It is a pleasure to follow such a moving speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). This has been an absolutely rotten year—the worst that I can ever remember—and I think every one of us will be glad to see the back of it, but before we adjourn for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points I wish to make.
Many of my constituents were absolutely fed up with C2C’s reorganisation of the timetable, resulting in people being crammed together. This was not good enough, but I hope to see further improvements under the new chief executive, Ben Ackroyd.
Southend airport is wonderful, and regional airports need more support, but my constituents are getting fed up with being woken up in the wee hours of the morning by Amazon flights. It really is not acceptable to be woken up in the wee hours of the morning in that way. I was very disappointed to learn that Arriva UK Bus has withdrawn the new eco-friendly service in Southend and replaced it with old polluting buses. That is ridiculous and needs to be changed.
Southend United have been having a tough old time. We were, I think, bottom by about nine points, but I am delighted to tell the House we have just beaten Scunthorpe and we are now only bottom by one. So things are improving, and perhaps we can celebrate with a new stadium.
Like all other hon. Members, I wish to congratulate Southend clinical commissioning group, the staff at Southend University Hospital and the director of public health at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council for all their hard work in co-ordinating the local response to covid-19. Both the hospital and our local ambulance service have been absolutely wonderful, as all hon. Members should say; my goodness, they deserve a wonderful Christmas. I was very disappointed when Nazareth House closed, but I am delighted to say that it is now being used as a coronavirus testing centre, so the ethos of caring still remains there.
With the Belvedere on Leigh Cliffs, too much money has been wasted on a project that is a magnet for drug abuse and antisocial behaviour. That is just getting worse, but I praise the wonderful work of Leigh-on-Sea Town Council, under the chairmanship of Councillor Paul Gilson, who has been working with local community groups such as Friends of Love Leigh Cliffs and Essex police to tackle antisocial behaviour in Leigh and along the cliffs.
On roads and parking, we really need to do something about the quality of the roads in Southend, and the local council should work even harder to reduce speeding. I applaud the fact that they are providing free parking in the town centre over Christmas, but we need better signage.
I am delighted that my constituent Lakhbir Sandhu, who was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia for many months, is now free and celebrating his freedom with constituents, thanks to the wonderful work of the British ambassador and a wonderful legal team.
We have a marvellous hospice in Southend, Fair Havens, which is really under pressure at the moment. I congratulate all the staff there. I always associate the wonderful Salvation Army with Christmas, although it works 365 days a year, and I look forward to the progress of its Project Malachi, creating temporary accommodation for people experiencing homelessness.
It was crazy to close our churches earlier in the year, frankly. They were so careful about social distancing and all that. That must never happen again—people who go to church should be allowed to do so.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis, I was pleased that we launched our report in October. It has made a big difference for people. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is vice-chairman of the group, and we want to ensure that the voices of the 1.5 million ladies who suffer from this illness are heard.
Unfortunately, one of my constituents lost her granddaughter, Maisie Tothill—this is terrible to cope with—to sudden unexpected death as a result of epilepsy. The Tothills have started a charity in her name, the Maisie Tothill Foundation. SUDEP Action recently published its report on sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, and I hope that the Government will act on its recommendations.
Southend’s HARP does a wonderful job in reducing rough sleeping in Southend. Some 80% of those who were temporarily housed in bed and breakfasts have now found long-term accommodation. They really are pulling their lives around. I also praise Prost8, a wonderful local charity, and particularly its founder Paul Sayer. Last Friday, I welcomed—socially distanced, of course, Madam Deputy Speaker—a number of charities, including the citizens advice bureau. They have had a very difficult year, but they have absolutely stepped up to the mark.
Our police locally are wonderful, and I am delighted to say that Southend has seen a 10.3% reduction in crime year on year and a 12.8% reduction in victim-based crime. Essex County Fire and Rescue Service has done a wonderful job in inspecting all the high-rise buildings with cladding over the past few months, and I am glad to hear that low-rise blocks are also going to be inspected and remedial work recommended where necessary.
Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, we could not physically hold our annual centenarians’ tea party. We did it virtually, and that was a wonderful experience, but I hope we will be able to reinstate it next year, and we are going to do our best to once again get into the Guinness World Records.
Now, on city status—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] There should be a city-status competition for the Queen’s jubilee in 2022, so that Southend can become a city. She is probably sick to death of seeing statues of herself, but I think there should be yet another statue of the Queen in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, to celebrate the fact that not only is it her platinum jubilee but she is the longest-serving Head of State in the world.
I have had a number of ambassadorial meetings by Zoom this year, and I praise the work of the ambassadors to the Philippines and the Maldives, which is in a far better place now.
I pay tribute to the wonderful work of Steve Tinning with the charity Safe Passage. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for arranging a meeting.
I am delighted that the Government have at long last announced a ban on live animal exports in England and Wales. The next thing on the list will be to stop the farrowing of sows in crates, which is very cruel. Thankfully, zoos can currently remain open in certain tiers.
Remembrance Day and VJ Day were very muted this year. Perhaps rather ambitiously, I organised a live VJ Day broadcast—I am not sure that I will ever do that again; it is much better to record it. We celebrated both events and I hope we will be able to do much more next year. Peter Egan narrated the history of the conflict in the far east and it was absolutely wonderful.
Chase High School is a wonderful school in my constituency, and I was delighted to be there to see the opening of the Geoff Nash building.
I have one constituent who has been on and on at me about the relationship between coronavirus deaths and medicines such as steroids, which, according to this constituent, can lower the immune system and make infections more likely. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to make sure that we get a reply from the Department of Health and Social Care on that.
The high street, and particularly independent shops, have had an incredibly difficult time. I welcomed the opening of a new shop called Balloonacy. We should all try to shop locally.
This year we lost a wonderful woman and a national treasure: Dame Vera Lynn. I am in constant contact with her daughter Ginny, and there are all sorts of people behind this project. I know that statues are controversial, but we must get a statue of Dame Vera Lynn. There are very few statues of women and it has to be in the best place possible so that future generations can enjoy and appreciate the wonderful work that she did.
I offer you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the team under the Speaker and everyone who works here a very happy Christmas and a far better 2021.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being slightly late. To my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), I say it is always great to hear his speeches and the tours of his constituency and, like many other Members, I wish that Southend is granted city status at some point.
