Let us take a moment to remember that this debate was always the point in the parliamentary calendar when our late colleague Sir David Amess would make one of his amazing speeches. He would cover 10, 12 or more different topics in about four or five minutes. He would be right there in his place, and we would all think, “Oh, no—what’s he going to say next? How many times will he manage to mention his constituency?” But his perseverance prevailed eventually, making his beloved town of Southend a city. On all the matters that he raised, year after year after year, he was listened to. He made his mark. It is very good for us to remember him for a moment.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
Having moved the motion on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee, I will start by paying tribute—as you did, Madam Deputy Speaker—to the late Sir David. I think the real problem was for the person replying to the debate, who had to try to give an answer to the 20-odd items that he had raised, as well as everyone else’s. We remember Sir David at this time. The debates cannot be the same without him, but as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, we have urged on behalf of the Committee that the summer recess Adjournment debate be titled the Sir David Amess Adjournment debate. We hope that we will not need a resolution of the House to make that our practice.
The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), would have led this debate, but unfortunately he was taken ill this morning and has had to return home. On behalf of the whole House, I wish him well for a speedy recovery and some time off over Easter.
Before the House rises for the recess, I wish to raise a series of points. First, we are already dealing with the terrible situation in Ukraine and with Ukrainian refugees, but we should not forget that we are still dealing, as I understand it, with 12,000 Afghan refugees who are still in hotels in this country and have not been resettled. Most of them are on a six-month leave-to-remain visa. Those visas will expire very soon, but we have not received updates from the Home Office. In my constituency, 656 households have relatives who are seeking to escape from Afghanistan or have arrived here. They are all in a position of complete uncertainty about their future.
The response that my office is getting from the Home Office is “We are processing applications as soon as we can.” The responses lack clarity. I urge the Leader of the House: we need some clarity on what will happen to those Afghan citizens. Quite rightly, we are all concentrating on the Ukrainians at the moment, but we must not forget those who are here already.
At business questions today, I raised a situation relating to Harrow Council, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the council’s responses to my requests to resolve cases. As we all know, MPs have no control or executive powers over councils, but we constantly raise matters with them about items of business for our constituents. Harrow Council is incredibly slow in resolving cases. We now have many cases that have been unresolved for more than a year; earlier today I raised a constituent’s case that has not had a response for 19 months. It is unacceptable in the extreme that local authorities are in that position.
Equally, my constituents face frustrations with accessibility. Harrow Council and perhaps other councils have increasingly moved from answering the telephone to doing things online. Not everyone has online facilities, but the council refuses point blank to answer the telephone at all. That leaves many of my constituents frustrated and unable to get service.
I also wish to raise the issue of safety at night in Harrow. Now that the covid restrictions have ended, more people are commuting—coming into central London for work purposes, and then returning home. Of course the nights will get shorter and the days will get longer, but when women, in particular, are returning home after dark, they experience real fear owing to the distance they have to walk from stations to their homes and the risks they are running. Many residents have contacted me about this. I am pleased to say that the Metropolitan police are taking action to provide women with escorts, if required, to accompany them from stations to places of safety. That is a welcome move; we often criticise the Metropolitan police, but I think we should congratulate them on this particular initiative. Nevertheless, the matter is clearly of great concern.
Many private landlords, certainly in my constituency, are raising rents exponentially, terminating long-term contracts and leases and then converting their properties into flats or houses in multiple occupation. None of them is being registered as a house in multiple occupation. Because there is less scrutiny of the private sector, constituents are being left either homeless or completely out of pocket. This is an outrage, in my view. The Government need to produce the renters’ reform Bill that has been promised, and I trust that it will be in the Queen’s Speech and will be implemented very soon. In this context, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In my constituency, mandatory water meters are being rolled out by the local water company, Affinity Water. Many of my constituents fear that bills will rise as a result, rather than being based on water rates. The company is installing the meters without consulting people or even asking for consent. This is a compulsory process, and is, I believe, meeting with considerable resistance.
I suspect that other Members on both sides of the House are, like me, receiving complaints from constituents about the lack of face-to-face appointments to see general practitioners. This, in my constituency, has continued for far too long. Obviously, under covid restrictions there was a reason for people to speak to their GPs either on the telephone or virtually, and, indeed, I think there are advantages in a telephone conversation between patient and GP to ensure that the GP routes the patient to the right service, but once the patient has been routed to that service, a face-to-face appointment will clearly be necessary. Most of the conditions that cause people to want to see their GP—or a medical professional—require proper examination, but that is not happening in my constituency, and I suspect that, despite efforts from the Health Secretary, they are not happening in other parts of the country.
Veterans of these debates will know that I never let the opportunity pass without mentioning Stanmore station. The Mayor of London—who does nothing much at all times—has submitted a planning application, over the heads of the people of Stanmore, to build multi-storey high-density flats on the car park, thus drastically reducing the number of parking spaces available. Given that Stanmore station is the terminus of the Jubilee line and is therefore often considered to be the car park for Wembley stadium, this is an outrageous measure. I must congratulate Harrow Council’s planning committee, which rejected the Mayor’s planning application—on very good grounds, although it could have gone a bit further in terms of grounds for its rejection. What did the Mayor do? He called the planning application in for him to consider. The Mayor of London is marking his own homework. I wonder which way his decision will go.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ensure that if the Mayor does grant his own planning application, over the heads of the members of Harrow Council’s planning committee, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will call it in and make sure it is dealt with properly, effectively, and in line with what local people want to see.
The key point is that if the car park is radically reduced, people will be deterred from using public transport. Instead of driving to the station, parking and then using public transport, they will drive much further into London. So it completely defeats the objective. As I have said, Stanmore is the car park for Wembley stadium on event days, and that car park is full every day of the week at the moment.
We also have a proposal for high-density, multi-storey flats on Stanmore Broadway, which is raising some interesting responses from residents. Planning permission was given for a smaller development some 10 years ago and never implemented, but this is now a very high-density proposal indeed. Harrow councillors, the Stanmore Society and the development firm are holding consultation meetings and, to be fair to the developers, they are doing a good job of consulting residents and users of the shops to ensure that whatever scheme eventually gets submitted as a proper planning application, it will be in keeping with their concerns.
Another issue that is frequently raised with me is the do-nothing Mayor of London’s constant attacks on motorists. The latest wheeze is the ultra low emission zone expansion scheme. It will extend to the whole of the Greater London area, beyond the north and south circular roads, and have a dramatic impact on poorer people and those who run small businesses who cannot afford the most modern vehicles. What we need to understand is that there is a shortage of new cars because of the worldwide shortage of semiconductors. This has led to very high prices for second-hand vehicles, and fuel prices have already rocketed. This damages the people who have to travel to do their business. It is all very well talking about having transport links to central London, but this involves people travelling around London, which is becoming more difficult, particularly for people who have to travel with tools and other such facilities. It is an outrage that this extension is being implemented.
The Mayor was of course completely silent when his paymasters, the RMT, went on strike and brought London transport to a halt. He is very vocal when attacking motorists, but makes no comment on that kind of inconvenience to the travelling public. The issue here is that the consultation will commence in May, after the local elections, and run for 10 weeks. I urge everyone in London to respond to this consultation by saying that they do not want the extension and that it is an outrage that should not be followed through.
Finally, I have to raise an issue that some of us were debating yesterday: getting England to be smoke-free by 2030. Currently, one in seven people smoke, and the numbers are still going down. That is good news—in 1971, it was 50%—but we still have a long way to go to get to a smoke-free England. The worst aspect of this is that 280 children take up smoking every day in England, of whom only a third will manage to quit in their lifetime and another third of whom will die from a smoking-related disease. That is why I strongly support the age of sale being raised. When it was raised from 18 to 21 in the United States, smoking rates decreased by nearly a third among 18 to 20-year-olds.
The legislation proposed by the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health would raise the smoking age from 18 to 21 for legal sale. That proposal is supported by the vast majority of the adult population in this country, including more than 50% of 18 to 24-year-olds themselves. I would also urge the Government to consider the levy that we have proposed, which we debated yesterday. Implementing such a levy on the profits of the big tobacco companies would raise £700 million. They can well afford it, and that money could be directed into smoking cessation services and making this country healthier.
In closing, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff and all colleagues a very happy Easter and a good break. I know that some people out there think it is holiday, but for the next two weeks I shall be teaching no fewer than 16 work experience students what it is like to be a hard-working MP, as we all are, in my constituency and giving them the opportunity to think about whether they want to pursue it as a career, although they may be a bit wiser than that after they have spent two weeks with me.
Given how many Members are standing, I can advise the House that I am not going to put on a time limit because I hope that we can manage without one. However, if people speak for more than seven or eight minutes, not only will they lose the attention of the House—[Laughter] I think it is time that somebody actually told the truth—but they will also prevent their colleagues from having an equal opportunity to air the matters that are important in their constituency. That is just guidance, which I am sure will be kept in mind by Siobhan McDonagh.
It certainly will, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I have one single very important issue to bring to the attention of the House and the Leader of the House—a tragic case of dangerous driving. I also want to raise a clear gap in the law that I hope he will agree it is both easy and essential for the Government to change.
In the early hours of Christmas morning, two policemen knocked on my constituent Debbie’s door. A 3 am visit from the emergency services was their worrying signal that something bad had happened, but for Debbie, Michael, Donna and all the Clack family, the news was their very worst nightmare.
Debbie’s daughter, Lillie, had been in a car whose intoxicated driver had refused to slow or stop for the police. The car had careered into a tree, leading to the hospitalisation of Lillie Clack and the injury of several others in the car. Devastatingly, Lillie died just a few days later, in the afternoon of 28 December. For Lillie’s family, their lives have changed forever. Nothing will bring her home.
But if the grief of a lost daughter, sister and niece was not enough, the time since has brought further pain to the Clack family, and it is because of a gap in the law. As it stands, there is nothing to prevent someone charged with dangerous driving, even in this situation, where a young woman has lost her life, from continuing to drive until their case gets to court and they are found guilty. For families waiting years for a trial, their unimaginable grief is worsened by the knowledge that the driver responsible for the death of their loved one can legally jump back in their car and get back on to the roads.
The Clack family are campaigning for anyone who causes death while driving to have their licence suspended immediately. Their Change.org petition already has tens of thousands of supportive signatures, and I would like to quote from the family’s petition directly.
