I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
It is always a privilege to lead such debates as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, not least at the moment, as I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about something other than our withdrawal from the European Union. I promise not to utter the B-word in the Chamber this afternoon. Instead, I will use the next few minutes to remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and colleagues on both sides of the House why I represent the best constituency in the United Kingdom, with a few policy complaints thrown in.
I can say with absolute certainty that austerity is not over in Gateshead. Despite the Government’s proclamations to the contrary in recent months, and despite their promise to shake the magic money tree for the north-east of England, we have seen more damaging cuts coupled with welfare reforms and chronic, continually rising unemployment in my constituency. I say that advisedly. Unemployment in my constituency now stands at 7.2%, and it has risen month on month every month without fail. There are 470 more unemployed individuals that at the same time last year, so unemployment has not gone away in the north-east of England.
We see local authorities being forced to turn away vulnerable people from their doors. In my constituency, the employees of social housing providers are creating their own ad hoc, unofficial food banks to help tenants who simply cannot make ends meet.
I am not sure whether we should be delighted that the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston, chose to visit Newcastle and Gateshead while gathering evidence. Believe me, we would much prefer not to be of interest to an investigation into extreme poverty. None the less, it was finally an opportunity for members of the communities I serve—those communities are bearing the brunt of successive Government policies—local authorities and voluntary organisations to share their experiences with officials from outside the region who care enough to listen.
The report, published yesterday, is a damning indictment of how this Government treat some of their citizens and of how they view their role in office. Sadly, nothing in Professor Philip Alston’s report should come as a surprise to Members. Opposition Members have repeatedly highlighted how this Government are driving constituents into abject poverty while slashing the support services that were once available to help the most vulnerable.
We have just had a great debate about Yemen. It is ironic that Ministers are quite happy to accept UN evidence on Yemen but are openly dismissive of an objective UN report on what is happening here in terms of domestic policy. That is rather strange. This is, and rightly should be, a national embarrassment. How many more of our constituents will be starved and frozen out of their homes before this Government decide to change course?
I believe that the existing council tax system contributes to the difficulties of local authorities like mine in Gateshead when it comes to raising enough money to meet increasing demand. The system is flawed and requires urgent reform to establish some equality across the UK.
The vast majority of properties in my Gateshead constituency—over 70%—are in council tax bands A and B, unlike in some parts of the south-east, where the average banding is C, D or, in some cases, E. Having a high proportion of band A and B properties significantly reduces how much money can be raised through the council tax system. As a direct result, Gateshead Council has no alternative but to continually raise council tax by the highest percentage allowed. That, in turn, has resulted in Gateshead having one of the country’s most expensive council tax bills for band A properties.
In Gateshead, it costs nearly four times more in council tax to live in a one-bedroom band A flat than it costs to live in a band D property here in Westminster, which is clearly unfair. The system is punitive, outdated and regressive, and it should be replaced at the earliest opportunity. Withdrawing the revenue support grant without reforming and amending the council tax side of the local government funding system is causing hardship and suffering to our constituents, and it must be considered almost criminal because of the way in which it impacts on individuals.
We have now had council tax for almost 30 years—let us remember that it was meant to be a temporary stopgap after getting rid of the poll tax, or the community charge, as it was known—and it does not work. The band D national median is meaningless in a place like Gateshead. Unilaterally taking away the revenue support grant without altering the other side of the system was a harsh decision that has clearly affected some areas much more than others.
I promised some positivity, and I realise that my speech so far has set out a pretty bleak picture, so let me say that despite revenue support grant cuts of more than £100 million per year, my local authority continues to promote Gateshead as a great place to live, work and invest. Gateshead Council has already attracted hundreds of millions of pounds in investment in recent years. It has ambitious plans for further investment of £1.5 billion in the next 10 to 15 years, starting with ambitious plans for Gateshead quays and the Baltic quarter to develop a major new state-of-the-art conference centre and performance arena. There are to be exciting ancillary facilities and, we hope, even a new railway station to service the development, as well as our excellent and outstanding Gateshead College.
I am proud to have been a member of Gateshead Council for 27 years during our process of moving the borough forward on a long line of flagship projects: the iconic Sage Gateshead; the turning of the Baltic flour mill into a gallery of contemporary art; and our Gateshead millennium bridge across the Tyne to the village across the river. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the importance of sensitive investment and development in our communities, and how that often acts as a driver for regeneration. We have a long-standing flagship projects policy that started in the 1970s with the Gateshead stadium and Brendan Foster. Who could ever forget the way in which we turned Gateshead into a hub of athletics? We were an exemplar of Britain in bloom. We built the Metrocentre, with John Hall and Cameron Hall Developments. We turned the old Derwenthaugh coke works site into a wonderful country park. We built our civic centre in Gateshead, which was a huge success because we brought the project in vastly under budget, meaning that the residue of the development grant we got from Government, via Lord Bellwin, was then used as a sort of development fund. That allowed us to do so many different things. We turned Saltwell park, an ageing Victorian municipal park, into “the people’s park”, and it became the favourite park in the north of England—it was voted the best park in Britain on two occasions. We also developed Gateshead quays, built the Angel of the North and redeveloped Gateshead town centre.
Although Members of my political persuasion believe that investment for regeneration should come directly from Government, because that works, I also recognise that there is more chance of me watching Newcastle United win the premier league next year than this Government changing course on public investment in the regeneration of areas in the north-east of England, which, sadly, continue to be left behind, as the unemployment statistics show graphically. If any Member has a spare million or two burning a hole in their pockets, I would be delighted to welcome them to Gateshead for a look around, to meet the people and see the massive potential that exists—they will be given a very warm welcome and be under no illusion that it is a great place to work, invest and live.
As I touched upon earlier, council tax takes up an ever-increasing proportion of people’s income. We have all seen the reports of local authorities pursuing residents through the courts with bailiffs to recover insignificant sums of outstanding tax, adding significant charges and fees—and misery—in the process. I am therefore delighted to talk about the excellent work that my local authority is doing to identify and support some of our most vulnerable residents. The Thrive initiative uses council tax arrears as one of the trigger points for increased support. If residents fall into arrears with council tax, it is often a tell-tale sign that there may be other significant issues on which they need support. As a result, instead of multiplying debt through the recovery process and causing no end of distress to constituents, the Thrive team in Gateshead contacts residents who fall into arrears to offer them additional support.
We know all too well that very often those in our communities who are most in need are the least likely to seek help or even to know where to go to for help. The Thrive initiative does that work for them: it reaches out and tries to engage proactively with residents who may be having difficulties, with the aim of preventing the situation from deteriorating. Not only is this holistically an excellent initiative—giving assistance before people reach the point of crisis—but it is actually beneficial to the people themselves and financially beneficial to the council. So I congratulate Gateshead Council on developing such schemes in the most difficult economic circumstances.
I feel that I have spoken for long enough but, although this does not directly affect my constituency, it would be remiss of me not to mention the ongoing abandonment of British Steel. We wish every success to all initiatives to try to retain steel production in this country, as this is so vital. While I was growing up, I watched deindustrialisation along the Tyne, with the loss of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, and the closure of coal mines, so we need to do something to retain a strategically vital industry here in Britain. Time and time again, we have seen Governments allow the deindustrialisation of the north of England, which has devastating long-term effects on communities, some of which will never recover. It is about time that industries that are vital to not only our economy nationally, but our local economies, workers and their families across the UK, were afforded the same protections as those in the square mile in the City of London. We managed to find £500 billion to bail out the City after the financial crash, so we must be able to find a few hundred million pounds to save vital industries for the future strategic interest of our country.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Members on both sides of the House and all staff a very restful Whitsun—we all deserve it.
Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to make a number of points. I am so glad that we are having this debate, because the previous one was cancelled. Unless I get a stare from the Chair, I am probably going to take a little longer than I normally would, but I assure the House that I will not squeeze colleagues out—I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would intervene.
The first thing I want to say is about this place. I am very worried about Parliament—indeed, I am frightened about it. I realise that everyone else knows better than I do, but since I have been here I have never seen this place in such disarray. As we work here, we have our own view, but this is playing very badly with the general public out there—every minute, every hour, every week and every month, damage is being done to our democracy. I have never seen incompetence at the level that we are experiencing at the moment, with Ministers coming and going—it is a complete fiasco. We all know that the terrible 2017 general election messed everything up, but we have had tight results before and we have legislated—we have been here, done our work and got on with our job. That is not happening at the moment.
I say to colleagues, perhaps those on my side, that very few human beings have what it takes to be a leader of a party and indeed a Prime Minister. That does not mean to say that someone is a wonderful person because they end up as Prime Minister; I am just saying that few people have the qualities needed. So many of us seem to be unaware of our own limitations. Since I have been here, I have seen colleagues become more and more ambitious. They think, “Oh, forget the constituency, it is a just a vehicle to get here. I want to lead my party. In fact, I even wanted that before I was elected.” That is how ridiculous the situation is at the moment, and it plays out there very badly indeed.
We have the poorest set of world leaders I have seen in my lifetime. I struggle to point to someone who I think is at the top of their game. Let me say something to the House, although it will not take a blind bit of notice of me—after all, who am I? I am of no importance; I am a has-been. I want to say this: this is a really serious crisis and I hope that on Sunday, when we get the results of today’s vote, we will get a grip on this place, because we need to reassure the general public that the democracy that was hard fought for means that it is worth going out to vote. That ends that Victor Meldrew rant.
Ambassadors continually visit Southend, and why would they not? We have had ambassadors from Taiwan, the Philippines and Qatar, and we are shortly to have visits from the Indian Economics Minister and the German ambassador. They all arrive in Southend and just cannot understand why we are not a city.
On 5 March, I hosted a meeting with our excellent Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), and the headteachers of secondary schools in Southend to discuss the thorny issue of school funding. The meeting was constructive and I believe it helped both sides to understand the difficulties. We will have a similar meeting with primary school headteachers in July.
For those who were there—I was delighted to be present with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the Secretary of State for Defence and other colleagues—the wonderful Music Man project really put life into perspective. When I first became an MP, I had never seen anyone in a straitjacket before. It was fantastic to see the pride on the faces of the families as they saw these people with learning difficulties perform so wonderfully well at the Albert Hall. The musical was called “Music is Magic in Space”, and the performance followed the one at the Palladium. The founder of the project, David Stanley, has been awarded the Winston Churchill fellowship, which will allow him to travel to America in November to study similar projects. That is why the show will be taken to Broadway. That is definitely going to happen next year. I am sure that Essex colleagues—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on the Front Bench—will have constituents who took part in the project.
I recently had a meeting with our former colleague Helen Clark, who was the Member for Peterborough, and she had some wonderful ideas on children’s mental health. She met me with a lady called Monika Jephcott and a chap called Jeff Thomas, who were from Play Therapy UK, and we discussed proposals for a new approach to child mental health, including work to put the interests of children at the centre of the mental health Bill that we have been promised.
There may be a divide in the House on the governance of independent schools, but the past nine years have seen a huge shift in education, and specifically an increase in independent schools. As far as I am concerned, it is imperative that the leaders of independent schools are held to account, especially by the Independent Schools Association, because it is at school that children learn human values and life lessons. Independent schools cannot be allowed to get away with substandard conduct.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Southend resident and fibromyalgia campaigner Billy Mansell. More than 2.7 million people in the UK live with fibromyalgia, yet the condition is little understood. Billy is leading the way and I fully support his efforts to raise awareness and the understanding of this chronic condition and to ensure that patients throughout Essex get the right support.
