I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee. Unaccountably, I must apologise for the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is unable to be with us this afternoon; he is no doubt very active in his constituency, regaling his constituents with festive wishes.
The theme of my introduction is thinking about those who are less fortunate than we are. First and foremost, I want to place on the record what I believe is the view of the whole House in expressing our horror and revulsion at the events at the Berlin Christmas market. Our thoughts are not only with those who are fighting for their lives, but with the relatives of those who have sadly lost their lives. It just shows what can happen and the horrors that can ensue at a simple Christmas market where law-abiding people are going about their business. We do not yet know who was responsible or what their motives were. However, our sympathies are with the relatives of those who have lost their lives and equally with those who have been severely injured.
Secondly, let us express our thoughts, as a whole House, for the people of Aleppo, who are in a parlous condition at the hands of a brutal dictator, and a brutal army that is basically eliminating anyone and everyone that stands in its way. I trust that there will be a resolution of this terrible conflict in the new year, and that people will be able to return to their homes in peace and harmony.
Thirdly, this is the first Christmas that Jo Cox’s family will experience without her. Members on both sides of the House have been touched by the brutal murder of a colleague who was just doing her job on behalf of her constituents. The best thing we can all do—even if we are not used to downloading tracks—is to download her single and help to make it the No. 1 for Christmas. That would be a fitting tribute for a late colleague whom we all mourn.
I want to move on to another set of people who are far less fortunate than we are—the homeless and rough sleepers. Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know all too well that my Homelessness Reduction Bill is making its way through Parliament. I am delighted to say that it has all-party support. It had an unopposed Second Reading on 28 October, and we have pursued the Bill in Committee, where I am pleased to say that we are more than halfway through its 13 clauses. I am told that it is the longest ever private Member’s Bill, and it will probably end up as the most expensive for the Government to fund.
Equally, the Bill is very important. The number of people who are homeless in this country is a disgrace, and the number of people who will sleep rough tonight is a disgrace. We owe it to them to make sure that we deliver a radical solution. First and foremost, that is about increasing the supply of housing so that people can have a decent roof over their head, but it is also about transforming local authorities to make sure that they look at the reasons why people are homeless and provide help and assistance at first hand.
I want to thank some of the people involved. I place on the record my thanks to Crisis, St Mungo’s and Shelter for all the work they do to assist people who are homeless at this time of year. I also thank them for giving me tremendous support in producing the Bill, together with the National Landlords Association, which has also given me exceptional assistance.
Given that it is Christmas and that the hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of housing, will he take this opportunity to join me in praising Harrow Council for beginning to build council houses—for the first time in 28 years, there will be new council homes in Harrow—which is surely a key part of tackling the housing crisis that affects both our constituencies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour, for raising that issue. It is important that affordable housing is developed right across London and right across the country. To me, the form of tenure does not matter too much; what matters most is that housing is provided for people at a price they can afford. It is good to see Harrow Council doing something right under Labour control. That is very rare—I have a whole catalogue of its errors. But in the spirit of Christmas, let us thank the council.
May I also place on the record my concern and that of more than 216 Members of Parliament about the plight of Equitable Life policyholders? It is a long-running scandal. Although the Government have now closed the compensation scheme to new applicants, the issue is far from over. The Government rightly provided £1.5 billion in compensation to people who suffered from the scam, but the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), made it clear that the total sum owed to those people—as a result of saving their money, as was their right, for a reasonable retirement—was £4.3 billion. More than 1 million people have received only 22% of the compensation they are due. A great deal of money still needs to be found to compensate those applicants. That is without dealing with the most frail and vulnerable—those with pre-’92 trapped annuities, who deserve help on compassionate grounds. I am glad that the new Economic Secretary has agreed to meet a cross-party delegation in the new year to discuss the next steps.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Quite clearly, in the not too distant future large numbers of those affected will want to use their pension for the comfortable life they thought they were saving for and have literally been robbed of.
This year, we have resuscitated the all-party parliamentary group on Romania. I particularly want to raise the plight of Alexander Adamescu, a journalist from Romania —originally from Germany—who is resident in the UK and is under threat from a European arrest warrant for raising issues that are slightly controversial in Romania but in this country would not be an issue. That raises specific concerns about the relationship between Britain and Romania, and about how the European arrest warrant is used.
I also want to raise the plight of 1.5 million people displaced in Azerbaijan from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict there has been going on for far too long. It is a forgotten conflict, and unfortunately the position with Armenia, Russia and allies has not helped the overall situation. This summer, the all-party parliamentary group on Azerbaijan went to see one of the camps that has been set up for those people. They are suffering very greatly through no fault of their own. It is time that human rights and shared values were restored to that part of the world.
There is unfinished business in Parliament on two other issues that I will raise briefly. First, we have now gone a year since the expiry of the tobacco control plan that the Government implemented. We have been waiting a year for the new plan. We have been promised on frequent occasions that it would be published soon. On today’s Order Paper I see no progress on it, and I do not think the issue was aired at Health questions. It is obviously important that the Government publish the new tobacco control plan early in the new year, with far-reaching targets, so that we can set out our stall to make sure that the United Kingdom becomes a smoke-free country. It is important that the plan is set out, because without it we run the risk of going backwards on all the wonderful things that have been achieved over the past five years.
Equally, on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for British Hindus I want to raise the fact that the Government have promised on several occasions to publish the consultation document on ridding ourselves of the unnecessary, ill-thought-out and divisive caste legislation. That consultation was promised by the end of the year. Today is the last day this year that we will meet in Parliament, and there has been no notification to Parliament about the publication of that consultation document. I trust that we will see the document before the end of the year, but Parliament should see it and it should be announced in Parliament before it is released to the public.
May I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all his work on behalf of the Hindu community, not just in Harrow but throughout the country? He and I compete as to the number of British Hindus in our constituencies, although I probably just beat him in Leicester. Does he agree that it is important that we have a debate on that document once it is published? It is not sufficient just to publish and rush it through the House. A proper debate involving the diaspora would be very helpful.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. I have asked at the last two Women and Equalities questions for the publication of the consultation and asked at business questions for a statement to the House. We could have that debate and Members from all parties and with all interests could register their point of view. Sadly, that has yet to be the case. It is important that we have the debate before the consultation starts, so that it can frame the consultation rather than ending up responding to the document.
I will raise a couple more issues of significance before I conclude my opening speech. The first is the problems that I am sure Members in all parts of the House are experiencing with regard to the issuing of visas for weddings, religious ceremonies and educational or other particular purposes. Visas are being rejected on grounds that I consider spurious. That causes immense difficulties for people coming for religious functions, weddings and in particular funerals, where things are done at the last minute. Applications from India, Pakistan, Iran and Sri Lanka seem to be singled out in an unfair manner and are not treated properly.
I will continue to work in the new year for a two-year visitor visa to be issued for Indian citizens in the same way as the Government agreed for Chinese citizens. I have nothing against Chinese people wanting to visit—that is wonderful—but huge numbers of Indians want to come here and visit too, and I see no reason why they should suffer unfair discrimination when so many relatives are here and people want to visit and to use this country appropriately.
Local transport services are suffering. This may be a theme of other speeches in this debate. We are looking forward to Harrow-on-the-Hill station in the constituency of my honourable neighbour the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) being made step-free. I am looking forward to Stanmore station becoming step-free in the same timeframe. I trust that the solution that has been identified will go forward and will be appropriate.
The one local health issue that I want to raise is that we are seeing the rebuilding of the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in my constituency. That is not before time. I and my predecessors have struggled to achieve that and I am delighted that it is finally happening and that we will see the development of a first-rate national hospital that suits the brilliant work that the doctors and nurses do.
I could raise a range of other issues, but I know that a huge number of colleagues are keen to update the House on what they think matters before we rise for the Adjournment. I look forward to the response of my good friend the Deputy Leader of the House to the debate in time-honoured fashion. I have no doubt that it will be appropriately challenging for him, but I know that he will respond and that colleagues will have suitable matters to raise.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the Speaker, your fellow Deputy Speakers, the whole House, our colleagues, the staff and the people who keep us safe a very merry Christmas and a happy new year that I trust will be peaceful, prosperous and healthy. On behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, I open the debate and look forward to the speeches of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Order. If hon. Members take up to eight minutes, everyone will—[Interruption.] It is no use moaning about it. If you want to take extra and knock someone else out, that is up to yourselves. I am only trying to be helpful. In the Christmas spirit, let us all treat each other with equality.
I would like to add to the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) at the beginning of his speech about the sad incident in Germany, and especially those comments in relation to the memory of our dear friend Jo Cox.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), a fellow member of the drugs, alcohol and justice parliamentary group, asked on the day of the summer Adjournment:
“Will the Leader of the House send out a search party to find the updated drugs strategy, as it has gone missing in Government?”—[Official Report, 21 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 984.]
The policy is still awaited, and unless we have an unexpected delivery from Father Christmas, it will not be seen in the coming months.
In September, I suggested that a debate was desperately needed on drugs policy, following a series of related reports. The Health Committee’s report on public health warned that
“cuts to public health are a false economy”
and expressed concern that drug and alcohol services “can get missed.” Then came an update from the Office for National Statistics showing drugs deaths at record levels; my area, the north-east of England, was the highest again. At the same time, Public Health England and the Local Government Association published their detailed investigation into drug deaths. This month, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has added its investigation.
Furthermore, we have seen Public Health England’s “Evidence Review of the Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies”, and the Department of Work and Pensions has finally released Dame Carol Black’s review of the effects of drug and alcohol addiction on employment outcomes. All this weight of expert opinion and evidence recommends that we prioritise drug and alcohol treatment. I very much hope that the Government heed the evidence and recommendations from all these reports and provide a drugs strategy and an alcohol strategy with the resources required to fulfil their objectives.
As Karen Tyrell, a regular contributor to the drugs, alcohol and justice group Addaction, said:
“We simply can’t allow another year to go by and greet further deaths with another statement of concern.”
Two other parliamentary groups to which I belong, the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group and the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, have raised the issue of school sprinklers, for which guidance is being revised. I am in favour of clear, concise guidance, but I am not in favour of children possibly losing their schools, or even their lives, for the sake of losing a few lines of text. We cannot prioritise brevity over safety. I hope that in the new year, Education Ministers will reconsider and restore the expectation that sprinklers will be installed in new school buildings. Surely, if any change must be made it would be better to replace the word “expectation” with a firm duty to install sprinklers.
Finally, I am dismayed and disappointed that the Government have allowed Spanish-owned Scottish Power to take huge concessions from the UK taxpayer yet award the majority of its fabrication contracts to Spanish nationally owned yards and yards in the middle east. Only 200 UK jobs will be created in Northern Ireland under the contract to build jackets for the East Anglia One offshore wind farm project.
It is very worrying that Government officials omitted to stipulate reference to UK content in the subsidy documents—shame on our Government and shame on Scottish Power! A portion of those jobs would have been lifeblood for the OGN yard in my constituency, which at the height of its contracts two years ago supported 2,000 jobs. As jobs have dried up, the yard has just a handful of people to maintain it. I must praise Dennis Clark of OGN for his past success in bringing good jobs to North Tyneside and for his solid commitment to our region. Our fight will go on to ensure our yards in Tyneside have healthy order books in future.
I wish everyone who works in the House a very happy Christmas and, in particular, the most precious gift of all: good health throughout 2017.
I would like to spread some Christmas cheer by talking about the tax system, but first I would like to join others in wishing you, Mr Deputy Speaker, all right hon. and hon. Members and all staff of the House well for the Christmas period.
I want to detain the House briefly to talk about HMRC’s Making Tax Digital programme, an important issue I think we should reflect on over the Christmas period. Before doing so, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a recipient of rental income from property.
Digitisation of the tax system—the aim of the MTD programme—is worth while, but I have genuine concerns about the proposals as they currently stand. I have been contacted by a number of constituents, including Mr Nick Danan, whose email prompted me to make this speech today. A key issue is the proposed obligation, under the programme, to send a quarterly report to the tax authorities. This is to be accompanied by so-called real-time reporting of transactions, although exactly what that will involve in practice is not yet clear.
At the moment, the obligation is planned to be imposed on all self-employed people, small businesses and buy-to-let landlords with an income or turnover above £10,000. A relatively recent concession by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is that implementation will be deferred for a year for unincorporated businesses with a turnover over the £10,000 threshold and below unspecified new thresholds. It is very welcome that HMRC has been listening and that it has made that move, but it does not address all the concerns my constituents have with the proposals.
I welcomed the chance to meet the Federation of Small Businesses when it visited Parliament on 29 November to present a report it had commissioned on the Making Tax Digital programme and to explain the changes it believes ought to be made to the programme before it is put into legislation next year. Yesterday, I met Louise McMullan and Alan Lean of Equity to talk about the problems their members in the entertainment industry would have with the programme. The FSB estimates that the current proposals will cost businesses on average £2,770 a year in addition to the £3,600 they already spend on help and advice with the tax system. Such figures are always challengeable and debatable, but I am worried about imposing this new cost on entrepreneurs who are such a fundamental part of economic success.
Treasury Ministers are very clear that they expect their MTD project to save money for businesses, but I find that hard to reconcile with real-time transaction reporting and quarterly updates. I am deliberately choosing not to call them quarterly tax returns, since Ministers are very clear that these updates will not be the same as a traditional annual tax return. However, whether they are updates, reports or returns, it seems inevitable that they will cost businesses time and money to prepare.
Now I fully accept that HMRC intends to try to ensure that compiling quarterly reports is a simple process that does not need professional advice. The problem is that the legal, financial and reputational risks of getting reports to HMRC wrong are so serious that many or most small businesses, self-employed people and landlords affected will probably ask their professional advisers to compile these new quarterly reports in the same way they do an annual tax return. That would involve significant costs. As a Government and as a party, we have a strong commitment to try to minimise the cost of tax and regulation for business, and I feel that, as it currently stands, the Making Tax Digital programme is hard to reconcile with that commitment.
I bear in mind the fact that we are already asking business, large and small, to take on significant responsibilities on a range of social, economic and environmental goals, including complex rules on employment protection, payroll, VAT, auto-enrolment for pensions, action on climate change and so forth: the list is a long one. Those are important objectives that the House should support, but they tend to come with obligations for people just trying to get by and make an honest living.
When this measure comes before us in the Finance Bill next year, we should think very carefully before we impose further burdens on people who are so crucial to job creation and general economic success. We will need to ask ourselves two questions: are these burdens necessary and proportionate; and can anything further be done to mitigate them? We should bear in mind that the £10,000 threshold will bring many millions of people within the scope of these new reporting requirements, including many of our constituents. I hope that before Ministers bring this legislation forward next year, they listen carefully to the responses to the consultation and representations made by organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the FSB and Equity.
On the particular issue of the threshold, many feel that £10,000 is too low. There is a concern that it is disproportionate to impose these new burdens on microbusinesses or very small-scale buy-to-let landlords. I hope Ministers will consider an increase to align the MTD reporting threshold, for example, with the VAT threshold, which is currently around £83,000. After all, VAT-rated businesses already deal with regular reporting requirements, so the impact of this new scheme would be less disruptive for them. Making these new reporting obligations voluntary for businesses under the VAT threshold would seem a reasonable way forward. HMRC clearly believes its system will be successful and easy to use, so it should not shy away from a voluntary approach. If the system is to be as user-friendly as it believes it will, people will want to use it and will not need to be compelled to do so. That approach is taken in Australia, for example.
The Chairman of the Treasury Committee pointed out the concern in his letter to the Chancellor in September. He said that the new requirements for digital recordkeeping and reporting go further than simply entering a handful of totals into an online return. In his letter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) described what was required as
“tantamount to prescription by HMRC, for the first time, of a particular form in which accounting records must be maintained.”
I thus hope that one key thing we will hear from Ministers when they return here next year is clarity on exactly what quarterly real-time reporting will be required by MTD. I hope that the Government will consider my constituent’s proposal that it should not go beyond a simple statement of income on expenditure.
