I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.
I speak today as the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and on that note, I thank my esteemed colleague the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who so eloquently filled this spot on my behalf on a couple of occasions.
We have heard time and time again that we must spend within our means and that cutting public expenditure is necessary to bring down the deficit. I am not just the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee; I am also the Member of Parliament for Gateshead, and I am afraid to say that Gateshead has not been doing well out of the Government’s programme of public expenditure cuts. We are told that slashing public services and increasing the complexity of our social security system are necessary to pave the way for countrywide prosperity in years to come, but I want to offer some home truths and facts and figures from my constituency.
My local authority, Gateshead, will have a £92 million funding gap by 2021. Real and damaging further cuts will have to be made, and I have no doubt that my already suffering constituents will face more misery. Our unemployment rate is twice that of the national average, the average weekly pay for a constituent is £20 less than the regional average in the north-east and £70 less than the UK average, and 26.8% of our children are living in poverty. That is just the tip of the iceberg in Gateshead. Significant numbers of my constituents are underemployed in part-time work, on zero-hours contracts, or juggling multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. Many families in my constituency live in poverty, but many are living just above the bread line and also struggling. They are not “just about managing”; many of my constituents are really struggling. I appreciate that I have so far painted a bleak picture of my constituency, but it would be greatly remiss of me not to do so, because I am constantly aware from my casework workload that that is a fact of life for so many people.
There are, of course, some wonderful organisations and people, and a wide array of different cultures, in Gateshead. Just last week, on our annual single day of unbroken sunshine, I had the pleasure of walking from the heart of Gateshead—I live in the neighbourhood of Bensham—down towards the Gateshead quays. I walked through the Sage Gateshead music centre and on to the quayside by the Baltic centre for contemporary art. I could have been forgiven for thinking that I was in a tourist trap in any number of destinations across the world.
Gateshead is a great place to live and work. For those with a well-paid job, the quality of life can be very good. We are close to the countryside and to the coast, and we have the nightlife in the Newcastle-Gateshead conurbation. It could be argued that, for those in work, we probably have some of the best quality of life anywhere in the country.
Gateshead remains a hive of multiculturalism, too. Only three weeks ago the orthodox Haredi Jewish community where I live celebrated Purim, which is an event in itself. The youngsters from the community really go to town, as it were, and are encouraged to do so. It is a fantastic event, and I live in the heart of that community. Purim is an event enjoyed not only by those who participate but by those in the community who appreciate the benefits of that diversity.
Earlier this month, along with students from the National Citizen Service, I pressed the button to tilt the Gateshead millennium bridge to celebrate the fantastic opportunities that the NCS offers to young people in Gateshead and across the north-east.
Is that the bridge that goes from Gateshead to Newcastle? It is the Gateshead millennium bridge, is that right?
It is indeed, and I will come on to that in a moment.
The NCS in my constituency is already oversubscribed for the summer placements on this year’s programme, and the young people who have been involved are a credit to my constituency.
The Gateshead millennium bridge is a magnificent feat of engineering, and it truly is an iconic landmark. On the Newcastle side of the bridge is a glass structure upon which the words “Gateshead millennium bridge” are emblazoned. On the Newcastle side of the river is a little piece of Gateshead in a foreign land that will be for ever Gateshead. A bridge that has, by its very nature, managed to secure a foothold for Gateshead on the Newcastle side of the river is an impressive achievement. Some Members will appreciate the importance of that to those of us from the Gateshead side.
I also continue to chair the governing body of one of my local primary schools, Kelvin Grove. The school, in the heart of Bensham, Gateshead, was rated good by Ofsted only a couple of months ago. Gateshead has an array of cultures within its population, and a significant proportion of students have English as a second language. At the last count, a total of 27 different languages were spoken by pupils at that school, and I am sure Members will agree that, although the mix of languages poses difficulties and complexities for the learning environment, there is no doubt that such diversity also has a significant positive effect on the education of all our young people in that neighbourhood. It is a great place to live in many respects.
There are further funding cuts to education, persistent problems in the NHS across the country, which we heard about over the winter, and the localisation of business rates. That localisation will have a negative impact on regions such as the north-east of England, where the 12 local authorities will lose some £300 million whereas Westminster, if we believe the figures published last year, will on its own gain more than £400 million, so we can see how it will have a different impact in different parts of the country. With all that happening, my constituents have little hope of benefiting from some of the measures of prosperity that we are told other parts of the country are currently enjoying or will enjoy. The Prime Minister pledges to have a country that “works for everyone” but, sadly, our definition of “everyone” varies somewhat, because the impacts of what is going on are very different in different places.
I have highlighted and will continue to highlight some of these injustices in this House and to anyone else who can understand what I am saying, but now I wish to take the opportunity to highlight some of the great things happening in Gateshead, despite some elements of Government policy that are having a detrimental impact on us. With colleagues from the Select Committee on Education, I had the pleasure of visiting Gateshead College in my constituency a couple of weeks ago. Despite significant cuts to funding for further education, Judith Doyle, the principal, and her team have ensured that Gateshead College remains one of the best further education colleges in the country, and only last year it was rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted. It is imperative in communities like Gateshead that we have institutions that have the ability to train our future workforce, in an environment that gives our young people the best opportunity to succeed going forward into their working life. Gateshead College, with its rich and diverse offer, is a fine example of this, and I am proud to have it in my constituency and to represent it.
Turning back to local government for a moment, significant cuts to the revenue support grant have forced local authorities to come up with ever more creative ways to plug the holes in their budgets and help grow the local economy. I was delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—visit Gateshead earlier this month to open the new £18 million Gateshead district energy centre, which uses cutting-edge technology to recycle heat from the energy generation cycle, using it to heat homes and businesses and water throughout the centre of Gateshead. It is hoped that the scheme will provide local homes and businesses with affordable energy, as well as making Gateshead an attractive place for new businesses to invest, taking advantage of the lower energy costs. I hope that all hon. Members will join me in congratulating Gateshead Council on taking the bold step to self-fund the entire project, for the benefit of local residents, businesses and employers.
In Gateshead, my constituents are very fortunate, as we have a fantastic hospital trust, operating out of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, which provides excellent service and care for all of its patients. I wish to place on record my thanks to not only the staff at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, but all staff in the NHS across Gateshead and the north-east for their unreserved commitment and dedication to ensuring that every person of every background is afforded the care that they very much deserve. Colleagues will be aware that I, too, have had to use the services of the NHS in my constituency, and on a personal note I would like to place on the record my thanks to my GP, Dr Ruth Bonnington, and my physiotherapist, Shane Ryan, for greatly accelerating my recovery from the slipped disc I suffered some weeks ago. Without their care and attention, I would not be here to make this contribution today.
Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the outstanding work that the voluntary sector does on a daily basis to help my constituents who often have nowhere else to turn. Whether it be in dealing with benefit sanctions, homelessness or illness, organisations such as the Gateshead citizens advice bureau, Barnardo’s, the Trussell Trust, the Gateshead food bank, and many more organisations and individuals across Gateshead, put their lives on hold to ensure that those most vulnerable in our communities receive the help and support they most desperately need. They are the real unsung heroes in our communities, and I would like to thank them for everything they do.
The north-east has a proud track record of donating to charity, despite the relatively low incomes people live on there. Our record on donating to things such as red nose day or Children in Need shows that we often exceed the national body’s expectations. Despite low incomes and indeed poverty, we have very successful food bank collections. The points are often overflowing with food, which has often been donated by families who are struggling themselves. Sadly, despite the generosity of my constituents and others across the north-east, organisations providing often vital support to those most in need continue to find themselves short of resources. So as much as my constituents already give, I ask them from the Floor of the House of Commons to carry on and give more—it is needed.
As I open the debate, I look forward to the speeches of hon. Members from both sides of the House. Before I finish, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, the staff of the House and all hon. Members a very happy Easter?
