Thursday 20 December 2018
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank you for allowing me the honour of firing off on this debate this afternoon, on the last day before the festive break.
As Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I should explain to hon. Members why we are here in Westminster Hall, as they will be used to this kind of debate taking place in the main Chamber. Having not had any time from the Government for eight weeks, and not having any assurances that we would get any at all, the Backbench Business Committee decided to hold this debate here to ensure that it took place. We knew that this slot was available about three weeks ago, and it was only last week that we found that we would get time in the main Chamber today, and we already had queues of debates waiting to take up that time.
It may be a Christmas carol to some Members’ ears that I do not intend to use my contribution to discuss the intricacies of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Instead, I hope once again to illuminate the Commons with tales from the frozen wastes of the north, and in particular from my constituency of Gateshead.
Gateshead is a wonderful place, as I am sure Members from all sides of the House would agree. It has actually hosted Conservative party spring conferences, and Conservative party members have enjoyed themselves in Gateshead. They were very welcome, although they have not come back recently.
We have much to be proud of—our angel of the north, our Quayside development, the Baltic, the Sage Gateshead regional music centre and our Gateshead Millennium Bridge that connects us to that village on the north side of the River Tyne, which I believe is called Newcastle. Then there is our town centre redevelopment, which has dramatically increased footfall, our sports stadium, once renowned for hosting major national and international athletics events, our Metrocentre, and our wonderful municipal Victorian park, Saltwell Park. And we have great people, who have genuine generosity of spirit and Geordie warmth. I could go on at length about the great things that Gateshead has to offer, but I feel, sadly, a bit like a scratched record. Having had the honour of chairing the Backbench Business Committee since 2015, I have participated in a number of these debates, and I do not want to repeat much of what I have said before about Gateshead.
Although it is always fantastic to have the opportunity to talk about the many great things happening in Gateshead, I am afraid to say that, for the last eight and a half years, they have happened through the prism of austerity. My local authority has lost well over £100 million per annum in annual revenue since 2010, and that has made life very difficult for many of the poorest people living in my constituency. That is set against the backdrop of a significant year-on-year increase in demand for services, which is partly due to the growth in population. Perhaps more concerning is the significant growth in demand for services to meet the increasing needs in our community. Adult social care demand is well up, and children’s social care demand is increasing exponentially. There is no doubt that policies enacted by this and previous Governments have been driving down living standards and increasing the demand for social care services.
We are all well aware of the health benefits of preventive care, as well as the significant reduction in later costs if those preventive care measures are in place. However, in the north-east—an area with historically lower than average life expectancy—constituents have been pushed to breaking point and beyond by failing welfare reform policies, such as universal credit and personal independence payments. In addition, local authority provision has been pared back to such an extent that often some of those who are most in need still miss out.
It is all well and good for the Prime Minister to decree the end of austerity, but the numbers and the reality do not match the rhetoric. Gateshead, my own local authority, faces a funding gap in the next financial year of a further £29.2 million, rising to £76.7 million by the year 2022-23 and 2023-24. Withdrawing the revenue support grant to local authorities is a policy decision that the Government are entitled to make, but to do that without reforming the council tax system for collecting local revenue is reckless, bordering on criminal. It means that the two sides of the equation do not add up.
To put it in simple terms, when council tax was brought in in the early 1990s, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because it meant the end of the community charge—the poll tax. Here we are, 28 years later. The council tax system was brought in with bands A to H, with band D as the median, and it was fine for a time. Once the revenue support grant is withdrawn, however, without rectifying the council tax banding system, a local authority such as mine where 65% of all the properties are band A cannot raise enough revenue to meet the needs of the community that it serves.
It is well documented that there is a correlation between cuts to preventive work and increased costs further down the line. The Government continue to give out platitudes and soundbites while constituents of hon. Members all across the House have nowhere else to go. The Government talk about parity of esteem for mental health and physical health, while cutting back on funding to the NHS for public health programmes and cutting local authority budgets—the 12 local authorities in north-east England will lose a combined £190 million from their public health budget, which is there to provide preventive health programmes. The Government talk about helping people into work, while leaving many of my constituents with no more than £190 per month to pay their utility bills and to feed themselves. Many of my constituents are left with £45 a week to live on.
Last week, I met a very severely disabled lady called Anna, who I first met four or five years ago. She is confined to a wheelchair and has had the mobility element in her benefits payments reduced. At the same time, she faces significantly increased charges for her daily care packages, because she requires round-the-clock care. She now does not have enough money to get out of the house more than once a week. It is sad, in the 21st century, that one of the most vulnerable people living in Gateshead—an intelligent woman, confined to a wheelchair—is not able to get out of the house more than once a week because of the constraints on her finances. The care packages that she pays for are sometimes nothing more than 15-minute flying visits.
The Government talk about solving the homelessness crisis, but they sit by while the right-to-buy programme continues to take the best stock out of our social housing. They talk about protecting private landlords and their tenants, but they model housing payments in universal credit on local authority allowance rates, not on the realities of real-world rental payments. They talk about opportunity for all, while fragmenting the education system so badly that a private academy trust operating in my local authority is closing a school of which I was chair of governors, having so badly mismanaged it over the past five years—and having seen the pupil population fall from 700 to 200—that they can no longer afford to keep it open. Schools face a recruitment and retention crisis, and a funding crisis, while increasingly being expected to rectify the social ills inflicted on their children by austerity.
I am interested in this sort of stuff, because I am a member of the Select Committee on Education and I am still chair of governors of a primary school in the centre of Gateshead, where 34 different languages are spoken by the pupil population. It is a poor community. That poor community, and those children, have seen a whole combination of things inflicted on them over the last eight and a half years—not just by the Department for Education but by a whole range of Government Departments—that have had a quite catastrophic effect on their lives.
We have had cuts over the years. First and foremost, one of the early ones was to something that affected children before they were born. We used to give health and maternity grants in this country to ensure that mothers conducted their lives in a healthy way during pregnancy, but they were cut. Hundreds of Sure Start centres have either closed or had their services curtailed. The previous Government were going to roll out a pilot project called ContactPoint to track children and ensure that no child fell through the cracks in the system. It came about because of cases such as that of Victoria Climbié, but it was abolished by the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).
The play strategy, which was developed to ensure that we had fit playing environments in our communities, was abolished. A programme called “Play Builder”, which was designed to renew local authority municipal play equipment, was gone. The “Creative Partnerships” scheme, which was about cultural enrichment in our secondary schools, was abolished. School sport partnerships had two thirds of their funding taken away. Aimhigher, a programme aimed at getting youngsters from the most deprived communities into university, was also abolished. Then education maintenance allowances went. The careers information, advice and guidance service went. Our youth and community services have been decimated. Add to that the cuts in local authority and welfare benefits.
All of this put together has had a devastating impact on some of the poorest children in our communities. The Government talk about making the welfare benefit system simple while cutting local authority funding, which has traditionally been the backbone of support for voluntary sector organisations. These sorts of services are invaluable when it comes to assisting people in difficulty. It is all talk, and from my perspective, as someone who represents Gateshead, I am afraid it always has been.
I said at the outset that I would not talk about Brexit, but how can I not? Some 57% of my constituency voted to leave, but that came after six years of Government austerity. Many of the social problems that have been identified brought about a situation whereby I would say to people on their doorsteps, “Look, we’ve got to remain in the European Union, or things will get much worse.” Some of my constituents would say, “Worse? What, worse than this?” and they meant it. We face poverty, homelessness, low pay and employment.
Before Government Members talk about their jobs miracle, let me say that the number of unemployed people in my constituency is 1,020 higher than it was in the same month last year, and the figure for youth unemployment is now more than 650. Those things were all caused by the Government’s policies, with little or no regard for massive regional variations or the widening north-south divide. Unfortunately, however we exit the EU, those problems will remain. It is shameful, frankly, for a so-called modern and prosperous country that the United Nations had to send a rapporteur to look at the effects of welfare reform on places such as mine in the north-east of England. It is equally shameful that Members from the governing party saw fit to grab food bank selfies earlier this month. I support the food bank in Gateshead, but I wish it did not have to exist. Given that it does exist and is needed, I will support it, but I work for the day when we do not need it any more.
Although people across the country who volunteer in food banks should be commended, it is a disgrace that millions of our constituents have to rely on donations for food. Although I wish every Member of the House and all staff a very happy, peaceful and restful Christmas, it is a time for reflection more than a time for celebration. I sincerely hope that Members across the House will spend some time over this festive period reflecting on how their choices in the voting Lobbies are directly affecting people in our communities, who are unable to enjoy this time of year as much as we would want them to. I wish everyone all the very best.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise. I will not sulk at this wonderful debate being downgraded—some might say—to Westminster Hall. It is not quite like having it in the Chamber; it is cosy and intimate, and we will just have to see it develops.
I recently met Chris Green, director of the Summer Camps Trust. Thousands of children benefit every year from the experience of summer camp, learning new skills, meeting new friends and enjoying the countryside. Many young people are also trained to be team leaders, giving them valuable skills for the future. I urge the Government to look into the wider provision of summer camps.
My local football team, Southend United, have broken their losing run. I am glad to say that, under their excellent owner and manager, we are now looking perhaps to reach the play-offs and have a stadium. I visited them in August, when they hosted the Community and Education Trust, which involved three teams of young people who were planning a social action project. I commend the National Citizen Service for providing opportunities for young people to give something back to the community in which they live.
Earlier this year I visited Heycroft Primary, an excellent local school, for a fundraising event in aid of mental health charities Young Minds and Mind. The wonderful organiser, Kelly Swain, educated herself about self-help wellbeing therapies, and her aim is to make a difference to families who suffer from mental health issues. The day was a great success, and I look forward to working with her in the future.
My constituent Mark Rice recently drove over a faulty manhole cover and sustained significant damage to his car. Apparently the local council are not responsible for this, and neither is the water company. So who is responsible for this? Mr Rice has had to pay for the repairs, and he is rightly concerned that this will affect his future insurance premiums. I encourage the Government and the water company to look into this case and see if we can get an answer.
Another of my constituents, Ms Pauline Morris, recently met me to discuss non-invasive prenatal testing. Such a test can provide the parents with indicators on the presence of Down’s syndrome. I thought that the usual amniocentesis tests was enough, but apparently it is not any more. Too many women have to go through the old-style test, which can, depending on the results, necessitate further and potentially dangerous tests. The solution is non-invasive prenatal testing. The chairman of the Southend clinical commissioning group has informed me that the test will be rolled out over three years. That is not soon enough, and I call again on the Government to see whether they can speed up this non-invasive testing.
A Southend lady called Sue Lesser launched a book called “Take a Poem with Breakfast”. The collection, written by her, is dedicated to all people living with dementia—it is really in honour of her mother, who suffers from it—and any profit will go to the Alzheimer’s Society. I hope that she sells out of copies of her book.
I spoke in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, when it was a pleasure for me to congratulate all the staff and volunteers at Southend University Hospital on the wonderful work they do. Del and Lindsay Rudd contacted me earlier this year to tell me about their personal experiences. I was not surprised to learn that the renal unit is, in the words of Del and Lindsay,
“a credit to the Hospital, the Town and the NHS.”
I could not agree more. Another constituent, Helen Prince, came to my surgery. She is an ambassador for the 70/30 Campaign, which is working towards a 70% reduction in child abuse and neglect by 2030. As a parent myself, I absolutely support her campaign and I hope that everyone in the House will sign up to it as well.
I have been trying to get some answers on behalf of my constituent, Carolyn Mason. Anyone can set up an employment agency—indeed, I used to run one before I became a Member of Parliament. I think the regulations are too lax at the moment. Ms Mason is a reputable owner, but there is some sharp practice going on in the industry generally.
Last week I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the stress and anxiety caused by scam telephone calls and emails. All of us, as Members of Parliament, receive them all the time. Sadly, my constituent Ben Giles recently lost half of his savings as a result of such a call—this is a highly intelligent gentleman. I cannot stress enough the importance of stopping this wicked practice.
I dread to think how many accidents happen when pedestrians cross busy roads. Another constituent, Cliff Short, is better placed than most to comment on the situation, as he has been a police officer and a taxi driver for some 30 years. After identifying zebra crossings as a point of danger—extraordinarily—Mr Short created “red zebra”. When pedestrians approach a crossing, the flashing beacon switches from yellow to red, alerting drivers of the presence of a pedestrian. It is a simple but potentially life-saving idea, so I hope the Department for Transport will look at it.
I am proud to be the president of the Leigh Orpheus male voice choir, which sang in the Palace of Westminster earlier this year. This is its 50th anniversary.
Recently, a number of my Essex colleagues went on a boat trip down the River Thames. A number of people might say that it was a pity it did not sink, but we successfully negotiated the way from Tilbury to Southend pier. The trip was to support Essex Port of London Authority, to learn more about planned infrastructure projects, and to look at the Thames crossing and a potential new Thames barrier. We heard about opportunities for the expansion of the port of Tilbury and the benefits to the economies of both Essex and Kent. I support both those projects. Essex PLA is looking at providing a commuter service from the end of Southend pier into the City of London.
Hippo Cabs is a wonderful organisation that ensures that elderly residents who are disabled actually have a life. It offers a first-class service. I very much support Mr and Mrs Biswas, who run that wonderful service.