It has been a very difficult year for many in North West Durham; however, they have also had a different year with a very different new MP. I have fully taken on some of the major challenges that have faced my constituency over the past few months. I am delighted that Shotley Bridge Hospital is one of the 48 hospitals that are going to get Government support, so we will be seeing a new community hospital. There is also extra money for a feasibility study for a “Consett to the Tyne” public transport link. Those two major local projects will really help to level up and transform my community, and hopefully help us to build back better beyond covid.
On a local level, I have been concentrating on the motor homes tax, and I managed to work with the Chancellor to get it reduced earlier this year, thereby saving £5,000 off the cost of a new motor home, many of which are built in my North West Durham constituency—
Indeed I am—and I make no apology for it.
The legislation on relief for public lavatories is currently going through the House of Lords, and I hope to see its journey continue. I am honoured to work with colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on local democracy to see the relief finally secured. It will have a particularly beneficial impact for parish and town councils throughout the country, saving them £8 million a year.
Access to cash is something that I have been working on as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. In my constituency we have managed to save the cash machine at the post office at Billy Row, enabling that community to probably keep its local shop, and in Moorside there has been a move from a machine that charges £1.99 a go to one that is free, helping to put £20,000 a year back into the pockets of people in one of the most deprived wards in the constituency.
As far as casework goes, several things have really mattered a lot to me this year. One of them has been working with the excellent Baroness Stedman-Scott in the other place. She has really helped out a couple of my constituents, particularly with personal independence payment assessments and reassessments. They have been going on for such a long time, and we have seen really good progress there, with some constituents seeing big payments that were backdated for several years. We are really helping them out.
As far as private Member’s Bills go, last week I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to ban virginity testing and I will do everything I possibly can to get the Government to give it a bit of space at some point, or perhaps to attach it to another Bill. I have been delighted to help out my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) with her private Member’s Bill on testing for psychoactive substances in prisons. That is a really important measure that has, I know, been welcomed by many prison officers who work in Frankland and other prisons near my constituency, because of the effect those substances have on the inmates. That is another very important piece of legislation.
Next year, I hope that we will see some more sunlit uplands than this year has provided. I know that many of my local pubs and hospitality businesses have really suffered during the lockdown, and they want the restrictions ended as soon as possible. I know that that can happen only with the vaccine programme roll-out, and I have been delighted to see the Government put their shoulder to the wheel on that, getting preferential access to a huge number of vaccines. I hope that the Oxford vaccine can be rolled out as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so, because that will make a massive difference because of the ease of distributing it in care settings across the country.
I want to mention a few things that I will be looking forward to next year. Nationally, I hope to make a bit of a push on mental health, particularly for young people. After the year we have had, the impact of that and of not being able to see friends, family and relatives has been a concern for many people locally.
Willington, Tow Law and Crook really need some good news on the towns and high street funds side of things. Crook has had more than a decade of being ignored and having services removed—it saw its local swimming pool removed almost 10 years ago—and it is important that it sees some proper local investment. The post office in Wolsingham has been earmarked for potential closure, and I am going to work with local people to see whether we can find somebody to take that on.
The Christmas lights in Consett this year were an absolute disgrace. The council seemed to manage to put out cones as quickly as they could all over the town centre when it came to easing the lockdown, yet when it came to putting up a few fairy lights to brighten the town centre ahead of Christmas it seems to have totally failed. I hope that the council will work with me next year to make Consett, Crook and Willington town centres look a bit brighter. I am delighted to be going to Wolsingham tomorrow to open the Christmas lights.
On the particular issue of covid-19 and hospitality, next year I would like the Government to reflect on what a hard year this has been for the hospitality sector, particularly our local pubs and brewers. I will certainly join colleagues on all sides to put pressure on for a reduction in beer duty and a change to the taper system to allow small breweries to expand without a massive tax hit.
Finally, I want to mention two things that have affected lots of different parts of my constituency in lots of different ways. The first is planning. There has been a huge amount of talk about it here, but we need to see our towns and communities enabled by large unitary authorities such as mine to come forward with proper neighbourhood plans that give them a proper voice. In particular, I am thinking of the High West Road in Crook and the Medomsley Bank development. There is also concern about the possibility of a waste-to-energy incinerator in Consett. Secondly, speeding is a huge problem in so many of my towns and villages. It would be really nice to have the council work with me on getting some buffer zones, particularly for our rural villages and small towns, to make those communities safer for everybody.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who has had such an impressive first year in this place and, clearly, from the tour de force that he has just given us, in his constituency.
It is a year ago to the day that we first assembled in this place as new Members. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, it has been a pretty rotten year, but I would like to thank everybody in the House for all they have done to enable the House to continue in the way that it has. That includes you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and all your teams, the Clerks, the Doorkeepers, the catering teams and, particularly, the audiovisual team, who have had to make so many efforts this year to enable us to continue. It would be remiss of me not to pay particular tribute to the staff of the Science and Technology Committee, on which I sit, who have done so much work at very short notice on the coronavirus pandemic this year.
It has been a very difficult year in Newcastle-under-Lyme. This morning, we learned that we remain in tier 3. We have made huge strides in Newcastle. Our rate was 470 a month ago, and it is down to 200 now. It is still too high, but I pay tribute to everyone for their hard work on that, particularly the staff at Royal Stoke University Hospital, who are under so much pressure. I hope that we will be able to get to tier 2 in the new year. I pay tribute to the Government for all they have done to support people economically through the pandemic, but I gently ask the Deputy Chief Whip to get a message to the Chancellor that we want to see even more help to get our high street and our hospitality industry back on their feet.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak about a matter of great importance to many of my constituents: Walley’s Quarry landfill in Silverdale in my constituency. It is a former clay extraction quarry that was converted to landfill use. It is not located in the countryside; it is in a built-up area. There are residential properties within around 100 metres of the site boundary in multiple directions. Lots of residents in the local area report being plagued by the pungent odour, even inside their homes. It is comfortably the biggest issue that I receive correspondence about in my mailbox day in, day out, particularly when the weather conditions are just right—or, as the residents would see it, just wrong. It was the most talked about local issue on the doorstep in the election campaign.