Some people think I am obsessed with animals, but I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, have even more animals than me. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and its wonderful co-founder Lorraine Platt continue to work hard on spearheading campaigns to improve the lives of animals in the United Kingdom and around the world. There has been lots to celebrate this year, with Lucy’s law having brought an end to puppy farming and Finn’s law getting Royal Assent, but there is still a long way to go on live exports, trophy hunting and the fur trade. I look forward to working with Lorraine and her colleagues on many more successes. We had a wonderful gathering in the Attlee suite, with all these wonderful dogs and many colleagues. It is good to see that the House has reacted well to issues of animal welfare.
On the same subject, more than half of all pets in the UK are exotic species. Unfortunately, 90% of exotic fish and 75% of exotic reptiles do not survive their first 12 months in captivity as domestic pets. There are numerous reasons for those sorry figures, but the pet labelling scheme is a series of proposals that seeks to address the problem. The hope is that by providing a labelling scheme to promote informed decisions at the point of sale and evidence-based guidance on husbandry and inspection, the number of pets dying will be reduced.
The House of Commons is sometimes parodied as a place where one can get alcohol in abundance. I recently chaired a meeting of the all-party group on liver health at which we were given some shocking figures. We were delighted to learn that the steps that have been taken relating to hepatitis C and alcohol are now beings looked at seriously, but I wonder how many colleagues realise that the most common cause of liver disease in England is a person having had too much drink. One person dies every two hours because of alcoholic liver disease—it kills more people than diabetes and road deaths combined. This under-reported problem costs the national health service £3.5 billion a year. There are so many ways to address the problem. The issue of alcohol labelling needs to be looked at again, as does pricing and NHS support. The good news for colleagues is that in a few months we will host a parliamentary drop-in event, which colleagues will be able to attend and, without any embarrassment, get their livers tested.
For 20 years I have been dealing with a constituent called Mr Nicholas Markos—this is a true story; he comes regularly to my surgeries. He lived with his mother, Milica. The issue was that his neighbour shifted the fence three and a half inches over their property line. That resulted in a horrendous legal situation. I am sure the House will be shocked to learn that the person who moved the fence got away with it all while Mr Markos lost everything, including his house—his mother is now in a home and he now lives in a car—because of the legal fees and bad advice. I am not going to stop Mr Markos coming to my surgery, but it costs the taxpayer a huge amount of money when I write to Ministers and get the same old thing passed backwards and forwards from the legal profession. Of course, Mr Markos cannot even get legal aid because it is so complicated. I am pretty determined and am not going to give up until we get justice for Mr Markos and his mother.
I continue to support Edwin and Janet Woodger as they try to resolve a dispute with the Co-op. My constituents have been reasonable throughout the process and I hope that the matter can be brought to a resolution at the earliest opportunity. The financial ombudsman is currently trying to help.
Many of my constituents are unhappy with the roll-out to the private sector of IR35 rules on off-payroll working. I know that the Minister who was dealing with it, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), is apparently now the Leader of the House, but I hope that he will brief whoever has taken on his previous job. It is a significant development, and although I am glad that the Government appear to have been interested in the views of stakeholders thus far, I urge the Treasury to continue to work with small businesses to ensure that any unnecessary damage to individuals’ livelihoods in the transition is avoided.
Sir Jack Petchey—I see the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) nodding away; he represents a part of London near my old home town—is in his early nineties and is an absolute legend. Rather than sit on all his largesse, he has given his money to an organisation called Speak Out. I think that some constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point are involved in this wonderful organisation. I pay tribute to Sir Jack Petchey.
Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 is a significant piece of legislation. I recognise the need to support tenants, but I also acknowledge the impact that the proposed changes will have on landlords. I take this opportunity to call on the Government to ensure that landlords and tenants alike continue to be consulted on the changes. I realise that it is a difficult issue.
I voted against the way we have proceeded on the restoration and renewal of this building—we lost by 17 votes. No one told us that the work would start immediately, meaning that every time we turn up here there is more scaffolding going up and more wires to trip over, and we cannot go down into the Crypt or up to the top of Big Ben. I should tell colleagues, though, that along with another colleague I went to the top of Big Ben three weeks ago and the restoration of the clock face is absolutely fantastic. After the Notre Dame disaster, we obviously have to address things in this place. My colleague on the all-party group on fire safety, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse will agree that fire safety is imperative. It was mentioned in business questions this morning. It is imperative that as many colleagues as possible click on the link and go through the fire safety procedures. It does not take long. When I mentioned it last time, several colleagues complained that it was not working properly, but it has been fixed now.
Fresh information has recently come to light on the so-called Prittlewell Prince, a discovery of major significance to the history of the United Kingdom. The body is thought to belong to a prince or aristocrat, and archaeologists are calling it the UK’s answer to Tutankhamun. And where do you think it is, Mr Deputy Speaker? It’s in Southend. It is yet another reason Southend should be declared a city.
Anna Baldan, a constituent of mine, lost her husband, Alessandro, after he fell from his mobility scooter and sustained fatal head injuries. Now Mrs Baldan wants laws to be re-examined regarding mobility scooter safety. Specifically, she would like it to become a legal requirement for all mobility scooter users to wear a safety helmet. Perhaps the Department for Transport could look at that.
Dr Zaidi is an outstanding local GP. The Kent Elms health centre is an established primary care site that has just gone through a major redevelopment. They have kindly asked me to open the centre. The development supports the principles of the NHS 10-year forward vision in providing more accessible high-quality services, and it is hoped that these newly refurbished premises will encourage newly qualified medical professionals to remain in Southend. I pay tribute to Dr Zaidi and his wonderful wife, who is also a GP.
I cannot for the life of me understand the way the local authority—whatever political party has been running the council over the past years—has overseen the Kent Elms improvement road safety network. I cannot see any improvement, and now they have put back that huge monstrosity over the road, even though there are now traffic lights. It is incredible.
Angela Halifax is a lady who provides assisted living. Such places play a fundamental role in local communities, but she is concerned that the recent increase in service VAT will prove detrimental to those individuals who are most vulnerable. Angela would like Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to re-examine their decision to bring forward this change.
My constituent Colin Baldwin has pledged to cycle 1,000 miles to raise £10,000 towards the rebuilding of St Stephen’s church. The £1,000 by 1,000 initiative— 1,000 people raising £1,000 each over two years—hopes to raise enough money to rebuild the church.
I turn now to Network Rail and c2c. A number of Essex residents are fed up with the situation at the moment, with the maintenance works going on morning, noon and night. I do not understand it at all, and suddenly we are told that the trains are not running from Fenchurch Street and one has to scoot down to Liverpool Street. It is going on and on. These people do not seem to be accountable to anyone. The latest fiasco is that the old system for buying tickets whereby passengers put their credit card in has been changed and the queues with the new system are endless. It is ridiculous.
Alan Hart, a local constituent who has now become a Leigh town councillor, has been corresponding with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other stakeholders about water companies and other organisations that he believes should re-examine the use of rateable value to determine water bills.
In February, the Kings money advice centre in my constituency, led by the wonderful Rev. Gavin Dixon, celebrated its 10th anniversary. I pay tribute to the wonderful support it gives to people in enormous financial difficulties. The Salvation Army centre recently reopened its day centre in the area I represent. It does a fantastic job on behalf of the community. As I am always telling people, the people there are not just wonderful at Christmas; whatever they do, they always have smiles on their faces. It does not cost anything and it raises spirits.
I am sure that all colleagues will agree that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our veterans. We heard much about that at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Unfortunately, my constituent Darren Turner has not been receiving the support he deserves from the Department for Work and Pensions. I expect the Government to support former servicemen and women in any way they can, and I would ask the relevant Minister to re-examine the specific case.
I come now to what is a terrible tragedy. A constituent of mine, Mrs Rayner, came to my last surgery. In March 2018, the body of her grandson, who I had met—wonderful chap—was pulled from a river after he had been missing for three months. She and the mother of this poor boy are in meltdown. In August of the same year, the autopsy was completed and as it stands there is still an open verdict, which is obviously very distressing to the family. I believe the case needs to be looked at.
What is awful is that Mrs Rayner has been told by the DWP that she is not suffering from bereavement and as a result her personal independence payment has been reduced. This is absolutely ludicrous. It was clear to me that my constituent was suffering and I know that her GP agrees. The DWP needs to look at this case urgently. Adam’s mother, Clare, is hopeful that all future missing persons cases will be treated equally and that the parents of missing individuals will be listened to. I very much support the family.
Many colleagues say, “David, we’ve been to Southend airport. Isn’t it fantastic?” It is, but the residents whose houses adjoin it did not expect these huge jets now to be literally at the back of their fences pouring out noxious fumes. Recently on “The One Show” residents of Wells Avenue complained about having these jets with all their fumes in their back gardens. The dialogue with the airport authority goes on and on. It has reached a point where they might as well have a compulsory purchase order, buy the whole road of houses, give them a decent return and settle the matter. The airport is suggesting the installation of a noise barrier and other such things, but I do not think that any of us, over what I am sure will be a beautiful summer, would want to sit out in our garden with a jet at the back ready to take off.
Now is the Time for Change is a company set up by an inspirational constituent called Kelly Swain. As she continues her personal journey, she is working with colleagues to ensure that local people, especially children, have access to the wellbeing and mental health services they need. I am going to see her at the weekend. We were all encouraged by a meeting that recently took place with the mental health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and we now look forward to meeting the chairman of our local clinical commissioning group. It is about time we had a meeting with José Garcia.
My constituent Robert Hubbard recently attended one of my constituency advice surgeries. His daughter-in-law, Lucianna, lives in Mombasa. When she has spent time in the UK, she has always obeyed the conditions of her visa. She is now looking forward to obtaining a visitor visa to come and see her children, but the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration have not granted the application. I have received assurances that Lucianna would obey all the conditions of her visa, and I call on the Home Office and the Immigration Minister, with whom I am in dialogue, to re-examine the case.
Mojo and the The Vine are two shops that have been converted into bars, and they are causing mayhem. When I was canvassing in the area during the last local elections, I turned around and a car pulled up with its lights on, even though it was during the day. An electric window was lowered, two chaps appeared and a plastic container was passed over—drugs. Nothing is being done about Mojo and The Vine. I want action from the council and the police on this matter.
I was very surprised that in the elections for two of the wards of Leigh-on-Sea Town Council, there were 153 spoiled ballot papers, some of which had “Abolish Leigh Town Council” written across them. In another ward—these are very small areas—there were 50 spoiled ballot papers bearing the same words. We do not talk about what is written on spoiled ballot papers, because it is usually something offensive about the local Member of Parliament, but on such occasions we need to reflect on what is going on.
It was a great pleasure to attend the 50th anniversary of Southend and Leigh bridge club this year. To keep any club going for 50 years is truly amazing.