Thank you. As in the previous debate, if Members stay within an eight-minute limit, everyone will be able to get in and there will be plenty of time for wind-ups. That is not an imposed limit, just guidance for Members.
It is a pleasure to follow my friend the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is your successor as Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker. I look forward to passing through his constituency, over the Gateshead Millennium bridge, on my way to see Newcastle when they return to the premier league next season, as no doubt they will. A little while ago, I got myself into trouble by being pleased that I would not have to make that journey again.
Please do not jinx them, for goodness’ sake!
Even Newcastle would find it difficult not to get promoted after the season they have enjoyed so far.
In two years’ time, when we have the pre-recess Easter Adjournment debate, we will be celebrating Britain’s freedom from the yoke of the European Union; much of this speech will be about unfinished business as the House rises for the Easter recess.
I am delighted that my Homelessness Reduction Bill had its Third Reading in the other place last Thursday and now awaits Royal Assent from Her Majesty the Queen. I place on record my thanks and appreciation to Lord Best, who ensured the Bill’s smooth passage through the other place. We can look forward to it becoming law in the not-too-distant future. The Department for Communities and Local Government is doing all the necessary work to prepare local authorities for their duties under the new Act. I trust that it will advantage homeless people throughout the country forevermore.
I also place on record my thanks and appreciation to Glenn McKee, who was the Clerk of the Public Bill Office and before that the Clerk of the Communities and Local Government Committee, and who is retiring after, I believe, 34 years’ service. He gave brilliant help and assistance to ensure that we did everything necessary to get that private Member’s Bill through.
On unfinished business, we had a wonderful debate last week on Equitable Life. I have the privilege of co-chairing the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policy holders, which now has more than 230 MPs as members. I shall not go over that debate, but let me be clear that we will not cease until such time as every individual who suffered as a result of that scam is properly compensated. The Government have a debt of honour, and it sends the wrong sort of signal to young people in this country when, at a time when we are asking them to save for their old age, the Government will not properly compensate the people who suffered, even though it is proven beyond doubt that the regulator, Equitable Life and the Treasury knew about the scam but did nothing about it. We need to right that wrong.
I am also chairman of the all-party group on smoking and health. Smoking is the single biggest cause of cancer, heart and respiratory disease in this country, with 78,000 people alone dying unnecessarily each year. I am concerned that we still do not have the tobacco control strategy that the Government announced. The previous one ran out in December 2015. There has been an extended period of consultation on why a new strategy needs to be put in place, so I trust that the Government will publish the long-awaited strategy shortly after Easter, so that we can get in place the measures we need to take to combat this terrible affliction and addiction.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the tobacco control strategy. He mentioned football earlier: I used to say that the 90,000 people who died each year was around the capacity of Wembley; now, we are talking about the capacity of Old Trafford, but it is still very serious. The tobacco control strategy really is long overdue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is absolutely right.
I welcome the fact that the Government introduced a minimum excise duty in the Budget, and it will add, on average, some 35p to a packet of cigarettes. The money should go to the national health service to ensure that treatment is provided. We have introduced standardised packaging and a whole series of other measures to encourage people not to smoke, but that has meant that a number of local authorities are either phasing out, or removing completely, their smoking cessation services. The job is not yet done. In my own local borough of Harrow, the stop smoking services are being removed. Closing those services is a false economy when they have helped 1,751 people to give up smoking in the past two years alone. Such a move will return to haunt us unless we invest properly.
This week, the Government published the long-awaited consultation document on the use of the term “caste” and on caste discrimination, which was introduced in the Equality Act 2010. The term was added in the other place via an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. There was no proper oversight or proper debate on the repercussions of introducing such a term into the British legal framework, and indeed it was not properly debated in this Chamber either. A considerable amount of hurt has been suffered by the Hindu community in particular. I encourage the whole Hindu community across the UK to participate in the consultation, so that we can get this unnecessary, divisive and ill-thought out legislation off the statute book once and for all.
I have also raised in the House this week Pakistan’s decision to annex Gilgit-Baltistan, which had been illegally occupied by Pakistan in the first place. The annexation has caused widespread concern across the community and across the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. The reality is that we in Britain have a strategic role in helping to bring this divisive issue to an end, and we should use our good offices to prevent Pakistan increasing the impact on this area, especially as it had no right to occupy the area in the first place. The United Nations has registered that in a series of resolutions, yet Pakistan chooses to ignore them. We should ensure that we put that right.
I support everything that the hon. Gentleman says in respect of both the caste legislation and Pakistan, but may I bring him a little closer to home? He is a great campaigner for his local constituents. I am a frequent user of Stanmore station. Whenever he has spoken in such debates, he has mentioned the new lifts to be installed at the station. Has he brought any good news to this debate about those lifts?
I would dearly love to give the right hon. Gentleman good news about Stanmore station, especially as he uses it regularly. The sad fact is that a planning application was made by a private developer for a site alongside Stanmore station. The developer offered £1 million towards providing a lift. Harrow Council’s planning committee, in its infinite wisdom, decided to turn it down. It did not want the £1 million, so the developer, not unreasonably, took it away as part of their offer, but they still got their planning application for the flats alongside the station, which has received lots of objections from residents.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I realise that I am transgressing your informal time limit, but, having given way a couple of times, I will conclude on three quick issues that are of particular concern to local residents.
First, Harrow Council introduced the unwanted garden tax at the highest level in London—the highest garden tax in the country for garden waste collection—and has now increased it even further in this year’s budget. It is rightly objected to by residents all over the Borough of Harrow. Secondly, I am delighted that progress is happening, albeit slow, on the redevelopment of the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital, which I have been campaigning on for an extended period.
The final issues are of education and the police service in Harrow. I have registered with the Secretary of State my concern that the proposed new fairer funding formula will discriminate against schools in Harrow, as 17 schools in my constituency will actually lose money, not just in real terms. That is completely unacceptable. Equally, the concern about police funding is that the new proposals for amalgamating boroughs will mean that Harrow, which is the safest borough in London, will lose police and therefore be at greater risk of crime. That is also completely unacceptable, and I trust that we will put it right.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff and everyone else involved in running the House a very happy and peaceful Easter. I look forward to coming back after the recess suitably refreshed. I apologise in advance that I am unlikely to be here for the wind-ups and the reply from the Deputy Leader of the House; I have to use the national health service for a long-awaited medical appointment that has to take precedence in these circumstances.
May I remind hon. Members that the eight-minute limit does include interventions? If everybody takes this much time, I am afraid that the last Member who wants to speak will not get to do so.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and pleased to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I am grateful to him and the mover of the motion, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, for the work that they do in facilitating colleagues to raise important matters in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall. They do a very difficult job. Having been to the Committee only this week to bid for time, I know that its members have pressures to balance. I am sure that they will make the right decision, but I am happy to wait to hear their conclusions in due course.
The title of the debate on the Order Paper is “Matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment”. Such debates are an opportunity for colleagues to present their shopping lists to the Government and the House, and I hope to be brief in presenting mine. I shall begin with a few thanks. As co-chair of the all-party group on maritime and ports, may I express my appreciation to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), and congratulate him on commissioning Lord Mountevans to chair the maritime growth study? The growth strategy produced by the study led to Maritime UK, which is chaired by David Dingle and is trying to showcase British shipping and ports. That positive initiative is very important post-Brexit, and I wish it well.
I also wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his negotiations with the Treasury for an extra £15 million for support for maritime training—SMarT—for ratings and officer cadets on board merchant navy vessels. The SMarT money was introduced by the Labour Government in their 1997-to-2001 term. It produced 50% of funding for maritime training, but that is now down to a third. The right hon. Gentleman is arguing strongly with the Treasury, and I wish him success. The amount is only £15 million, which would double the £15 million that is already in the kitty, so he is not asking for a great deal. He is also working strongly on the contribution of shipping to air quality, and we are grateful for his efforts on that.