Order. Before the hon. Lady continues with what is a heartbreaking story—all our hearts go out to the family in this awful tragedy—I am sure she will give consideration to sub judice rules, and that if this is a matter that has yet to come before the courts, she will be very careful to anonymise the case to which she is referring.
I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there will be no reference to those involved in the particular case or to anyone who will potentially be charged.
The petition states:
“The law needs to change! If it doesn’t, people will continue to die and families will continue to endure the torment and torture after losing a loved one.
We will never get Lillie back and the experience so far can’t be changed but we will fight to endeavour that no other family has to go through the hell that comes after a loved one has been killed by a driver that made a choice to drive recklessly and dangerously!”
Will the Leader of the House indicate in his closing remarks whether he agrees with me and the Clack family that there is a clear and rectifiable gap in the law? If that is the case, will he take this issue up with the relevant Minister to report back?
Sadly, this is not the only painful experience that the family has had to face since Lillie’s death. Around a dozen videos have been uploaded anonymously to YouTube, featuring Lillie’s name, photograph and details of her death. The purpose of the videos is unclear, other than to cause further pain to the family. My office has repeatedly been in contact with YouTube to call for the videos to be taken down. Although progress is finally being made, it has taken weeks of discussion and delay. It seems the threshold for removing harmful content is, appallingly, higher than the trolling of a mourning family.
My heart goes out to the Clack family for the pain that they have suffered these past three months. I hope the Leader of the House will agree that changing the dangerous driving law is unquestionably the right thing to do. I know his assurance that he will take this forward will be of considerable comfort to a grieving family.
I want to raise two local issues relating to my Congleton constituency—one has wider implications—and one international issue.
First, my constituent Oliver Niblett, of the small family building business Niblett Homes Ltd of Middlewich, has written to me
“on behalf of my company and all small-scale property developers experiencing the same frustrations…with local authority planning departments”.
The length of time it takes for an application to proceed through the planning process is, to use his words, “almost unbearable”. He says the system effectively penalises small developers:
“Large building companies can better manage these delays because they have the funds to bank land and apply for permission well in advance, however small bespoke developers such as ourselves do not have that luxury and are facing a bleak future.”
Indeed, he says, constant delays are
“putting small companies out of business.”
Mr Niblett’s company was founded by his father, and Oliver Niblett now works in it with his brother. The financial pressures on such a business, which cannot afford to invest for a long time the huge sum required even for one plot of land on which to build a house—it can take 12 months from purchase to the beginning of development—are making life extremely difficult for the family. He tells me:
“It is now taking a minimum of 4 months before a planning application is even assigned to a case officer for consideration.”
Until a planning application is assigned—that is, before it is considered live—it is virtually impossible to speak to anyone at the council about it. If the case is assigned, it is at least six months before permission is granted. If someone has the misfortune to submit the wrong form or make an error, they can be put to the back of the queue and be looking at another four-month wait after resubmission.
A current application has caused Mr Niblett to contact me. This was not even a new application; his family business had bought a house with existing planning permission, but in order to modify that permission, the business was required by the council to put in a whole new application. The key concerns he raises are, first, that
“delays and extensions make it impossible to plan our work schedule”;
“unnecessary bureaucracy when wanting to amend an existing application”;
“prioritisation of larger developments (who are more able to tolerate delays than smaller projects)”;
fourthly, that the complaints process only leads people into more bureaucracy; and, fifthly, the way that applicants are treated by council officers,
“the likes of which would not be tolerated in the private sector.”
Mr Niblett is fully aware that this issue does not relate exclusively to our local authority of Cheshire East Council. I have contacted it and I hope that my raising his case today will prompt it to ensure that he receives his decision without further delay. After considerable delay, that decision was due on 29 March, although he tells me that as of yesterday he had not heard about it. The council has responded to me about these concerns by saying,
“the planning system faces a real challenge in terms of the availability of skilled workers in the sector and the high levels of demand placed on the system…the Council has not been able to turnover the same volume of applications as it was pre-pandemic…due to…staffing issues, procedural changes enforced because of working from home”—
I sincerely hope that has now changed—
“and a surge in planning applications submissions…
To conclude…it is advocated by many professionals working in the sector that the key to improvements nationally is to support, skill and resource the planning system”.
I hope that Ministers will take account of that, because businesses such as Niblett Homes, which are founded, run and worked in by people who live locally, are, it goes without saying, the lifeblood of constituencies such as mine.
The second issue I wish to raise relates to Astbury Place in Congleton and, in particular, the bridge into Congleton park. This is a long-standing issue, but it is still unresolved, and I have been asked to raise it by a resident, Neil Taylor. He informs me that construction of a bridge from this relatively new development, although it has now been standing several years, into Congleton park,
“has been opposed by the majority of residents for several years. The developer has offered money in lieu of the bridge to fund another project within the town which would provide a greater benefit to a much larger group within the wider community.”
That refers to a pedestrian crossing on Brook Street. Mr Taylor has carried out a local survey, which he has asked me to speak about. He has calculated that 63 properties are “in scope” in the Astbury Place community, although one was unoccupied and so he surveyed 62. He asked how many occupants would like the pedestrian crossing. He received 56 responses, with 46 supporting the crossing in lieu of the bridge, which is some 82%. Those in eight properties would rather still have the bridge and two other respondents did not express a view. Mr Taylor fully accepts that there are those who would rather have the bridge and who have very strong feelings about this. Indeed, to put matters fairly on the record, I must say that I have received correspondence from residents to that effect. However, Mr Taylor has asked me to point out that this has now gone on for considerable time. He has lived there for more than seven years, and the section 106 agreement was signed more than 10 years ago. He tells me that over the years a number of people who initially preferred a bridge would now rather have the road crossing. Not having the bridge does not change anything today, as people there have lived without it for so long. I asked him what he would like me to achieve through highlighting this today. He told me that residents would like an in-person conversation with someone from Cheshire East Council who is willing to listen to them. He hoped therefore that even at this point in time a dialogue could be arranged, bearing in mind the figures that he has established representing what he believes is the majority view. I hope that that will now be the case.
Finally, I wish to raise an issue that comes from a considerable distance away, from Pakistan. On 21 March, an 18-year-old Hindu girl, Pooja Kumari, was shot dead in Sindh province. According to media reports, the alleged killer wanted to convert Pooja to Islam and marry her. When she refused, the alleged killer attempted to abduct her and, following a struggle, shot her. Local police arrested the alleged killer on 22 March. I would like to express my condolences to Pooja’s family. Tragically, the abduction of young girls in Pakistan for forced marriage and forced conversion is far too common, and it is affecting not only Hindus such as Pooja, but Christians and Sikhs. Some estimates put the number affected at as many as 1,000 girls a year. This is simply unacceptable. We must call this out more strongly, and challenge it to see change. I hope that is one outcome that will come out of the conference to he held here in London in July on freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, when we will gather together faith leaders and representatives, civil society activists and Government Ministers from countries around the world, not only to discuss freedom of religion or belief concerns, but, I hope, to develop practical solutions to address these concerns.
Alongside the conference, we are planning a FORB fringe—largely organised through the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief—at which around 100 side events will take place to highlight FORB concerns. Having worked internationally as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief for more than a year, I am proud that the all-party parliamentary group now has 157 members. It is a cross-party group the likes of which does not exist anywhere else in the world. It is a tribute to parliamentarians here and the way they have raised freedom of religion or belief and put it on the international agenda.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I fully endorse your proposal, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the summer Adjournment debate should be known as the David Amess Adjournment debate. The speed with which he described Southend means that whenever I go there I simply run to keep up with the sites that he used to describe to us. It would be nice to remember him in that way.
I wish to speak about the refugee crisis around the world and offer some thoughts on where it might come to. As we go into the Easter Adjournment, around 70 million people around the world are refugees. They are refugees from wars, famine, human rights abuse and poverty, and refugees fleeing intolerance in their societies. They are all people who want to survive and contribute to the world. They are often treated brutally wherever they try to escape to. Indeed, on our own continent, Europe, many are dying in the Mediterranean and, sadly, some are dying in the English channel trying to get to this country. Such injustice has to be compared with the rhetoric with which we claim to be supportive and always welcoming of refugees—we are not and we have not been.
I totally and absolutely condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the bombing of civilian targets and the killing of people, and I have every sympathy for all those who have had to flee from Ukraine to try to get to a place of safety. I absolutely welcome the way in which people in this country—apparently 200,000 of them—have offered space in their own homes to refugees from Ukraine, and the fact that those who come here will be able to stay here, will get papers immediately and will get the right to work. I absolutely welcome and support all that. Indeed, in my constituency and borough, many people are taking part in fundraising efforts to assist Ukrainian people. There obviously needs to be an urgent ceasefire, a withdrawal of forces and a long-term settlement that brings about peace and security for people in the whole region. There must also be a recognition of the bravery of many peace campaigners in Russia who have opposed the war and are now in prison as a result. All wars end in a peace process, and I hope we can get to that point much more quickly.
I have to raise the uncomfortable truth of the contrast between the way Ukrainian refugees are supported by our media and by many politicians and people in our society, and the way refugees from other conflicts are not treated in the same way. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) correctly pointed out that Afghan refugees are still waiting. Many of them have been waiting for months and months just to get papers to get somewhere to live so that they can contribute to and work in our society.
My right hon. Friend raises a critical point. Does he agree that it is about time the Home Office looked at some of the restrictions on family members joining? They are still being asked to take the English language test. For a woman in Afghanistan, trying to do that under the Taliban is very challenging.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is totally correct. In her constituency and mine, there are people who have come from the most awful situations and wars around the world. They want to work and contribute—they are often very experienced and qualified—but are just languishing day in, day out in unsatisfactory and expensive temporary accommodation, unable to contribute to our health service, education service and so many other things. It is a crying shame and a crying waste.