I hope I am not interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, but I sense he is coming to the end of it, and I wonder whether he has included on his last page congratulations to West Ham United on finishing in the top half of the premiership this year. I only mention that because it will save me, as a fellow West Ham supporter, doing so in my speech; and because the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee mentioned Newcastle United, so we will beat them 2-1 on this occasion.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My goodness, I was relieved that Southend United won their last game, so we were not relegated. As a staunch West Ham supporter, I think that having got off to a bad start and lost the first four matches, to finish 10th in the league was a tremendous outcome. My youngest daughter plays for Arsenal ladies, and they are a great team, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool West Ham supporter and I join him in congratulating them on their season. Onwards and upwards, and—who knows? —just like Leicester, they might win the league.
With my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) sitting nearby, I am thinking about the spring clean. I took part in our local spring clean, led by a wonderful local councillor, Meg Davidson, who is now deputy leader of the Conservative group. I think it is a wonderful opportunity.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I join all other Members in wishing you, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr Speaker and all the staff of the House a wonderful, joyous, restful and Brexit-free Whitsun.
We have been privileged to hear a masterclass from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess)—I will call him the hon. Member for the city of Southend—on how to speak in the end-of-term Adjournment debate. I am a mere apprentice to his great talent.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to steelworkers and their families across the country, and across the ages, for their contribution to our nation. They have been in the vanguard of its growth, prosperity and development. They are amazing men and women, and they have had some tough times and tough years. The last few weeks have been some of the toughest. Yesterday, British Steel, which employs 4,500 people in Scunthorpe and across the local area, with probably 20,000 people working in the supply chain, went into compulsory liquidation. Steelworkers and their families, the contractor base and people who work in the supply chain will understandably be worried and concerned, as I am. But I know that we have a good business, and the country needs this business. Despite the challenge, I am confident about the future.
A few months ago, after a public fundraising campaign, a statue dedicated to steelworkers across the ages was unveiled in Scunthorpe town centre. That iconic statue is a beautiful piece of public art, and people swarmed to the town centre from across the community to recognise it. It demonstrates how the industry cuts through everything that the local area is about.
Steelmaking and steelworkers belong to place. Place is very important in our past, present and future. Many new industries, including digital industries, have been established, and it is good to see that, but they are not as located in place; they can move quickly and freely across boundaries and countries. That creates a huge challenge for us all as policy makers. Place is important, and steelmaking has helped to create the place of Scunthorpe. The discovery in the 1850s of iron ore resulted in iron ore being mined for a long while and eventually led to the building up of the steel industry.
I am pleased to hear about the steelworkers’ monument that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. There is a firefighters’ memorial at St Pauls and a construction workers’ memorial at Tower Hill, but they have been there for only 20 years. It is important that we recognise the contribution of ordinary men and women—that may be in their industry, rather than as individuals—so I am pleased to hear that there is such a memorial in Scunthorpe for steelworkers.
And memorials to people who have helped to build this country; and memorials that include women as well as men. Most memorials to women in this country are actually to Queen Victoria, but the memorial in Scunthorpe includes a female steelworker and a male steelworker, recognising that it is through men’s and women’s work across the ages that this country has been built.
Steelmaking is the beating heart of the community that I am proud to represent. It is what gives the community its character and strength. Everyone has friends or family members who work in the steel industry or its supply chains. It provides high-skilled, well-paid jobs that drive the local economy, and has always been passionate about and committed to apprenticeships, training and investment—investing in community causes and the community effort. The supply chain and the contractor base are also hugely important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, this is not just an industry that is important to places around the country; it is an industry that is important to our country and it is part of our national asset. The strategic value of the steel industry is massive. It is a foundation industry that underpins our manufacturing and economic performance. If we are serious about being an independent and modern country, we need to have our own independent steelmaking capacity so that we have defence and infrastructure security, otherwise we are vulnerable to the whims and vicissitudes of others.
The strongest economies in the world have strong steel industries. Look at the countries with the strongest steel industries: No. 1—the USA; No. 2—China; No. 3 —Japan; No. 7—Germany. The UK currently comes in at No. 30. Do we want to drop further down the league table? No, we do not. If we are serious about punching above our weight and being a leader in the world, we cannot slip further down that league table. If we want to be a proud, modern, independent nation, we need to have our own independent steelworking capacity.
People care about steel, and we can see that in the response to the current crisis. Outside this House, there is a consensus that our steel industry is necessary for our future as a nation. Inside this House, we saw the solidarity expressed from all corners of the Chamber yesterday. I pay tribute to all colleagues in the House for speaking strongly with one voice about how important this industry is, and for saying that we need this industry for our national strength and national benefit. There was a chorus of support across the House for the Business Secretary in his commitment to find a positive outcome through the current set of challenges, and a willingness to explore, from all corners of the House, whatever future ownership models are necessary to secure our industry for the future. One voice, one message—to save our steel because we need it for our nation’s future.
Steel is one of the most productive industries, and its productivity has increased massively over the last 20 years. It is also a hugely sustainable industry. Steel is highly recyclable—one of the most recyclable products. We may be able to do more to ensure that we recycle all our steel and use the best of what we have got, but steel made in the UK reduces the carbon footprint of production, so it is a sustainable product. If we are forced to import our steel from outside the UK, that will affect our ability to reduce our carbon footprint. The upsurge in desire to do better on tackling climate change is another reason why we need our own independent steelmaking capacity. That is incontrovertible and irresistible.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point about the steel industry. I am reminded of the closure of Ravenscraig in Lanarkshire in Scotland in 1992. That was a massive steelworks. I was born in 1989, and nearly 30 years on, the vast bulk of that site is still wasteland. A whole generation have grown up with the impact of that. The idea that we can just turn these industries on and off and that the people around them are not affected is totally wrong-headed. That is the economic vandalism that this Government’s laissez-faire approach is doing to communities if they do not intervene to save nationally strategic industries such as steel.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need to act and the cost of not acting.
We had the steel crisis in 2015-16, when we lost the SSI site in Redcar. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) talked yesterday about the strategic assets that have been lost. The blast furnace at Redcar, which was probably the best in the country, is now of no value to the country. The blast furnaces in Scunthorpe are not only necessary for us to deliver our steelmaking capacity and contribution to the economy; they are national assets, and it would cost a huge amount to bring them back on stream. I welcome the Secretary of State’s strong comments at the Dispatch Box yesterday, when he made it clear that these national assets need to be secured for the future.
We do not want another Ravenscraig or another Redcar, because the costs are too great. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) reminds us that Ravenscraig is still costing the nation money, and it is the same with Redcar. The clean-up costs of these great industries are uncountable. The costs of keeping them going, keeping people economically viable and keeping our country proud and independent in what it can do are chickenfeed compared with the costs of not doing so. He makes that point extremely well.
Hearing my hon. Friend speak, I recall what happened when Brymbo steelworks in my constituency closed in 1990 and part of its infrastructure was shipped to China. That was extremely traumatic for people, and sometimes it is not recognised what happens within a community when a steelworks closes.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Already, during my short contribution to the debate, we see the way in which the steel industry connects with people in a way that some other industries do not. People know that this industry is a throbbing heart of the country. We need it if we are to be a proud, strong country, and closures such as the one she mentions have a detrimental impact on not only communities but the nation.
I called on then Prime Minister David Cameron to convene a steel summit in October 2015, which brought together unions, steelmakers, partners in the industry, key stakeholders and Government. At the summit, we focused on five asks. While applauding the Secretary of State for his urgent action, I am critical of the Government for not progressing those fundamental asks more strongly. There has been some movement, but not as much as we would like. Those asks need to be addressed to get the industry on to a level playing field, so that we can be not 30th in the league but battling for the top spot.
The first of the five asks was energy costs. Energy costs for the UK steel industry are much higher than those in Europe and elsewhere, and we still need to do something about that. There was mitigation through the carbon price floor tax, but it took about three years to come in. There is still a gap, and the energy required to support our steel industry is still far more expensive than elsewhere in Europe. We need to work on that if our steel industry is to move on to a level playing field where it can have a sustainable and strong future in the lifeblood of our nation.
The second ask was about procurement. The Government have taken some steps on procurement. In 2016, they brought in new procurement guidelines. It has been a struggle to make sure that that those public procurement guidelines bite and are effective. It is one thing to have something that is nice on a piece of paper, but it needs to have some traction in terms of action. Earlier this year, the Government published their analysis of where we are on that, and their own figures show that only 43% of the £158 million of procurement by the UK Government last year was produced in the UK.
Obviously, there is still work that can be done there. I am thinking of things such as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and would it not be good if that was all made with UK steel? I am thinking of things such as Heathrow, and I would like to commend Heathrow for the commitment it has made throughout to using UK steel wherever possible in its procurement processes, while of course meeting proper procurement guidelines. Heathrow has had the best practice in the way it has approached this, as indeed has Network Rail if we look at its performance. HS2 is another public procurement programme that could strengthen the messages it is putting out on procurement.
I was pleased on Monday to sign the steel charter, which is the work of steelmakers and the steel unions, and that the Government have also signed the charter. The charter points out that the UK Government steel procurement pipeline has been analysed as amounting to over 3 million tonnes over the next decade. That is a lot of steel: 3 million tonnes of steel is worth upwards of £2.5 billion in value. That shows the opportunity of steelmaking, and it also shows the degree of risk and vulnerability we will be exposed to if we do not have our own steelmaking capacity. I was very pleased to sign the charter, and I was pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), also signed it. The Secretary of State has made it very clear that the Government intend to push forward with doing everything they can to improve performance on procurement.
The third ask was about business rates. The plant in Scunthorpe—this goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East about the size of these industrial sites—it is actually about the size of the town of Scunthorpe itself, and is bigger than the borough of Chelsea and Kensington, so this is a big bit of land. The site in IJmuiden in the Netherlands, its sister site when we were part of Tata, is even larger—I think it is about three times as big—but the site in the Netherlands pays lower business rates than we do here in the UK. The playing field is not level, and we need to level this playing field. Despite the actions of North Lincolnshire Council to try to ensure the most effective business rates regime, the current framework of business rates means that the penalty for steelmakers is still very high.
Again, I come back to the point I made earlier about how these are businesses and industries that are in places: we cannot move the asset around the world to dodge taxes. That makes it easy for them to be taxed, but, frankly, why should these businesses be paying more of a burden than companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, which are fleeter of foot because their assets are of a different nature and they are not place-bound? That is a challenge, and it is one we still have. This playing field needs to be level.
The fourth ask was to take action to make sure that steel could not be dumped in the UK from markets where it is being produced at below the rate of production. To be fair, the UK Government did support the European Union in putting stronger tariffs and stronger defence instruments in place to protect steel from coming in—particularly from China, but from elsewhere as well—and that has had an effect. However, as we come out of the European Union, it is important that the Trade Remedies Authority remains vigilant on dumping, and that the current 40-plus trade defence instruments in place in Europe move across to protect our steel industry. That is particularly the case given the actions we see being taken in the United States and the problem of steel displacement, with steel that would be going to the United States trying to come into the UK and Europe.
My fifth ask was about research and development, and the environmental improvements that are needed. The Government have done some things on that, but they could do more. It is important that our steel industry is efficient compared with steelmaking elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it must become ever more efficient so that it can be part of a future green industry, and contribute to our future in an effective way.