During my Adjournment debate last Friday on cochlear implants, I did not get the opportunity to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who explained that it was for not the Department of Health but the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to decide who gets cochlear implants. Some 600,000 people out there could benefit from them. The Minister’s comments were positive and supportive, and I was grateful for the way in which he gave the Government’s response to the debate. NICE will come forward with the conclusions to its review this summer, so I hope that it will have listened to what he and I said.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a White Paper on housing, and the Minister for Housing and Planning is in charge of taking it forward. The Governments of 1986, 1993 and 2002 all tried to reform leasehold provisions, but were unsuccessful, and now this Government are trying again. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and I co-chair the all-party group on leasehold reform, and I hope that the Government will be able to bring forward proposals on that in due course. The Housing Minister might also want to examine the role and accountability of housing associations, which is probably worth doing, given how important they now are within the housing market. They do great work, but when they do get things wrong, it is hard to rectify those problems.
I want to express gratitude to International Development Ministers for facilitating meetings between their officials and the international aid charity Fire Aid, which I chair. It is a small non-governmental organisation that is, on behalf of UK plc, delivering the millennium sustainable development goals put forward by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. It works to reduce the one and a quarter million people dying on the world’s roads every year and the 20 million who are seriously injured. DFID deals in billions of pounds. We are a small NGO, and £20,000 or £50,000 is life or death to us, but this does not feature on DFID’s radar. DFID Ministers are reviewing the role of small NGOs in delivering international objectives, and we would be very grateful if they were to proceed on that more positively.
I want to issue an apology to the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). During proceedings on the statement on personal independence payments made by the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions in late February, I asked about reports of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about PIP and those suffering from mental health conditions. The Secretary of State advised me that his hon. Friend had issued an apology for his reported remarks and hoped that the House would accept that. Obviously I completely accept the assurance of the Secretary of State and the apology issued on the hon. Gentleman’s website, which I have since had a chance to visit. Having raised the matter as a complaint, it is only right for me to put on record my acceptance of his position.
There is still a case for the fire service to have a statutory duty to deal with flooding. I see the chair of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), in the Chamber. The Government’s position has been that the fire brigade will turn up to floods like it turns up to fires, special services and road traffic crashes. Those are all now statutory duties, but it took decades for them to arrive. I think that a statutory duty on flooding will arrive, but the quicker it does, the better. I welcome the joint working between the fire service and the national health service on social care issues in Greater Manchester, and with the ambulance service in London. I recognise that in many counties the fire service is now answering more medical calls than fire calls. This is clearly moving the fire service into more combined working. The Government are disinclined to create a fire and emergency medical rescue service, as we see in most other countries. However, it seems to be happening none the less, even though the Government are not putting it forward.
The final political matter I want to raise is the lack of prosecutions following the court case on electoral fraud and other offences in Tower Hamlets. Despite the judgments and penalties handed down by the electoral court, and despite the allegations of fraud, corruption, mortgage fraud, wrongful disposal of buildings, abuse of grants and so on, there have been no prosecutions—all has gone unpunished. I hope that the review by the Mayor of London and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary might mean that something will be satisfactorily concluded for the residents of Tower Hamlets.
Naturally, last week’s events are still very fresh, as is the grieving of the families and friends of those who were killed and seriously injured, who are very much in our thoughts. The lockdown was a stressful experience for many of us here in the Chamber and the Lobbies, notwithstanding the safety we were in. I want to place on record my thanks to the Deputy Speaker, the Doorkeepers, the police and security officers, and other staff for looking after us. I hope that we all have a safe and peaceful Easter, and that those who are still in emotional and physical pain secure some relief.
Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I wish to raise a number of points. I shall end with a tribute to two Officers of the House who are retiring today.
We are leaving the European Union. My goodness, it has taken nine months actually to start the process, but now that we have done so, local fishermen Daryl Godbold and Paul Gilson have drawn to my attention the fact that marine conservation zones prohibit fishing in 20% of UK waters, but allow dredging for sand and gravel. That is weakening the British fishing industry, as Thames estuary fish stock levels are at a bare minimum due to dredging. Crabbing is popular in our area and apparently there is a shortage of local crabs. I hope that we will get on with addressing that issue quickly.
Last week there was a Westminster Hall debate about Iran. It is absolutely disgraceful that its regime funds Hamas and Hezbollah.
If the national schools funding formula goes ahead unchanged, every single school in Southend will be worse off and I will have to vote against the proposition.
Southend hospital has a successful regime. There is new management in place and I wish it well. It is very important that local residents realise that the A&E at Southend will not be closing. As the new chief executive officer, Clare Panniker, has said:
“We are not discussing any plans to move Southend A&E to Basildon. Our current thinking is that there should be 24/7 A&E services at all three hospital sites in mid and south Essex for the majority of people who go to A&E.”
I shall hold a health summit in April to take that matter further.
I hope that the House realises that Southend is the alternative city of culture. It was such a joy to welcome the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) to talk about the wonderful books that he has written. Tonight, after I have left here, I will go to the Southend’s Got Talent competition. In May, stilt-walkers will walk nonstop from Southend to No. 10 Downing Street, where they will present the Prime Minister with a letter from our good selves asking for Southend to become a city—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, we are not a city. It is 125 years since the inauguration of the borough, and I am delighted to say that we now have a town crier. We will celebrate a festival in Chalkwell park between 27 and 29 May.
I was delighted that Princess Anne visited Southend recently and paid tribute to all our volunteers at the citizens advice bureau. Members of Parliament really do benefit from such bureaux.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, we recently visited the excellent Fire Service College in Moreton. I hope that the facility will be promoted as a national training service by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that the Ministry of Defence seriously considers the college’s bid to provide defence fire and rescue programmes for the armed services. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) joined me on the visit to that wonderful centre.
Uber is a delicate subject, but I for one am not very happy about the situation, which is certainly having an impact on the taxi trade in Southend. I therefore hope that the Policing and Crime Act 2017 will be amended accordingly.
Two constituents of mine, Valerie and Tony Rochester, have brought to my attention the situation regarding freeholders. They say that they have been mistreated by Gateway Property Management and the freeholders, Westleigh Properties. They were asked to pay £5,220 in February 2016 for building works that did not begin until 2 August 2016. The eventual work was unsatisfactory, and that is just one case of many in which leaseholders have been led to believe that they owned their property. Clearly the Government need to review the situation.
On 12 July, as I mentioned a couple of hours ago, the responsible pet competition will take place near Westminster. I hope that everyone will enter it.
I have the honour of being chairman of the all-party group on the Maldives. The Government occasionally send me on the odd trip to the Maldives, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment held a meeting recently about new trading opportunities.
The Made in Britain trade centres are absolutely wonderful. I recently hosted a reception for the Alliance for Human Relevant Science and Safer Medicines, which does wonderful work.
On funerals and bereavement, following meetings with Dignity funeral services and Golden Charter, I congratulate them on the high-quality services that they provide and their desire to ensure that people are adequately accompanied during times of bereavement. I was especially moved to find that Dignity does not charge funeral costs for anyone under the age of 17. Both groups raised concerns about the lack of licensing and regulation of funeral services, which often leads to people being charged an unfair amount for funeral costs. I pay tribute to Rio Ferdinand, as I think that the recent BBC programme about his bereavement struck a chord with us all and I very much support what he wishes to do. His brother, Anton, whom I will be seeing later this evening, happens to be the captain of Southend United, who are back in the playoff zone.
Last week was Salt Awareness Week, and we need to do much more on the matter. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association roadshow visited Southend and I pay tribute to the secretary-general, who attended the event with me.