We yet again had our annual centenarian tea party in October. I have worked out that, in 34 years, I will qualify for one myself if I am around then. It would perhaps be unique for a Member of Parliament to do that. The pupils of Westcliff High School for Boys did a splendid job of engaging with those centenarians.
At long last, at Fair Havens, our wonderful new hospice, we had a sod-turning ceremony in October. We are about £850,000 short, but it will be opened in February 2020.
Like the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), Southend had a visit from the Taiwanese ambassador recently. It was a wonderful visit, and he said that he enjoyed it more than Cleethorpes. [Laughter.] He didn’t actually. He was shown the Forum, the Focal Point gallery, South Essex College and Ventrica, a local company. I hope there will be some trading opportunities opened up into the future.
We have a wonderful jazz centre in Southend. Digby Fairweather welcomed Sir Michael Parkinson to open it. I hope that people throughout the United Kingdom and the wider world will visit it.
Last month, I visited the local watch station of the National Coastwatch Institution, which provides a vital service in monitoring the coastal waters and keeping watch for emergencies such as overturned boats or fishermen in trouble—I do not know whether it would have helped the Essex Members if our boat turned over. Other activities such as surfing, diving and canoeing are also monitored. We should not take its service for granted.
We had a wonderful active ageing day in Southend. It reinforced the idea that if people keep active as they age, they will live longer.
Earlier, the House paid tribute to Les and his two colleagues, who have a combined 120 years of service to this House—absolutely fantastic. We are very grateful to all the people who help us go about our business in the House. They are wonderful.
I recently hosted a reception for the National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs. I was once patron of Basildon Boys Club, which does a fantastic job. Belonging to a club gives young people a great start in life, a place to go, things to do, and helps them develop positive relationships, so I really do commend them.
This November was complex regional pain syndrome awareness month. I met the charity Burning Nights and CRPS patients to hear about what more can be done to support those living with the painful condition. We laugh about people who have got a back problem, but it is not very funny to have one. The problem cannot be seen. In the UK, an estimated 15,000 people are diagnosed with the condition each year. There is some lack of awareness among GPs and others, so we need to do more to raise awareness about it.
I have been honoured to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis. I would like to give a special mention to a local constituent, Carla Cressy, who has been instrumental in forming the group, which has a wonderful make-up. Through her charity, she has been campaigning for greater support for the 1.5 million women in the UK living with that dreadful condition. Raising awareness of endometriosis in schools and among healthcare professionals and employers is critical to ensuring patients get the right treatment and support. I look forward to the meeting next month with the Under-Secretary.
We were all invited to the reception in the House of Commons organised by the British Toy and Hobby Association, which does a very good job in raising awareness of unsafe and dangerous toys. Local charities in Southend were very grateful for the toys it donated.
Hollie Gemmell is a parish nurse and fitness consultant in Southend. She organises dance shows designed to help the elderly reminisce, exercise and have fun. Her shows are very popular. She really does a wonderful job for elderly people.
Last week, Southend Borough Council approved ambitious plans for building an exciting and prosperous future for the town. Looking forward to 2050, the plans set out a vision for Southend that will create a place to live, work and visit that we can all be proud of. It includes investment in our roads, regeneration for our High Street, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) mentioned this morning, and open spaces to help us flourish as a digital city. I welcome this opportunity.
I make no apology for thinking that it is obviously an oversight that Southend is not already a city. I will not desist from raising this issue in the House at every opportunity until we become a city.
In the Amess household on 25 December, the word “Brexit” is banned. Every time I leave my house, someone stops me and wants to talk about Brexit. When I go shopping, everyone wants to talk about Brexit. When I am on the train, they want to talk about Brexit. I am sick to death of hearing the word “Brexit”, so on 25 December, it will not be mentioned in our house. Regardless of what the House decides, I will be leaving the European Union at 11 o’clock on 29 March next year. I wish all colleagues a very happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous new year.
I call Siobhain McDonagh.
Thank you, Mr Hanson. I was expecting to come a little further down the list, but I am delighted to be called so early.
It is something of a relief to be attending a debate with time for issues other than the B word—although we are all mentioning it. Although Brexit has been all-consuming of the Government’s time, energy and actions, the day-to-day reality for my constituents and those outside the Westminster bubble is quite different. There are 130,000 children who will wake up on Christmas morning without a permanent place to call home. My local accident and emergency unit is so full that my constituents have been left queuing outside it in the cold. The pressure on our police means that antisocial behaviour is running rife in my local town centre—an area crying out for more bobbies on the beat. Although the Government have found billions of pounds for contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, our vital public services teeter ever closer to breaking point.
I want to use my time today to bring to hon. Members’ attention three of the issues most important to my constituents. Let me start with housing. A year ago to the day, I spoke in this debate about the homelessness crisis across the country. I have reread my speech, and it is disheartening that every single word is still applicable one year on. In fact, if anything, the situation is now worse. Some 80,000 households across England will spend this Christmas trapped in temporary accommodation. Last year, I brought to Parliament’s attention the 86 homeless families in my constituency housed in a converted warehouse in the heart of one of south London’s busiest working industrial estates. One year on, many of those families are preparing for yet another Christmas in that so-called temporary limbo. They do not have the facilities to cook a Christmas dinner. They have no space for a Christmas tree, with families of up to five people sharing a single room, and there is little chance of presents, with every penny possible set aside to save for the extortionate deposit that may one day provide the golden ticket needed for the private rented sector. How many more families must be trapped in this limbo before the Government make absolute priorities of tackling homelessness and building the social housing and genuinely affordable homes for which we are so desperate?
The second issue is universal credit, which has been at the forefront of debate over recent months. For my constituents, the botched roll-out of the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system has undoubtedly caused chaos and misery. Take my constituent Mrs D, who wrote to me earlier this week and said:
“Universal credit has been a complete shambles for my family. We’ve explained to the children that Santa won’t deliver much this year and that there won’t be a Christmas dinner. Universal credit doesn’t make work pay, it puts you in debt.”
Another constituent of mine, Mrs L, was made redundant last year after 10 years working as a school administrator. Since January, she has worked on an agency basis for an employment agency. Universal credit assesses a person’s circumstances within a set monthly assessment period, however, so the dates of their universal credit claim and monthly pay packet are of paramount importance. For Mrs L, that has proven to be a nightmare. She anticipated a payment on 22 November, but was not paid until 18 December and, for the first time in her whole working life, she finds herself in rent arrears. She is now so worried about the irregularity of her payments that she questions whether it is in her financial interest to work for the agency. That makes a mockery of the idea that the system helps people to get into work. How much longer will the Government stand idly by while the least well-off continue to fall through the broken net of universal credit?
I will use my remaining time on a more positive note, to highlight a quite different organisation in my constituency, which is changing the lives of so many young, vulnerable constituents. The WISH Centre is a charity that prevents self-harm, and offers a community-based model that provides therapy and counselling in schools and at the centre. Over recent months, the Centre for Mental Health conducted an evaluation of the WISH Centre. The results were outstanding and worthy of being brought to the attention of the Chamber.
The report found that an extraordinary 81% of young people who have been helped by the WISH Centre have either significantly reduced their self-harm, or have stopped altogether. The young people themselves describe the project as holistic; it focuses on their strengths and builds resilience at each individual’s own pace. The report highlights the relief brought to sufferers, parents, carers and teachers, and evidences cost savings in both mental health and school budgets. Its recommendation is clear: the WISH approach should be introduced by clinical commissioning groups and authorities across England. Fortunately, the WISH Centre is actively looking to share its methodologies more widely, and I will happily introduce any hon. or right hon. Member to the scheme, if they would like more information.
With the Government trapped in Brexit turmoil, I sincerely hope that the Christmas period will bring them time to reflect on the day-to-day reality of those who I have described.
“People just walk past us and they are supposed to be going into that building to change the world that we live in.”
Those are the words of Jamie Leigh, who has been sleeping rough outside the gates of the Parliamentary Estate. I sincerely hope that the Government offer her more hope in 2019.
I too was expecting to come later in the order of speeches—Christmas has come early for me. Happy Christmas to everyone, and thank you to all the staff who run this place. I have said that now, so I will not repeat it.
I want to raise the subject of the danger caused by a drug called isotretinoin, which I have already spoken about—perhaps four times—in the House since becoming an MP. To date, I have to say, the collective view of the House has had little impact on actually sorting it out. Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane or Roaccutane, is a drug used to treat severe acne primarily in teenagers—mainly boys. It has dramatic effects: it clears acne up pretty quickly, but its side-effects can be enormous. It can cause severe depression and impotence in those who use it.
My concerns stem from contact with constituents, particularly one lady. She is the mother of a young man who has suffered enormously from isotretinoin. At the age of 16, he was given the drug for eight months. As a result, he suffered—forgive my language—complete erectile dysfunction, which has had a life-changing effect on him and, indeed, on his mental state. He is now in his early 20s, and it has of course had a dramatic effect on him. He has been through university, too.
Unsurprisingly, his mother is distraught, in particular because her son is now almost unwilling even to discuss the matter. I believe that we can all understand that. It must be very difficult for a young man to discuss such a matter with his mother. I, personally—I know I am from another generation—could not even have dreamt of talking about such a matter with my mother. I am really pleased that things have moved on, but I can still see the real difficulty for young men who have to discuss or bring up such matters.
I gather that there is an impact on young women, too: they can suffer a lack of libido. It is certainly considered a pretty dangerous prescription for a young pregnant woman, and doctors are careful about prescribing it if there is any chance that a young woman is pregnant. Pregnancy, however, can come as a pretty big surprise—it certainly has in my life and in my family. There is no fail-safe. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but we have all been there, have we not?
Isotretinoin can work very well, but for a small percentage of people, when it strikes, it has devastating effects. There is now well-documented evidence that it leads to suicide. I have brought those cases up when I have spoken about the matter before, but I do not intend to repeat them. Suffice to say, I am pretty sure that there is a direct link between the use of isotretinoin and some suicides.
If someone is depressed and feels that their life is over and that they are finished, they give up the will to live, which I have seen in some soldiers. I have seen a soldier who, when told of his injuries, said—forgive my language—“Oh, shit,” and he died, right there and then. I am quite sure that that could be the case for young men and women—particularly young men—in this situation.
I know that isotretinoin is a miracle drug for some—my daughter tells me that a lot of her friends use it—but for that small percentage of people who are deeply affected by it, causing problems such as depression and erectile dysfunction, it is devastating. Medical professionals warn people about the drug, and are careful about prescribing it, but I wonder whether, in view of the risks that we do not know about, we should be prescribing it at all.
I checked to see whether I personally could get hold of isotretinoin pills, and do so with relative ease and without a prescription. Of course, I used the internet. I did that yesterday. In this country, obviously, a prescription is required, but not so for companies based abroad. For example, a Canadian company called Online Pharmacy came up almost immediately. It offers Accutane—the same thing—and 10 pills cost £49.24. Delivery by air costs about £11.24, although I do not understand why that is quite so expensive from Canada to the UK, and apparently takes two to four weeks—I did not realise stuff would take that long to get across the Atlantic by air. The parcel, when it arrives, has discreet packaging so that no one knows what it contains—I am thinking of teenagers here, hiding it from the parents. It worries me, obviously that our teenagers—I still have two—can simply order this stuff and receive it, while parents have no idea. Incidentally, Online Pharmacy also promised to provide two free Viagra tablets, which is somewhat darkly ironic considering the problems I am talking about.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—our regulator, on this side of the Atlantic—issues warnings to healthcare professionals on the risks, such as in October 2017, but nothing more instructive than that. The agency has declared that the matter is being closely monitored but, considering the anecdotal evidence and what are to me the clear problems caused for a small percentage of people who use it, that is not good enough. As I mentioned, there have now been four debates in Parliament in which Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern, and so I suppose I am representing them all today. I bring it up again because we had this debate in Westminster Hall about six months or so ago, and I want it to be kept to the forefront. I represent all parts of the House when I speak today.
Surely it is time for the Department of Health to establish a major investigation into this drug and, perhaps as a precaution, to order that prescribing it should be halted until we are absolutely certain that we can at least identify those people at risk, or mitigate those risks much more than we can now. I am sorry to raise such a difficult problem, but I do so only because, on behalf of all Members of the House, I think that we should continue to press for this matter to have a proper investigation by the Department. I wish everyone to think carefully before use of isotretinoin—in particular those people who might be listening and thinking of using it, which includes my kids’ friends—because I really think that it can have tragic outcomes.
God bless, everyone, and happy Christmas. I also thank those staff who come in and out all the time—I never quite know what they do, but they seem to be here for 10 minutes and then flit out. They flit in and flit out, and those of us who sit here hour after hour wonder whether we could take a break. I am sure they go out for a quick drink or a cigarette. I thank those staff who sit here listening to the likes of me warbling on for far too long. My warbling ends now—happy Christmas, everyone.
For the information of the hon. Gentleman, his warblings are being written down line by line by those staff, who are from Hansard.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I have got to know quite well through serving together on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. He brought a very important matter to the House’s attention with his characteristic compassion and worldly-wise experience.
There have already been several good speeches. I fear that the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) is leaving, but his was a tour de force, a lesson to us all. I understand that in Southend, his Christmas address to the nation is viewed much as the state of the union speech is seen in the United States. I cannot possibly comment on all the matters mentioned, so I will refer to one, which was the rise of Southend United—Bradford City are in the same division. They are beginning to win games, and I note that our fixture at Valley Parade against Southend is on 19 January. The hon. Gentleman will be most welcome if he can escape from Southend for the weekend.