This landfill should never have been permitted. The Environment Agency, in the discussions I have had with it, has acknowledged that it is in a particularly unusual location. The local borough and county council objected to the original application in 1997, but they were overruled by the then Secretary of State, Lord Prescott, who is now in the other place. Perhaps this is symptomatic of how the red wall used to be taken for granted. With the constituency having a Labour majority of 17,000, perhaps he concluded that there was not much political danger in approving this manifestly inappropriate use of the quarry. Well, Labour does not have a majority of 17,000 any more.
The lockdowns in recent months have only thrown the issue into sharper relief. People working from home or confined to their houses because they have been shielding have been surrounded by bad smells, unable to enjoy their gardens during the hot weather in the summer or open their windows when they need to sleep at night. I raised this matter in Westminster Hall in February, and residents wrote to me about being unable to hang their washing outside for fear of the smell and feeling sick, gagging or more as a result of the odour. Newcastle cemetery is directly opposite the landfill, and, as you can imagine, this issue has ruined many funerals. Many people who come to visit their dearly departed loved ones find that the odour in the vicinity detracts from what should be a special moment.
I have tabled a number of written parliamentary questions about this to get more data and more information from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I got a response today from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who I thank for her engagement. It says:
“Although no landfill will ever be completely odour free, the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not be causing annoyance.”
Well, from the figures I have been given, it is clearly causing annoyance. In October, the Environment Agency received 992 reports of odour in the whole country, 225 of which—23%—were about Walley’s Quarry in my constituency. In September, the figure was 371, or 17%. That is clearly indicative of the annoyance that it is causing.
The smell has been much worse in recent weeks; I think it is to do with the atmospheric conditions, although it may be to do with the operations themselves. I have encountered the smell myself on a number of occasions. I have smelt it when coming out of my office on the high street of Newcastle, which is more than 2 miles away. It is obviously not good for the high street to have that odour, and it is clearly affecting the quality of life of a great many of my constituents. It is serious. It is unacceptable that we are asking people to put up with it. I am also struck by the fact that the guidance about Christmas bubbles says that people should have a well ventilated Christmas. Well, it is pretty much impossible for people in Silverdale, Knutton or Poolfields to have a well ventilated Christmas. Turkey and sprouts can cause bad smells, but not on the level of this landfill.
Earlier this week, residents were holding yet another protest outside the gates of the landfill site. That demonstrates the helplessness that people feel and the failure, in their view, of the Environment Agency to respond appropriately. It has shaken public confidence in our agencies and our government. Residents want action to be taken and they feel that they are being fobbed off.
I will mention a couple of aspects of the law in the time I have available. There is a 0 to 6 scale for measuring odour, which is entirely subjective. People are asked to ring in and say how bad it is—“Is it a two, a three, or a four?” This is exactly the same scale that the Environment Agency then uses when it sends people out into the area on odour tours to say how bad it is. Understandably, this does not engender public confidence. We need to do more scientific monitoring. Scientific monitoring exercises have been done, but we need to be monitoring hydrogen sulphide, which causes most of the problem, and the methane as well. It has got to the point where residents are purchasing their own monitoring equipment, which I find absolutely ridiculous. The Environment Agency needs to get into the 21st century and start using proper monitoring tools rather than a subjective scale, which undoubtedly causes a great deal of—
Yes, scrap the 0 to 6, as my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour says.
Looking back, at the end of my first year as the Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, it is my greatest frustration that there has been so little progress on this issue, though I accept that everybody has been entirely preoccupied with coronavirus. The Environment Agency, when I have met it in recent months, is aware of the problem and how it affects my constituents, because it receives these complaints, but it seems to be either hidebound by the law or unable and unwilling to tackle the problem seriously. I understand the operator’s position—it is a commercial operator—but I do not think that it is willing to admit the scale of the problem. It does not, I think, engage properly with complaints, and it has attacked me personally for raising the complaints of my constituents. Perhaps understandably, it repeats that it is operating a compliant site, and that is undoubtedly so case where it is at the moment.
In conclusion, all that my constituents want—particularly the ones in that area—for Christmas is a solution to this. They want a solution to the smell that is plaguing their lives. I do not think it is acceptable that we ask people to live like this. Whether we need to change the law or get fresh monitoring, which I have called for from the Environment Agency, we need to get some progress on this in 2021, because it is unacceptable and it has been going on for far too long.
Before I talk about the many things I want to talk about today, I will mention two other things quickly. First, I pass up no opportunity to mention the need to reopen Grove station in my constituency, which my constituents have wanted for over 40 years. Thousands more houses have gone into that area, with very congested roads. I have told my constituents that I will keep going and going until we are successful with this.
Secondly, I want to mention is a man called Dave Wells. He got to the final of “MasterChef” this week. He is a Didcot resident, and the whole of Didcot is hugely proud of him for getting that far. He did not win, unfortunately, but, as we know, “MasterChef” is a big deal. Over 5 million people watched the final, which I think, Mr Deputy Speaker, is just shy of the number that will be watching us right now on the Parliament channel. It is a hugely proud moment for the people of Didcot, and I have been exchanging messages with him to try to get his new restaurant in the constituency somewhere. I am agnostic about where, whether it is Didcot, Wallingford, Faringdon, Wantage or any of the villages I represent, but let us get it somewhere, because I think that would be another welcome attraction to my constituency.
The first main thing I want to talk about is Royal Mail. Our postmen and women have worked incredibly hard, including throughout the lockdown period, but a few weeks ago, I started to get a regular stream of emails every day from constituents whose mail was not being delivered. This was regular mail, such as letters, magazines and birthday cards. There was one couple whose 65th wedding anniversary cards had not arrived. It seems to me that if they can make 65 years of marriage, they deserve to have their cards arrive on time. Even more seriously, hospital appointments were being missed because this mail was not arriving.
It is clear that postmen and women have worked really hard, but I called a meeting with Royal Mail last week. Something is clearly not going right with the service at the moment. It is a busy time, there have been staff shortages and there are additional constraints because of covid and the need to restrict the number of people in Royal Mail buildings. I was interested to hear from Royal Mail that it characterises what has happened as its having gone from a letter service delivering parcels to a parcel service delivering letters. Apparently, had I been able to visit the mail rooms this year, as I know Members of this House do every year, I would have seen everything being delivered by Royal Mail, including very large TVs, but also, as I understand my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) saw on her visit, washing machines. Clearly something is going on with the way Royal Mail is operating that means people are not getting their regular post. It is very distressing to them. Constituents of mine are still reporting a problem, and we need to get to the bottom of what that is, because in the new year the price of first-class stamps will go up 12%, and I do not think there will be a 12% increase in the quality of service that our constituents receive.