We are leaving the European Union. As a result, Borough Plating has already gained £9 million in additional business, which is excellent.
The Jazz Centre and National Jazz Archive have opened in Southend. Digby Fairweather is leading that project, which is truly wonderful. The YMCA “Sleep Easy”, at which people raised money overnight, was led by our mayor, Mrs Judith McMahon, and Syrie Cox, the chief executive of Southend YMCA.
On lobbying, I really despair about social media. There are some low-lifes who put the most disgusting remarks on newspaper comment sections as soon as an issue is mentioned. Why they are allowed to do that, I do not know.
Southend airport will benefit once again from duty-free goods.
I end with a tribute to two officers. John Wrighton, who has worked in our post office off Members’ Lobby for 38 years, is retiring today. He has done an absolutely magnificent job. Alan Dickens is our longest-serving Doorkeeper, and he leaves the service of the House tomorrow. He has been a Doorkeeper since 1993 and senior Doorkeeper since 2004. He entered the Royal Marines Band Service in 1969, and he was invalided out of the service aged 24. He has been a loyal servant of the House. Apparently, he intends to spend his time caravanning with his wife of 41 years, Maureen.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you and your team under the Speaker, and all colleagues, a very happy Easter.
Before I start, I want to add my tribute to the many others that have been paid to Keith Palmer, who lost his life protecting us; and to his colleagues, who went straight back to work protecting us. Our thoughts are with all who were injured and bereaved in the incident last Wednesday, and our gratitude goes to those in the emergency services and the many others who responded so quickly. It was also helpful to get messages of condolence from our faith leaders, including our local Muslim leaders.
It is almost two years since I was elected to this House. It has been an honour, and it has sometimes been hugely rewarding, but too often it has not been a pleasure. Sadly, too much of my constituency casework has been about dealing with the impact on my constituents and their families of this Government’s deliberate decisions. I and my small and overstretched team have dealt with more than 20,000 requests for help or support in the last 22 months. Although many people who contact me do so to seek my views on everything from Brexit to animal welfare, a very large—and growing—number of people turn to me because they just do not know what to do to get the change that they so badly need. That includes the many people who are dependent on council services and other services, or on disability or bereavement benefits that are being withdrawn or rationed because of Government funding cuts.
In the short time that I have available, I will touch on some local examples that illustrate the Government’s lack of interest in, and compassion for, my constituents and people across the country. First, though, I have been wondering why the Government hold children in such low regard. Children who have lost their mother or father, and whose family will lose bereavement benefits; third and subsequent children in families who benefit from tax credits, who will no longer be entitled to benefit for those additional children; and children in school, whose schools already face cuts and will be cut further when the national funding formula comes in, are just some of those who will be affected by this Government’s policies.
The Prime Minister started her term of office by expressing concern for those who are just about managing and are worrying about paying the mortgage. In my constituency in west London, most people not already on the housing ladder worry about paying the rent, and having a mortgage is a distant and unlikely dream, given that the average sale price is two and a half times the average salary. The rent of a modest two-bedroom flat in Isleworth in the middle of my constituency costs three quarters of the take-home pay of an average Heathrow worker or even of a teacher. As such a family are considered to be adequately housed, they do not have any hope of getting a council house or a housing association flat. The income of those constituents is way below that needed for any of the so-called affordable housing schemes—shared ownership, starter home or 80% market rental—promoted by this Government.
I want to move on to the confluence of policy and bureaucracy, starting with the roll-out of universal credit. For those of my constituents who are on low incomes or who are unable to work at all, universal credit has been torture, on top of the punishment of ever lower benefit caps and the cutting back of support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. I do not know whether this Government are consciously driving through the enforced destitution of those on low incomes and the slightly better-off families who do not have benefits to fall back on, or whether civil service cuts mean that there is just no one to implement the system properly, but that means claimants have no money at all for weeks and families whose members are working have enough to buy food but worry about whether the money they are due for their rent will ever come through. There is the sheer bureaucratic mess: one form was on its 54th iteration when we last looked at it.
Sadly, crazy bureaucracy led by mendacious policies are not confined to the Department for Work and Pensions in my experience as a Member of the House. Over 40% of my constituents were born overseas, and I have lost count of the number of people in my weekly advice surgeries who have told me that their application to the Home Office has been turned down without Home Office staff even looking at their paperwork. For example, there was the woman whose application was refused on only one count of the many she had to pass. She was told she had failed the English test, despite the fact that the certificate stating she had passed with distinction was right there as part of her application. There was the French citizen whose application for UK citizenship was refused because she failed the test of permanent residency. Why? Because she had had the temerity to go on a two-day break abroad exactly three years to the day before the date of her citizenship application. Both these cases illustrate how those affected and their families feel that they are victims of the rule about getting net immigration down to 100,000—a pledge dreamed up by the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary. The last example leads me on to Brexit. I supported remain, and 60% of my constituents agreed with me because of what it means to their family, their work, their business, or their hopes and aspirations for the UK. For many, it is personal. The French national I have mentioned—her family had a referendum vote, but she did not—is worried for her future. She has now retired, but has lived here and paid taxes continually for 30 years. She has married a UK citizen, and has two UK children. She applied for UK citizenship, which she had never wanted to do, because, like 3 million others, she has been given no assurance that she can stay here and claim the pension—and, if needed, the social and health care support—that she has paid for throughout her working life in the UK. She would not of course be eligible for any of that support if she were forced to return to France.
I want to finish by mentioning the concern of our communities about the impact of the third runway at Heathrow. Heathrow is the major driver of our local economy, and it is and will continue to be vital to UK plc, but until we develop glider passenger planes, the expansion of Heathrow will mean more noise for many more people—300,000 people—in and around London.
I conclude by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all Members and staff of the House a peaceful and happy Easter recess. I hope you will accept my apologies, but I have to leave before the winding-up speeches in order to chair a community meeting about station overcrowding.
I want to raise again the ongoing and tragic situation in Syria. Of course we want to help Syria, but equally we do not want to be dragged into another Iraq or Afghanistan situation. To date, our strategy has been carefully sculpted so as not to get committed on the ground, yet to provide help from the air and with intelligence. The stark truth is that President Bashar al-Assad, the 19th President of Syria, is going nowhere. His regime, which many predicted would topple several years ago, has been stabilised by Russian support, and the Russians are there to stay. They want to keep their port at Tartus and their airbase, Hmeimim, south-east of Latakia. Those are now strategic jewels for Russia and are unlikely to be given up easily.
Whatever we may think of the current Syrian Government, though, for many people in Syria, President Assad is their best hope, and it is all they have got. For those living in Damascus, he is their only choice. They believe that the stark option is between Assad and Daesh. In truth, such people would receive short shrift from Daesh. They also think, with good reason, that no foreign country would intervene to save them if Daesh arrived in their capital city. For them, Assad is all they have got, and they are probably right.
However, I feel that the circumstances could now allow for the establishment of a humanitarian safe zone. That would not be easy to achieve, but it is possible. If the international community was determined enough, it could happen. From what he says, President Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are now also prepared to accept the establishment of safe zones. Maybe the Russians and President Assad might also agree to it, but Daesh certainly would not. Thus, it is clear that safe zones must be positioned where the chances of interference from Daesh, or indeed al-Qaeda, are reduced to a minimum.
The easiest of such areas to establish may be in the north of Syria. The first possibility appears to be in the north-west of the country, perhaps stretching from Kilis to Aleppo, then south to Idlib and thence to the Turkish border again, near Reyhanli. Another possibility could be in north-central Syria, bounded in the west by Azaz and stretching east to the Euphrates while extending south to al-Bab.
