NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE – Saturday 16th September 2017
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It was a fateful week for our parliamentary democracy. First, the Government introduce a Bill take power away from elected MPs and place it the hands of the Prime Minister to decide on the Brexit deal. Second, Ministers decided to rig the composition of House of Commons committees so that they no longer reflect the ‘hung parliament’ where no party has an overall majority, insisting instead that all committees will have a government majority.
And third, the Prime Minister then deciding that any votes on issues in the Commons that aren’t to do with legislation will be ignored – so in future Conservatives won’t even take part when Opposition parties table motions for debate.
Normally the official Opposition Party is allocated a dozen occasions each year to bring forward a proposal on which the House of Commons has a debate and a chance to decide. This week Labour’s motions related to the below-inflation pay cap for NHS workers, and the planning government increase in tuition fees to £9,300 per year. But rather than contest these motions – Tory MPs decided on mass to boycott the vote. Now whatever you may think about non-government MPs putting issues up for debate and vote in the Commons when they are in the minority, it is still quite breath-taking to hear Ministers say they are happy to see these uncontested because motions passed are merely statements that can be discounted as ephemera with no legal effect.
If Parliament can’t have a say on the biggest negotiation affecting our country’s future – and proposals for a vote and decision can only really come from Ministers of the governing party – then our democracy is descending into dangerous territory. Many people may feel this a far-removed from their own lives for now. But when an issue that you care about arises, when the Government disagrees, your representatives will be less able to do anything about it. That’s really not a good state of affairs.
- This week I had the opportunity to visit some of Nottingham’s many Green Flag award-winning parks. Nottingham is the UK City Council with the most Green Flag awards, which recognise parks and open spaces with the highest possible environmental standards, which are well maintained and have excellent visitor facilities. I visited Hedley Villas Park, a small garden square which is maintained by local residents in conjunction with the council (see pictured below in front of their new outdoor pizza oven!). The local residents association have really made the area feel like a strong and integrated community because of the events and shared sense of ‘project’ in getting this small park to where it is today. I then visited the Sports Zone at the Forest Recreation Ground, where I met with representatives from Nottingham Forest Football in the Community. It was wonderful to see these beautifully maintained parks, thanks to the hard work of both local volunteers and council staff, which are a real credit to our city.
- I met with local representatives of the Motor Neurone Disease Association on Friday to discuss the impacts of the disease and what could be done to help people living with MND. MND is a fatal and rapidly progressive disease, which tragically kills half of sufferers within two years of diagnosis. Alongside the physical symptoms of the disease, sufferers often have to deal with the financial implications of such a rapidly progressive disease. Benefits and entitlements often fall short of meeting the costs that living with MND incurs, and delays in accessing financial support can mean that help isn’t received quickly enough. The MND Association are campaigning to end the financial hardship faced by people with MND and their families, and I hope the Government will listen to calls to make the benefits system more responsive to the needs of people living with this disease.
- A report by BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour programme released this week claimed that Nottingham is “one of the worst places in Britain to live if you’re a woman”, coming in ranked 355th out of 380 local authority districts. Their statistics are particularly bad for women in the 30-65 age bracket, where Nottingham ranks at the bottom of the table. The report looked at income (including the gender pay gap), housing affordability, personal wellbeing, safety, education, life expectancy and environment across 380 local authority areas. While Nottingham scores well on housing affordability, it ranks much lower in the other areas. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this – do you think that Nottingham is a bad place to live as a woman? Or would you dispute the BBC Woman’s Hour methodology on all this? I’d be particularly interested to hear from people who have lived in different areas. You can read the full report online here.
- It was nice to get out and about yesterday meeting residents on the doorstep in Berridge ward in the neighbourhoods around Sainsburys including Lortas Road, Malton Road and Glamis Road. Lots of issues came up including the impact of the new housing developments in the area.
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL NEWS
- On Tuesday the House of Commons debated the main principles of the Government’s Finance Bill. The Bill gives effect to tax measures set out in the Budget in March which fell by the wayside because of the snap election. While the Bill makes some welcome gestures towards tackling tax avoidance – in my view it doesn’t go as far as it should. More fundamentally though, tackling tax avoidance effectively depends on giving HMRC the resources it needs, something this Finance Bill conspicuously fails to do. Looking at the economy in the round, big challenges remain: persistently low levels of productivity and investment; far too many of us relying on insecure, short-term and casual work; the prohibitive cost of living, now exacerbated by the weak pound; the four million children growing up in poverty. In my view, the Finance Bill offers nothing significant to deal with these and other structural problems.
- I was in the Commons on Thursday when the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid, made a statement on the Government’s housing strategy and outlined a new approach for assessing different local authorities’ housing needs, geared towards meeting a national target of building 266,000 homes each year. The extent of the housing crisis is plain to see – home ownership stands at a 30-year low, rates of homelessness are rising, and just 1,000 new homes for social rent saw building work commence last year – and the public rightly expect action from the Government which matches the scale of that challenge. It’s just not credible to believe that tinkering at the edges of the planning system, much though it’s a small step in the right direction, can deliver in the way it needs to.
- Friday morning brought the deeply troubling news that, in what has now been confirmed as a terror attack, 22 people were injured in an explosion at Parsons Green tube station in west London. It’s clearly too soon to speculate further about the incident, but my thoughts are with those caught up in this appalling and cowardly attack, along with the emergency services and medical staff who came to their aid with the swiftness and professionalism we have come to expect.
- I’m appearing on the BBC1 Sunday Politics East Midlands programme tomorrow at 11am, up against Tory MP Andrew Bridgen. We’re discussing the Government’s decision to cancel electrification of the Midland Mainline and Brexit.
- After returning for a fortnight after the summer recess, the Commons is now adjourning again for the party conference season. As usual, these MP Updates will return when Parliament gets back in October.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Boris Johnson has surfaced in today’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ newspaper with a splash 4,000 word article extolling the virtues of Brexit, reasserting the (nonsensical) claim that £350million per week can magically be repatriated for the NHS, and letting the cat out of the bag on his plans for cutting regulations. So much for merely cutting-and-pasting EU protections into UK law!
It is deeply undermining for the Foreign Secretary to contradict the Prime Minister so directly about a transition, about the ‘divorce bill’ issue, and exposes what a sorry state the EU/UK negotiations are in. Time is ticking by and many businesses are worried that by the beginning of 2018 they may have to locate in Dublin or Frankfurt or Paris in order to be sure they can trade freely after March 2019.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill got through its first vote in the Commons on Monday – and so I have tabled 34 amendments which would retain the power for MPs to give the go-ahead to any final ‘deal’ that is reached, that would maintain power for Parliament to decide on new regulations and that would keep our options open on a Single Market and customs union involvement. If you want to see the amendments they are at the link here and I’d be very grateful for any feedback you might have. It would also be useful if you can think of any other areas where I should try to amend the Bill; this is the most important legislation for a generation and I appreciate all ideas and suggestions.