I intend to put three matters before the House. On the sporting theme, I will discuss Keighley Cougars, the rugby league team in Keighley. At this time of year, many of us visit primary schools, whether as the local MP, or as a parent or grandparent, and I will discuss one school in particular which has been improving over the past few months, Oldfield Primary School. Then I want to bring to the attention of the House a couple of early-day motions that might have passed people by.
First, I will talk about Keighley Cougars. Since the 1950s, this is the 20th occasion on which Keighley rugby league has been mentioned in this House. It was first mentioned by one of my illustrious predecessors, Mr Hobson, in the 1950s when he described Keighley rugby league club as one of the 30 “big fish” professional clubs at the time. I will not go through all 19 references, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Mr Gary Waller, who sadly passed away shortly after I returned to the House last year. One of my first duties was to pay tribute to him. He was very much involved in Keighley rugby league at its height in recent times—it was called “Cougar-mania”, in the 1990s.
Before the Super League, the Keighley Cougars were the first team to bring a bit of razzmatazz to rugby league. They went up the divisions and, in April 1995, they were leading division two and looking forward to promotion to the top division. What happened? They had three games to go, and they were told by the emerging Super League that they were not good enough for it: London and Paris—can you believe it, Mr Hanson—would be in the Super League, but not Keighley Cougars.
The Keighley Cougars did much good in the town. We have heard about local organisations doing good in their towns, notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). When Keighley Cougars were at their height in the 1990s, crime actually fell in the town by about 15%, because people had something to believe in and the youngsters had something to get involved in.
I will not rehearse the history since that period, but it has been difficult, now reaching its nadir. Over the summer, the club was taken over by Austria Holdings. The controlling force, one might say, behind Austria Holdings is a Mr Shane Spencer. The rugby league did not judge him to be a fit and proper person to run Keighley Cougars so someone else held the licence.
On 11 December, Austria Holdings gave up control of Keighley Cougars (2010) Ltd. According to Companies House, Mrs Claire Auty took 75% control over Keighley Cougars. Keighley Cougars is still in special measures with the rugby league, which will not let it sign contracted players for the new season, only months away. It is a very suspicious situation because the day afterwards, there were bankruptcy proceedings against the said Mr Shane Spencer in Wakefield court, which have been adjourned until 4 January. Keighley Cougars fans are deeply worried. I have called upon Mr Shane Spencer to stand aside; we do not know who Mrs Claire Auty is and she has made no statement as far as I am aware about what she intends to do with Keighley Cougars. We need new ownership.
I looked back at all those references to Keighley Cougars and Keighley rugby league in Hansard; many are about conflict between rugby union and rugby league, and how rugby league felt it was not getting a good deal down the decades. I can announce that Keighley RUFC, chaired by Mr Graeme Sheffield, has confirmed that it is quite happy to ground share with Keighley Cougars next season. There are a couple of consortia that will come to the fore—I understand the rugby league has had at least two approaches.
It is incumbent on the Rugby League, particularly after those bankruptcy proceedings on 4 January, to take firm action—it has the powers to do that—and to issue the licence for Keighley Cougars to another more secure and presentable group of individuals, hopefully with a supporters’ trust so that Keighley Cougars can rise once again. It is on a terrific site—the cricket club is next door; Steeton AFC now play at Keighley Cougars. It could be part of the regeneration of Keighley, but we need firm action by the rugby league, just as it took firm action to save the Bradford Bulls a year ago.
I will move on to the second item I want to bring to the House’s attention: Oldfield Primary School, which is a small village primary school that had a bad Ofsted report in the spring. It was two days away from going into a federation of local community schools called the Footprints Federation. It did badly in the Ofsted report, but over the last few months it has shown remarkable improvement. My office has been inundated with letters from parents. I will read one, which commends the new headteacher, Angela Vinnicombe, who is the head of the Footprints Federation, and her staff. My constituent says:
“The difference they have made to the teaching, the learning, the building itself and more importantly the morale and enthusiasm of the staff and children is absolutely second to none. Quite frankly I am gobsmacked as to how this has not been recognised by the relevant bodies and I’m hoping you could have a voice in this matter”.
What has happened, David Hanson—sorry, Mr Hanson. I got slightly carried away. One of the advantages of meeting in this Chamber is your chairmanship. If we were in the main Chamber, that would not be possible. If we revert to the main Chamber next year, I hope you might be elevated because there may be some changes afoot, I hear.
Anyway, the “relevant body” that the parent was worried about is, in fact, the regional schools commissioner, Vicky Beer. It is hard to get hold of Vicky Beer; I think it would have been similarly difficult a century or so ago to get hold of the Viceroy of India. I have managed to get through to some of her officers. The regional schools commissioner has decided that the school should be academised. I do not like to take an over-ideological approach to education—there are good academies in Keighley and there are good community schools. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I have asked for a meeting with the Minister for School Standards and I hope he will grant that, so I can bring down one parent, one governor and one teacher to plead the case.
Children are having their Christmas lunches and festivities, unsure of the future. The preferred academy is Bronte Academy Trust, which runs three schools in my constituency. It has good teachers and staff. It has had one or two teething problems and has only been going since 2016. Some parents and teachers from Bronte Academy Trust have approached me and said that they do not really support what is, in effect, a hostile takeover. Bronte Academy Trust will be better sticking to improving the three schools it already has. I hope that we can take a non-ideological approach and think principally about the education of the children at Oldfield. I will visit the school as soon as it comes back on 3 January.
I promised I would refer to a couple of early-day motions that Members may have missed. One has a Christmas theme and the other looks ahead to the new year. The first, with the Christmas theme, is early-day motion 1931 in my name on Boxing day trains. I will not labour the point because I have mentioned it before in debates, but it is a disgrace that there are no Boxing day trains except for on four lines in the south-east of England. I have constituents who cannot return home to Yorkshire for Christmas from London because they have to be at work on 27 December or they lose their jobs.
There are many bank holiday sporting fixtures—I will come back to two or three of those. There are retail sales—our high streets need that boost. The good news is that, in a debate on transport in Yorkshire yesterday, the Rail Minister offered to meet me in January to look at Christmas and Boxing day 2019. I hope that the shadow Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) will also agree to meet me, so by next December we can have a cross-party commitment on Boxing day trains. There are already Boxing day trains in Scotland to an extent.
Let me turn to the second early-day motion. One of the great things of this year was England’s sporting success in the World cup. In Keighley, at the said Keighley Cougars, we had a cross-community showing of that semi-final match. I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Portugal—that may have escaped your attention, Mr Hanson. I was elected this week and it was a close-run race. Next summer in Portugal, England will play football in the UEFA Nations League finals. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) has drawn attention to the fact that it will be hidden away on subscription TV. It will not be available to the nation—we will not be able to have community showings of it. I hope the Government will take some action on listed events. I call upon Comcast, which has taken over Sky, as a gesture to the English nation, to make the game available free to either the BBC or ITV, so the nation can enjoy it as a whole.
Finally, we are looking forward to Christmas and I am particularly looking forward to attending midnight mass at Leeds Roman Catholic Cathedral. For the second year in a row it will be live on the BBC, such is the quality of the choir—last year on BBC 1 and this year on Radio 4. After my Christmas lunch, my attention will to turn to Boxing day; as a sporting enthusiast, Mr Hanson, you will know there are plenty of sporting fixtures to look forward to—even if you cannot get to them by train.
Last year, I managed to place some charity Christmas bets; as someone observed, only one of the four actually came home. I must put on record that this year’s bet is with Betfred in Ilkley, which has put up the majority of the bet—it put up £80 and I put up £20. If we win, all the money goes to the homelessness project Bradford Nightstop. I am backing Leeds and Burnley to win, Bradford to eke out a draw at Sunderland and, for racing fans, I am backing Waiting Patiently, the Yorkshire-trained horse, in the King George at Kempton. Happy Christmas to one and all.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am slightly disappointed that he has not put money on Liverpool versus Newcastle on Boxing day.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan). His remarks about his connection with rugby league remind me that my late father set up all the BBC camera positions for every rugby league ground in the country when he formulated its coverage of the sport. Indeed, he was an extremely good friend of the late Eddie Waring, who of course was originally the rigger for the cables at rugby league grounds and became a commentator only in an emergency, when the commentator failed to turn up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I want to report on a few things—some on which progress is being made, which is good news, and some on which work still needs to be done. Of course, some of us are still celebrating last night, when Tottenham overcame Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates. More importantly, though, disgracefully, a bottle was thrown by a thug in the crowd at the man of the match and goal scorer, Dele Alli. That raises serious problems for all football grounds. If people get into the habit of doing that, players and linesmen might be seriously injured. We need to reflect that people can be competitive at football and support their team, but they do not need to behave in a thuggish manner.
Let me refer to the Select Committees on which I have the honour of serving, which do excellent work. I do not expect Members’ sympathy, but those of us who suffer on the Procedure Committee wrestled for some weeks with the question, “What does ‘meaningful’ actually mean?” I am not sure we came up with the answer, and I look forward to the Government’s finally coming up with one in the new year.
I press my hon. Friend the Minister to encourage the Leader of the House to provide the Backbench Business Committee with more time in the main Chamber. We did not have business in the main Chamber for nine weeks, which, in my view, made us almost redundant as a Committee. That is extremely regrettable, because the debates we put on are well subscribed and very positive.
I have never been on the Backbench Business Committee to make a selection, but what my hon. Friend says is a shock to me. I thought the Committee’s business was built into the timetable; I did not realise it could be shifted. I thought it was part of the set programme. As a normal Member, I am really quite surprised that it is not. Others are nodding in agreement. I think that is wrong—we should have that time, because it gives us power.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The reality is that a certain number of days are given over to the Backbench Business Committee in a year. However, this is a two-year Session, and the Government have refused to increase pro rata the number of days in the main Chamber provided to the Backbench Business Committee.
I am also a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. We have inquiries ongoing into the future of the high street, which is very topical, and leasehold reform. What house builders are doing to sell out freeholds to finance companies from under the feet of people who bought leases on properties is a scandal. We also have ongoing inquiries into fracking; the tragedy of Grenfell, which continues; building regulations and fire safety in general, on which there is much to do to ensure that people’s homes and business are safe; and social housing law across the country. Our Committee’s work is very topical and relevant.
During the year, I have been engaged in setting up three new all-party parliamentary groups. The first is the APPG for Council of Sri Lankan Muslim Organisations UK—COSMOS—which seeks to combat the prejudice and quite disgraceful antics of the Sri Lankan Government against Muslims in Sri Lanka.
The second concerns the holocaust memorial, which will go alongside Parliament. It will be a long-standing memorial to the horrors of the holocaust, and the education centre will educate people of all ages about what happened during the holocaust and why we must never allow it to happen again. The former Chief Rabbi said that Jewish people in this country fear that what is going on now is similar to what happened in Germany in the 1930s. For Jewish people in this country to feel that way is a tragedy—a tragedy for them and for all of us. In 2019, we must redouble our efforts to combat all forms of antisemitism and send a signal to all people that, whatever their religion, they have the right to celebrate that religion in this country. We must do that on a long-standing basis.
The final all-party group I set up was the APPG on building communities, which aims to encourage the building not just of new housing but of communities. That is something that has to be developed.
As many colleagues know, we had London elections during the year. I pay tribute to my colleague Manji Kara, a long-standing councillor in Harrow East. He chose to leave his safe ward and fight a much more difficult one, and as a result stepped down from the council after 14 years’ exemplary service. Even more importantly, I pay tribute to Christine Bednell, who stepped down as a councillor after 47 years, only because of her ill health.
I will spare Members my prepared notes about all the contributions I have made to debates since September. Apparently there have been 32 of them, so I am sure everyone is grateful that I will not refer to them. However, I will mention some important faith-based activities. First, we have a long-running campaign for Jains to be able to record their religion in the 2021 census. I support other groups, such as the Sikhs, who want to ensure that they have the right to record their religion, but Jains at the moment have to tick, “Other”—there is no measure in the census of whether they celebrate their religion. That needs to be changed.
We had the good news this morning that legislation will be brought forward next year to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010. We expect that long-standing provision to be repealed by the summer. That is positive news, which will be warmly welcomed by the Hindu community across the country. The Government’s proposals in that respect are very positive.
My constituency is the most multi-religious and multicultural in the country, bar none, so I have enjoyed the opportunity to participate in many activities with faith groups in the past year. I visited 10 temples on Hindu new year’s day, and over the Christmas period I shall celebrate with the Jewish community at one of our local synagogues. I will be visiting the Muslim community shortly after the new year and celebrating with the Hindu community on new year’s day itself, as well as visiting churches. It does not end at Christmas—the Greek Orthodox Church in my constituency starts the new year two weeks later, with its Christmas celebrations, so I shall join in with those, too.
The casework I am dealing with at the moment stems predominantly from Harrow Council’s failure to provide the service it should. I criticise it perennially for a number of things, but one of the key problems is its failure to communicate with local residents when they have complaints. According to our statistics, we are dealing with more than 30 cases a week where the council has simply failed to respond to reasonable requests from the local authority about the service that it should be providing.
In the new year we have some good news coming up, which I have raised on many occasions. The new building at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, in my constituency, opened a couple of weeks ago and the patients and staff—medical and non-medical—moved in, which is positive. I have been pushing for this for 12 years and I am delighted that it has come to fruition. I congratulate the board and everyone who has made it possible. There will be a royal opening in March, which the local community will celebrate.