Let me focus on the north-west zone, which is around 1,500 sq km in area—about the size of Wales. There is a little al-Qaeda activity there, which would have to be sorted out by military action, but that may not be too difficult. Importantly, Daesh does not operate there. Nor is the region of great strategic interest to Russia or, really, to President Assad. Right now it is predominantly controlled by the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups. It already contains about 500,000 displaced persons who really need help. The British charity Syria Relief has a few functioning schools there, and the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations also runs several effective hospitals and clinics nearby. Both schools and medical facilities could readily be expanded if the safe zone concept were allowed to come to fruition. Personally, I would not be averse to using British soldiers for such a purpose. In my experience, they are quite good at that sort of thing.
In conclusion on Syria, I believe that the time is right for us to be more energetic there. Can we make safe zones work there? Of course we could, if the international really wants it. In truth, the chances of success are greater now than they have been for the last six years.
May I end by quickly mentioning that I, too, like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess)—who is not in his place at the moment—feel that Uber is taking the biscuit? It is under-regulated, its drivers undertrained, and it is putting very good, proper black cabbies out of work. That has got to be sorted. Perhaps Transport for London requires investigating on the matter.
I am desperately sad that Keith Palmer was killed last week—we in the House all feel that way. God bless him. God bless everyone in this House who has worked to make us safe over the last Session, and thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for all you and the House staff have done.
I would like to use this debate to highlight three areas where I feel our national health service might do a bit better. The first, regular attendees of this debate will not be surprised to learn, is about the medical procedure of hysteroscopy.
To refresh our memories, a hysteroscopy is when a small device, often including a camera, is inserted manually through the cervix into the womb, usually to cut a sample from the tissue or lining which can be used to help to diagnose cancers and fertility issues. It is usually performed without any anaesthetic. I am told by medical professionals that it rarely causes discomfort. However, as we have heard before in this House, it can also be horrifically painful.
This is the fourth time I have raised the issue and when I last spoke I asked for a letter from the Minister to address the issue. I must thank those on the Government Benches for ensuring that such a response was forthcoming. Unfortunately, the response from the Department of Health was, if I can put it gently, bland in the extreme and did not really move the issue forward. I have written again, this time to the Secretary of State for Health. I have asked him or one of his Commons team to meet me and discuss this issue in person. The Secretary of State is not a bad man, so I hope that with the encouragement of the Minister on the Treasury Bench I might be successful.
Since raising this issue in December, I have been contacted by even more women. Given how short the debate is, I will mention only one story. This is from a woman in Leicester, who said:
“The prior information leaflet suggested there would be minimal pain...it was so excruciatingly painful that I began to cry out, my body went into shock and I started to sweat profusely. I came over disorientated and dizzy, I felt heavily nauseous and I began to pass out. I have never experienced agonising pain like it in all my life...when arriving home, I spent a long time crying, curled up in a ball doubled over with pain...the use of no local anaesthesia in this procedure seriously requires investigation.”
I have heard the hon. Lady on this subject several times before. It deeply upsets me that doctors do not recognise the pain that women undergo and apparently continue to say, “There will be mild discomfort” when women are in agony. For goodness’ sake, this has to be sorted!
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has listened to me, wincing, through the many debates in which I have raised this issue. I know I have genuine support on both sides of the Chamber, so I am hopeful that his Secretary of State will come up with a solution that will enable us to move forward.
A colleague of ours in this place had to undergo this procedure and she was mindful of my words. She attended a central London hospital and, with no little trepidation, asked about anaesthesia. The doctor looked at her with disbelief and said, “They use anaesthesia as a matter of course, because to do anything else would be barbaric.” All we are asking for is that all women get the same care and attention whichever hospital they go to and whichever part of the country they live in.
My second issue is the speed of cancer diagnosis. West Ham has a relatively low incidence of cancer, but patients from my constituency are, unusually, likely to die within a year of being diagnosed. The essential research done by Cancer Research UK makes the primary reason for this clear: too many of my constituents die because successful diagnosis takes too long. To be honest, they also do not get to the doctors early enough to seek diagnosis. Less than half of cancers in the Newham clinical commissioning group area are diagnosed early, significantly fewer than the national average. This problem was highlighted this Wednesday by the “Today” programme on Radio 4. Currently, many patients across the country go through a drawn-out, stressful and expensive process of diagnosis. They may be referred to an oncologist for testing too late, and there is clearly a role for better and more consistently observed guidelines to prevent that.
Even when patients are referred, however, they often face a series of appointments with specialists, waiting for test results between those appointments. Many symptoms of cancer are ambiguous, especially at the essential early stages. A shift in policy towards rapid testing for multiple cancer types could be expected to improve early detection rates, giving more patients a new lease of life, saving patients and healthcare staff a great deal of stress and time, and, indeed, saving the NHS money through the adoption of a more efficient process.
I have personal reasons for raising this issue today. Had such early detection been available a few years ago, my mum might still be with me today instead of leaving us far too soon, and completely unexpectedly, on a Mothering Sunday morning. I give notice that I shall be seeking a longer debate in the House, but, in the meantime, I should be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House would ask the Department of Health to write to inform me of its current plans to move towards faster and more joined-up cancer diagnosis.
I also have some concerns about plans for a weakening of the link between the recommendations of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and the availability of recommended treatments to patients. Access to treatments can already be delayed by 90 days, but under the new rules, approved treatments with a high overall cost—regardless of the cost per treatment—could be delayed by health commissioning authorities in England for at least three years, 13 times longer than is currently allowed. Colleagues in all parts of the House have argued in recent months that the right balance between affordability and equal access to effective treatments for those who need them has not yet been found. I echo that view, and I would appreciate any reassurance that the Government can offer that they are committed to re-examining these issues soon.
I, too, will be remembering Keith Palmer over the break, and I will be thinking of everyone and hoping that they are all safe. I say to all Members, and to all the members of staff who look after us so well: have a great Easter break.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on her passionate speech. She speaks with great eloquence.
Let me join other Members in paying tribute to PC Keith Palmer, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, and who tragically lost his life in the attack on Westminster last week. His death was a reminder of the vitally important and dangerous work that our police forces do every day to keep us safe. I join others, too, in sending my deepest condolences to his wife, children, family and friends, and to the wider family of the Metropolitan police.
I also pay tribute to the Serjeant at Arms for what he did during that crisis. He was so cool, and he was able to calm the nerves of so many people in the Palace. I am grateful to him for the work that he did—and, indeed, I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House, who, recognising that I had diabetes, approached me several times to offer me biscuits. It was the first time that he had offered me biscuits; he usually borrows chocolate biscuits from me at Norman Shaw North. I was very grateful for the concern that he showed for Members.
Sadly, attacks on our police officers are all too common. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales revealed that more than 6,000 officers are assaulted every day on our streets, which means that a police officer is attacked every 13 seconds. That is a staggering statistic. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for the work that she has done in raising the issue of attacks on the police force. It is important for us to recognise that they are happening on a daily basis, and I commend her campaign.
When he responds to the debate, will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us what measures are being taken to reduce the number of such attacks, and to provide better protection for our police officers? He will remember all the excellent work that he did on the Home Affairs Committee when we considered these issues, but it would be good to know what the Government are doing.
I intervene very briefly just to remind people that nowadays some police widows lose pensions when they remarry. I think that the House should take action to deal with that, because it is totally unfair. It does not apply throughout the country—it does not apply in Northern Ireland—but we must get this right: police widows deserve justice.
The hon. Gentleman must have read my speech or hacked my emails, because he clearly knows that I am going to come on to the subject of police widows shortly, and I agree with him on that point and make it in my speech, but first I shall turn to the other issue of policing that I want to raise: the police funding formula.
Given the dangerous roles our officers play in keeping us safe, I am sad to see the damage done by reductions in police force budgets over the last few years. Of course I understand why this is happening, but it is right that we should point that out. This problem has been compounded by the continued failure of the Home Office to implement a new funding formula, something that affects every single Member of the House here today.
