NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE – Saturday 9th September 2017
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Parliament has reconvened after the summer recess, returning straight to the quagmire of Brexit. The Government have wasted the months since triggering the process with hardly any progress on negotiating a ‘withdrawal agreement’ deal, with the situation made worse because the EU are insisting on this divorce settlement before moving on to talks about the ‘new relationship’.
So Ministers have now decided that they need to commandeer all powers to themselves for the exit – removing a meaningful role for Parliament – via the EU (Withdrawal) Bill which will be voted on late on Monday night.
It’s an irony that the ‘Leave’ campaign, whose aim was to boost parliamentary sovereignty, has resulted in a Withdrawal Bill that obliterates Parliamentary sovereignty. For instance, Ministers are proposing that they should take what are known as ‘Henry VIII’ order-making power to themselves to modify the Act itself, rendering the supposed safeguards completely meaningless.
When I spoke in the second reading debate in the Commons this week I argued that Parliament must wait until we see what is negotiated before handing over the power to Ministers to press the ‘exit’ button. I also believe it is a major mistake for the Bill to delete the Single Market and customs arrangements we have from the statute book, because if we do leave the EU I believe it would be sensible to retain our membership of both these alliances; many jobs and businesses depend on the tariff-free access that they provide.
This is the most far-reaching piece of proposed legislation in my lifetime. While I am aware that a decision was taken in the referendum in June 2016, I can’t ignore that the public must also have the right, on reflection, to think again – and I am hearing increasingly from local people saying that ‘no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit’. If things continue as they are, then I would find it hard to deny that the public have a right to say whether to go ahead with an exit deal, and to say no if this is not right for our country.
- Electricity and gas bills can be a real burden on some of the poorest in our community, alongside other costs of housing and making ends meet. So this week I visited the headquarter offices of energy firm Eon at Trinity House in the city centre. Eon employ hundreds of local residents and I was keen to see for myself how the company runs and in particular helps vulnerable people who may need assistance with their bills. I asked to spend time listening in to calls coming in to their vulnerable debt section (pictured below) and to press the company to do more to show flexibility when some of their customers find things difficult. I will keep a close eye on whether the Government do indeed bring forward the measures promised to control energy bill inflation.
- An exciting development over the summer has been the launch of Nottingham’s bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2023. The bid was launched on 16th August at Sneinton Market, with the bid being supported by a variety of organisations including both of the city’s universities. Nottingham is competing against Belfast, Dundee, Leeds and Milton Keynes for the title, which will be shared for the year 2023 with a city in Hungary. 2023 will represent the first year that a UK city has held the title of European Capital of Culture since Liverpool in 2008. This is a great opportunity for Nottingham to promote itself on a wider stage, with the potential to attract tourism, jobs and investment to the city.
- I have been in touch with local residents and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust about soot deposits from the City Hospital boiler house over the last couple of years, trying to get a satisfactory resolution to the problem for residents whose properties border the boiler house. There finally seems to have been some progress on this issue over the summer. The hospital have now shut down their coal boiler to allow maintenance to take place, with the aim of investing in a modern replacement for the coal boiler house in the near future to end coal consumption at the site entirely. NUH have also pledged to keep in close contact with local residents, and have distributed a leaflet in the local area with contact details to allow residents to contact the hospital about any issues with the boiler house directly. I will continue to keep in close contact with NUH about this issue.
- Nottingham Trent University has been shortlisted for a ‘University of the Year’ title at the Times Higher Education Awards. The University is one of six that have been shortlisted for the award, which recognises outstanding contributions from UK universities. The University’s submission focused on their work supporting students into university, their innovative teaching and their work to improve graduate prospects. The winners of the Times Higher Education Awards will be revealed on Thursday 30 November – I would like to wish the team at Nottingham Trent University the best of luck.
- You will no doubt have heard the tragic news of a serious crash on the M1 over the Bank Holiday weekend involving two lorries and a minibus travelling from Nottingham. Eight people sadly lost their lives in the crash, including minibus driver Cyriac Joseph from Sherwood. I know that Mr Joseph was a popular figure in the local community, and a memorial mass was held for him on Friday. I would like to extend my condolences to Mr Joseph’s family and friends at this difficult time.
