I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
A great event occurred in May: the Conservative party took control of Harrow Council for the first time in more than 12 years. The Conservative administration is already making a massive difference. More than half a million one-hour free parking tickets have been provided, revitalising the high streets in Harrow. I suggest that other councils might like to consider such a policy, because it increases footfall and people’s use of local shops. It will be expanded to council-provided car parks next year.
A key issue being addressed right now is the enforcement of measures tackling illegal fly-tipping, illegal houses in multiple occupation and beds in sheds. I am pleased to say that the threatened development over Stanmore station car park has been put firmly on the back burner. Indeed, the new administration has reduced the permitted height in suburban settings to no more than six storeys, which will prevent any high-rise developments in suburban, leafy areas. I am pleased to see that. The new customer experience action plan for interactions with the council, which will enable residents to speak to a real person as opposed to a robot, is to be commended.
Before the election in May, Harrow Council was a catawampus in a state of complete disorganisation. The new administration has opened the books and is looking at the financial mess in which the council was left by Labour; those of us who were elected to this House in 2010 had a similar experience. There was an in-year deficit. Rather than constraining spending, the council had used up all its financial reserves—about £15 million—to plug the budgetary holes. Had it carried on, it would have gone bankrupt, as Croydon has done twice in the past year. It was all caused by overspending across departments and by the use of agency staff, who cost a lot more than contracted staff. I am pleased that the new chief executive and the new administration have announced a 10-point plan to control expenditure and ensure that the council lives within its means.
There is a debate in Westminster Hall right now about the outrageous decision by the Labour Mayor of London to introduce an ultra low emission zone across the whole of London from next year. This is another attack on drivers. In my constituency, in which the average household has two and a half cars, drivers will have to pay an extra £12.50 a day just to get to work, get to hospital, drop their kids off or do their weekly shop. Electric cars are still far too expensive and in very short supply, and public transport is certainly not frequent or reliable. That leaves most of my constituents in a very difficult position—particularly our key workers, who have to work the night shift when no public transport provision is available and driving is the only option.
The Mayor has clearly not taken public opinion into account, because more than 66% of those who were consulted opposed the expansion. Indeed, our estimate in my constituency is that only 1% of people are in favour, so the Mayor is flying in the face of the public’s views. The recent strikes have exacerbated the position for those who rely on cars to get to work, school, hospital or the shops because public transport cannot be trusted or relied on. He is, of course, a flibbertigibbet—a flaky, overly talkative person who delivers very little in his office. Very sadly, I understand that he is going to stand again in 2024.
On Home Office matters, I think the whole House agrees that there has been a lack of clarity for many constituents whose family members are stuck in Afghanistan. They believe that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is still open, but we know that it is not. That is causing many problems, because many people were told that they should escape to a third country such as Pakistan and then apply. They did not get a response in time, so when their temporary visitor visas expired they were returned to Afghanistan, back into the hands of the Taliban.
I turn to Ukraine. We have been very generous across the country in receiving visitors to our shores, but as I warned the House at the start, there are security concerns about potential Russian spies posing as Ukrainian refugees. Two individuals in Harrow were posing as Ukrainian refugees and reporting back to the Russian authorities on people in Harrow. The sponsorships are coming to an end, and we are now seeing Ukrainian families turning up at local authorities up and down the country, having been declared homeless and evicted. We also still have 11,000 Afghan refugees stuck in hotels waiting for housing. There is serious work to be done to help the people we have agreed to assist.
The situation in Iran is critical. Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands have been imprisoned for protesting, and many tens of people have been put on trial and condemned to death. I condemn the Government of Iran for suppressing the protests, I deplore the violent behaviour of the Iranian police in regard to the protests, and I am extremely concerned to hear of threats being made to organisations and the press in this country, who are reporting on what is going on. Indeed, there was recently a petrol bomb attack on a National Council of Resistance of Iran base in outer London.
I continue to urge the Government to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and work with international counterparts to impose sanctions. The House will have an opportunity to express its opinion when we come back after the recess, because on Thursday 12 January I will be leading a debate on the matter. It has been nearly 100 days since the crowds started protesting, following the murder of Mahsa Amini. I look forward to that debate and to the Government responding in a timely fashion and actually doing something about it.
In September there were serious clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, and I took up the plight of the Hindus on whom attacks were being made. In my constituency more than 37% of people are of the Hindu faith, and they were extremely stressed by the actions of a small group of people from outside Leicester who came in and caused all the trouble. It is clear that that needs to be combated, and I hope that when we next look at the Government’s listed places of worship grant scheme there will be appropriate provision for Hindu temples as well as other places of worship to ensure that they are safe.
In May, I was fortunate enough to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills for the second time. My Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 has helped single homeless people and prevented others from becoming homeless, and now my new Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill is having a potentially good effect on the market. It is outrageous that rogue landlords are exploiting vulnerable people and forcing them into a position in which they should be receiving support. I look forward to the Bill Committee, which will meet on Wednesday 11 January—I thank those colleagues who have volunteered, or been volunteered, to serve on it—and to the Bill’s coming to fruition in the new year.
I am receiving a substantial amount of constituency casework involving the many people who are being placed in emergency housing far away from Harrow. It is impractical for local authorities to keep doing this. It cannot be fair for people who have lived in Harrow for a long time to be placed in, for instance, Wolverhampton, Birmingham or Luton, and it forces up property prices in those areas as well.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, I strongly support the Government’s smokefree goal for England, which is to reduce smoking prevalence to below 5% by 2030 and subsequently to make it obsolete. The long-awaited Khan report was published earlier this year, setting out strong guidance on what needs to be decided on and implemented. The key issue is that the Government have still not announced the position relating to the tobacco control plan. The APPG suggested licensing local retailers to sell tobacco, and we produced a ten-minute rule Bill on the subject. I look forward to the Government’s support.
Let me now raise two international issues. The first is the India trade deal: I look forward to its coming to fruition early next year, because it presents a tremendous opportunity to both the United Kingdom and India. The second is Israel, which has experienced a series of interesting elections. Now that a stable Government seems to be in the process of being formed, I hope we can ensure that there is a proper trade deal with that country.
The 1922 Committee, of which I am secretary, has had rather a busy year, with a confidence vote and three leadership contests. I am pleased that we have reached the end of that year, and look forward to a much quieter year from the Committee’s perspective.
Finally, I wish everyone a very merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah and a happy, peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year. I myself look forward to a restful period with friends and family before coming back refreshed in 2023. I send Christmas wishes to all my colleagues in the House—including you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and Mr Speaker—and all the staff who support us and enable us to do our jobs: the catering teams, the security teams, the cleaners, and everyone else who makes this job possible. I hope they all have a very merry Christmas and a good break, and that we can all come back refreshed in the new year.
Order. Before we commence the debate, let me remind all Members of Mr Speaker’s expectation that those who speak in it will remain for the winding-up speeches. Let me also say that Back-Bench speeches will probably have to be confined to about seven minutes. If all Members adhere to that, we should get everyone in. If not, Mr Evans may find it necessary to reduce the time limit later when he is in the Chair.
I suspect that many Members, on this side anyway, have considered basing their speeches on Charles Dickens’s famous Christmas ghost story. It may not be original, but who does not wish that the Prime Minister could be visited by spirits and wake up determined to lead a kinder, more compassionate Government—a Government with a plan to tackle the evils of poverty, low wages, homelessness, debt and desperation; a Government whose Ministers lie awake at night devising policies to free people from fear or hunger, rather than dreaming of deportation flights? I have seen many versions of “A Christmas Carol” over the years, but there is no doubt that this Government are best captured by the 1992 Brian Henson version, the one with a cast of Muppets.
For too many families in Britain, conditions this Christmas are nothing short of Dickensian. Pensioners are sitting in the dark with a tiny electric heater, too worried about their gas bill to turn on the central heating. Children are going to bed hungry, their parents not knowing how they are going to make ends meet. I think Dickens would be horrified that almost 180 years after his story was published, its lessons have still not been learnt. While gas and oil companies make extraordinary profits, this Government refuse to tax them effectively to protect our constituents from the cold of winter, as Labour has proposed, and they show a similar disregard for my constituents who rely on our health services.
Last week, when Nottinghamshire MPs met local NHS leaders, it was clear that the Government’s stubborn refusal to negotiate on pay is utterly self-defeating. Those NHS representatives told us that nurses struggling to pay the bills are working fewer NHS hours and picking up bank or agency shifts instead, costing the NHS billions extra, while others are leaving the profession altogether. Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust has begun providing hot meals for £2—an initiative to help staff cope with the cost of living crisis—after becoming aware that some were going without decent meals. Ministers clapped NHS workers during the pandemic, but now they look away as those same staff are resorting to food banks. It is shameful that the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary are refusing to sit down with nurses and other NHS workers, listen to their concerns and talk about their pay. Bah humbug indeed!
However, it is not only NHS workers whose voices are shut out. Last Thursday, Nottinghamshire firefighters and support staff, the chief fire officer, the chair of the fire authority and the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union all travelled to Parliament to make the case for fair funding for our county’s fire service. Not one of the seven Nottinghamshire Conservative Members attended, and the fire Minister was nowhere to be seen. Firefighters, like nurses and paramedics, often face unimaginable stress at work. Last month, despite the bravery and dedication of the emergency services, Fatoumatta Hydara and her two young children, Naeemah and Fatimah, were killed in a house fire in Clifton, in my constituency. I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the whole House will join me in sending condolences to their family and friends.
Incidents such as that remind us just how vital our fire services are, but in Nottinghamshire, since the Conservatives took power in 2010, firefighter numbers have fallen by 29%, response times are substantially slower, and the service is stretched to the limit. Understaffing was so bad throughout last summer’s wildfires that Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service had to telephone off-duty firefighters and ask them to do extra shifts. On at least one occasion, the nearest second appliance called to Nottingham was from High Peak, more than an hour away.
Underfunding and understaffing are having a very real impact on my constituents’ ability to access vital public services. Record numbers are waiting for NHS treatment, some for more than two years. Patients are left waiting hours for ambulances. Yet another critical incident was declared at Nottingham University Hospitals yesterday, with operations and outpatient appointments cancelled. If the Government do not provide more funds for Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service, there will be even fewer firefighters and even longer response times. Right now, budget cuts are forcing the fire authority to consult on moving to have just one fire appliance at each of Nottingham’s two fire stations. The chief fire officer describes this as the least worst option, but if the cuts go ahead they will make every one of my constituents less safe by next Christmas.
It is amazing that the Government still have the gall to suggest they are trying to level up this country. Since 2010, Nottingham City Council has had to make over £300 million of savings to its budgets. Government funding has been cut from £126 million to £26 million—almost £700 per resident. Like many other local authorities, it has had no choice but to raise council tax and bid for every pot of money going. Councils should have found out by the end of this month whether their bids for levelling up cash have been successful. Now they will have to wait until the end of January. Funding to redevelop Nottingham’s Broadmarsh and invest in the Island Quarter would unlock further development of those areas, creating jobs, homes and opportunities in our city and stimulating economic growth for the wider region. It is very much needed. The east midlands remain at the bottom of the table for Government investment and as a result our region is unable to fulfil its potential. When will that change?
Christmas should be a time of joy and hope for the new year ahead. I hope that 2023 marks a turning point, although I am afraid that the real change my constituents need will come only when they have a Labour Government. A general election is top of my Christmas list, in case you’re listening, Santa! I remain an optimist. Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to end by wishing you, the whole House and all parliamentary staff a happy and healthy Christmas break. As Dickens had it, “God bless us, every one!”
I would like to raise a number of points in relation to both home and abroad. I raise the first on behalf of Eaton Bank Academy in Congleton. The energy efficiency payments that the Department for Education has provided this month will be put to excellent use on quick-win projects such as LED lighting, but to achieve longer-term efficiency saving goals such as photovoltaic panels or door and window replacements, the school is asking the Government to consider a return to the Salix loan scheme that was recently available but seems to have been replaced by a more complex decarbonisation fund that is harder to access and targeted at larger multi-academy trusts. With energy prices on the rise, the return of Salix loans would be welcome, given that schools are not allowed to borrow money by any other route. While I am on schools, I want to thank the Government for including Sandbach School in the recent announcement of refurbishment funding under the Government’s school rebuilding programme. Sarah Burns, the headteacher, says that
“this will secure the wonderful buildings that are part of the heritage of Sandbach town, ensuring the school can continue to provide the best possible learning environment for students.”
Next I wish to ask a question of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on behalf of constituents who are seriously concerned about activities at their town council. They are at a loss as to how to have their concerns independently investigated and addressed. The principal unitary authority, Cheshire East Council, does not see this as its responsibility, saying:
“Cheshire East Council has no power over the town and parish councils within its Borough and has no legal or other standing to involve itself in a matter in respect of which it has had no involvement. Neither does Cheshire East Council have power to scrutinise the precepts issued by town and parish councils within its Borough.”
The local government ombudsman does not cover town and parish councils either, so how can residents get their serious concerns about management by a town council effectively addressed?
I turn now to support for my farmers, whom I meet regularly. Cheshire farmers remain gravely concerned about bovine TB. The current policy of badger culling on a discreet basis in Cheshire has been evidently effective, and more effective than any alternative, according to my farmers. They are asking for Ministers to agree to an extension of the current policy for a further three years from when it would otherwise, very shortly, be finished.
I now turn to the issue of outstanding facilities and other services on new home sites. I welcome the advent of the new homes ombudsman service, and I hope it will be a great aid for the many homeowners who live in the plethora of newly built houses on a number of developments across my constituency who find themselves experiencing difficulties getting developers to complete sites, sometimes years after the last house was built. Homeowners can get support from the ombudsman service only if the builder has registered with the ombudsman. Will Ministers look at how constituents can get recourse to resolve such matters, particularly if the initial developer has passed the estate to a management company?
I want to speak briefly about the Alsager sports hub in my constituency. I fought a long local campaign with residents, in which Sport England was very helpful, to install new state-of-the-art sports pitches, but sadly, only three years later, the pitches have deteriorated to such an extent that I was obliged to indicate to Cheshire East Council that they have been deemed by some to be “unplayable”. I was proposing to raise these concerns in the House, but I am pleased to say that after indicating that to Cheshire East Council, I have now received a letter stating that action is being taken to bring them back up to their previous standard. It is regrettable that they have deteriorated in such a short amount of time. I want to place on record my continuing support for the Alsager community to help to ensure that these sports pitches are properly maintained.
I want to speak about concerns over local train services to Congleton station by Northern and CrossCountry. Constituents regularly tell me that the services are much worse since the pandemic. Indeed, last week on a day outside the strike times, I was unable to get any train from London to Congleton station at all. I call on Ministers to impress upon those operating companies the need to fulfil their franchise agreements and provide a viable service to the people of Congleton. Also, I need hardly mention that my constituents continue to raise concerns about Avanti West Coast services to stations across my constituency including Alsager, Sandbach, Holmes Chapel and Goostrey. This completely inadequate service cannot go on. I understand that the Secretary of State has extended the franchise to give Avanti time to fix matters, but can I press upon him the importance of resolving these issues as quickly as possible?
After the recent revaluation of business rates, one of my constituent business owners has had his rateable value increased by 10%, taking it just over the threshold for small business rate relief, which he will therefore lose, potentially along with other reliefs and grants. He suggests that, alongside a review of rateable values, the threshold for small and medium-sized enterprise relief should increase to £16,500 from April 2023. Can this be looked at?
Moving abroad to two issues on freedom of religion or belief, there is no let-up for persecuted minorities in Iran while the regime pursues its vicious crackdown on dissent. I condemn the recent sentencing of Baha’i leaders Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi to a second grievously unjust 10-year sentence after they have already lost 10 years of their lives incarcerated with five other Baha’is. They are mothers and grandmothers, and they are among the longest-suffering prisoners of conscience in the world.
Also, I draw Ministers’ attention to the humanitarian plight of Armenians since a blockade was set up a few days ago on a road connecting the historically Armenian land of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and thus to the rest of the world, cutting off 120,000 Armenian residents. I will not go into in the detail I would like, because other Members need to speak, but I ask the Government to look at the urgent need for humanitarian relief for those people.
I do not know how you feel, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it seems to me that everything in this country at the moment is broken and bust, including the Passport Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the asylum system, which even the Home Secretary says is broken. The Royal Mail never seems to deliver letters in a timely fashion any more, including those from GPs or for doctors appointments. There are repeated medicine shortages in several key areas. People cannot get an appointment with their GP, an ambulance never turns up on time and cancer results turn up weeks late. Trains are cancelled all the time—and that is when there are no strikes.
We have ploughed millions of pounds-worth of crops back into the fields because there are not enough people to harvest them. We are not training enough people to be GPs, dermatologists, radiologists or radiographers. We are wasting millions of pounds on agency staff, meaning nurses are working alongside agency nurses who are not able to do the same job but are being paid twice as much. We have a 7.1 million-person backlog in the NHS in England, and that is not all the fault of covid: it was 4.8 million before covid even arrived. Bars, restaurants and people who work on building and construction sites are desperate for additional staff. Lots of bars and restaurants are not opening on Monday evenings, or are closing early, because they cannot get enough staff.
Inflation is running at 10.7%, despite the fact that in February the then Prime Minister—it was a few of them ago—said we should not be worrying about inflation. Well, lots of families are, because they have also seen mortgage rates rise, in large part due to the actions of the crazy Government we had a few weeks ago. Public sector staff are understandably angry, worried and determined, because they have faced real-terms cuts in their living conditions year on year for 12 years now. People are losing their homes: the number of people who have turned up in my constituency office in recent weeks who are terrified of eviction over the next few days is worrying.