As a result, police forces cannot predict their future funding. At a recent meeting with the police and crime commissioner for Leicestershire, Lord Bach, and Chief Constable Simon Cole, Leicestershire MPs were told that constabularies like Leicestershire have complex funding challenges, that the funding they have is inadequate for a mix of urban and rural policing, and that forces cannot adapt and keep up with modern crime issues like cybercrime unless they know what is happening in respect of their allocations.
In November 2015 the former policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said the review on this was being paused until the National Police Chiefs Council carried out a capabilities review. Sara Thornton, chair of the NPCC, has said that this review does not stop the Government continuing with announcing the results of the funding formula. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House when the new funding formula arrangements will be published.
Another area that needs urgent review is police pensions—I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for raising this point, because he is right to do so—particularly in relation to how officers’ widows receive their pensions. Legislation passed in 2006 meant that the partners of any new police officers were entitled to receive a pension for life. Those falling under the 1987 regulations—the year I was elected to this House—were allowed to opt into the new scheme. However, the new rules introduced in 2015 effectively deny police widows in England and Wales who remarried before 1 April 2015 the right to move on with their lives and find happiness, as they cannot get this pension. The flip-flopping of legislation that has affected these families is totally unacceptable. How can it be fair that a widow who has remarried after 1 April 2015 can be awarded a pension for life, but one who has remarried before that date is denied that entitlement on a mere technicality?
And her children.
And, indeed, her children. There are disparities in how the pension regulations apply across the United Kingdom. The remarriage deadline applies only to England and Wales. There is no such cut-off date in Scotland. In Northern Ireland all survivors rightly keep their pensions for life, no matter how their former partner died. Can the Deputy Leader of the House explain why English and Welsh widows are treated in this way, while their Scottish, Northern Irish and other counterparts are not faced with that difficulty?
Finally, let me raise the issue of written parliamentary questions. The Deputy Leader of the House is a master at giving replies to difficult questions. I was reading a debate in which he was involved recently, and he used the following phrases when asked about the timetable for the restoration works on the House of Commons: “in due course”, “in the fullness of time”, and “shortly”. These are his favourite replies; he could star in his very own version of “Yes Minister”, playing both the Minister and Sir Humphrey.
I recently wrote to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), Chair of the Procedure Committee, to complain about the disappointing answers I had received to two written questions: from the Minister for Immigration and the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). Parliamentary questions are about facts: we ask a question and we get a reply. I asked the Minister for Immigration how many entry clearance officers there were in Mumbai, and back came not a reply giving me the numbers but a press release on the wonderful work being done by entry clearance officers. I already knew about that. I asked the Minister for Exiting the European Union how many civil servants had been seconded to his Department, and again I got a press release. I did not get the facts and figures, which are what we need. Will the Deputy Leader of the House look into the issue of written parliamentary questions? Let us get rid of all this “in due course” and “shortly”, and concentrate instead on providing factual answers to factual questions.
I do not want to delay my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) from beginning her speech, because it is her birthday today and I know that she wants to go off and celebrate. I cannot end, however, without wishing Members of the House, the Serjeant at Arms, the Chair and all the Officers who do such fantastic work a very happy recess. There are three supporters of Leicester City football club in the Chamber: myself, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). I do not know why I always think that my hon. Friend is the Member for Skegness; it is nearby. Leicester City are the only English team remaining in the Champions League. Forget about all the others that spend billions of pounds on their players; we are in the last eight, and on 12 and 18 April, we will be playing Atlético Madrid. Easter is a Christian festival, and we believe in rebirth and in the blessings of almighty God. We hope that those blessings will be upon the Leicester City team as they undertake the most important two matches in their entire football lives. I am sure that the whole House will be with me on that.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I should just like to thank him for blowing my cover; I was trying to keep my birthday quiet. He was the first person in the House to wish me a happy birthday today, however, and I am grateful to him for that—[Interruption.] Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I should like to echo my right hon. Friend’s comments about PC Keith Palmer and to extend my sympathies to his family and to the families and friends of all those who died during the terrible events of last week. Two things have come out of those events. The first is that we are going to have a review of our response, which is the right thing to do. I will certainly be feeding in my views on what we could have done better. Some things were done very well, and I am grateful to all the staff of the House for protecting us, but we as MPs should have taken more responsibility for our reactions and for looking after the numerous visitors and children in the building. I did not know what on earth was going on, and the people I was with did not know either. I think that we could look after our visitors better.
For me, there is a second issue that has come out of last week’s event. The Prime Minister has encouraged us as MPs to learn more about first aid, but I am struck by the fact that it was this Government who talked out a Bill to introduce compulsory first aid training in schools. Try as I might, I cannot see the logic of the Government encouraging people to learn first aid while putting a block on making it a compulsory part of our children’s education. What better way could there be to teach children first aid skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives, so that they can feel confident about dealing with emergencies? With that in mind, I have written to the Prime Minister to ask her to revisit the question of teaching first aid in schools. I await her reply.
I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of the Government’s drugs strategy. Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have hit record levels, with cocaine deaths reaching an all-time high in 2015 and deaths involving heroin or morphine doubling over three years to reach record levels.
The Prime Minister is facing a barrage of criticism over the policies she pursued while Home Secretary, with Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drugs charity Release, saying:
“The Home Office’s pursuit of a ‘tough on drugs’ strategy and refusal to acknowledge the evidence for best practice in drug treatment is quite literally killing people.”
Martin Powell, of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, echoes that view and says:
“The Home Office—under the now Prime Minister’s watch—is responsible for the highest number of drug deaths ever recorded. That the Prime Minister keeps claiming her drug policy is working should send a chill down the spine of every parent and reasonable person in the country. She knows, from countless studies, what keeps communities safe, and it isn’t driving people away from help and into the hands of criminals. It is responsible reforms that take the drug market away from dealers, and puts it into the hands of doctors and pharmacists.”
Drug-related deaths are increasing, and new drugs and associated problems are causing problems in prisons and emergency departments. In February 2016, the Government confirmed:
“We will shortly be publishing a new Drug Strategy.”
At the Christmas Adjournment, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) reminded the House that, barring an unexpected delivery from Santa Claus, it was still not to be seen. She asked again in the new year and was told that it would be “soon.” So “soon” in Government terms, means months, and “shortly” means more than a year. Will Ministers please announce an actual date for the drug strategy, or would we be better off asking the Easter bunny?
Local Authorities have seen their funding for drug and alcohol treatment slashed by 42% since 2010. Many clients seeking treatment for addiction lead chaotic lives and many struggle with a whole host of difficulties that go far beyond their addiction. They might be embroiled in the criminal justice system and need advice, they might have housing problems or be struggling with trauma, or they might have been in care and survived institutional abuse. Positions for psychologists in drug and alcohol addiction teams who could provide treatment for complex trauma related to sexual abuse have also been cut.
Members of the drugs, alcohol and justice cross-party parliamentary group, of which I am a member, are today debating in the other place the cost of alcohol misuse to the National Health Service. There are more than 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions each year, and alcohol is a contributory factor in more than 200 different health conditions. Our cross-party group will be discussing alcohol misuse and treatment after Easter, on 26 April. As one regular contributor to group meetings, John Jolly, has said:
“As Chief Executive of a drugs and alcohol charity I see the harm that alcohol does on a daily basis. I saw the impact as a police officer. I saw the impact as a probation officer. I saw the impact on children and families as a social worker. For this reason I would urge the Government to take urgent action to develop a national alcohol strategy”.
The shadow Health Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), whose father was sadly an alcoholic, has also called for greater recognition of the damage done by excessive drinking. Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are not going to go away. Let us hope that both a drugs strategy and an alcohol strategy will be forthcoming as a matter of urgency.
