April 1989. I pay tribute to the steadfast commitment of the Hillsborough families in their long fight for justice and many local people in Nottingham feel strongly that the events and those who died must never be forgotten.
- I received information this week that the NHS look set to decommission the Nottingham City mobile dental service at the end of August. The service, which covered the whole city but was mainly focussed in the St Ann’s area, aimed to promote oral health and provide treatment in areas where people weren’t using NHS dental services. There was a campaign several years ago for improved dentistry access precisely because dental issues were so prevalent particularly in St Ann’s where there was a problem facing many patients. However, the local NHS management say that service is being decommissioned due to sustained low take up, and the money saved will be reinvested in other NHS dental services. I’d be interested to know what you think of this decision.
- You may recall that I’ve been making a special effort to visit as many local schools as I can in recent months to get up to speed about the issues and challenges facing our education system. This week it was a real pleasure to visit Berridge Primary School and have a chance to look around some of the classes and discuss with headteacher Jamie Tee their improvement plans and how things are settling since the infant and junior schools came together under the same management structure a few years ago. I met with pupils (pictured below) to talk about how Parliament works as well as hearing about their own views of living in the neighbourhood. I also am grateful to Jenny Brown the headteacher at the Nottingham Free School for talking to me about how this new secondary school based in the Courtaulds Building on Haydn Road is developing, now with three-forms of entry each year and around 200 pupils since their establishment in 2014. They have an active School Council and I enjoyed joining them for lunch and answering their questions (again pictured below).
- This week the Commons environment committee has said powers to enforce ‘clean air zones’ that target drivers of high-polluting vehicles should be extended to more cities in England. Nottingham was among the cities proposed to benefit from these additional powers, which would allow the city to charge high-polluting vehicles to enter the city centre. ‘Clean air zones’ would affect older buses, lorries and taxis, but would not apply to private cars. This seems to me like a sensible step to help lower carbon emissions in the city, but I’d be interested to know people’s views on this.
- Research commissioned by Nottingham Business School and the Nottingham Post has shown that Nottingham has one of the lowest graduate retention rates in England, despite there being demand for high-skilled workers. What can we do to retain more of the graduates of our two universities? When those who’ve studied locally find employment opportunities then they can find settling in Nottingham permanently is enjoyable and rewarding – and it would be great if we could keep the locally educated talent in Nottingham for longer. We’ve always been successful in attracting students from other parts of the UK, so for our own longer term prosperity I’ll be talking with the business community in particular about how they can link up with graduates and research departments at the universities more effectively in the future.
- There is a jobs fairtaking place on Friday 13th May at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham. This free event takes place from 10am-2pm, and a number of local and national employers will be present. You can find further information on the Jobs Fair website here.
PARLIAMENT AND POLITICS
- Education Secretary Nicky Morgan seems to still be pressing ahead with her unpopular plan to force good or outstanding schools into academy status – although as I wrote last week I do expect eventually that she’ll realise the lack of support from her own backbenches on this. On Monday I pressed her about the baffling idea of allowing schools to exclude parent governors from the management of academies – which seems to me essential if schools are to be held accountable by the families using them on a daily basis. I asked Nicky Morgan to set out in what circumstances was it a good idea not to have parent governors – but sadly to no avail! (see link to the question here).
- On Monday, the Health Secretary made a Statement on junior doctors’ contracts ahead of this week’s strike. My colleague Heidi Alexander MP presented Jeremy Hunt with a genuine and constructive cross-party proposal to pilot the contract that could have averted the strike. The proposal had the support of several medical royal colleges, including the Royal College of Surgeons, and, crucially, the BMA had indicated it was prepared to meet the Government to discuss calling off the strike. However, even at the eleventh hour, the Health Secretary refused to back this plan and the strike went ahead. The Government must start listening to the views of medical and patient voices who are urging them to think again. Instead, they are determined to force the contract through, with all its associated implications, rather than testing it and working with junior doctors and hospital managers.
- On Monday the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise made a statement following the announcement that British Home Stores (BHS) had filed for administration. With 164 stores across the country that’s potentially 11,000 staff (that’s nearly three times the number working at the Port Talbot steel works) whose jobs could be at risk. It is the greatest setback for high street retail since the demise of Woolworths. I hope that a way forward can be found to minimise job losses and that the Government is alert to the support that might be required for staff, given so many livelihoods could be at stake here. The former owners of BHS took hundreds of millions of dividends out of the business. BHS has an estimated pension deficit of £571 million and last month the scheme passed into the hands of the Pension Protection Fund, leaving many of its 20,000 members facing cuts of 10 per cent, or caps, on their retirement income. The Pensions Regulator is investigating the shortfall and the Work and Pensions committee has launched an inquiry into BHS pension liabilities. I believe BHS workers who are facing redundancy and cuts to their pensions will rightfully be raising questions about how the business has been managed.