Frankly, I just think it is time we pressed the reset button in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, I do not think that will happen until there is a complete change of Government. We need not just the endless recycling of Government Ministers we have had this year but a proper change of Government, so I want to say to everybody on the Government Benches, in the words of the Sugababes: “Push the button”—it is time for a reset.
I want to talk about energy, because a quarter of the constituents who have come to my office recently are really worried about the price of their energy. Everybody knows that the cost of energy has grown very dramatically, but the service that some of the energy companies are providing is absolutely shocking. I am sure other Members will have heard the same. The customer service from OVO, British Gas and ScottishPower is just terrible. Replies to MPs’ correspondence regularly take several months—even to correspondence market “Urgent” or “Extremely urgent”. One constituent of mine died waiting for a reply from her energy company; another is still waiting for the resolution of a relatively minor matter six months after they got me involved. Companies make it very difficult for people to move to prepaid meters, which is what many of my constituents are desperate to do because they want actual control of their energy costs. Energy companies give up on a case after a single missed call; that is not customer service. They need to completely rethink it.
In addition, Rhondda homes are often very difficult to insulate. It sometimes sounds like a kind of Dickensian television programme but it is true: I have constituents who will sit all day long in a onesie, covered by a duvet, and who will put an electric bar on for only 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening to take the absolute chill off the house. That is going to lead to people in my constituency losing their lives.
Another problem that the Government have failed to address relates to local authorities, many of which have enormous gaps in their budgets for next year. They do not know what they are going to do about keeping open swimming pools, leisure centres and schools. Lots of schools are thinking about letting staff go because they simply have to pay very much increased bills. It is shocking that the Government have not yet come forward with a plan for what is going to happen in relation to non-domestic properties after March.
I want to talk briefly about what I call the botched, bungled Boris Brexit. Let us face it: it has been an absolute disaster for this country on every single level. It is not just that UK performing artists are not able to put together a viable tour around Europe any more—something that we used to be really good at and that the Government repeatedly say they are going to sort but still have not. It is not just the fact that we were promised frictionless trade—that was a fiction, not frictionless trade.
Even the Office for Budget Responsibility says:
“Comparing our recent overall trade performance with other advanced economies suggests that the UK saw a similar collapse in exports as other countries at the start of the pandemic but has since missed out on much of the recovery in global trade.”
In fact, we are 12% below pre-pandemic levels. The Minister who was talking about trade the other day could not decide whether we had done £800 billion or £80 billion of trade deals in recent years. That is leaving out the fact that since the Minister who was in charge of some of these trade deals was sacked, he has now confessed that he thinks they were terrible deals in the first place.
Let me turn to two final things. First, on standards, we still do not have an independent adviser on ministerial interests. That means we still do not even have a correct list on the Government website of who Ministers are and their financial interests. The most recent list was produced in May, which is obviously quite some time ago and several rounds of Ministers ago.
Secondly, the Government’s arguments about personal protective equipment contracts have now completely collapsed. They kept on saying that they were all fine and hunky dory and that everything was done properly. We have been arguing for a long time that there was massive corruption in the way the contracts were dealt out. We now know that even the Government largely agree with us, because they are suing one of the companies in question.
Finally, as you may know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am very committed to trying to get a better result for people in this country with acquired brain injury. I have been co-chairing the Government’s programme board, which is trying to get a national strategy together. It is great to see that rugby and football are just beginning to take the issue seriously, but there are far too many people in this country whose lives we magnificently save and who could be given a real quality of life if only we put in place all the support that they need. Up to now we have failed to do that. I hope that by next summer I will be able to say that we have a national strategy for acquired brain injury.
I wish the House a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.
I will try to be quick. I want to mark the fact that on 6 December 40 years ago, the Ballykelly bomb occurred. I heard it go off. I was the incident commander and I had to supervise the recovery of bodies and people who were badly hurt. I held a girl who died in my arms, which was awful—it really rendered me hors de combat for at least 20 minutes. In total, 17 people—young people—were killed that night. Five of them were ladies; one of them was a civilian boy; and the other 11 were soldiers.
I went out and represented all of us at the Ballykelly bomb commemoration earlier this month. I laid a House of Commons wreath on behalf of us all. When I was there, there were two men present who have just about always been there—when they could be, and with very few exceptions—over 40 years. Mr Peter Gresty, the chairman of the regimental association of the Cheshire Regiment, organised the event, which was extremely well done. Major Ron Goodwin, the regimental sergeant major of the Cheshires in December 1982, has been there almost every year since then to remember the 17 young people who were killed. His job was always to read out the roll call of those who lost their lives. I will end by doing the same, so that those people who lost their lives 40 years ago still live on in some small way. Their names are: Private Terrance Adam, Lance Corporal Steven Bagshaw, Mr Alan Callaghan, Lance Corporal Clinton Collins, Miss Patricia Cooke, Private Paul Delaney, Miss Ruth Dixon, Miss Angela Hoole, Lance Corporal Philip McDonough, Miss Valerie McIntyre, Private David Murray, Corporal David Salthouse, Private Steven Smith, Lance Corporal David Stitt, Miss Carol Watts, Private Neil Williams and Private Shaw Williamson. May they rest in peace. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
It is a pleasure to speak in my first pre-recess debate. I have learned a lot over the past year, and indeed in the past 18 months since being elected. This time last year, I was still very much the new MP on the block, and The Spectator was kind enough to name me as newcomer of the year, although, to be fair, in 2021 there were not that many of us newbies to choose from, so I did not get too carried away with that accolade. This year, though, by my reckoning, there have been six by-elections—thankfully, none as toxic as the one I went through. With one Lib Dem, one Conservative and four new Labour MPs, I think we can say it has been a busy year, and overall a good year, at the ballot box.
It has been all change in many ways in 2022. One day last week, I found myself in the company of not only our new monarch, but four Prime Ministers—three ex-Prime Ministers and one current—which was something of a surreal experience. Of course, change can be positive and negative, and I am sure all of us in this place have our views on the many changes we have seen this year. However, I have worked hard to keep my promise to the people of Batley and Spen not to change just because I now have two extra letters after my name. I am a proud Yorkshirewoman and we are known for our straight talking. As such, I have always done my best to tell it how it is from the perspective of myself and my constituents, but I always endeavour to do so with courtesy and respect, and a willingness to listen to other points of view.
As such, I was pleased to serve on the Online Safety Bill Committee this year, where you were in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I listened carefully to the points of view of a wide range of people and organisations, not once but twice, after the Government presented the Bill, got cold feet over it, sat on it and then recommitted it. Sadly, it is weaker now as a result, but it remains an important piece of legislation to protect children, and indeed all internet users, from harm. I pay tribute to the many organisations that gave evidence to the Committee, including the Carnegie UK Trust, HOPE not hate, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and of course the Epilepsy Society, which worked so hard with my office and colleagues from across the House to secure the inclusion of Zach’s law in the Bill, to make the evil practice of epilepsy trolling illegal. My constituents Zach and his mum, Claire, from Hartshead, have being tireless in their campaigning, and I am delighted that this Christmas their efforts have finally been rewarded.
However, if we are to be truly world-leading in this work, we must include more powers in the Bill to address the serious dangers that the online world presents through content that falls below the threshold for being illegal but is seriously dangerous and potentially devastatingly harmful. Such content relates to a range of subjects, including self-harm, suicide, radicalisation and extremism. This content can change lives and cost lives.
Hon. Members may remember the story of six-year-old Beau from Roberttown, in my constituency, who has shown incredible strength and courage this year in her fight against neuroblastoma. I was proud to bring her into Parliament with her mum, Shirley, earlier this year to join a cross-party roundtable to discuss the possibility of a UK-led vaccine trial for this particular childhood cancer. I hope that the Leader of the House might pass on my request for a meeting with the Health Secretary and the charity Solving Kids’ Cancer early in the new year to discuss that possibility.
Levelling up was claimed to be a priority of the Government this year, but after three Secretaries of State and countless delays to the levelling-up fund announcements, it does not feel as though much progress has been made. I am, however, extremely grateful to the current Secretary of State, who honoured the commitment he made to me in this House to visit Batley—he did it last week—to see the enormous potential of our levelling-up bid to transform and revitalise Batley town centre. I only wish I could secure funding for every town and village in my constituency, as I know that people in Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, Birstall and the smaller villages I serve feel that Government investment in our area is long overdue. I am, however, hoping for good news for Batley in the new year, and I hope the Leader of the House can pass on my thanks to the Secretary of State for his time last week.
I always try to remain positive, but as I find myself in reflective mode, I think it is impossible to ignore the turmoil and chaos we have seen in Westminster this year. As a fairly new Member, I have been shocked and disappointed by how much of an impact this has had on the business of government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. In the middle of it all are the British public, who are already disengaged from politics and, to say the least, cynical about politicians—a British public who are, in many cases, struggling in their own daily lives, and particularly with their household budgets and access to vital health and social care. Unfortunately, it seems as if the Government have become so preoccupied with their own internal issues that they have given up governing—this at a time when Britain needs strong, authoritative and decisive leadership more than ever. That does nothing for the reputation of us all in this place.
Despite the chaos, it is inspirational to see how people in communities up and down the UK just get on with things. They pull together and keep the country going. I wish to take this opportunity to reflect on all the amazing work that is done locally, in towns and villages across the country, and offer my thanks to the individuals, community groups, voluntary organisations, charities, sports clubs and local businesses across Batley and Spen that keep our community together through challenging times and devote their time and service to others. Without them, our communities would be more fragmented and divided, people would be more isolated, and families and individuals would be struggling even more than they are now.
Also at the heart of our communities are our emergency and public services. I pay tribute to police, fire and ambulance workers across Batley and Spen, and the whole country, along with the thousands of dedicated professionals working tirelessly to keep our NHS going under the most challenging of circumstances. I also pay tribute to those working in education, who I hope can have a well-earned break over the festive period.
I also wish to thank West Yorkshire police and, in particular, Chief Inspector Rebecca Calpin and Batley and Spen neighbourhood policing team for all their hard work and support on cracking down on issues from road safety to antisocial behaviour that have an enormous impact on the day-to-day lives of many of my constituents.
This year, we have also seen the shocking and devastating illegal war on Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion started, Angloco, a brilliant fire vehicle manufacturer in my constituency, stepped up and worked with the charity FireAid to donate and deliver four convoys of vehicles and equipment to support the Ukrainian effort. Vehicles and equipment from Batley have been used to tackle the fires and devastation in Ukraine, as well as help with logistical challenges such as collapsed bridges. I would like to thank Alistair, Sarah and the team from Angloco who have worked so selflessly this year to offer as much help and assistance as they can to the ongoing effort.
I also wish to pay tribute to the fantastic team in my constituency office in Heckmondwike, who have shown such dedication and compassion dealing with more than 2,000 cases, ranging from cost of living pressures to poor housing, urgent immigration and passport cases and everything that can possibly be imagined in between. I thank my local team—Sheikh, Sandra, Dave, Clare, Irfan and Tony—for their unfailing hard work this year. I have always said that we are only as good as our team, and, as I am sure everyone will agree, that is really true in this job. Along with Lance and Omar in my Westminster office, I feel confident that I am lucky enough to have one of the very best teams.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I would like to discuss the towns and villages that make up the constituency of Batley and Spen. It is a diverse, vibrant, no-nonsense community. Like many places, we have our differences, but when times are tough, we pull together. I am enormously proud to serve the constituency in which I was born and have lived all my life. Therefore, I am sure that colleagues will understand how very sad and disappointed I am at the splitting of the Batley and Spen constituency by the Boundary Commission. The constituency has a special place not just in the hearts of those of us who live and work there, but among many others around the country who have admired our resilience and strength in recent years. On a personal level, it will be very upsetting for my family and me to see Batley and Spen disappear from the map as an entity.
I will endeavour to tackle whatever challenges 2023 brings with my usual energy and enthusiasm. I will end by wishing you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, all hon. and right hon. Members and the fantastic, tireless staff and Doorkeepers of this House, whom we rely on all year round, a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year.
Before the House adjourns for Christmas, I wish to raise several important constituency issues. First, we have a challenging situation at King Edmund School, just off the Ashingdon Road. The school is in the process of having a major block demolished, as part of a multimillion-pound Department for Education-financed improvement programme. Unfortunately, during the demolition process, quantities of asbestos were discovered. This led to the headteacher, Mr Jonathan Osborn, very reluctantly having to close the school several weeks ago, on safety grounds, on the basis of strong advice from DfE officials.
It was originally hoped that all the demolition rubble containing the asbestos would be cleared, using specialist contractors, by Christmas. That would have allowed for the site to be cleaned and checked to ensure that asbestos was no longer present, and for the school to reopen on 3 January, at the beginning of the new term. At least, that was what both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), whose constituents also attend the school, were originally told by the Department for Education. However, delays to the clearance process, caused in part by bad weather, have extended that process until at least mid-January.
My hon. Friend and I are now concerned that the timings are slipping and could yet slip even further. Regrettably, I detect no real sense of urgency among officials to fix the problem. The inconvenience is not just to pupils, many of whom have already had their education significantly disrupted due to covid, but to their parents, who have had to juggle commitments, including work, to keep their children at home, but who cannot necessarily rely on the good will of their employers forever.
Temporary arrangements are being organised to try to accommodate at least some pupils in neighbouring schools, but I do not want to see those arrangements somehow becoming semi-permanent while people play pass the parcel with important safety issues. There is thus a pressing need to get the site completely cleared of all the building rubble and thoroughly retested, so that Mr Osborn can with confidence safely reopen the school with minimum further delay. I urge Ministers to use their good offices to keep up the pressure to permit the school to reopen safely as soon as practically possible in the new year.
Secondly, turning to Rayleigh, the residents of King George’s Court have been plagued by persistent problems with their lift, which has now been out of operation for several months. That has led to not just inconvenience, but safety issues, not least when several weeks ago an elderly resident was taken to hospital by ambulance and had to be manhandled down multiple flights of stairs, as the lift was still out of action. I know that for a fact, as one of my local councillors, Councillor Cheryl Roe, was present and witnessed the event.
The block is run by a management company, FirstPort Property Services, which seems totally deaf to the pleas of the residents. I have written previously to Ms Kully Sahdra, the managing director of FirstPort and, on 27 November, I received a totally unsatisfactory reply from Mr Gareth Cayford, the company’s “Director, Retirement”, informing me that his company was “waiting for a part”, an excuse it has apparently been using for months.
The residents of King George’s Court are still paying their ground rent and have a perfect right to receive a decent service in return. I am sure the employees of FirstPort would not be happy if an elderly relative of theirs had to put up with such a situation, so I do not see why my constituents should have to put up with it either. Ironically, FirstPort’s corporate strapline is “for great customer service”—well, you could have fooled me. I therefore call on FirstPort today to stop prevaricating and make sure the requisite part is sourced and installed as soon as possible, before I take this matter up with the Secretary of State in the new year.
Thirdly, I raised the issue of the Rochford oak tree in the House in early November. In short, this popular ancient oak is facing demolition as part of a major new housing development off the Ashingdon Road by Bloor Homes. Having raised the matter in the Commons, I wrote to Mr John Bloor, the chairman of Bloor Homes, on 9 November 2022, to inform him of that as a courtesy, and to ask him and his company to redesign the junction on the entrance to the proposed estate, not just to preserve the tree, but to improve the junction’s safety, which lies directly opposite both an infants and a junior school. Despite having written personally to the chairman more than six weeks ago, I have not received even the basic courtesy of a two-line reply, let alone a substantive response. That is typical of Bloor Homes, which my constituents now routinely describe as “arrogant”, a description with which I completely agree.
I note that the Levelling Up Secretary has recommended that the Competition and Markets Authority conduct a formal market survey into the overconcentration of the UK house building industry, which in recent years has become a highly oligopolistic market, totally dominated by just a few major players. Based on my experience as a constituency MP, especially with Bloor Homes, that is something I would wholeheartedly support and, if and when such an inquiry commences—the sooner the better in my view—Bloor’s peers in the house building industry can probably thank the company for helping to provoke it.
Last but by no means least, we have another pressing issue at Southend Hospital: the amassing of ambulances in the car park. Last Friday, I visited the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust—EEAST—at its Essex sub-control centre in Chelmsford. While there, I discussed with the trust’s chief executive, Mr Tom Abell, and with several long-serving control room staff, the problem of severe pressures on ambulance crews. The best way I can summarise their reaction is to quote an experienced senior dispatcher, who, when I asked what the best solution was, replied:
“You have to do something about ambulance handovers at our hospitals and the people who are well enough to go home but can’t. If you cannot solve that, we are just going to be queuing up in hospital car parks forever.”
Like other MPs in South Essex, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth), I have been pushing for the £118 million of capital improvements that we were promised back in 2017, when the merger of Basildon, Broomfield and Southend Hospitals was first proposed. I repeat that plea to Ministers again today. In fairness to the hard-pressed paramedics and their frontline hospital colleagues, given the bureaucratic nature of the modern NHS, the chief responsibility for organising post-hospital accommodation lies with the new integrated care board. At a recent hearing of the Public Accounts Committee, I highlighted that the new Mid and South Essex ICB is underperforming and that its current leadership seriously need to raise their game. I also believe that senior officials at the regional level of the NHS in Cambridge—some of whom promised us the £118 million in the first place—now need to take a far more proactive interest in all this. In essence, I believe that the EEAST dispatcher was right: we need to do this urgently, especially as we move into the depths of winter.