HMRC’s commitment to free digital tools for the smallest businesses to help them with this new approach is welcome, but so far we have had only rather limited information on what that software will be and for how long it will remain free to use. A point raised with me by Equity yesterday is that many of its members are particularly concerned about whether the free software will enable them to report overseas earnings. I hope that we will hear from Ministers next year about their confidence in the security of HMRC systems. People will be asked to accommodate a vast amount of data, far more than at present, and I think people providing those data will want to be confident that HMRC’s computer systems are stable and resilient enough to hold this vast increase.
I also hope that Ministers will be able to reassure us about how the new reporting obligations will compare with universal credit monthly reports. Many in the self-employed sector will receive universal credit and be subject to the Making Tax Digital obligations: avoiding unnecessary duplication would be very helpful. Perhaps most important of all, a longer implementation period with extensive piloting would really help to ease the transition to a genuinely digital tax system. It also makes sense to start with the larger businesses, which are probably better able to cope, rather than, as HMRC currently proposes, starting with the smallest.
The Government were very sensible to pilot the new universal credit system extensively and introduce it gradually over a period of years. Making Tax Digital will be a truly massive IT project, and taking time to get it right is both justifiable and sensible, even if that postpones some of the advantages for the Government. I fear that if HMRC presses ahead with MTD in its current form, that will require a very significant change for thousands of self-employed people who may not run digital accounts, or, in some cases, may not even use computers very much.
Of course there are clear advantages in moving such people towards a more systematic approach to their tax and accounts and away from the so-called shoebox model approach, but if HMRC is to achieve behaviour change of that magnitude, it will take some time. There can be little doubt that millions of people are due to face a radical change in how they deal with their tax affairs, and that they do not yet have a clue about what is coming down the track towards them. Allowing enough time to enable the delivery of the programme to run smoothly would be a wise choice on the Government’s part.
I believe that most people should welcome and support the goal of a digitised tax system. I have no doubt that a number of elements of HMRC’s Making Tax Digital programme will make the tax system easier to use, help to reduce errors, strengthen the tax base and support the public finances. Those are all aims that the House can support, and I certainly support them, but there are still real concerns about the cost impact of the programme on self-employed people, landlords and small businesses. I believe that those problems can be resolved, but, although there is still time to sort them out, there is not a great deal of time.
I am not someone who rushes to highlight potential risks or problems with Government initiatives, but I felt that I ought to raise these concerns on behalf of the many people in my constituency who will be affected. I sincerely hope that Treasury Ministers will consider the points that I have made today as they embark on the final decisions that are needed on Making Tax Digital before presenting the Finance Bill 2017 to the House.
Order. The good news is that we have had two no-shows, which will allow Members to speak for up to 10 minutes. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) must have known that already, given the length of time for which she spoke—but not to worry.
You will be pleased to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I will not require the full 10 minutes.
It is a pleasure to take part in this wide-ranging and popular general debate, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to do so.
Among the numerous issues to have graced my casework over recent months—perhaps one of the more interesting —is the World Health Organisation Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, sometimes referred to as the Illicit Trade Protocol, or ITP. As many Members will know, the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the world’s first and only public health treaty. However, the problem of illicit tobacco was held to be so severe that a new, subsidiary treaty under the FCTC was required, namely the ITP. It was concluded in 2012, and currently covers 24 state parties plus the European Union. Forty parties are required for the ITP to come into force. It was signed by the United Kingdom Government three years ago, but so far it has not been ratified by the UK. In recent weeks, I have raised this subject a number of times through parliamentary questions, both oral and written. I am grateful to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for her helpful and constructive answers, which I received yesterday.
Those who have raised this important issue with me feel that the UK Government are setting a poor example and dragging their feet on ratification of the protocol on illicit tobacco and that as a consequence they are threatening public health and costing the Treasury millions of pounds in lost revenue. The latest HMRC figures for 2015-16 estimate that the UK illicit market share for cigarettes is 13% and for hand-rolling tobacco 32%. The tobacco tax gap for this period was estimated to be £2.4 billion. Although that represents a significant improvement over the last decade or so, the issue remains a key public health concern. I say that not because illicit tobacco is necessarily more harmful than that on sale in shops, but rather because it bypasses tobacco control measures designed to increase prices and prevent tobacco sales to children.
As I have mentioned, I hope that the parliamentary questions and answers go some way towards addressing the concerns over the Government’s failure to act on the ITP. I look forward to the text of the protocol being laid before Parliament as a Command Paper, and would be grateful to Ministers if we could have an indication of a likely timescale for that.
I press the point because I believe that the ITP will genuinely help to tackle the illicit trade problem. Among its measures designed to combat the illicit trade is a worldwide tracking and tracing scheme for tobacco products. The ITP explicitly requires Governments to take responsibility for control measures and not to rely on industry self-regulation, which has failed to deliver. This track-and-trace scheme is intended to prevent the tobacco industry from participating in, or turning a blind eye to, smuggling. The scheme must be independent of the industry if it is to be effective.
Earlier this year, the big tobacco companies sold Codentify, the anti-smuggling track-and-trace system, to a third party for a token 1 Swiss franc, clearly in an attempt to comply with EU and World Health Organisation rules on independence. However, it has been claimed that the new owner is merely a front company and that the system is still under the effective control of the tobacco firms. If so, this would not fulfil the requirements of the ITP for independence. Some industry insiders have also highlighted that Codentify is ineffective as a track and trace system as it uses a combination of unique encrypted codes along with other codes that are visible and easy to forge. I trust that Ministers will have that on their radar as this issue moves forward.
In conclusion, the protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products is a global solution to a global problem. It is important that we play our full part, and in the spirit of Christmas I welcome the Government’s commitment to ratification. I am, however, impatient and keen to see progress. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, although I will not envy him as he tries to sum up today’s wide-ranging debate.
At this time of Christmas and good will towards all, it seems a bit churlish to bring to the attention of the House the sad problems my constituents have had over the last three weeks when travelling by rail down from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street to work and back again. About 8,000 to 9,000 of my constituents commute to London to work each day, and others travel down to London and back up to Chelmsford during the day for a variety of other reasons. But we have been struck over the last three weeks by one problem after another that have brought the network to a grinding halt and caused so much disruption and frustration for those travelling.
The fact is that in my part of Essex the line is only two lines—one down to London and one up from London. There is little scope if a train breaks down or there are problems with the track except to sort the problem out immediately to get the network running again. When a problem occurs, all the trains back up and wait for a solution. If that happens during the rush hour, we can all imagine the frustration and problems, because people want to get to work; they do not want to be late, as it causes problems with their employers, and they have to put up with all of that too.
These problems have happened too much in the recent past. A track crack brought chaos, and a freight train broke down and brought everything to a standstill. Engines pulling commuter trains have broken down, with all the disturbance and problems that that causes.
Things will be considerably better in the future. I give credit to the previous Labour Government and to this Government for the investment that has been poured in to improve and upgrade the track and to replace the overhead cables from Liverpool Street to Chelmsford and beyond to Colchester and Norwich. That is bringing some improvements now, but it will bring considerable improvements when it is finished because we will have fewer faults. However, that is investment that no one ever sees. If we get new carriages, people obviously immediately notice the differences and the improvement on the previous ones. People do not notice track and infrastructure improvement because it is not in their face, but it is going on.
The franchise that was awarded to Abellio Greater Anglia in the summer is extremely good news for my constituents in so far as the commitment is there to replace all the trains with brand-new ones in 2019-20. The current engines and carriages are 30 years old, so it is no wonder that they break down. They are of a different generation and have different technology, which is old and susceptible to faults. When we get brand-new engines, we will see a significant improvement in performance. In addition, a new station will be built just to the north-east of Chelmsford’s city limits near Beaulieu Park, which will help to unclog the congestion in the town that comes from people driving to the station to get their trains to work during the morning rush hour and then driving back in the afternoon and evening. By the mid-2020s, there will be a 5 km loop track to the north of Witham, allowing fast trains to overtake the slower ones, and an increase in capacity on trains to Liverpool Street.
Jam tomorrow is great, but we need more jam today because my constituents are having to put up with too much disruption. Without wanting to rub it in, they pay quite a lot of their taxed income for the pleasure—if that is the right word—of travelling down to London to work, so I want several things. There is considerable engineering work at the moment, particularly at weekends, simply due to investment in upgrading the infrastructure, but I want an end to the Network Rail inefficiencies that lead to engineering work overrunning into the Monday morning rush hour and causing considerable grief. It is totally avoidable with better planning and organisation. In addition, I want service providers to offer more information when there is disruption or a breakdown, so that customers know exactly what the problem is, why they either cannot get on a train or are stuck on a train and, if possible, roughly how long it will take for the problem to be resolved so that they can continue or start their journey. I am not asking for a lot. Better communication is quite straightforward in this era of social media and other communication systems.
If possible, I would like more work to be done to ensure that the current engines are best maintained to minimise the possibility of breakdowns. I also want fewer freight trains to run during rush hour, when they cause utter chaos if they break down. That is a challenge for now. As I have explained, the challenge for the future is looking good, but there is one thing this Government could do to help the network. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is shortly going to use money from a £450 million fund for trials of digital signalling for the railways, and pilot areas will be needed. Essex County Council and I, along with other hon. Members, are most anxious that one site where this digital signalling is tested should be the Liverpool Street-Chelmsford-Colchester-Ipswich-Norwich line. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House, who will be responding to this debate, to make the Secretary of State for Transport aware, as I have done, of how important it would be and what a signal it would give in terms of confidence in the system if the Department for Transport were prepared to use that line and rail network as part of the trials of digital signalling, because that is yet another investment that will improve rail travel in this country over the coming years.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. By now, hon. Members may have seen my break into the music industry with “National Living Rage”, a Christmas song that I recorded with a number of Labour Members last week. Derided by some, adored by others—my mum—I am delighted that the song has had its desired effect of generating national attention for the serious issue of pay cuts. It has had 40,000 hits on YouTube and been laughed at on everything from “Daily Politics” to Channel 4’s “The Last Leg”, but it has got a serious message out in the public domain by humorous means.
These cuts are being made by some good employers who have made a bad decision when it comes to older, long-standing staff. I want to take a moment to consider the tens of thousands of workers who face a pay cut this Christmas—those families who have to bear the pressure of selling their house or finding another job just to make ends meet. Christmas should be a time of good will to all men and women, but a disappointing roll call of employers are being scrooges this year. Instead of delivering presents, they are serving their loyal, long-standing staff with pay cuts and notices. From B&Q to Marks & Spencer, 2 Sisters Food Group, Waitrose, Caffè Nero and EAT, good employers are getting it wrong, using the introduction of a higher statutory minimum wage as an opportunity to cut total staff pay.
No one in this House should be under any illusion that this is some sort of niche issue—on the contrary, it is affecting residents in every constituency across the country. It is estimated that about 11,000 of the iconic high street retailer Marks & Spencer’s total workforce of 83,000 would be negatively impacted in some way by pay cuts—that is 13% of the workforce adversely affected, almost all of whom are on pre-2002 contracts. Some 2,700 workers will lose more than £1,000 a year, and 700 will lose more than £2,000 a year. Approximately more than half a million people in the retail, restaurant and food manufacturing industries will receive a pay cut—that is about 13% of the total number of workers in those industries. Many of the companies involved are high street names with historically good reputations, but they have made some terrible errors of judgment. It is not too late for them to change their minds, and I am asking all of them to reverse their decisions to cut staff pay at their January board meetings. Should those companies not change their minds, I hope the Government will step in and salvage their policy for all workers.
I have seen evidence that proves that many other companies are planning the same sort of pay cuts in the coming year. The chair of John Lewis, Sir Charlie Mayfield, stated in a private meeting earlier this year his intention to review the partnership’s “historic premium pay arrangements”, which he said were not in keeping with John Lewis’s competitors. We know what the John Lewis Partnership’s competitors are doing, so clearly the “review” of “legacy payments” is just a euphemism for the cutting of pay for long-standing staff. We have already seen clear evidence of that in Waitrose’s decision earlier this year to take away paid breaks from new and existing staff. The House will appreciate my frustration when Sir Charlie emailed me to say that he no longer had any intention of meeting me today. Buster, the boxer from John Lewis’s heart-warming Christmas ad, and I are very sad not to have the opportunity to discuss John Lewis’s plans for pay cuts. Can we assume that the decision not to meet me is an admission of guilt on its part? I guess that Buster and I will not know for sure until those pay cuts are announced in the coming year.
If I am wrong about John Lewis, I will happily return to this House and publicly apologise. I will be delighted to be wrong about John Lewis—it is a great British business that got great through great customer service from well-treated staff, the sort of people whom the Prime Minister describes as those giving their best and putting in the effort. I am happy to apologise if I am wrong and I reiterate to Sir Charlie that I would be happy to meet him and discuss this important issue wherever and whenever he likes.
Having concentrated on unscrupulous employment practices, I know that corporate executives are watching every move in Parliament so, through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to deliver a message to all those company CEOs and chairmen of boards. The campaign to ensure that no one in this country loses money as a result of the national living wage will continue into the new year, until every worker gets the pay that they so richly deserve. My colleagues and I will be writing to chairmen this week to ask for their contract changes to be reversed at the January board meetings.
I want to use these last few minutes to express my deep concern for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan and in this country.
As vice-chair of the all-party group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, I want to say that we all stand in solidarity with them wherever they are in the world. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should always speak out against religious persecution, wherever it occurs and whoever it falls on?
I agree with the hon. Lady: whatever the religion and wherever people are, we must stand up for religious tolerance.
There have been two worrying developments overseas. The first was a raid in Rabwah, where 16 fully armed policemen and 12 plain-clothed officers from three police vehicles forced entry into an Ahmadi office without a warrant, wounding and arresting four innocent Ahmadi men. The raid was unlawful and most likely ordered by the highest ranking officials in the Punjab province.
The second was the destruction of the historic Chakwal mosque, which was attacked by more than 1,000 people a week ago. Stones were pelted and the property was burnt to
“bring it under the influence of Islam.”
I need not remind hon. Members that Ahmadis are not allowed to define themselves as Muslim in Pakistan. I hope that all hon. Members will stand together to express their solidarity with the Ahmadi Muslim community and I ask the Foreign Secretary to do all he can to stand with the oppressed and persecuted Ahmadi people.
Finally, I wish all my constituents in Mitcham and Morden, all hon. Members and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a peaceful new year.
This is the season of good will—let us see whether we can change that, shall we?
What I am going to relate to Members is important to anybody in this House and anywhere else. It is about one part of rural Somerset—as most Members know, my constituency is there—where there is a determined effort to hijack public opinion and, I would say, horribly to kill off local democracy. It is a tale of gerrymandering, sharp practice and strong suspicions of corruption. It concerns the plan to merge West Somerset council with one of its neighbours, Taunton Deane, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not here. It is a merger most foul, and, as in most blood-curdling stories, the real motive is money.
Having won the House’s attention, I shall give Members the background to this sorry saga. West Somerset District Council is the smallest authority in England with a population of 35,000. It is a very beautiful part of the world and includes most of Exmoor. Unfortunately, the local council is perilously close to going bankrupt, partly because there are not enough people to pay the bills. For years the council has struggled to make ends meet and unfortunately it has failed. Three years ago it was lured—rather like a prostitute into a strange house—into a deal with Taunton Deane. For reasons that I do not completely understand, the leadership would not consider taking help from any other neighbour, including its nearest neighbour, Sedgemoor, which happens to be one of the best run councils in the United Kingdom. It has healthy finances and would have helped sort out West Somerset’s problems without neutering that council. But the old guard preferred to do a deal with Taunton. I do not know why.
Taunton Deane was—and still is—desperately short of money. Why on earth would it want to bail out a bankrupt neighbour when it is heading towards bankruptcy itself? Two failing councils together make a successful council? You do the maths. I believe that Taunton wants to get its greedy hands on the business rates that will ultimately come from Hinkley C nuclear power station. [Interruption.] I heard somebody say “Ah!” from a sedentary position. The House is getting the plot. My little council may be on the verge of bankruptcy today, but in 20 years when Hinkley comes on line and produces electricity, it will become seriously rich. There is nothing like the prospect of gold, as Judas would say, to bring out the green streak in neighbouring town halls.