In my constituency, we recently opened the first state-sponsored Hindu secondary school. The Secretary of State came to open it, which was positive, and it demonstrates what can happen when local people come together and demand the right for a faith-based school, if that is what they choose.
There are two new developments coming on stream: the Elysian retirement community is being built alongside Stanmore station and Jewish Care is setting up a care facility for newly retired people, which will lead on to live-in care in Stanmore. These are two positive measures that are going to be warmly welcomed in the local community.
This year homelessness and the problems of people sleeping rough have been particularly important. My Homelessness Reduction Act became law on 1 April and the duty of public authorities to refer became law on 1 October. Those things are already having a dramatic effect on combatting homelessness. Some 58,660 households were assisted in the first three months that the Act was operational. I take the view that just one person sleeping rough is an absolute national disgrace, but without this change in the law it would have been much worse. We must prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place; under the legislation that has been extremely successful. I am glad that we have the Housing First pilot initiatives. They will enable rough sleepers to be housed and to be given the level of support they need to put them back on the straight and narrow.
I urge my hon. Friends in Government to make sure that we are building the homes that people need, at prices they can afford, both around cities and beyond. It is no good building homes that people cannot afford and for them to feel envious of the people that have them. At this time of year, when many people are generous towards the homeless, we must remember that homelessness happens not just at Christmas, but every single day. There are 320,000 people across the country who are homeless, sleeping on sofas or rough sleeping. It is our duty as politicians to make sure that those people have a home of their own that they can rely on.
Mr Hanson, I wish you, all the staff, all colleagues and especially the staff in my office a very merry Christmas and a happy, peaceful, prosperous and, above all, healthy new year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, in these unusual surroundings. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that the debate took place today. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I would like to associate myself with his comments regarding our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities across the United Kingdom, both for the remaining part of this year and in the future.
I hope to talk about a number of matters, including one which was brought to my attention this morning and which raises great concern. I heard today that the RZSS WildGenes laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo has said that in all probability the Scottish wildcat is now extinct as a gene pool. The gene pool of one of the most endangered wild mammals in the world, which resides in Scotland in very small numbers, is now so affected by the domestic cat that it cannot be identified separately. The only gene pool we have is in approximately 100 Scottish wildcats that are in captivity. With the enormous challenges that face this country and the world, it is interesting to look at one small aspect, in this case an animal that lives in the United Kingdom, was far more widespread in past decades and is now literally extinct in the wild. If the follow-up tests that are currently being done confirm this, it would be truly tragic news.
As we approach Christmas, it is a salutary lesson to think that in the United Kingdom we were asked to take care of a mammalian group and we have managed to do that so badly that it has fallen into extinction. We look at the giant panda, the tiger and the elephant—all of which rightly require care—and yet we may have let one of the most important and unique groups of animals slip into extinction on our own doorstep. I find that very saddening, but I compliment Edinburgh Zoo on the work that it does.
One of the great things about these debates is that we always learn something—I had no idea about the information that the hon. Gentleman has given us about the iconic Scottish bobcat. I am still a bit unclear; is he saying that the Scottish bobcat is still there in the wild, but has mated with domestic cats and become a sort of mixture of the two? In other words, does it remain in the wild, not as a bobcat but as something mutated?
A more succinct description I could not give. The gene pool is now so diluted that individual Scottish wildcats that have been caught and tested in the wild are almost impossible to distinguish from domestic cats. That is the nature of cats generally, but it is disappointing that we have reached that stage. The only gene pool with a guarantee of wildcat status exists in the 100 or so that are kept in zoos and wildlife parks around the world.
I thank the teachers and teaching staff of East Lothian and those who work for East Lothian Council, as well as the pupils who have done so much this year, such as those at North Berwick High School who held a UN model assembly at which schools from around Scotland gathered to debate important matters. It was a great privilege to go into what were effectively committee sittings and listen to highly intelligent and articulate young people discussing such important matters—indeed, some of their ideas and proposals merit consideration in this House. I feel very hopeful for the future and for politicians to come. At primary schools I have visited, children have asked questions that I just could not answer; I had to do the honest thing and tell them that I did not know, but would go and find out.
I want to mention people who have invisible disabilities, and the work of Grace, a campaigner from Prestonpans in East Lothian who created Grace’s Sign. I also want to mention Judith Dunn, whom I invited to Parliament on #AskHerToStand day. It was such a wonderful day: so many women came from all around the country, and it speaks so positively of what we can achieve.
The Civil Nuclear Constabulary is a strange and almost unknown group of police officers who protect our nuclear establishments, but who are separate from the police force and are a civilian group. They are the armed backup to our police forces. They have been in a pension dispute for a long while now; I was able to ask a question about it this morning in business questions. This Government have kicked down the road the question of their pension settlement and when they can retire. I had hoped that for this Christmas they would have had a present of knowing what was going to happen to them; I sincerely hope that by next Christmas they have an understanding.
I wanted to talk about universal credit, which has been in my constituency since 2016. We are not a constituency where it is being rolled out; we were one of the test beds. East Lothian reflects the statistical make-up of the United Kingdom and particularly Scotland very accurately, so it was a test bed for universal credit, and it has not gone well. We have problems with universal credit that go beyond that roll-out. It was a great pleasure to hear hon. Members making points earlier about the significant difficulties where there are two payments in one month and then nothing follows in the next month, and the pressure that that brings to bear on families and individuals. Other people are persuaded—I use that word carefully—by advice from the Department for Work and Pensions to set up their own business and then, 11 or 12 months down the line, are let down by the very system that persuaded them to set up their own business because their earnings are such that they suddenly lose their benefits.
I want to talk about the WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. Many women in my constituency, who are well through their administrative complaints procedure, have received a letter that their case is now being stopped because of the High Court case to allow the judicial review. My understanding is that that letter is incorrect and actually all that has happened is that their case has been postponed until the outcome of the hearing. However, again, it is an indication of how communication from the Government to our constituents is so far from being clear and understandable that it brings more challenges.
With only 99 days to go, however, I want to spend two minutes mentioning the real threat of a no deal. It has come up before and I fear it will come up again, but it needs to come up for a reason. I asked the Prime Minister who she would blame if there was no deal, and she indicated that it would be Parliament’s responsibility. It may well, in one view of it, be Parliament’s responsibility, but the Government are the Executive, with the power to ensure that that does not happen.
I can talk about the announcement today that the word “unlikely” has been dropped from the preparation notes that have been issued. I can talk about the 3,500 troops who have been placed on standby, the cut to any holiday requests from 1 April, the reversion to World Trade Organisation rules, the fact that we do not have an immigration policy that can come in in just over six weeks’ time, the fact that the problem at the Irish border will not be resolved by then and the bottom-line forecast that no deal will be an economic disaster into the future.
Some people have suggested that it is a ruse—that it will never happen. Some people have said, “It could well happen. We don’t know.” Some people have said, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” and some people have said, “Everything will be fine.” People see many versions of the future, but I know it rests with the Prime Minister and within the power of the Government to say, “No deal won’t happen.” I disagree vehemently with leaving the European Union, as do my constituents, but putting that political decision to one side, I find the executive decision about whether to put the country in a position where it will leave with no deal saddening, upsetting, annoying and frustrating. I also find it—I choose this word carefully—irresponsible, and I would expect far, far more of any Government of the United Kingdom.
At Christmas, I urge that the risk of no deal be removed so that we can move on in whatever way suits the United Kingdom. That will remove the fear. As the children said to me at a high school when I asked them about Europe, “But it’s our future.” It is their future. I am not asking to stay in Europe or for a people’s vote, both of which would be brilliant; I am saying, “Please remove this option, which has no agreement across the House.” For whatever reason it is still on the table, but it is the one thing that should be removed.
I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a very peaceful and prosperous new year.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield). The comments he has just made about Brexit, which is of course the most contentious issue we face, highlight the fact that these end-of-term debates, even when discussing such serious issues, are always conducted in a good-natured way. It is always a pleasure to take part in them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) raised a particular issue that I suspect none of us were aware of, and highlighted something that could affect any of our constituents. Others, such as the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), have focused on various aspects of their constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who is not in his place, had the temerity to suggest that Southend should have city status, when he knows full well that Cleethorpes is the premier resort of the east coast. He suggested that the Taiwanese representative to the UK would have said that Southend beats Cleethorpes, but I know the Taiwanese representative could not possibly have said that. He is too much of a diplomat, and he will also know that his opposite number in Taipei spent part of her childhood in Cleethorpes, so he would be on dangerous ground if he were to make such an outrageous comment.
Sporting themes have been touched on, so it would be remiss of me not to mention Grimsby Town Football Club. Many perhaps do not know that they play in Cleethorpes; Blundell Park, their home ground where they have played since 1898, is indeed in Cleethorpes. Another anomaly is that Cleethorpes Town Football Club, who play in the northern premier league, actually play in Grimsby. Such are the oddities that surround Grimsby and Cleethorpes, where the only recognition that there is a border is when you come to passport control.
More seriously, there are a number of issues I particularly wanted to raise that affect the local area. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned the role of local authorities, and of course he is a long-serving local authority leader. I have two local authorities serving my area, both unitary councils—North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. As an aside, I hope some future Government will consider imposing unitary authorities across the country, because I think they are far more efficient and would lead to more resources being made available to provide frontline services.
I recognise the continuing constraints on Government budgets, but I will repeat what I have said on a number of occasions: local authorities need additional resources, and the cuts that have been made to them, although necessary, have probably gone as far as most authorities can manage. It is not just the essential services that those authorities provide, such as adult care, dealing with looked-after children, waste collection and so on, but those things that, while perhaps not essential, improve our quality of life—libraries, parks, open spaces and the like. The feel-good factor plays a part; if we have a nice environment to live in, the reality is that antisocial behaviour is reduced and we all enjoy the facilities provided.
North Lincolnshire Council has the advantage of the business rate pilot, which was introduced last year with the 75% deal. Unfortunately, North East Lincolnshire Council, which applied for it this year, was not given the go-ahead. I have not yet had any feedback on the reasoning for that, but I will put on the record my hope that that will be rectified in future.
Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair
Local enterprise partnerships also affect local economic policy. Both my local authorities are members of the Humber LEP and also the Greater Lincolnshire LEP. As a result of the review currently taking place, there is a possibility that local councils will be able to have membership of only one LEP. I can understand the logic of that. It tidies things up from a purely administrative point of view, but I hope the Government will focus their attention on the LEPs that are less successful. In our area, the Humber LEP focuses on the offshore renewables sector and skills that are vital to our local area, and the Greater Lincolnshire LEP focuses on food and seafood processing in the Grimsby/Cleethorpes area. The industry employs more than 5,000 people and works very closely with the Greater Lincolnshire LEP on several projects.
I am pleased that both the Business Secretary and the Local Government Secretary have given me and council leaders the opportunity of putting our case personally to them, but I hope they will take note of what was said, and, where there is a successful operation of local enterprise partnerships, support it and allow it to continue. I am sure the administrative ease of being a member of only one can be overcome.
I also draw attention to another aspect of the local economy: our successful designation earlier this year as a part of the Greater Grimsby town deal, which was the first town deal that the Government agreed to. Previously we were familiar with city deals. Under both Labour and Conservative Governments, the focus on cities has been quite successful with city regions and the like, and there has been a boost to many of our cities as a result. However, in recent years many of our provincial towns have fallen behind and they need additional support if they are to revive their local economies. The town deal for Greater Grimsby—this is crucial—is private sector led and involves the whole community. We have representatives from the LEPs, the universities and English Heritage, or whatever it calls itself now, as well as from the local authorities, both Members of Parliament and so on. It is wide-ranging and there are large employers in the area. I thank the Government for the designation and for the support that they have given subsequently. The local authorities are extremely pleased and they will of course be a key part of the town deal.
The Humber ports are another important part of our local economy, particularly Immingham in my constituency and neighbouring Grimsby. The Grimsby and Immingham port complex, measured by tonnage, is the largest port in the country. It is absolutely crucial, as Members will appreciate, to the local economy. I hope that in the post-Brexit world, we will seriously consider free port status, which I have raised with various Ministers. Indeed, I am fortunate enough to have been elected chairman of the all-party group on free ports. It is a concept that needs serious consideration and could give a real boost to northern coastal economies.
A recent report published by the Mace consultancy talks about superports in the north of England that could increase employment opportunities considerably. I hope that that is given serious consideration. We had a debate in this Chamber about two months ago when the Exchequer Secretary was reasonably supportive of the project, given the constraints of Government policy at the moment. He said it is technically possible to create free ports and free zones while we are members of the EU, but port operators and businesses have pointed out to me that there are far too many hoops to get through and hurdles to get over to make it a sensible project.
I will conclude by mentioning direct rail services. The Minister who will respond to this debate is a former Rail Minister who took a great interest in this project and a similar service to his own constituency. He also represents a coastal community and will be aware of the great opportunities that open up if we can get direct services, particularly to London. On the “Today” programme yesterday, John Larkinson, the interim chief executive of the Office of Rail and Road, hinted that he was rather enthusiastic about increasing open-access operators on the network. That might be possible. As the Minister knows, there were previous applications from an open-access operator to operate services up the mainline and then from Doncaster through Scunthorpe to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. The operator withdrew an application that was going to be submitted earlier this year because of the review that is taking place.
