NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE – Saturday 20th January 2018
(for more news also see my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/chrislesliemp)
Conditions at Nottingham Prison hit the national news this week following shocking findings from the Chief Inspector of HM Prisons, Peter Clarke, who issued the first ‘Urgent Notification’ public letter to the Secretary of State about the “fundamentally unsafe” situation he has found. Sadly his findings echo the concerns of the local Independent Monitoring Board – who have routinely raised the alarm about these issues – and the points I raised in last year’s prisons debate with the Government Minister.
Eight deaths in custody in recent times should have shone a spotlight into the help Nottingham Prison requires. Yet the Chief Inspector expresses his frustration that this is the third occasion on which serious recommendations have had to be made. His letter details some very disturbing issues including 200 assaults recording during the past six months and 30% of prisoners testing positive for drugs and psychoactive substances.
I suspect that the sharp cuts in funding at the beginning of this decade, which removed a swathe of experienced staff, have knocked the system down, despite the reversal and increase in resources – and additional staff – that have more recently been delivered. The new staff may not have the right training and skills to build the careful dialogue and relationships with inmates so that abuses and distress can be addressed before they escalate. Added to this, there is an appalling amount of drugs entering prison through various means, including carried in by prisoners themselves who apparently are sometimes let out on licence and deliberately reoffend to carry drugs back in for sale. There are solutions to this and it’s not totally about resources. Which is why I will be urging the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State – David Gauke – to send in more support to the prison management team. The Government now have 28 days to respond thoroughly to the Chief Inspector’s notice.
- We have every reason to be proud of the public transport approach taken in the city. But I am keen to keep an eye on making sure this is financially sustainable. This week it was reported that Tramlink Nottingham which manages Nottingham’s Tram Network has reported a loss of £48.5m in the year to March 31, 2017. This loss comes despite the company’s turnover increasing from £44.5m to £60.6m during the same period, which covers the first full financial year since the project to extend the network at a cost of £570m. Furthermore while gross profit increased, their accounts show an item described as an “exceptional impairment charge”, which was not explained in detail, helped lead to the £28.2m loss. This was a massive capital infrastructure project and clearly will take some years to recover initial build costs, but I will urge all those with oversight of this to ensure that a robust business plan can keep the tram in good financial health permanently.
- The “Island” site in between London Road and Manvers Road could have more than 1,500 homes built on it under plans being put forward by its new owners. These homes would form part of a major regeneration programme being proposed on the 38 acre-site and expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Other features of this proposal involve office, hotel and retail space as well as space reserved for amenities. If you have any thoughts on these proposals I would be interested to read them.
- I discussed this ‘Island site’ and some of the other developments in the city centre yesterday when I met with City Council chief executive Ian Curryer to run through some of the key issues affecting Nottingham, including progress with the Broadmarsh development, the Castle, the college redevelopment and partnership working with the NHS.
- There has been an increase in some charges for car parking at the Victoria Centre with the charge for 3 hours increasing by 20p to £4.70 and for 4 hours increasing by 50p to £6.50. Most notably the charge for parking after 6pm has increased from £2 to 5£ which represents an increase of 150%.
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL NEWS
- On Monday I visited Brussels with a cross-party delegation from the All Party Parliament Group on European Relations to meet Michel Barnier, who is leading the negotiations on Brexit from the European Commission team. I impressed on him that in Parliament there is actually a great deal of support for the UK remaining in the Customs Union and perhaps also in the Single Market but that the Prime Minister’s unnecessary ‘red lines’ have prematurely taken these off the table. Parliament will ultimately make a decision in the autumn of this year and I wanted to get a sense of what is likely to occur in the months ahead. I am glad that the EU Council President, Donald Tusk, sent out such a strong signal on Tuesday that options remain open for Britain and if we wanted to reverse this process it is possible for the UK to do so still.