Taunton has always craved a share of the action. It is consumed with envy. When the plans for developing Hinkley were submitted, Taunton Deane put in a formal objection. A bit of an irony, I know. It did so out of jealousy and on the orders of its leader. He is a builder by trade and a sharp and interesting operator. John Williams is his name. He looks a little like Santa Claus, but please do not be fooled in this time of good will. He is more like Rudolph who has been garrotted, but I cannot see him saying, “Ho, ho, ho.” He rules Taunton Deane with a grip of iron and he likes to get his own way, mainly by foul means, so when West Somerset came begging, he spotted his chance and went for it.
Williams’s henchmen moved in like the mafia—horses’ heads in the bed—took over the local council, pensioned off most of the staff and started running everything from Taunton, not Minehead. Since then West Somerset’s 28 councillors have unfortunately—I say this against myself, as much as anybody—become little more than a glorified talking shop. I am not being rude, but the good people of West Somerset now realise that the levers of power are being manipulated elsewhere. There are those who think Scotland has a problem!
All that would matter less if Taunton Deane were a well-oiled machine, but the truth is quite the opposite. It is led by an autocrat and managed by an absentee. Its chief executive has been off for six months—with a bad back, we think, but we are not entirely sure. She has cost £80,000 in sick pay, and nobody knows what is wrong. The House will be relieved to learn, however, that she is coming back soon after seven months. She is to be phased in in January. What is “phased in”? I should try that with my Whip, who is sitting in her place.
The penny has finally dropped! Penny James and Councillor Williams have a long and undistinguished record for getting everything wrong. They were enthusiastic supporters of Southwest One. I will not bore the House. It is an appalling IT project that cost the taxpayers of Somerset £80 million and saved nothing. Taunton urgently needs to replace its IT equipment, but it does not have anybody who knows what to do with a computer, so for the chance of another expensive disaster, watch this space and my place in the House.
Taunton Deane is known as cock-up valley. That is written all over it. One of the latest occurred a couple of weeks ago. I must tell the House about it; it is fascinating.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support.
The planning committee of West Somerset council was meant to be considering a highly controversial building application, but the planning officers in Taunton, forgot—Fidel Castro-style—to inform any of the interested parties. Result: red faces, great anger, expense and—guess what—it had to be pulled. In my opinion West Somerset is trapped in an unfair partnership with an ineffective, overstretched and financially dodgy council. The chances are that there would be only nine or 10 councillors left when the changes come because of the demographics. It would spell the end of local democracy, not something that we want to see.
The plan was sneaked in under the radar, using a new Act of Parliament to get round the involvement of the Boundary Commission. Cunning stuff, as Baldrick would say. The Boundary Commission is an independent body, as the House knows. It always demands a fair referendum to test public opinion when it wants it. It would have gone through the emperor’s maths with a fine-toothed comb and made a fuss if the sums did not add up. However, Emperor Williams decided to push through his plans without bothering to tell Taunton Deane’s councillors precisely how he was going to do it.
In July, Taunton Deane Council approved the merger. That decision has now led to a legal challenge by a number of Taunton Deane’s councillors who insist that they were not told the truth. The legal challenge is powerful and, I can assure the House, is already causing the emperor and his team considerable anxiety. I am not surprised, because this time he has gone too far.
Do not get me wrong: I am not against change and I never have been. Partnerships can work and collaboration between councils is sensible, and maybe there are too many overpaid senior officers and too many people in town halls who do not know what they are doing. But big issues such as these deserve proper and thorough consultation. Instead we are getting a cheapskate confidence trick dreamt up by a cheapskate confidence trickster—try saying that quickly.
Through my door at the weekend came a questionnaire seeking my opinion, which will then be conveyed to the Government. Oh yeah? Golly! The plan is that money is so tight that something had to be done, so at a stroke, and without consultation, they ruled out the possibility of any partnerships. They are now looking to see how these councillors will work. Basically, there will now be a high-level business transformation document, which presumably is deliberately phrased to convince everyone that the only way is a full-blown merger.
With mergers come costly dreams, such as Southwest One, the multi million pound IT scheme. You name it, they’ve got it. This time Taunton Deane wants to put services online and trim back the staff, but that will not work because in West Somerset broadband is intermittent —in my house it is under a megabit—or non-existent, so the population do not have computers because they do not work. Pigeons are quicker. My constituents need to be able to talk to real human beings, not robots in Japan.
Unfortunately, the architects of these great schemes never do their homework. The business plan was riddled with financial guesswork, half-truths and downright lies. The document never offered the most sensible solution, which was to go back to the drawing board, talk to neighbouring councils—exactly what the Government told them to do—and find a more imaginative way forward. That is what I want and what the Government want, but Emperor Williams does not much fancy working with top-flight councils, because he could not cope with it—he is not that bright—so he has done everything in his power to prevent constructive talks taking place. Now he wants a Greater Taunton, a sprawling new authority with no separate identity for West Somerset.
The questionnaire asked me just about everything, from my favourite colour to my inside leg measurement, but at no point have I been invited to provide my name and address, even though it is a consultation in two councils, so anybody could respond. In fact, please write in—you can all take part and it is great fun—but do not opt for the merger in West Somerset and Taunton Deane.
The whole of this is ridiculous. These forms could be filled in by Mickey Mouse or even Emperor Williams. They have set up a new website with similar questions. It is not doing the trick. People are not conned, and we should know that in this House—we have seen Brexit and Trump. But it might not stop Councillor Williams and his mates trying to skew the results by making multiple entries from different computers on his own—yup, it happened before. It is a consultation sham designed to be abused, and it was ordered and approved by a council that claims to be democratic.
No wonder the electors in the Taunton Deane ward of Blackdown last week voted out the Conservative candidate after 42 years—it has always been blue, but no longer. They actually went and got a Liberal Democrat; that is how bad the council is. People in Taunton Deane are sick of the way the council is working, and it is getting worse. It used to be the county town, but its famous market has moved to the far better Bridgwater, the old site is still derelict and ugly, the whole area is overrun with unpopular housing schemes and there seems to be a determination to build for the sake of building.
But guess what? Emperor Williams is a builder. He looks great in a yellow hard hat and reinforced boots, and he is often photographed alongside prominent local developers—I will leave that hanging. They looked like a happy family in their ceremonial Day-Glo regalia. This month, “Brother John” was seen with the bosses of Summerfields, a local housing association, which recently completed Taunton Deane’s brand new Direct Labour headquarters—it sounds almost like something from the other side of the Chamber. It is located on a business park owned by Summerfields—funny, that—but most of the council’s workload is actually in Taunton, another town, so the staff have to go from one place to another to do their work. It is absolute madness. So why was there no reference to the extra cost when these plans were considered? One does not know. Ask Brother John.
A year or so ago, Summerfield applied for permission to build affordable homes just beside the M5—the famous M5. Guess what? Taunton Deane let it slip through. I am told the construction work was subcontracted to a company owned by, guess who, Brother John himself. Such a relationship is a bit too close for comfort, but, guess what, nobody has ever said there is a conflict of interest—they would not get away with it in most places. There is absolutely nothing in Taunton Deane’s constitution that obliges councillors to declare an interest when a subcontract is awarded. That is not good. We need openness in local government—I do not need to tell anybody here that.
I have highlighted these things simply to give the House a sense of perspective about what is going on in my part of Somerset. My constituents will not have the wool pulled over their eyes. They can smell a rat, and they know what one looks like, and I am sure they will reject this half-baked merger scheme. They want to keep their council—and so they should.
Should fate ever somehow decree that I end up as a member of a council in Somerset, I shall make it my absolute priority—horses’ heads or no—to stay on the right side of the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger).
This has been a tumultuous year culturally and politically. With the assassination of an ambassador and a further apparent terrorist atrocity yesterday, it seems we are finishing on a stark but familiar low. The attack in Germany drives home to me the fact that, to coin the phrase of the moment, we have more in common with our European partners than divides us. I fear that the current stand-off over Brexit and the forthcoming negotiations will drive us further apart from our neighbours, when these are surely times when those nations committed to the cause of democracy, freedom and pluralism must stick together and find common ground, rather than hunker down in an introspective bunker, focused on the challenges of Brexit while the big global challenges and threats remain.
The main debate in the EU negotiations seems to be one of immigration versus free movement and access to the single market. I am in favour of the free movement of labour; I am just not in favour of the free movement of unemployment and the free movement of exploitation. Over a decade ago, as a trade union official, I saw construction workers being brought in from abroad and used on big construction projects; names such as Staythorpe power station or Lindsey oil refinery spring to mind. Those immigrant workers would be used by the prime and principal subcontractors to drive down wages in a sector where skilled, well-paid jobs provided a good standard of living and were negotiated nationally between the unions and employers, and where the system worked.
All of a sudden, wage rates were falling in a race to the bottom, which even good employers—the majority of employers—were forced to join to stay competitive. The difference was kept by the corporations and their bosses in the form of bigger profits, rather than being shared out among the men and women doing the work. Bogus agencies were set up in eastern Europe, advertising British jobs at below UK agreed rates of pay—again so that the money could be siphoned off from the workers and those at the top could keep a bigger slice for themselves.
It is unsurprising that so many working-class people voted to leave the EU, when that was their most visible personal experience of it, albeit it was not necessarily the EU that was at fault but the system of globalised capitalism we are seeing today. My solution would be simple: retain free movement in a qualified manner. If someone has a job, they can come and work here, but the job must be advertised in the UK and in English, and it must pay accepted UK rates. I suspect that the rest of the EU may soon find itself moving towards such a system anyway.
The Euro-referendum and, it would seem, events elsewhere, have brought into focus another new aspect of the state of politics, exemplified by the word of the year: post-truth. In the UK, there was no better example of that than the red Vote Leave bus, with its siren promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS—a promise it took Nigel Farage barely 12 hours to admit was false, on breakfast TV.
Members of the House who associated themselves with that promise have never apologised or faced the appropriate obloquy for their association with it. I have to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I sought guidance from Mr Speaker and the Clerks as to how I might criticise Members such as the Foreign Secretary for their association with the bus and the claim. I learned that the rules of the House preclude me from calling Members such as the Foreign Secretary deliberately mendacious. Were I allowed to do so, I would, indeed, suggest that these Members were deliberately and wilfully mendacious in the pursuit of short-term political gain—a practice that is known in Cheshire as being a snollygoster. Of course, the rules do preclude me from that, so I will not be making any such allegation.
Post-truth politics is dangerous because it devalues our political system, corrodes the quality of our democracy and diminishes public trust in our institutions. It has a broader effect too—a cultural effect, because as well as undermining honesty and trust and celebrating deceit, it celebrates ignorance and stupidity in saying that learning is not to be valued and has nothing to contribute. So when the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) told Faisal Islam on “Sky News” that he had “had enough of experts”, it was a breathtaking attack on progress, an attack on scientific and cultural learning, a devaluation of the intrinsic importance of the—
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will bear that in mind and amend my comments suitably as a result.
When Members say that they have had enough of experts, that is an attack on progress—a devaluation of the intrinsic importance of the accumulation of knowledge as a good thing that has benefited, and will continue to benefit, humanity across the ages.
I say this clearly to the House: please reject the dishonesty of post-truth politics but reject also its regressive and reactionary message that ignorance and dishonesty are somehow a good thing. Post-truth did not put a man on the moon or develop the Hubble space telescope, post-truth did not invent the internet or the worldwide web, and post-truth will not find a cure for cancer. If we in this place cannot address an argument with fact, it may be time to reassess whether our views are correct and sustainable.
As we look forward to the new year, I make a further plea to the House to reject the notion that the 52% vote to leave is somehow the will of the people. It is the will of the majority of the people and it must be respected— we must deliver the exit from the EU agreed in the referendum—but it cannot be portrayed as the will of all the people. The views of the 48% must be taken into account in how we exit the EU; they cannot be ignored or airbrushed away. I fully support and pay tribute to hon. Members on my Front Bench who are trying to bring the country together and make efforts to represent the 100%, because I fear that, in addition to the perils of post-truth politics, we face another threat—one of cataclysmic disunity. The referendum was brought about by this Government to halt long-running rifts over Europe in certain parts of the House, but those rifts have now been transferred to the whole country, and have fed narrow nationalism in certain parts of it. Narrow, petty nationalism cannot be the solution to any problem that we face in the world today.
I am certainly not imagining a nation where we all agree and everything is fine and dandy, but a basic consensus about how we do politics has been attacked, as exemplified by recent media attacks on High Court judges and their integrity. We are stronger when we stick together. I have never known our country to be so deeply and unpleasantly divided. We have heard so much about putting the “great” back into Great Britain; perhaps now, with all the external threats and challenges we face, it is time to put the “united” back into the United Kingdom.
I wish to address two very important constituency issues: transport infrastructure improvements, and education provision in Filton and Bradley Stoke.
The Metrobus scheme will provide a dedicated bus route from the south of Bristol to the northern fringe of Bristol, including my constituency, in order to provide an alternative to private car journeys. It should carry 600,000 passengers per year, which equates to roughly 820 two-person car journeys a day. It is a key element in encouraging economic growth and unlocking future housing potential. It is a £100 million project funded by the Department for Transport, South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol City Council. I have always been a keen supporter of the scheme and remain so.
However, the Metrobus works have caused major congestion, disruption and delays for the residents of Bradley Stoke and the surrounding areas. For example, one of my constituency team usually has a 10 to 15-minute drive home during the rush hour, but one evening she had a journey that took nearly two hours, most of which was stuck in stationary traffic. As a resident of Almondsbury, with my constituency office in Bradley Stoke, I have experienced and shared the frustration of people stuck in these jams during commuting hours without much evidence at times, it seems, of work actually taking place on the Metrobus route. Constituents have reported to me that, while stuck in their cars in traffic jams, they have seen workmen asleep on the site. The works have taken too long and are over time, and initially there was no understanding or appreciation that people have to get in and out of Bradley Stoke every day to travel to school and work. The project has suffered from a lack of communication by the contractors and the council with locals.
I organised and chaired a public meeting earlier this year to get local people face to face with the contractors, the council and First Bus representatives. A few weeks ago, I organised a meeting with the Alun Griffiths road contractors, MetroBus, South Gloucestershire Council, including the lead councillor responsible for transport in South Gloucestershire, Councillor Colin Hunt, and local Bradley Stoke town councillors, to try to find a workable solution to the congestion. I also met the Secretary of State for Transport a week or so ago to bring the issue to his attention and ask for his help.
Of course, I understand that major transport infrastructure projects and improvement works will cause disruption and jams occasionally. However, right next door to the congestion is the M4-M5 managed motorway scheme, which was constructed by Balfour Beatty on time and on budget. Often the contractors worked through the night and at all hours. One evening they removed a pedestrian bridge and replaced it that same night. The works were completed with minimum disruption to local residents.
I suggested to the Alun Griffiths contractors that those ought to be the methods that they should aspire to adopt, but I was told that they could not work longer hours due to health and safety considerations. Future transport infrastructure improvements should be done along the lines of the managed motorway scheme, with minimum disruption to local road users, rather than along the lines of the initially shambolic MetroBus works in my constituency.
Since the recent meeting that I organised with the stakeholders, greater efforts have been made to communicate with local residents, and progress has been made in assisting the flow of traffic to minimise the impact on local road users at peak times. However, the MetroBus works need to be completed as quickly as possible, so that we can start reaping the benefits of the scheme.
The other local issue that I want to raise relates to Winterbourne International Academy in my constituency. The Ridings Federation of Academies, which runs that academy and Yate International Academy in the constituency of Thornbury and Yate, was issued with a financial notice to improve and provide a plan on how it would achieve a balanced budget, as it has a potential deficit of £1 million. Winterbourne International Academy has had some issues with its leadership and management over the past year or two, and it now finds itself in a position where it needs to be re-brokered into a new academy structure.