There are victims of other wars in which we as a country have been involved. The war in Iraq created many refugees. The constant bombing in Palestine by Israel’s occupying forces also creates refugees in that region, in Libya and around the world. In Yemen, which is now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, there has been constant bombing for a very long time by Saudi forces, which are armed and supplied by Britain. If we are serious about peace in the world and serious about these issues, we must question our own policies and our own activities. It is a bit strange when our Prime Minister quite rightly condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and then, at the same time, asks Saudi Arabia to supply us with more oil, because we are not buying oil or gas from Russia—we did not buy that much gas from Russia anyway—and asks it to co-operate. Lewis Hamilton and others have done more for human rights in Saudi Arabia than the British Government by simply speaking out against the human rights abuses that exist there. We must be consistent and clear in what we do—consistent and clear on the issue of human rights whether or not there is, as a result, an economic difficulty or cost.
None of these wars has happened by accident. I have mentioned a number, but there are many more around the world. This is also about the policies that led to them. A few days ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and I had an interesting meeting with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national, who was taken to Guantanamo Bay. He suffered grievously there—waterboarding, torture, isolation, sleep deprivation, bright lights, loud music and everything else—for years. I was amazed by how rational he was in his discussions and observations of what had gone on there. He got out and is now teaching people about the dangers of it. He works in the Netherlands and other places to draw attention to it and is a writer of plays and so on. We have to ask ourselves how an innocent man ended up in Guantanamo Bay, other than through the atmosphere created by the war on terror by George Bush and others before 2003. Then we have to ask ourselves about how we get to the truth of these matters, and this is what I want to conclude with. The truth about these matters is that there was a long-term plan by the United States and others to invade Iraq through the war on terror—we can remember the axis of evil speech by George Bush in 2002.
There was also one journalist who told the world the truth about all this. Julian Assange revealed the truth about US matters, about what it was doing, about the war in Iraq, about Afghanistan and about the treatment of people. He revealed the truth. He will go down in history as a journalist who exposed what was going on, in the same way that others exposed what German rearmament was about in the 1930s, and human rights abuses in other places around the world, including in the Vietnam war, the Afghan war—all the Afghan wars for that matter—and others. Yet, he is in Belmarsh, a maximum security prison in this country, just a few miles from this House, and is not in a good physical state. Anybody in Belmarsh, particularly those who are not guilty of anything, will not be in a good physical state. Obviously, the court cases have gone on. At the moment, there are no legal processes going on, which is why I am able to bring this subject up in the House. I just ask for a sense of understanding of what Julian Assange has contributed to the world in trying to bring truth to power about what has actually happened. I would hope that this House would recognise that those who expose injustices and abuse are eventually remembered and recognised.
I will give a parallel: an unknown shipping clerk in Liverpool, E.D. Morel, observed things that were going back and forth from what was then the Belgian Congo in the late 19th and early 20th century. He started to investigate the appalling abuses of human rights in the Congo. He was vilified and attacked for doing so, but he persevered and prevailed. Eventually, he came to this House, becoming a Member and a Minister and so on. He exposed the truth and eventually saved lives in the Congo.
That tradition of people speaking out against abuses of human rights and injustice when they find them, whatever the consequences for themselves, is something we should revere, welcome and support. We should not allow Julian Assange to be confined to prison in this country and possibly removed to the United States, where he would face a lifetime sentence—or even several lifetime sentences, in the ridiculousness of some of their legal decisions—and never see the light of day or be able to write again.
We need to think very carefully about what freedom of speech is. If we do not defend those who defend the right to know, and ensure that we get the right to know, we demean ourselves in the process. I hope that over Easter people will reflect on that, and our Ministers in the Home Office and other Departments will think for a moment about the consequences of denying freedom to somebody who has ensured that there is at least an understanding of how some of these atrocious wars and abuses of human rights came about.
On 1 July 2009, the Defence Secretary announced in this Chamber that recognised next of kin of service personnel killed on operations would qualify for a commemorative emblem called the Elizabeth Cross. That cross is made of silver and is about the size of a military cross—a gallantry award—which my own father was given in 1955 in Aden. It comes in a large form, about two inches square, and has a miniature too. It is accompanied by a scroll, signed by Her Majesty, bearing the name of the person who lost their life in the service of our country.
Everyone I know who has been given that badge wears it with huge pride. I—and we all—hope that it is of some, albeit limited, comfort to them. Personally, I have been involved in the awarding of the Elizabeth Cross to eight family members of soldiers who died while under my command. However, it does not make sense to me that those who protect us in non-military uniforms, such as the police, prison, fire and ambulance services, should not have a similar arrangement for their own next of kin if they are killed in the line of duty. I think they should, and so do many of us in this place.
Within 100 metres of this Chamber, our own Police Constable Keith Palmer, George Medal, was killed in New Palace Yard on 22 March 2017. He had a wife and children, and I think Mrs Palmer would qualify for such an award. All told, I understand the police services of our country have lost several hundred officers killed in the pursuit of their duty since the second world war—in other words, not that many. I gather, too, that between 1986 and 2013, the last year for which I could get figures, 26 firefighters were killed attending fires in the United Kingdom. Most of them, of course, had close loved ones, so how about an award similar to the Elizabeth Cross for the blue light services?
By blue light services, I mean the police, prison officers, and fire and ambulance services, in the first instance, but the award might be expanded to include the coastguard and other organisations that save people, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, as well as mountain and mine rescue teams. The award could be given to recognised next of kin with similar criteria to that necessary for the award of the Elizabeth Cross—in other words, the closest loved ones of those that have been killed.
I suggest that if this idea were to be taken up, the award should be of the same quality as the armed forces’ Elizabeth Cross, which is somewhat splendid and much prized by those that wear it. The cross—please make it a cross, not a medal; a cross is so much more distinctive—would look good in silver, designed along equivalent lines to those given to the next of kin of armed forces personnel. In short, it must stand out as special, and so it should be. Surely the next of kin of blue light service personnel who die protecting us are just as deserving as armed forces personnel who die for the same reason. I believe that at this time, and with the permission of Her Majesty the Queen, the award might be called the Prince Philip Cross.
I have been campaigning for this for some time now. I have previously raised the idea in the House and I do not apologise for doing so again. Last night, I told my good friend the Crime and Policing Minister that I was going to raise the matter once more. The Minister encouraged me and repeated what he had said before—that he fully supports the idea. I am now looking at the Leader of the House, who is writing, “This is a really good idea.” [Laughter.] He has that quizzical smile on his face. Based on what I gather about the institution of the Elizabeth Cross in 2009, it might not even need legislation, just a ministerial decision at the right level. Would it not be appropriate to include the establishment of such an award for the next of kin of blue light service personnel killed in the line of duty, protecting us, in the Queen’s Speech? Do I make my point, Leader of the House? He nods.
Before we rise for the recess, I would like to raise three outstanding issues important to my constituents.
One of the things I will be doing over the recess is going for a walk along the River Chess—one of the chalk streams located in my constituency. There are fewer than 300 chalk streams in the world, and 85% of them can be found here in England. In Chesham and Amersham we are lucky to have two—the Misbourne and the Chess. Neither currently has a “good” ecological status. These rivers, along with the rest of England’s chalk streams, are under severe threat from a combination of over-abstraction, pollution, and other forms of environmental damage. At the most water-stressed times of year, the flow of the River Chess is at 41% below natural, and in places the Misbourne does not flow at all.
It is clear to me that these special rivers need heightened protections so that we do not lose them and the array of animal and plant wildlife that rely on them. In October last year, the Catchment Based Approach’s chalk stream restoration strategy was published. The Government have previously stated their commitment to protecting chalk streams and welcomed this strategy. I therefore urge them to look at its key recommendation—a call for an overarching level of protection and priority status for chalk streams. Such a designation would inject energy and investment into the protection of chalk streams, and I hope the Government will look at introducing legislation to enact it. I hope that might also afford additional considerations in the planning of major infrastructure projects likely to damage chalk streams.
The second issue I wish to raise is the further threat facing my local chalk streams from the construction of HS2. As I speak, two tunnel-boring machines are eating their way through the Chilterns, demolishing the chalk aquifer below as they go. I have previously raised my concerns about the loss of bentonite into the aquifer. This is just one example where it has been made clear that HS2 is being constructed with a complete lack of consideration for the environments it is destroying and people it is impacting.
I note that the company’s community engagement strategy, last updated in October, is titled “Respecting People, Respecting Places”. It seems that HS2 Ltd and its contractors are doing neither. Just before Christmas, HS2 Ltd presented some of my constituents with the gift of a notice of entry declaring that it would be entering their homes to install movement monitoring apparatus. I am sure Members can imagine how distressing it was when my constituents were then unable to contact HS2 Ltd for weeks to understand what that meant in practice.
Separately, a parish council was shocked to learn that its local children’s play area and duck pond were subject to a notice of temporary possession. It was later clarified that that was just a precaution, but it is precisely this lack of clarity in communications that causes unnecessary distress. HS2 Ltd is failing to communicate transparently, exacerbating the already strained relationship with communities, who feel they are having this project imposed on them. HS2 Ltd is treating its interactions with people and the environment like a tick-box exercise, doing no more than meeting minimum requirements. I hope that the Government will be able to exercise some influence over it and encourage it to meet not just the letter, but the spirit of the commitments it made to those along the line of the route.
I will close by mentioning the astounding generosity of the people of Chesham and Amersham. Since the crisis in Ukraine began, I have received an outpouring of emails from constituents asking how they can help. Some have more personal links and have been looking for my help in bringing family fleeing Ukraine to their homes in Buckinghamshire. I am pleased to share that some of these families have been safely reunited. Unfortunately, others are still stranded in Ukraine or bordering countries. One constituent of mine flew to Romania on 7 March to join his Ukrainian sister-in-law and nephews, who had fled their home country. After applying for their visas on 10 March, I am sorry to say that due to a number of delays in processing their applications, three weeks later they are still stuck there. I appreciate the huge amount of pressure currently on the Home Office and those helping, and I understand the safeguarding issues when it comes to children, but I am disappointed that it is taking so long. That is not an isolated case, and the third thing I put to the Minister is that I hope the Government will continue to improve and speed up the process throughout recess. That is desperately needed.
That said, I must thank the many people of Chesham and Amersham for their efforts to help the people of Ukraine, from those wanting to provide shelter to year 6 at Little Chalfont Primary School, who held a bake sale to raise funds. It shows that we truly are a generous and compassionate community, and it is a privilege to represent them in this House. I take this opportunity to wish all Members a happy Easter and a restful recess.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Reflecting on what was said at the start of this debate about the impact of the great Sir David Amess, I take this opportunity to make my contribution as local as it can be. In that regard, I want to transport Members to the beating heart of this country, the Black Country. It is great to see the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) in her place, because she will know the efforts I have taken to educate civil servants about the difference between the Black Country and Birmingham. Perhaps one ask I have of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is that it becomes part of civil service training to understand the differences between the Black Country and Birmingham. Perhaps he could ensure, using his good offices, that as part of that standard training manual for new Ministers and civil servants, particularly permanent secretaries, they understand that, as we say, “The Black Country ain’t Birmingham.”