It is always a pleasure to speak in the House on any issue. I begin by joining those who have already conveyed their sympathies regarding PC Palmer and the innocents who were murdered just over a week ago. We also think of the injured, some of whom are critical even today, and their families.
I rise to speak not about the geological components of drought and what causes it, but about the suffering of men, women and children in Africa and what can be done to help them. We all know the issues, and we see them on TV. I will not be the only one in this Chamber who has seen the devastating images of children who are so malnourished that they cannot even stand. I read the report from Save the Children, which brings home the extent of the problem in Africa at present. It states that an estimated 6.5 million children could be at risk of starvation in the horn of Africa as a result of the back-to-back droughts in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Nearly 500,000 children in the region are already suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
What is malnutrition? It is a lack of nutritious food, which has a horrific effect on quality of life. Malnutrition increases the risk of infection and infectious disease, and even moderate malnutrition weakens every part of the immune system. For example, it is a major risk factor in the onset of active tuberculosis. Protein and energy malnutrition and deficiencies of specific micronutrients, including iron, zinc and vitamins, increase susceptibility to infection. All that happens to people who do not have food.
Malnutrition affects HIV transmission by increasing the risk of transmission from mother to child and by increasing the replication of the virus. Again, the complications are far-reaching. In communities or areas that lack access to safe drinking water, those additional health risks present a critical problem. Lower energy and impaired brain function represent the downward spiral of malnutrition as victims are less able to perform the tasks needed to acquire food, earn an income or gain an education. That is a massive problem, as several seasons of either failed or erratic rainfall have led to severe water shortages and the death of livestock, leaving nearly 15 million people across the three countries in urgent need of assistance. We have seen charities requesting help on TV, and the Government are doing a lot, but I urge them to do more.
With the next rainy season again expected to bring below-average rainfall across the region, the situation for already desperate children and families in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya will only get worse, leaving millions at risk of hunger, lifelong health problems and, worse, death. I take on board the urgings of John Graham, the Ethiopia country director of Save the Children, who in January 2017, ahead of the UN meeting in Addis Ababa, said:
“we urge them not to forget the plight of these children and families by stepping up their efforts to fund this response. The lives of millions are at stake. We must not allow many of the same past errors that resulted in the deaths of 130,000 children under five during the last Somalia famine alone, to be repeated.”
I continue that plea and look to our International Development Ministers. What have the Government done since January to help address this tragic situation? What is in place to ensure that aid reaches its destination intact? And what more can we do in this place to ensure that that happens? Focusing attention in this debate is one way of doing it.
With 5 million people, nearly half its population, facing severe food and water shortages, Somalia is now on the verge of famine. Malnutrition rates across Somalia have already reached critical levels and are expected to worsen in the coming weeks. Thousands of families are on the move in search of food and water, and many are now crossing the border into Ethiopia, which is dealing with its own effects of the drought, in search of help.
After screening on arrival at Dollo Ado camp, 77% of children show signs of malnutrition. In Ethiopia, the drought is forcing many children to drop out of school, leaving them at risk of early marriage and forced migration, both of which we do not want to happen. Again, those are the side effects of drought. The Ethiopian Government are working to mitigate the effects of last year’s drought, and the country is appealing for $948 million of funding. Ethiopia itself has already committed some $47 million to help 5.6 million people in need, but even that will never come anywhere near addressing the issue. In Kenya, more than 1.25 million people are in urgent need of food, with hunger levels expected to worsen over the coming months.
The level of need can be, and is, overwhelming, but the young man who threw starfish back into the sea was making a difference to as many as he could, which is all I ask today. Are we making a difference to as many people as we can? I understand that we are not able to solve all the problems of that nation, and that we are not able to solve all the problems of our own nation, but we can make sure that we do all we can to see that the aid we have to offer is going directly to the right places and ends up in the hands and the bellies of the children and others who so desperately need it.
I understand that the Deputy Leader of the House will be responding, but I hope my message will go to the Department for International Development either directly or through him. I hope that, either now or at a later date, there is a strategy in place to secure our goals. I seek assurance that we are doing all we possibly can, and in the best possible way.
I conclude by thanking you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this House on a regular basis, and I thank the other Deputy Speakers and Mr Speaker for also making that possible. I am very honoured to be the Member for Strangford and to sit in the greatest seat of democracy in the whole world. What a privilege it is to be able to sit in this place on behalf of our people. I say, with respect to everyone else in this House, that I know I represent some of the most wonderful people in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the people of Strangford. These are people I have known all my life.
I also wish to thank all the House staff and the right hon. and hon. Members for their courtesy and good manners. I thank the Deputy Leader of the House and the shadow Deputy Leader of the House in advance for the contributions they are going to make. I also wish to remind people of the real meaning of Easter, which is that our Lord and saviour was crucified on the cross and came into the world to save sinners.
It is always a great privilege to respond from the Front Bench in these debates, where we hear an eclectic mix of issues and we realise the true passion that colleagues have on a great many issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) opened the debate and said he was going to offer some home truths from his north-east constituency, and he certainly did so. He painted a vibrant picture of the Haredi Jewish community in Gateshead celebrating Purim, and it crossed my mind as we move into the Easter recess that it is important to remember the connections between Easter and the Jewish Passover. Obviously much of the symbolism is the same, as is the position in the calendar, but in many languages the words for “Easter” and for “Passover” are identical or very similar. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just reminded us about the true meaning of Easter, which is that the Lord loved us so much that he gave his son, who died for us but then rose again. Some hope can be offered to this House through that Easter message.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead had some banter with the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) about football. Unfortunately, the latter cannot be in his place at the moment, but he said he did not want to jinx Newcastle United’s good season by mentioning them. I should point out that when I mentioned Barrow A.F.C. during the Christmas Adjournment debate it absolutely jinxed their great winning streak, and I apologise to all Barrow fans who might be watching this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) came in with his shopping list, and he is a passionate co-chair of the all-party group on maritime and ports. He raised some important issues, as we leave the European Union, about the way in which we support and train the next generation of merchant navy seamen, and I supported his calls on that. I also support his calls that the fire and rescue service should have a statutory duty in respect of flooding, as our firefighters already respond to flooding incidents when called to do so.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) raised the issue of the school funding formula, and I am sure that there is not a Member who does not have a case from their constituency where they feel their schools are losing out. I certainly have cases in my constituency; I was most surprised, given the Government’s rhetoric on grammar schools, to receive a letter from the Lancaster Royal Grammar School outlining the huge cuts that it faces to its budget. It appears that no school is safe from these cuts. The hon. Gentleman was heading off to Southend’s Got Talent competition and if he was in his place I would have wished him good luck with whichever talent it was that he was hoping to win the competition with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) raised the issue of the 20,000 requests she has had for help and support in the past 22 months, which highlights the work of Members in serving their constituents, doing much of it behind the scenes. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) raised the issue of Syria and reminded us of the role that we all play as a country on the world stage when the answers do not always seem very obvious. This Easter recess might be a time for many Members to reflect on the role we can play.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) once again raised the issue of hysteroscopies. If Ministers think that she will be going away any time soon, they might want to think again. I suspect that if things are not resolved, she will be back at the next Adjournment debate before a recess raising the exact same issue, as she does at every opportunity she gets.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) talked about many issues relating to police matters and about the real need for justice for police widows. As we move towards the Easter Adjournment, we do so with a great sense of loss and sadness in our hearts, because last week we lost PC Keith Palmer, who was part of our Westminster village. That has affected every one of us. On behalf of the Opposition Front-Bench team, I add my condolences to PC Palmer’s family, friends and colleagues in this place as they mourn his loss. We remember all those killed and injured in last Wednesday’s act of terrorism and thank all those who work so hard to keep us safe, not only here in the Houses of Parliament but in our constituencies. We also thank all those who work for the security services doing work that goes unseen but that saves a great many lives.