The second main thing I want to talk about are health services in my constituency, which has two aspects to it. The first is Wantage Community Hospital, which was closed in 2016 because legionella bacteria were found. My constituents expected that closure to be temporary, but, as the House might guess, that hospital has still not reopened. That is a cause of distress to constituents, who very much loved the local community hospital. They are fearful that perhaps it will never reopen, or that perhaps the site might be sold off.
I have regular conversations with local health leaders about the hospital, and I do not believe they have any intention to see it permanently closed or, indeed, to try and sell it off. They make the case that probably what the hospital needs is to offer different services from what it was offering before it closed. That is a case for them to make, and the decision making has been delayed again because of covid, but my constituents do deserve resolution as soon as possible.
The second key aspect of health services that I want to talk about is health services in the inner Didcot area. We have three patient participation groups in Didcot, and their chairs do a great job. They have calculated that in terms of the pressure on patient numbers, the population of Didcot has increased by 38% in five years, yet we have no new surgeries. That raises one of the regular problems of house building.
My constituency has had thousands and thousands of new houses. As I have said before in this place, most people are not opposed to house building. Although they may not like house building directly outside their window, most people are not opposed to it; they just want to know that housing is high quality, does the right things by the environment, is genuinely affordable and, importantly, is matched by the infrastructure that the growing population needs, because thousands more houses are due to go into this area. We had a big development at Great Western Park, which again had no new GP surgery coming with it, despite the best efforts of the three PPG chairs and people such as Councillor Ian Snowdon. The current GP surgeries are bursting at the seams, and we need some form of new health hub in Didcot that relieves the pressure on GP appointments, but also provides a wider range of health services, given that the population of this area will continue to grow.
The final thing I want to talk about, as a number of Members have, is what a year it has been. It has been an awful year for everybody, and it has been worse for those who have lost a job, lost a business or, even worse, lost a loved one. I think there are few things we can say to offer real condolences to those people, although I offer them here today.
I know that, as we go into 2021, we will still be fighting this virus; more people will lose their jobs, their businesses, and indeed their lives; we will all be facing awful economic circumstances. Yet we got through this year—the country got through it. We saw tremendous effort, energy and achievements by our public services, not least in health and education, and by our private services—politicians generally default to public services, but let us not forget all the private services, such as the shops that remained open and kept serving us, and the great innovation by many of our business. There was also a tremendous community response, where people stepped up to serve their neighbours in whatever way they could. I saw that from Wallingford to Shrivenham in my constituency, and I know that every Member of the House saw it in their own constituency.
I am hugely proud of Britain and what it has achieved this year, and hugely proud of the British people and everything they have done, despite what an awful year it has been and despite all that they are going to be facing. With the vaccine and the other positive developments, I think we can look forward to a better 2021. I wish every Member of this House, everyone who works here and everyone who works anywhere else a happy Christmas and a very good new year.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) on his superb speech, and adding my cheers of “Merry Christmas!” to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, all Members across the House, and, most important, all the staff who work across the parliamentary estate. They go above and beyond, and I am grateful for all the support they have given me in my first year as a Member of Parliament.
I send a big “Merry Christmas!” to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. When Circuit’s “Messages of Joy” campaign conducted research to determine the kindest city in the UK—shock, horror!—Stoke came out on top. But it was no shock or surprise for me or the people of that fine city. We are a resolute, spirited and doughty group of individuals who believe that community must come first. I praise our health and care heroes at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, Haywood Walk-in Centre and across our local NHS, and thank them for the sacrifices they have made every day to keep us safe. My family and I will forever be indebted to them, particularly because in the midst of the crisis the maternity team at the Royal Stoke helped to deliver Amelia, Nkita’s and my first child. We are delighted to be celebrating our daughter’s first Christmas this year.
I want to say a big thank you to Staffordshire police, Staffordshire fire and rescue, teachers and support staff, supermarket workers, Royal Mail staff, bus drivers and the many other key workers who have worked in the most challenging conditions. Across Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, they have risen to the challenge. I also want to give a big shout-out to the amazing voluntary sector, whether it is Men Unite, the Pop Up Pantry at St Michael’s in Chell, VAST, the Salvation Army in Kidsgrove, Tunstall and Smallthorne, Swan Bank Methodist church, Number 11 and Team Chatterley, to name but a few.
There are two individuals who I think deserve a special shout-out. One is Carol Shanahan, co-owner of Port Vale football club and founder of the Hubb Foundation. Throughout the crisis, she and her organisation have served 250,000 meals to over 30,000 families across the city of Stoke-on-Trent. That is to be commended. What I have enjoyed the most about Carol’s work with the Hubb is that the foundation is now providing slow cookers, with ingredients for one meal a day for 12 weeks and a series of recipe cards, with the aim of ensuring that families can benefit independently when the support ends. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has invested £23,000 in the scheme, which is extremely welcome.
I also want to give a big shout-out to an absolute community champion. The history books may not have his name, but I hope he will be able to look to this place to see it written down. Rich Stephenson-Evans works at Kidsgrove Tesco, and he is the community champion. He has been in that role for many years—since well before I arrived on the scene in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke. He is one of the true unsung heroes in our community. If ever a man—or person, sorry; I should say that in this day and age—deserved an honour from Her Majesty, it is Rich Stephenson-Evans. He has gone above and beyond delivering food from Tesco. It is amazing that there is anything to buy in the Tesco in Kidsgrove, because he normally swipes the shelves clean. He has delivered across the area, to all those charities I named, but he has also helped those charities get £500 or £1,000 grants from Tesco. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said, we must always acknowledge that the private sector has played a huge part in helping us to tackle covid and rightly deserves as much praise as our public sector.
I would like to give a special shout-out to Lainey Evans, who is in year 5 at St Wilfrid’s Catholic Academy and was the winner of my Christmas card competition. It is a superb design with a bottle kiln and the Angel of Burslem above it, which I think is wonderful. The runners-up were Isla in year 4, William in nursery and Adam in year 4. A big thank you to them for taking part. With over 500 entries, it was superb to see.