After the new Government were elected, in 2016 they created—to applause from Opposition Members and, I hope, from Government Members—a Department that included the phrase “industrial strategy” in its title, and recognised the need for such a strategy. I had hoped for fast progress on a sector deal for steel to address some of the underlying issues, but sadly, such progress was not as brisk as one would have wished. We are still talking about the need to progress a sector deal for steel, and we now have this crisis in our midst. Had we had such a deal to address some of the underlying issues, I am optimistic that we would have been less likely to have this crisis. The Secretary of State needs everybody’s support and commendation for his efforts to ensure a positive outcome to the current crisis, but I hope that he and his team will also move forward with work toward a proper sector deal, so that the fundamental issues can be addressed.
Let me conclude by considering the current crisis and challenges. British Steel is a sound and effective business, and it has made a lot of progress over the past three years since the change of ownership. It has become much slicker. Steel is a cyclical business—enough money must be made when at the top of the cycle to get through the bottom of the cycle, but the business will make money. Steelmaking also needs a lot of investment to keep it at the edge of best production. It is a hungry business, but it is a good business.
The uncomfortable truth is that this current crisis would not have happened if we had not decided to leave the European Union, and then made a mess by not getting on with it. That has created uncertainty, in particular with the threat of a no-deal exit, which everyone in steelmaking agrees would be bad news for our ability to keep our steel industry in good shape. I shall not linger on that, however, because the important point is to focus on where we go next.
Other questions probably need to be asked. For example, people have raised various questions about whether Greybull Capital has acted as a good steward of the business, and there are concerns about why the UK appears to find it more difficult than some of our European neighbours to provide support within the state aid rules. Those questions have been raised, and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee might wish to consider them, as that would be the appropriate vehicle to look into and scrutinise those issues.
Now is not the time for looking backwards; now is the time to look forwards. British Steel has a team in place from the official receiver to run it, and we need to keep the business going until new owners are found. From listening to the Secretary of State yesterday, I understand that his interest is to take this business forward as a going concern into the future. The management team, trade unions and the Government are working urgently with the receiver to ensure that this business goes forward strongly. Leadership at a local level is provided by the management team, led by Gerald Reichmann. The unions have also provided support, and Paul McBean, Ian Smith, Martin Foster and other colleagues have made a real difference in taking forward a difficult situation, and building a determination to ensure that this business, this industry, has a positive future.
The last thing I want to say is that I would like to thank all the people who have contacted me and the steelworkers, locally and in the supply chain, to express their support and solidarity from across the country and across the community. That means a lot to people. It means a huge amount to people that everybody cares. And because everybody cares, I am confident about our future: I am confident about steelmaking in Scunthorpe, in Teesside, in Skinningrove, in the United Kingdom in the future. The emblem on Scunthorpe Borough Council’s mast was “The heavens reflect our labours”. Let us hope the heavens are on our side as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He described what we had experienced in the Chamber to the point at which he stood to speak as a masterclass. And that masterclass continued. This is the first time that I decided to attend a recess Adjournment debate and I have learned a great deal about how to make the best use of the time afforded by such debates. The hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) gave us a very thorough commentary on his constituency. I know a little about Gateshead and I have to say that the people of Gateshead are some of the friendliest and most welcoming in these islands. I always look forward to my visits to Gateshead to visit friends who live there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) gave a tour de force. I am taking notes about what I observed in how he conducted himself. I share his concerns about the state of our democracy. I am really concerned about the esteem in which people hold this place and I am deeply concerned about some of the comments I pick up every Saturday when I knock on doors in my Stirling constituency. We desperately need to consider the reputation of Parliament and the way in which we have conducted ourselves over the past little while.
There was a mention from across the Chamber of sporting triumphs. It would be remiss of me not to wish my namesake Shelley Kerr, the manager of Scotland’s World cup team, all the very best when the tournament starts next month in France. I am sure that all of us will have marked in our diaries a very important date and time, Sunday 9 June at 5 o’clock, because that is when England will be beaten by Scotland in the women’s World cup. I wish the Scotland team well. It is fantastic, as a Scot, to be able to have a national team in a World cup—in fact, in any kind of tournament at all. I rejoice in their success in being in it and I know they will do us proud.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned steel and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. I note what he said. I am a member of the Committee and he asked some very valuable questions.
As I mentioned, this is the first time that I have attempted to speak in a recess Adjournment debate. If you do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to reflect on the fact that, just after we come back from recess, it will be a few days more to the second anniversary of my election to this place as the Member of Parliament for Stirling, and the election of the other Members who first came to the House in 2017. I want to use this opportunity to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers, the officers and staff of the House, and our Members for the many kindnesses and considerations I have experienced and been shown over the past two years. I am absolutely certain that I speak for the whole 2017 intake when I say that.
I never tire of the privilege of being a Member of this House and representing the people of the Stirling constituency. What can I say about Stirling? Every day when I walk to this place, I choose, whenever I can, to walk through Westminster Hall. There are several plaques in the floor of Westminster Hall. I always take time to reflect on and show my visitors the plaque that designates the spot where William Wallace stood when he was sentenced to death by this English Parliament. I mention that because Stirling is the home of the National Wallace Monument, where I recently witnessed the reality of the Union, which is my main topic this afternoon. At the monument, which will be 150 years old this year by the way, there is a 14-foot-tall statue of William Wallace, which has been in place for 132 years. It bears the effects of being that old, so it was recently taken down from the monument and repaired. That was a very worthy project and I salute all who were connected with it, but the repair—bear in mind the history of William Wallace and the nature of the plaque in the Westminster Hall floor—took place in Wigan, in England. I am not sure what the spirit of William Wallace would make of that; nevertheless, I felt that it surely represented something about our United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Gateshead reminded us, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, that we are in this place not for the purposes of self-aggrandisement, but to serve others, without a selfish motive or agenda, and to seek to do good to all people. We are reminded of that every day that we attend Speaker’s Prayers and by this building and everything about it. We need those reminders, because passing laws, holding the Executive to account and speaking truth to power and patronage is fundamentally about serving people and seeing that their needs are best served by the actions of Government.
I will take a few minutes of the House’s time to speak about good governance. I have said many times in this House that I do not always feel that my constituents and the people of Scotland are being best served when it comes to governance. When I say governance, I mean the system of government at all levels and how they work together to serve the best interests of the people. There are many examples of where Government serve the people well. I specifically mention the dedicated and skilled public servants that I have witnessed working hard in various activities. This includes teachers, people who provide care in our health service, the police and the fire service, and we undoubtedly have the best armed forces and the best consular network that we could imagine around the world. We have a great deal to be grateful for. However, my concern is that when Government do not work together and when they pass the buck—when citizens are told, “It’s not my job to do this or that”—that is when people are poorly served. Whether that is different Departments or arms of a single Government, or different levels of Government not acting together, it amounts to poor service and poor governance.
In Scotland, we have a situation where the idea of disharmony and not working together is the aim of public policy. The Scottish National party Government delight in telling the people of Scotland what cannot be done. They love to tell us that they do not have the power to do this, that or the next thing and they delight in telling us that it is someone else’s fault. They love to tell us, “Actually, it is Westminster’s fault.” I refer to my earlier comments in reflecting that what the people of Scotland have witnessed in this Parliament in recent months and years has added evidence, unnecessarily, to support these spurious claims about blame. The manufacture of grievance is what nationalists are all about. We should remember that the only reason they manufacture grievance and the reason they love to blame is that they wish to use it to advance their argument for independence. They exist only to create division and sow discord. It is their modus operandi; it is the means to the end that they seek.
Let me say straight away that it is simply not good enough for me, as a Scottish Conservative and Unionist, to point that out and to despair at the SNP, the way it wants to do Scotland down and its incessant negativity. That is not enough. The SNP may be seeking to build walls between people, but we in this place must be determined to build bridges. We need to be the people who engage positively with the issue of governance throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that it is time for a positive Unionism to be active in the lives of my constituents and the people of Scotland—a positive Unionism that is designed to make life better for our citizens; a positive Unionism that shows the people of Scotland and the people of Stirling that there is a real benefit to being part of the Union.
For me, the key to unlocking that demonstration of benefit is to work together across all Administrations in the United Kingdom to create partnerships. We have seen that for ourselves in Stirling, where the city region deal brings together local authorities and the Scottish and UK Governments. They have to work together, to sit down together, to talk to each other and to make agreements about how to transform the Stirling economy and the lives and life prospects of the people of Stirling. I should mention that that also applies to the constituency of my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham).
What we need is more joint enterprise between Governments. To make that happen, I believe we need reform. It is imperative that we view such reform not simply as a fix for process and bureaucracy that allows people to fall between the stools, but as a bulwark against grievance-based nationalism. In short, we need to modernise the Union, and the emphasis should be on the delivery of good governance.
I am grateful that my views on good governance are not my views alone, but are shared by many Members on both sides of the House. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was very pleased to join the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray)—a Scottish Conservative, a Scottish Liberal Democrat and someone from Scottish Labour—to publish a joint article in Scotland on Sunday about good governance for Scotland.
I would like to share with the House some of our conclusions about what good governance means. We said that we share a common interest in making a
“passionate, positive and heartfelt case for Scotland’s integral role in the United Kingdom”.
We see it as a fundamental part of our jobs as Members of this House to make that positive case. We concluded that it has never been more important to make the positive case for the Union because the SNP, under Nicola Sturgeon, is once again making reckless demands for another independence referendum. We said in the article:
“We believe in the UK not just because it is the most successful union the world has ever seen,”—
and it is—
“but because of how we see it improving and responding to the political, cultural, and social demands of a new era.”
That new era is being brought about because of our departure from the European Union and the new powers that will be transferred from Brussels to Holyrood. More than 80 powers will be transferred from Brussels to Holyrood, and that is on top of the other powers that the Scottish Parliament has been granted in recent years, including powers on welfare.
If I may, I will conclude with a short extract from the article. I believe that these words are worthy of the House’s attention because they are cross-party and, above all else, they are heartfelt words from Scots who care deeply about the Union and the future health and prosperity of the United Kingdom.
Our article said:
“We must be creative in finding solutions to modernising the Union. As a result of our asymmetrical devolution, one challenge is that with many of the powers which may come back to the UK from the EU we will find that some ministers in Westminster will be responsible both for UK common market cohesion, as well as the specific policy framework for England. It creates a conflict of interests, to which”—
to some of us—
“federalism is one solution. The other would be the creation of a Department for the Union to act as an arbiter.”
I would ask those on the Treasury Bench to seriously consider this policy idea.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting series of proposals and he opens up an interesting discussion. However, the integrity of the United Kingdom is dependent on its being functional and serving a real purpose that means something in people’s lives, and the ongoing constitutional Punch and Judy show that is going on in Scotland right now is ill serving that objective. Does he not agree that we need to move away from the yah-boo polarisation of constitutional obsession in Scotland and focus on delivering policies that improve the quality of life of people in Scotland, and then demonstrate the value of solidarity?
I welcome that intervention. In fact, that is exactly what I am saying. Speaking as a Conservative and a Unionist, I wish that we could get past all the unending and, frankly, fruitless discussions about constitutional arrangements, and talk about policies that improve the life opportunities of people in Scotland. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we need to address the issue of the governance of Scotland to be able to bridge the gap, in constitutional machinery terms, that allows the SNP the breathing space to fester the grievances that it is busy manufacturing while he and I are sitting here.