Finally, after what has been a challenging year all round, I conclude by wishing you all the best in your new responsibilities, Mr Deputy Speaker, and by wishing Mr Speaker, all House staff and my constituents what I hope will yet be a merry Christmas and an even happier new year.
This morning, I joined nurses on strike outside Great Ormond Street Hospital. They were out there not because they wished to be but because of their utter desperation about the situation they are in. After seven years of inadequate pay rises, huge workloads and a huge fall in nursing numbers—to the extent that the numbers recruited barely keep up with the numbers leaving—there is a crisis in the national health service. The strike by the Royal College of Nursing is an example of that.
The picket was joined by people from hospitals in other parts of the country, including a group from Southampton, who came with their own handwritten slogan that said to the Secretary of State:
“Open your fat purses and pay for the nurses”.
They were demanding a decent pay rise. I would have thought that the very least the Secretary of State could do before the Christmas break is meet the nursing and health unions and listen to what they have to say, not just about pay, but about their working conditions, the stress they are under and the poverty in which many of them live.
We surely cannot be proud of the national health service if we clap for its staff during the covid crisis but ignore the mental health stress that they go through the rest of the time and expect them to continue on what is often very low pay. Some of them even have to access food banks just to survive. Surely, we can do a lot better than that for our national health service workers. We must stop threatening them with more privatisation—of the ambulance service and so much else—and with bringing in the military to do the jobs of nurses and ambulance staff during this particular dispute. That is not what the military exists for; it should not be used as a battering ram to deliver those services by a Government who refuse to meet the workers’ representatives.
Health workers are not the only people taking strike action. We should think for a moment of postal workers, who have now been taking strike action for several months. They are incredibly hardworking people. Everyone in this House loves their postie and likes to say what a great job their postie does, except when they want to be decently paid. They want to be decently paid for their work and recognised as the important part of the community that they are. Royal Mail—a privatised industry thanks to the Liberal Democrats during the coalition Government—is now paying out enormous dividends to its shareholders and an enormous salary to its chief executive, and it is refusing to give the postal workers an offer of at least an inflation-linked pay rise and insisting that any pay rise be attached to job losses, speed-ups at work and yet further pressures on them to undertake that work. I have talked to postal workers all over the country—not just in the past few weeks, but over many years—and they tell me how they once enjoyed the job they were doing and being part of the community, but are now so deeply stressed that they are leaving the service on mental health grounds, because of the pressure under which they have been placed.
Having visited the local Royal Mail workforce several times in the past few years, it seems to me that there is an agenda to basically reduce the job of postal workers to a zero-hours, gig economy, disposable job where they do not know what hours they are doing next week or tomorrow. We seem to have disgraceful behaviour by the chief executive and senior management at Royal Mail in their failure to reach an agreement with CWU.
My friend is absolutely right. The management of Royal Mail is trying to reduce postal workers to gig workers and put them on a par with other delivery companies that pay far lower wages and have far worse conditions. Surely we should be proud of the fact that we have the universal service obligation Royal Mail that can deliver a letter or package to every single house in the UK. Royal Mail leadership wants to end that monopoly and the universality of the service and thus destroy our postal service. This is the time, surely, for the Government to intervene and not just to speculate on the sidelines and attack Dave Ward and all the other leaders of the Communication Workers Union. The Government should recognise that they are speaking up democratically on behalf of their members who want to deliver that service to us all.
Postal workers are of course not the only group taking action; rail workers are also taking action and have announced new strike days. Before anyone gets up and immediately condemns Mick Lynch, Eddie Dempsey and everyone else in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, I will say two things. They should stop calling the elected leaders of unions “union bosses”; they are elected leaders, democratically appointed by their members, just like we are all elected to this particular Parliament. They are taking action with the agreement of their members through a balloting process, and the members have shown they are prepared to make the sacrifice of losing pay to try to persuade the Government, essentially, that they deserve decent pay and that the strings attached to that should not be further job losses in the railway industry.
Instead, there should be recognition that the public have invested a great deal in the rail industry, and a great deal of money has been made out of the rail industry by the private sector. The only people not doing well out of it are those who actually work in it, run it safely and give us the service we need and deserve. Again, I hope that the Government will just think for a moment that using the newspapers to attack union leaders only gets them so far. They have to think of why people are taking action, which is that they want to be able to live decently and not rely on food banks to survive.
Sadly, in the new year the situation will not get better unless the Government intervene. Our teachers all over the country do an amazing job under enormous stress, with over-stressed, over-tested children, and they are balloting to take strike action. Surely it is time to think carefully about the value of public service and how it is delivered in our society.
I will conclude with this, because I do not want to go over my time. In the covid crisis, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, now Prime Minister for a while had a dalliance with Keynesian economics. He paid money into the health service, local government and the furlough scheme to keep industry and so on going. That was done with general approval. After that, we have now had a series of financial statements, all of which redistribute wealth in the wrong direction and all of which make life better for the very wealthiest in our society on the basis of some strange idea of trickle-down economics that will help the poorest in our society, when it does not. We have a decline in working-class living standards, real wage levels and, with that, a loss of service as a whole. That creates enormous stress in our society, no more so than among young people. They are over-tested and overstretched in school, and over-indebted if they have the temerity to go to university. Because they are unable to access council housing due to the shortage of it, and unable to raise enough money to buy their own place, they end up paying huge rents in the private rented sector, certainly in London and all the other big cities. Can we not have some resolution that, in the new year, we will provide real hope for young people, value their contribution to our society, and not put them under such stress and in such debt?
We all represent constituencies, and I am very proud to represent mine. I thank all the public services in my constituency, and all the community centres, food banks and food co-ops, for all that they do. That wonderful sense of community that was there through covid is there all the time, and the worst-off and hardest-up are supported and fed by the churches, synagogues, mosques and other places throughout this period.
Mr Deputy Speaker, we wish everyone a great Christmas, a great Hanukkah and a great new year. Above all, we wish everyone a peaceful new year in which we recognise that those desperate people who are seeking asylum in this country are not our enemies, but human beings just trying to survive in a cruel world.
Before I outline one or two local issues, let me comment on what the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has just said. It is notable that he aligned himself with all those who are on strike. I give him credit for the fact that he has held that position consistently. I will be interested to note whether Opposition Front Benchers are equally prepared to align themselves with those who are causing great inconvenience and putting the public at risk.
Turning to local issues, I do not pretend by any means that everything is going perfectly, but I noticed that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is no longer in his place, said that everything was going wrong. He did not exclude the Labour party from that. Perhaps that was an oversight on his part, or perhaps he recognises the deficiencies in his party.
The most notable issue facing my constituents is the train service provided by TransPennine Express. I spoke about that in the summer Adjournment debate, when I suggested to Ministers that they should consider withdrawing the franchise from TransPennine, which has provided an appalling service to my constituents for over a year now. That is rather sad because, after it took over the franchise 15 years or more ago—I cannot remember exactly when—TPE built up good patronage and provided a great service. Sadly, since November last year, due to a whole range of issues to do with driver training, rest day working and the like, it has provided an appalling service.
A few weeks ago, I raised the link between TransPennine Express and Avanti West Coast. I believe that TransPennine Express is entirely owned by FirstGroup, which also has a 70% stake in Avanti. It seems to me that FirstGroup is terribly mismanaging both franchises. Services are provided in Stockport by both companies. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is calling for TPE to be stripped of its franchise, and I am glad; I am certainly calling for FirstGroup to be stripped of the Avanti West Coast franchise.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I mentioned, I asked Ministers to consider the franchise position of TransPennine in the equivalent July debate, because these issues have been going on for more than a year. I am not interested in Avanti at the moment; I am focusing on TransPennine, which serves my constituents. It is supposed to provide an hourly service from 5.20 am until 9.20 pm. At the moment, the website says that the 16.24 from Cleethorpes is cancelled, the 17.24 is running, the 18.24 is cancelled, the 19.24 is cancelled, the 20.24 is cancelled and the 21.24 is cancelled. That emphasises the appalling state of affairs that TransPennine is delivering. I urge the Leader of the House to contact the Department for Transport and ask it to reconsider whether the franchise should be withdrawn.
On the subject of trains, I have long campaigned to reinstate the direct service from Cleethorpes through Grimsby, Market Rasen and Lincoln to King’s Cross, which was withdrawn by the then nationalised British Rail in 1992. It is now in the draft timetable for the coming summer, so I hope that the Leader of the House will pass on to Transport Ministers my wish that it happens. At present, five or six trains run from King’s Cross to Lincoln and it would be easy to continue those services to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Indeed, I understand that Azuma trains have done trial runs to ensure that there is clearance through to Cleethorpes. That is a vital part of levelling up north and north-east Lincolnshire.
On levelling up, as the Leader of the House will know, three freeports were given final approval only a week or two ago. I hope that work can be done to ensure that the Humber ports are also given that approval soon. That designation is vital to the levelling up and regeneration of the area, and the potential for thousands of jobs is of great value.
I fully support the Government’s policy on renewable energy. My constituency and neighbouring Grimsby have greatly benefited from the offshore renewable sector in the North sea. I am told by Ørsted that the servicing and maintenance facility on Grimsby docks that overlaps into my constituency is the largest of its kind in the world, which is yet another reason to give maximum support to the area through infrastructure and the rail network.
We are close to a devolution deal for the whole of Lincolnshire. I urge the Leader of the House to pass on to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government the desire for the two unitary councils in the north of the county and the county council that serves the remainder of the county to be, for once, totally agreed on a devolution deal. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, all hon. Members and staff a happy Christmas, and I hope that the true Christmas message gets through to everyone in the coming weeks.
I will take this opportunity to put on record a few thanks. First, I thank my friends, family and loved ones, who support me in doing my job as an MP and who I do not see as much as I would like—I speak for many hon. Members in that. I particularly thank my mum and dad, who have always been there for me, because I celebrated a significant birthday earlier this year.
Rather than worrying about my advancing years, I am embracing being a woman of a certain age and using what my friend calls “the power of menopause” to feel more confident in my albeit ageing skin—although the brain fog of menopause may mean that I cannot remember why I walked into a room or the names of the people there. I thank everyone who has raised the impact of menopause on women this year and kept campaigning for better access to menopause understanding and support, particularly in the workplace.
Reaching my significant milestone this year also meant that two weeks later, I received a letter inviting me to go for a mammogram, which I did at the brilliant Luton & Dunstable University Hospital, and all was well. Figures show, however, that too many breast screening appointments are missed, and I take the opportunity to encourage all women to cop a feel, check their boobs and take up the invitation to their mammograms. Please, everyone—encourage your mothers, your sisters and your daughters to do so. I do not just say this as a menopausal woman, or intellectually as a politician who has been given the stats. I say it personally. Rest in peace, Michelle Canny—you were a tour de force and a great craic, and we will miss you.
This year’s experiences have brought me into more contact with the NHS and the brilliant nurses who work in it—overworked, understaffed and burnt out, yet professional, compassionate and deserving of more than just claps. Nurses have been let down by this Government’s refusal to get round the table and negotiate a fair deal, even when nursing unions offered to suspend the strikes. Workers do not choose lightly to strike—days of pay are lost—but they have been driven to it by this Conservative Government.
I take this opportunity to say thank you to our nurses, all NHS workers and everyone working in our public services, from our frontline workers—the armed forces, paramedics, firefighters and police, putting themselves in the face of danger and trauma—to our often-unseen civil servants, local government staff and care workers, who do more for less as the years go by, as well as our key workers, who keep our country going: teachers, postal workers, train drivers and rail workers.
As a result of 12 years of cuts, we have seen our voluntary, community and charitable organisations increasingly having to step up—not just to fill the cracks, but to deliver support and care where this Conservative Government have failed in the provision of public services. I take this opportunity to thank our superb charity and community sector in Luton, which has come together to tackle the increased winter pressures. The list is as long as my arm, but here are a just a few. There is the excellent team at Citizens Advice Luton, which delivers vital advice and support to our community. The team is a vital lifeline for many who are struggling with the increased impact of the cost of living crisis. There are also the brilliant charities and faith groups that step up to simply feed those in need. The Sikh soup kitchen, curry kitchen at Discover Islam and Luton food bank, among others, are each making sure that no one goes hungry—not only during this festive period, but all year round.
I end my remarks back where I started, by referencing women’s issues: particularly the work of great organisations in Luton that support women. Stepping Stones, Luton All Women’s Centre and Women’s Aid are all empowering women by working to create a safer, more equal society. Like myself, Women’s Aid in Luton is celebrating a significant birthday this year—its 50th year, too. Congratulations to the team and all those who have worked with them over the years, including my mum back when I was a baby.
It is always a pleasure to speak in the “Matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment” debate. I finish by wishing my staff team, all Members and all House staff a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I think this may be a first. If the House will allow me, I am going to quote:
“Ladies and gentlemen,
Over the past 12 months, the United Kingdom has faced many challenges and has made many important decisions. In the face of these challenges, the country has remained steadfast in its commitment to its values and principles. One of the key achievements of the UK over the past year has been its success in managing the economy. Despite the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has worked tirelessly to support businesses and protect jobs. This has included implementing a range of measures such as the furlough scheme, which has helped to keep millions of people in work.
The UK has also been successful in implementing its ambitious plan for Brexit. After years of negotiations, the country has finally left the European Union and has begun to forge a new path as an independent, global trading nation. This has not been without its challenges, but the UK has shown determination and resolve in securing a good deal for the country. In addition to these economic achievements, the UK has also made significant progress on a range of other issues. For example, the government has continued to invest in the NHS, providing it with the resources it needs to deliver high-quality care to patients. The country has also been committed to law and order, with a focus on ensuring that the justice system is fair and effective.
Of course, no country is perfect and there are always areas where improvements can be made. However, I believe that the UK has shown itself to be capable and resilient, and has demonstrated its commitment to its values and principles. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ I believe that the UK has shown that courage over the past 12 months, and I have every confidence that it will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.”
The hon. Gentleman points out exactly the thing I have alluded to. That speech may have been one that Members would have heard in the House, but it was put together by ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence run by OpenAI. My command to it was simple: write a Churchillian speech on the state of the United Kingdom over the past 12 months. When we step into the House there are principles that we abide by. We learn from the past, we do not dwell on it; we live in the moment, but we do not get lost in it; we plan for the future, but we do not rely on it. This speech is all about the future.
This year there has been a seismic change in the way that artificial intelligence can be used. Gone are the days when generational knowledge was passed on from person to person. We had books and developed reading, and we then had the ability to put that on to computers. Further still, with the advent of the internet we suddenly did not need to know and retain knowledge; we needed only to find out where to go to get it. Now, with the AI in algorithms we can ask the computer how to use that information.
Let me give some examples. Other than writing political speeches, the AI can write copy for adverts or put together a running programme for someone who wants to train for a marathon. It can diarise someone’s potential work commitments, or put together recipes when they are not sure what is in the fridge. It can write apps when someone asks what kind of coding it would like. This is an incredible step forward, but with that come huge issues about autonomy, liability, fairness, safety, morality, and even ownership of creativity. We in this House must ask ourselves how we govern this, because so much comes down to algorithms.
Algorithms are there to support, drive and work as a tool, but the problem with such intelligence is that we risk creating an echo chamber. Now when a sixteen-year-old writes a school essay on what happened with Brexit, the algorithm will drive an answer, which will be read and put into a marking algorithm, and there is the problem—cycles of algorithms going round. Further still, let us extrapolate it out to autonomous cars. We will get in the position where we know who is in the car, when there will be an accident, and their percentage chance of survival. How will we pit a pensioner in a single car versus a bus carrying 30 schoolchildren? That is some of the stuff that we in the House will deal with over the next 10, 20 or 30 years.
The Government have gone some way to dealing with this. The AI Council was formed in 2019, and the National AI Strategy is run by the Office for Artificial Intelligence. I think, however, that we are missing a trick, and that there should be a regulator for algorithms and artificial intelligence, to run concurrently and in synergy with the technology we are developing. If we take a leaf out of the vaccine book, that is exactly what the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency did. We can risk and mitigate the problems that the Online Safety Bill has had to deal with 20 or 30 years down the line. AI and algorithms will have a huge impact on the labour market, diagnosis, tools, education, and society, and that needs a far wider debate, but I wanted to put the issue on the record because such a debate will happen, and we as politicians need to be at the front of it.
This is a Christmas speech, so to demonstrate AI yet again, I thought I would ask ChatGPT to write a rhyming poem about the Houses of Parliament at Christmas, including talking about the Speaker:
“As Christmas approaches and the air grows cold,
The Houses of Parliament stand grand and bold.
The Speaker presides, with wisdom and grace
Over the debates, in this special place.
The halls are decked with holly and cheer,
As politicians gather, year after year,
To discuss the issues, that matter most
And find solutions, to the problems they host.
But on this festive night, as the fire burns bright
They pause for a moment, to appreciate the sight
Of the snow-covered streets, and the city aglow
And the warmth of the season, that we all know.
So on this Christmas Eve, as the clock ticks by,
We give thanks for all, both low and high,
For the Houses of Parliament, and all they do
Merry Christmas to all, from me and you.”