I take this opportunity to talk about the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Great Bridge, Princes End, Tipton Green, Tividale and Oldbury. I will try, in the spirit of Sir David, to include as much as I can locally in my contribution. Let us get started with Tipton. I need to raise with my right hon. Friend the issue of the residents of Thomas Cox Wharf and Alexandra Grange, a new development built by Mar City and Aurora Living. This development has been left with roads not resurfaced and pavements not done, and the builder and developer have now gone into liquidation. This means that the remedial works that should have been done and the moneys that should have been recovered through section 106 agreements with the local authority have not happened. I have now worked with two Housing Ministers to try to get this resolved. We have made some progress, particularly on the Alexandra Grange development, in getting some of the work done, but it is clearly not right that my constituents in Tipton are having to put up with their estate not being completed in the way they would have expected. As a result, they are unable to sell their home in many cases, so they feel trapped. I hope my right hon. Friend can encourage the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to engage further and to see what we can do with Sandwell Council. I pay tribute to officers at Sandwell Council who have been practical in their work with me to try to resolve this issue.
Flooding has also been a big issue in Tipton. There were issues in Cotterills Road and Locarno Road, where I helped to move people’s damaged goods out of their property following flash flooding. Thanks to a lot of negotiation, we managed to get £80,000 from the Government for flood defences in Tipton. I am pleased to say that residents will now hopefully see the benefit of investment in Tipton, an area to which I feel very close. It was harrowing to see the impact of that flooding on my constituents.
Sticking with Tipton, I must mention the A461 or, as we know it, Great Bridge island, which is a nightmare. My constituency office is located in Great Bridge, which is a mile and a half from my home. It is a 45-minute drive in rush hour because of congestion on Great Bridge island. I have campaigned to get remedial work done for a year and a half, and my constituents want to see traffic lights on the island. I implore my right hon. Friend to advise me on the best way to start lobbying to get the money through so that people in Great Bridge can commute to and from work.
Princes End has a vibrant high street, but it needs more. I implore my right hon. Friend to give his ministerial colleagues a nudge to ensure that some levelling-up funding comes to Princes End, which is one of the most deprived wards in the west midlands.
Sandwell Council has done great work on the “cracker,” which is a fantastic green space in Princes End, to ensure it is kept clean and available. Can my right hon. Friend reaffirm that we will work to protect the very small amount of green space in urban areas such as mine in the Black Country? I am sure he is aware of the controversial Black Country plan and the issues it has presented for green spaces across the Black Country.
We are fortunate to have a heritage action zone in Wednesbury that has seen our fantastic clock tower, which is nearly 100 years old, get £1.6 million of investment. I welcome that money.
Surprisingly, after 20 years of no movement, there has suddenly been movement on Wednesbury’s health centre in the past two years. It is amazing what happens with a change of personnel. We need to make sure that that follows through, and I implore my right hon. Friend to advise me on how we can ensure that the Government work with local stakeholders to deliver that much-needed addition to local health infrastructure for people in Wednesbury and nearby Darlaston so that they have the access to primary care they need.
Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents, particularly market traders in Wednesbury, that the Government are listening to market traders and market stallholders? They are still a key part of our local economy, and Wednesbury is a proud market town. We have to ensure that it keeps that heritage.
Antisocial behaviour has been a big issue in Wednesbury and West Bromwich. Hill Top in my constituency has recently had massive issues with antisocial behaviour, and I am working with Vijay Gaddu, a local campaigner, to ensure that we tackle it. I am also working with local stakeholders such as the fantastic Rev. Mark Wilson from St James and St Paul’s Church in Hill Top to ensure we get it under control. I hope my right hon. Friend has some words for campaigners like Vijay and Mark to ensure we tackle antisocial behaviour. Equally, we need to get a grip on the parking issues around Wednesbury.
I am conscious that I am cantering through my speech, but I want to make sure I say as much as I can. Family hubs are important. Harvills Hawthorn Primary School in my constituency has campaigned hard for a family hub, and the Harvills Hawthorn estate is an area of real deprivation. The school’s headteacher has done fantastic work with children aged four, five and six years old who are struggling with verbal communication skills and with basic needs, and they are also working with their parents. They need that extra support.
It was great to see the Government’s commitment to family hubs, but we need to ensure that areas such as Harvills Hawthorn get that support. I appreciate that this is a bit of a shopping list for my right hon. Friend— unfortunately, these debates are like that—but I hope that he or one of his ministerial colleagues could meet me to discuss the importance of a family hub there, because it is a key part of ensuring that the levelling-up agenda, which is vital for my constituents, particularly young people at the start of their lives, gets through. I was impressed by the young people at Harvills Hawthorn.
We are going up the bonk now, as we would say where I am from, because residents in Tividale are equally dealing with horrendous issues around antisocial behaviour, particularly on new build estates and with management companies that do not appear to be following through. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with ministerial colleagues, I ask him to keep the pressure on to ensure that those who pay management fees, particularly freeholders, get what they are paying for.
In particular, there is a long-standing issue about a gate on the Speakers Close estate in Tividale. It is a prime example of where residents know the need to tackle antisocial behaviour and they have the solution but they cannot break down the barriers in their way. Residents have come to me about it because councillors and management companies have let them down, so I needed to raise the issue on the Floor of the House.
I have tried to canter through as much as I can and to keep hon. Members’ attention, which I hope I have, in a short space of time. I will say that the last couple of years have been tumultuous in Sandwell. We have seen in the press the issues that we have had with the local authority and commissioners coming through, and we have seen some of the other issues that we have had as well, but I want to touch on the good things, such as the fantastic community in Sandwell. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree, as he came to Sandwell recently to visit me and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), and I am sure he saw first hand the great community that we have.
That is nowhere more true than for the residents of Walker Grange care home in Tipton, who reminded me why I am here. Walker Grange’s oldest resident is 102 years old and it has been her home for 30 years. It was under threat of closure as the council was absolutely determined to close it; I raised that with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the time. Through the sheer determination of the residents and their families, they kept that care home open, and not just that—they secured the £1-million investment that they needed to upgrade it. That resident said to me that it was her life and she could not see herself carrying on living if she did not live with the family that she had built there. That proved to me that the communities of the Black Country, as we would say, “Them bostin’” and they make me so proud to be their Member of Parliament.
I take the opportunity on our Adjournment to wish everyone, including House staff, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, a restful recess—even though I do not think it will be restful for many of us. I say to my constituents that I am proud to be their Member of Parliament and I hope that my right hon. Friend will have picked up the shopping list that I have given him on their behalf.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), who does have to educate certain senior figures in the civil service about where and what the Black Country is, but that has given them a very good indication. My word to them is that if they mug up on those sorts of things, I am not sure that he will give them an easier ride at the Public Accounts Committee, but it might mean that they have a slightly smoother route through and certainly fewer demands for visits to the Black Country as a result, although I am sure they are always pleased to visit.
I declare an interest that I am a leaseholder of a building with cladding, although I am not being required to pay for its replacement thanks to the developer stepping up, and I am the landlord of a private rented property. Today I will talk about housing, homelessness and all the housing issues in Hackney. Everybody in Hackney has a different housing issue; we have a huge range of challenges that are different for different sectors.
Homelessness and overcrowding are immense in my constituency. We often talk here, particularly at the moment, about the cost of living, but the real cost for many of my constituents is that they do not have a stable home to live in. As of June 2020, we had more than 8,000 households in temporary accommodation, which accounts for roughly one in 35 residents in the borough. The expenditure on temporary accommodation has increasingly gone up.
Families are now typically living in hostels for three years or more. During lockdown, in fact, a woman was living in one with her seven-year-old daughter and was working while her daughter was home-schooling in the same room. That was not uncommon. Those who are lucky enough to have access to a council tenancy or a private temporary tenancy are often living in very overcrowded conditions. In council properties, often one family lives in the living room and another in the bedroom. Families with many children often live in a one-bedroom flat or, as in the case of a woman I spoke to the other day, her four children have bunk beds in one bedroom and she sleeps in the living room. This is a real challenge. We talk about levelling up and there is also talk about the covid divide, with many communities or individuals being in even more difficult circumstances than others, but this is endemic. I have seen families with toddlers who have grown into teenagers and young adults while they have been unable to move out.
Young adults are not able to start in their own home, and why not? Because even if they could find somewhere to rent privately, the rent levels in the private rented sector are enormously high. As of September last year, the median monthly rent in Hackney is £1,600, but for a one-bedroom apartment it is £1,350 a month and for a three-bedroom apartment it is £2,220 a month. That is completely out of the reach of most working people, and even well-paid key workers struggle on that basis. This is causing a crisis for families, but also for many of our services because people have to travel a long way in to work, particularly in our schools and our heath service. There really is no prospect for them, and there is no prospect for those in overcrowded social housing of moving in.
I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at changing some of the rules for renting privately, because as well as the barriers of cost, there are huge barriers for those who rent privately. More people rent privately in Hackney than live in their own owned housing, and more people rent in social housing than both of those combined. The private rented sector is growing and significant, and those people have very few rights. Recently, the Public Accounts Committee looked into this and, frankly, it is a dog’s breakfast. It is good that the Government are looking at this, but there is a lot of hope out there, and I wait to see what the Government will deliver to make sure that tenants have far more rights, better rights and easier routes to redress. For many tenants, the idea of taking their landlord to court and going through such a process is too costly and time-consuming, and many people do not even get past the first hurdle. It is important that landlords remember that they are in the business of letting homes, and it is the homes bit that is too often forgotten.