I want to put on the record my plea to the Minister on behalf of the superb Titanic Brewery, which is in dire need of additional Government support. Once pubs are closed, brewers have no way of selling, apart from the odd bottle that they can sell from their factory shop. That does not make up for the money that is being lost in what would be a boom season with Christmas, so that additional support is needed.
Ceramic manufacturers also need support. They are part of the supply chain into the hospitality sector, and they have seen a big difference between their 2019 and 2020 orders. They are asking for the VAT reduction to be extended to them, at the manufacturing end, and they are also asking for business rates relief. While that will not save every job, it will make a huge difference to making sure that these giants—Churchill China, Steelite and Burleigh Pottery—go on to exist ever more in my local community.
On transportation, north Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent already have very good strategic transport links. We have the M6, A500 and A50 serving the city, and the rail journey to London is a little over one hour and 30 minutes. But now we have our £29 million from the transforming cities fund, which is absolutely superb. It will have a huge impact on Stoke-on-Trent station, but it will also bring investment in our bus services.
I presented a petition in the House the other day, having missed my previous slot—Mr Deputy Speaker was kind enough not to embarrass me in public—on the Stoke-Leek line. Over 1,000 residents have signed that petition, and I am working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) to deliver this important piece of rail infrastructure, which will bring connectivity and help our economy. Most importantly, it will potentially serve the town of Milton, which is a superb little town with great local independent retailers, and support some local schools. It will therefore potentially take traffic off our roads, which is a huge issue.
Longport station also deserves a shout-out. Sadly, the Department for Transport rejected its element of the transforming cities fund because footfall was not high enough in the original criteria. I have accepted and understood that, but I am now going to set up a Longport station promotion group with key local stakeholders interested in driving greater use of Longport station. Now Stoke station has that key interchange, thanks to the £29 million from the transforming cities fund, feeder stations such as Longport will be increasingly important in Stoke-on-Trent’s public transport revolution. I am also convinced that Longport can and should be a better-appreciated rail destination in its own right, because we have Middleport pottery just up the road, Westport Lake Park and the mother town of Burslem—all superb places to visit.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Silicon Stoke and Chatterley Whitfield very briefly. We now have the Silicon Stoke board at Stoke-on-Trent City Council; Councillor Abi Brown has teamed up with me. We have NHS Digital joining that board, and many other local and national stakeholders. We reckon that the 104 km of full fibre that has been installed in the ground across the city will potentially unlock £625 million in the local economy. I want to set up a game school—a regional free school for 14 to 18-year-olds with part-selective entry, based on talent and commitment to developing specialist skills in differing elements of game design, creation, production and marketing.
Finally, the sleeping giant that is Chatterley Whitfield is the largest complete quarry site in the whole of Europe. It is time for an industrial heritage park. The people at Historic England have listened to me badger them time and again. The consultants at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios are now leading a 10-year vision plan. We had our first meeting with key stakeholders. I got £22,500 out of Historic England as well, with the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield and Stoke-on-Trent City Council. It is time to make sure that these great sleeping giants are appreciated as part of our industrial heritage.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I do not plan to go on that long, but who knows? Me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) have a very good relationship, but we often vie for the same limelight on similar issues.
It has been a remarkable year: going into 2020, I do not think any of us could have predicted the challenges that were ahead. A huge number of my constituents have lost loved ones who they will never see again, and the virus continues to be a threat. A vast majority of my constituents continue to work hard to prevent the spread of the virus. The livelihoods of many of my constituents have been lost, and they continue to be incredibly anxious about what the future holds for them. There is not a single person in the country whose mental health has not been impacted, at least to some extent, by this, and I imagine all of us are in the same boat to some extent on that issue.
I was elected, along with my colleagues, last year. One of the key reasons why we were elected was to get Brexit done—to resolve the issue and move on—and I think the vast majority of people who voted for us last year to get Brexit done did so believing that they were electing a Prime Minister who would stand up for British interests, who would be resolute in doing so, and would not capitulate and accept a deal that would encumber us and tie our hands when it came to fully exploiting the benefits of Brexit. I think the Prime Minister is living up to that, and I welcome it. The Labour party talks about what was in the minds of voters when they voted for the Prime Minister; frankly, I find it quite extraordinary how all of a sudden, the Labour party has such a profound understanding of the motivations of voters, many of whom voted leave. For me, they voted to elect a Government that would deliver a proper Brexit, not a Brexit in name only, and that is exactly what this Government are doing.
With regard to covid-19, I was pleased to hear today that Ipswich would be remaining in tier 2. It was quite peculiar, because going into the second national lockdown, we had very low rates of covid. We were a long way below the national average, and we were one of 18 local authority areas that left the second national lockdown with rates increasing. That has continued in tier 2, but despite my concerns about the prevalence of the virus, particularly in those over the age of 65, I do think that keeping us in tier 2 was the right decision. I am glad that that decision has been made, and I am confident that the people of Ipswich will continue to work hard to make sure we can get to a better place with fewer restrictions at the first opportunity.
It is difficult to know where to stop thanking so many of my constituents, who have worked so hard. A huge number of my constituents work at Ipswich Hospital as nurses and doctors. They have risked their lives, and have literally gone above and beyond to save the lives of many of my constituents. I also thank the teachers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to continue providing education in incredibly challenging circumstances, and the police officers who never thought they were going into the police to start managing the distance between people, but have done so with dignity and in a professional way, and have got the balance just right. Turning to the charitable sector, we have never needed our charities more than we do right now, yet at the same time the strain on their finances has never been so great. There is no better example of that than when I temporarily became a skinhead after shaving my hair off to support Age UK Suffolk, and then very sadly we found out, having raised around £3,000, that that was not enough. We lost Age UK Suffolk a number of weeks after that fundraising campaign, just when we needed it more than ever.