During that process, parents, teachers and pupils felt that they were not being kept informed. I and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), were contacted by a large number of constituents who were very concerned about what was happening at the school. My hon. Friend and I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to bring the matter to her attention. We also met Rebecca Clark, the regional schools commissioner for south-west England, and I met the chair of trustees, Claire Emery. That enabled us to get more background information about the situation in which the federation finds itself, and to respond to our constituents and reassure them that everything possible was being done to find a solution to the difficulties in which the schools find themselves.
Winterbourne International Academy will now be taken over by a new trust. The trustees of the Ridings Federation of Academies have considered their options and communicated their recommendations to the regional schools commissioner, who has taken them to Lord Nash, the Minister, for the final decision. There should be full clarity about who will run the trust early in the new year, but I want to place it on the record that, in future, better communication with parents, pupils and staff is needed.
I understand that the outcome that parents, pupils and staff are hoping for is that the school becomes part of a multi-academy trust managed jointly by the existing Olympus Academy Trust, which runs the successful Bradley Stoke Community School, and the Castle School Education Trust, which runs the successful Castle School in Thornbury. I welcome the recent news that, with effect from 3 January 2017, Dave Baker, chief executive officer of Olympus Academy Trust, and Will Roberts, CEO of Castle School Education Trust, will jointly provide interim leadership support for Winterbourne International Academy, with a view to appointing a principal at the end of January.
The third issue that I want to address ties in with my membership of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee. After the Good Friday agreement, hundreds of convicted terrorists were let out of prison in the name of peace and reconciliation. There are, therefore, lots of former terrorists walking the streets, some of whom have worked their way up into eminent positions in political life. We had the debacle over the on-the-runs letters and the John Downey case, where there is essentially a de facto amnesty for former terrorists, and yet the full force of the law is being used to prosecute people who were on the other side of events: former soldiers who were just doing their best, doing their duty and serving our great country. This is clearly wrong, and it smacks of victors’ justice. It cannot be right to let terrorists out of prison and give them get-out-of-jail letters at the same time as we pursue former British soldiers. Surely, if there is to be lasting peace and reconciliation, there needs to be fairness on all sides—not that I think for one minute that there is any moral equivalence between terrorists, and soldiers and security forces trying to keep the peace and protect lives.
My younger son, Michael, passed out of his basic military training in Pirbright a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I am immensely proud of him. When he is, as I hope he will be, deployed on an operational tour and he asks me for advice—not that sons are very good at asking their fathers for advice, but I have done an operational tour myself—do I say to him, “Be careful,” because if mistakes are made, if things go wrong or if the politics change, even 45 years later, he could be pursued through the courts in his retirement in nothing less than a politically motivated witch hunt? I do not think so. My advice would be the same as the advice I received before my operational tour: “If you feel as though your life is in danger or your comrades’ lives are in danger, do not hesitate to defend yourself.” Our Government need to support former servicepeople against this injustice, because what is happening is a stain on our country’s honour. We are letting down so badly the people who risked their life to keep us safe, protect our freedoms and preserve our way of life.
I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). I agreed with much of what he said.
I am going to speak about three issues that have come up in community casework in my constituency. I have previously raised the issue of how hysteroscopies and uterine biopsies are conducted in the NHS. I have drawn to the attention of the House the serious pain and distress suffered by far too many women, who are not well served by the advice and support—or, frankly, the lack of support and empathy—that they receive from clinicians and the NHS.
As the House will, I know, be aware, in the hysteroscopy procedure a small camera is passed through the cervix to examine, and often take a sample from, the lining of the womb. Yes, that means cutting out a piece of the lining of the womb. The procedure is useful in the diagnosis of cancer and other womb conditions, as well as to investigate fertility issues and to perform minor operations. For most women, it is a significantly uncomfortable procedure, but for a sizeable number it can be unbearably painful, leading to significant blood loss, loss of consciousness and, in some cases, hospitalisation. Such procedures are usually carried out as outpatient appointments, and often without any kind of anaesthesia.
The NHS website helpfully says of the procedure:
“You may experience some discomfort similar to period cramps while it’s carried out, but it shouldn’t be painful.”
To say that that advice is misleading is something of an understatement. The problem is that for some women, the procedure is unacceptably painful. Hysteroscopy Action estimates that up to a quarter of UK hysteroscopy patients have reported severe pain. I know that you will agree with me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is not acceptable to be led to presume that the worst that can happen is that, as the NHS website says, women will experience some discomfort, given that the reality is very different. All women need to be offered proper anaesthesia at the appropriate moment so that the sizeable minority who experience significant pain can be supported. To do anything else is nothing short of barbaric.
This is the third time that I have raised this matter in an Adjournment debate, so I have decided not to read out the cases that individuals have mailed to me, trusting that their stories will get action. Today, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he will raise the matter on my behalf with the Department of Health and get a statement from the Department about pain management with hysteroscopy.
We need better systems to be put in place to ensure appropriate triage, rather than trial and error. More information about what may happen needs to be made available to patients beforehand, accompanied by the support required to ensure that women understand the risks and can make real choices about the best method of treatment for them. It is not acceptable for women to be told by a male doctor that they must have a low pain threshold when they are begging for the procedure to be stopped.
Given that this is the third time I have raised the issue and that I have received warm and comforting words from Health Ministers in the past, I fail to understand what is preventing such action. Frankly, I wonder whether it is because of money—the cost of an anaesthetic being available to women. I look forward to receiving a written response from the Department of Health. I am not an unreasonable woman, in the main—
Indeed. Not unreasonably, I expect a response by mid-February. If I do not get one, I will seek a further debate in the House to focus attention on the issue. I cannot believe that other Members in the Chamber for this and previous debates think that what I have described is acceptable.
Secondly, a couple of months ago we had our first debate on arthritis for many years. Given that the condition affects about 10 million people—one in six of the population—one would have thought it deserved greater attention. In particular, it is important to understand the differences between the various types of arthritis and how they affect everyday life. Too often, we assume it is an issue for the elderly, not one that is really so important. In fact, one constituent wrote to me that she was very grateful for the debate, because she got an arthritic condition in her 20s. She was so exhausted by it that she was unable to continue working in the law, and she has spent many years trying to get it under control. She told me, “It’s not about having a creaky knee, but people believe that’s all it is—they simply do not understand how it can have a massive impact on somebody’s life.”
There are implications for employers, carers and the Government’s welfare to work policy. For example, rheumatoid arthritis, which occurs when the immune system targets affected joints, can be a fluctuating condition. If it is not properly controlled, it can make it so hard for a person to sustain full-time work; yet when properly understood and managed, there is no reason why an individual cannot continue their working lives, provided that there is sufficient understanding and flexibility not just to avoid and manage flare-ups, but to accommodate the necessary medical appointments. One constituent wrote to me to ask whether the House could consider a legal right to flexible working for those with fluctuating health conditions.
I recently spoke in the House about my own experience of having an immune-based arthritis and of getting it under control. I want to place on the record my thanks to the many constituents and others who got in touch with their stories and told me about their similar experiences. I am delighted to hear about the breakthroughs in medical science that will help others to live full working lives. The UK is leading the way in the development of many potential solutions. I have read about the medical research on osteoporosis being carried out in Glasgow, and I know that our European partners are also working in this area. I have read that clinical trials are taking place in the Netherlands to reverse the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis through using an electronic implant attached to a nerve. My concern is that some of the critical research collaborations in this area may be threatened by our departure from the European Union. I know that the House discussed these issues yesterday, but I would again be very grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House if he discussed this with whomever he needs to discuss it with and confirmed that specific areas of research on arthritis will be protected.
Finally, I would like to mention one of the more troubling and tragic cases I have received at my constituency surgery in recent months. It concerns a British national, Ali Asghar Khan, the husband of a constituent. He was killed in Pakistan on a trip to visit family. He had been celebrating Eid and was returning home with two friends when their vehicle was ambushed on a mountainous road. A gunman opened fire and both Mr Khan and the driver of the vehicle were killed instantly. The third passenger, who was sat in the back of the car, managed to escape by jumping into the ravine and was subsequently able to raise the alarm.
My understanding is that Mr Khan was not the intended target of the attack, but that is of course little consolation to his widow and family. My constituents have struggled to ensure that his death is fully investigated and the perpetrators brought to account. Sadly, they are struggling to the point of being asked for money by the local investigating police force to transport files and take witness statements.
I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), about the case, and his response was really quite helpful. My purpose in raising the case today is to draw attention to the plight of the family of my late constituent and get a greater understanding of how the Government can meet the safety concerns of British nationals in Pakistan and what assistance is afforded to them while visiting the country. When he winds up, perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will say whether he will consider pushing for some parliamentary time to discuss the subject more widely.
I thank the House for the opportunity to raise these issues today. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, all colleagues and all the amazing staff of this House, who are so very good with us every single day, the very best for Christmas and the new year.
Having served in Northern Ireland during the troubles there, I have been asked by my old comrades in the Cheshire Regiment to highlight an iniquity that has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), my good friend: that many British soldiers could be reinvestigated for their actions during fatal shooting incidents. Apparently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructed to look at about 230 fatal shooting incidents, during which some 302 people died, almost all of them terrorists. If that is the case, my understanding is that about 1,000 ex-soldiers could be hauled in to account for their actions all those years ago, and could even be retrospectively charged with manslaughter or murder.
I am appalled that such actions are being taken against our soldiers when so many terrorists from all sides were granted full pardons under the Good Friday agreement. To me, it looks like a highly political and vindictive move by Mr Barra McGrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, in the past McGrory represented Provisional Sinn Féin and on-the-run terror suspects as their solicitor. He negotiated an effective amnesty for many of them. His background hardly suggests impartiality to me.
Our soldiers were trained to apply strict rules of engagement. The so-called yellow card—technically, “Instructions by the Director of Operations for Opening Fire in Northern Ireland”—was both detailed and precise. The rules of engagement outlined exactly when soldiers could use firearms, and our troops spent a long time being instructed about them during pre-Northern Ireland training sessions.
Opening fire in Northern Ireland was considered a very serious matter by the Army. After every shooting incident, regardless of casualties, the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary held an investigation. When such events involved casualties or fatalities, strict procedures were followed. That normally involved soldiers having to go to court to prove that they had acted within the law and the yellow card rules.
In one incident in which I played a small part, I recall having to tell two soldiers that, having escaped with their lives by opening fire, they would none the less be charged with manslaughter. Unsurprisingly, the two men, still in some shock, were utterly appalled. They shouted at me, saying that they had been abandoned by the Army. As their superior officer, I totally understood their feelings and shared them. None the less, the Royal Ulster Constabulary had informed me that the two soldiers had to be charged with manslaughter. Personally I was furious and I argued vociferously that this was wrong and very unfair. Regardless, the soldiers appeared in court. It was quickly proved that they had acted within the law, and their case was dismissed.
It was difficult for me and especially the soldiers at the time to understand the reason for that court appearance, but it was explained to me that, having had their case dismissed, they could never be charged again—perhaps, if the political climate changed. Guess what? It seems to have done. I had difficulty seeing the logic at the time. Then later, after the immediate drama was over, I did. I believed that the whole matter had been dealt with in court and it was over—forever. But maybe I was wrong. I presume that my two men could be among the 302 soldiers apparently under investigation by the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland.
I do not maintain that our servicemen and women are above the law—of course they are not. But re-opening all fatal shooting incidents involving soldiers is hugely one-sided and looks very bad to the armed services community, and that includes me and several other Members of the House.
I am most grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way. He was a leader of the Cheshire Regiment, and many of my constituents served with him in that excellent regiment. Does he agree that all those former servicemen who risked their lives serving in Northern Ireland, including my constituents, deserve to have that black cloud removed from them as quickly as possible?
I thank my good friend—I call him that because he comes from Chester and I commanded the Cheshire Regiment—for that intervention. Yes, our soldiers should not be under this cloud. They are not terrorists. Terrorists have been given amnesty and a pardon in the Good Friday agreement. Why should our men, some of them quite old now, not sleep soundly when terrorists who have killed do so? It is wrong, iniquitous and possibly malicious, and it is a huge waste of public money while we are at it. Why is the Director of Public Prosecutions not telling the Police Service of Northern Ireland to direct its efforts into clearing up and charging so many unsolved terrorist murders from the time of the troubles?
Incidents involving soldiers were investigated at the time and, if wrong was done, our soldiers were taken to court at the time. Some even went to prison. What sort of people are we who give terrorists amnesty and hound those who put their lives at risk for the rest of us?
I demand that the legal authorities in Northern Ireland desist from this clearly politically inspired blanket action against what could be almost 1,000 soldiers. They should concentrate their energies on finding the still-unlocated remains of the many innocent people massacred by terrorists, and bring those murderers to book.
It is always a real pleasure to follow the gallant gentleman, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I wholeheartedly support his comments, and those of the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti); I think they resonate with everyone in the House. We all want the prosecutions and investigations to stop.
May I first associate myself and my party, the Democratic Unionist party, with the comments that have been made about all those who have lost loved ones in the awfulness of the unspeakable attack, so close to a church, in Berlin? We offer our sincere sympathies. It is good that we remember, at this time of year, those who grieve.
In the short time available, I want to speak about making a difference. I also want to focus on this time of the year. I am one of those guys who loves Christmas. I love taking my grandchildren to special church services, attending services in different churches and just remembering the real reason for the season: a chance to celebrate Jesus. We all know, in all reality, that 25 December is not just the day Jesus was born. It is a time to focus our minds on the greatest gift ever given to mankind: the Lord Jesus, the greatest story ever told.
Last week, I tabled an early-day motion on the real meaning of Christmas. Many Members took the opportunity to sign it and to endorse that comment. The Christmas message is the celebration of Jesus who came as a baby, grew to be a man and gave his life for those who would accept him into their hearts. I love the celebration of his birth, as I see it as a time for faith, for family and for focus. I want to thank the Lord Jesus for the personal faith that I have.
I thank God for the time that I spend over Christmas with my family: with my wife and the boys, my granddaughters and my mother. I take the two days as days to be with them. I cherish the time to laugh—and to be laughed at!—and just to be in each other’s company all together. Finally, I see it as a time when I refocus on what is important and on what I need to do. It is a time when I think on my role and how I can make a difference in my own family, my own community and my own constituency.
The hon. Member for Beckenham spoke about our soldiers. While we are in this House, Army, RAF and Navy personnel, and those in the emergency services—the police, fire and ambulance services—are all working to protect us. We should put that on the record.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief. I want to focus on and pray for persecuted Christians across the world who cannot worship their God as we will this Christmas, and to think of the 100,000 Christians who will be killed for their faith this year, the 200 million who will be persecuted and the 2 billion who live in an endangered neighbourhood. Those are the facts of where we are.
It is Christmas time and we all enjoy a good Christmas movie. “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart is a great film that could probably epitomise the life of every person in the Chamber and every person we meet out in the street, because every person’s life has an effect on everyone else. When I think about making a difference, I want to focus on that. I will relate a quick story to illustrate that, which I believe carries a lesson for us all.
An old man used to go to the ocean to do his writing. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish in both directions as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching, wearing his wellington boots and carrying a bucket. As the boy walked, he paused every so often. As he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object, put it into his bucket and take it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young boy paused, looked up and replied, “Taking starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up on to the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die unless I take them back to the water.” The old man said, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on the beach, and I am afraid that you will not be able to make much of a difference.” The young boy bent down and picked up yet another starfish, put it into his bucket and took it out to the sea as far as he could. Then he turned, smiled and said, “Ah, yes, but I can make a difference to this one.” People may raise their eyebrows—
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his inspiring story. I would like to pay tribute to his work on the all-party group on freedom of religion or belief. It is my belief that he is making a difference to people across the world, and for that, I am most grateful to him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which I greatly appreciate.