I now hope that the Government will enthusiastically support open-access operations, including on Boxing day, which the hon. Member for Keighley mentioned in his early-day motion and which he will be pleased to know I have already supported. I hope the Minister and shadow Minister will take on board the need to get to Cleethorpes more easily from London, York and Blackpool, and from all parts of the nation because, as I said in my opening remarks, it is the premier resort of the east coast.
Finally, Mr Robertson, I wish you, everyone in this Chamber and the House, and all our constituents a happy Christmas. I should acknowledge, as other Members have, all those who play such an important part in our local communities, running charities, voluntary groups and so on. Without them, our communities would be much the poorer. Happy Christmas to one and all.
It is a pleasure to have you join us and chair this section of the debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on the tour de force of his local economy and on talking about the railway system. I want to give him assurances and even more hope by saying that a Labour Government will bring the railways back into public ownership so that they belong to the people of our country, and we will ensure that there is good connectivity to Cleethorpes.
We had direct services to Grimsby and Cleethorpes, but the nationalised British Rail withdrew them in 1992.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. We are not going back to British Rail. We are moving forward to a new model of public ownership that has been tried and tested across the industry, and we are ready to put it in place as soon as we get the first Queen’s Speech, which I am sure will not be too long now.
I want to talk about the disposal of public assets and the associated issues that are prevalent in my constituency. I will talk about the Post Office, the consultation and what is currently happening. I will talk about Bootham Park hospital and a decision that is currently on the Minister’s desk. Also, time permitting, I will touch on Bootham Crescent, the football ground that I am sure many are familiar with. I will start with the Post Office.
As we speak, a consultation is going on about the future of the Crown post office, which has been at 22 Lendal since 1884. We have lost many post offices from the city, but that one is in a prime location because of the flows of tourists and residents into the city from the rail station and by bus, and because of its accessibility for vehicles, particularly for disabled people, who can be dropped there. People are attracted to that part of the city, which is thriving—good news in this day and age—not least because it is opposite Appleton’s pie shop, which is Britain’s greatest pie shop. That is a good place from which people can orient themselves around York, and it is a successful part of the city.
It has been decided that the Crown post office will close its doors. It will be moved into WH Smith, not far from Lendal—but far enough, in Coney Street. That will be seriously detrimental to the people of the city. We have learned that the consultation will not be on whether the move should happen, because we are told that that has already been determined, so I have questioned what it is about. York post office is one of the few profitable post offices, and I think it is fair to say that those concerned are almost going through the motions of a consultation on the move. I find it deeply distressing that now is the time chosen for a consultation, because we all know that staff throughout the country work incredibly hard at this season of the year, to ensure that parcels and cards are delivered on time. At the same time, the future of their jobs, and where they will be located, is in question. The consultation on 28 December is at the busiest time of the year.
I find it disturbing that the Post Office has not done its homework. I have had several meetings now and glaring gaps have appeared, particularly with respect to access issues. I mentioned how accessible the Lendal post office is. WH Smith, into which it might move, is a struggling business in York. I have been in there and seen how empty it is. My grandfather spent his working life there, and it is an important business to my family, so I am sorry to see it in that state. In that area there are many boarded up shops and the economy is struggling, for a number of reasons, one of which is business rates.
Business rates are incredibly high in York, because of the valuations on businesses, not least because of offshore landlords trying to keep their investment levels up. That is why we need a transition away from a business rate system. Surely, it is a perverse economic choice to move the post office from a thriving area of the city to an area that is, frankly, dying. Not only that, but the new area will be less accessible. It is accessible to pedestrians walking along Coney Street, but not to cars. However, the city is putting in counter-terrorism measures that will restrict access completely. The Post Office was completely unaware of that when I raised it, but it means that disabled people will not be able to get to the post office. Bicycles can be parked outside the Lendal post office, but that will not be possible in Coney Street. The move is detrimental.
The post office is, of course, moving to a back corner of WH Smith, out of sight and out of the way. It is a cramped space, and that is a poor model, particularly given the traffic that comes through at this time of year.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Robertson. All the post offices in my constituency have been moved into WH Smith. That is something that I fought hard, as I am sure other hon. Members have done. One reason, which the Post Office explained to me and which is quite battle-winning, in a way, is that in my constituency—although obviously not in York, which has a profitable post office—£1.30 was being paid out for every pound taken. It was not economically viable. People do not use the post office any more, and the services of the old post office, such as vehicle taxation, are now done online. I do not know how we will solve that problem.
We have many franchised post offices in York that are successful; but in the instance I am discussing, it is a poor decision.
As to access for Royal Mail, and for moving cash in and out of the post office, it has been suggested that a back alley can be used. There have been health and safety assessments of that process and it has been deemed unsafe, so that is a concern. Many York businesses bank at the post office and many business people say they are not willing to walk through a shop and join a queue to bank there. Therefore the move will pull business away from the post office.
The hon. Lady and I have both spoken at the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, and we are both aware of the paltry amounts that sub-postmasters are being paid, in particular to deal with banking transactions. Although Post Office Ltd is making huge profits, it is not passing them on to the people in the franchised sub-post offices that rely on that kind of work.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We have learned that people have been moving on to WH Smith terms and conditions, as new employees. Of course, we are talking about minimum wage jobs, and highly skilled people are currently working across the postal service, so it is detrimental right across the board.
I would like the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), to become more active in the process. We are told as we go through the consultation that many things are commercially confidential, and I respect that; but she must scrutinise the figures, looking particularly at the predicted footfall, and ensure that the evidence is robust. If public services such as the Post Office are downgraded, clearly my community will miss out on that vital service, but so will the wider economy, which benefits from people coming into the city and using the post office at Lendal. I trust that even at this hour the Post Office will take note of those serious concerns about the withdrawal of business and the inaccessibility of the building, and reconsider the decision for the sake of residents.
Bootham Park hospital is a is a lovely, iconic building that was built in 1777 as a mental health hospital, which has served our city. Its doors closed in 2015, three working days after a decision by the Care Quality Commission. I have debated that issue, and the failures that took place, in this House, but my concern is how the site is being disposed of by NHS Property Services and the Health Minister.
Services closed last year and the site became available and was put on the market. The clinical commissioning group was asked whether it had any requirement for the site. It said, “No, because we’re building a new mental health hospital that is due for completion in 2020.” The site was therefore to be disposed of but, as the “for sale” sign went up, the acute trust based next to Bootham Park hospital said, “Hang on a minute—we have urgent clinical needs that cannot be addressed because our campus is too small. We therefore need to ensure that transitional care is built on the site.”
The trust wants to put physiotherapy services on to that site. As a former physiotherapist, I understand how important it is to ensure that we have proper transitional care and address the serious delayed discharges that happen at the hospital. Key worker accommodation could also be put on the site. We are planning a One Public Estate bid to put 190 housing units on the site, which is supported across all political parties, health providers, the York Civic Trust, Historic England and the local authority. We will also put dementia care and extra care facilities on the site. There is an incredible opportunity to address some of the real challenges to our health service by releasing that space to health services.
At the same, the “for sale” notice has been put up to earn a capital receipt by turning the site into more luxury homes and a luxury hotel. We seriously do not need either in our city. We urgently need health facilities. I raise this today following a distressing meeting with the Minister for Health earlier this week, who told me that he was considering not pausing the process and proceeding with the sale of the site. The people of my community will face real health challenges in the future if the sale continues, so the sale is therefore clinically detrimental.
The reality is that if people are held back in hospital because there is no transitional care for them, other people will not be able to access healthcare. We saw a real crisis in York last year—the trust itself described how bad things got when it called the situation a war zone—when the hospital was just not big enough to deal with the local population, which is seriously growing; there will be another 10,000 people by 2030. It is therefore absolutely crucial that the Health Minister pauses this process and looks at the health needs of my community, to ensure that we have the right facilities in the right place for the future.
I will close by talking about Bootham Crescent. Many will know that it has been there since 1932 and is a site of real historic interest to the footballing world. I have learned so much in the last few weeks about, for instance, the tunnels that run under the pitch. Fans used to travel down them at half time to get to the other end. I understand that all sorts happened in those tunnels; I will leave that to the imagination of hon. Members. The site will be disposed of as York City move into their new ground next season, which we hope will bring success; they definitely need it. We want to ensure that the site is utilised for the benefit of our city.
We also want recognition of the site’s social history over nearly a century—when listing sites of interest we should not only look at physical structures but think about that social history—including the team, which originally came out of Rowntree’s, and all the social history of York that surrounds it. We should ensure that we have a real memory of all that has taken place on that site, which will honour our city as it moves forward. These spaces in our city have such significance to York. It is really important that they are dealt with delicately as we move forward.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mr Robertson. I wish everyone a very peaceful Christmas. It is a time of great reflection on all that is ahead of us and the difficult choices that we have to make. We preside over a country that is so divided at this time. I trust that the unity that Christmas brings can also bring unity to our nation.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and also to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I will come on later to the issue of NHS land, but I will first concentrate on a serious situation that is still ongoing—the closure of Gatwick airport due to drones.
I led a debate in this Chamber on 18 July 2017 on drones and their conflict with aircraft. I mentioned that, on 2 July 2017, the runway at Gatwick was closed twice—once for nine minutes and once for five minutes—due to drone activity. Five flights were diverted and nine were held in a holding pattern. The runway has now been closed for more than 18 hours and will not reopen until 7 pm at the earliest. This is an incredibly serious situation involving the criminal activity of someone flying industrial-type drones in and over the airspace of an airfield.
When this situation is over, the Government and the aviation industry must look at this incredibly seriously. This kind of disruption to hundreds of thousands of people going about their ordinary business—seeing their loved ones at Christmas, going on honeymoons, going on holidays—is completely unacceptable. Technical measures, whether geofencing or guns that can fire nets to ensnare drones, must be put in place. If not, we will see this happen again. We warned about it when it happened on a small scale a year and a half ago. It has now happened on a large and costly scale.
I do not understand why the runway has been closed for so long. Surely, if a drone is flying, people identify it, find out where it has come from and bring it down. The runway has been closed for a heck of a long time. Are there a series of these damn things going up?
As I understand it, the drones had gone but came back again, and the police are trying to find out who is controlling them. They have no means of stopping them flying other than by shooting them down, which they are loth to do because of stray bullets. We have to look immediately at serious measures to deal with this threat. If this happens again at Heathrow or other major airports, we will see considerable disruption to people’s lives and losses to the economy.
Nearly six years ago, the Francis report came out as a result of the terrible things that happened in Stafford Hospital over several years. Since then, a huge amount has been done to put that right and to make the County Hospital, as it is now called, one of the best-performing hospitals in the country for A&E services. For many weeks now, the A&E there has either admitted or discharged more than 95% of patients, and sometimes as much as 98%, within four hours. I pay tribute to the staff who have been through that difficult time since the 2000s and stuck at it right through to now, making the hospital a credit to the NHS.
The hospital still faces a lot of challenges. There is not enough activity there; we need to see more day case and elective work. I have been talking with the clinical commissioning groups and the University Hospitals of North Midlands trust to see that that happens, because it is vital that the hospital is maintained and grows. I also pay tribute to Paula Clark, the trust’s retiring chief executive. She took over at a difficult time from Mark Hackett, who himself had steered the hospital and the trust through difficult times. Paula has done a great job in the last three years, and I wish her well in retirement.
On the matter mentioned by the hon. Member for York Central, there is additional NHS land in the hospital’s grounds that is currently not being used. It is my firm belief that that land should be retained for health purposes—NHS purposes or allied health purposes, such as care. This kind of land, in or near to a town centre, is precious. There is other land. We are already building housing at two and a half times the national average. We do not need more housing in that area. We need to preserve that land for other related activities.
I will turn to several issues that I have dealt with over recent years and will, I hope, continue to deal with next year. The first is the work of unpaid carers, which goes unsung. They work year in, year out to look after their loved ones, without reward; they sometimes receive a carer’s allowance, but that has not gone up in recent years. They do it for love, because they are devoted to the people whom they care for. In Staffordshire we have had certain funds available for breaks for carers, but those funds have been reduced and may eventually not be there at all. It is vital that carers, particularly unpaid carers, and other support services have the opportunity to take those short breaks, which they would not otherwise be able to do.
I intend in the coming year to concentrate on this area and to try to encourage both local government and national Government to look at it. Of course, it is not just down to local and national Government. Local charities and other organisations are vital in the support for unpaid carers, and at Christmas, I want particularly to pay tribute to them.
The businesses in the Stafford constituency are an outstanding bunch. There are all types, from the smallest to the largest. A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of taking the ambassador of China to businesses in my constituency—both to General Electric, where he saw the plans for a bid for a major offshore wind farm, off the east coast of Scotland, which is potentially coming to fruition, and to Perkins, a subsidiary of Caterpillar, that makes wonderful large diesel engines; they are getting more efficient all the time. It also manufactures: it has a manufacturing plant in China.
I took the ambassador to Shugborough Hall. Shugborough is the former home of Admiral Anson and of Patrick Lichfield. Shugborough has been retaken by the National Trust in the last couple of years. It was an honour to show the ambassador the dinner service presented to Admiral Anson in, I think, 1744, when his ship, which was on a round-the-world voyage, limped into Canton at the time that it was going up in flames. His men helped to put out the fire of Canton and, as a result, he was given that magnificent dinner service by the grateful inhabitants.