- The collapse of the construction and facilities giant Carillion has left a cloud of uncertainty over £1.7 billion of public sector contracts, as well as over 40,000 jobs and the 13 pension schemes invested in the company. The Minister described the failure as “regrettable,” and promised to maintain the public-facing services provided by Carillion. We still need to uncover the nature of the guarantees and contingent liabilities that Ministers have had to promise to keep the show on the road in the public sector following Carillion’s exit. While the financial losses are largely borne by private investors and creditors, as was the whole point of shifting risk to the private sector, it’s not fully clear that all such risk has been taken from the taxpayer’s shoulders. We know in Nottingham the poor track record of Carillion, who won the cleaning and services contract at the QMC and City Hospitals some years ago, but because of poor performance this was terminated and brought back in-house by the Trust recently. I suspect that there was a particularly bad management culture at this company and there are specific lessons that must be learned here. I think it would be wrong to leap to the sweeping conclusion that “private is always bad and public is always good” because there are failings in both sectors, and successes too. If public investment can be delivered without compromising on service quality, there can be a limited role for private companies – but the example of Carillion shows that failing to grip the management of contracts, get the monitoring process right, and simply aiming to cut costs, will eventually have consequences such as this.
- On Wednesday, in welcome news, the Government announced the creation of a Minister for Loneliness following recommendations made in a recent report by the bipartisan Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The report, co-written by my colleague Rachel Reeves, identified the extent of the ‘social epidemic’ created by isolation in modern Britain, with nine million people reporting that they ‘always or often’ feel lonely, and outlined a number of policy proposals to alleviate the issue, the first of which was the creation of this ministerial position to coordinate a cross-governmental strategy, and I hope the incoming Minister Tracey Crouch will act on the full range of recommendations made by the Commission.
- Yesterday MPs considered a proposal to give tenants in substandard accommodation the power to force landlords to comply with the law. The Private Member’s Bill, brought by my colleague Karen Buck, provides for an overdue change in the law so that tenants whose homes fall short of legal standards for human habitation – for instance if they’re infested with mould or other pests, have faulty plumbing or exposed electrics – can fight their case in the courts. There are an estimated three million renters currently stuck in legally substandard housing and this piece of legislation, which the Government have opted not to oppose, offers a targeted and hugely welcome solution with wide backing.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I am receiving a great deal of political criticism because of my different views on Brexit from the Labour frontbench position. I believe that Brexit will shrink trade and our economy, reduce tax revenues, and create far greater and prolonged austerity hitting our NHS, public services and those in greatest need. At the very least we should stay in the Single Market and Customs Union to maintain our economic performance – if not give the public a ‘final say’ on the deal that emerges and allow people to reverse this whole process if that is their wish.
It was a sad day, therefore, when on Wednesday I felt I had to join 47 of my Labour MP colleagues in voting to retain the Single Market and Customs Union, when Labour’s frontbench chose to abstain. It’s not easy to break the ‘whip’, but I feel I must stand up for what I believe is right. The Brexit austerity which will hit Nottingham East and the rest of the country is not something I want on my conscience.
Throughout the course of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill committee and report stage I have tried my best to raise the alarm about the path we are now heading down and I have consistently tabled amendments on different aspects of this situation, I think more than any other MP. This week I pressed the question of trade in services; the details we need on future trade in the Withdrawal Agreement; the risks of a hard border in Ireland; the size of the financial ‘divorce bill; and the need to publish a summary of legal advice on extending or revoking the Article 50 notice.
I am still hopeful that we can persuade Jeremy Corbyn to speak out about the risks of Brexit and the austerity it will create. But I am clear that there is no such thing as a ‘jobs-first Brexit’. Brexit will destroy jobs and prosperity, just in differing degrees depending on how sub-optimal the deal turns out to be.
I realise not everyone will agree with me on this and I respect different views, but I hope we can have a civilised debate on the facts and the evidence without some of the political threats and intimidation that are so depressing.
Labour & Co-operative Party MP for Nottingham East