I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) a happy birthday; I suspect she will be getting many birthday greetings now that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East has outed her birthday. She raised the important issue of compulsory first aid in schools. The issue came to light in my constituency recently when I was at a large gathering. I had just taken the microphone when somebody on the back row had an epileptic fit. It surprised me that there were just two of us in the room who knew what to do in that situation. It was a room full of 100 people, and just two of us responded as first aiders. I call on the Government to think again about the campaign for compulsory first aid in schools, which I fully support.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the issues in Ethiopia and Somalia. He is a great, passionate campaigner for global justice and against poverty, and I know he will continue his fight for justice.
As we move towards the Easter Adjournment, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr Speaker, the Deputy Speakers, the staff of the House, and all Members and their staff who work on this estate, a happy Easter. In particular this Easter, I wish the police and security staff—who work very hard and who may often have gone unnoticed but certainly not in the past few days—a happy and peaceful Easter. Happy Pesach to everyone.
It is a real pleasure to be the Minister at the Dispatch Box for this debate and to follow the eloquent remarks of the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). In the few minutes remaining, it falls to me to try to answer some of the points raised and sum up the debate.
My hon. Friend—he feels like a friend, but I should say the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, is not currently in the Chamber. I know what a powerful and effective Chair he is, and the charm with which he performs his functions really does help to get things done. He spoke movingly about Gateshead, its nightlife and the coast and surrounding countryside there. As the shadow Deputy Leader of the House said, he spoke about the orthodox Jewish community in Gateshead and about Purim. I thank him for speaking so affectionately and welcomingly about his community.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the National Citizen Service. To use its catchphrase, we should “Say yes to NCS”, because it is a wonderful organisation—a charity—that really is very popular with people. It has an extremely high success rate, and the last time I looked its approval rating was well above 90%. It is an organisation that is working very well indeed.
It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is not present because I want to mention the Gateshead Millennium bridge. When he said that he pressed the button to tilt the bridge, I was reminded that he himself, I think it is fair to say, is a bridge linking his constituency so very effectively with this House. He is as much Gateshead as the Gateshead Millennium bridge is. I hope that a Minister complimenting him in that way will not adversely affect his credibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) has also had to leave the Chamber. I am tempted to call him Bob bhai, which is a nickname that he has affectionately been given by the Hindu community in Harrow East. He spoke of his Homelessness Reduction Bill, which he should be terribly proud of. Congratulations are due to him on getting that Bill on the statute book. It is always an achievement for any Member to get a Bill on the statute book, but that Bill, which helps homeless people, really is an achievement.
My hon. Friend told a very concerning story about the lifts at Stanmore railway station and about how his local council—Harrow Council—is so flushed with funds that it refused a £1 million gift to improve the railway station. No doubt, there will be some local questions about that decision. I can see the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) nodding sagely at that.
Next we heard from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) who spoke about cochlear implants. I was particularly struck by the fact that no fewer than 600,000 people could benefit from them. I wish to reiterate what was said to him in an earlier debate, which is that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is duty bound to consider such matters and to make decisions on them. I wish him well in his campaign in that regard.
The Department for International Development is looking at small non-governmental organisations, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I recommend that he seek a meeting with the excellent Secretary of State of DFID, because she is a powerful voice and one of those people who regularly gets things done. He should certainly seek a meeting with her. If I can help in any way, he should speak to me.
The next Member to speak was my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) who most certainly is in his place. Traditionally, he puts on a tour de force at the end-of-term Adjournment debates. He spoke of Southend, the alternative city of culture, and about Southend’s Got Talent competition, which is on tonight. I do not know whether he is a contestant—[Interruption.] I hear the words, “He should be.” He certainly is a talent in this Chamber and in this debate. He said that it was 125 years since the inauguration of his borough. I think that he has been the Member for a large proportion of that time—certainly a fifth of it anyway—and that is a real achievement for him. He spoke of the recently appointed town crier. No doubt, that town crier can thank him for his remarks by shouting about how effective my hon. Friend is as MP for his area.
My hon. Friend very kindly mentioned two officers of this House who are retiring after very long service: Post Office member John Wrighton who has been here for 38 years; and Alan Dickens, a Doorkeeper since 1993 and senior Doorkeeper since 2004, who has been a loyal servant of this House, and I thank him for his services. Indeed, I wish to thank all our Doorkeepers here. During the recent terrible terrorist incident, they were remarkable and showed reassuring calm, dignity, professionalism and control. We thank them for their devotion to duty.
The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) made a party political speech about Brexit and many other things. Nevertheless, I feel sure that she will respect the wishes of the democratic majority, who, of course, voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. No doubt, she will join me in wishing the country and her constituents the very best deal that we can get—that we will get—over the coming months and years.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke movingly about Syria. He is an authoritative voice in this House and particularly so on such a subject. The United Kingdom has, of course, pledged more than £2.3 billion in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region generally. That is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis, and it is right that it should be. We are co-hosting the forthcoming Brussels conference on 5 April, which will be an important opportunity to take stock of the situation in Syria and to reaffirm and build on the London conference commitments. I thank him for raising the matter at this time and in this place.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) spoke, as she has on previous occasions when I have had the honour to be at this Dispatch Box, about issues very close to her heart, including hysteroscopies. She said that she wishes to meet the Health Secretary about the subject, and I commend her for that. I found it disconcerting that apparently some areas consider anaesthetic to be routine, whereas others do not. No doubt, she will wish to raise that with the Health Secretary, and I wish her well in her campaign in that regard.
The hon. Lady also spoke of cancer diagnoses. I was moved by her description of the loss of her mother. She said that she has written to the Department of Health about faster and more joined-up cancer diagnoses. As she knows, more than £1.5 billion has been put towards the cancer drugs fund, which has helped more than 100,000 people. Although there is always more that can be done, £130 million has gone into modernising, for example, radiotherapy equipment across England, and more than £5.5 billion a year has been spent on other cancer drugs and treatments, and £2.5 billion on pathology services. Those are large numbers. Cancer affects us all in this House and this country in one way or another and people we know—family, friends, relatives and colleagues—so her remarks will certainly strike home.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East, in his inimitable remarks, spoke powerfully about police bravery and the appalling attacks that some police officers suffer in the line of duty. Before I was in this place, I practised at the Bar in criminal law, and I dealt with many such cases. Anyone who assaults our police officers in the exercise of their lawful duty commits a serious and aggravating offence and should be dealt with to the fullest available extent of the law. It is an aggravating feature in sentencing, and one that we will follow closely along with the individual cases that come to the attention of the House. The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about the police funding formula. He does not like the phrases, “in due course”, “shortly” or “as soon as possible”, so may I just say instead, “as soon as reasonably practicable”? I hope that he will be satisfied with that.
I wish the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) a happy birthday. She spoke about first aid in schools, which is an important issue. The events of the past week have brought home how important it is for people to know about first aid. Whether those issues and all those important things can be made compulsory is, of course, another matter entirely, as there are a lot of priorities for schools and schoolchildren.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke of the wonderful people he represents. I have no doubt of that. He then spoke movingly about the famine in east Africa. It is an urgent and severe crisis. More than 20 million people are at risk, but the UK is delivering life-saving support across South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria. We will not look the other way while they suffer, which is why we have already announced £200 million in aid for Somalia and South Sudan. The phenomenal public response to the Disasters Emergency Committee is testament to the British people’s unwavering generosity in response to suffering. The UK Government has matched that pound for pound—£10 million.
Several Members mentioned PC Keith Palmer. He protected and courageously defended our parliamentary democracy last week. He stood his ground, as one constable proudly described him to me earlier today. He did nothing less than save lives. He bravely defended us and Her Majesty’s Palace of Westminster. We will forever be indebted to him. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his colleagues. He was a hero. He was a national hero, and he was our hero.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
House of Commons Hansard
30 March 2017