People may raise their eyebrows when I highlight individual cases in this place, but it is because I believe in trying to make a difference where I can. There is time for each Member to focus on our constituencies to see where we can make a difference. It could be the time taken to fill out a benefits form for someone who is deserving; contacting the Housing Executive to get someone’s heating fixed more quickly; the time spent sitting down with businessmen and women to see how they feel the Government could do better for small and medium-sized businesses; giving someone help to get an operation or to get further up the list for their medical examinations and investigations; contacting the road service about potholes; the time taken with producers to register concerns about Brexit and to highlight the necessities going forward; or the time we take as MPs to encourage others to focus on their families and communities. I believe that we have a duty and a responsibility to attempt to encourage others to do what we do and not simply as we say.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland in my area recently put a post on Facebook, and instead of breaking into a house where an elderly lady had rung for an ambulance but could not come to the door, neighbours were able to contact the family to let the emergency services in. This sense of community simply warmed my heart, and harks back to the days long ago when people left their doors open and their neighbours looked out for them. I am sure we can all remember that happening in the past. There is more of a need now than ever to take care of each other where we can, to look out for our elderly relatives and neighbours, and to help where we can. Yes, it takes time; yes, it takes effort; but we will all be the beneficiaries from living in a community that cares, one in which people can and do trust their neighbours. Perhaps that is the Christmas message that applies all year round, which should be sent from this Chamber: make a difference where you can.
I am very aware that I am only one of 650 Members in this place. I am only one of an eight-strong DUP team grouping in this place. It is a party that, if I may say so respectfully, boxes above its weight. Instead of throwing my hands up and giving up on making a difference, I pledge to keep on making a difference where I can. This is the mantra that I believe this new year should bring: do what we can for everyone. I have a lovely quotation from Edward Everett Hale:
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
This is a lesson that we in this place can all take on board: to have the mentality of doing what we can for all those that we can help.
I want to put on record my thanks to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to all the Deputy Speakers and to Mr Speaker for your understanding and your patience, and for giving us the chance to speak in this House. That applies particularly to myself, given that I try to contribute on a regular basis. I thank you, too, for understanding my Ulster Scots accent. I see that the Deputy Leader of the House is looking at me, and I know that he enjoys my Ulster Scots accent, so I hope he has understood my speech well. I want to thank all the staff who look after us here and keep us safe. I thank the Hansard staff who clearly write down all the words. Just when I think they are getting to understand me, they send down a wee note asking, “What was that you said again?” We still have some learning to do, but it is a privilege and pleasure to be a Member of this House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he knows, I think the same about him, and we have a mutual understanding in relation both to our service in Northern Ireland, in uniform, and to our service in the House.
I wish all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year, and God bless for 2017.
I, too, think that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) makes a big difference in the House, and is a great asset to the Chamber.
I agreed with everything that was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) about the onerous nature of the quarterly tax returns, and I hope that the Minister will think about her proposals, which I fully support.
I want to speak briefly about assessments by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am pleased to say that we have good employment figures in my constituency, and I am grateful for the fact that since 2010 the unemployment figures have decreased by 34%. I am, however, concerned about the attitude shown in DWP assessments.
Many of us have seen Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake”, and observed the excellent acting of Dave Johns in that film. It is a very moving film, but what is more troubling for me is the people whom I have met in my surgery who are not actors, but who have lived through the kind of scenes that have been portrayed by Ken Loach. Indeed, I have seen people who have been treated worse than the character in “I, Daniel Blake”.
My concern, which I have mentioned to Ministers in the past, is that people with terminal illnesses or degenerative conditions must not go through an assessment if they have a consultant’s report. I value the assurance from the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), that such people did not need to have repeated assessments, but others who undergo the DWP assessment must be treated with dignity. I have met people—gentlemen older than me—who have been shamed in those assessments, and who have not been given the respect that they deserve. That is shameful.
I believe that, just as we need the police to wear body cameras, we need DWP assessments to be recorded—with, obviously, the agreement of the people undergoing them—so that if it is felt that someone has not been treated with respect, or, worse, has been shamed, the assessors can at least be shown why and how they have given that impression, and training can be provided so that it never, ever happens again. There needs to be recording, and there needs to be more accountability. No one should ever feel shamed when undergoing these assessments.
Having said that, as this is Christmas, I wish Mr Speaker and his Deputies, our excellent staff and all Members a very merry and peaceful break.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I want to raise a number of points. As we move towards Christmas we celebrate the birth of new life, but many Members and others who work here will be reflecting on bereavements. I have been in the Chamber and listened to outpourings from colleagues who have lost babies. Then we think of the murder of our colleague Jo Cox. I join other Members in hoping that that record will become No. 1, and a good bit of money will be made from it.
My own mother, Maud, died earlier this year at the age of 104. People would say that she had had a good innings, and she did live long enough to vote in the European referendum. Obviously, however, for many people Christmas will not be quite the same, so I want to spend a moment talking about bereavement counselling services. As I listened to colleagues talking about their experiences 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, it was clear to me that those services are very important.
I praise the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement for what it does, and, in particular, I praise Fair Havens Hospice in my constituency. For over 30 years the hospice’s staff have carried out the wishes of Dame Cicely Saunders and have allowed people to live rather than to die. They play a vital role in supporting families in their time of greatest need and their bereavement counselling services are second to none. More than 75% of those who work at the hospice are volunteers, and £3 out of every £4 goes to the hospice. I hope that somewhere in the wider world there is an individual with lots of money who might help us, as we want to kick-start the fund for our new hospice.
Southend hospital has a number of challenges. I was convinced by the Essex success regime that we would see management changes, but that just has not happened yet. I hope we can get on with it, and any alterations to accident and emergency services can only happen if they are clinically led.
I am delighted to tell the House that on 1 January Southend alternative city of culture will be launched. An illuminated train will be going to the end of the pier—the longest pier in the world—and our new Southend town crier will be saying, “Oyez, oyez, oyez,” welcoming the year of celebrations. We have 12 themes. Each month we will be celebrating food and drink, music, fashion, architecture, the armed forces: the list is endless, and I am greatly heartened by the way the local community is rallying around in support of the event.
At the same time Southend will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the founding of the borough. There will be events celebrating the historic milestone, including the festival of Southend-on-Sea, led by her worship the Mayor of Southend, Mrs Judith McMahon, and the leader of the council, John Lamb. It will be a wonderful occasion.
John Lamb is very concerned that the upper-tier local authorities are struggling to meet the spiralling costs of adult social care, with budgets still reducing through reductions in Government grant. I will be grateful if my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House gently asks the Secretary of State to again look at funding for adult social care, particularly for councils such as Southend.
The Scottish National party chose the Chilcot inquiry as the subject of one of its Opposition day debates. I was very disappointed with the outcome. The Chilcot report took seven years to produce and cost £13 million. Most Members were not present so cannot be blamed, but a terrible mistake was made. It is clear from the report who was to blame and I very much hope that at some stage the former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be called before one of the Select Committees to give an account of how on earth he came to those decisions which were clearly wrong.
On Iran, I was very pleased to see that the refugees from Camp Liberty were successfully airlifted to Albania back in September, and I hope that Mrs Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, will be able to speak in the UK at some point.
School inspections is a worry for all our schools, and I was appalled by the inspection at our wonderful local Our Lady of Lourdes school. I do not know whether the inspector had an agenda, but how on earth the inspectorate team could have judged the school as failing beggars belief. That shows absolutely poor judgment. School inspections generally should be revisited when a new chief inspector of schools is in place.
My constituent David Forde was arrested under counter-terrorism legislation at the beginning of the month after returning from Kurdistan where he had been giving infantry and life-saving medical training to the Peshmerga, who have been funded by the UK. His arrest is a disgrace. This constituent has been left with no money and no support and I intend on another occasion to raise the subject in a dedicated Adjournment debate.
Mr Markos, a constituent of mine, and his mother have lost their home—he has lost everything—following a boundary dispute about a fence that was just 4 inches out of place. In his case, the law was an ass, and this perverse case really wants looking at again.
In August, we launched a public appeal in Southend for the London Shipwreck Trust. I am a trustee of the organisation, and it is wonderful that valuable artefacts are being rescued from the Thames estuary.
Pulse fishing has been brought to my attention by fishermen in Leigh-on-Sea. I do not think that fish terribly enjoy having pulses sent through their bodies, and I hope that the Fisheries Minister will carefully consider the issue before he comes to meet me and others.
The Eastwood Academy is one of the outstanding schools in my constituency. It has achieved magnificent progress at all levels and was selected to appear in the 2016 Parliamentary Review for its efforts in raising standards in secondary education.
I was delighted to support Gas Safety Week. There have been more than 20 gas-related deaths and over 1,000 gas-related injuries over the past three years.
I recently met Jesuits from the Philippines, including Richard Greenwood, assistant director of Jesuit Missions, and Father Pat and Bernie, who spoke to me about the inspiring work of SLB, their organisation which promotes socio-political involvement and has led massive disaster-relief operations. I commend them for their work.
Anglia Ruskin University celebrates 25 years of university status next year. I recently met the new vice-chancellor, who briefed me on the plans for the next 25 years, including specialist medical degrees aimed at increasing the number of doctors and nurses to fill vacancies in the NHS. I salute the university for its work.
Marine protection zones are important. The UK has a reputation for being a leader in ocean conservation, and I congratulate conservationists on their work.
I want to refer to a few local issues. I congratulate Borough, a third-generation family-owned plating business, for sustaining its operations for 50 years. I was delighted to visit Pride & Joy Classic Cars in my constituency. I congratulate the local activists who took part in the walk of witness for climate change and the active ageing event that was held in my constituency. It was also a privilege to visit the Explore Enterprise programme run by the Prince’s Trust, and I congratulate the young people involved on their wonderful work. I visited Angloco, which is doing marvellous work in delivering 45 new fire engines to Essex County Fire and Rescue. I also had the opportunity to visit Pinewood Studios. I am still waiting for a casting, but it is going to help with the alternative city of culture project.
I also had good visits to the Philippines, where one of our colleagues took us to Smokey Mountain, which was a humbling experience, and to the Dominican Republic, which is keen on doing further trade with us.
So, Brexit does mean Brexit, and I hope that we will make a success of it. I wish Mr Speaker, the three Deputy Speakers, all parliamentary colleagues and everyone who works in the House of Commons a very happy Christmas, good health and a wonderful new year.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who represents arguably the second best seaside resort on the east coast. Before I move on to what are more mundane issues than those that others have spoken about, I want to say how much I agree with the comments of my honourable and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who spoke for the whole House.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—my hon. Friend—reminded us of the real message of Christmas. Like many Members, I have attended many services of nine lessons and carols over the past couple of weeks, which of course include the opening passages from the gospel of St John. I always find particularly profound the section about how Jesus came into the world, but
“the world knew him not.”
We often reflect on some of the more perverted religious happenings in the news, but we should remember the true meaning and the fact that faith is the driving force for so much good that happens in the world. I commend the hon. Gentleman for what he said about that.
I wish to reflect on some of the more mundane issues that affect my constituency and highlight some challenges facing it. In doing so, I am mindful that I do not want to give the impression that I am just here holding out a begging bowl to the Government for more money for this, that and the other, although that would be very welcome. The resort of Cleethorpes has responded to the changing situation and has an offer unsurpassed among resorts on the east coast. Only last week, one of the three finalists in the British high street awards were the traders from Sea View Street in Cleethorpes, which shows how dedicated small, independent retailers can be. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West talked about the longest pier, but Cleethorpes has the pier of the year, a prize that we are certainly not going to be giving up easily to Southend, however cultured it may or may not be. My constituency also contains the largest port complex in the country, at Immingham, and has a rich rural hinterland stretching as far north as Barton-upon-Humber, at the southern end of the Humber bridge.
So much for the advantages of my area—I now turn to how we are going to meet the challenges. Regeneration is an essential ingredient of lifting morale, and in the North East Lincolnshire Council area we have put together a team made up of the council leader, the chief executive, myself and a number of private sector partners. We are putting together plans that I am sure will attract private sector investors, but that will need some Government support. I have discussed this with a number of Ministers in recent weeks, and we hope to receive that support when plans are finalised. As I said, this is not just holding out a begging bowl, but a genuine attempt to inject investment into the area.
Cleethorpes has done incredibly well, but may I draw attention to local government funding? I recognise that local government was bloated and, to some extent, inefficient. I spent 26 years as a local councillor, so I have seen many of its failings, but the Government need to recognise that a council budget can be cut only so far. I am not referring to adult social care, important though that is; many of the things that make our lives that little bit better—libraries, parks, gardens and so on—are being cut to the bone in many respects. Those little things do improve people’s quality of life. We need them and enjoy them, and I urge the Government to recognise that as we try to come to terms with balancing the country’s finances.
Housing is rightly a priority for the Government, who have introduced many new and innovative schemes, but too many homes are being built on greenfield sites. The main entrance to a town such as Cleethorpes could be greatly enhanced by investment, whereby retail units that have been made redundant by a change in shopping habits could be given new life. This is a main arterial route into the resort, and investment in such an area is very worth while. While on the subject of housing, let me say that I note the section in the statement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government saying that a consultation would be held on whether or not to withhold new homes bonus payments from developments that were granted only after appeal. I can give my response to that consultation now: forget it! Local democracy is important and the Government have done a lot to bring about localism, but this move goes completely against that. I urge the Government to think again and abandon even the consultation.
Transport connections are vital to any local economy, and my constituency is no exception. It is moderately well served by road, with the A180-M180 link providing access into the national motorway network, although there is room for improvement. The A180 still has stretches of that old concrete surface, which is extremely annoying to my constituents who live in villages such as Stallingborough and causes an unacceptable level of noise.
I welcome the almost complete £100 million A160 upgrade, which will enhance access to the port of Immingham. The next part of the jigsaw in the network of roads that give access to Immingham and the Humber ports is the A15 between Lincoln and where it joins the A180 close to Scunthorpe. It is an extremely dangerous single-carriageway road that urgently needs dualling. I recognise that it is a local road and that the Government can therefore get away with saying, “It’s nothing to do with us, guv,” but it provides important access to the Humber ports, which are part of a strategic Government policy, so the Government need to give the road some consideration.
Let me turn to rail services. This is yet another opportunity for me to put the case for a direct rail service between Cleethorpes and Grimsby and London Kings Cross. Business in the area regards it as vital and this issue is raised at every meeting I and neighbouring MPs attend. As I mentioned, Immingham is the largest port in the country—25% of the rail freight in the country comes and goes from there, but passengers cannot and the area needs that. The Office of Rail and Road recently considered an application from Great North Eastern Railways, an open-access operator that wanted to provide those services. However, because it was linked to additional services into Yorkshire, the ORR had to reject it because it had to protect Virgin East Coast’s market share. I recognise how important that is from the Treasury’s point of view, as Virgin pays a huge amount of money for the privilege of running those trains, but is that decision more to do with the interests of the company and the Treasury rather than the interests of the passengers?
I chair the regeneration committee for Barton-upon-Humber in the North Lincolnshire Council part of my constituency. I congratulate Councillor Rob Waltham, the deputy leader of the council, who sits alongside me at those meetings and delivers some of the minor improvements to the town that are essential. I know that that goes against what I was saying earlier, but I question how long even a well-run council such as North Lincolnshire will be able to maintain those schemes.
I remind the House that the rural economy is not just about agriculture but about other rural pursuits and it is important that we recognise that conservation comes naturally to those working in the countryside.
Finally, may I reflect on the educational performance in our area? Like many coastal communities we have many high-performing schools but poor standards overall. The argument about selection will run and run, as it has for the past 30 years. My view is that if selection can provide our young people with more choice in the schools in the area, we should focus on the areas where results demand change. Grammar schools can be a force for good and, for some, that is an opportunity we should not deny them. I would also argue that bilateral schools, which are part selective, have a role to play in my area.