Our article goes on to say that the Department for the Union
“could be part of the constitutional jigsaw that would solve some of the problems the country will face in the future if they are not addressed. This department would be of such importance that we suggest the leader of it should be one of the five great offices of state: joining Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. They would be supported by a group of senior ministers representing Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
A Department for the Union at Whitehall would be responsible for maintaining and enhancing the regulatory and governmental framework of our United Kingdom. Hearing the voices of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish ministers, businesses in each sector, and civic bodies would allow for a regulatory framework which works for our whole United Kingdom. Within this framework, devolved governments would be able to adjust policies to suit the individual needs of each country of the United Kingdom whilst protecting the cohesion of the single market of one of the largest economies in the world. This department could work closely on future constitutional change and make informal arrangements such as joint ministerial committees more formal and effective. One of the SNP’s arguments for independence is that the Scottish Government is not treated with respect by the UK government. We reject that claim, but a Department for the Union would put it to bed, and would encourage a better working relationship between the two governments in the interests of all the people of Scotland.”
I am very grateful for the indulgence of the House in being able to share these ideas today.
I worry not just about our democracy, in the way that was referenced earlier, but about the fragility of the Union. I sometimes think that what the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said about Punch and Judy constitutional politics is replicated in this House, because some people think that the Union is something that the Scots debate, or is about the issue of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The fact is that we all have a vested interest in the health, wellbeing and future security of the Union. This is a time to end the division and rancour that the Scottish Government have consistently created, and to end the building of walls between people in Scotland and people in the rest of the UK. It is a time for the UK Government and this Parliament to put their shoulder to the wheel in Scotland and help to bring people together.
May I begin, as a fellow member of the all-party group on steel and metal related industries, by paying tribute to our chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), not just for his passionate and thoughtful speech today, but for what he is doing to support his community and to fight for our industry following this week’s announcement about British Steel? The support and solidarity of my steel community is with his. Our steel industry is again in very difficult times and Members who represent steel communities will do all that we can to press the Government for all they can do on the things they can influence: energy prices, the sector deal, procurement—all the things my hon. Friend mentioned earlier. Along with the unions, we will never stop in our fight to save our steel. I also pay tribute, like my hon. Friend, to the dedicated steelworkers at Cogent Orb, Llanwern and Liberty Steel in my constituency. They are a very dedicated workforce making world-class steel and they deserve our support.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I want to use it—partly because I did not secure an Adjournment debate—to talk about the EU settlement scheme and to raise some points that I hope the Minister will pass on to the Home Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union. EU citizens contribute a huge amount to our society, our culture and our economy, and it is very important that people who have made their lives here, been born here and grown up here are able to continue to live here with as little difficulty and disruption as possible.
The Government announced the EU settlement scheme in June last year to regularise the immigration status of EU nationals and their family members who are lawfully living in the UK according to their free movement rights. That scheme has been opened fully since March this year. A number of constituents and community groups have raised problems with the scheme, with many being put off from applying so far. I do not think that that has shown up in the Government’s reports on the testing they have undertaken so far, but a lot of people are slightly wary of the process.
The first issue is the language barrier. Although some people may have exceptional spoken English, not all of them will be confident in reading and their written English. This is leading to a misinterpretation of some parts of the process, which seems, as it is described to me, to be quite complicated. People are therefore providing the wrong information. Those who are less confident are not likely to have rushed to complete the process so far, and there is a worry that older people, or those who are more vulnerable and with more complex circumstances, might be very reluctant at this point and may need help.
Representatives from the Polish community association in Newport tell me that only a very small percentage of the residents they support have attempted to fill out the application as their understanding is that if they make a mistake, their future in the country may be in jeopardy. Some have informed me that a number of people have paid £40 or more for someone to do the application for them, and a representative from the Polish community told me that one of their major concerns is the lack of friendly and trustworthy information in Polish. This needs to be addressed.
I have also heard concerns in Newport that people who have been here for more than five years are being granted pre-settled status due to errors in the automatic checks, or issues linked to people being unable to provide evidence to the satisfaction of the Home Office to prove their five years or more of residence. Those people are finding the document-gathering quite difficult as what they need to provide is not clear. This could mean that people may need to apply again in the future and end up having different rights, even when they have lived here for five years or more.
Another issue is that people still do not know about the settlement scheme. Some people in my communities worry about this, and local authorities are concerned as well. The Home Office talks about widely communicating information, but clearly much more needs to be done. The Home Office needs to keep in mind those who are more isolated and vulnerable, and to do more to reach out to people in this group so that they are aware that they need to apply and of what steps they need to take.
There are volunteers out there helping—particularly volunteers from the3million in my area—but local advice and digital assistance for those who need it must be put in place as soon as possible. The applications are almost entirely digital, which can present barriers to those without digital skills. Community associations have provided me with a number of examples of applicants being unable to upload documents and being removed from the system at various stages due to technical difficulties. The system does not appear to be easy to navigate. I understand that an announcement was made yesterday on grants for organisations that can provide help, but they will need time to prepare and the services might not be available until the summer. Also, the announcement did not include smaller community groups, and it would be really helpful if the Minister would ask the Government whether a separate announcement could be made on this.
One piece of feedback that I would urge the Home Office to take notice of is that the first three stages of the application are in English, whereas the remaining stages are available in EU languages. If all the stages were available in EU languages for those who want them, that would go some way towards removing these barriers. I hope that it will be possible to get more information from the Home Office about that. The Government clearly have confidence in how the scheme is running so far, but they need to be aware of the fear and uncertainty among those who were not first off the line to try the application, and among those who have tried it and struggled. Please can these comments be passed on to the Home Office so that we can improve the system and help those who are struggling?
Given that there has been lots of talk about football today—I missed out on that at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions—and that I had the great pleasure of welcoming Norman Parselle and Dan Williams from Newport County in the Community to Parliament yesterday, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Newport County’s season and wish them all the best in the play-offs at Wembley this Saturday. Whatever happens, they have done our city proud.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). She gave us a second commentary on the plight of the steel industry, and also made a powerful case for her constituents’ ability to stay, work and live in the United Kingdom. I hope she has a good weekend with the football. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) made an excellent speech, and I was pleased to hear about the joint article from him and other colleagues in Scotland on Sunday. He has saved me having to look it up in Scotland on Sunday, because I have heard it now! He made a powerful argument, and I was pleased to hear it.
I want to take this opportunity to raise a number of issues, but I will do so briefly. First, I want to talk about the British sign language GCSE. Many colleagues have been campaigning alongside the deaf community for that qualification, but I have to say that the Government have been resisting it for a number of years. They recently signposted some progress, but there are now suggestions of some element of delay. I hope that that is not the case, because the lack of such a qualification discriminates against deaf children, for whom British sign language is their first language. Their colleagues at school can learn Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and French, but they cannot learn British sign language. This deprives them of an opportunity to further their education, and it prevents the UK from getting many more qualified signers, of which we have a shortage. I would be grateful if the acting Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), could comment on this. I have to say that he made an impressive debut at this morning’s business questions. He said he was re-finding his voice, and I am glad that he has done so. It was a very good performance, and I wish him every success in his position. I would be grateful if he could pass on my concerns about the BSL GCSE to the Department for Education.
I have been campaigning with Jim on this very issue. Young people who are deaf can communicate in British sign language, but they are not allowed to take a GCSE examination in their own first language. That is plainly anachronistic and wrong, and the situation needs to be rectified. The Department has been working on this, but if there is some kind of fly in the ointment, it needs to be sorted out quickly. We need to give those young people the opportunity to take an examination in their own language.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for being given the appropriate title, but that was a commentary on the familiarity of the Toon Army. You just cannot teach some people—[Laughter.] No, I should not say that.
I am grateful for the excellent support from my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and so many other colleagues in the House who have been pressing the Department for Education on the BSL GCSE. We hope that we will follow Scotland and be able to deliver it in due course.
I chair Fire Aid, which offers fire and rescue service and fire industry support for emergency services in 50 other countries. I know that the Department for International Development recently reviewed its policy on support for small charities such as ours that do invaluable, life-saving work, but we cannot deliver more without revenue support, which DFID will not provide. I hope to meet the appropriate Minister soon to discuss the matter. I know how difficult it is to get revenue support from the Government, but small charities and soft diplomacy can deliver for UK plc, so the Government and DFID need to review the situation.
What a disappointment it is that the opening date of Crossrail—the Elizabeth line—has been put back by at least a year. Canary Wharf Group took responsibility for the construction of the station at Canary Wharf in my constituency, and it has been ready for some years. If the rest of the line had been constructed with the same speed and efficiency, Crossrail would have opened on time.
There is an ongoing issue with the Charity Commission and the Island Health Trust in my constituency. Charity commissioners have been monitoring the charity’s governance and financial administration since February 2017, when concerns were raised about the use of the charity’s funds and the potential private benefit to one or more of the trustees. The then chair, Suzanne Goodband, was paid nearly £350,000 through a company of which she was the sole director, with that amount representing 68% of the charity’s income over two years. At the same time, GPs and the health practice were being priced out of their building through rent rises. I secured an Adjournment debate in March last year and have been in regular contact with the charity commissioners, but after 18 months, the Charity Commission still cannot provide a final timetable for when it will publish its findings. I hope that we will get something within the next week.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made a welcome announcement on 9 May about funding for the removal and replacement of defective cladding on private tower blocks. The all-party group on leasehold and commonhold reform, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, the National Leaseholders Campaign and many other stakeholders have been tirelessly campaigning for a resolution. Questions about the scheme remain unanswered, including what the money will cover and how to apply for it, and a number of letters have gone to the Housing Minister to seek clarification, but I commend the Secretary of State for his decision. I know that he had to give direction to civil servants, which demonstrates his personal commitment, and we look forward to more information soon.
That brings me on to the governance and regulation of housing associations. The current position would benefit from more transparency than exists at present. Post-Grenfell, the Government have engaged in a complete overhaul of much of the regulation of housing tenure, and the focus on leasehold is welcome. However, a review of housing association accountability would be equally welcome.
On leasehold reform, there is growing anticipation that something is about to arrive after 30 years and various attempts by both main parties to improve rights and protection in regulations for leaseholders. I thank the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and campaigning organisations for their reports. The Committee’s excellent recent report has been welcomed by the Government, and I look forward to their response and to a debate, either in here or in Westminster Hall, before the summer recess.
The 52:48 result meant that Brexit was never going to be easy, and diametrically opposing views—from hard Brexit to wreck Brexit—have only exacerbated the situation. I said in the Chamber on 11 December that I was moving to support the Government’s deal, and I eventually did support it when I felt that the Labour’s five points were met—first there were six, but then it was five. We wanted a customs union—not the current customs union—a trade arrangement, protocols for security, protection for the Good Friday agreement, and an implementation period, and all that had mostly been met by the Government. From that point, there should have been closer alignment between the two Front-Bench teams, but that has not been the case. Now, with the spectre of a second referendum being much stronger for Opposition Members, 31 October looms. That is not a good position to be in, and hopefully the Prime Minister, or the new Prime Minister, will be able to move on and avoid a no-deal scenario, which is the worst of all positions as far as I am concerned, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) articulated earlier.