- On Tuesday the Attorney General responded to an Urgent Question on the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The debate followed a speech given by the Home Secretary on Monday, in which she called into question the future of the UK’s membership of the ECHR. This caused confusion, because the Ministry of Justice said in February that its plans “do not involve leaving the convention”. The Attorney General confirmed on Tuesday that the Government will consult on the future of the UK’s human rights framework and my colleague the Shadow Justice Minister sought clarity on when the consultation will be published, and what the Government’s policy now is on this important issue. The ECHR is one of Winston Churchill’s greatest legacies and Amnesty International have said that leaving it would “strike at the very architecture of international protections” and play into the hands of dictators. I believe the Home Secretary was wrong about the ECHR and ignored the fact that the Human Rights Act which incorporated the ECHR into British law, has successfully given a remedy to vulnerable people suffering discrimination.
- On Tuesday the Policing and Crime Bill returned to the House of Commons. This Bill covers a wide range of subjects and contains elements that I broadly support but feel the Government should take further action on, such as improvements to the police complaints system, placing time limits on police bail, and changes to the rules governing how police deal with people suffering mental health crises. I supported a number of Shadow Frontbench amendments, for example, to make sure that local people or their local representatives had to give approval before a Police Commissioner can take over a Fire and Rescue service; and to make sure that police funding was protected before proposals to grant additional police powers to volunteers could be brought forward. All of these amendments were defeated by Government MPs. It is vital that we have Police Commissioners who are in touch with local concerns which is why I hope that Paddy Tipping – our current Police Commissioner – will be successful again in Thursday’s elections.
- On Wednesday the Trade Union Bill returned to the House of Commons to consider amendments made in the House of Lords. Despite some of the Government concessions that were achieved, it remains a bad and unnecessary piece of legislation. There were two important amendments from the Lords. The first would have required the Government to commission a review of electronic voting in industrial action ballots and conduct pilots, after which the Government would have to publish a strategy for rolling out electronic voting. Unfortunately, while the Government accepted the need for a review, they have refused to publish a strategy to roll out electronic balloting – so I voted against the Government’s amendment. It is clear that the Government’s objection to e-balloting is because it would reduce costs for unions and allow them to increase turnouts, making it easier to reach the new minimum 50 per cent turnout in ballots for industrial action. Although I was disappointed that the Opposition’s amendment was rejected, the changes the Government have made to their proposals are significant and have achieved most of what was agreed in the House of Lords. The second significant Lords Amendment would have removed the Government’s power to impose a cap on union facilities time. A Government review found that workplaces with union representatives tend to have lower rates of work related illness, injuries, tribunals, voluntary turnover and dismissal. All this saves the taxpayer money. I was disappointed that the Government defeated the Lords Amendment but the Government’s new amendment, which provides that no cap could be imposed for three years, will at least make some improvement to the Bill.
- Sadly this week the news has been dominated by Ken Livingstone’s awful remarks, suggesting that anti-semitism isn’t the same thing as racism and that Hitler was a Zionist. I’m completely appalled at this saga and am shocked that journalists seem able to uncover other examples of extreme left anti-zionist generalisation and prejudice. Criticism of the policies of the Israeli Government can be legitimate, but that should not lead on to wider intolerance voiced about the Jewish community or questioning the right of Israel to exist at all. It has long been obvious that the middle east peace process is not going to be furthered unless we focus on a two state solution where Israel and Palestine can co-exist peacefully and respectfully side-by-side. Those at the top of Labour must acknowledge the problem is ongoing, be proactive in rooting it out and state clearly that intolerance of this sort is not acceptable.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Not content with their crass top-down re-organisations of the NHS and the school system, the Sunday Times now reports on the Government’s latest plan for undermining the BBC – another of our country’s greatest institutions. The BBC is the world’s leading public service broadcaster and has a great balance of educational, informative and entertaining programming. Ministers are reportedly planning to pull the BBC back from scheduling programmes that might dare to compete with the output of the other channels.
But there’s a danger here that this will just make those other commercial programmes of poorer quality – because there won’t be a need for them to fight for ratings in the same way. The BBC provides strong competition that raises the standards and quality of the other channels as they fight to keep up. It doesn’t make sense to hobble the BBC.
We should have a strong a vibrant public service broadcaster driving up standards across the sector. But I suspect that there is a long-harboured resentment among Ministers against the independence and progressive content of some BBC output – a resentment which is now showing its face.
What do you think about the proposals from the Minister John Whittingdale to stop the BBC from putting popular shows (Strictly is the one often mentioned) up against ITV during prime time? Should the BBC really be restrained from putting on its popular content because the private broadcasters find it tough? I’d be interested in your views.