I will conclude by following on from the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West about Brexit, which was voted for by 70% of my constituents. I believe that they were right to do so and that it will give our country more opportunities. In our area, the common fisheries policy has long been a cause for concern. I urge the Government, as I have done on previous occasions, not to forget the fishing industry. It was forgotten in those original negotiations in the 1970s. At one time up to 600 deep-sea trawlers sailed out of Grimsby, providing thousands of jobs to the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area. That is now down to a handful of near-water boats, but there are still great opportunities for those in the fishing industry and the food and fish processing industry, which are vital to the Cleethorpes constituency.
I conclude by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and all Members and staff a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.
I start by thanking all the emergency services for their work over the Christmas period, especially those who will be working while we are enjoying time with our families. As I propose to speak on a Home Affairs issue, I pay particular tribute to the police.
I was out on a Walk the Met session with the Chessington safer neighbourhood team just last week and saw the excellent work they do for us day in, day out. Kingston is now the safest borough in London and I want to put on record my thanks to Chief Superintendent Glenn Tunstall, who retires in three days as Kingston’s borough commander with that accolade. I am pleased that I started my dealings with Chief Superintendent Tunstall with a campaign for more police officers in Kingston town centre and ended it with a campaign for automatic number plate recognition software on the A3 corridor, both of which he pushed for and our Conservative council is delivering.
Today I want to speak about a national challenge for the police—the rise of hate speech and extremism online. I will refer to Facebook and Twitter because they are the most widely used social networks, not because they are the only platforms on which these issues arise or the only companies that bear responsibility for them. Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate, the way we receive news and information and the way companies advertise. Undoubtedly, it has many social benefits and can be used as a force for good, but social media platforms are being abused by those who wish to do our society and individuals in our society grave harm.
It is important to remember at all times that these social media platforms are not established and maintained out of a sense of altruism. They are designed to make money for their owners, principally through advertising revenues. The revenues of Facebook in particular are enormous and I do not criticise the company for that.
Right now, in less than a minute, any Member of this House with an iPhone would be able to find copious amounts of hate speech on Twitter—racism, especially anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, homophobia and many other forms of discrimination, and not just language that would not survive the Equality Act 2010, but language that is downright abusive and would not survive our criminal law.
In the Home Affairs Committee’s recent report on anti-Semitism, we outlined how a Jewish colleague received 2,500 abusive tweets over a few days using the hashtag #filthyjewbitch. Two of her abusers have already been sent to prison for this. Now there can be no dispute that that hashtag is offensive, abusive and racist, yet if one searches for that hashtag now, as I did just a few moments ago, one will find it still on Twitter, not from two hours ago or even two weeks ago, but from two years ago. I say that that is a disgrace, especially after the matter has been raised by a Committee of this House.
Although hate speech makes up a very small proportion of the overall traffic on social networking sites, when we live our lives more and more online, and this speech exists online in a way that it does not exist in the street or in the way we speak to one another, there is a risk that it becomes normalised and gives a licence to others to repeat it and to do worse.
I turn to the other factor—extremism. The issue does not stop at hate speech. Just as social media are used by people to advertise holidays and beauty products, they are used by those who want to advertise terrorism. It is no exaggeration to say that Daesh has run the most successful propaganda campaign since Goebbels in Nazi Germany, yet Daesh has a much wider audience because of the reach of social media. It has managed to persuade people who enjoy all the rights and privileges that we enjoy in this country to travel to Syria to work with a barbarous medieval regime or to commit atrocities here in Europe, like those which we saw in Nice and appear to have seen in Berlin.
I am not going to overstate my case and blame all of this on social media, because that is certainly not the reality, but I am going to say that young people in Britain today are being radicalised in their bedrooms, and the gateway to a lot of the radical material online is the common social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In addition to being a conduit through which extremists are recruited, social media are used by Daesh and its supporters to generate propaganda to attract support and funds. Social media platforms that are used by millions of our constituents every minute of every day are being abused by people who want to peddle extremism and hate. What are social media companies doing about that? The answer is, far too little. I have not heard one Member of this House demur from that proposition.
I am not sure that we, as a society, should accept the proposition that organisations such as social media companies should be allowed to create something to make money that has the potential to do harm, or at least to facilitate harm, and then claim that because it has become so big, it is unreasonable to expect them to do more to prevent that harm. I say that the polluter should pay.
My father, who passed away three years ago this week, was fond of quoting Margaret Thatcher. I have not been able to verify this quote, but she once said that she did not like people coming to her with problems but no solutions. I will therefore present three options in the few minutes remaining. The first is to consider legislation. The most straightforward approach would be to make social media companies liable for what they allow or enable to be published on their platforms. For other reasons, including libel and copyright law, that would be devastating for those companies; they do not want it to happen. The German Government announced only last week that they will consider legislating for fines of up to half a million euros for social media companies that fail to remove within 24 hours posts that breach Germany’s hate speech laws. We can be emboldened by the fact that our friends and allies in Europe are considering legislation.
The second option is to encourage social action. Social media companies rely on their members seeing the advertising from which they make money. If we voted with our feet, they would not be able to survive. If we, as users of social media—most, if not all of us are —made it clear that we would not stand for hate speech or extremism on those platforms, that would send a very clear message.
The third option, which I favour, is that social media companies get their own house in order, take a bit of responsibility and, for once, show some real leadership. They could establish, or at least fund, a not-for-profit organisation that employs people to identify and remove offending posts, that uses and develops their technological brilliance in order to filter out that material for manual checking, and that has police officers stationed there, paid for by that organisation, to gather intelligence and progress any cases that need legal input. There is a model for that in the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in Washington, DC, which I have had the fortune to visit. It is a not-for-profit organisation, funded by the technology sector—in large part by Facebook and Google—that tackles, among other things, online child exploitation. Why can that not apply to online hate speech and extremism?
I suggest that social media companies go away for Christmas, have a long, hard think and come back early in the new year with a proper proposal for an organisation of that kind, so that they can tackle online extremism and hate speech. If they do not do so, they should expect to be scrutinised in this House and for there to be concerted calls for legislation to make them do so in 2017.
On that note, I wish you, Mr Speaker, and everyone else present a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), who gave an excellent speech. He is right to have raised the problems of extremism and hate crime on the world wide web. I had to step out during the debate because I was leading my own debate on the tragic death of Brandon Singh Rayat, a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide because of the cyber-bullying he had experienced, and I am glad his parents are in the Public Gallery, as they were earlier in Westminster Hall.
The hon. Gentleman is right that leadership needs to be shown on this issue. There has been a succession of reports by the Home Affairs Committee, one them co-authored by the Deputy Leader of the House before he was promoted to his august position. The tragedy is that these things are not followed up—an excuse is always given. The hon. Gentleman’s example of the organisation, funded by the companies, that can professionally monitor what is going on, rather than people having to try to find out who in California they should speak to if they want something removed from the net, is a very good one. Rather than serving on the Home Affairs Committee, he should be giving evidence to it on this important point. I hope he will put his example to the Committee when it next meets.
In the few moments I have to speak in this traditional debate, I want to raise a few of my passions. First, as I said, I am glad to see the parents of Brandon Singh Rayat here. I hope the debate will lead to Mina Rayat being able to pursue her important campaign on cyber-bullying, which she launched two weeks ago, and that she will continue with it. When someone loses a child of 15—some of us in the House today are parents—it must be an unspeakable tragedy for them, and this campaign will give hope to families in a similar position.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned support for his local police service. When the Deputy Leader of the House comes to reply, I hope he will give us some good news about an issue that still concerns me: the Government’s failure to announce the police funding formula for not just the Leicestershire constabulary but the police service throughout the country. The former policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said the review of the police funding formula had been paused until the National Police Chiefs Council had completed its investigation into policing capabilities. We now know that Sara Thornton, the chair of the council, has said there is nothing to stop the review from proceeding at the same time as her capabilities review. It would therefore be good to find out when constabularies such as Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire, London boroughs such as Kingston and, indeed, Northern Ireland—although I think there is probably a different formula there—will know precisely how much money the police will have to spend.
As is my custom, I want to mention diabetes; I would be missing an opportunity if I did not. There is a time of year when people eat a lot of sugar, mince pies, cakes and things of that kind, as I have just done—I will have my metformin shortly to compensate. It is important to look at the variations in care for diabetes. Diabetes UK published a very interesting report with the all-party group on diabetes, which I am privileged to chair. The report was launched by the Health Secretary recently and pointed out that people are able to get structured education and care in certain parts of the country but not in others.
If, when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I had been sent off to the gym instead of being sent to the pharmacy to get my metformin and my other tablets, perhaps I would have prevented its onset. It would have come eventually, I know, because my mother had diabetes as well, but that might have prevented for a little longer its taking hold of my system. We should look at ways of saving money in the long term by spending more money now, and that means through structured education.
A number of my constituents will be heading off to India because the Indian Government have decided to recall the 1,000 rupee note, which is worth about £10, and the 500 rupee note, which is worth only £5, as part of their campaign to root out corruption in India. A number of British Indians came back with rupees when they last visited the country. When we go abroad we change our money and sometimes do not change it back over there but bring it back with us. A lot of my constituents, and indeed other members of the British Indian community, are having to change their money by 31 December, so many of them have very quickly decided to go back in order to bank it before it ceases to be legal tender. It is as though we had gone abroad with our £20 notes and suddenly the British Government had announced, “The £20 notes are no longer legal tender—please come back and bank them before 31 December.”
I wrote to the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, about the issue. He wrote back to tell me that if the Indian Government agreed, he would be quite happy for the rupees to be banked in an Indian bank in the United Kingdom to save my British Indian constituents, and others, from having to go all the way back to India. A lot of cricket supporters who have just gone over to India for the cricket matches have changed their pounds into rupees and now cannot change them back, so this is a good way of proceeding.
I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House could speak to the Foreign Secretary; I wrote to him some time ago to ask the British Government to contact the Indian Government to enable the notes to be banked in the United Kingdom. There are eight Indian banks in Leicester East; I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House has one or two in Northampton North. This is an opportunity to save a lot of money for people who would otherwise have to go all the way to India just to put their money in the bank.
I have two final points, one of which is about Yemen. There is tragedy in Syria. The tragedies in Berlin and Turkey are terrible events that have shocked the whole world, but the situation in Yemen has now been ongoing for 15 months. Mr Speaker, you kindly granted an urgent question last week when we looked at the situation in Yemen, and the situation is not improving. The basic foods are not available. As I said to the Prime Minister when she gave her statement on the European Council on Monday, citizens in Hudaydah are eating grass and drinking sea water. The ports are closed and the airport is closed, so wheat cannot be brought into Yemen. Without wheat, people will not be able to survive.
This is not about a lack of aid. I thank you again, Mr Speaker, for coming to the Yemen day that we held last week, where we met members of the Yemen diaspora. Eight aid agencies were there, together with a Minister of State at the Department for International Development and a Foreign Office Minister, and we heard from the UN Deputy Secretary-General. Unless the ports and the airport are opened, humanitarian aid cannot be got in. The appeal launched last week by the Disasters Emergency Committee on the BBC has raised a lot of money, but there is no point in just having the money; it has to be spent on the people in Hudaydah and in other parts of Yemen. I very much hope that we will pursue the cause of a ceasefire.
Finally, let me say why I will remember 2016 as a good year. There are lots of reasons why I might not remember it as being particularly riveting, but for one reason I will: the victory of Leicester City football club as the English champions. It was one of those great events. I am not going to say that it will never happen again, because we know what happened to Mr Gary Lineker. Full marks to him for wearing only his underwear, as he promised he would do, when he lost his bet with the nation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is a Leicester City supporter—he supports the foxes. Every time I go to a match at the King Power stadium, I bring him back a programme. People wonder why I take two programmes and I always say that one of them is for him, so he has a collection that is as good, if not better, than mine. A number of other Members also support Leicester City football club. This was our year—it was a fantastic year—and that is why I was so pleased that, only on Sunday, Signor Ranieri was named coach of the year and Leicester City team of the year. The year 2016 has been a historic year for us; we will never, ever forget it and it will probably never be repeated.
I was going to say something about Arsenal—I thank my hon. Friend—because, of course, Mr Speaker is a great supporter of theirs. What unites us, of course, is that we do not really want to see Chelsea win the league. I think that it is Arsenal’s turn, but every time they get to the top of the premier league, something goes wrong. This year, we will keep our fingers crossed—not just for Mr Speaker, but for young Oliver, who can recite the players’ names backwards and forwards in the blink of an eye. Of course, we will carry on winning the premier league, but we would like to share it; it is only fair that we should give it to another team. This week I will place a bet on Leicester winning the champions league, because I am hopeful that we will proceed. That is what 2017 will be all about for me.
May I end by wishing you, Mr Speaker, the staff of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House, Ministers and colleagues on both sides of the House a very happy Christmas? I understand that it was an old tradition—I wonder whether this is in “Erskine May”—that whoever wound up this debate for the Government always ensured that every Member who was still in the House when it rose for the Christmas recess would get a mince pie. I do not know whether you have heard that particular story, Mr Speaker, but one of the Doorkeepers mentioned it to me, so I am looking forward to visiting the rooms of the Deputy Leader of the House at the end of the day and getting one. Let us hope that 2017 is a great year in which all our ambitions and dreams can be fulfilled.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), even though I am an Arsenal supporter, like you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate Leicester City on their fine achievement earlier this year.
At the beginning of last week, I was in Berlin with the Parliament choir and it was a great honour to sing in the Bundestag building. It is with great sadness that we heard of the terrible event last night. I am sure that all members of the Parliament choir and others who were in Berlin at the time—my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was there with the Communities and Local Government Committee—will wish to pass on our condolences to the people of Germany.
Stafford has this year seen some great developments economically. General Electric, which took over the business of Alstom in Stafford and elsewhere, has almost completed the construction of its first new factory, which contains its automation business. After the referendum, it decided to go ahead with the construction of its second new factory in Stafford, on the Redhill business park, and that will deal with its high-voltage direct current business. Stafford is a world leader in that regard and I welcome that development.
I also welcome a Chinese institution’s investment in the site of the former campus of Staffordshire University, which it vacated in order to go to Stoke-on-Trent earlier this year. A new university will be established in Stafford, alongside an international school. I welcome the continuance of higher education in Stafford provided by Keele University through its medical school and, indeed, by Staffordshire University, which maintains another campus in the town.
It was announced this year that the Ministry of Defence would further expand its site in Stafford to welcome more servicemen and women in the coming years, and I very much welcome that. Stafford has a great tradition of hosting the armed forces, both the RAF and the Army, and the arrival last year of two new regiments—1 Signals and 16 Signals—to join 22 Signals has made a great and positive difference to our town.
Our IT sector in Stafford is expanding, as are many small and medium-sized businesses. As it is Christmas time, I want to pay particular tribute to those who run small and medium-sized businesses. Year in, year out, those people work 60, 70 or 80 hours a week running businesses, employing people and paying their taxes. They are not much sung about, and they often have to deal with a lot of hassle, but they get on with the job of providing jobs and, to a large extent, they keep this country going. More than 50% of jobs in this country are created and sustained by the small and medium-sized businesses in all our constituencies.
I want to say a little about the sustainability and transformation programme for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, which I have raised in the House on a couple of occasions. I approach this in a positive spirit. We need a transformation of our care, and there are many good ideas in the programme. I wish that the leadership of the programme had engaged more with Members of Parliament; we have had one or two meetings, but sadly the suggestions that I put forward were not taken up. I believe that the leadership needs to listen much more to Members of Parliament as they take this further forward.
I have already mentioned the suggestion that one of the accident and emergency departments in Stoke and Staffordshire should close. I believe that that is absolutely wrong and will not benefit my constituents or those of the other Members of Parliament in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire. I will take the matter up, as I did with the Secretary of State this morning, at every opportunity. However, I believe that some positive work is being done, and I urge those involved to engage with local Members of Parliament.
The issue that really concerns me, as it does a lot of Members, is social care. Staffordshire has been warned this week that social care homes in the private sector across the county are being closed because it is simply unaffordable for them to continue. That is partly a consequence of matters that have gone on for quite a long time, but it is partly a consequence of the introduction of the living wage. We have to bear in mind that most of those who work in the care sector are on approximately the minimum wage. They have, rightly, received a pay rise through the living wage, but there has not been a corresponding increase in the amount paid to care homes for the provision of services.