One of the key points that I want to cover is the debt collection practice employed by several local authorities. I recently had a constituent in my constituency surgery who was in council tax arrears. She had a difficult situation: she owed just over £681 and was struggling to pay that to Stockport Council. She worked in catering and, during the pandemic, she was unable to work due to the lockdown, so her debt was passed on by Stockport Council to a debt collection agency. She came to see me and, in a difficult conversation for her, she made it clear that she was in a difficult situation when it came to her family as well as financially. She was being hounded by a debt collection agency to pay the money owed to the council. She felt that the debt collection agency’s behaviour was “intimidating and aggressive” and that it was holding a gun to her head in trying to get her to pay off the debt. I wrote to Stockport Council about that earlier this year, asking it to clarify its policy on debt collection agencies, including what intervention and payment measures are offered to constituents before it proceeds to instruct its contractor, Jacobs Enforcement.
In January 2021, Citizens Advice estimated that more than 3.5 million people were behind on their council tax, of whom 51% were not behind before the pandemic. As the cost of living crisis deepens, that, sadly, will only get worse. It also found that bailiff fees add an average £310 of debt for people struggling with council tax arrears.
Research last year by Policy in Practice found that, primarily, there is
“no clear relationship between stricter council tax collection policies and higher council tax collection rates”.
I urge the Minister to look into that.
I recently submitted a freedom of information request to Stockport Council, asking it to detail the number of residents referred to enforcement agents and, subsequently, the data for people classed as vulnerable. I welcome the fact that the number went from 588 people in 2021-22 to 270 in 2022-23, although I appreciate that this year is not over. It is clearly an inappropriate course of action to use debt collection agencies to hound people who are struggling financially.
I have tabled a number of written parliamentary questions on the matter, including one asking
“how many local authorities have stopped using bailiffs to collect unpaid council tax.”
The Government’s answers have been weak, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seems to have no oversight on the use of bailiffs. It is important that it publishes a proper policy on that, outlining alternative ways for collecting council tax that do not create further stress for vulnerable people.
In response to written question 108439, the Minister said:
“The Department does not collect data on the enforcement methods used by local authorities to collect unpaid council tax.”
I do not think that is good enough. The Government should do better. I must highlight, though, that Stockport Council has seen a 32.5% reduction in its settlement funding since 2015-16. We know that the austerity programme instigated by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition Government was a disaster for local authorities, and now we see increasing moves to decentralise spending decisions to local government without providing it with adequate funding. That is not levelling up; clearly it is levelling down.
I want to highlight that Stockport Council staff do a really important job in challenging circumstances. I thank them, as well as Debt Justice, the campaigning group, which has done a lot of work on this issue.
The issue I receive most correspondence on every week is Stockport Homes, the local social housing provider in my borough. Sadly, over 7,000 households—not people, households—are on the waiting list in my borough. People are desperate to get a property they can call home. We have seen levels of poverty increasing and the challenges that households are facing. Communities are seeing an increased level of antisocial behaviour and low-level crime. I also receive a lot of correspondence on that issue. Stockport Homes does a really good job and I am grateful to the staff, but it needs proper settlement funding for building new social housing and for allocating people houses that are good to live in.
I will not dwell too much on Avanti West Coast, because I spoke in the Backbench Business debate last week, but I will reiterate the fact that Avanti West Coast is not fit to provide that service. It should be stripped of the contract and it should be taken under public ownership so that the service is provided for the benefit of our communities, cutting carbon emissions and congestion on our roads. It simply cannot run the railway system.
I will be going to see local postal workers in my constituency later in the week. I have been in touch with them over the last few months and years. In particular, I want to place on record my thanks to Mr David Kennedy, the Communication Workers Union branch secretary for north-west central amalgamated branch, which is my local CWU branch. Its offices are based a five-minute walk from my constituency office. I intervened earlier on the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on the disgraceful behaviour of the chief executive of Royal Mail. A lot of people will not be receiving letters, Christmas cards and Christmas presents because Royal Mail senior management has failed to resolve the dispute. I thank Mr David Kennedy for his support and for keeping me up to date with the dispute.
I congratulate the former hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, Kate Green. She will take up her new role in January as the new Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, covering police, crime and fire. I will continue to call out the Government on their cuts to firefighters. We have lost over 600 full-time firefighter roles in Greater Manchester since 2010 and that is simply not acceptable.
Manchester Airport is the third largest airport in Britain. It is an international gateway for trade and travel, acting as a major draw for investment and development in Greater Manchester and the wider north-west region. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned the trade deal currently being negotiated between Britain and India. I want to put on record that the trade deal must benefit people in Stockport and Greater Manchester, not just the south of England. I tabled a written parliamentary question earlier this year. The Minister responded:
“A United Kingdom-India trade deal…could boost the economy in the North West of England by up to £304 million. The North West of England exported over £350 million of goods to India in 2021.”
I also tabled a number of questions subsequently. The trade deal must benefit people in Stockport and Greater Manchester, not just when it comes to trade but cultural and educational links too. Currently, Manchester Airport does not provide direct flights to key cities in India and people have to travel to Heathrow. The economy of Stockport, Greater Manchester and the wider north-west would benefit from direct air links between Manchester Airport and key cities in India. That would make it easier for trade, and educational and cultural links between both nations.
I will finish by wishing everyone who works in this House, from cleaners to clerks to lawyers, a merry Christmas. I hope they manage to get some rest. I wish colleagues—including you, Mr Deputy Speaker—on both sides of the House a merry Christmas. I hope they manage to get some rest over new year. Finally, I want to thank everyone who works in my constituency office and Charlie who works in the office here. I thank them for everything they do. I wish them all a very prosperous 2023.
The past year has been a hugely exciting one for Darlington as we continue to go from strength to strength. By my calculations, including funds for my hard-working constituents during covid and the current cost of living challenges, Darlington has received around £620 million in support and investment from the Government since I was elected in 2019. We are already seeing what that investment is delivering, such as the £23.3 million from the towns fund, which is improving our historic yards, Victoria Road and Northgate.
We have seen the announcement of the permanent location of the Darlington economic campus, which continues to grow. Treasury civil servants are joined by those from Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Department for Education, the Office for National Statistics and the Competition and Markets Authority. More than 80% of those new jobs have gone to people from the region, allowing people to stay local but go far. I want to put on the record my thanks to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, for his decision as Chancellor to choose Darlington.
T-levels have now come to Darlington. They offer a fantastic new educational route for young people, helping to train the next generation of skilled workers. Darlington College has benefited from £2.69 million from the towns fund for a new engineering block. I have invited the Secretary of State for Education to open the extension, and I look forward to welcoming her to Darlington in the new year.
Diggers are on site as the £139 million investment in Bank Top station gets under way. This will be transformational for the station and is key to ensuring Darlington’s position as the gateway to the region. Darlington’s rail heritage quarter is taking shape, with £35 million in investment from Ben Houchen and Darlington Borough Council. We look to the future and the 200th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington railway on 27 September 2025. Darlington Borough Council is already setting out plans to commemorate this milestone. I hope that the Government will commemorate the anniversary in a fitting way.
On railways, I have had the railway bridges on Yarm Road and North Road painted. I am campaigning for tactile edging at Bank Top station and I am pulling people together to see improvements at North Road station. I have campaigned to ensure that we see no reduction in services from London North Eastern Railway and I want to see price and provider competition at Darlington from the likes of Lumo. I support calls for the reopening of the Leamside line and I am backing the restoration of services through to Weardale. It is not just about rail in Darlington. It is also about roads. I continue to press for the inclusion of Darlington’s northern link road in road investment strategy 3.
Delivering as a Member of Parliament is not just about fighting for jobs and investment. It is also about strengthening our communities. I have spent as much time as possible in Darlington talking to residents and delivering on local priorities. Last year, I co-ordinated and helped to deliver a new playground at Corporation Road Community Primary School. I am delighted to have been able to repeat that project twice more this year, first at Maidendale Nursery and then at the Coleridge Centre in Skerne Park, and have worked with fantastic organisations such as Splash and Hands On, in partnership with local businesses and community groups.
It was a huge honour to secure my very first Adjournment debate finally, on the posthumous recognition of Pilot Officer William McMullen. For the benefit of those who were not able to attend the debate, William is a true hero to the people of Darlington for saving the lives of countless Darlingtonians at the cost of his own life. I became the first Member of Parliament for Darlington to tell his story on the Floor of the House. His story is now rightly recorded in Hansard.
As a hospice trustee and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hospice and end of life care, I look forward to the publication of our report in the new year. I welcome the obligations on palliative care in the Health and Care Act 2022. I will always continue to push for further support and recognition of these important organisations, just like St Teresa’s in Darlington, which does so much good work.
Being a constituency MP affords us the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to experience the roles they play in our communities. Over the past year, I have cleaned rivers with the Environment Agency, I have been on patrol with the police, I have emptied bins with the fantastic guys from the Darlington Council refuse team, I have painted railway bridges with the guys from Network Rail, I have built children’s playgrounds alongside community volunteers, I have called bingo, danced the conga and participated in quizzes in clubs across my constituency, I have attended almost every denomination of faith represented in Darlington—and I have loved every minute of it.
I thank everyone I have engaged with for their support, their encouragement and their willingness to share their stories and experiences with me: it helps me to learn and helps me to serve my community better. I wish everybody across Darlington, all Members of this House, the House’s incredible staff and my exceptional staff team—Rachael, Kevin, Jonathan, Berni, Gemma and Theo, who do so much to support me—a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on his speech. My intervention on him was generated by KI, or Kevin intelligence, rather than AI. I had hoped to speak earlier in the debate, but despite my having been in the House for 21 years, I think my name got lost in the ether somewhere. I congratulate him on introducing the subject of artificial intelligence and its capability; he is absolutely right. Let me give the House a further example:
“As we all know, artificial intelligence is rapidly advancing and finding its way into all sorts of industries and sectors. The creative industries are no exception, and the music industry in particular is already starting to feel the impact of AI. But what does that mean for us as music lovers?
On the positive side, AI has the potential to help artists and musicians create new compositions more efficiently and quickly. It’s like having a trusty sidekick who can handle all the tedious tasks while you focus on the creative work. And with AI’s ability to analyze data about music trends and consumer preferences, it could also help artists and music labels create music that is more likely to be successful. It’s like having a crystal ball that can predict which songs are going to be hits and which ones will be misses.
But on the negative side, there’s the potential for AI to replace human musicians and composers. While AI-generated music can be impressive, it’s also important to remember that it lacks the creativity and originality that comes from a human artist. It’s like trying to compare a machine-made painting to a masterpiece by Vincent van Gogh. Sure, they both might be visually appealing, but one has a level of depth and soul that the other just can’t match.
There’s also the potential for AI to be used to create counterfeit or pirated music. With AI, it’s possible to create songs that are very similar to existing ones, which could lead to the creation of fake or unauthorized copies of popular songs. It’s like trying to pass off a knockoff designer bag as the real deal. Sure, it might look the same on the outside, but it lacks the quality and craftsmanship of the original.
Despite these potential negative implications, it’s important to remember that AI has the potential to bring many benefits to the music industry as well. And as with any new technology, it’s up to us as a society to find a balance and figure out how to use it in a responsible and ethical way. It’s like finding the sweet spot on a see-saw. We don’t want to lean too far in either direction, but rather find a comfortable and sustainable middle ground.
In conclusion, the impact of AI on the music industry is a complex and multifaceted issue. While it has the potential to bring many benefits, it also carries with it a number of potential risks and challenges. But with a little bit of thought and consideration, we can navigate these challenges and find a way to use AI in a way that benefits everyone.”
As I suspect hon. Members may have spotted, that speech was not written by me. Nor was it written by my brilliant, trusty parliamentary assistant, George Leach-Hutchings, or by my very clever niece, who played around with the technology with us this morning. It was written by an artificial intelligence programme—the same one that the hon. Member for Bosworth highlighted earlier.
I know that all this is giving trouble to the Clerks, who are thinking, “Is this a lengthy quotation? It shouldn’t be allowed,” and so on, but in this instance I think we have to face up to the fact that the hon. Gentleman and I may not be the first Members who have used AI to deliver speeches. Someone might have done it already and not fessed up to the House—you might like to bear that in mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, before the Clerks turn to you and say that my speech is out of order.
This technology is with us now, and it is very, very real. It has very many positive potential implications. If you ask it what it is, it will tell you that it is basically
“a large artificial intelligence language model trained by OpenAI. It exists purely as a collection of algorithms and data and”
—listen to this bit—
“does not have a physical body. Its primary function is to generate human-like text in response to prompts given to it by users. It was trained on a large dataset of texts and can generate responses on a wide variety of topics”,
as we have shown this afternoon.
“Since it does not have the ability to browse the internet or access new information, its knowledge is limited to what was available to it at the time of its training. It is not a real person and does not have personal experiences or feelings. Its responses are generated solely based on the data and algorithms that make up its programming.”
I think it important for us to discuss this subject, not least because our parliamentary assistants will be very nervous about the potential of the programme to write speeches for us all; but there are a number of others in society who, as well as understanding the benefits of this technology, also understand that we, as parliamentarians, need to understand its policy implications for many different aspects of our economy. As many Members know, I take a strong interest in the creative industries, and the music industry in particular. We in the UK do not currently have any regulations that cover this adequately, and nor does the EU, which is also considering the matter.
The Government held a consultation last year on the implications for music, and reached a conclusion that caused a great deal of consternation in the music industry. Thankfully they are now thinking again, but had that conclusion been implemented, it would have allowed any tech company to “scrape” the creative output of our great songwriters and composers and then use this technology to create facsimiles, or similar types of music, based on the data—after all, all information is essentially data—contained in those creative works without the creators themselves, the songwriters, composers and rights holders, having to give permission, and without the activity having to be licensed in any way. As Members will imagine, that caused considerable concern in our brilliant and world-leading creative industries, and not just in the music industry. This issue affects many other industries, including the film industry. It affects actors, and, dare I say it, politicians, because it can recreate their voices, their mannerisms and so on.
I think that all of us, as parliamentarians and policymakers, need to engage more readily and in more depth with the implications of this technology. It is a delicate balance, but a key one. I think it imperative that we defend our copyright institutions and allow rights holders to license the use of their creative output, including music, by AI to ensure that songwriters and composers can continue to receive remuneration when their works are used, especially for commercial AI purposes. I hope that the UK Government will think about that in reconsidering their decision to allow third parties to use not just music but artistic works in general for data mining purposes without authorisation from creators and other rights holders.
The one small relief that I gained from the speech of the hon. Member for Bosworth was the fact that the poem with which he ended it was not exactly William Wordsworth. However, this technology will clearly improve as it develops, and it is developing very rapidly. Let us make sure that we do not allow ourselves to become slaves to the algorithm.
It is a pleasure to follow so many speakers who have talked of successes and of subjects that are of interest to us all, such as artificial intelligence. However, these Christmas Adjournment debates also give us a chance to appreciate some of those who would not normally be mentioned, and there is no better way for me to start than by thanking those in the Gloucestershire health and care trusts whose staff serve so many of my constituents and those of my Gloucestershire colleagues so well, often at home and sometimes giving palliative care at the end of life. I have been honoured to see them in action from time to time when volunteering with the NHS each summer, but this year I feel more deeply than ever about this, because Alice Roberts and her team were helping my younger brother, who died of cancer three weeks ago. My sister-in-law Sophie described Alice and her colleagues as “amazing, kind and empathetic”, and I know what a difference their approach made in the last few days of his life. I am incredibly grateful to all the district nurses in Gloucestershire, many of whom I know will carry on helping patients like my brother at the end of their lives through this difficult winter.
Let me just add that I find it hard to say much about Royal College of Nursing or ambulance strikes, or to make judgments, when emotions, respect, responsibility for public finances and the politics of union strikes clash so uncomfortably for me at the moment. I have chaired regular meetings between our county’s MPs, our NHS trusts, public health and our county council for almost three years now, and with huge respect to all the health professionals involved, the question that I ask myself is: if nurses are stressed by volumes of work and lack of resources, as they are, what will happen to the backlogs? They will only increase. That is why I can only encourage all those responsible to think of creative solutions to capacity in our A&E hospitals. Is it right, for example, that alcoholics return regularly to these hospitals, including the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, both for their detox treatment and for a 10-day monitored recovery? Is that really what an A&E hospital should do when beds are needed for real accidents, not recurring addiction? This is not to downplay the importance of such help, but just to ask whether it could be done elsewhere than in our A&E hospitals.
Let me now move on and appreciate those who serve us abroad: not only our armed forces, who have been mentioned several times today, but our diplomatic service, our international trade officers and others, including the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Some work in countries where there may be more sun but also, until recently, many more covid restrictions. Many of those people did not see family back here for well over two years, and I want to thank them all.
Official trade statistics may not show great growth in trade with Asia, but Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should be careful about rubbishing what is being done on behalf of our country. The trans-Pacific partnership, the free trade agreement talks with India and the joint economic trade committees with Thailand and Indonesia will achieve much, although not overnight, and I commend to the hon. Gentleman and other Eeyores here today the thought of the day in Pimlico underground station this morning:
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.”
Having just celebrated 10 years as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for parts of south-east Asia, I will go on building the new: the satellites, cyber, education, life sciences and green energy partnerships and links that are good for our partners in south-east Asia—indeed, all of Asia—and for us.
That leads me to the sensitive bilateral relationship that we have with China. This House has had no shortage of urgent questions on human rights in, and sometimes outside, China. We have had more debates on abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the past two years than on human rights everywhere else in the world put together. No one here imagines that what has happened in Xinjiang or in other minority ethnic parts of China—I have seen many of these myself at first hand—would be remotely acceptable here, but what we have almost completely missed is the real human rights success in China this year, which is the near-complete reversal of the zero covid policy, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong, where it is modestly disguised as flexible zero covid.