I spoke in my maiden speech about special educational needs, and said that it was probably the No. 1 reason why I got involved in politics. As a kid, I had dyslexia and dyspraxia. I was very fortunate to go to the school that I went to, which had not only the resources but the freedoms to tailor education around me, and all of a sudden I caught up. We need to do more as a country, because no child with special educational needs should be allowed to not achieve their full potential. I have become an associate governor at Sir Bobby Robson School, which is a new special school for those with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. We have another free school for those with language difficulties opening up as well, but we also need better provision in mainstream schools. We need to put more money into special educational needs. We need to do so for two reasons: first, because it is morally the right thing to do; and secondly, because as a society we cannot afford to lose their talents. Those with special educational needs are unconventional thinkers; they can be among the most creative thinkers. Given the right support, they can thrive, and we do not lose their talents, but given the wrong support, they often end up in our criminal justice system. I am pleased that the Education Committee has now launched an inquiry into prison education to look into that issue, among others.
The Orwell bridge, which I bang on about a lot, will hopefully be sorted out in the early new year, and the closures of the bridge that cost the local economy £1 million a day will stop. We have put in our submission for the town deal. We are going for £28 million. We were told it was for up to £25 million, but we thought, “Well, it’s Ipswich—we deserve £28 million”, so we have gone for that.
Another issue that needs sorting is cladding. A huge number of my constituents are leaseholders who have that uncertainty and anxiety hanging over them. I am pleased about the waking watch announcement today, but we need to go further.
I said last year in my maiden speech that it was the greatest thrill of my life to be elected as Member of Parliament for Ipswich. I believe it is the greatest town in this country. It has a football club that has had better days, but hopefully that can turn around soon. Obviously Portman Road will remain open as it is in a tier 2 area. The people of Ipswich are by and large, I think, decent, patriotic, hard-working and straight-speaking. I said to them when I got elected that I would be straight-speaking as well—that I would not dodge away from controversial issues but get in there and speak my mind. Sometimes not all my constituents might agree with what I say, and I might not always deliver what I want to deliver, but I will never be missing in action. I will always be in here, active, talking up the town that I am proud to represent and that I love and that I believe, despite the current challenges, has its best days ahead of it.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you to all my colleagues who have helped me in my first year, and I look forward to the new year.
Let me join others, Mr Deputy Speaker, in wishing you and all parliamentary staff a good and restful Christmas.
This has been an excellent debate. I am becoming a veteran of these events. I was particularly struck by the number of Members who raised international issues, including issues of religious persecution. I, for one, believe that we should always discuss and raise these matters in this House.
A large number of topics were dealt with, some of great importance. We heard about digital exclusion, which we will have to deal with, the fact that Remembrance Day was not quite the occasion that it usually is, and of course Southend’s city status. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) that I am also supportive of this, but I hope that in 2021 we can reinstate flights from Southend to Glasgow. How good would that be? This year there was no mention of the rail service to Southend, so I do not know if it has improved, but perhaps it would be a good 2021 for the good people of Southend if we could reinstate flights from Southend to the centre of the universe.
The debate was of course dominated by covid. A number of hon. Members have said that it is not easy, and it is not. It is not easy for anybody. I was particularly pleased earlier today when the Secretary of State said in answer to my question that it is vital that we deal with the misinformation about the vaccine. We know that people have been deliberately targeted with misinformation, and it is important to deal with that.
Let us hope that the vaccine is rolled out, if for no other reason than to see the tartan army descend on Wembley stadium for the Euro championships and what I am sure will be an easy group game for Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Archie Gemmill. When I listened to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), I was struck by the fact that there are none of those great Scottish players playing for Ipswich any more, like John Wark or George Burley. Perhaps there could be more Scottish signings that will raise Ipswich back to its rightful place in English football.
I am pleased that hon. Members have joined in a tradition, which I think I started, of praising, thanking and congratulating our constituency office staff. I want to thank Dominique, Christina, Greg, Keith, Scott, Tony and the great Roza Salih in the Glasgow South West office. I am quite clear that they are the best constituency office staff in these islands. Every single constituency office has had to deal with unprecedented pressures in the last year, and they have all been a credit not just to hon. Members of this House but to themselves.
I want to thank some constituency organisations for the work that they have done: G53 Together, Govan HELP, the Moogety food project, the Ridgeway Dairy with Drumoyne Community Council, the Trussell Trust and the Turf Youth Project. I particularly thank Feeding Britain, which invested £90,000 in the constituency this year on various projects.
Coming back to covid, there are a number of things that the Government will have to look at, and I hope that they will make permanent the £20 uplift in universal credit. That will help millions of people in this country. I help that they will also look at the recommendations of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions about replacing advances with non-repayable grants. That would help a number of people. It has been sad that a number of deductions—that is, the money that the DWP has been taking back—has increased during the covid crisis. That does not do the Department credit.
As many Members have said, I hope that the Government will find some solution to the 3 million excluded who do not receive Government support. It is important that there are Members across the House who believe that that needs to be done.
A number of hon. Members correctly praised public sector workers for their role during the covid crisis. I will be campaigning this year to ensure that there is no pay freeze for public sector workers. It is morally unjust and economically unsound. When public sector workers get their wages, they spend them in the private sector economy. If we are serious about helping the private sector along, I simply cannot fathom how a public sector pay freeze will help.
We also need to find a solution for the 1950s-born women. I know that hon. Members across the House see that injustice, which needs to be taken away. We need an employment Bill, which the Government have been promising for years, so that we can discuss issues about zero-hours contracts, which are prevalent in the hospitality sector. We need to deal with those issues.
I hope that the Government will start to bring issues to this place. In particular, the new immigration rules should have been brought to this Chamber for debate and discussion, as should the pilot that the Government have put in place for asylum seeker interviews. The Home Office has decided, without any reference to this Chamber, to allow Serco to carry out those interviews.
It would not be a speech from me without touching on one or two constitutional issues—[Laughter.] Just one or two. Today, we have another poll on Scottish independence—the 17th consecutive poll—showing yes ahead and that support for the Union is now at its lowest level. I want to thank every single Government Back Bencher for their part in that campaign.
Of course, other Members have mentioned Brexit. We do not know what kind of Brexit it will be, and it is quite ludicrous that we are going into recess today not knowing whether we are coming back next week or the week after. We are in a position of deal or no deal. I am half expecting Noel Edmonds to occupy the Front Bench with a telephone, seeing what the banker is going to come up with. It really is quite a shameful position. It just leaves me to say this. It is an old song: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I’m sure we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”
I thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate, particularly those who are celebrating their first anniversary. Who would have thought on 12 December 2019 that a year later they would have been through such incredible times? They have been through a baptism of fire. It is hard enough to get to grips with setting up offices and so many other things coming at you. Talk about a confluence of events—not only Brexit, but covid-19. Congratulations to them all.