There are serious concerns about house prices in Hackney South and Shoreditch, as well as in Hackney as a whole, and indeed in London. It is now pretty much impossible for anyone on the average wage to buy. A typical two-bedroom modern flat will be marketed at £750,000. I should perhaps repeat that for those who think I may have slipped a nought into the wrong place: £750,000. I suspect that that would buy someone significantly more in the Black Country. It means that even rich MPs would struggle to get on the housing ladder, and it is impossible—it is out of the reach—for those living in overcrowded housing or the private renters who want to put down roots.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech. Does she agree that at the root of all the problems she has mentioned—the extraordinary levels of overcrowding we are seeing, with even very disabled children growing up in totally unsuitable properties—is the failure to build social housing, and there is nothing about that in the current Government proposals? They have proposals on social housing, but nothing to increase the stock significantly, and that is the only way we are going to build affordable properties for the people she is talking about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am proud of the fact that, under the current Mayor of London, we have seen 11,000 council housing and social housing starts, and the mayor of Hackney has made it a key priority. However, for pretty much every council house built, authorities have to build a private house for sale at the rates I have mentioned in order to cross-subsidise. This crisis has been looming for some time, but it is just getting worse, and we do need to see more supply. Every Budget—when we see the Chancellor at the Dispatch Box—fuels house prices, which one could say is a dividend for homeowners, but it is absolutely terrible for those trying to get out of private renting and get on to the ladder or for those who need that social housing so desperately. This is a really serious concern, and we need to see a big step change on this issue.
The other big housing issue is of course cladding. We have at least 93 buildings in Hackney classed as high risk for cladding, but many more with small amounts of cladding need their wretched EWS1 form, and this is proving really difficult. We have so many families who need to move because of the size of their family but who cannot do so because they cannot sell. I recently met a group of residents who have had to move for their job, but they have had to let their property. Although the Government keep making promises about support for leaseholders, they are now saying that they will not help those landlords. However, they are landlords because they could not sell, not because they chose to be. There may be differences between such landlords and investment landlords, but that is a real concern. It was their home that they wanted to live in, and they just cannot sell it because of the EWS1 form and the cladding.
I keep getting constituents writing to me saying, “The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities promised that we would not have to pay a penny.” All power to the Secretary of State’s elbow to get developers to pay and to get the problem sorted out, but we need to see the concrete proposals on how that will happen, because, at the moment, leaseholders are still on the hook and still cannot sell their properties. Their lives are on hold while they are forking out huge amounts of money on extra insurance, and some still on waking watch—that is still happening. One developer told me recently that, for one development alone, the insurance premium has gone up from £50,000 to £400,000 a year. Those are enormous costs for ordinary people, not all of whom are wealthy; indeed, many live in shared ownership accommodation but are caught in leasehold properties.
Finally, I turn to the Metropolitan police, where we have seen a horrendous set of issues in the last few months and year. Child Q is a Hackney child, and she was degraded by the experience she had to suffer. However, it is not just about Child Q; there is a wider set of issues, including misogyny at Charing Cross police station. There is a culture issue in the Met. We have an opportunity—I look to the Minister on this—because the Home Secretary along with the Mayor of London will appoint the new commissioner of the Metropolitan police. We need somebody who can drive that culture change through and, dare I say, consider whether they might split the Metropolitan police by separating the counter-terrorism function from the day-to-day policing of London. It has got too big—it has grown like Topsy—and that is one of the contributing factors.
I cannot express enough to the Minister how triggering the treatment of Child Q has been, particularly but not only to black women in my constituency—black men, too—who have gone through real difficulties and had terrible handling by the police back in the day, and their children are still being stopped and searched far more often than their white counterparts. The anger is palpable and the hurt is real. Much more needs to be done in the short term. Perhaps we need to introduce proper training into our schools on people’s rights when they are stopped by a police officer. We have policing by consent, but we need to equip our young people so that they know what consent they have given and that they can acquiesce politely while knowing their rights and that the Met should treat them politely, too. We need strong, new leadership—all power to the elbows of those recruiting that—to change the culture in the Met, and that needs to happen now.
May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as well as Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker, the other Madam Deputy Speaker and the whole House a happy and peaceful recess? Like other hon. Members, I will raise a few outstanding issues.
In the last few months, I have been in correspondence with the Department for Work and Pensions, trying to ensure that those held on remand but not subsequently charged do not lose their benefits. That is what the rules say, but a lack of proper guidance for DWP staff means that I have ended up with several constituents who have lost their benefits or been wrongly transferred to universal credit. The Leader of the House may know that once someone has been inadvertently transferred to universal credit, there is no way back. I was promised a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), on 13 January, and I hope that the Leader of the House will take the message back that I would still very much like that meeting.
While I do not want to make prolonged correspondence the theme of my remarks, I turn to the seasonal agricultural worker scheme, about which I first wrote to the Government in April last year. North East Fife is famous for many things, and its soft fruit and agriculture is part of that. I am sure that the Leader of the House, given his other vocation, is aware of that. However, there is no doubt that the labour shortages that we have experienced since the UK left the EU have put farms in my constituency under significant strain.
Last year, the additional contractors appointed to administer the scheme were appointed too late for the season in Scotland, so, by the time additional contractors came into place, the jobs were gone and the work was already happening. I am keen for that not to happen again, but I am concerned that it is. A food security debate is ongoing in Westminster Hall, and ensuring food security is becoming ever more critical. There are not enough placements under the seasonal agricultural worker scheme, associated costs are too high and guidance changes—sometimes it feels like it is changing as we speak—so farmers cannot prepare. Nobody is saying that people in the sector should not have good wages, but the minimum wage requirements that have been put in place for migrant workers are higher than the national living wage. Those farmers have already made price decisions and worked with their supply chains, and they are now being asked to absorb the additional costs. Squeezed farmers are already struggling and that will only put further pressure on food prices for our constituents.
I was grateful to meet Lord Offord from the Scotland Office about that issue. I was hoping that there would be a roundtable and further discussions with the Home Office. The Scottish Affairs Committee visited Perthshire and Tayside at the beginning of this month to look, particularly, at the issue of horticulture, as part of a short inquiry. We wrote to the Home Office two weeks ago to express serious concerns. We all want food on our tables rather than rotting in the fields. We want affordable food as well as support for our families, and we need to ensure that schemes are made fit for purpose as a matter of urgency. I am concerned about what this means for North East Fife.
To follow on from the comments from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), I notify the House that I have written to the Home Secretary this week to raise my concerns about the appointment of Sir Stephen House as the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Hon. Members may wonder why the MP for North East Fife is concerned about that, but those who have heard me speak in the Chamber know of my background as a police officer. I served in Lothian and Borders police until 2011, but someone does not have to have been in the police in Scotland to understand the legacy that Sir Stephen House left behind in the national police force and Police Scotland. That included the decision to allow armed officers to attend routine incidents, stop and search for juveniles and changes to the call handling system in the new national force, where routine failures led to a woman being left in her car for three days following a crash and subsequently dying. I have to mention the continuous and excellent work that my colleague in the Scottish Parliament, Willie Rennie—the MSP for North East Fife—did with the Bell family in that regard.
I am very concerned, because Sir Stephen was deemed not fit to lead Scotland’s police force in 2015, which was when he retired, and I ask why, even on a temporary basis, he has been considered fit to lead the UK’s largest force. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch about the recruitment process for the new commissioner and I hope that that is done as soon as possible. Sir Stephen has been Dame Cressida’s deputy for the past few years and we have all been in this Chamber too many times listening to the Minister for Crime and Policing responding to issues in the Metropolitan police. I hope that the Home Secretary moves that recruitment process forward quickly.
I will end on a positive note, with an odd declaration of interest: as a result of being the MP for North East Fife, I sit on the board of trustees for the St Andrews Links trust, which runs all the golf courses in St Andrews, so I am usually a popular person at certain times of the year. I am delighted to say that the 150th Open will be coming to St Andrews in July, and I do so because, when we get to the next Adjournment debate before the summer recess—I am delighted that that debate will be named after Sir David Amess; it sounds like a very fitting tribute—the Open will have taken place. It is appropriate to mention that because I have raised support for golf, support for golf tourism and St Andrews throughout my time here, and I very much hope that Members across the House who would like to come to St Andrews this July to celebrate that international sporting event will be in a position to do so.
It is the nature of our job as MPs that we deal with some shocking events and grave injustices. Perhaps that makes us a bit case-hardened, but something happened in my constituency last week that really did shock me. The easiest way to introduce the subject may be to read a short article that was published in a local newspaper, the Brent & Kilburn Times, two days ago. It stated:
“The Pentecostal City Mission Church in Willesden has been evicted by a developer.
Fruition Properties evicted the church on Scrubs Lane without warning on Wednesday, March 23. The developers entered the building at 7.30 am and changed the locks, leaving parents unable to drop off their children at the nursery and staff unable to retrieve personal belongings.
The Mission is a registered community asset and operates a nursery, foodbank, dementia care and other local community services.
Fruition sought planning permission in 2018 to knock down the church and build a mixed-use, 20-storey development. This would include 85 ‘residential units’, a cafe or restaurant, a retail space, nursery and place of worship. A condition of its approval was…the secure replacement space for the church and associated services as part of the new development.
The mayor’s Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation is the local planning authority, as the property is part of a strategic development site.”
The article quotes Rev. Des Hall, who runs Pentecostal City Mission church:
“We are shocked and saddened that Fruition took possession of this beloved church and vital lifeline for so many community members.”
It quotes me as saying:
“It’s unacceptable and quite frankly unbelievable news to hear that a developer has evicted a church, nursery and foodbank at a time where so many families are under financial strain to put food on the table. I have made my position to Fruition abundantly clear on numerous occasions and they have refused to meet to reach a solution, despite the planning policy clearly requiring provision for the church.”
It then quotes the spokesperson for the developer:
“We have been in discussions with the church for over two years regarding leases, occupational rights and either late or non-payment of occupational charges, even at a reduced rent. We regret the current situation, but we have been unable to come to a mutually acceptable agreement on how to move forward together.”
Let me say a little more about the church, which is a real institution in what is an extremely poor and deprived area. It has been there for more than 20 years. About 13 or 14 years ago, something quite miraculous happened: with a very large grant from EU structural funds and a smaller bank loan, the church was able to build what is now an extremely impressive building on a very prominent site on the corner of Scrubs Lane and the Harrow Road, providing all the services that hon. Members have just heard about. It serves communities in Harlesden, Willesden, College Park, Old Oak, North Ken and East Acton, including some of the poorest communities in London and indeed in the country. It is one of very few community services there; it is an extremely impressive show.