In Staffordshire, the better care fund has not worked as it should have done this year. Fifteen million pounds was supposed to go into improving care, but it has been retained in the health service. That happened for understandable reasons, but it has caused a great shortfall for the county council. I hope that that will be remedied, to some extent, for the coming year.
We now face a crisis in the funding of social care—indeed, in the funding of health and social care—and we need a long-term solution. Many Members from all parts of the House have raised this on numerous occasions, and I have certainly done so over the last two or three years. The time has come for action. We cannot have more sticking-plaster remedies. The announcements made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government last week were very welcome, and I support them, but they are sticking plasters in the context of the sums of money required.
I want briefly to mention transport in my area. I have asked the Secretary of State for Transport to meet me to discuss the road system in Staffordshire, particularly in Stafford. I have done so for a couple of reasons. Although I welcome the improvements that will shortly be made to the M6 between junctions 13 and 15, those improvements, which will take at least two years, will inevitably have a knock-on impact on other roads in the area. We need to ensure that those improvements are made in the most efficient and effective way, with the least disruption.
A much more serious matter is the potential for disruption that may be caused by the construction of HS2 phase 2a if the HS2 Bill passes through the Houses of Parliament in the coming 12 to 15 months. The line cuts across all the major north-south transport routes in Staffordshire, which are the national north-south routes in the west of the country, and unless we think about this and alternatives are planned well in advance—how it will be planned, when road closures will happen, when work is to be done—there will be chaos for not just a couple of years, but many years. I urge the Government to think about that in advance. They may say, “Well, it hasn’t passed Parliament yet, and we can’t do anything about it until then”, but that is absolutely not the approach to take. We must think about this now, because the consequences—for not just Staffordshire and Stoke, but the entire west midlands and north-west economy—could be quite serious.
I would like to see progress on other issues that I have raised in the House during the past year. The first is the issue of hoists in hotel rooms for disabled people. It was a surprise to me when my constituent Daniel Baldawi pointed out that it is not a requirement even for major hotels and chains to have hoists in one or two rooms so that disabled people can enjoy the benefits of staying in them. I have written to many chains: some have come back to me with very positive replies, but others have not done so. I would like it to be standard in every hotel constructed in this country—indeed, hotels already in existence if they are above a certain size—to have hoists available in some rooms.
Following the tragic loss of two lives in Stafford two years ago, I have raised the issue of fireworks and the inspection of facilities containing fireworks. It is quite extraordinary that responsibility for inspecting facilities that can contain almost as much explosive, or gunpowder, as Guy Fawkes had when he wanted to blow up this place are regulated by local authorities. Local authorities may be very good at other things, but they simply do not have such expertise. I want any major facility— with upwards of a few tens or hundreds of kilos of explosives—to be regulated by the Health and Safety Executive or possibly the fire and rescue authorities, which have the experience to make judgments on such matters.
A couple of weeks ago in Westminster Hall, we had an excellent debate, which I was privileged to lead, on the ivory trade. The request was made to the Government that the United Kingdom should end the trade in ivory. I spent many years of my life in Tanzania, which has suffered a huge depletion in the number of its elephants, so this is a very personal matter for me. I know that the Government are looking at it and will hold a consultation early in the new year, but I hope that they will broaden the scope of the consultation so that all trade in ivory ceases, with the few sensible exceptions that were raised in the debate.
The final issue that I have raised in the House during the past year is that of employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group. A lot of colleagues on both sides of the House have concerns about this. The Government promised to come up with measures that would to some extent compensate for the loss of the additional money for those joining that group from April, but we have yet to hear about concrete measures that I believe will be satisfactory. I hope the Government will take another look at this issue.
I want very briefly to mention international development, particularly in relation to Syria. With colleagues on the International Development Committee, I was privileged to see the work that the UK Government are doing with the incredibly generous Governments and people of Lebanon and Jordan, as well of those of Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, which we were not able to visit, who are hosting millions of refugees and providing education for their children—so much so, that in Lebanon there will shortly be more Syrian refugee children than Lebanese children in its state schools. That is an example of the excellent work done through the international development budget. It has received a lot of criticism in the press in recent days and it is quite right that we should investigate all those issues, but we should never forget the tremendous work done through that budget and the support given to the marvellous people who help those who are in the most difficult of circumstances.
With that, Mr Speaker, I wish you and all the staff a very happy Christmas and a blessed new year.
It is a pleasure to follow so many distinguished speakers this afternoon. In particular, I would like to add my agreement to the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) about the concern that some of our servicemen seem to be being treated more adversely than some suspected and, indeed, convicted terrorists. I hope those concerns are heard not only by the Government but by the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.
One of the joys of our role as Members of Parliament is being able to work with so many community organisations that, all year round, do such valuable work for people who are often the most vulnerable in our society. During a public service and volunteering week I held earlier in the autumn, I had the pleasure of spending some time with a range of organisations, including Age UK, the Springboard Centre, Black Country Food Bank, the dementia unit and A&E volunteers at Russells Hall hospital and the West Midlands police.
At Christmas in particular we value the role of our community organisations, but they do such work all year round. It is very difficult to pick out any one individual example above any other but it would be remiss of me not to highlight Wordsley community centre in my constituency, led by the formidable Janet Blakeway, and its work to improve the centre’s accessibility. I recently launched its new stair lift, which had been made possible by Janet’s work to bring in local firms, CE Solutions and Handicare, to do the work for the local community, really transforming the services that are on offer.
The big society may have passed into political history as a buzzword, but the work that so many unheralded volunteers and community organisations do—every day of the week, every week of the year—continues regardless of passing fads in our political lexicon. Some argue that, in the selfish age in which we are supposed to live, people are no longer interested in working for a community, giving up their time or supporting good causes. That is certainly not my experience from the support for the Macmillan coffee morning or the community clean-ups we have held in Dudley South, which have been extremely well supported by the community. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will ensure that the Government continue to look at how they can make it easier for people to give up their time and for businesses to donate resources and skills to help the communities around them.
I am particularly pleased to see a growing number of friends’ groups supporting our local parks and green spaces; at a time when local authorities are having to look at how and where they can dedicate resources, communities are saying that these things are important to them and going out and taking practical action. Most recently in Dudley South, the Friends of Cot Lane Park group was formed a month or so ago on a wet Wednesday evening, but still attracted 60 people from local estates. The group was formed in response to damage and disruption caused following an unauthorised Traveller camp at the park.
The Black country has seen an unusual number of unauthorised Traveller camps over the summer and into the early autumn. Many have been responsible and considerate to local neighbours, but sadly some have behaved criminally. There has been disruption and criminal damage and police have reported not only robberies but violent crimes. While local authorities in my own borough of Dudley and neighbouring boroughs have pursued successive magistrates court orders, those who seek to take advantage of the system know that that means that they have at least seven days before they have to worry about it. As a result, some of the less responsible and considerate groups have merely gone from one park or play area to the next, causing the same damage and disruption at each.
I hope that the Government will look again at practical questions such as whether authorised land for Traveller camps can be pooled so that local authorities can come together to make adequate provision across a wider area rather than in a single authority area, and whether it is time to allow local authorities to designate particular land or categories of land as sites where unauthorised camps attract criminal penalties and the realities that go with that. Of course we must always consider the genuine human rights of Traveller communities, but they must always be balanced with the legitimate rights of settled communities.
I was pleased that the then Chancellor was able to announce in the Budget in March this year the approval of the enterprise zone in my constituency. We are still waiting for the final approval of the business case, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make inquiries about it so that the new jobs, investment and increased prosperity can come into my constituency and benefit not only those whom I represent but those in neighbouring constituencies.
Similarly, the Government have signed off the extension to the metro network between Wednesbury and Brierley Hill in my constituency. It is being underwritten by the new West Midlands combined authority, meaning that it can go ahead sooner than expected. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to extending it further to Stourbridge so that the tram link can connect back in with the main-line rail network and people can enjoy some of the benefits of HS2 connectivity.
The final theme I want to raise before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess is the need to work to ensure that everyone in our communities has the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed. I have been lucky enough to visit every school in my constituency since I was elected last May. Clearly, there is much excellent teaching and school management around Dudley and the wider Black country. It is important that I make that point because my wife has recently returned to the classroom and I know that she is listening; it could be a cold Christmas if I forget to emphasise that.
Invictus Education Trust and Windsor Academy Trust in my constituency are showing the power of schools working in partnership to drive up standards. However, across the wider Black Country, Ofsted has raised serious concerns with the four local authorities. Children in those areas start below the national average, but sadly they slip further behind across key stages 1 to 4. The performance, sadly, is less good than similar local authorities elsewhere in the country with similar levels of deprivation, so we really need to consider how we can ensure no child is left behind, whichever part of the country they live in. High-performing schools and academy trusts must be able to innovate, so we can have more diversity and tailored education provision in state schools. The Invictus Trust, which has one school in my constituency, is preparing plans for a specialist secondary school that incorporates part of an almost military-style curriculum, together with core EBacc subjects, to really target those in danger of becoming disengaged with the education system. I hope the Government will give that serious consideration when the application is submitted.
As I said, we have a lot of talent in our schools. I saw that recently when I received a letter from India, Thea and Jasmine from Belle Vue primary school about the scourge of modern slavery. I have taken up this issue with Ministers, and I know the Deputy Leader of the House has done a lot of work on it in the past. The quality of the letter and the depth of understanding it demonstrated, not only of the slave trade in the early 19th century and the abolition of slavery in the United States but how it affects our communities now, was remarkable for primary school children.
You will be aware of the talent of some of my constituents, Mr Speaker, from the Christmas card I hope you received, which showcased the artistic talents of Alex Maher and Lucy Hannon of Maidensbridge primary school, William Hetheridge of Glynne primary school, Millie Millard of Ashwood Park primary school, Tia Worrell of St Mary’s Church of England primary school, Thomas Pinches of The Brier school and Reggie of Netherton Church of England primary school. I am delighted that the seven excellent entries were all able to go on the Christmas card. Merry Hill shopping centre in my constituency was so impressed with the standard of the entries that it has put them on display, so that people doing their last-minute Christmas shopping can see just how many talented artists we have in Dudley South.
I think that that is a good point on which to finish. I again wish you a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and best wishes for the new year.
I want to speak today about just one issue of great concern, which is how negatively the proposed new national funding formula for schools will impact on schools in my Congleton constituency if it is not revised. It is critical for the children of my constituency that it is.
Prior to the announcement last week, my constituency schools were already among the poorest-funded in the country. We therefore expected a good funding increase. After this announcement, however, headteachers tell me that theirs will be the very worst-funded schools in the country. The most poorly funded local authority used to be £4,158 per head, but this will now be Cheshire East, at £4,122 per head. Imagine my heads’ consternation last week when they discovered that their funding will not increase, but actually drop. I use the word consternation; they used the word outrage. No wonder that within 48 hours of the announcement no fewer than five headteachers came to my constituency office to express their utter dismay.
A year ago, I took a group of headteachers to meet the former Education Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), to ensure that he heard directly their concerns on the poor funding for Cheshire East schools, and to implore him that the new formula must address them. And this was after a similar meeting in the previous Parliament, when Cheshire East local authority officers met his predecessor for the same purpose. In addition, hundreds of my constituents signed a petition for fairer funding. This issue is far from new, which is why last week’s announcement was so shocking.
My headteachers are asking how Cheshire East has become the most poorly funded area, after they made such a convincing case to the Minister at their meeting. They thought they had been heard. I, too, find it difficult to understand.
What is particularly concerning is that these are some of highest-performing schools in the country, but there is a point at which their laudable level of achievement cannot be maintained. Only yesterday, the Secretary of State said in this place that she had been able to ensure that underfunded areas would be able to “gain up to 3%” over 2018-19 and 2019-20. My schools are facing exactly the opposite—not a rise of 3%, as the majority of my high schools face a reduction of 2.9%.
Before I relay some of the unpalatable options facing headteachers in my constituency, let me set in context last week’s announcement, because a number of other factors make the funding reductions for my schools far worse. First, the National Audit Office has said that schools face a reduction of 8% in funding in real terms by 2020, due chiefly to unfunded increases in employer costs. That makes the average savings to be found not over 2%, but over 10%. In addition, the reduction in the educational services grant will mean a further hit for academies in my constituency, which means all seven high schools. Even graver, there is still no local plan in Cheshire East, which has led to hundreds of new houses being built without additional funding for the proportionate increase in the number of children attending schools. This effect of so-called “lagging” means that schools are required to educate additional children with no additional funding.
What do headteachers tell me will be the effect of this new formula on their schools? With reference to the primary schools, Martin Casserley, headteacher at Black Firs Primary School, says they will be forced into significant reductions, including reducing support staff to help special educational needs children.
The high schools will lose £800,000 a year between them. Eaton Bank alone will face losses of £300,000 over three years. Headteacher Ed O’Neill says this would be “deeply damaging” and
“the removal of the educational services grant…and the NAO-calculated pressures mean that total savings of 12% will have to be found.”
Richard Middlebrook, head of Alsager High, who was nominated for headteacher of the year and is a national leader of education, says that the only way to survive would be to open for only four days a week, narrow the curriculum or close the sixth form—all completely implausible.
Dennis Oliver, headteacher of Holmes Chapel High, also a national leader of education, is looking at the removal of all teaching assistant posts, or the loss of all technicians, or the loss of eight non-viable sixth-form groups, or removing heating and lighting for a year or removing general resources for children, such as paper and books. John Leigh, head at Sandbach High and a long-established Ofsted inspector, tells me he risks losing his school’s “outstanding” status. He now has a £200,000 deficit as a result of lagged funding, due to new housing in Sandbach. He believes that the only feasible way to run the school would be to remove the rich programme of extracurricular activities, reduce the curriculum offer and/or reduce the number of sixth-form classes. He is already teaching 12 hours of maths a week himself to help balance the budget.
Sarah Burns, headteacher at Sandbach Boys School, has calculated that losing the entire music, art, business studies or geography departments could achieve the reductions, but that is simply not possible for a school that is a regional leader in music and the creative arts. She is concerned about the recruitment and retention of key staff while managing a reduction of 2.9% and she calculates it will actually be 5%, taking other factors into account.
David Hermitt, chief executive officer of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust, of which I am a patron, is facing a reduction of 2.4% at Congleton High, but he tells me that in addition he has been educating over 50 children every year for free for the last three years due to the increased housing nearby, equating to over £200,000 per year of missing funding in each of the last three years. This has depleted healthy reserves. He says the school has made every cut it can to ensure that it has a balanced budget. He says that,
“we have increased average class sizes, removed some subjects from our post 16 provision, increased contact time for teachers and reduced the amount spent on books and computer equipment.”
I am proud to be patron for this well-run multi-academy trust, which is already helping to drive down back-office costs for the three schools in the trust by providing central services of finance and human resources.
Middlewich High faces even deeper reductions as a result of the change in funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities, for which it has a dedicated unit. It is a lead school for emotional health, and Members may recall that during Prime Minister’s questions recently, I drew attention to its outstanding work with the most vulnerable students and families. However, Keith Simpson, its headteacher, has said,
“as Head I have no option but to reduce staffing from this area in order to meet a minimum number of teachers to provide a curriculum.”
“This is alongside the shortfall in SEND funding for schools that maintain a truly inclusive intake. This short-term view will only store up problems for society and other services in the long term. I feel that the holistic support for children and families is being sacrificed and has no educational value in raising standards for our most vulnerable students.”
Those headteachers, whom I know well, are utterly dedicated and professional, but the concerns that I have expressed on their behalf today have been increasing for several years. They have concluded that the proposed national fairer funding formula is not fit for purpose, certainly in Cheshire East. They are asking the Government to go back to the drawing board after listening to the outcome of the current consultation, and I am asking for the concerns that I have expressed today to be included in that consultation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will refer them to the Schools Minister, and will convey my request for an early meeting with him to which those headteachers will travel at short notice; and I hope that the Schools Minister will not just hear but act, by reviewing the impact of the new funding formula on the schools in my constituency. Without such a review, there will be grave implications for the education and life chances of the children about whom those headteachers care so deeply.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members in the Chamber a happy and restful Christmas.