I thank my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who is unable to be here because he is shielding. He has done some good work on ministerial responses and we hope to publish that shortly.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) talked about a link road and transport. I hope he will get his meeting with the Prime Minister because transport is vital for productivity.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra). I have been trying to reopen Pleck library in Walsall for years and it is sad that the leader of Walsall Council has said that all the libraries should be closed. I find that quite odd.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) said he was a friend of the Deputy Chief Whip’s—that is a good thing to be. He rightly paid tribute to the health service and talked about the businesses and the breweries. I thought he was going to add that he had been on a pub crawl with the Deputy Chief Whip.
Oh he has! His secrets are coming out now. He should have said that in his speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) rightly talked about Grenfell Tower and the cladding issue, which does not seem to be going away.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) said that the highest number of people died this year. It is an incredible figure that we have had to face. As I have said before, every single one of us knows someone who has died as a result of covid. The hon. Gentleman also rightly focused on transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said that sometimes we do not see the effect of the work we do as Members of Parliament. We work for the future. She also focused on the children in her constituency, on their education and on the food that some of them are struggling to get hold of, which we would not expect. She rightly praised the work of UNICEF, despite what was said earlier in the day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) paid tribute to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, health and care workers and other public servants. As he said, we all work for the common good.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) made a good case for a port in her constituency and she told us how important our maritime history is, what we have done as a nation and our island story.
What can we say about the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? He is absolutely delightful. He is an institution. He gave us a great message of hope and love, including a very special prayer, and we thank him for that and wish him well.
I went to Burma with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). She is an incredibly brave woman. She focused on the Human Rights Commission and I want to join her in paying tribute to Benedict Rogers, who has done sterling work on that commission. He is incredibly brave—hon. Members should read his book on Burma and the description of how he was stopped at the airport and sometimes prevented from going in. I do not know how he did it.
We come to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). What can we say? In previous years, he used to go round his constituency and the joke among us all was that he did not need to send Christmas cards because he mentioned everybody. We hope that, come 2022, Southend will be a city. I think this is the start of a letter-writing campaign, and we will support the hon. Gentleman in every way we can.
The hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) mentioned motor homes and lavatories—an interesting combination; he has done well. However, he also mentioned the hospitality industry, which is on its knees and we need to ensure that we do something about it next year. I am sure that the Deputy Chief Whip has got a long note about the hospitality industry.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) was right to mention the high street. As he is a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I am sure there is an inquiry he can have. I feel sure he was describing a statutory nuisance, so I think there is some way he could look at that. I recommend good solicitors such as Leigh Day, but I am not sure the Government like them much. They are very good—they are the greatest for the underdog.
The hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) is right about Royal Mail. Obviously, we have not been able to visit this year. He is also right about community hospitals. Wantage Community Hospital should be reopened. Again, everybody from the health and social care sector should be congratulated. I am sure he has a hotline to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on the birth of Amelia. What a year! We have had some of the most stressful times, but Amelia is here and all good wishes to him and his wife. We will support any attempt for an honour for his constituent Rich Stephenson-Evans, with all the deliveries he has made during covid.
What an incredible story the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) gave us. It is right that we need to focus on special educational needs. I, too, make a plea to the deputy Chief Whip. It is an important area and the hon. Member is proof that you can succeed, no matter what you have, if you have a good education. I am sure his education was under a Labour Government, which made a massive investment in education. [Laughter.] We, too, want to see a deal. We are not sure where we are on whether it is a deal or no deal.
I once again thank all Members for responding to being thrown in at the deep end. I just want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who has a very special event coming up. His wife, Bridie, is hopefully giving birth, so we might not see him after this, or he might be here because we might have to vote on something before 2021, but I want to thank him for casting all those hundreds of proxy votes.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I had my opportunity to thank everyone earlier. May I wish you, and everyone in this House, a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In response to my point of order earlier this afternoon about the return of schools in January, Madam Deputy Speaker reminded us that Mr Speaker expects statements from Ministers to be brought first to this House. At 2.20 pm or thereabouts, the Department for Education issued a press release on schools’ return, yet it took until nearly 4.30 pm for a written ministerial statement to be laid before the House. Parents, teachers and school leaders cannot possibly plan for January in the face of this Government chaos. Mr Deputy Speaker, with the House due to rise for the Christmas recess in just a very few minutes, how can right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to question Ministers about what on earth is happening?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order and her forward notice of it. The Government have laid written ministerial statements in both Houses on the subject this afternoon. However, I am sure that Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Lady has had to say. We are approaching the time of new year resolutions and I can think of one for those on the Government Benches straightaway on that matter, so I am extremely grateful to her for that.
We now move to—as we are giving full titles—the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am just wondering whether, with that amazing tie that I have been admiring for the last hour, some of the coffers from the Household have gone on it. I think we are just about to be told. I call Stuart Andrew.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not going comment on the tie or where it may have come from.
It is always a pleasure to take part in these debates. We have heard from colleagues from across the House raising all sorts of issues whether they be international, national or local. Every one of them has clearly been heartfelt and I thank them for their contributions. I, too, want to pay tribute to those Members who are new to this House. It is always difficult getting used to this place, but in this difficult year it really has been a challenge. I think they have, on all sides of the House—I mean this sincerely—done that with great professionalism. I hope that next year we can get back to some sort of normality, so that they can enjoy the rest of what this House is really like.
I would like to comment on a couple of issues that were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned that he wants a meeting with the Prime Minister. I am not going to commit to putting a slot in the Prime Minister’s diary, but I will certainly make reference to that and inform my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) quite rightly spoke about libraries and paid tribute to them. I have been quite impressed myself; I have a community library in Rawdon in my own constituency, which is now fully supported by volunteers who do tremendous amounts of work. Of course, this is a good time of year to get children in particular looking at books, with books such as “Cinderella”, “Dick Whittington”, “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”—all the panto things that we can encourage them to start reading.