The front of the building is in my constituency, but the rear is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who opened the building 13 or 14 years ago; hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that she is much better at doing that. We are all thinking of her, because of the very sad announcement that she made earlier this week about her struggle—her successful struggle, I think—with breast cancer. She would otherwise have been with me, the congregation and the food bank last Friday, when we were out on the street because we could not get access to what was going on inside the church.
The development corporation is an extremely impressive and major project that includes the HS2 site, the largest rail construction site, Crossrail, and Park Royal, the largest industrial estate in Europe. It is busy trying to get on with redeveloping and regenerating the area under the guidance of the Mayor, but of course that attracts developers. Fruition Properties came along and bought the site, over the church’s head, from the bank that had taken possession of it some years ago. It then applied for planning permission to build a large block of mainly luxury flats on the site.
There are disputes—I will not go into them, because we do not have time and it is not necessary—about how the church will be rehoused and what will happen while the development goes on. A court date was set for 7 June, so although things had clearly broken down, there was no rush to judgment. Indeed, before Christmas, I could see that matters were not going well, so I convened a meeting with the developer and the development corporation and we discussed matters. The developer—a guy called Mani Khiroya, the chief executive officer of Fruition—said “I will go away and talk to the church,” and they had a meeting. I saw the requests that the church made, which were entirely reasonable.
At that point, however, the developer said, “No, we are not going any further.” On 25 January, he sent me a letter saying:
“we have made the extremely difficult decision to ask Pentecostal City Mission Church to leave our building on Scrubs Lane…I will contact your office to arrange a meeting to discuss the above”.
He did not, so I wrote to him on 8 February asking for a meeting, but I heard nothing back. Again, there did not appear to be any particular hurry, because we had a court date coming up in June. Then, without any notice at all, private security guards went into the building early in the morning, asked the caretaker and cleaner to leave the building, and changed the locks. Everybody was locked out with all their possessions and belongings inside. As we have heard, children were turning up to go to the nursery on the site. I have met some pretty poor developers in my time, but this one really does take the biscuit.
Where does that leave us now? Well, it leaves us with a substantial coalition of people who have come together to fight what the developer is trying to do. They include representatives of the media: the BBC and ITV London came to the site last week, along with the local press, and I am pleased to say that the property press are taking an interest. Many local residents’ groups and associations with expertise are also involved, including College Park Neighbourhood “CONGA”. Julie McBride and Nick Pole have been there. Henry Peterson of the St Quintin and Woodlands neighbourhood forum is giving substantial support, as are the Old Oak neighbourhood forum and the Grand Union Alliance.
We will be in court quite soon. Lawyers are preparing for an injunction to allow re-entry. We have support from all the local politicians, including the leaders of both councils, Stephen Cowan and Mo Butt, and councillors including Wesley Harcourt and Alex Sanderson, and Matt Kelcher in Brent, and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central. We have had great support from the development corporation, which is now providing funds to keep the services going, and we are finding temporary homes for them as well. I particularly praise David Lunts, the chief executive.
I would like to see the Government join that coalition, because I cannot see any difference between what Fruition has done and what P&O has done. This is predatory capitalism. Fruition is victimising people simply because it can, thinking that it can get away with it. I will ensure that my remarks, and what is happening on the site, are well known to all the planning authorities, all the investors, and everyone on whose sites Fruition is looking to develop in the future, because no one should have anything to do with this organisation until such time as it modifies its behaviour.
Let me end with a quotation from someone who uses the church’s food bank. The Rev. Des Hall will be there tomorrow; it will be freezing cold again, but he will be out in the street with his wife, his volunteers, his congregation, and the supporters who will feed—as they do every week—hundreds of people who queue all the way down Scrubs Lane. He will be there, but he will not be able to get into his church because the developer has locked him out. One of the people who use the food bank said this:
“I go there for food because my family is shielding. It’s a blessing. They do different breads, fruit and vegetables, cheese and potatoes.
It would be a shame if this happened to the church. I’ve never seen one that does so much for people so I always support it. It’s a poor neighbourhood but everyone helps one another.
It would be a shame if this happened to the church. There will be nowhere for these people to go.”
It is an outrage that this should be happening in our country in the 21st century. Something has to be done to stop behaviour of this kind. Something has to be done to reward those who are simply trying to provide decent services for those in most need. This is naked greed and opportunism, and I hope that when we are in court it will be shown to be an illegal act as well. I wish Des and his congregation all the best. I want to see them back in their church as soon as possible, continuing to do what they have done for many decades—serve my constituents, and the people of neighbouring constituencies.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this end-of-term debate and to raise several issues that are important to constituents in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton. My dilemma is always which ones to choose, but I have picked five issues. I will be talking about the Fulham pier proposal, wet wipes, cladding, mould and the employment Bill.
To start with, there is the future of the Putney boat race, which is back this weekend. You are very welcome to come along, Mr Deputy Speaker, as are all Members. We are welcoming everyone back to Putney after two years away because of covid, but the future of the Putney boat race on the Thames and all the sports engaged in by the river clubs on the embankment is being put at risk by Fulham football club’s proposal to build an 80 metre pier out into the river. The pier would have a Clipper ferry stop, and those ferries would make sports such as rowing and sailing on the river too dangerous, especially for all the young people who use it. About 4,000 members across 41 clubs along the river would be impacted. Those 4,000 members use this stretch of the river on average about twice a week. There are also around 30,000 participants in rowing races in the first quarter of the year. Approximately 1,400 children from clubs and rowing centres near Fulham football club use that part of the river several times a week.
I very much thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I ask him please to join the campaign; we have a petition he can sign. He is not alone in being incredulous about how this could be allowed to go ahead.
We had a public meeting about this last week, and I hope that Fulham football club will see the opposition from so many different clubs, and from the boat race itself. I hope the football club will listen to all those clubs and stop its plans to build this huge dangerous pier out into the river. I also hope the Minister can take this up with Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport so that we can talk about this and secure the future of the boat race.
My second issue is wet wipes. My campaign to ban plastic in wet wipes continues. The consultation that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched into commonly littered single-use plastic items—not the most snappy title for a consultation, but it had a huge amount of take-up because a lot of people support this campaign—has now closed. I am told that Ministers will be picking the issue up after Easter and consolidating the results for consultation. I look forward to seeing the options that are put to the Government and to continuing to work with DEFRA Ministers on this.
I want to offer my support and co-operation on moving forward to secondary legislation to establish a firm and reasonable date by which the consumer wet wipe industry needs to phase out the use of plastic wet wipe products. I want to praise Tesco, Aldi and Sainsbury’s for making the move in recent months to selling only plastic-free wet wipes. I hope this is just the start and that other companies will follow suit. There are many issues to be ironed out within the legislation, but I hope that progress will continue to be made with urgency towards banning plastic in wet wipes once and for all.
My campaign on cladding continues. I know that this has been raised by other Members, but it is a highly contentious issue across Putney, Southfields and Roehampton, where I have been supporting nearly 30 affected blocks for the past two years as leaseholders and residents face both physical and financial threats to their very existence. The Government finally seem to be listening to us on this issue, and I hope they come good on their promise to include legal protection for leaseholders against any fire safety costs in the Building Safety Bill when it returns from the other place.
I was hoping that by now we would have heard the results of the Secretary of State’s discussions with developers. We were promised this by Easter, but we have yet to hear anything and Easter is upon us. My constituents are incredibly anxious about this, but they are hopeful. However, there are some areas that are still not covered: buildings under 11 metres are not covered by any of the support measures; there is no Government funding for non-cladding defects; not all types of cladding are being funded or deemed eligible; and the building safety fund application and approval process is still painfully slow. Some blocks have been waiting 18 months to hear news.
It is not clear which developers are involved in the discussions and negotiations with Ministers. In some developments, the developers have gone bankrupt and might not be involved in the discussions. Will those developments be included? Waking watch costs are still having to be met, along with insurance premium hikes. In some cases in Putney, there have been increases in insurance costs of over 500%. These costs alone are bankrupting some residents, who then cannot move, whether or not the cladding remuneration is fully funded. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider all these points when the Bill returns after Easter.
I have another housing issue in my constituency that really concerns me. Sometimes when I visit residents, they open the door and I can smell the impact of mould coming through. Those houses are not fit to live in. They are not habitable, and this is causing a real health hazard for many families across my constituency. However, when they report it to Wandsworth Council, they are too often told that it is a lifestyle issue. I cannot imagine a lifestyle that involves living with mould so serious that children are getting asthma. The problem is not being addressed, and that is why I want to raise it. If I had my way, I would have a Minister for mould and we would sort this problem out once and for all, because no family should have to live with it.
Lastly, I want to raise the long-forgotten employment Bill. Employment rights and secure employment are vital not only in my constituency but across the country. I was very pleased to hold a Roehampton jobs fair, but I want to see the employment Bill come to this House. In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government promised workers an employment Bill to improve workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain
“the best place in the world to work”.
The Bill was supposed to
“Promote fairness in the workplace, striking the right balance between the flexibility that the economy needs and the security that workers deserve…Strengthen workers’ ability to get redress for poor treatment by creating a new, single enforcement body…Offer greater protections for workers by prioritising fairness in the workplace, and introduce better support for working families…Build on existing employment law with measures that protect those in low-paid work and the gig economy.”
I think we can all agree that all that is very much needed, but there has been no sign of the employment Bill, just a string of broken promises. In June 2021, the Government announced that they would introduce a new, single enforcement body, but they did not say when. In September 2021, the Government announced that there would be a new statutory code of practice to make it unlawful not to pass on tips to workers in full. Some additional childcare funding was announced in last year’s autumn Budget statement, but not the £1 billion promised. The Government also reneged on their promise to reform sick pay, abandoning the insecure workers who are most likely to be refused sick pay or who are entitled to such a miserable sum that they cannot afford to stay away from work. That is very much linked to our long covid debate earlier.
The question remains: where is the much anticipated employment Bill that we were promised? I hope that the Leader of the House will have some good news. Was it just an empty promise? Will we see it in May? Working people in my constituency desperately want to know.
I will finish by wishing everyone a happy Easter.