The people of China, seeing random restrictions harshly imposed on them in the name of an impossible goal, made their feelings clear across the nation, unconsciously echoing the remark by Dr Li Wenliang, the famous Wuhan doctor, that there must be more than one voice. There are three interesting aspects to the speed of the policy U-turn: first, it shows that the Communist party of China can listen; secondly, it is good for global supply chains and growth; and thirdly, it was domestic, not international, pressure that achieved such important change.
The latter aspect is the subject of a new book by Jamie Gruffydd-Jones called “Hostile Forces: How the Chinese Communist Party Resists International Pressure on Human Rights”. Jamie notes that
“foreign pressure may raise citizens’ awareness of human rights violations…or it may spark nationalist sentiments, lead to a backlash against the international community and drive support for their government’s actions.”
He highlights how, for example, changes to the death penalty in China came from the domestic outcry over the execution of Mr Nie Shubin for a rape and murder that another man subsequently admitted to. Jamie goes on to say that the CCP has, so far, been successful in ensuring a tight link between party and nation in opposing criticism on human rights from the west and, indeed, has been able to
“weaponise such international pressure for its own propaganda purposes”.
The reinforcement of the CCP’s depiction of US and UK pressure on human rights may be the unintended achievement of those in this House who are relentlessly focused on China’s domestic human rights abuses. This approach has not been very successful in Tibet and I wonder whether it is achieving much in Xinjiang—not because calling out human rights issues in China is wrong, but because it may be counterproductive, while missing the dramatic success for the wider human rights of the Chinese people over zero covid that was achieved without our help. This matters because in an uncertain world we should, as western leaders rightly concluded at the Bali G20, de-escalate tensions and engage, even when engagement is difficult with major nations with very different systems, values and histories.
On that note, let me come back to my Gloucester constituency. There is lots that some of my constituents may disagree with me on, but as a small city we are much more successful when we pull together for the common good. We have the country’s first ever conversion of a department store into a university teaching campus. Debenhams has been converted into a University of Gloucestershire campus, with all its health courses as well as a wellbeing centre and a relocated library. That is us at our best. That work is complemented by the work of Reef plc 100 yards away at the Forum, where a Roman statue of Venus was found under the old bus station and a huge new tech hub will sit beside Gloucester’s first four-star hotel before long.
Both projects are funded by the Government’s levelling-up fund. We know levelling up when we see it because it brings pride to our city—or to different parts of the country—as will rectifying the underpass that connects these areas, under our railway station and lines, to Great Western Road and our Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. This key route for many will be improved, straightened and stripped of steps to make it much more user friendly. That work starts in the new year. There are many strands of good things being done locally and nationally that we should never forget when we criticise ourselves for not being perfect.
I want to finish by thanking all those who work in the House of Commons for their great help to me, not least Mr Anam Uddin, who on two separate occasions has recovered my backpack when it has been lost—once at almost midnight. I wish him and everybody else here—all the servants of us fortunate MPs—a very happy Christmas.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I offer my condolences to him on the loss of his brother and pay tribute to all those who comforted him and his family at the end of life. The hon. Gentleman obviously touched on the health service, which is where I want to focus my remarks. I will touch on rail services if I have time.
I had the privilege of being elected to this place three years and one week ago. I had something of a baptism of fire as a brand-new MP: I was appointed the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson and we found ourselves in a global pandemic. Although I spoke a lot about health in my first two years here, that time was understandably dominated by covid and all the surrounding issues.
I wish to spend a little time today touching on the wider challenges facing primary care and ambulance services, not just in my constituency, but, more broadly, in Greater London and across the south-east. I do so not least because with the Government’s levelling up generally focusing on the midlands and the north, London and the south-east, the capital and the commuter belt, have seen and continue to see such huge population growth and have been really underinvested in, particularly in terms of GPs, dentists and ambulance services. I will mention a few places today and I humbly request the Leader of the House to ask Ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care to visit some of them, so that they can see at the coal face across the south-east some of the challenges that residents, patients and health workers are facing. On that note, I would like to thank health and care workers across my constituency and across the country for the amazing job they do, day in, day out, in the most difficult circumstances.
Earlier this year, I was alerted to a shocking case in my constituency, that of a full-time carer in Hampton who looks after her daughter with special needs. As she could not find access to an NHS dentist in the entire area, having rung each one faithfully, she had to use her disability benefits, her food and her heating money to pay for her daughter to go private. She even begged one dentist to allow her daughter to take her place on the NHS list. I pay tribute to Healthwatch Richmond, which works in my constituency and with Healthwatch England to secure extra money for dentistry. Frankly, however, that has been a drop in the ocean. We know that the national average is that nine out of 10 NHS dentists are not accepting new patients and that this rises to a shocking 98% out towards the south-west of the country. That means that people are suffering in pain or, as I have described, are forced to fork out for private care, in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Just down the train line from my constituency, no dental practices are taking on new NHS patients in areas such as Wokingham—not a single one of the 12 practices across that town is doing so. I ask the Leader of the House to ask DHSC Ministers to go to Wokingham to see for themselves how this underfunding is bringing the local dentistry and health services to their knees. We know that without core preventive care, be it in oral health or in other areas, things just end up in crisis care, often at accident and emergency, and we do not want that being replicated in constituencies across the country. I hope that the Minister will heed Liberal Democrat calls for the dental contract to be fundamentally reformed—we are not just talking about the tinkering around the edges announced in November—and for a real focus on long-term workforce planning.
The strains on essential primary care services such as dentistry and access to GPs are well reported. Unfortunately, but understandably, they often lead to frustration for patients. There are those who are understandably desperate for an appointment, given the challenges of their situation. The fact that NHS services are under strain is not the fault of those working in the NHS—I would lay that squarely at the Government’s feet. That means that hard-working primary care staff are often on the receiving end of some of the strain that constituents are feeling, especially those who are administering the system, who are often wrongly and pejoratively referred to as “faceless bureaucrats”. I am sorry to say that that is why tomorrow morning I will be having a meeting with partners at a local GP surgery in Hampton Hill, because they wrote to me to raise the issue of the level of abuse their staff receive on a regular basis. That medical centre in my constituency is not alone. Reports reached me recently about a GP surgery just down the road in Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey, where staff were left in tears and needing to call the police about abuse because people were unable to get an appointment. Again, I ask the Leader of the House whether Ministers at the DHSC would visit that surgery in Walton-on-Thames and the one in Hampton Hill to offer an apology to those staff, who are under such immense pressure in our health system. Again, I hope that calls will be heeded to train more GPs by offering more training places to those students who want to go into the medical profession and to look to reform pension rules for more experienced staff.
As we are on the brink of an ambulance workers’ strike tomorrow over pay and conditions, I was alarmed to read the words of one NHS ambulance chief in The Times this morning. He said:
“The best we can hope for is that everyone stays indoors, no one falls over, no one gets ill and no one has a car crash.”
Indeed, a Health and Social Care Minister on 5 Live this morning told people to avoid risky activities, including running, if it is icy.
Having had to take both my young daughter and my elderly father to A&E in recent months, I have seen for myself the level of strain and pressure under which A&E is operating. Obviously, this then translates into the pressures on the London ambulance services that are operating at capacity day in, day out, and that applies to ambulance services across the country.
I was sent a story from Winchester of a 96-year-old woman who slipped and fell and was left in pain on the floor. Thankfully, a neighbour heard and called an ambulance, but that took seven hours to arrive. Even when they arrived at the hospital, it was still another six-hour wait to see a doctor. Again, I hope that Health Ministers will visit that ambulance station and speak to those heroic paramedics to understand the resources that both their ambulance station and the South Central Ambulance Service need in order to improve the waiting times and the care for patients in that area.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) introduced a Bill earlier this year calling for localised waiting times for ambulance services. The Liberal Democrats have also called for rural ambulance stations to be reopened and for urgent funding to recruit paramedics.
In the couple of minutes I have left, I wish to touch on the issue of the South Western Railway service, which has affected my constituency, south-west London, Surrey and a number of other areas down to the south-west of England over the past few days. The Minister may or may not be aware that 40 stations across the South Western Railway network have absolutely no services; they have all been cancelled between now and the new year. That is despite the fact that there are no rail strikes on a number of those days during that period. It is ruining the Christmas break for people who want to visit loved ones, for people who desperately need to get to work and for those who need to attend medical appointments.
I have heard from a police officer in my constituency who is struggling to get to work for his shift and from a cancer nurse, who is not striking today, but who is struggling to get to hospital. Her hospital is having to fork out to pay for overnight stays for staff so that they can be there to treat patients.
The impact on the wider community and the hospitality industry is immense. My local rugby club, Harlequins, was due to have its big match, which it has every year, at the big Twickenham stadium the day after Boxing day. Eighty thousand spectators were expected, but the event has had to be cancelled. Quins lost more than £15 million during covid, and it fears losing, potentially, hundreds of thousands more as a result of having to move the match to March. It employs, both directly and indirectly, hundreds of people in the local area. The matches and the event days benefit local businesses in Twickenham. I implore rail Ministers to work closely with South Western Railway and with RMT to get this overtime ban and the strikes stopped, so that our constituents can get to work and our businesses, which are already struggling, do not go under.
Yesterday, there were reports, again, of schoolchildren in Surrey unable to get to school, because Thames Ditton, Claygate and other stations were closed. In my constituency, Whitton, St Margaret’s and Strawberry Hill are all affected. However, I am very pleased that, as a result of my urgent meeting with South Western Railway yesterday, it was announced, just as I entered this Chamber, that it is now starting to run a few off-peak services, but that is not nearly enough. Our constituents deserve better.
I will do a bit of imploring myself. I have 14 names and about an hour and a half left of the debate before we come on to the wind-ups. That gives six minutes or so to each speaker. Please do not wildly go over that, otherwise the person who is last will hardly get any time at all and that is not in the spirit of Christmas.
The lasting legacy of toddler Harper-Lee Fanthorpe, whose tragic death in my constituency last year touched us all, must be the introduction of a law relating to the safety of products containing button batteries. I promised Harper-Lee’s mum Stacy, when we first met in July 2021, that I would campaign to raise awareness of this issue, to ensure that other families would not experience the pain and loss that she and her family were suffering. Much has happened since that meeting and I want to update the House before the forthcoming Adjournment.
The Harper-Lee Foundation was established as a charity a year ago and I have worked with the British and Irish Portable Battery Association, the European Portable Battery Association and the Child Accident Prevention Trust to try to reduce the likelihood and frequency of children’s swallowing button batteries. At the parliamentary launch of the foundation earlier this year, many Members and key agencies signed a pledge to be button battery aware. In September, Stoke City Council was the first council in the country to pass a motion to be a button battery aware council—passed unanimously, because children’s safety is an issue that transcends political divides.
As we approach Christmas, I have called for parents and grandparents to be aware as they buy gifts for their family, or the Christmas lights and decorations that fill our homes, to check whether they contain button batteries, and, if so, whether they are in a child-resistant compartment. I have also called on retailers to be aware of the safety standards of any products they have on sale that could be harmful to children, and to remove unsafe products from their shelves or websites.
Last December, we sadly saw another button battery death, in Motherwell, Scotland. Hughie McMahon was just 17 months old. He swallowed a button battery from a toy, unlike the case of Harper-Lee, where the battery fell out of a remote control for an LED light. This is the issue that needs addressing. Button batteries are in so many different products with which a child may come into contact that a standard that applies to a single type of product, such as toys, is not the answer. We need what is called a horizontal standard that applies to anything containing a button or coin battery.
Why do we not have such a standard? The General Product Safety Regulations 2005 require new and used consumer products to be safe. In June 2019, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch produced a report on undetected button and coin cell battery ingestion in children. One of the report’s key recommendations was that a standard be produced to set out consistent safety requirements to apply throughout the lifecycle of such batteries.
That standard was introduced in April 2021. The publicly available specification PAS7055:2021 states that there are specific product safety requirements for batteries present in toys, electronic devices, and medical devices. However, there are no consistent definitions, warnings, test methods or global standards, and the key issue is that the PAS is voluntary, so there are no penalties for ignoring the recommendations.
The Government have defined the key safety requirements for button and coin batteries, but sadly, despite the introduction of those recommendations, there has been no evidence of a reduction in the incidence of injuries and fatalities caused by swallowing those batteries. It is time, therefore, to push for legislation. Legislation in Australia came into effect this year, following an eight-year campaign after the deaths of three children, and sets significant fines for businesses and individuals that breach the safety law. The US is also planning to take more action.
It is now time for the UK to introduce similar legislation to stipulate enforceable safety standards: all button battery-powered products must have a child-resistant battery compartment; button batteries of up to 32 mm diameter must be sold in child-resistant packaging; for products supplied with a button battery, batteries must be secured within the battery compartment and not loose in the product packaging and products that use or contain button batteries must have clear and concise warnings, making the risk clear to consumers at point of purchase, including online sales.
I look forward to discussing the matter with the safety standards Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy early in January and ask colleagues to support my campaign to introduce Harper-Lee’s Law in 2023. The need to legislate is backed by clinicians who see the devastating and life-changing effects of button battery ingestion, as well as the tragic deaths. Now is the time to build on the awareness campaign of the past year and ensure that next year we enshrine greater protection in law.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I end by wishing you, everybody in this House and everybody in the country a happy and safe Christmas—and, more than anything, a button battery aware Christmas.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who I wish well in her campaign. I will take this opportunity to focus on three issues.
First, I will raise the story of a young child, Pearl Melody Black. In August 2017, 22-month-old Pearl from my Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney constituency was tragically killed while walking with her father and brother. Pearl was killed by an unoccupied vehicle that rolled from a private drive on to a highway and down a hill. It crashed into a wall, crushing Pearl and injuring her father and brother. In the months after the incident, officers from the serious collision unit at South Wales police worked tirelessly in putting together a case to provide justice for the family. In short, all tests concluded that the car was mechanically sound and that it had rolled because the handbrake was not fully engaged and the automatic transmission not fully placed in “park” mode.
The case was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service in March 2018. Everyone was hopeful of a conviction for death by dangerous driving. However, in June 2018, the CPS stated that it was unable to send the case to court as a glitch in the law states that the vehicle must have started its journey on a public road to make prosecution under the Road Traffic Act 1988 possible. Even though Pearl was killed on a public road, the fact that the vehicle had started its descent from a private drive meant that prosecution was not possible. The coroner stated that the vehicle was in fact well maintained, and it seemed that the issue was very much driver operation. The inquest heard that the handbrake had not been fully applied in “park” mode.
Over the past four years, I have met Pearl’s parents, Gemma and Paul Black, on a few occasions to look at what could be done to change the legislation so that other families do not face this kind of injustice in future. The inquest into Pearl’s death was held in October 2018, and the outcome declared was “accident”. However, with the support of South Wales police and the CPS, Pearl’s parents sought and continue to seek a change in the law to prevent other families—following such tragic and completely preventable incidents—from being in a similar situation of not being able to secure justice because of a legal loophole. As Gemma and Paul acknowledge, legislation is not retrospective, so the change will not help to bring justice for Pearl, but if the law can be changed to prevent anyone else from suffering this injustice, it may provide some comfort.
After speaking to the Public Bill Office and the Private Bill Office, and holding meetings with Government Ministers, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to at least start making some progress. Unfortunately, as is the case with most ten-minute rule Bills and private Member’s Bills, that Bill fell because it did not progress before the parliamentary Session ended. It is wholly wrong that justice cannot be achieved in such tragic cases. There has been no conviction simply because the land on which the incident took place is not classified as public. Sadly, however, Pearl’s case is by no means an isolated one. I know that other Members across the House have raised similar issues, hence the cross-party support for my ten-minute rule Bill.
The Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), acknowledged in a debate on a similar issue that an overarching change in the law to cover driving offences occurring on private land in general would be a significant and difficult piece of legislation because of the wide-ranging nature of land that comes under the definition of “private”, and because of complications around other classifications of private land, such as land used for military, commercial and other purposes. I have discussed the difficulty of legislating broadly for such matters in correspondence with Ministers, and although I appreciate that that remains the case, we could, at the very least, start to look at changing the law. More focused legislation would allow for driving offences that occur on private land adjoining public land to be prosecuted. That would apply to cases such as the death of my constituents’ daughter, Pearl, and to similar cases brought to the House. If the law were changed on driving offences that occur on private land adjoining public land, it would be a very powerful deterrent to road users’ carelessness.
There are a huge number of instances in which private land adjoining public land is regularly used and is potentially dangerous to those in the area, including residential driveways, schools and nurseries, supermarkets, shopping centres, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, to name some of the most common. When we consider those examples, we can see that driving on that specific category of land can present a high risk to people in everyday situations, especially children, the elderly and some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
The legislation that I am seeking to amend and update would give my constituents and many others the peace of mind that there are consequences for dangerous driving—no matter where it occurs—and help to prevent such needless and avoidable tragedies from ever happening in future. Will the Leader of the House look carefully over my draft Bill and discuss with me and with appropriate Ministers how it might be included in any forthcoming Government legislation?
The second issue that I wish to focus on is the case of a boxer from Merthyr Tydfil. I have previously raised this case in Westminster Hall in the hope that the British Boxing Board of Control would consider acknowledging the family’s call for an apology, which I support. For some people in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Cuthbert Taylor is a local sporting legend. An amateur and professional boxer, he fought 500 bouts in his career lasting 20 years between 1928 and 1947. Many were in Merthyr Tydfil, but he also fought across south Wales, the UK and Europe. He was knocked out only once in his career, and he was once described as the best in Europe. In 1927, he won the flyweight championship title, and he defended the title in 1928. He also became the British amateur flyweight champion. That same year, he represented Great Britain at the Amsterdam summer Olympics, reaching the quarter-finals in that category. He was the first black boxer to represent Britain at the Olympics. Although well known by some in Merthyr Tydfil, and despite a successful and exciting career, Cuthbert Taylor never got the same recognition on a national or international scale as other boxers. This was because of one simple thing: the colour of his skin.