I had the honour, on another occasion, of visiting a local business set up by Barry Baggott and now owned by German investors, who have put a great deal of money into it. That shows how small-scale manufacturing can and does thrive in the United Kingdom. The business makes high-speed washing machines for glasses and cups that are used in Costa Coffee and other such places around the country. It is a local, British business. It gets an order one day; it makes the machine and delivers it the next day. That is the kind of just-in-time manufacturing that can and does take place on a small scale, not just on the large scale of motor plants.
As I mentioned, Stafford is building housing at two and a half times the national average, in accordance with the plan that we have, and that is right, but I want to see the infrastructure. I am not prepared to see, in our next plan, large-scale housing being proposed without the relevant infrastructure being put in at the same time or in advance. I would also like to see more green belt. It is fine that we are allocating greenfield as well as brownfield land for new housing. I have no problem with that: we have to meet housing needs. But I think that if we also brought back or introduced some more green belt—that would protect, for instance, Stafford from merging into Stone, which I see as a risk at the moment—people would be prepared to accept more housing, because they would see that more green belt was being put in place. At the moment, people do not know where the expansion of Stafford northwards and Stone southwards will end, because they just see more and more proposals for housing on greenfield land.
I come now to the issue of Stafford town centre. A major part of it is thriving. We have just seen the newest Odeon cinema in the country open. We have now two cinemas, having a few months ago had none, because the old one was closed: it has now reopened, I am very glad to say. That part of the town centre is thriving, but the north part of the town centre and the market square need a great deal of support and help. We need to repurpose some of the buildings. We need more people living in the town centre. However, we also need to see more local independent businesses thriving, and that relates to something else that the hon. Member for York Central mentioned—absentee landlords for properties, who keep rent prices high. Even if the properties come within the rates support, whereby rates do not have to be paid, the rent is too high and the overheads are too high, and local businesses cannot afford to be there. We need to work on that and to encourage the parts of town centres that are currently neglected to come back into use and thrive. That is also right at the top of my agenda.
It was a great honour to welcome a few weeks ago the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), for a visit to Staffordshire Women’s Aid’s new refuge in Stafford. Building it up over the last few years has been a magnificent achievement by that organisation and the local community. We also had the opportunity to take the Minister to Eagle House to see the work of the Housing First project, which Stafford Borough Council has introduced and which has had a great effect. At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for all the work that he has done on homelessness. I am sure that the Housing First project is partly due to his sterling work.
One issue that has come up and which has been raised by colleagues is the new psychoactive substances, which are causing great distress. In Staffordshire and particularly in Stoke and Stafford, we have a terrible thing called monkey dust. I do not know whether others have seen this problem across the country. Monkey dust seems to be in our area particularly and it has a terrible effect on the people who take it. It makes them more aggressive and has led to quite some problems with antisocial behaviour. The police are on to it, but we have to be vigilant all the time to ensure that new psychoactive substances are dealt with and the production, wherever it is, is closed down as soon as possible.
I would like to turn to one or two international matters, Mr Robertson. Given your strong interest in Ethiopia—where I am a trade envoy for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—you are well aware of the importance of creating jobs and livelihoods for the hundreds of millions of young people across the developing world and particularly across Africa. The population of Africa is expected to double from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion and it will have the highest number of young people on the globe, on this planet, by 2060. Therefore it is critical that the United Kingdom supports Governments such as that of Ethiopia, whose population is now more than 100 million, and others as they try to develop opportunities for young people.
The alternative to that is what we have seen over the last few years, which is migration and, often, migration under the compulsion of human traffickers. I saw some Ethiopians in Calais at the beginning of this year. They had reached Calais through that kind of pressure and were seeking to come over to the United Kingdom to work. Unless we provide and see created the kind of opportunities that I have described for young people across Africa and in developing countries elsewhere, the kind of crisis with refugees that we saw in 2015 will be as nothing compared with what we see in the future.
It is critical that we work together. That is why, as chair of the international Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, I have tried to set up a global coalition for youth employment. But the issue is not just Africa. In September, I was in Kosovo, talking with its Government and Parliament, at the invitation of its Parliament, about its problem. It has 60% youth unemployment, and that is a country in the heart of Europe.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, it has been a great honour to see the work done by so many British institutions around the world to tackle malaria and the 18 or so neglected tropical diseases. Those institutions include the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the University of York, Keele University and, in Scotland, the University of Stirling. The problem is that progress, which had been superb since 2000 under Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments, has stalled because of the resistance of the malaria parasite to the drugs and the resistance of mosquitoes to the insecticides on bed nets, which had been so successful in helping to reduce deaths and incidences by more than half over that period. Therefore it is vital that we keep going with the work and research that is being done, across our universities, for new insecticides and drugs.
I will close with the issue of human rights and, in particular, religious freedom. I am sad to say that I see the space for human rights closing in many parts of the world, rather than opening up, and the same goes for religious freedom. It is vital that this country remains a beacon for human rights and religious freedom and that we do not succumb to the kinds of pressures that we see in other countries, where people are forced to keep quiet about their sincere beliefs. When we see our international partners going in the wrong direction, and we know which countries those are, it is vital that we encourage them—often this is better done privately—to recognise that allowing people to practise their faith, or lack of faith, is vital to the human soul. With that, I wish everybody here a happy Christmas and new year.
What an appropriate and enjoyable way to round off my first full calendar year as a Member of Parliament. It is great to recap—indeed, I was just looking at my stats. It feels like it has been a whirlwind in some ways and an eternity in others, but it is certainly never boring. In the past year, I have spoken in 167 debates, so clearly I cannot shut up in this place, but it has been good fun and a challenge, too.
The best feeling as a Member of Parliament—a view probably shared by many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who spoke so powerfully about various issues close to his heart—is being able to achieve a really good outcome for a constituent. It may seem like a trivial administrative exercise for the Member of Parliament, but it can have a life-changing impact on a constituent. That has really been the most rewarding aspect of being a Member of Parliament, and I reflect on the power of elected Members to do good. We are all here fundamentally for the right reasons. In the context of a confrontational and acrimonious national debate, we should take cognisance of that as we approach Christmas, and focus on the good aspects of being Members of Parliament and serving in the public interest.
The debate on Brexit rumbles on about the most appropriate measures in the national interest. I share the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) about the urgent need for the Government to rule out the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, because it is quite clear that that would not be in the national interest. This Government—any Government—must govern in the national interest. It is not on for the Government to hold us to ransom in that way. Blackmail of Parliament is not appropriate in a democracy. It is appropriate now for the Government to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
I was all geared up and prepared to speak in the debate on the draft agreement, but, of course, the Government moved the goalposts on that. I understand that the vote will now be held on 16 January, which will be my 30th birthday. What better birthday present than the opportunity to vote down this utterly moribund and rubbish deal, which will not serve our national interest in any way whatsoever? I look forward to Parliament then taking control of this process and exerting the will of the people, which was not clearly expressed by the Government and is not being reflected by the Executive branch of our democracy. We must reassert the will of Parliament to deliver in the national interest. I am looking forward to a challenging first quarter of 2019, as we steer the ship away from the rocks, hopefully towards a calmer course, back to prosperity and stability.
One of the greatest challenges in my constituency this year has been the roll-out of universal credit, which started at the end of November. As many hon. Members have mentioned, it has been very challenging, not least for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, which has been a pilot area for the roll-out. The fact that it is rolling out in Glasgow, an area that already has significant social challenges, not least in my constituency, is a particular concern. Once full migration happens, I will have the largest number of universal credit claimants in Scotland—over 16,000—so I am bracing myself for the impact of that change on my constituency casework. I hope we can help people as much as possible to avoid the worst effects of a social security system that has moved away fundamentally from the founding spirit of the Beveridge principles: that we should create a floor below which none should fall and above which everyone can rise.
As a society, we must restore the principle that we have a minimum level of dignity that no one can fall below. We need to restore that, because the current situation is simply not on. An unfortunate measure is the rate of homelessness. I mentioned in the House that, on average, two people a week are dying in Scotland as a result of having to sleep rough. The average life expectancy of those living on the streets is just 39. In Glasgow, the picture is that, in the last year, 5,300 people found themselves homeless. That figure covers just homeless applications, and does not include those who do not present themselves to apply as homeless.
The council in Glasgow had a statutory duty to house 4,200 people. There are only 8,000 social rented lettings available per year in Glasgow, so the council was able to secure accommodation for only 2,400 people. The physical capacity of the state to help people is failing. That is not on and we need to address it. That is a shameful figure. It should be a fundamental human right to have shelter. We should restore that to the principles of the governance of this country. That is something I hope we will find a consensus on in the new year.
As a Member of Parliament for the only city in Scotland that is a dispersal area for asylum seekers, another challenge has been immigration and asylum cases, which account for the bulk of my casework. We work very hard and are challenged by the situation that faces a lot of people. People have come to this country in the most appalling circumstances. I could regale you with many tales of incredible human resilience and courage. It is quite moving to understand what the people who have been able to exist in those circumstances have been through. However, to then see the cold bureaucracy of the Home Office stifling what resilience they have left and destroying what hope they have in their future is devastating for me, as I recognise my limitations as an elected Member to help them. Often, we do get good outcomes, which is reassuring, but it feels like a constant war of attrition. It cannot be right. We have to look at a more compassionate basis for our asylum and immigration system as we move into 2019. I hope we can achieve that together as a House.
We have to recognise the extent of human suffering that exists in our communities, often cheek by jowl with great prosperity. A lot of the people who find themselves in these situations are very dignified and do not want to talk about the extent of the hardship they face, but none the less, it is there. I want to pay tribute in particular to the Rev. Brian Casey and the Rev. Linda Pollock, two Church of Scotland kirk ministers who have risen to the challenge of the hardship faced by a lot asylum seekers in my community and have mobilised so many in their congregation to work to help many people facing deportation, detention—without limit, in many cases—and the constant fear of being sent back to their torturers and tormentors. At this time, when we think of Jesus being a refugee, it is appropriate to reflect on the way we treat some of the most vulnerable people in the world who are in our midst.
I also pay tribute to the incredible work of the pupils at Springburn Academy, who rallied to the cause of two of their fellow pupils, Pakistani Christian boys who are facing persecution and had family members killed in Pakistan, by arranging a huge petition. That is a really appropriate thing to think about as we move into the new year: people do rise to the challenge, and our communities are resilient and will act in what they see to be the best interests of their fellow human beings. I think that Government should step up and try to follow the example of the compassion shown by our communities.
Another key issue in my constituency is the number of drug-related deaths, which in Glasgow is more than 1000% higher than the European average. It is a critical issue. It is a public health emergency in my city. It is urgent that policy is adapted and reflects the urgency of this crisis in Glasgow. In the new year, I am looking forward to the establishment of the first heroin-assisted treatment facility in Glasgow, hopefully by the summer. In due course, we hope to expand its scope into a full safe drug-consumption facility, which will enable people to interact in a clinical environment to consume drugs and minimise the harm that they face as a result of their addiction, and treat addiction as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue. I will persist with that in the new year.
I also want to pay tribute to the amazing community organisations, some of which I have mentioned. The Beatroute art centre helps to engage people who are socially excluded in the wonderful joy of exploring and realising their musical talents. The Barmulloch Community Development Company has just been awarded the Architects’ Journal award for the best public building of 2018, for developing a brand new, state-of-the-art community centre in the heart of Barmulloch, which is an amazing facility in the heart of a community that has historically been quite deprived. It shows that even the poorest communities in our country deserve world-class public services and public buildings, and we should develop our communities in that way, with nothing less than the best quality provision for everyone.
I also recognise Possilpoint, which does amazing work to support disabled people in my constituency, as well as Possobilities, which does similar work. Possilpoint also has a charity called Young People’s Futures, which does a great amount of work to divert young people from being snared by the drug barons and organised criminals in my constituency, and show them that there is a better way forward. That is a really worthwhile effort, particularly by Ann Lawrance, who leads that work.
The Mallard charity provides care for adolescents, particularly those suffering from severe disabilities who require respite care away from their families. It does an amazing bit of work to give their families an opportunity for time away from that constant need to care for their family members. Again, however, once that child transitions from adolescence to adulthood, there is a cliff edge and no support. We need to work hard to look at how we can provide care provision for young people through their adult years, and have a national care service, as Labour has proposed, so there is a cradle-to-grave approach to care and it does not simply drop off a cliff when someone reaches the age of 21.
The Carntyne credit union also does great work, particularly through its food bank, to support people who are suffering at this time of year. The Balornock uniform bank promotes an environmentally sustainable way to save money by exchanging school uniforms. Kids grow so quickly that people can do that without feeling shame, because it makes perfect environmental sense to have an exchange. It is a worthwhile and wonderful project that was started by a constituent.
The Quarriers and Penumbra also do amazing work. Penumbra deals with people who have faced problems from alcohol-related brain injuries. That is a cross-section of the amazing work that I have encountered when going round my constituency as a Member of Parliament in the last year. They are all wonderful people, who are often hidden in plain sight—someone going about their private life would not know, but they can be there without anyone being aware of it. Discovering those amazing activities and championing them as much as I can is one of the most wonderful aspects of becoming a Member of Parliament. Hopefully, somehow, some of those amazing pockets of excellence will be embodied in national policy one day.