It is an absolute pleasure to make my debut appearance as shadow Deputy Leader of the House to respond to the Christmas Adjournment debate. I believe that the House is at its best when Members raise such a huge number of issues. However, I am conscious that, apart from the Deputy Leader of the House, I am all that stands between Members and their Christmas recess, so I shall be as brief as possible in expressing my thoughts about the debate that we have enjoyed this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) opened the debate by remembering those who are less fortunate than ourselves—a very important message at Christmas—and the plight of those who are homeless. I add my thanks to Crisis, which does amazing work throughout the year but particularly at Christmas, and give credit to the last Labour Government, who did so much to tackle rough sleeping.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) raised important issues, including drug addiction and sprinklers in schools. She also spoke about jobs in her constituency; she is a tireless advocate for the people of North Tyneside.
The right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) raised a subject that certainly interested me, namely the plight of his constituents who travel to London by rail. He said that their trains were now 30 years old. I see his challenge, and I raise him the class 37s, which are 1960s locos. They are used by many commuters between Barrow and Preston, and they frequently break down. I should also note at this point that they are magnificent engines, because last time I raised the issue in the House, many train enthusiasts berated me somewhat on Twitter. Those engines would make a great addition to any museum. All that my Fleetwood constituents would like for Christmas, however, is a rail line to Fleetwood.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke of the workers who are receiving a pay cut this Christmas. She is a tireless advocate for the workers in her constituency, and today she raised the important issue of retail workers, for whom Christmas is often bittersweet. The hours and the money that they can earn until Christmas are great, but January often comes with a reduction in hours and a pay cut.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) informed the House of a drama that was unfolding in his constituency, which he described as the end of local democracy. Many of my constituents might argue that that has already happened, given that fracking is being forced on the people of Lancashire.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) addressed the issues facing our country. He has clearly reflected on events over the past 12 months, and I concurred with his call for the rejection of post-truth politics. We should all commit ourselves to putting the “united” back into the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) talked about road transport infrastructure issues in his constituency. As we are now making our Christmas lists, I would certainly like to add the A585 to my wish list for the road to Fleetwood.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) raised the issue of hysteroscopies. This was the third occasion on which she raised it in the House, and I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House will now raise it with the Department of Health.
The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) raised the iniquity, also raised by the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke, faced by the ex-service personnel who serve in Northern Ireland, and I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House will expand on that in his remarks.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded the House of the real reason for Christmas: the greatest gift ever given, the birth of Jesus Christ. He remembered all the persecuted Christians around the world. It is an issue he feels very strongly about, and probably sometimes finds overwhelming to deal with, so my Christmas gift to him is 1 John 4:4:
“because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
I hope that offers him some comfort this Christmas.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) spoke very eloquently about the shame faced by our constituents who face DWP assessments and the fantastic Ken Loach film “I, Daniel Blake”. If anyone has any time over Christmas, I am sure they will be hiring that on Amazon or elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) reflected on bereavement, which is often felt more acutely at Christmas than at any other time of the year. I am pleased he found the opportunity to mention the work of his local hospice. Indeed, if I was not at this debate, I would have been at St John’s hospice in Lancaster, where students from Beaumont College were doing a Christmas performance. Instead, I will be visiting Brian House children’s hospice in Blackpool tomorrow.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) talked about Sea View Street in his constituency, which was a winner at the British high street awards last week. While his constituency may well have won the No. 1 result on the east coast, I recognise he had to specify that because he knows he could not possibly compete with the resort of Fleetwood; and indeed my constituent Craig McOmish, who owns the beach kiosk at Fleetwood, was a winner at the same awards. More seriously, the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the fishing industry, and that must be looked at seriously in the Brexit negotiations. We must support the British fishing industry.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) talked about hate speech and abuse on social media. I am sure no Member of this House is unaware of the things that go on on social media—the anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, sexism and all the other forms of hate we see there. Last week I reported a comment on Facebook that was made about a person who is a democratically elected politician in this country. The quote was,
“shoot the bastard between the eyes and two bullets to the heart, will cure the problem”.
Within hours I heard back from Facebook that that did not breach its terms and conditions. That is absolutely a death threat, and I am continuing to pursue that with Facebook.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) raised a number of issues that he is passionate about, including cyber-bullying, the police funding formula, diabetes, Yemen and of course Leicester City. Of course 2016 was a very fine year for Leicester City, but it has also been a fine year for the mighty Barrow, who beat a league side away for the first time in 44 years. If there are any Bristol Rovers fans in the House, I can only apologise for what was clearly a very embarrassing defeat in the FA cup.
As we reflect on the year past, may I join Members who remembered our friend and colleague Jo Cox? In Jo’s maiden speech, she reminded us that we have
“more in common than that which divides us”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
and as we adjourn for the Christmas recess, we remember all those Members of the House, and indeed our constituents, who come from many different faith and cultural backgrounds but are all in the same way British. So may I take this opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, to wish you a happy Christmas, but to wish the Deputy Leader of the House a happy Hanukkah? In my household we will be celebrating both festivals, and anyone who has ever seen “The O.C.” will know that Chrismukkah is indeed a thing; it is a merger of both festivals.
So whatever Members of this House are celebrating as we break for the Christmas recess, may I wish them a very happy Christmas and a very peaceful new year, and extend that to the staff who work for us, the staff of the House, and all those who work here and all our constituents?
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and opposite the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who gave a consummate first performance. The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), called me “suave” in the Chamber last week—the hon. Lady’s impressive skills of discernment are now evident for all to see—and I was rather disappointed at first that she was not in the Chamber today, but I welcome the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood to her place. She need only follow the example of the shadow Leader of the House to do extremely well. This debate provides an excellent opportunity to cover an unrestricted panorama of subjects without being checked by Mr Speaker for want of relevance. In the spirit of Christmas and in his absence, I want to refer to Mr Speaker and his awesome memory and attention to detail, which do this House proud.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) spoke about those less fortunate than ourselves. I commend him on the work that he has done and is doing on the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is making good progress. I am told that it is the longest-ever private Member’s Bill—quite an achievement—and he has clearly done tremendous work in this area. His work with faith groups across our communities is also much appreciated and extremely impressive.
The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) spoke about drug deaths being at record levels and the importance of treatment for those who have become addicted to illegal narcotics. She made powerful points, just as she did about fire safety in schools.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) spoke about the digitisation of the tax system and the Federation of Small Businesses’ estimation of the costs. She also spoke of the cost for entrepreneurs. However, it is a voluntary pilot system, and the points that she made with her customary eloquence will be listened to. She is considering the issue with the same skill that she used as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and she will no doubt keep pursuing her theme. It is a pilot scheme, as I mentioned, so her contributions will be particularly useful in the future.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) made good points about the dangers of illicit tobacco, about which we all know. Not only is it a danger to the Treasury as it leads to a loss of revenue, but more importantly it is harmful in so many ways. It is harmful to young people, because it may be distributed illicitly, allowing young people to access it, and it may contain unwholesome content that is obviously unregulated.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) is a senior Member from whom I have occasionally sought advice. He discussed the problems with the trains in his area—the same infrastructure failures no doubt arise elsewhere—but major investment in the line from Liverpool Street up to his part of the world is under way and there is a commitment for new trains in 2019-20. He made a valid point about the need for jam today as well as jam tomorrow. We would all like jam perhaps every day and, as a member of the “breakfast club” here in the House of Commons, he is someone who partakes of that. His constituents are well served by him, and he made some valid, sensible points about engineering work that sometimes overruns from the weekend into a Monday morning and the fact that freight trains use the line during rush hour. He also mentioned the Government’s planned digital signalling trials. He suggested that his constituency be part of the experiment area. That request will go to the Transport Secretary, because I will make sure that it does, and we will see whether that can be made to apply.
I was not aware that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) had made a music video, but I know now. Obviously, I was in a minority, because I understand that tens of thousands of people have already watched it. She spoke of our businesses and companies in this country, which of course are the engine and lifeblood of the economy. It is appropriate to thank them for the work they do, in employing people and contributing in their highly valuable way to the economy. Full-time work makes up nearly 70% of the growth in employment since 2010. I would like to say that John Lewis is a very good company, as I believe she recognised, and it has an excellent reputation, but I gently encourage all chief executives to find time to meet Members of Parliament when requests for such meetings are made, wherever possible. Her mention of the Ahmadiyya community was appreciated across the House, and I thank her for it. We certainly wish to show our support to the Ahmadiyya community in this country; although small, it is a great asset to our society.
I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) in his place, and I had to think long and hard about what to say about his speech. He referred to a “merger most foul”, and I am sorry to hear about the local difficulties in his area. I can tell Members who were not present that it was a subtle speech. He is a ferocious voice for his constituents, and those in his district really must think twice before crossing him. I shall say no more about that.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned that the European Union is a source of concern to him in terms of where we go from here. I assure him that Her Majesty’s Government are not going to be introspective—they are not, will not be and have not been introspective. The UK has always been an outward-looking country and we will continue to be. We should have faith, as he should, in the people of this country moving forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) spoke of the MetroBus scheme in his area, which sounds as though it will be a valuable alternative to private car journeys when it is up and running, but there has been consequent congestion and delays. He has clearly been working hard on behalf of his constituents, seeking meetings both here and in his constituency; he particularised the meetings that he has been having on this subject. Progress has apparently been made, so I was pleased to hear about that. I was also struck by what he said about his excellent son and the excellent advice he gave him. He is rightly proud of him and although I have never met his son, may I, too, say that I am proud of him, as someone who has joined Her Majesty’s armed forces recently?
The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made powerful arguments that had the House paying close attention. The pain of the patients she spoke of undergoing these procedures is palpable. I have already instructed that the matter be raised with the Department of Health, as this issue clearly needs a response, and I will transmit that message to the right quarters. She also mentioned research into arthritis, and I undertake to look into that.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke powerfully. May I say to him that I have briefly discussed the matter he raised—the UK soldiers being investigated—on the Front Bench with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? First, I wish to say that Her Majesty’s armed forces have made and continue to make such a contribution to peace and stability in Northern Ireland. They will be provided, where necessary, with as much taxpayer-funded legal support as necessary. Her Majesty’s Government are aware of an imbalance in the system and, as part of addressing the legacy of the past, are looking to create a more balanced and proportionate system. I thank my hon. Friend again for his powerful contribution. The way in which he speaks and the subject matter on which he speaks always command the respect and attention of the House.
The House is richer for the presence of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He has the true affection of the House. He spoke of his love for Christmas, how he enjoys spending Christmas with his grandchildren and the true meaning of Christmas. His powerful religious invocation struck me and I commend him not only for that but for all his work in this Chamber over the past year and throughout his time as a Member of Parliament. He does a great deal of powerful work on freedom of religion in general throughout the year, as well as for Christians persecuted around the world—sadly, the number of persecuted Christians is ever increasing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) spoke of Department for Work and Pensions assessments, and she is a fiercely independent voice throughout the year. I mean that as a compliment, although some Members behind me assume that it was not. She is a fiercely independent voice throughout the year and she continued to show that independence today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) clearly enjoys these pre-recess Adjournment debates, and we enjoy hearing him. The litany of points that he raised was too long for the short few hours remaining, but I was struck when he mentioned that he lost his mother this year at the age of 104. One is never old enough to lose one’s mother, and my heart goes out to him for his loss. I know that he has mentioned his mother’s birthdays as they have come along each year and I have been pleased to offer my good wishes on those occasions. I commiserate with him for his loss.
My hon. Friend spoke about the Prince’s Trust, among many other things, and about how effective one division of the trust was in his area. I commend the work of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who has many achievements and has done superb work in many areas. The Prince’s Trust is one of them. It is the 40th anniversary of the Prince’s Trust this year and it has clearly transformed many young lives, not only in the my hon. Friend’s constituency but across the country. We are very lucky to have the Prince of Wales, in my opinion. I have to get that in, Madam Deputy Speaker, as clearly the House expects it of me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke affectionately of his constituency. He spoke of the pier of the year winner; I thought for one minute that he was talking about the other place, but he meant the pier that goes out into the sea. On the private sector investment coming the way of Cleethorpes, he spoke of Government support needed in that quarter. He actually requested lots of money for Cleethorpes from Her Majesty’s Government, while reiterating that he was not asking for any money. He certainly made a very attractive case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), as well as giving a charming retirement message to the chief superintendent of his area, Chief Superintendent Tunstall, whom we all wish well, spoke keenly about social media abuse and the prolific amount of hate speech. The social media companies have a moral responsibility to do more.
I take this opportunity to commend the cross-party Home Affairs Committee for its report on anti-Semitism. My hon. Friend spoke about that and I know that he is on that Committee. He referred to the 2,500 deeply offensive anti-Semitic messages received in a short period of time by one Member of this House. I commend the Committee for its work. In this context, the death was announced today of Rabbi Lionel Blue. He was a wonderful voice of reason on the airwaves, in marked contrast to the virulent anti-Semitism that we are hearing about on social media in so many quarters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton spoke about a remark that the late Lady Thatcher had made. The anecdote to which he was referring, if I am correct, was about Lord Young of Graffham, of whom Lady Thatcher had apparently said, “Most people bring me their problems. He brings me solutions.”
I have not forgotten the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who spoke of the campaign against cyber-bullying and the tragedy of the loss of a boy of 15, Brandon Singh Rayat. The right hon. Gentleman does so much to raise individual cases such as that in this place, and I commend him for that. The whole House offers its sympathy to the parents of Brandon Singh Rayat who, I know, have been in the Palace of Westminster today. We send our deepest commiserations for their loss. The points that the right hon. Gentleman made reiterate the damage done to young people in particular, but to people of all ages, by cyber-bullying.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East has a tremendous history of good work on diabetes and on Yemen. To my certain knowledge he has focused on Yemen for years—for as long as I have been in the House. Now it is a cause that many are exercised by, rightly, but he has been a beacon of support for Yemen for many years. His support for Leicester football club is also widely known. He said something about mince pies. I will have to consult the Clerk about “Erskine May” on that. We will see whether that applies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) spoke of his affection for his constituency and the unsung heroes: the small and medium-sized enterprises. It is right that we talk about them, because so much work is put in by small business owners and managers, who often work all hours of the day and night and are the lifeblood of our economy. My hon. Friend made very valuable points about the ivory trade as well. His knowledge of African affairs is very impressive. I remember speaking to him a few weeks ago and I was bowled over by his knowledge of African affairs. When he speaks on the subject, he speaks with experience and persuasion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) spoke of the valuable work done by volunteers and what we can do to encourage companies to encourage volunteers to do good work. I know of one example from my own constituency: the Nationwide building society, which I think allows each of its employees three days a year to do voluntary work in their communities. They are paid by the company for those three days, as part of the company’s social action project. If more companies can do that sort of thing, it will provide encouragement for those who wish to support their community. My hon. Friend said that he had visited every school in his constituency. Someone asked from a sedentary position whether he had passed all the exams. I have no doubt that he would if he needed to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke powerfully about school funding. I know that she will continue to fight on that subject. She is a powerful voice for her constituency, and she certainly knows how to make it heard in this place.
I take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy Christmas, particularly the staff of the House, the staff of Members of Parliament, the police and security staff who look after us, Mr Speaker and all the Deputy Speakers, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have had a year to remember: 2016 will go down in history for myriad reasons, not least this country’s second female Prime Minister, along with many other causes of celebration.
But the House also lost a Member in the prime of her life. Jo Cox was an exemplar of public service. If I may say so, her family have shown extraordinary dignity in their bearing. We remember that family at Christmas. We wish them and all our constituents, especially those who have suffered a bereavement, all the very best this Christmas and in the new year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.