The Government have announced the fair funding review. My local authority, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, has lost £148 million—64% of its revenue—since 2010. Mayor Biggs, Councillor Ronald, Chief Executive Tuckley and their colleagues and staff are doing an excellent job of trying to provide services, but they need resources to do the job properly. I hope that the Government will look again at support for urban local authorities and not just for the English shires.
I commend Tower Hamlets for its efforts to keep the borough clean. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—I apologise for not informing her that I would be mentioning her—and Keep Britain Tidy on the Great British spring clean, which is an excellent initiative. Support has been growing exponentially among local authorities, and I look forward to supporting her again next year. Keep Britain Tidy’s strong work continues, especially on fly-tipping.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), as Minister for road safety, had been expected to make a renewed road safety statement soon. The fall in the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads has stagnated for a number of years, and the new statement is anticipated eagerly. It has been promised for some months, and it is certainly imminent. We look forward to it.
I have notes of congratulation on two retirements. Colonel Dick Harrold has served as governor of the Tower of London since 2014, and he ends his service next year. The Tower of London is in my constituency and forms its western boundary. I could not have a stronger redoubt than the Tower of London to protect me from the rest of the capital. Dick Harrold has done an excellent job, and I wish him every success and happiness, and a long retirement.
I also congratulate Philippa Helme, one of our Clerks. Many tributes were paid to her earlier. She stopped me in the corridor this morning to wish me well on a piece of work I have been engaged in for a number of years, and it is a measure of her kindness and generosity that she wished me good luck. She is going to sail around Britain for the next three months with her husband, and I wish her every happiness in her retirement and safe sailing.
Philippa Helme is escaping at a good time. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, the House is not a very nice place at the moment. This is the longest Session since the 17th century and the least productive since 1926, according to recent media reports. I am reassured by his comments that it is not just me, because I do not think this is a good place to work at the moment. I have loved my job more than I do at present, just as I loved my job at London fire brigade. The stress, the pressure and the expectations on all of us are very great. Relationships are fracturing and there are all kinds of fallout. I think we are letting down our citizens, and we need to do better.
I somewhat echo the words of the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) in saying that good governance is not assisted by pointing our finger at others, whether that is within our parties or across the Chamber, or whether we are blaming somebody else. We are paid to sort out these problems, and we are not doing our job, which reflects badly on all of us. Perhaps when we come back after Whitsun—I mean no disrespect—the Conservative party and Parliament will sort themselves out and we can provide the leadership that this great nation needs and that we are currently failing to deliver.
I am grateful to you for the opportunity to take part in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a good number of years since I last spoke in one of these Adjournment debates. In one of the first ones I spoke in, we were squeezed out to such an extent that I got to speak for 30 seconds at the end of it. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was the Deputy Leader of the House at the time, and I managed to give 30 seconds on the subject of powdered whisky, an abomination then and today, I am sure. Returning to this debate after some years, it was refreshing to see that the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) still sees it as an opportunity to catch up on his casework. In an ever-changing world—others have spoken about the difficulties in the House at the moment—that one small piece of continuity provides a small measure of reassurance for us all.
I had hoped not to be here today—I mean that in the nicest possible way—but unfortunately an air traffic controllers strike is taking place in the highlands and islands so I was moved to take part in this debate, as a consequence of a meeting I had this morning. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) spoke in detail and with great knowledge about the steel industry, which is undergoing a moment of crisis. I very much associated with the way in which he spoke about that industry, because my communities in Shetland and in Orkney feel much the same about the fishing industry as his communities obviously do about the steel industry. In many ways, fishing defines what we are, because we are, of course, island communities. It pains me that I have to return today to a subject I have spoken about in the House previously—at numerous Question Times and in the two Adjournment debates I have had on the subject, one in July and one in April. I refer to the issue of visas for non-European economic area nationals seeking employment in the fishing industry.
We are reaching a point of crisis. The dependence on non-EEA nationals for crew of many of the small inshore boats is such that the boats are being tied up; they cannot get the crew and they are looking at being sold on. When that happens, no fish are being landed in the individual ports, which means that the fish processing factories will eventually find other things to do. In that way, an important part, economically and culturally, of our coastal and island communities around the UK is under threat. I fear that this is the sort of thing that in normal politics would have been sorted out months ago, but unfortunately we are in this phase where things that ought to be routine and capable of being managed somehow just do not come out the other end of the sausage machine.
At the moment, the only non-EEA nationals who have been able to get in to crew fishing boats are ones who come into the country on transit visas and who are then fishing outside the territorial waters. There is an irony here, in that these fishing boats are forced to fish outside the territorial waters but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now saying that their crew will be treated as though they were fishing within the territorial waters, so they are being taxed even though they are not being allowed to work within this country. For the white fish boats and the pelagic boats, which are bigger, go away for longer and work outside the 12-mile limit, these things are manageable, because they are bigger boats. The small inshore boats simply cannot work in that way, so, again, they are the ones being pushed out. Even the white fish boats and the pelagic boats are now being pushed into fishing where immigration regulations will allow them to fish, not where they know the fish are there to be caught. If ever there were a case where regulation was the tail wagging the dog, it is this.
Along with other Members—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) has been with me on many occasions, as have the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I have been on delegations that have gone through the revolving door that has been the Immigration Minister’s in recent years, but we have been pushed from pillar to post. Most recently, the current Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), explained that the Government had decided not to change their position on these visas because of the advice given by the Migration Advisory Committee.
The Migration Advisory Committee is an independent body, and I have recently taken some time to consider its composition and work. This morning, I was delighted to welcome to the House of Commons the chairman of the committee, Professor Alan Manning, and several of his advisers and staff from the committee’s secretariat. Initially, I was encouraged by their willingness to come to Parliament to meet me and others who represent coastal and island interests. I was grateful for the work of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance on bringing together the case to present to them. I suppose that, after all these years in the House, I should have known better than to have allowed myself to get my hopes up. The two-hour engagement—if that is what I can call it—this morning was unfortunately dispiriting and disillusioning. I had hoped that if we were able to explain our position to them, they might have been able to explain their working to us, and we might then have achieved a meeting of minds, or at least a better understanding of what both sides were seeking to get out of the exercise.
On the basis not only of this morning’s interaction but the Migration Advisory Committee’s most recent work, I am exceptionally disappointed. The body is comprised almost entirely of academics—in fact, I think they are probably all academics—but their work demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual rigour, and I have seen demonstrated a worrying lack of intellectual curiosity. It simply defeats me to consider why academics who pursue their expertise in this area of public policy are not more curious to know the impact of the recommendations they make on communities throughout the country.
We were told this morning that the Migration Advisory Committee’s concern is people and communities, which should be a good starting point, but it is apparent to me that there is simply no understanding on the committee of the communities that I represent and that others in coastal and island communities represent, and as a consequence, the committee concludes its work by saying that its aspiration is to create a level playing field in this policy area. I just do not see how that is going to be possible in any meaningful way. How is it going to be possible to create a single level playing field—a single size that fits all—right throughout the country? My particular working example of the fishing industry is so distinctive and so different, economically, socially and culturally.
With regard to the most recent piece of work on which the Government now rely for their policy, the “EEA migration in the UK: Final report” from September last year, it concerns me that the Migration Advisory Committee will not recommend the introduction of
“separate employer-led sector-based routes…with the possible exception of seasonal agriculture”,
which is discussed later in the report. The report also says:
“In low-skilled jobs little training is required and thus it should be possible for employers to hire workers from other sectors.”
It is the definition of low-skilled jobs that most people in and around the fishing industry find most offensive. The idea that just because a deckhand is not undergoing a university-validated qualification their work is low skilled is offensive and demonstrates to me a quite fundamental lack of understanding about the work these people do.
That impression is further reinforced by the MAC’s conclusion that to fill these “low-skilled jobs”—its term, not mine—we can rely on tier 5 youth mobility visas. It says:
“Tier 5 (Youth Mobility) is a cultural exchange scheme for people aged 18 - 30 from the following participating countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Individuals can stay in the UK for up to 2 years to experience life in the UK – they can work and study but are not allowed to bring in dependants. The scheme operates on a reciprocal basis with opportunities for young British people to live and work in participating countries…Tier 5 workers can work in all jobs and, although we have little information on where they currently work, it seems likely that many are in lower-skilled jobs.”
If anything illustrates the lack of understanding of these great and eminent minds of the industries for which they are supposed to be formulating public policy, that surely is it. The idea that Australian, New Zealand and Canadian backpackers are going to come here and take jobs as deckhands on whitefish boats and prawn trawlers is, I am afraid, simply laughable. It grieves me to say it but we have come to a place where either Ministers have to be honest about their reliance on the advice of this body or else the body itself has to be reformed fundamentally.
According to its own annual report last year, the MAC cost 893,467 taxpayer pounds to run, which is not insubstantial. Its membership comprises three professors, two doctors and one lonely individual who does not seem to have any academic title to append to her name. Two are based in London, one in Southampton, one in Warwick, one in Oxford and one in York—the most northerly of its members. This body, which is supposed to advise the Government on how to regulate immigration policy in relation to my community, has no member who works north of a point that is some 500 miles south of the southernmost point of my constituency—and remember that the southernmost point of my constituency is some 200 miles south of the northernmost point of my constituency. Does that not hint at the problem? This is an advisory committee composed of academics, not one of whom is based anywhere north of York. That surely has to change.
I hope that this message will be heard in the Home Office. One of the principles that apparently guides the work of the MAC is diversity. I am afraid that a committee of six academics, all of whom are based between Southampton and York, whatever the gender balance, is not one I could regard as being diverse. I hope that within the Home Office the message will be heard today that the problem of fishing visas, which I have spoken about many times, is not going away but is getting worse. Ministers have got to take responsibility because it is apparent to me that the advice they are getting from those whom they pay to give that advice is not of a quality that is fit for purpose.
It is a pleasure to follow many interesting speeches, which have focused on great priorities that we ought to debate in this House. My time in this Parliament has been dominated by one massive issue—a constitutional impasse—and I lament the fact that it has displaced so many fine, pertinent and vital matters that should be the focus of our democracy and national life. I hope that improvements to our leadership and the country’s governance will help us to get back on track. I hope that our focus will shift from that constitutional impasse back to meaningful societal improvements that will determine our quality of life.
I am well aware that there is an election going on today, and Members of the House are thinner in number than they would otherwise be. We should pay tribute to the thousands of activists who are out there pounding the pavements for their respective parties as we speak. It is easy to forget the huge amount of unpaid, and often uncredited, work put in by so many people who are committed to our political life. Although it is fashionable to be cynical about politics, we should take the time to pay tribute to all who put gargantuan amounts of effort into participating in our political life and political parties, of whatever colour.
I am thinking particularly of Angela Bretherton, a local activist from Dennistoun, in my part of the world, who is standing for the first time as a Scottish Labour MEP candidate. She is an amazing Unison trade union official who fought for equal pay for women workers in Glasgow who were denied justice for many years, and she was integral to achieving that gain for women workers. That is a small flavour of the huge, rich tapestry of our democracy, and I give all credit to those involved.