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL NEWS
- You will have heard the deeply concerning news about the unfolding crisis in Myanmar and the indiscriminate targeting of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. This week I have co-signed a letter to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calling on the UK to do more to halt the military offensive against Rohingya civilians in Myanmar and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the displaced people. The letter urges the Foreign Secretary to put pressure on Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the military in Myanmar, to halt the military attacks. The scale of the humanitarian and human rights crisis unfolding in Myanmar requires urgent attention and I hope the UK Government will show support for the people of Myanmar and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
- We’ve all observed over the past few days the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, and my deepest sympathies go out to those who have seen so much destroyed, especially those whose loved ones are still unaccounted for, and the millions still without power. It is vitally important that the UK stands ready both to make a sustained commitment to longer-term reconstruction, and do all it can to provide more immediate humanitarian relief and consular assistance for any UK nationals affected. On Thursday, the Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan updated the House of Commons on the work officials in the UK and affected overseas territories are doing to assess the situation and co-ordinate a cross-governmental response as quickly as possible, and I hope the Government continues to do all it can to manage the relief and reconstruction effort.
- On Tuesday the Government made a statement on building safety in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower The horror of Grenfell has to mark a permanent change in housing policy in Britain, so that such an appalling tragedy is never repeated. The Government’s first responsibility, of course, must be to ensure that all those directly affected have access to the help they need – and it is disappointing that 12 weeks on, only 29 out of 196 households have been rehomed. But going forward, residents of all tower blocks, of which there are 13 in Nottingham, need reassurance that their homes are safe – or at the very least that the Government is taking urgent action to make them safe. Our current system of fire safety checks needs to be improved urgently, with a testing system too slow and too narrow to do the job required of it.
- I was astonished to hear the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, rule out even transitional membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) when he took questions from MPs on Thursday morning. Whatever the final outcome of the Brexit process, securing a workable transition arrangement is vital. The alternative – sending the British economy tumbling over the cliff-edge in March 2019 – would spell disaster for jobs, investment and funding for public services in Britain. In the short term this means keeping as many options as possible on the table, but the Government increasingly seems intent on doing the opposite. You can see my reaction to the announcement on Sky News here.
- On Wednesday I was elected as the new Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Kashmir, a cross-party organisation of MPs and peers who take a particular interest in developments in the region between Pakistan and India and where decades of conflict have caused violence, human rights abuses and a great loss of life. In Nottingham I am frequently contacted by local residents who have Kashmiri heritage with concerns about friends and family caught up in this ‘stalemate’ stand-off, so I will use the year ahead to press for imaginative diplomatic solutions to promote demilitarisation and peaceful dialogue – together with the important task of highlighting human rights issues where these arise so that the wider world can be informed about what is happening.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
If Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe hit a brick wall in March 2019, it won’t just be jobs and businesses that are affected. After a decade of cuts to public services flowing from the banking crisis, the last thing we need is another decade of austerity resulting from an economy struggling to trade or grow because of tariffs, border obstacles and a ban on selling services to our nearest neighbours.
But are my parliamentary colleagues willing to take the necessary steps to prevent a ‘hard Brexit’? Over the summer I’m delighted that Labour’s frontbench has accepted Britain should opt for the Single Market and customs union for the transition period before leaving. However, I am urging them to go much further – and to press negotiators to secure a permanent membership of the Single Market with frictionless customs coordination. Every effort needs to be made now, including at Labour conference and during the course of the EU Withdrawal Bill amendments in Parliament, to press for this position.
Where will the UK get the resources to fund a decent NHS and social care system if we see our key sectors start to relocate in Dublin, Frankfurt or Paris? How can our schools possibly cope with a further dose of Brexit-induced austerity? Many people are still to realise the connection between local services and what is happening in these European talks – so I’d be interested to know if you have any thoughts on how to campaign more effectively to influence frontline decision-makers at such a crucial time.