Cuthbert Taylor was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1909 to parents of different ethnic backgrounds. His father, also called Cuthbert, was an amateur boxer in Liverpool. He was of Caribbean descent, and his mother, Margaret, described herself as white Welsh. He was judged at the time to be
“not white enough to be British”
by the British Boxing Board of Control, and he was prevented from ever challenging for a British title or a world title professionally by the body’s colour bar rule, which was in place between 1911 and 1948 and which stated that fighters had to have two white parents to compete for professional titles. The colour bar serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a different time. Although we cannot go back and give Cuthbert Taylor the professional titles and success his career deserved, we can ensure that he has true and just recognition.
The previous Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), supported the letter to the British Boxing Board of Control to ask it to consider an apology for Cuthbert Taylor, which is something his family deeply want. Will the Leader of the House consider supporting that case and the call to the British Boxing Board of Control?
Finally, turning to the present, this truly is a winter of discontent visited upon the country by the Conservative Government. Railway staff are on strike, as are posties, ambulance staff, bus drivers, border staff, highway workers and driving examiners. For the first time in their 106-year history, nurses are on strike. Rather than threatening hard-pressed workers, the Government should be sitting around the negotiating table, trying to secure a solution. As a lifelong trade unionist and member of the GMB and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, I support the trade unions and colleagues at the Trades Union Congress who work tirelessly day in, day out to make life better for working people.
I am proud as a Labour Member of Parliament to be working alongside our trade unions to secure a Labour Government, who would provide a new deal for working people, and to oppose any attempt by this Government to undermine trade unions or workers’ rights. A new Labour Government would repeal any such measures, sign an employment Bill into law within the first 100 days, strengthen individual and collective rights at work and achieve a high-growth, high-wage economy for all. Workers in Britain know that Labour is on their side, so let us have that general election and now. In conclusion, I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, all colleagues and all staff who help us do our duty a happy Christmas and new year. I thank my constituency and Westminster staff for supporting me with the work they do helping constituents across Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.
As this is the Christmas Adjournment debate, I have a list. It is not a list of the things I hope to find lovingly wrapped under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, but of issues I wish to raise not for the first time in this House, in the hope and confidence that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, through her good offices, can nudge them up the priority list in various Departments.
First, on off-grid properties, about one third of the households in my constituency use oil or LPG for their heating. There was good news yesterday in a written ministerial statement that the £200 support for them will start in February, but I gently urge the Government to see whether that payment is right for all off-grid properties, because there are significant pricing differentials with domestic heating oil and even within LPG pricing, particularly for those who do not have the land to have an LPG bulk tank on their property and so still rely on the 47 kg bottles, which are exceedingly expensive.
Secondly, on GP access, I cannot be the only Member of this House who hears from constituents struggling to get an appointment with their GP. In my constituency, there are many parts expecting new primary care facilities, but we have not got there yet.
The key example I give is the village of Long Crendon, where the doctor’s surgery was closed during the pandemic because the building simply was not fit for purpose. The parish council has secured land for a new healthcare centre, and the old clinical commissioning group—now the integrated care board—has agreed the rent to put the GP partnership Unity Health into the building to provide GP services. In this new, innovative model, the land was secured through planning gain but it is owned by the parish council and it is the parish council that wishes to develop the building. I made significant progress with my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) when he was Minister for Health, but I fear that the project has become a little lost in some of the changes that have occurred during the year. I would be grateful if the Department of Health and Social Care would look at the project to see if we can finally deliver that new healthcare centre for Long Crendon and surrounding villages.
On banking, it is preposterous that, across the 335 square miles of my constituency, there is one high street bank left standing; we just have the Nationwide in the town of Princes Risborough. TSB closed in Winslow, Barclays closed in Buckingham and Princes Risborough, and Lloyds has recently closed in Buckingham. There was a suggestion that Buckingham would get a banking hub, but I see little evidence of it. I would appreciate the Government’s support in making that happen.
Of course, this would not be a speech of mine if I did not mention the railway whose name we dare not speak—but I will. Some 19 miles of HS2 is being built through my constituency. Along with East West Rail, it continues to dominate my working week, with countless problems arising from construction. Both projects are simply bad neighbours, despite promising the opposite.
I have three key asks. First, let us finally get resolution on fixing that which the projects have broken—namely our roads, though thousands of HGV movements, sometimes daily. Despite strong efforts by Buckinghamshire Council, there seems to be no agreement to secure the funding from HS2 and East West Rail to fix those roads. I would greatly appreciate the support of the Department for Transport in making that happen.
We also need real compensation for businesses affected by these construction projects. The Crooked Billet pub in Newton Longville has already closed its doors because of the duration for which roads into the village have been closed by East West Rail, yet there is no compensation on the table. With similar road closures coming up in the village of Steeple Claydon, the Prince of Wales pub, which has already been badly affected financially by other road closures, looks to have another grim year financially if the roads to nearby villages cannot be reopened.
Further down the road, the Government seemingly remain intent on building a new mega-prison next to Grendon Underwood and Edgcott, just a mile from where HS2 and East West Rail cross. It is simply inappropriate and unfair to lumber communities already so badly affected by the construction of Government infrastructure projects with another one. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), when she was Prime Minister, agreed to look again at the prison, and I urge the current Government to look at it and deliver fairness for my constituents.
East West Rail still plans to launch next year with diesel-only rolling stock. As we head to net zero, that simply cannot be right, and I urge the Government to look again at that, too.
In the few seconds that I have left, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Mr Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, all Members of the House and all the staff who support us here in Parliament a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.
I had to shorten my speech because there are too many issues that need to be raised as a result of the Government’s ongoing failures. However, since it is Christmas, I considered how to approach the debate positively and, after careful deliberation, I decided that the best thing I could do for my constituents was to tell their stories. It is positive for them to have their voices heard, in the hope that the Government are listening and will make a difference. If the Government cannot make a difference, they should call a general election.
Our children are our future. I feel that, when we put children at the centre of our legislative considerations, we have the right benchmark. All Government decisions affect children, directly or indirectly. I impress on the Government the need to focus on keeping children safe: in the air they breathe, at school, on the roads, in police custody, in their homes and overseas. I have mentioned only a few examples; there are many more.
We all have a right to breathe clean air. One of the most surprising and distressing things that I was recently told by a paediatrician is that a new-born baby was found to have ultrafine particles and carbon monoxide concentrations in their lungs—they breathe in what their mother breathes in—which is why I absolutely support the Mayor of London’s expansion of the ultra low emission zone. We know that children die from polluted air; in fact, there are 4,000 premature deaths a year in London due to toxic air. The case of Ella, in my neighbouring constituency, is a tragic reminder of that, and I encourage the Government to get behind Ella’s law fully. The school streets programme is about having green walls and less traffic around schools. It has faced challenges and delays, but if the Government are serious about delivering clean air, they will redouble their efforts to roll it out. I hope that the Government will work more vigorously with local authorities to achieve that.
In 2013 under the coalition Government, I set up a community food bank. Since then, communities have become ever more reliant on charity. The meaning of charity is love—communities are showing love to one another, but what are the Government showing when they blame and demonise families on benefits? The drastic increase in the number of people who use food banks includes people on benefits, low-wage earners and key workers, which is partly why those key workers are on strike today. They simply cannot afford the wages they are living on.
Everything about universal credit is harsh, because it says that people must live in poverty and that they must suffer and have much less than everybody else. Benefits are easily frozen and the five-week delay sets the scene. There is also the bedroom tax and the local housing allowance does not go far enough. The Government have been failing the economy and they are failing families.
When we think about young people and crime, the Government never say that crime is linked to poverty, deprivation, discrimination and disadvantage. They should sort that out, along with legal aid, appropriate adults in custody, the custody threshold for children, the court backlogs and, I could not forget, prison spaces.
Staying on the theme of children, teachers and schools across my constituency already provide unofficial breakfast support for children in the classroom, but schools need more help—and they need it now. I have recently been contacted by several headteachers about the shortfall of funding to pay for free school meals. If the Government had not noticed, there is a food crisis as prices have risen by 12.4%, which is extraordinarily high. That affects the price of food for all organisations in the public and charity sectors that provide food, as well as for consumers.
In England, the price of each child’s free school meal is rising. One teacher told me that that is an extra £20,000 from their budget each year, which gets taken away from other staffing costs. The Government need to ensure that the quality of food is not compromised, and that neither is the child’s health and nutrition. If the child’s health is compromised, that will only transfer the cost to another Department and another budget. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that prevention is better than cure.
I turn to a case where Government intervention is desperately needed. The longer that they delay in processing people’s visas, the more that the state pays for them. The Government then demonise them for being dependent on the state—a vicious circle. In the summer, I visited an Afghan family who fled Afghanistan during the collapse of Kabul and came to the UK. They were here lawfully but were made to live in two rooms in a hostel for more than a year. They had two autistic children, a toddler and a teenager, and they were in a severely overcrowded situation. The parents were given pocket money and were unable to cook their own food. They could not rest properly and were, of course, deeply traumatised. It is no wonder that the parents ended up on mental health medication.
That is what the Government offered that war-torn family, when all they wanted to do was work and provide a home for their family. More than a year later, they were given the shell of a home that was miles away from the place that they had come to know well. I am pleased that the Government demonstrate a greater level of compassion to Ukrainian refugees, which I fully support, but I impress on the Home Office to do more for Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.
I also make a plea for the Home Office to help my nine-year-old constituent who needs a life-saving bone marrow transplant on 24 December—
It has been a difficult year for many and a mixed bag for Doncaster, too. It started so well, with the award of city status and the shortlisting into the final six of 43 applicants to be the headquarters of Great British Railways. There was also levelling-up funding and our becoming an educational investment area.
Yet one event has hit Doncaster extremely hard: the loss of our international airport, Doncaster Sheffield airport. If it remains closed, a public inquiry will be needed as the loss of the strategic and key economic asset for Doncaster’s—indeed, South Yorkshire’s—economy is so damaging. Questions need to be asked. How did this happen? Who allowed it to happen? Why did the South Yorkshire Mayor not invest and make the £20 million loan? Why did our very own Doncaster Mayor not shout up for our airport when that was needed most? Why have Peel been able to do this a second time to our region? So many questions need answers. Only a public inquiry can establish the truth.
The South Yorkshire Mayor said he could not buy the airport as he did not know how to run one; he also does not know how to run the trams. Yet he has top-sliced £110 million from Government funds for the sole benefit of Sheffield, his own city. Doncaster’s share of that is over £24 million. We want our money back. I ask on behalf of the good people of Doncaster for the South Yorkshire Mayor to return to us what is ours: £24 million—not as a gift or early Christmas present, but in recognition that it is our money and not for Sheffield but for Doncaster. If he believes that the tram is an asset for the whole of South Yorkshire, then wonderful. I think our airport is, too. If he does not want to return our £24 million and continues his support for the tram, I will go along with that—but only if Doncaster can have £110 million for its airport, too. I will get the answers that my constituents deserve and press for a fair share of their money.
However, I do not want to dwell entirely on the past in this speech; I want to look forward to what can be a wonderful future. My hopes for 2023 would see an end to the war in Ukraine, inflation down, cost of living crisis at an end and no more strikes—a Minister for men and a men’s health strategy, too. I also hope to see a change in how we as politicians speak to each other. Much as we need to challenge each other—and I do—I hope that the politics of hostility disappear and to see much more of politicians who speak to each other with respect, both in here and on Twitter.
We should show the rest of the country how to be with each other. Hopefully, that will translate down to how we as a nation speak to our police, nurses, teachers and GPs as well as how we all speak to and about each other. That includes how we speak of the west as whole, the UK and our city of Doncaster. We all know that there are many injustices, but speaking badly of where we live and our way of life will never help. I often hear how bad this country is and many parts of the west, too. If it is so bad, why do so many people want to come here? No, we need to start respecting each other and our way of life a little more.
As a very well known author said, we need to start having an attitude of gratitude. We all want things to get better, but just to keep them the way they are takes so much effort. To all who make this country function, I say thank you—whether it is roads to drive down, paths to walk on, fields to play on, schools to go to, hospitals to make us well, energy to keep us warm and keep out the dark, or even the ability to speak freely. To both the public and private sector alike, I say thank you. I believe that we live in the greatest country and I have the great good fortune to live in the greatest city: Doncaster is great.
As I have already mentioned, this year Doncaster became a city and lost an airport, but whether it is a town with an airport or a city without one, I will always love it. I believe it is a fantastic place and can have the best of futures. My hopes for Doncaster’s future include the reopening of our airport, a new hospital, an advanced manufacturing research facility, for Doncaster to be the home of hybrid air vehicles and perhaps even Boeing, plus a second university technical college, levelling up funding and—who knows?— even a revitalised market. James Hart has my full support in his campaign. We need a new school in Bawtry and a new health centre for Rossington, and I will champion them all. Most of all, I want the next generation to say, “I can and I will”, and for them to believe that much is possible where they live, and that all it takes is the right attitude and hard work. I therefore ask every parent in Doncaster to say to their child this Christmas, “Speak up for England, speak up for Doncaster, and speak up for each other.”
Finally, Christian friends across the House tried to secure a Backbench debate on Christmas and Christianity, but by all accounts we were not successful. While I have this moment, I want to remind those in this place, and anyone who cares to watch, that although Christmas is celebrated in many ways across the world, the real reason is the birth of our saviour, Jesus Christ. He was sent as a saviour, and with the promise that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. I do not want anyone ever to forget that. Merry Christmas everybody.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher).
I wish to raise an important local issue from my constituency, which also affects many people in the surrounding area and across the country and the wider world: the future of Reading jail. That iconic, historically important building is currently mothballed. It is the most famous building in our town, and we are proud of it and of its association with Oscar Wilde and other historical figures. At the moment, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and I are working with the Ministry of Justice, Reading Borough Council, Banksy and arts groups to try to secure the future of the jail, save it, and turn it into an arts hub, which we believe would be a fitting use for that wonderful historic Victorian building. I would like to update the House on our progress, and call on the Ministry of Justice to focus on this issue and offer local residents, the arts community and many others a wonderful Christmas present by saving the jail.
In short, we have been waiting some time. I would like to explain what has happened so far and some of the issues we face, and point out of the potential of the marvellous Victorian building. For a number of years the jail has been mothballed by the MOJ. It is, however, suited to becoming an arts hub, and it has already a meanwhile use for filming and for art installations. We believe there is scope for that to be developed more fully if the building were allowed to be redeveloped, saved, and turned into an arts centre for local and wider use.
The problem seems to be that, having run a competition to sell the building, the MOJ now has one preferred bidder, which we understand has lost interest in the site, and appears to be holding on to the building but without a clear plan for its future. We would like to reorientate the MOJ’s interest into a bid by Reading Council, which has offered more than £2.6 million for the historic building. We believe we can add to that with donations from the arts community—indeed, we have had some initial interest from Banksy in supporting that bid. I ask the Leader of the House to refer the matter back to the Ministry of Justice and ask it to look again at this important matter, rethink its current approach, and look again at Reading Council’s bid for the site. We believe it is possible that the issue could be looked at again, and the site considered for alternative use.
In addition to the future of Reading jail, I wish to mention a number of other important historic buildings in my constituency, in particular the future of Caversham Park House, Cemetery Junction arch, and the Adwest building in Woodley. All those are important buildings that I hope can be preserved and saved for future community use. I am currently working with a number of partners on those issues, and I thank local partners and councillors for their interest in such matters.
There are a couple of other campaigns that I would like to mention. In particular, there is the need for further Government action on legal but harmful content in the Online Safety Bill. That has been discussed recently, but I am afraid that the Government have failed to fully take on board the concerns expressed by many people, and in particular the Stephens family from Reading, who tragically lost their son in a brutal attack nearly two years ago, which was linked to young people’s social media use—the filming and photographing of knives and the sharing of that online, which had the most dreadful impact on the young people involved in the attack. I ask the Leader of the House to refer the matter back to the relevant Ministers and ask them to reconsider the Government’s approach to legal but harmful content.
I would like to mention a couple of other local matters. I ask the Government to look again at their policy on business rates. There have been a number of cases in my constituency of small businesses struggling because of the high rental value of shops and other physical businesses in Reading town centre and other locations. Business rates should be reformed, with the current system scrapped and replaced with one based on a more genuine assessment of the value of sites so that internet giants pay a fair share and small businesses get treated equally.
I also call on the Government to look again at Gurkha pensions. I have been talking to the retired Gurkha community and working with them on the matter. I know that the Government are in negotiation with the Government of Nepal, but, as of yet, there is no solution to the issue. Gurkhas who retired from the British military before 1997 do not receive the same pensions as other British soldiers. Again, I ask the Leader of the House to refer that to the Ministry of Defence and urge it once again to renew its focus on the issue.
Finally—I appreciate that time is running out—I wish all the House staff, colleagues across the House and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Before we enter the Christmas recess, I want to take the opportunity to look at some of the progress that we have made in the last 12 months in Warrington South and at some of the things that we have still to do. I start by thanking the nurses in Warrington who did not back strike action in the latest industrial dispute and pay tribute to all those who work in the NHS, as the Prime Minister did when he came to Warrington to open a new MRI and CT scanning centre at Warrington Hospital. Since then, we have opened a new same-day emergency care centre at Warrington Hospital, with about £6 million of investment at the Lovely Lane site to try to take the pressure off A&E.