I wish to speak on this matter while it is not sub judice. Julian Assange is currently being held at Her Majesty’s prison Belmarsh, a high-security prison, and has been for nearly three years. He is being held there on remand not for any violations of UK law, but solely because he faces extradition to the USA for his journalistic work with WikiLeaks. He is a political prisoner and I want to put on the record that a cross-party group of parliamentarians have been repeatedly refused even an online video meeting with Julian Assange.
He has pursued journalistic work that has exposed atrocities committed in the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well human rights abuses committed in Guantanamo Bay. Much of the horrific details that we now know of those events were exposed by Julian Assange’s journalism, and for that we should be grateful.
That journalism was carried out in our country. He was invited here by The Guardian, which along with TheNew York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País —some of the biggest news outlets in the world—was among the first five news organisations to publish articles based on his work. It is journalism for which he has received numerous awards. Yet now he faces extradition to the US and a prison sentence of up to 175 years in a super-maximum security prison.
Civil liberties groups and leading newsrooms view the US Government’s prosecution against Assange with deep alarm. Amnesty International has said:
“Prosecuting Julian Assange on these charges could have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression”.
The secretary-general of Amnesty International labelled it, “Politically motivated and unjustified”, and said that the case
“undermines press freedom, the rule of law, and the prohibition of torture.”
Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists and press freedom groups Article 19, Index on Censorship and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, as well as the National Union of Journalists, issued a joint declaration stating:
“Julian Assange…is being prosecuted for exposing US rendition, unlawful killings and the subversion of the judiciary. And the UK government is allowing extradition proceedings to continue.
The prosecution of Julian Assange was a political decision taken by the Trump administration”
“creates a dangerous legal precedent, allowing any journalist in Britain to be prosecuted and extradited.
Our government must ensure the UK is a safe place for journalists and publishers to work. Whilst Julian Assange remains in prison facing extradition, it is not.”
The Washington Post’s executive editor said that it was
“criminalising common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest.”
President Biden was there as part of Obama’s Administration when the decision was taken not to prosecute Julian Assange. The message that I have is that that should be the position. If that does not happen, I call on the Home Secretary to use her powers and refuse to sign an extradition warrant.
The Tory cost of living crisis is the most salient issue for voters, including those in my constituency, superseding covid during the height of the pandemic. The Sunday Times reported recently that Tory Spads and staffers were told that the cost of living crisis was now the public’s primary concern, and that private polling showed that the issue had eclipsed healthcare. One source present said that the issue had “shot up” the polling graph faster than any other in recent years, noting that even the pandemic had not prompted the same reaction. A source added:
“The cost of living issue is a train about to hit us.”
Folk in my constituency, many parts of which are areas of deprivation, know all about poverty and the cost of living. Almost seven years ago, when I was first elected, I set up a poverty action network, which I thought would be a reasonably short-term thing. PAN sounds really posh—if the Chairman of Ways and Means had still been in the Chair I would have said that it was not pan loaf, but more square slice; she would know what I was talking about—but it is not posh. It is about organisations locally helping people in poverty who are struggling. We know that one of the biggest issues for people living in poverty is their mental health. I am going to take this opportunity to thank the organisations that for almost seven years have attended the poverty action network. Lanarkshire Links supports mental health services and helps folk to get through the bureaucracy and get the help they need. Scottish Association for Mental Health also comes, as does Lanarkshire Association for Mental Health, which has recently opened a lovely café in Wishaw, where people can get a really good cup of tea and a nice meal, and do yoga. I plan to use some of those facilities during recess—no pictures, please.
Other organisations in the network such as MADE4U IN ML2, which is the postcode for Wishaw, are in the middle of the community. So are the Orbiston Neighbourhood Centre and a number of the local churches, such as Motherwell Baptist Church and Dalziel St Andrew’s Parish Church in Motherwell, which has a befriending service. The Centre Point organisations are in two of the most deprived areas, Gowkthrapple and Forgewood. These organisations are all run by volunteers, and all they want to do is help their local communities. They helped their communities to get through the pandemic, and they want them to prosper and be in better health.
I worry about my communities, because the cost of energy and food will be far too much for many of them. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about a local church that went out and fed people, and my local churches also do that. South Wishaw Parish Church has taken over a community food bank. I have been told by a Minister that they were amazed at the generosity of local people, who were themselves in straitened circumstances but wanted to help others. That church also runs a New Life Recovery Hub, helping addicts.
Other organisations that help are also part of the network. The Miracle Foundation was set up by a local young woman whose nieces and nephews had suffered bereavement when their mother died, and there were no services to help them. She now goes across Wishaw, Motherwell and right across central Scotland helping young people; I have nothing but admiration for these people. They give up their lives, they spend their money and they just want to help. Friends & Families Affected by Murder & Suicide, and Chris’s House help victims and families who have suffered huge loss and bereavement in awful circumstances. Motherwell football club has a community trust, and Motherwell is a real community football team. It helps with education and with wellbeing; it is just everywhere. I am very proud to be the MP who represents Motherwell and Wishaw.
Yes, the club is owned by the fans, and I absolutely take that point.
I am trying to rush through this, because others wish to speak. The Voice of Experience Forum is a network that introduces folk to other organisations that are doing the same thing. I have found that so many people are trying to help but they do not realise that someone else is already doing that, so this saves them time, money and effort, because people can be passed on to different organisations. Voluntary Action North Lanarkshire comes to see people, and I pay tribute to June Vallance, who retired in September 2021. She was a well-kent figure across North Lanarkshire and a real driving force.
I do not think I have mentioned the Wishaw, Murdostoun and Fortissat Community Forum, which was led for many years by David Summers, who unfortunately died in 2015. His wife Nancy has taken that on and been a leading force in it. We get people from the local Lanarkshire Baby Bank and from a wonderful organisation that comes called Full On. It runs workshops where people with mental health issues are taught how to play a musical instrument to help their mental health and make them feel better. We have autism organisations and the local veterans’ association come to us. I know I am going to forget people, because there are just so many good organisations locally. We bring in organisations that talk to people, and one of the ones that comes regularly is Social Security Scotland, which explains to organisations such as Lanarkshire Carers where they can get benefits and what they can apply for, and promises them help to do it. We have In Kind Direct, which is a national organisation, and the Family Fund, which does wonderful work with families with disabled children, and One Parent Families Scotland. My next speaker I hope will be Home Energy Scotland, because it is going to be really needed, as it gives advice on energy, how to save it, how to insulate the home and how to make life better. In the 21st century, in a country as developed as ours, there should not be the need that is being met by these organisations. I am sometimes ashamed that I have to stand here and talk about this. I am proud of the people who do this work, but I am ashamed that they have to do it.
Lastly, may I add my name to the list of those calling for the Sir David Amess—I was going to say “memorial” but that is perhaps a bit too strong—debate. I made my maiden speech in one of these debates, and I was inspired by him. I was inspired many times by the good work that he did.
It is truly a pleasure to close for the Opposition in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) in her passionate description of the poverty action network in her constituency and of many other vital constituency organisations. May I also at the outset put on record my support for the David Amess debate? I am sure that the whole House is united on that. I also pay tribute to Madam Deputy Speaker, who opened earlier with some remarks about David Amess. We all remember him tenderly on days such as today.
I thank all colleagues from across the whole House for their contributions. It is a mark of our democracy that we make space in our parliamentary timetable for debates in which any and every matter of interest to many or some constituents, or perhaps only just one, may be raised. They are then put on the historical record, preserved forever, not only in the ephemeral online world of Hansard, but in the physical notation of our every word. I mention all that because I had the pleasure of visiting the parliamentary archive in this parliamentary Session. I do recommend it. There, one can be inspired by the sight of the original rolls on which legislation—such as that required for our great railways to be built—was recorded. I also saw the minutes of the 1791 Select Committee inquiry into slavery, which made very grim reading. Uplifting or appalling, dramatic or mundane—our every word here is recorded for history. I recommend a visit to the archive to any Member.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) opened the debate, standing in for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), to whom we send our warmest wishes for his recovery. The hon. Gentleman led off with a fitting tribute to our late colleague Sir David Amess, following the tributes started by Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank him for opening the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) showed us the power of her work as a constituency MP. She is so much a role model for so many of us. I hope the Leader of the House will have heeded her call for the legal remedy that the family of her constituent Lillie Clack so desperately and so rightly seek.
The right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) raised the matter of recognition for the relatives of blue light servicemen and women who are killed in the line of duty, in his customary eloquent and knowledgeable way. He referred in particular to the sacrifice of the family of PC Keith Palmer, who died protecting us. We have thought of him particularly in the past two weeks, given the anniversary of that atrocity.
The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), spoke with passion and knowledge about the many dreadful consequences of our housing crisis, not only in her constituency but, of course, beyond. I hope the Leader of the House will remember that a renters’ reform Bill has been promised by his Government in previous Queen’s Speeches. My hon. Friend also reminded us of the struggles of leaseholders not only in her patch but up and down the country, including in my own patch, Bristol West. Other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), did the same. Again, I hope the Leader of the House will take note of the representations in this debate for the forthcoming Queen’s Speech and beyond.
I turn to another tragedy, of a different sort but perhaps equally calamitous for the people involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) spoke of the shocking incident in his constituency in which a developer in effect evicted a church, a nursery and a food bank. I will be thinking of his constituents tomorrow, as they operate the food bank out on the street. That incident should not be allowed to pass.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney managed to raise five important constituency issues—including her brilliant campaign against plastic wet wipes and the boat race—in record time. She also said something about a very long pier that I only dimly understood, but it sounds like a bad idea. I think that was the right way to look at it—
It is a very bad idea. My hon. Friend did not mention her campaign about Hammersmith bridge, but she did manage to get that in this morning at business questions, and I think the Leader of the House heard her cry then.
Various Members raised important concerns about human rights and some specific constituency matters. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench heard the urging by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) for Ministers to learn the difference between the Black Country and Birmingham, along with the comments of other Members.
When this Parliament opened with the Queen’s Speech on 11 May last year, we were still in the depths of the covid pandemic. Proceedings were necessarily restricted and I was robbed—robbed, I tell you—of the chance to process with the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), so I am looking forward to processing this year with the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer). Nevertheless, it is what is in the Queen’s Speech that counts, along with what follows it. The lingering legacy of covid could be addressed in the coming Parliament; for instance, by making the covid memorial wall permanent and by making sure that the covid public inquiry takes place with the thoroughness, sensitivity and accountability that it deserves.