Another major issue that erupted in Glasgow this year was the tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, of which I have been trying to champion the restoration. Hopefully we can find a way forward for that wonderful, iconic building—the most important architectural edifice in my city. As someone who has championed the built environment in Glasgow for many years—long before I was a Member of Parliament—it is very close to my heart.
It is also a reflection of how we need to treat the quality of our public realm and our public buildings in cities across the UK, many of which were built at the highest watermark of Britain’s industrial and commercial prosperity between 1870 and 1914. Most of our city centres are Victorian and Edwardian in character, and they are now of a certain vintage, which means that intensive intervention will be needed to maintain the quality of the built environment in our urban areas.
We have to look, as I will in the new year, at how we adapt our public policy to preserve the wonderful built environment of our great cities across the United Kingdom. In particular, I will look at policies such as VAT, which is levied on renovations but not on new builds. Right away, that creates a 20% perverse incentive against renovations vis-à-vis new builds. We have to look at those sorts of perverse incentives as they apply to our urban areas and ensure that we maintain the amenity of our great cities.
The Springburn winter gardens is a major project that I have been championing in my constituency. It is a category A listed building and the biggest glasshouse in Scotland, but sadly it has been derelict since 1983. It is my personal mission to see it restored, and I hope we will make big progress on that front in 2019. We have already seen encouraging movement through various funding applications.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who talked about the closure of a local hospital and the disposal of the site, I am concerned by the major issue of Stobhill Hospital in my constituency, where my younger brother and I were born. It closed as an in-patient hospital several years ago and it has been left to total rack and ruin by the NHS board in Glasgow. More than £1 million of lead and copper cabling has been stripped away by organised criminals, which is a huge loss to the national health service. It has simply walked away and does not care about the ongoing maintenance of such buildings once they are no longer in use.
The site is also a huge blight on my community. I have engaged with the health board on how we bring forward the community to look at the future of that site and manage it in the future. There are often short-sighted policies about the clinical focus of the NHS, but we should look at the legacy of now redundant buildings and how they can be used for a new public purpose to continue to improve our communities. I will do that in the new year as well.
Coming from a shipbuilding background, I have often contributed to defence-related debates in the House and raised the issue of our shipbuilding and associated industries. I am hopeful that in the new year, we will continue to make the case to the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence about the importance of maximising the power of public procurement in this country to pump-prime and provide a sustainable future for our heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, because a huge skill base is invested in them.
If we were to build every ship required by the Ministry of Defence in this country, we would achieve a saving to the Treasury of 20% through wage and supplier payments, rather than giving that to Fincantieri in Italy or Daewoo in South Korea. They are not bidding so low out of altruism; they want the contract because it makes economic sense for them to build those ships. We should take the hint and build them in the UK. We should have a consistent policy that for every major public sector industrial procurement contract that can be done in the UK through our UK manufacturing base, the first preference should be given to UK-sourced manufacturers to maximise the impact of the public purse and the multiplier effect across the UK economy.
That has never been more important than in the last few days. A major crisis has erupted with the potential closure of the St Rollox railway works in my constituency, which could lead to the loss of 200 jobs. The railway works has been there since 1856—the dawn of the railway age—and it would be an absolute tragedy for a community that once built 60% of the world’s locomotives to lose its last railway works. Of course, I am sat next to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, whose constituency is another major centre of the railway industry. It is important that those skills are there.
The enterprise is fundamentally viable. I will do everything I can to protect and secure the future of the railway works, even if that requires a workers’ buy-out or some means of the workers taking ownership of the site. One of the big problems that the site has faced is that it became a branch plant of a works in Milton Keynes. It then became owned by a German company, which is not out there batting for the works, but treats it as a marginal part of its operation. If that site was the master of its own destiny, the management and entrepreneurial spirit of its team could fight for it, and it would have a better, more prosperous future.
We should reflect on the structure of ownership of major industries in this country. The railway works is one example of how great talent and skill, and a critical mass of wealth creation, can be destroyed through the ignorance and lack of entrepreneurial spirit of faceless multinational corporations that come and strip assets and value out of our communities. We have to fight back against that, and I will work on that.
Another major issue I have raised this year is the plight of veterans, and particularly veterans’ suicides, which is a huge problem, including for a significant number of people in my former regiment, the Royal Regiment of Scotland. We continue to raise the problem of the mental health of veterans and those in service in the armed forces. We need to continue to rise to that challenge.
It is the duty of the state to provide a minimum level of support in accordance with the military covenant to ensure that those who have served our country in the most challenging circumstances are not left behind once they leave the service—they must be sustained in their careers afterwards. We must do more to protect them. It is simply tragic that so many of them are not being heard, or when they are being heard, that they are not being properly cared for. Often, people have reached out and tried to get support, but they have been ignored or they have not been properly satisfied. It is a horrible situation and we have to do more to raise awareness.
Finally, MPs’ unsung heroes are their staff—the people who support us and stand behind us. I could not do it without my staff and I want to namecheck them: Tom Dickson, James Burns, Hollie Cameron, Stevie Grant, Angus Bugg-Millar, Pat Rice, Alex Paterson, Sophie Dicker and Jordan Agnew. Every one of them has made me the MP that I can be today. It is a reflection of their efforts that I won The Herald’s Scottish MP of the year award this year. I was quite chuffed with that unexpected accolade, but I could not have done it without them. I am merely the figurehead of the operation, but there is a much more robust and intelligent cohort behind me that makes it all happen. I am sure I speak for all hon. Members when I pay tribute to our staff and those who support us, and wish them all a great Christmas and a happy new year.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I intend to do a quick run round the room and touch on what other hon. Members have spoken about, but I will make it short.
We owe the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, a debt of gratitude for his work throughout the year. He talked passionately about Gateshead. He even dragged me there—sorry; he arranged a visit to Gateshead for the Education Committee and I had a lovely time. I especially liked the wonderful Gateshead College.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) had a long list of organisations in his constituency, and I will emulate him in a minute. He hopes to still be an MP at 100, by which time Southend may have reached city status.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about issues that affect all hon. Members present, such as housing, the effect of really expensive rents and the effect of universal credit, which has puts lots of people in our constituencies into debt.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke about iso—
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He spoke about the dangers that some young people, in particular, are going through as a result of using it. He really wants the drug to be reviewed and perhaps its use halted, to save people from the horrendous symptoms that they can experience.
The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) spoke about rugby league. Yes, I remember it when I was growing up; I remember Eddie Wareing and Keighley in their heyday. I know that he spoke about other things, too, but I really have to move on.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) gave us a very sobering reflection on religious freedom and how important it is in this country. He talked about Jainism, about Sikhs and about the problem of getting religious information on censuses.
I was quite horrified to hear about the wildcats on “Good Morning Scotland” this morning. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said, they have been interbreeding with feral cats, which is an animal welfare issue. He also talked about Brexit and universal credit.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) gave a great summary of the previous speakers; he was probably much better at that than I am. I am grateful to him, in that respect, because I have been able to rush through some of the others. He also spoke very knowledgably about the work of his two local authorities, as well as speaking about Humber ports and direct rail connections.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about post offices. As Members will know, I have a personal interest in them, having lost my own post office. The post office in Wishaw was closed for three weeks, because it was not possible to get another person to take over the sub-postmastership, which caused my constituents great suffering. She also spoke about NHS land and what happens to it, which is another real issue, as did the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who also talked about drones. I cannot get an earlier flight from London City airport because what has happened at London Gatwick has had an impact right across the United Kingdom; it is really serious. He also talked about work overseas, especially in Africa, and I am grateful to him for some of the knowledge he gave me that I did not have beforehand.
I seriously hope that I have not missed anyone out. I will move on to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who has had a very interesting time since he became an MP. He cut right through a number of things. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the Glasgow School of Art, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). His own constituency has the famous St Rollox rail works, which I know. My husband took me to Springburn on our honeymoon, to show me where he had been born and lived. However, when we turned the corner, we found that the building he had been born in had been demolished. I make light of it, but there is Springburn Museum for the hon. Gentleman’s delectation and delight, in which there is a picture of my husband on coronation day in 1953, watching his sisters in a race to celebrate the Queen’s coronation. I will not mention where I was then.
With your indulgence, Mr Robertson, I will mention my own constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw, of which I am extremely proud. It is a haven for refugees and has been since 1919. The first group that I can remember are the Lithuanian refugees who came over after the first world war. There have also been Polish refugees and, more recently, Congolese refugees, who were taken to Motherwell, and the Syrian refugees, who have also been placed and welcomed in my constituency. Indeed, when there was a move by some right-wing organisations to demonstrate against refugees being settled in Wishaw, I am very proud to say that many citizens of Wishaw stood at the bottom cross in Wishaw and campaigned for the refugees’ successful integration, which I believe is really happening. In Motherwell and Wishaw, when children of refugees go to school and meet local children, it becomes a real exercise in getting along together.
I will also talk a bit about what I did as an MP when I was first elected in 2015. We saw a need and we set up the Poverty Action Network, because we knew there were lots of local organisations fighting poverty and we wanted to bring them together and facilitate the exchange of ideas. We have the Basics food bank; St Vincent de Paul; Lanarkshire Links; Voluntary Action North Lanarkshire; Scottish Action for Mental Health; Neighbourhood Networks; Made4U in ML2; Citizens Advice; Motherwell Baptist Church; Safeguarding Communities—Reducing Offending, or Sacro; Women’s Aid; Routes to Work; Big Lottery Fund; Christians Against Poverty; The Haven; Lanarkshire Community Food and Health Partnership; North Lanarkshire Disability Forum; Alzheimer Scotland; Getting Better Together; NL Leisure; Motherwell Football Club Community Trust, because Motherwell is now a community-owned football club; Families Against Murder and Suicide; Chris’s House, which helps families who have suffered the suicide of a family member; Lanarkshire Cancer Care Trust, to which I am especially grateful as it transported my late husband to a hospice on a weekly basis; Community Care Scotland; North Lanarkshire Carers Together; Wishaw, Murdostoun and Fortissat Community Forum; South Wishaw Parish Church; Miracle Foundation, which provides parties and support for young children who have lost parents or other close relatives; Lanarkshire Baby Bank; One Parent Families Scotland; the Welfare Rights Team in North Lanarkshire Council; North Lanarkshire Partnership; Scottish Welfare Fund; NHS Lanarkshire; and Police Scotland, especially the police based in Motherwell.
I loved hearing about the history of the hon. Lady’s connection with Springburn. Sadly, Springburn Museum has now closed down, but I hope that the wonderful exhibit she referred to can be recovered for the renewed Springburn Museum in the Winter Gardens, which I mentioned.
I also just wanted to say that I was really impressed by the reference to Motherwell, which I did not realise was a co-operative or a fan-owned club. Perhaps that is a great sign of Scotland’s tradition of the co-operative movement, and perhaps in 2019 we can see a further extension of the wonderful co-operative movement in Scotland and across the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention. It gives me a chance to say that Motherwell Football Club Community Trust does very good work because it is able to reach groups that other organisations cannot reach, such as men who have not worked or men with drug problems, by bringing them into the stadium. Generally it is men they bring in, although I hope to buy a half-price season ticket in the new year.
I, too, have been doing a lot of work on universal credit. It has been rolled out in North Lanarkshire for about nine months now, and we had the manager who was responsible for its introduction in Lanarkshire at one of our Poverty Action Network meetings. I have to say that some of what she said did not chime with the reality of what has happened, but I do not blame her personally. Nevertheless, there are still real differences and real challenges to be met, because universal credit is causing great hardship, both for those who receive it and for North Lanarkshire Council, whose rent arrears have risen astronomically.
In fact, one of the things that has most made me proud, and most made me upset, is that in the last two weeks I have been to food bank drives—I ran one myself in Motherwell town centre and the local Tesco ran one, too—and when I spoke to the fundraiser in Tesco, she said, “Marion, we don’t even have to tell them what to do. We don’t need to hand out the leaflets. They know what to buy, and they buy it in bulk. And it’s often those who have the least who help the most.” I pay tribute not only to my own constituents, but to constituents all over the UK who make these donations. And may I just say that in the 21st century, it is shameful indeed that we need to do this?
Mr Robertson, I have tested your indulgence, and I want to make sure that both the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth)—the Opposition spokesperson—and the Minister get a chance to contribute to this debate, so I will stop there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for that comment.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) for securing the time for this debate in Westminster Hall; I think that it has worked quite well here, actually. When he began his speech, his comments suggested that he did not quite trust the Government actually to deliver; I cannot imagine why. However, having had so much time to discuss the chaotic and now—frankly—reckless handling of Brexit by the Government, it is a crucial time for hon. Members to have a chance to talk about other issues affecting their constituents. However, to quickly look back, this time last year we had just voted against the Government’s attempts to sideline Parliament on the deal. That should have been the point at which the Prime Minister took a different, more inclusive path to involve MPs and Parliament in that proposal. However, it is 12 months later, and in the past few weeks we have seen the problems that have arisen as a result of not choosing that inclusive path. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) that it is irresponsible not to rule out a no-deal Brexit: it is entirely possible to do so, and to take away some of the fear and uncertainty of our constituents.
I think that all colleagues here today share a frustration that other policy areas are not being addressed, some of which we have heard about. For me, one of the most important crises facing the country is social care, and recently, the Green Paper has yet again been delayed: it has been delayed five times since summer 2017, when we were promised it. We are now being told that it will be published at the first opportunity in 2019, so perhaps the Minister could take back to the Government the message that the first opportunity needs to come very quickly. That delay is also tied up with the NHS plan, on which I chaired a session with NHS England in Parliament last week. We know that plan is ready, but again it has been delayed, and we do not know when it is coming. That means that local health providers are facing great uncertainty at what is a very busy time for them, which is not acceptable.