However, I have to say that we need a new hospital and have been working with NHS leaders to submit a £317 million bid to build one. Two weeks ago, the Health Secretary stood at the Dispatch Box and said that we would get an answer as to whether the bid had been successful by the time we went into recess. So when we get to the wind-ups, the Leader of the House may have some great news for me. If not, I look forward to speaking to the Secretary of State in the new year. We really do need a new hospital in Warrington, because there is lots of development planned—I have seen recommendations for another 14,000 homes to be built over the next 10 years—and we simply cannot manage with the capacity of the current hospital. There are not enough beds and the facility is really not fit for purpose.
When I was elected, I promised to campaign to secure better facilities for schools in Warrington South, too. We are making some progress on that, working with headteachers, academy trusts and governors. I congratulate the team at Penketh High School, led by Mr Carlin, who earlier this year secured £6 million from the school rebuilding programme. Through his leadership, we have seen the school really making improvements. I recently attended its student council elections. It is a fantastic learning environment where young people really are able to flourish. I support and encourage the work done there.
I turn briefly to levelling up public transport in Warrington. We are looking forward to the delivery of 120 new zero-emission buses under the Government’s zero-emission bus regional areas scheme. When I added up all the money given to Warrington’s own buses in the last 12 months, it totalled about £42 million, in addition to investment in supporting bus services and extending routes off peak and at weekends. We are absolutely engaged in levelling up to help people get around our great town.
There is one issue I want to see more action taken on next year. Some time ago, I raised my concerns about the mis-selling of leasehold homes to families who bought new properties from David Wilson Homes 12 years ago on Steinbeck Grange. I raised the experience of my constituent Mr Mike Carrol and about 50 families who had also purchased homes thinking they were buying freehold when they later found out they were actually leasehold. The solicitors they used had been provided by the builders. All have since folded and simply cannot be traced.
I am very grateful for the investigation undertaken by the Competition and Markets Authority, which came to Warrington and interviewed some of those who had been mis-sold houses. However, I have to say it was a great disappointment to receive information from the CMA advising that it was not pursuing the Steinbeck Grange cases because it could deliver only limited remedies, and because it would be difficult as the unlawful conduct of David Wilson Homes had since stopped. Well, I say to the CMA that a limited remedy is still a remedy and that if there is evidence of unlawful conduct, even though it has now stopped, it should perhaps be taking action to put those errors right. I share the disappointment expressed by many of my constituents.
During the investigation, I was approached by an ex-member of staff from David Wilson Homes who was involved in the sale of houses on the Chapelford estate. The former staff member shared with my office evidence that highlighted properties were sold without pertinent information being disclosed to residents on Steinbeck Grange. They were not in receipt of that information until after the Steinbeck Grange development had been sold in its entirety. The individual also highlighted that sales staff received cash incentives for promoting to buyers conveyancers who all subsequently went bust. The director of the company that now owns the leasehold was also contacted by David Wilson Homes, with a view to buying back the freeholds for Steinbeck Grange residents so the matter could be resolved for residents. We certainly do not have a resolution here. I think there is evidence of unlawful conduct and negligent practises by the developer. I am very pleased that Cheshire police is looking very closely at this matter. I urge the Serious Fraud Office to consider whether it, too, should be looking at an investigation.
I am in no doubt about the tough times we are facing as we recover from the long tail of the pandemic and stand up to the aggression shown by Putin in Ukraine. My focus remains on tackling the many challenges facing constituents in Warrington South, trying to make life better for everyone, securing a new hospital, keeping families safe, and backing business small and large to create jobs for today and the skills for tomorrow. I wish everybody in Warrington South a very merry Christmas and extend my thanks to everybody here in the House of Commons, and particularly to my team in this place and in the constituency: Stephen, Stewart, Lyndsay, Julie, Oliver and James. I am very grateful for their hard work and the commitment they have shown over the last 12 months. I look forward even more to a productive and proactive 2023.
My beautiful constituency is steeped in history, being designated a world heritage site twice over. However, Bath is not just a living museum. The beating heart of Bath is the people and organisations that help to make it a better place. I pay tribute to organisations such as VOICES, a charity supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse and violence, and the Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association for its important work in helping the growing number of people suffering with eating disorders. We have the wonderful Bath College and our two fantastic universities which, with their thousands of young people, bring energy, fun and new ideas to our city. We have hundreds of new, innovative small businesses, such as S&J Roofing, which I visited last week and which passionate about solar panel installations and how to get to net zero.
We all have a duty to protect the most vulnerable in society, and I give my warmest thanks to Bath’s health workers. I visited several health centres this year and I am always amazed by the dedication of staff. I warmly commend our Royal United Hospitals, RICE—the Research Institute for the Care of Older People, a local dementia care and research institute—the Heart of Bath surgery, Bath Mind, and all those who support the increasing number of people grappling with health issues. However, our health workers deserve more than just a pat on the shoulder. They deserve material support from Government. The Government have left our local health services in a huge mess.
Let us look at Bath’s dental crisis. Nearly 15% of NHS dentists have been lost from Bath clinical commissioning group since 2016. Only three in 10 adults in Bath have been able to secure an appointment with an NHS dentist in the past two years. The Government must reform the NHS dental contract and give proper incentives to take on new NHS patients, instead of leaving dentists out of pocket. A review was promised earlier this year—where is it?
GP services are faring no better. The south-west lags behind the country in GP recruitment. Local GPs have told me of their worries for this winter, as demand for their services continues to soar. The Government urgently need a credible, long-term workforce plan, so that our precious NHS can continue to exist. The crisis for emergency care and ambulance services has been looming for a long time, but the Government have deliberately ignored it.
South Western Ambulance Service is under severe pressure. I commend it for everything it does in this crisis, but only this morning I heard another heartbreaking story from a patient in Cheltenham who, on several occasions, has had to wait outside Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in an ambulance—sometimes overnight—and then has been discharged back to his carers without making it into the hospital. Perhaps the Health Minister should visit places such as Bath and Cheltenham, to hear the stories from South Western Ambulance Service for himself.
Earlier this year, I led a debate on ambulance and emergency department waiting times, after the Royal College of Emergency Medicine published its report, “Tip of the Iceberg”. Three years ago, an ambulance taking 50 minutes to reach a stroke patient would have been a national scandal, but this Government have allowed it to become the norm. The Government need to urgently fund thousands of extra beds to stop handover delays in A&E, so that ambulances can get back on the road as soon as possible. My constituents cannot wait any longer. We all know that this is really a crisis of social care. We cannot let it loom any longer without Government grappling with the problem.
Soaring energy bills have hit everyone hard this winter, yet the Government have proven slow to protect those in need. The energy bill support scheme provides £400 to domestic consumers via their bills. However, the Government have yet to devise a method to get money to residential boaters in my constituency, leaving them facing serious financial hardship this Christmas. A mechanism must be urgently put in place to ensure that they, too, get the support they need.
From healthcare to the economy to climate change—I did not have time to talk about net zero this afternoon, which is a subject that I raise time and again—we are in a state of crisis. I hope that Government will return to this place in the new year with the resolve we need to get our country back on track. Radical, progressive change is needed, now more than ever.
Since I have a little time left, in the spirit of Christmas I want to give you an extra minute, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish everybody across the House, our wonderful staff, my Bath constituents and last but not least you, Mr Deputy Speaker, a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2023.
Let me I start by commending the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on what she said in her speech. I got to know her a bit through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I know it will have been a difficult thing to talk about, but it was powerful and an important message to people to check themselves for cancer, because it can affect any of us.
I must start with a note of sadness on behalf of the local community that I represent, because last week we lost Hasnath Miah, who was a sort of champion or local hero in the Didcot area where I live. He had been homeless for part of his life and had been helped by the Didcot community, including through free meals, to get back on his feet. He swore that if he was ever in a position to help other people, he would do so. He had a hugely successful restaurant called Indian Dream, and in the pandemic began giving free meals to key workers, the homeless and young carers, just in the way he had been given food. In total he gave away more than 10,000 free meals. Very sadly, after a stroke two weeks ago, he died at the age of just 49. There has been a huge outpouring of grief for him in the Didcot community. I send my condolences to his family—may he rest in peace.
I will pick out a couple of greatest hits from the subjects I always talk about in this Chamber. The first is the lack of GP surgeries. We have had huge population growth across my constituency, particularly in the Didcot area. GP surgeries are always promised, but never arrive. It is a total failure by the local council and local health leaders: they say they are committed to more surgeries and they keep promising them, particularly in the run-up to local elections, but they never emerge. Meanwhile, our existing GP surgeries work flat out all year round and are now closing their books because they simply cannot cope. They do not have the buildings to be able to take on more patients, never mind the doctors and so on. We have to make progress on the issue, which I will be talking about even more next year.
This month marks 58 years since Grove station—or Wantage Road station, as some prefer to call it—closed under the Beeching cuts. We took part in the bidding process for new stations; the Department for Transport was impressed with our bid, but we were not successful this time. I will keep going until we are. Our area has had huge population growth, so the station makes economic sense, social sense and environmental sense. I am absolutely determined that we will get it reopened.
Sticking with the environmental theme, I am the lead sponsor of the Local Electricity Bill, a totally cross-party initiative that now has the support of 314 Members—tantalisingly close to half the Members of this House. If any hon. Members listening have not yet supported it, will they please take a look? It is a complete no-brainer. Our local communities would very much like to generate more renewable energy, but the start-up costs are far too high at the moment. Essentially, the Bill would remove start-up costs so that energy generated can be sold to the local community.
We have worked hard with the campaign team and with officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to change the nature of the Bill. It is now much more about local energy and renewable energy sources acting as “sleeves” for bigger suppliers and teaming up with them for metering and maintenance purposes. It would mean a flowering of renewable energy, which lots of people would like to see locally. I am hopeful that we can make progress with the Government on the Bill next year, particularly in relation to the Energy Bill.
I did a couple of things for the first time this year. I held a crime summit locally, because I was increasingly getting reports of all sorts of crimes, from business break-ins to drug dealing. The theme that probably came out most strongly from people who attended the event, which I held with Thames Valley police, was antisocial behaviour. We have a tendency to underplay antisocial behaviour: if it does not involve great violence, murder or someone’s house being robbed, we do not take it as seriously as we should. For people who are not used to it, in an area where they have not seen it before, a sudden increase in antisocial behaviour is very unsettling. I will be doing more work on the issue next year with the police, whose response I was pleased with: they are going to go away and look at how they handle these things.
This year I also started a work experience campaign with local employers—partly because that was what I did in my previous life as a charity chief exec, but also because work experience had all but disappeared during covid. I encourage hon. Members to do that sort of thing, if they are not doing it already, because it is clear that as a result of covid many employers now have a lot of staff working at home and have simply got out of the habit of providing work experience. They sometimes offer virtual work experience, which is fine—it is better than nothing—but it is not the same as being in the workplace. I was really pleased with all the employers that got involved: Rebellion, Hachette, Astroscale and lots of others.
The nurses are striking, and the people are rising up in support of them. They are striking for the first time in more than 100 years, and it was of course completely avoidable. It could be avoided, if only the Government would negotiate. These professional, loving, caring nurses would prefer to be tending their patients, but instead are taking action because it is unsafe on those wards. If more of them leave, pressure builds, and then even more leave. It is a vicious cycle. They are the canary in the mine, and the Government must heed the warning of these strikes. There are 7.2 million people on waiting lists, sickness levels are rising, and A&E waiting time targets have not been met since April 2021. There are 133,000 vacancies in the NHS, and the staff are burning out.
Poor pay has an impact on retention. Staff cannot afford to work in the NHS, and those who remain are under such pressure that they are walking too. Holding on to staff is an impossible task for employers when those staff are not paid the rate that they should receive. As a recent OECD report pointed out, their rate is one of the lowest in Europe. They are paid for four days but expected to work for five. The real-terms pay cut since 2010 has pushed the profession into poverty—a profession that Labour honoured, and one that Labour paid. Band 5 nurses on pay point 23 have lost 20% of their pay since this Government have been in place, while band 6 nurses on pay point 28 have lost 21% in real terms.
The cost of living, the cost of housing, the cost of travel and the cost of just registering to practice clears out nurses’ monthly wage packets, and it is becoming harder to balance the books. Many are now living on the edge. Some retire early, some just walk, and many are turning to agencies where they are paid more to survive for now, although they will lose their pension and other benefits in years to come. Of course, NHS trusts are being ripped off because they have to pay more to the agencies that profit from this crisis. I searched the agencies, and found that a band 5 nurse earning £27,000 a year in the NHS could be earning £32,000 working for an agency. It is a false economy. Instead of paying nurses, the Health Secretary is paying the profiteers, with £4.5 billion spent on temporary staff over the last five years. To date, my local trust has paid £13.8 million, and it will have paid £20 million by the end of the year, while its underspend on employed nursing staff is £13 million. Do the maths: if you pay the staff more, you do not pay the agencies but you retain your staff.
NHS officials are travelling around the globe to recruit nurses. It costs £11,500 per nurse, and many then struggle to live on the poor wages here in the UK. According to the Royal College of Nursing, the NHS is currently carrying 47,496 registered nurse vacancies. That figure does not take account of the non-funded posts that are needed to address the backlog, increased demand and more acute sickness. Some specialties are really struggling: there has been a 46.9% decline in disability nursing, a 47.8% fall in the number of district nurses, and a 32.9% reduction in number of school nurses. The Nursing and Midwifery Council has also seen more people leave the register. We discussed demand this morning at the Health and Social Care Committee; the demand for paramedics has risen by 16% in just three years, and they too will be on strike tomorrow.
There is a way to stop this scandal, plain and simple: pay our nurses and other NHS staff what they are owed. The Secretary of State last met the unions on 15 November, when he avoided talk about pay. Pat Cullen, who has been an amazing leader of the RCN, spoke to him, but he would not discuss pay. On the “Today” programme yesterday, Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary, said that she had had just 15 minutes with the Secretary of State five weeks ago, and, of course, pay was not on the agenda. Instead of grandstanding, touring media studios and hiding behind the pay review body, the Secretary of State should be negotiating. Let us be clear: it is the Secretary of State who appoints the pay review body. He and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury provide the pay envelope, the remit and the parameters of that body, and within that straitjacket the PRB works out the best way of distributing the money that it is given on the basis of evidence taken from a range of stakeholders, including NHS employers, umbrella groups and trade unions. There is no negotiation; pay is then imposed. But the unions rejected this proposal as it was fundamentally flawed and fundamentally too low. When the remit was set, inflation was just 4%, there was no war in Ukraine, and there was no reckless Prime Minister losing £30 billion from the economy. Of course, inflation has risen since then.
Let us face it, the reason that NHS workers’ pay is so low is that 76.7% of the workforce are women. There is an institutional assessment that because women are in caring roles they will not stand up for themselves, but they are and their voices must be valued and heard. The Secretary of State must negotiate now. It is no good his saying that there is no more to pay, because he can always find the money when he needs it. If he values the NHS staff, he needs to pay them and to do it quickly. Tomorrow, as the paramedics walk out, other ballots will be coming in. That is why it is so important that these talks get under way. The Government keep quoting ridiculous sums, but until they talk, they do not know the cost. That is the art of negotiation, which this Government seem to have lost.
Poor staffing is costing lives and chasing our NHS staff out of their jobs. The NHS crisis will not be resolved until the staffing crisis is resolved, and the staffing crisis will not be resolved until the pay crisis is resolved. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State need to stop hiding behind the pay review body, come to the table with a bigger envelope and make nurses and all NHS staff the necessary offer to end this dispute, to value the staff and to start addressing the major challenges across the NHS. If they will not do that, a Labour Government will clearly be needed to sort out the NHS. We have always valued the staff and we will always keep patients safe. I want to thank all NHS staff for their tenacity and care, and I wish them all a happy Christmas, as I do to all in this House.
Recently the Chancellor said that we have a national genius for innovation, and nowhere is that genius more obvious than in the new city of Southend. Southend’s 3,700 companies include Drivershields, which won the Queen’s award for innovation this year, Ipeco, Borough plating and Tapp’d cocktails. These are some of the most innovative companies in the country. Last weekend I had the pleasure of opening the new City Wheel at Adventure Island. Rising to a height of nearly 120 feet, it is the tallest Ferris wheel in the south-east, and this was the first time it had rotated fully loaded. It paused for a rather uncomfortable length of time while I was at the top, but it afforded me a wonderful view of my picturesque constituency.
However, it is Southend’s public services that I really want to talk about when I talk about innovation. We have the brilliant South Essex College and Southend’s brilliant schools, including our four leading grammar schools, which are creating the innovators of the future. As the Skills Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), saw with his own eyes last week, the array of T-level programmes and apprenticeships is extremely impressive.
When it comes to policing, our brilliant community inspector Paul Hogben came to me with a plan to tackle knife crime by purchasing innovative electronic knife poles that he had sourced online and needed my support to purchase. The first set has been purchased, and they have proved so successful because of the number of people that have been screened and the number of objects removed that the police are now investing in another set to make Southend safer.