At the start of this Parliament, who could have predicted that we would be ending it with a war in Europe—one that has shocked us all and united the House and the country? Many colleagues have mentioned it today, and on many days over the past few weeks, but I for one will never forget the experience of sitting in this place, together with Members of the other place—it felt like the whole country was watching us—as President Zelensky made democratic history by speaking proudly and profoundly on behalf of his invaded country and his people, in this place. I thank the Speaker and all the House staff who made that possible.
Many Members have mentioned the generosity of their constituents in responding to the refugee crisis. I add my voice to theirs and thank my own constituents.
This morning, the Leader of the House, or it may have been the hon. Member for Harrow East, mentioned that we will have the rescheduled debate on COP15. I am pleased about that because, whether it is the devastation of pollinators or the potential microbial offerings of the cryoconite microbial diversity in the Arctic glaciers—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Yes, I have a special interest in the subject: the very first Dr Debbonaire of my parish—a former pupil of the wonderful Cotham School in my patch, which turns out rather marvellous scientists—recently passed her PhD in that very subject. I make no apology for shoehorning in that mention. Cryoconite is a good word to get in, but it does not fit on Wordle, by the way.
As we come to the end of our Session, we thank all the Doorkeepers, the Clerks, the cleaners, the security staff, the researchers, the digital staff and the maintenance staff. I make particular mention of the catering staff who have expanded not just my waistline but the options for vegans, which many of you carnivores appear to be devouring as well, because occasionally I have not managed to get the vegan chocolate cake before others have already devoured it. I can recommend it if Members have not met it before.
I thank everybody in this place for their contributions to this debate and to the very many Bill Committees that we have had over the course of the last Parliament. I know that we are not quite at the end of this Parliament yet, but we are in a period of ping-pong between this place and the other place—a duel, if you will, as the Leader of the House called it earlier—when we will see the final results of those Bill Committee deliberations. I urge the Government to work constructively with the Opposition in the coming Parliament on how we manage parliamentary business, so that we are not bounced into positions by new things appearing in the other place, concerns about which have rightly been raised by Members on both sides of the House. We all know that there is a better way of doing it.
Members who serve on Bill Committees are not often given the recognition that they deserve. It is detailed—I would never say boring—work, but it certainly requires an attention to detail that many people perhaps do not realise that they will need when they come to this place. It is so important that we get legislation right. I particularly thank the Lords who sat late into the night for many Bills that really needed that extra attention, which was caused by the insertion of new things and also by just wanting to get it right. We, too, will always play our part to work with the Government to try to do the right thing by our constituents. I hope the Leader of the House has heard the challenges today from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney on the employment Bill and on the need for the building safety crisis to be addressed, on the nature and biodiversity crisis raised by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green), and on so many other things that will need to be addressed in the coming Session. The Leader of the House will know that he has just a few short weeks in which to work with his colleagues on what is to come. I hope that he will have heeded the words that we have heard today. I thank all colleagues, and I wish everyone a very happy Easter.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) not only for her approach to this debate today, but for her approach as shadow Leader of the House. I look forward to working with her in the next Session and—I think she said this—to our striding out together during the Queen’s Speech, which gives me confidence that she does not think that I will be sacked before the Queen’s speech, so I am at least grateful for that. I can give her this reassurance: it is not me who is eating her vegan food, nor will it be at any point in the future.
It is a pleasure to conclude today’s debate, which has been conducted in the best of spirits, and I look forward to trying to get in as many comments as I can. I think that I have probably less than a minute per contribution, but I will of course do my very best to get through as much as I can.
I cannot really proceed any further without making reference to Sir David Amess. A number of speeches today have made reference to David’s past contributions in this debate and the fact that we should refer to the summer recess debate as the David Amess debate. Frankly, though, it does not really matter what the authorities do, because Members of this House will call it the David Amess debate, and that is probably the right course.
The debate started with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) standing in for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and we are grateful to him for that. I hope that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee makes a speedy recovery and will be back in his place immediately after the Easter recess.
My hon. Friend started by talking about the pressure on refugees and how we should not forget about Afghan refugees, despite a lot of focus in this place on the Ukrainian situation. I think he is right. The Government’s resettlement scheme for Afghans has placed more than 6,000 people and continues to be supportive, but he was right to make that point.
My hon. Friend then went on to talk about Harrow Council. He is, of course, a worthy opponent to his friends on Harrow Council, not least by drawing attention in recent business questions to the fact that their speed of response is quite poor, and I know he will continue to hold them to account. However, he did take the trouble to praise the council for its safety at night campaign for women. Once again, that is worth flagging in the House—it is something the Government take seriously, which is why we have invested more than £30 million in our safer streets and safety of women at night funds to help women and girls to feel safer. I think hon. Members across the House will support my hon. Friend and Harrow Council in that campaign.
My hon. Friend also talked about the challenges of rented homes and the pressure of some of those homes being converted into houses in multiple occupation. That is a challenge that other hon. Members have also raised, and the Government are very much aware of it.
In addition, my hon. Friend mentioned access to GPs and the challenges many people face in getting a GP appointment. There was a debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week on that very challenge, particularly in association with new developments where facilities for new GPs are not put in place. The Government have made £520 million available to improve access to general practice. I hope technology will help in some circumstances, because people who cannot have face-to-face appointments can have virtual ones, freeing up the space for those who need a face-to-face appointment.
My hon. Friend went on to talk about Stanmore station and the challenges of the planned development in its car park. I hope he will be successful in his defence against that development.
In conclusion, my hon. Friend talked about smoking and his desire to see the age for the purchase of cigarettes rise from 18 to 21. He is a long-standing campaigner on that topic, although I am personally a little more liberal than he is. I recognise the damage that smoking does, but I would hope that most people in the United Kingdom today are aware that if they smoke, they are risking their lives and will damage their health. I celebrate their freedom to make that individual choice and to continue to smoke if they choose, but they should be aware that they will damage their health and probably shorten their lives. We should all continue to ensure that colleagues and constituents are aware that that is what they are doing when they choose to smoke.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised a very personal case in her constituency. One cannot help but be sympathetic to Debbie, Michael and Donna, who lost Lillie in such tragic circumstances. The hon. Lady went on to talk about the challenges of changing the law on someone who has committed a terrible crime of that nature and is clearly guilty of dangerous driving or drink-driving being able to continue to drive until they are convicted.
That is a huge challenge, and a difficult one to overcome. I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that it is a long-standing principle in UK law that people are innocent until proven guilty. We have to go through a judicial process, and until someone is convicted in that judicial process, in the eyes of the law they are innocent. That means that an expedited process is required, to get from the offence to the conviction. We need a speedy response from the Crown Prosecution Service and our courts system to ensure that people who commit such heinous crimes are held to account very quickly. I hope she will extend my sympathy to the Clack family.
The hon. Lady also referred to some social media posts that have been put up about Lillie, which obviously add to the family’s pain. I hope there will be an opportunity for her to raise her concerns during the passage of the Online Safety Bill, which will have its Second Reading on the first day back after the Easter recess.
Next up we had my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who talked about the huge challenge of planning applications for small developers. I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will have heard her plea. She mentioned Astbury Place and Neil Taylor, who had a challenge with whether or not he was going to build a bridge. I wish him well with his campaign. I recognise that some constituents will take a different view. That highlights the challenge of being a Member of Parliament when we have constituents who take a different view on a single topic. She then went on to mention religious freedoms in Pakistan, which she has been a long-term campaigner on.
The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) talked about Julian Assange and his plight in a UK jail. They will be aware that that case is currently going through the courts, so it is quite difficult to comment on it, but I know that between them they will continue to raise his plight and his case.
The right hon. Member for Islington North talked specifically about refugees, but was open in condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, and I praise him for that. Where we differ is in our interpretation of the Government’s approach to Saudi Arabia. I understand that he has grave concerns about our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I think the best way to influence our friends around the world is to continue our dialogue, to continue to meet those people, to continue to trade with our friends in Saudi Arabia, and to try to influence their human rights and their record in their own country by friendly conversations and influence through our trading relationship.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made a compelling case for the Elizabeth Cross, which he said would be a great medal for those who had served in our emergency services. In fact I think he wanted to call it the Prince Philip Cross, comparing it with the Elizabeth Cross for military people. It is a worthy campaign and I add my support for it.
We had a quick wander down the chalk streams of the Chess and the Misbourne in Chesham and Amersham. I commend the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) for all the work she is doing to protect those chalk streams, which are absolutely vital to our environment. I recognise the challenge that HS2 must be bringing to that part of the world with the construction that is taking place in her patch. Hopefully that pain will soon be over and we will be able to ride on HS2 once it has finished its construction process. She also paid tribute to the generosity of the people in her constituency. I highlight to all Members that there is a support centre in Portcullis House that will remain open over Easter for the people who need help.
We then got on to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey). He talked about Tipton, Great Bridge island, green spaces in Wednesbury, market traders, antisocial behaviour in Hill Top, and Rev. Mark Wilson and Vijay Gaddu. He got so much in that there is too much to mention. But we did get to recognise the difference between Birmingham and the Black Country—I will not make that mistake. He talked about his drive of 45 minutes to go one mile to Great Bridge island. I feel his pain; I once had a car like that myself.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) talked about the huge housing challenges in her patch and tenants’ rights. I hope that that message will be received. I will make sure that the relevant Minister has heard her pleas. She went on to talk about the challenges that the communities of many colleagues across this House have with the Met police at the moment. Where wrongdoing takes place or racism is found, we will take action—she can have that firm commitment from the Government.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about a meeting with the DWP. I will make sure that happens for her, and I am sorry it has not happened already. She also talked about the Met’s management. I am sure that the Home Secretary will have heard her concerns and will receive her letter in due course.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about the Pentecostal church on Scrubs Lane, which he also raised at business questions. I wish him well with that. I wish the reverend all the best in his pursuit of delivering through his food bank and feeding hundreds of people despite being locked out of his own church. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a huge campaigner in his patch and a formidable opponent. That developer will be concerned, having him as an opponent and an advocate for his community.
We then heard a little more about the boat race from the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and the pier that Fulham football club is building. I wish all those participating in Putney all the best. Finally, I am sadly out of time, but I was grateful for the contribution of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), which I enjoyed very much.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).