I am going to come on to my hon. Friend—or he was —the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes). He gave a very long list of things he wants. Father Christmas at the moment is preparing all his reindeer—Prancer, Dasher, Rudolph, Dancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen—to supply gifts to the children of this planet for their good behaviour; all I can say to my hon. Friend is that, if he carries on behaving well, he may be lucky in getting some of those gifts that he wants for his constituency.
However, my hon. Friend is right to raise some important issues. We have invested more than £280 billion in this very difficult year to support businesses up and down the country. It has been hugely challenging. He was right to raise the levelling-up fund, and I can assure him that it will be for all parts of the country. There is £4 billion there that is part of the wider £600 billion of infrastructure funding that we will be doing over the next five years.
My hon. Friend also quite rightly mentioned independent lifeboats. We have become dependent on charities in many walks of life and they do tremendous amounts of work. I pay tribute to all of them and the Government are doing what they can to help.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) raised the very important issue of cladding. I do not think any of us will ever forget the horrific scenes we saw at Grenfell. I know that Ministers are constantly working on that; 80% of the dangerous cladding has been removed, but there is more to do, and I will certainly make sure that that is raised with my ministerial colleagues.
Although I did not make a speech in this debate, I enjoyed the others greatly and I did make a short intervention. Will my hon. Friend take back to the Government the dangers of allowing free rein to graft extra top floors on to high-rise blocks with limited planning requirements? I have personal experience, as I said, and it is a disaster in the making. We should not be encouraging it.
I will certainly make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is made aware of those concerns. I know that planning is an issue that we will be discussing a lot over the coming months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) quite rightly mentioned the small shops. I hope that, as we come out of the pandemic, there will be a real opportunity for many of our small town centres. Of course, the town centre fund will help us to achieve that. I am also glad that he mentioned the important issue of domestic violence; I think the Domestic Abuse Bill is one of the best things we have done in this Parliament for some time.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned children having food. I will say clearly that I do not think there is anybody in this House who does not want to see our children have food—I was in receipt of free school meals myself, so I know how challenging it can be for families—but how we achieve that is sometimes an area of debate. That is why this Government are trying to do that through a targeted approach, so that the neediest children receive that help, and we will continue to do so.
The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), like many others, thanked our voluntary groups and the many key workers who have worked incredibly hard to ensure that all the services run as best they can in these challenging times. I must say that I dispute his call for us to look at the Christmas rules again; personal responsibility will allow us and our families to have some time together in what has been a very difficult year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) reminded me a little of Queen Elizabeth I, who was at Tilbury fort, and I can imagine that my hon. Friend will be rallying the troops to ensure that her bid for a freeport is successful. From listening to the impressive amount of work that the partnership has been doing, I hope that their bid will be looked at with great interest by Ministers. Bidding closes on 5 February, so we will wait and see. I am sure she will be popping the champagne. [Interruption.] I cannot give that commitment, but let us hope she will be popping the champagne—that is how I had better put it.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is, as always, the most courteous man. He appears in every debate that happens, whether here or in Westminster Hall. I was somewhat surprised once when I was leading a debate on HS2 to see him walking in, as I was thinking, “How on earth are we going to connect London to Leeds and then across to Northern Ireland?” However, he managed to get a perfect intervention in. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the serious human rights issues and, of course, what is going on in China. It is absolutely right, as was mentioned, that we raise these issues here. The Government are working with all our international partners to ensure that we speak up where there are human rights abuses.
Now I come on to the masterclass from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). If I were to try to answer everything he raised, we would be here until new year’s eve. However, I will ensure that, as he wanted, he gets a reply to the letter he sent. He raised very important issues, including, of course, the city status one. My little briefing note here may give him some cause for an opportunity, as it says, “The Cabinet Office continues to explore whether there is an appropriate royal occasion on which to hold a city status competition.” We all know that there is one coming, so let us see whether he is finally successful. I have no idea what he will talk about afterwards if that ever happens.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) certainly showed what a busy year he has had, and, yes, I was intrigued by the combination of motor homes, tax relief and public toilets. I am glad that he mentioned the private Members’ Bills, and I want to thank him for the support he gave to our colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) with her private Member’s Bill. I am her Whip and I know that she was extremely grateful for that support. He also mentioned dull Christmas lights. I can tell him that we had the same problem in my constituency, but through a lot of hard work from community volunteers we have been able to change a lot of the town. The only problem I would warn him about is that this results in your being up ladders in the freezing cold of November, but it is worth doing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) raised the serious issue of landfill in his constituency. Clearly, this is not a very pleasant experience for those residents, and I will raise the matter with my colleagues in the relevant Department. I say to the company involved that it really should engage. I think we can all say that companies that engage effectively with our communities certainly get a better response.
I am running out of time so I had better finish by saying that my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (David Johnston), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) all gave great speeches about their constituencies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North on the birth of Amelia. I am also glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich raised the issue of special educational needs, because I have always believed it is an important area where we can get the very best opportunities for everybody.
I want to finish by wishing the whole House a very happy Christmas. Happy Christmas to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to Mr Speaker and to the other Deputy Speakers. On behalf of the whole House, we would like to thank all Members, the peers, the staff of the House, civil servants, security, cleaners, broadcasting, Hansard, catering and the doorkeepers, who always keep us in order—mainly. They have been helping to keep Parliament working safely during what has been an incredibly difficult time in this pandemic. We also thank Members’ staff, who have sometimes had to face a lot of abuse—that is just not on, and they do so with such good grace. We have done a lot in this pandemic: 188 Divisions have happened; and 190 statutory instruments have been passed since March. That is thanks to everybody who has worked so hard. So I wish everybody a very happy Christmas, and let us hope for a much better new year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
On behalf of Mr Speaker and his team, I would like to thank everybody Stuart just mentioned, particularly the technicians, who have worked incredible miracles to ensure that the democracy we have here has been able to operate. It has been an awful year, but it has created angels and heroes, and we salute them, topped by the national health service and the scientists who have created a vaccine, which has given us all so much hope that 2021 will be a much better year. I will stop short of saying, “all I want for Christmas is you”—I am not going to ask for miracles—but I do know that all I want for the new year is that everyone who needs a jab gets one, in order that we can get our country and the world back to where we were. Merry Christmas everybody, and a happy new year.