We have actually passed legislation in the past year since we last rose, and although we sometimes think this place is a bit arcane, I am pleased that Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment has been published, and that the House of Commons Commission has agreed a way forward. I hope that there will be some progress on that, and that conduct across the House will improve.
We have heard a great range of speeches today—I have enjoyed these debates when I have heard them in the past, because we get to learn an awful lot. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead took us through a number of issues in his constituency. To me, one of the main issues was the cuts that are happening, not just to local government but to all the partnership bodies and charities that are working together, and the impact that is now having on local people. We had the usual sweep from Southend: I too am looking forward to the centenary party for the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). The thing I learned most is that Brexit is going to stop in the Amess household on 25 December, for one day only. We all look forward to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) reminded us of the debate that she so powerfully led in this place last year. The fact that those poor families are yet again in that so-called temporary accommodation is really scandalous. We are all aware of the issue of rent arrears from universal credit that my hon. Friend mentioned, and I would certainly like to take up her offer of more information on the great work that the WISH Centre is doing for young people—as, I am sure, would many hon. Members. I had not heard the debate about isotretinoin, but I know that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) will keep that debate going and keep it in Members’ interests.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) about the trials and tribulations of the Cougars, and the breakthrough that is rugby league and rugby union co-operating on something. That has taken a number of years, so if that is happening, there is hope for all sorts of co-operation breaking out. My hon. Friend also highlighted an important issue about the scandalous lack of accountability of regional schools commissioners for the very important decisions that they are making in our communities. We have perhaps all experienced that, and I wish my hon. Friend luck in addressing that issue. Mr Robertson, you missed out an important contribution: we have a tip for the King George VI on Boxing day. We are all going to be waiting patiently at Kempton, so that was very useful. I completely agree with my hon. Friend about Boxing day travel. Fans will be travelling from Brentford to Bristol City on Boxing day, and public transport is important every day of the year for local people, but is especially important for grounds on Boxing day. That is a really important campaign, and I wish my hon. Friend well with it.
We heard from the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) about the great work that he has been doing, particularly on housing and other issues. I commend him for his vital work on the holocaust memorial, and the importance of continually combating antisemitism in our country. From my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, we learned a lot about cats—perhaps more than we wanted.
Yes, wildcats. I visited Edinburgh Zoo as part of the British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly this year, and it does some great work, so I wish my hon. Friend good luck with that. As I said, I agree with him about the major part of his speech: the irresponsibility of the Government on Brexit.
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said about the local enterprise partnerships: some are better than others, and it is for local people to help out in their communities. I look forward to the Labour Government sorting out those direct trains for him. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the issues around Coney Street, and we have all been affected by the so-called consultation by the Post Office. That is something we all recognise, and I know that my hon. Friend will make sure the Post Office does its homework better. Regarding Bootham Park hospital, she and I have joined forces with NHS Property Services on the importance of NHS estate being part of those communities and overcoming the fragmented nature of the health service, working better to help local communities with big, important decisions. Again, my hon. Friend is right to highlight the social history of places such as our football grounds: those public spaces need to be taken into those communities and consulted with properly.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) has reminded us of the debates he has raised previously about drones. What has gone on today is shocking; we have not caught up with all of it. I also agree with him about new developments—I have a number of those in my constituency—needing infrastructure when they are built, particularly GP access and school places, which help to get communities on board. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on his first full year, and his 167 contributions to debates. Well done.
It was 168.
Sorry, 168. I also congratulate him on The Herald award, and welcome him; he has been a great addition to Parliament.
Before I wrap up, I will take this opportunity to thank all staff for the smooth running of this place: the porters, the Clerks, the security staff, the postal staff, and the others who people perhaps do not see quite as often. I hope they get a well-deserved rest. I thank all the public services in my constituency of Bristol South, which keep our city running so well. I have spent the past year with Avon and Somerset Constabulary, working on the parliamentary scheme: that has been a real eye-opener, and I commend them on the work that they will keep doing.
Like many hon. Members, I look forward to spending the recess with my family—I hope they do too. If not, there are some great choices of activities to take part in. We have “Aladdin” and “A Christmas Carol”, and the Tobacco Factory in my constituency is turning the theatre into a giant adventure playground to tell the charming story of “The Borrowers”. Some Members might recall this story: a family of tiny people who secretly live in the walls and floors of an English house, borrowing anything they can find upstairs. Let us hope it does not come to that in the coming year. From cotton buds to crisp packets, what the Borrowers do is the original upcycling—a wonderful theme for Bristol, which prides itself on its approach to environmental issues. In previous speeches, I have urged Members to visit Ashton Gate stadium, the home of Bristol City, to watch the football or the rugby. This time, I suggest to colleagues that they “spice up their life” and “only take a minute” to get tickets to the Spice Girls or Take That at the stadium—but “I don’t want to talk about” the Rod Stewart gig. On that note, I wish everyone a very merry Christmas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. In the time I have left, I will do my best to do justice to everyone who has taken part in the debate. Christmas and the new year are a time to look backwards and a time to look forwards. Every year, Opposition Members are given the gift of hindsight, which is denied to Government Members—if only we had that hindsight. We might even get crystal balls this year, who knows? They could be rather cloudy though, as who knows what might happen in the future?
As many Members have indicated, we are currently grappling with themes of great importance and complexity, so it is worth remembering that our ability to engage in such deliberations arises from us having a mandate from our constituents. What we have heard today reminds me that what goes on in each of our constituencies gives us the insight that enables us to participate in the much more momentous and wider debates that are now taking place in the Chamber. We have also heard about the rich tapestry of voluntary activity and third-sector organisations across all our constituencies. At this time of year, more than ever, they deserve our praise.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), not just for chairing the Backbench Business Committee, but for being so assiduous in seeking time for Back-Bench business. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that we should have more of it, and that it should be protected when we do have it, so that it is not squeezed by the unexpected and shifted into less sociable hours. I wish him well in that endeavour.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) delivered on all our expectations. I think it is fair to say that his speech was exhaustive, if not exhausting—not just for him, but for those of us who had to listen to it. I repeat my offer that if he wants Southend to get city status, I will support that if he returns the favour and backs Blackpool for city status. We can have a two-for-one. That is only fair. His comments on the girls and boys club were absolutely spot on. Blackpool has a fine girls and boys club that does so much across the town as a whole and deserves far more recognition than it sometimes gets. As for his centenarian tea party, the reason it has so many attendees is because Southend is the happiest place in Britain, and people who are happy live longer. If someone wants to be a centenarian, clearly they should move to Southend.
On a more serious note, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and many other Opposition Members expressed concerns about homelessness and universal credit. I think the two are to a certain extent brought together. She was right to comment on rough sleeping. I know she was in the Chamber for the urgent question earlier today. We talked about some of the Government’s approaches through the rough sleeping strategy. From my constituency, I know some of the challenges that those who are homeless have accessing universal credit, for example. There is a need to get people from the Department for Work and Pensions into our homeless hostels to ensure that people can sign up and access the benefit, as well as set up the bank accounts they need. The accessibility of basic bank accounts is a problem I have been trying to tackle with the Department. The new Secretary of State, far from standing idly by—I gently observe that—is trying to ensure that the benefit rolls out as effectively as possible. I recall a time when the Labour party supported the principle of what universal credit is trying to do.
I entirely recognise that Opposition Members will want to pressure us over how we deliver and roll things out—that is entirely right and proper—but representing a seaside town with a seasonal economy, I know that UC gives us an opportunity to ensure that people do not need to keep signing off and on each time their job situation changes. That they can have more secure access to benefits remains the right principle. We have to redouble our efforts to ensure that we deliver it appropriately.
I agree with the hon. Lady on many of her comments on homelessness. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) cited figures on life expectancy that always shock me whenever I hear them and bring home to me why the situation is so appalling. As politicians, we obsess about rules, regulations, structures and delivery bodies. The essence of our decision making should be the dignity of each and every person. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned, one rough sleeper is one too many in any civilisation or society. He is thanked so much by the House for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 that it almost becomes commonplace, but the figures he cited show what a difference it made. We should be grateful to him for that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for educating me about isotretinoin and I am grateful for his input. I know he will keep on campaigning on that issue. We will ensure that the Department of Health and Social Care gets to hear about it again.
Rugby league never gets enough coverage in this place or the wider world. I was watching “North West Tonight” the other week and learned that Red Star Belgrade has started a new rugby league team. I am sure the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) will share my delight at that. The tentacles of rugby league are stretching far and wide of late. I have met Vicky Beer. Perhaps I can brief him later on how I found the experience, rather than say it at the Dispatch Box. We will leave that there. I agree with him about Boxing day trains. The spirit was willing when I was rail Minister, but the flesh was very weak. One more push from the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) might help deliver that. When we discuss Vicky Beer later, perhaps the hon. Member for Keighley can also explain what he thinks the UEFA nations league is actually about. I still do not understand the consequence of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East spoke powerfully about religious freedom, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). I learnt more from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the various religious calendars of the world’s religions than I ever did as a good Catholic boy—holy days of obligation only! I am grateful to him for that educational activity, if nothing else.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) who spoke about nature issues. I had not really thought about the Scottish wildcat until today, and he has broadened my sum of knowledge. I am also grateful to him for mentioning, even briefly, the issue of invisible disabilities. It was one of the key things that I wanted in the transport accessibility paper I did at the end of my time as rail Minister. He may wish to look at that paper to see what he can borrow to implement in Scotland. We were trying to be as fertile as possible with our ideas.
I am so glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) is now tipping his constituency to be the queen of the east coast, because there is no vacancy for the best seaside resort generally. I say, as the MP for Blackpool, that that was a sensible move on his part. He has reminded me that my time as rail Minister has a long legacy, as we have only just heard from the Office for Rail and Road about its sudden new-found enthusiasm for open access rail. Actually, that has taken about 10 years, rather than the one since I was the Minister. My new ombudsman was launched last week, which I am keen to point out in the one time I get to be at the Dispatch Box.
The hon. Member for York Central reminds me of what I have been missing since we last sparred in debates, which we did all too often. I might actually start to agree with her, because I had a Crown post office in the heart of Blackpool, and it too was moved into a WHSmith. That was not just into a corner, but into the basement where no one had a chance of seeing it, and there were accessibility issues. I urge the hon. Lady to keep fighting on that one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly spoke about drones, which are an issue he was so perspicacious in debating a year ago. We all get the sense of urgency on the issue, given what happened at Gatwick. I was also delighted to hear about the high-speed washing machines that he referred to. All my constituents know that if they want to find me, they have to visit the local Costa Coffee. Now, when I am sitting in there, I can think of the washing machines whirring away behind the scenes to make sure I have a clean cup each time.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East has been reviewing his statistics as he finishes his first full year. As someone who used to do that, can I warn him that the tyranny of TheyWorkForYou.com can be an unpredictable guide to future activity? The further he shins up the greasy pole, the fewer his opportunities to participate might be. As Scottish MP of the Year, he is clearly destined for great things, and he will perhaps find that he has fewer and fewer opportunities to speak. I was trying to decode his tie—tartan fading into grey. Is it some hidden message to the SNP? I do not know. I was trying to work it out.
Just for the record, the tie is actually a gift that I received from Home-Start Glasgow North, which is a charity that helps people with childcare. It was a very nice gift. I think the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has the same tie, so there is an ecumenical approach to us wearing it.
I am glad to hear it. I know that Home-Start is a very fine charity in all its branches across the country, so I am happy to pay tribute to it.
I was delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is such a fan of the Glasgow School of Art. The one time I went to Glasgow was especially to see that very building, so I certainly wish him well with that.
I will end by making the observation that one of our biggest challenges as Members is to maintain our good will, even in this season of good will. I always try, particularly when participating in this debate, to recognise that we all ultimately want the same thing: to make the lives of our constituents better and to make the common future of the country a better place. We may differ over the paths that we take to get there—some of us more than most, perhaps—but I like to think that for the vast bulk of us in the moderate mainstream, there is far more that unites us than divides us.
When I hear the rancour of some debates, it genuinely saddens me, because it makes it harder to reach the best decision in the national interest. When we have had such a divisive and rancorous period since the referendum, it is incumbent on all Members, even when we disagree on the fundamentals, to recognise that what underlies that is a desire for the best outcome for the nation as a whole.
In the final minute, it would be remiss of me not to thank you, Mr Robertson, for chairing the debate, the whole Panel of Chairs, the Deputy Speakers, Mr Speaker himself, the House staff, the catering staff, the parliamentary security, the cleaners, the librarians, and everyone else. I apologise to anyone I have missed out, but I thank them anyway as well.
I end by asking us all to remember those who are facing their first Christmas alone, those who may have lost loved ones over the course of the year, and those who may face significant hardship at this time of year. It is a time when we turn to our families, but some people have no family to turn to and do not have those opportunities. Although it is a time of great good will to all and good cheer, it can also be a very bleak time for many people, and I am sure that what will unite all of us in the Chamber is to think of everyone in our constituencies and to wish them the best for the year to come, and to hope that we get the very best outcome that we can, whatever happens in our crystal ball, on 14 January.
Best wishes to everyone from the Chair as well.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).