While we are focused on the Punch and Judy show of constitutional politics, I was intrigued by some of the proposals from the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). There is ongoing debate in the Labour party about how to cut through the binary discourse that has dominated politics in Scotland for so long. The nationalists are focused on one political objective alone—destroying the United Kingdom—but there is a danger that another form of nationalism will feed off that nationalism, and it is important that we guard against that. To be frank, I think the Conservative party in Scotland has often benefited from defining itself in opposition to the nationalists by merely bringing nationalism of another colour into the debate, and it is important for the party to be conscious of that.
I was very moved by what Gordon Brown said this week, namely that that Punch and Judy show is destroying the fabric of our political discourse, particularly in Scotland. We need to get back to discussing the important issues, including performance in public life. The reality is that the current situation is a function of two Governments that are failing the public by obsessing about constitutional issues to the exclusion of other things. I hope that we can move beyond this impasse and reboot our politics. If we can focus on something other than constitutional issues, perhaps we can turn the tide.
In my time in the House, I have tried to focus on representing my constituents as best I can, because I understand why they sent me here. As I alluded to in my maiden speech, I understand that they yearn for a political system that shifts power, wealth and control in their favour, and that is what we should focus on. The bulk of my casework stands as testament to that. Most of it relates to political failure and failure of governance—primarily at the Home Office, with the huge amount of suffering caused by our dysfunctional and appallingly callous immigration and asylum system, which I have to deal with on a case-by-case basis as an MP. I resent having to do that because it is actually a symptom of me having to firefight the failure of the Government. They are causing so much hardship to people, who have a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every day. These people do not know whether they will be sent back to their torturers and the people who killed their families. It is appalling. I represent one of the few areas in the country with an asylum dispersal area, so I have to deal with these issues all too frequently.
I also have to deal with a lot of failure of the Department for Work and Pensions. The transition to universal credit and changes to disability benefits have been disastrously managed and are visiting a lot of harm on people. The barometer for me is to ask, “Who is coming to see me? Who is suffering? Why did they resort to seeing their MP about these issues?” The answers to those questions tell me that there is a real problem with the way in which the Department is functioning, and we need to focus on how to fix that problem. We cannot simply be here to reflect prejudices and reactionary politics. We should be led by evidence and an understanding of what will improve the general happiness, contentment, wellbeing and prosperity of all parts of our country and society. If we can agree on that, we should recognise and be aware of the failure of current policy; I hope that we can do that.
After that rather despondent sermon, it is also important to recognise that there are lots of people and organisations working really hard to do what they can—in whatever small way they can—to improve the condition of our communities and society. I can think of a few in my own constituency. This work happens in the face of huge cutbacks to councils, which were seen to happen disproportionately to councils in Scotland. Since austerity, amplified by a Government in Edinburgh, Glasgow City Council has seen a percentage cut seven times the size of that to the Scottish Government. A big part of that has been the withdrawal of services such as music tuition in schools, but there is a great organisation in my constituency called the Beatroute Arts Centre, which has been providing huge opportunities for young people, including creative outlets and tuition in the face of the funding cuts.
Bolt FM is part of a local church in my constituency and has been around for 18 years, involving young people in opportunities that they might not otherwise have—for example, presenting their local community radio station and going to Africa to work with local communities there on how to build their resilience. It is a wonderful, fantastic example.
We often tie together cuts with the problems faced by constituents who have a low disposable income and might be suffering poverty, but there is also the issue of trying to be environmentally friendly. How do we turn that into a positive thing for those people? My constituent Donna Henderson set up the Balornock Uniform Bank. Donna’s idea was to give back to her community by organising the donation of good-as-new school uniforms and other children’s clothing, and offering them to other families for free in an exchange. Young people are growing at a very fast rate, and quickly grow out of their school uniforms, which are often perfectly good to be reused. Rather than throwing these things out, why not recycle them? Donna has actually turned something that might be a source of shame—to have to exchange clothing—into something that is entirely sensible to do. All credit to her for thinking of a great practical intervention that is benefiting my community.
Speaking of credit, I want to mention the urgent need to debate and focus more on the need for credit unions in this country. This House often discusses the transition from banking services to a more cashless society, and the impact that that transition is having on those who are left behind. The extraction of banking services from poorer communities, which is a disproportionate fact of life in this country, has seen a litany of branch closures in my constituency. The latest announcement was the closure of the Santander branch, so I have seen credit unions becoming ever more critical.
I pay particular tribute to the Carntyne and Riddrie Credit Union, which is run by John Lyons. And not only does he run a credit union; he has also set up Glasgow’s first non-referral food bank. When he went to see how a food bank works, he was appalled that one of the questions asked of a lady who went there to seek food with her children was, “Are all the children from the same father?” Does that matter? What on earth is the relevance of that question? Why was that food bank trying to create a source of shame for someone looking for need in the most vulnerable situation? It is already embarrassing for many people having to seek help like that, before having to go through some sort of ritual humiliation by people who just want to exercise power over others in a vulnerable situation. The fact that John Lyons has set up a non-referral food bank is remarkable. He is also trying to connect people into accessing financial services and has set up a credit union service that is delivering much more than just those services to the community. It is a hub for the community, and he practically lives in that facility. It has been really inspiring to see the work going on there. As MPs, we can be born, live and die in an area but never know half the stuff that is going on. Being an MP is a journey of discovery, as we find out about all the amazing things that are happening, and that is just one example I have encountered in my time.
In my maiden speech—you were in the Chair on that occasion, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mentioned the amber nectar of Tennent’s, which is the oldest business in my constituency and a fine Scottish business. It has been around since 1556, brewing beer on the banks of the Molendinar Burn in Glasgow, and it is one of Scotland’s most iconic brands. It has bred another business adjacent to it: the Drygate brewery. That brewery has been contributing significantly to the local economy, and it is lining up a number of events to celebrate its fifth anniversary this year, which is fantastic. I have been impressed by not only the trade union traditions of that business, but the amazing community work it does quietly to support local people facing hardship. That is just another example of a fantastic, innovative business going hand in hand with compassion for the community.
Businesses face significant hardship in my constituency. Lots of businesses are thriving, and local entrepreneurs are flourishing, despite the hardships, but one big problem they face is punitive business rates. That issue was mentioned in relation to the steel industry, but it also affects small businesses. Business rates are often a blunt instrument that do not reflect a business’s performance. They can often sink a business that would otherwise be entirely viable. I think of Tibo in Dennistoun, a fantastic bistro that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It has been tenacious through difficult times, and it is flourishing and doing a great job. When I visit, I am reminded of the looming threat of a revaluation of business rates, which could sink the business overnight. It is difficult for business owners to plan year to year when facing that potential change.
Many of the groups I have mentioned also face a gamble year to year. They spend so much of their time not focused on delivering the services that the community relies on, but thinking about where the funding is coming from for the next year. They spend a huge chunk of their resources and time applying for grants from local councils or Government, just to stay in business. They are living hand to mouth. Would it not be far better to give those organisations certainty by saying, “You’re doing a great job in the community. We know you add value and are integral. You have security of funding for a much longer period, so you can focus on delivering your service”? That would be a fantastic change, and I feel it is worthy of debate in this House.
Fantastic work is going on to help people in all walks of life. People with disabilities are often disproportionately excluded from our society. The Glasgow Disability Alliance is one of the UK’s largest disability charities, and it is thriving in the community. I pay tribute to one of its stalwarts, John Paul Donnelly, and his family, who organised a successful fun day on 11 May to ensure that people in Milton have access to peer-to-peer support and understand all the organisations that can help them. Disabled people are often particularly excluded because of the way our society is constructed.
That event could only be put on through participatory budgeting, which is becoming more fashionable. It involves people voting for what they want funded, but it is often a cover for asking them, “What do you want to be cut?” It passes the buck for who makes cuts. While it has some positive aspects, it should not be regarded uncritically. Disabled communities are often the ones who are excluded, and it is those with the sharpest elbows who have access to resources and can mobilise their people—it is a popularity contest. That is another example of a problem we need to deal with.
I mentioned at the business question the huge effort going on locally to regenerate the community. Springburn saw 80% of its built environment demolished during the 1960s and 1970s, with a motorway cut through the area and high-rise tower blocks built. A huge amount of physical damage has been caused to it due to wrong-headed urban planning decisions of the time, but the community are determined to fix that. It has been fantastic to see grassroots efforts come to the fore, with the Springburn Regeneration Forum and the Springburn community council set up in the last couple of years. The Springburn Winter Gardens Trust is focused on regenerating the A-listed Victorian glasshouse in Springburn, which was once a great symbol of civic pride in the community and was built at the height of Springburn’s industrial success, as the centre of Britain’s locomotive building industry. We hope that will rebuild some of the civic pride in the area, with a great effort being led from the grassroots in the community. It is fantastic to see that all happening, and it is something we take as a great source of hope.
There are also organisations helping those in need, including from minority ethnic communities, such as the Glasgow Chinese recreation centre. There is a huge Chinese community in my area whom I have got to know over the last few years, and it has been fantastic to see the rich diversity in the schools in Glasgow, some of which have over 40 languages in them. That is a huge change even in my lifetime—the diversity and the change that has happened in my community—and it has been fantastic to meet those at that the Chinese recreation centre. Indeed, they had a visit from the Leader of the Opposition last year, which they loved. They had their annual general meeting on 22 May. They have made a fantastic contribution, particularly in celebrating the Chinese new year in Glasgow, but also in helping those with issues, particularly those with asylum issues. The Asylum Seeker Housing Project is one example, and it continues to provide essential support to asylum seekers in exerting their housing rights, and to conduct research into living conditions for asylum seekers in Glasgow. That is so often overlooked, particularly given the scandal of potential mass evictions by Serco last year, at the behest of the Home Office. We do need to tackle those issues in our community.
This shows the wealth of all the really positive things that are going on in our communities. We can get hung up on the constitutional impasse in this country, but we need to focus on how we harness the potential of our communities and help all those organisations that are so desperately in need.
May I again welcome the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), to the Chamber for this debate? I echo what other hon. Members have said in that he was excellent at the Dispatch Box this morning. Given that he had such a short time to prepare, I think he should have Whitsun off.
This is always a great event in the House, and it is good that the Backbench Business Committee has given hon. Members such an opportunity this time. The number of hon. Members who wanted to speak and raise important issues shows that it was the right decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, mentioned the United Nations rapporteur, and I hope the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household will raise this issue with his colleagues. He should not just throw it back to the Backbench Business Committee to have a debate, but actually look at the reports that have come from the United Nations rapporteur and give us a debate on that in Government time.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of council tax, and he knows as he has done the hard graft as a councillor, so it is right that we should look at it at some stage. He has an amazing array of concert halls in Gateshead. I have not visited Sage Gateshead, but I would like to. [Interruption.] Yes, perhaps I can now. It is good that the council is investing in Sage Gateshead. He also mentioned the steel industry and the impact on his constituency.
In relation to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), what can I say? He is right to raise our work in Parliament, and with his 36 years here, it is important to hear his views. The way in which the business is brought forward in the House is a matter for the Government, so I hope the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household will take that back. However, hon. Members are hard-working, and they do their work in lots of different ways and in different places.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the excellent music service he has in his constituency, and about these wonderful visitors to his constituency. He talked about people wanting to be Prime Minister, but he has been here for 36 years, and he could throw his hat into the ring. Just imagine: if he did that, he could sign the decree that would make Southend a city—instantly. He should get all these international visitors to sign a letter, and I am sure many hon. Members could sign a letter, to make Southend a city, particularly as he has an important archaeological find in his city. We want everyone to visit Southend West.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I raised earlier the issue of fire and safety, and I would like to remind hon. Members to take that test. It only takes 20 minutes, and it would be very good if everyone could do that during the Whitsun recess and make this place safer.
What can I say about my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and his fantastic speech? He paid tribute to steelworkers, who are the infrastructure, in all senses of the word, of his constituency and our society. How difficult must it be—he wears it well—to hear the sad stories from some of those workers who do not even know whether they will have a job next week? He has regularly engaged with the steel industry and has regular conversations with Tata Steel, which is also based in my constituency. He is a real fighter for his constituents and the steel industry. His constituents have a great MP, who they know will never give up on saving the steel industry.
This may be the first time that the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) has attended such a debate. He says that he has been in the House only since 2017, but he is a regular heckler. Indeed, he has been admonished by the Speaker—“Mr Kerr, calm yourself!” He may not know this, but between 2010 and 2015 the Whips used to give a bottle of champagne to every Member named by the Speaker. The hon. Gentleman should raise that issue, because he definitely deserves it. He rightly raised the issue of governance, and it is 25 years since the death of John Smith, who was also interested in that issue and took forward devolution. Perhaps he can do something on that issue—we have all-party groups and Select Committees, and he has a platform as a Member of Parliament should he wish to bring forward new ideas. And of course, as I say to everybody: visit Stirling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) had to leave to catch a train, but she paid tribute to the steel industry in her constituency and raised the topical issue of EU citizens and the difficulties they face under the settlement. I hope the Minister will take that issue back for the Home Secretary to look at again. There are no tolls on the way into Wales any more, so people should be encouraged to visit Wales and Newport—they do not need visas for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is a serial attender of these Backbench Business Committee debates. Sign language is important, and I also pay tribute to him as the chair of many all-party groups, including on leasehold and commonhold reform, and on tidy Britain. I join him in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—she is no longer in her place—and her good work as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Leader of the House. I am not sure whether she will continue in that role, but I wish her well as she performed it assiduously. I say to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) that the strike of the air traffic controllers has been to the benefit of the House. He also raised the important issue of visas for non-EEA citizens. The fishing industry is important not just for Scotland but for us all, and especially coastal constituencies. He highlighted a flaw in the current criteria for visas—other hon. Members have also raised that issue, and I hope the Home Secretary will take it up. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman never gives up on those issues. Those coastal constituencies are wonderful. “Local Hero” is my favourite film, and my daughter used to love reading about Katie Morag—indeed, I sometimes dip into those books now, just to remind myself how wonderful they are. They are very nice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney)—we seem to have an over-representation of Scottish MPs today!—rightly mentioned the elections today, and once we have finished this debate, any second now, I will leg it up to Walsall to cast my vote. He was right to raise important issues of democracy in his constituency, and we must reflect on that after this election, and consider how to go forward and give everyone a voice as part of our democracy. He was right to say that arts and culture are very important, and he showed how one person can make a difference. The uniform exchange is a huge thing and will make a big difference to people’s lives. Although he said that not many Members are around, this debate was oversubscribed and we are nearly at the time limit. It has been a well-subscribed debate, and I am pleased that hon. Members have stayed to take part.
Everyone has mentioned their favourite football club. I was at the Valley to watch Charlton Athletic go through on penalties, which was very exciting. My husband Paul and my father-in-law John Townsend are both supporters of Charlton Athletic, so I feel I must wish them well on Sunday in the play-offs. Charlton Athletic were the club of PC Keith Palmer. I hope, with him watching down, they do well on Sunday.
Finally, I wish everyone a very happy Whitsun recess. Remember, we do not just finish work, but go back to our constituencies and work. We are constantly looking at our mailboxes. I wish the staff of the House and everyone here a very happy recess.
As a Forest fan, I don’t think I will talk about football at all today.
I thank the shadow Leader again for her kind words, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for his kind words on my brief appearance this morning during business questions. I am sure the House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) has been appointed to the position of Leader of the House. I am particularly proud of my political career’s ending without any political shenanigans or scandal.
We have had a fantastic debate this afternoon. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), the hon. Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Poplar and Limehouse, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for their contributions.
I particularly enjoyed the start from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who in his tour de force told us all that is great about Gateshead and made an early commitment not to talk about the “B” word. It was not actually mentioned until much later in the debate, by the hon Member for Poplar and Limehouse. The hon. Member for Gateshead mentioned a lot of the challenges he faces in his constituency and the work he has done. I pay tribute to him not only for his work for his constituency as a Member of Parliament, but for his work as a local councillor. His work demonstrates his commitment to his community and he should be enormously proud of everything he has achieved. He managed to squeeze in references to the Angel of the North and Brendan Foster, who, when I was a young boy growing up, was a real hero of mine; we should recognise his achievements as a UK athlete.
We then moved on to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. I think we can only describe the delivery of his speech as being in the style of a Gatling gun. It would be impossible for me to reference all the things he spoke about, but it really was a tour de force. He said that he started off in the style of Victor Meldrew. I think he concluded like Victor Meldrew on speed, frankly, as he took us through all the challenges he faces and much of his casework.
My hon. Friend did not miss the opportunity to talk about Southend not becoming a city. I am unsure whether colleagues are aware that he may have raised this issue before in this Chamber. [Laughter.] I am sure that one day that will drip through. He started by telling us that everybody on the Government Benches wanted to be the party leader. I noted that he did not rule himself out. I will take an intervention from him if he wants to rule himself out right now.
The shadow Leader of the House tempted me with the thought that if I were to become leader and Prime Minister I would have the power to grant city status to Southend, but, as I think I said in my speech, it is such a shame that people are not aware of their limitations. On this occasion, I admit that I am aware of my own limitations.
We live in historic times, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe my hon. Friend is the first Member from the Government Benches to rule themselves out.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his amazing work on animal welfare. His record stands above that of most Members. He went on to talk about the challenges of alcohol abuse and how we need to make sure we work better. I will be interested to know when the liver test will take place. That might be something I could attend myself, just to make sure I am not in any danger. We are occasionally flippant about some of these things, but they are really important. If we pick up health problems at an early stage, it can have a real impact on the prognosis for people’s health and mitigate some of the impact that such diseases, if undetected, can have later in life.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe made a very eloquent speech. His reasonable approach and tenacity and his pride in the steel industry are a real credit to him. He is viewed warmly on this side of the House. The Secretary of State shares his passion for the steel industry and genuinely wants to try to solve the challenges that it faces. Government Members recognise how important it is that, as an international country, our steel industry will still be there in 20 or 30 years’ time. As a Government, we have a responsibility to make sure, with the procurement decisions that we make, that we use British steel and support the industry, so that we are not held to ransom at some point in the future by countries such as the US, China, Germany and Japan, which will have stronger steel industries than us if we do not commit to supporting ours during this challenging time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) started by putting a date in my diary: 9 June, 5 pm, which is when Scotland and England play each other in the women’s World cup. He said that Scotland will beat England, and for a moment I nearly shouted “Division!” until I looked around the Chamber and saw that there were more Scots than English here. Sport builds bridges between people. Over the last two or three years, women’s football has had a meteoric rise. We should be proud of that and I wish all the home nations luck in the upcoming World cup.
The hon. Member for Newport East has gone to collect her children, highlighting that this Parliament is accommodating of all those who have families. I pay tribute to her just for being a working mum and for being an excellent MP for Newport East. She made some very interesting points about EU citizens, and not only the positive contributions that they make but the challenges that the Polish community face, particularly with filling out forms. These are things that we take for granted—the ability to fill out forms in what would be a second language.
In the course of this afternoon, we have heard various reports of a substantial number of EU citizens being denied the right to vote at polling stations. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take this opportunity to make it clear from the Dispatch Box that anyone who is properly registered should be turning up and voting.
That is a really important point. At times, we take our democracy for granted. For someone to turn up at a polling station when they have the legal right to vote but to be refused is a very serious matter that we all, across the House, should try to address. I hold my hands up and say to the hon. Member for Newport East that I could not fill a form out in Polish. We need to recognise that we need to assist people in those communities in trying to engage in the system.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse is an assiduous contributor to these events. He is also very hard-working and is involved in a number of all-party groups, and I pay tribute to him for his work. He educated me in this debate—I was not aware of the British sign language GCSE and the challenges faced by those for whom sign language is their first language. I will try to pass that on to the relevant Departments to make sure that they can see the challenges and try to support people through them.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Elizabeth line, which we are all desperate to see open as soon as possible. It is an enormous engineering feat that is happening right below our feet as we speak. I hope that we will see it open very soon, so that we can all speed up our journey east to west across this great city. The hon. Gentleman was the first person to mention Brexit. I think he just said that we need to get on and get it done. Very few Members would disagree with that view.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is only here because of the air traffic control strike. I seriously hope that that is resolved before the end of the Whitsun holiday, or he will have quite a drive and a row to Orkney if he undertakes the journey. He made some serious points about the need for support in the fishing industry. He recognised the annoyance his constituents must feel when work on a fishing trawler is described as low skilled. I challenge any Member of this House to jump on a fishing trawler and try to operate it. It is a skilled and dangerous occupation.
Those who make decisions on the Migration Advisory Committee should take into account the challenge in that industry. I will do all I can to assist the right hon. Gentleman in making sure that the Home Office recognises the challenge and engages with him. I know that he has had a number of Adjournment debates. My advice to him, as Mr Speaker would say, is to persist and to keep pushing so that eventually the arguments he is making drip in.
Finally, I turn to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, who started by paying tribute to the thousands of volunteers from all parties who are out there banging on doors and getting people engaged in our democratic process. I join him in congratulating and thanking people from all political parties who try, unpaid, to keep people engaged in our political process.
The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to arts centres and churches for all the work they do and the positive impact they have. We sometimes take for granted all the volunteers who work in our communities free of charge, but they do have a really positive impact. We should also pay tribute to the work that he is doing on regeneration, working with planning authorities to make sure that people feel engaged in and have ownership of their communities.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman made reference to Tennent’s brewery, to which I am enormously sympathetic—I may have sampled its products in the past. I was not aware of Springburn glasshouse before today, but it sounds absolutely fascinating. Next time I travel north via Glasgow, I may well be tempted to visit it and to see the impact it is having locally.
We have had an excellent debate and I thank all those who have stopped to participate in it. I pay tribute to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the work that you have done this term, as well as Mr Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers. I pay tribute to all the House staff—the catering staff, the parliamentary security team who keep us safe, the cleaners, the librarians and everybody else who assists us in our work in the Houses of Parliament. I pay my own personal tribute to the staff in the Tea Room, who make my day and lift my mood every morning when I come in for a bit of breakfast.
I wish everyone a restful Whitsun recess. I know that many Members will not be on their sun loungers; they will be out in their constituencies working hard for the communities they hold so dear. I pay tribute to all of them.
I think the House should pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for stepping in with no notice and for entertaining and informing us so well today. Thank you.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.