But it is our NHS that is truly outstanding, despite our still awaiting the £118 million of capital funding in South Essex, including £51 million for Southend Hospital, which I have talked about repeatedly in this Chamber. Southend Hospital is not standing still; it is innovating. With support from other South Essex colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who was in the Chamber earlier, and in conjunction with the East of England Ambulance Service, we have helped the hospital to create not one but two state-of-the-art ambulance handover units and a new enhanced active discharge centre to help the flow of people going through Southend Hospital. How much more could they do if that essential capital funding was at last released? In the famous words of Cuba Gooding Jr. that I have mentioned in the Chamber previously, I say to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and/or the Treasury: “Show me the money!”
In recognition of their immense efforts, I thank all our wonderful NHS staff in Southend for their incredible work this year and for the fact that not a single nurse, porter, GP or mental health worker is on strike this Christmas in Southend. Such recognition of our national position and their dedication to their job deserves the admiration of us all. In particular, I congratulate the amazing Valerie Adams, who is choosing to finish her 50 years of service to the NHS by going in and looking after others on Christmas day. She is a superhero and deserves a medal for long service. I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that in the new year you will join my campaign for a new long-service medal for outstanding NHS workers, as we have already for workers in the police, the fire service and the military.
Southend was made a city in Sir David’s honour, but we all know that he would not have stopped there. I am determined to build on his impressive legacy by having Southend become the city of culture in 2029. It is unbelievable that at a meeting on 8 November Labour-led Southend-on-Sea City Council completely dismissed going for such a positive vision for our new city, despite our not having to apply for another four years. We will not stand for this lack of confidence in and ambition for our new city. I assure the House and, indeed, all the naysayers at Labour-led Southend-on-Sea City Council that the Conservatives and the community in Southend will continue to pursue this incredible opportunity. We will not let it slip by because of a lack of ambition. Labour in Southend needs to learn that success is not a destination: it is a journey.
Finally, music and culture is one of the most innovative sectors in Southend, as shown by our brilliant and inspirational Music Man Project, which is currently powering its way up the charts to become the Christmas No. 1. Sir David never missed an opportunity to shout about how brilliant the Music Man Project is. If Members have not already heard it, “Music is Magic” is available to download on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, SoundCloud and Tidal. It is even available to stream on smart speakers: all Members need to say is, “Alexa, play ‘Music is Magic’”—or they can come and see me afterwards.
Finally, I take this opportunity to wish everybody a wonderful Christmas and to thank my amazing team, my family, my mother and everyone who has supported me. For me, it has been the privilege of my life to represent Southend West this year; for them, it has been a year like no other. They have exchanged a parliamentary superstar of 39 years’ experience for a complete newbie. I thank them all for their help. In particular, I thank my office manager Gill Lee. I am very proud that she was nominated for staffer of the year, which I am sure was much deserved.
With only five seconds left, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas.
It is normal at this time to reflect on our constituencies and events that have affected them over time. My part of Devon found itself the subject of national attention on Christmas day in 1839, when the great Bindon landslip occurred between Axmouth and Uplyme. A substantial earthquake occurred on that Christmas day and about 50 acres of fertile farmland fell into the sea. Questions were raised here in Parliament and Queen Victoria sailed to Devon in her yacht to see what had happened.
From a landslip to a landslide, we fast forward to 2022. On 23 June, Liberal Democrat activists overturned a majority of more than 24,000. That is the largest majority ever overturned at a parliamentary by-election. Many commentators attributed the win to the way that once safe territory had been taken for granted by the Conservatives, who have since seemed all at sea. The Government responded to Lib Dem lobbying last week with a pledge of funding to finally rebuild the dilapidated Tiverton High School. I ask the Government to ensure that we see work begin on the school in the next 18 months, given that, if I understand this right, the majority of the schools that were pledged funding in last week’s announcements are not due to see building commence for the next couple of years.
At the end of July, the people of Honiton were graced with a visit by Mr Speaker. People might think that the wine in the south of France is the best thing for their annual vacation or they may prefer to go beyond European shores, but I know that Mr Speaker has the experience and wisdom to know that there is no better place to holiday than on the east Devon coast. While he was visiting Honiton, I did not think it appropriate to ask him whether he had witnessed the sewage discharges that we know have plagued Britain’s coastline this year. But summer holidays are not the only time of year when people in my part of Devon are affected by underinvestment from South West Water. Several communities where I live have been without running water this week, owing to not one but six burst water mains. I spent yesterday finding out how that had affected people in my part of Devon. Local communities have been very good at rallying to each other’s aid, but people in my patch are still without drinking water, three days after they first reported this—or at least tried to report it. I hope that both the Government and Ofwat will ensure that in 2023 South West Water’s priority is investment in its infrastructure, rather than paying out such handsome rewards to its senior executives. I should point out that some of the people who are still without drinking water in my part of Devon are the same people who are off grid for energy and are still waiting patiently for a £200 voucher.
Still, not all is going badly, as yesterday I was pleased to have spent some time with Network Rail in Cullompton talking about the re-opening of the Cullompton railway station. The Government are spending £5 million on a feasibility study, and reopening the station in that commuter town will be a good earner for a train operating company. Given that there was a functioning station at Cullompton for most of the past 150 years, we look forward to its reinstatement, we hope, in 2025.
At this time of year, the town of Seaton is host to The Polar Express tram ride. I have ridden on the tram at Seaton twice this year and I can recommend it, as it is well worth a journey. I have to say though that it is easier to get from Seaton to Lapland by tram than it is to get from Seaton to Exeter by bus. I would like to see the Government require that Stagecoach stops supposing that it needs to drive its buses with the reliability and punctuality of Victorian stagecoaches, and instead provides rural areas such as mine with a service that can be relied upon.
To conclude, I urge the Government to give the Tiverton and Honiton constituency a few modest new year’s gifts, including: school buildings at Tiverton High School to fulfil the Government’s pledge; proper regulation of water companies; a railway station at Cullompton; and the restoration of bus services in Axminster, Uffculme and Seaton. An alternative is that the Conservative party may once again risk losing parts of the constituency by a landslide.
Finally, as we rightly thank House staff and return to our families, it would be worth our thinking also about the plight of Ukrainians. MPs from Ukraine have suggested that we might turn off our festive lights for one hour from 8 pm tomorrow so as to remember that Putin has denied them more than we can imagine.
It is always a real pleasure to speak in this Christmas Adjournment debate. I remember Sir David Amess. We all were enthralled when he gave us a list of 30 things that he wanted done in Southend, and, by the new year, they were nearly all done. He was a formidable gentleman.
It is no secret that I love this time of year—I may have mentioned that a time or three in this House. There are so many things to love about Christmas: time with family; good food; fellowship; and, for me, the singing of an old Christmas carol as we gather in church. But the most wonderful thing about Christmas for me is the hope that it holds. I wish to speak this year about the Christ in Christmas, because, too often, we miss that. It would be good this year to focus on what Christmas is really all about. I ask Members to stick with me on this one.
The message of Christmas is not simply the nativity scene that is so beautifully portrayed in schools and churches throughout this country, but rather the hope that lies in the fact that the baby was born to provide a better future for each one of us in this House and across the world. What a message of hope that is; it is a message that each one of us needs. No matter who we are in the UK, life is tough. The past three years have been really, really tough—for those who wonder how to heat their homes; for those who have received bad news from their doctor; for those whose children have not caught up from the covid school closures; for those who mourn the loss of a loved one; for those who mourn the breakdown of a family unit; and for those who are alone and isolated. This life is not easy, and yet there is hope. That is because of the Christmas story. It is because Christ came to this world and took on the form of man so that redemption’s plan could be fulfilled. There is hope for each one of us to have that personal relationship with Christ that enables us to read the scriptures in the Bible and understand that the creator, God, stands by his promises.
I want to quote, if I may, from four Bible texts. To know that
“my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
That is from the Philippians 4:19.
To trust that
“I am the Lord that heals you.”
To believe that
“all things are possible.”
That is Matthew 17:20.
We can be comforted by Psalm 147:3:
“He heals the brokenhearted, And binds up their wounds.”
Isaiah 41:10 says:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
The strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow come only when we understand who Christ is. One of my favourite Christmas passages is actually not the account of his birth, but the promise of who he is. We all know this:
“For to us a Child shall be born, to us a Son shall be given; And the government shall be upon His shoulder, And His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In a world where our very foundation seems to be shifting, how awesome it is to know that this our God is only a prayer away. A group of people come to the House of Commons two or three times a week, and pray for Parliament. I have to say how important it is to have those prayers.
As we think of this passing year—something that many of us do—we think about what has happened and perhaps look forward to 2023 with renewed hope for the future. I think we should look forward with hope; we have to do that. We should always try to be positive. In this passing year, my mind goes to the loss of Her Majesty the Queen. Many of us felt that so deeply, and yet her passing also carried the message of hope, because of Christ. I quoted this when we had the tributes to Her Majesty. It is important, I think, to put it on the record again.
The wonderful message that the Queen gave in one of her cherished Christmas messages—this one was in 2014—was crystal clear:
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life.”
That was Her Majesty talking.
“A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
It is my firm belief that this true message of Christmas is what can bring hope and healing to a nation that can seem so fractured. When I look at the headlines, I sometimes despair, but that is also when I most enjoy my constituency work, and getting to see glimpses of community spirit and goodness that are done daily and yet are rarely reported. Her Majesty’s speech in 2016 reflected that, when she said:
“Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”
It is heart-warming and refreshing to hear the hon. Gentleman’s plain and confident affirmation of his faith, and our faith too. By the way he speaks, he encourages all of us to reflect on the Judeo-Christian foundations on which our society and our civilisation are built, and I just wanted to thank him for that.
The right hon. Gentleman is most kind. I am giving just a slight reminder of what Christmas is about. I think we all realise that, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of it. The example of Christ is one of humility, coming to the earth as a vulnerable baby, and of purpose, as we see the gold given that symbolises royalty, the frankincense to highlight his deity and myrrh to symbolise his purposeful death to redeem us all.
I am a strong advocate in this House for freedom of religion or belief, as the Leader of the House knows. She is always very kind; every week, when I suggest something that should be highlighted, she always takes those things back to the Ministers responsible. I appreciate that very much, as do others in this House. I am proud to be associated with that wonderful cause, and as long as God spares me I will speak for the downtrodden of my own faith and others. I speak for all faiths, because that is who I am, and so do others in this House with the same belief.
At the same time, however, like Her late Majesty, I am proud to be a follower of Christ. At this time of year I simply want the House to know the hope that can be found in Christ, not simply at Christmas, but for a lifetime. The babe of Bethlehem was Christ on the cross and our redeemer at the resurrection, and that gives me hope and offers hope for those who accept him and it.
From the bottom of my heart, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you in particular, since you have presided over this speech and the past few hours. I thank Mr Speaker and all the other Deputy Speakers, with all the things that are happening to them, the Clerks and every staff member in this place for the tremendous job they do and the graceful spirit in which everything has been carried out in the last year. I thank right hon. and hon. Members, who are friends all—I say that honestly to everyone.
I thank my long-suffering wife, who is definitely long-suffering, and my mum—
The hon. Gentleman has often summed up how people feel, particularly at this time of year. I know he has had losses over the past few years, and he always manages to sum up the feeling of this House. Many Members in this debate have spoken about constituents or family they have lost, and we appreciate his bringing up these issues, as I appreciate all Members’ doing so. There will be some people thinking about spending Christmas apart from family they are not able to see, or having suffered those losses. I thank him and we are all willing him strength as he continues his speech.
I thank the Leader of the House for that. I mentioned my long-suffering wife; we have been married 34 years, so she is very long-suffering, and that is probably a good thing, because we are still together. My mum is 91 years old and I suspect she is sitting watching the Parliament channel right now to see what her eldest son is up to and what he is saying, so again that is something.
I also thank my staff members. I told one of my Opposition colleagues last week that I live in a woman’s world, because I have six girls in my office who look after me and make sure I am right. The hon. Members for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) referred to AI, but I must say I am not converted to it. I am not even sure what it is, to be perfectly honest. However, I know one thing: when it comes to writing speeches, Naomi writes the speeches for me and she does it extremely well, and I will maintain that human touch as long as I can.
Lastly, I thank my Strangford constituents, who have stuck by me as a councillor, as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and as a Member of Parliament in this House. This is my 30th year of service in local government and elsewhere. They have been tremendously kind to me and I appreciate them. I want to put on record what a privilege it is to serve them in this House and to do my best for them.
I wish everyone a happy Christmas, and may everyone have a prosperous, peaceful and blessed new year, as we take the example of Christ and act with humility and purpose in this place to effect the change that we all want and that is so needed in our nation—this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, always better together.
It is always a pleasure to respond for the SNP to this type of debate, which is officially called “Matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment” but has, as I had to explain to the Chief Whip, the nickname “Whinge-fest”—that seemed to have passed him and me by. This has not been a whinge-fest at all; I think it has been a wide-ranging and excellent debate. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his contribution, and to my good friend, the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for her excellent contribution.
Of course, the debate was opened by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who made pertinent criticisms of the Home Office. I know that he has raised those issues before, and I join him in doing so. I was particularly taken with his view that, as a member of the 1922 committee executive, he wishes to keep a low profile for the next year, and no wonder! In 2022, we have had three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors, three Secretaries of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, three Leaders of the House, a mini-Budget bombshell that crashed the economy, and an ongoing cost of living crisis, which is, of course, a Tory-made failing of the nations and regions of this United Kingdom and these islands. Of course, the Prime Minister lost the first ballot, did he not? He then secured the job when it was accepted that what he was looking for was inevitable. Thinking about it, that is a bit like the Scottish constitutional question. Six polls in a row have shown that Scottish independence is now in the lead.
I will concentrate on what many others have touched on: the cost of living crisis and who has been asked to pay the price. On that, I was very much taken with the contribution from the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who quite rightly spoke about the number of workers across public services and elsewhere who are taking industrial action. I have to say that I have no problem with being on a picket line. First, because those strikers are constituents, we go to picket lines to understand the problems and see how we can help to resolve a dispute. I do not see any particular problem in that. My message to people who criticise those of us who are on picket lines is, “Why don’t you talk to your constituents? Why don’t you try to find out where the problems are? Why don’t you try to fix these issues?”
The simple fact is that we have some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the world. Given that trade unions have to go through all these hurdles to take industrial action in the first place, there has to be some acknowledgment that people are on strike for very real reasons. They are not on strike because somebody told them to do it, or because some trade union official or steward has Jedi-like powers and can wave their hand to say, “This is the strike you are looking for.” It just does not work that way.
The worry for the Government is the number of civil service workers who have started striking and will strike in the next few weeks, including in the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, Border Force, the outsourced services of the Disclosure and Barring Service, and the justice sector. As a Government of small government, why do they not sort out this peculiar nonsense of there being more than 200 negotiating positions for 200 different pay negotiations in the civil service? That seems a completely nonsensical position.
People tell me that one of the reasons they are having to take industrial action at the moment is the price of food. Food inflation is at 16%—that is incredible when I think about it. It is incredible to think about the number of people who have to use food banks. One of the things that I have tried to do since being elected as a Member is to help people step up from food banks through affordable projects. I am thinking, for example, of the Threehills Larder; the Linthouse Larder, which was opened last week; the larders and pantries that will be opening in Cardonald, and Scotland’s first community supermarket, which will also be opening.
These are very real issues, and it is not just working people who are having to use these sorts of services. We are now seeing the return of sanctions as an aggressive policy instigated by the Department for Work and Pensions. In August this year, £36 million was recouped in DWP sanctions—that is in one month in England, Wales and Scotland. That is an incredible figure. The month before it was £35 million and the month before it was £34 million. There is certainly an increase in the use of sanctions, which we will have to debate in this House in the next year.
To back up the hon. Member for Harrow East, the Home Office needs to start corresponding with Members of Parliament when we raise issues. The number of outstanding pieces of correspondence I have with the Home Office is utterly incredible, and I hope the Leader of the House will take that back to the Home Office. The issue of Afghans has been raised, but there are many other constituent cases with the Home Office on which I am not getting any answers at all, and the number of delays is ridiculous.
I hope in the coming year we will see an end to some of the more aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric that we sometimes hear in this place and elsewhere. Glasgow led the way, of course. In Scotland, we elected the first refugee councillor: the great Roza Salih, who was an office manager in the Glasgow South West constituency office, but has been retained as a part-time caseworker.
I end by saying that some people will suggest we are all going on holiday after today; it is not a holiday, but a recess. Some of us might get Christmas day off if we are lucky, but it is a recess. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we could not do it were it not for the staff of this House and, more importantly, the great constituency office staff we all have. I pay tribute to and thank Scott McFarlane, Roza Salih, Keith Gibb, Alistair Shaw, Tony McCue, Dominique Ucbas, Raz Salih, Linsey Wilson and Greg McCarra for their outstanding work in the past year. I wish them and all other Members’ constituency office staff a happy and peaceful Christmas, and a good new year when it comes.
May I start where the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) ended, by most importantly wishing all those who work with us in this place a very merry and restful Christmas and new year? It has been yet another historic year; one in which all those who work to support us in this place have yet again stepped up extremely well. There are too many teams and individuals to mention, but if I may, I sneak in a special thanks from me to Adouni in Portcullis House. I give a massive thanks to all those working in constituency offices across the land, whose work in these difficult times is much appreciated. If I may, I just say to the hon. Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) that that includes Sarah, who actually won parliamentary caseworker of the year in this year’s awards as well.
As regulars in this debate will know, it is an impossible task to wind up four hours of such a debate, with 30 Members having covered a wide range and breadth of issues so well this afternoon. Christmas is a time for tradition, and it is traditional in this place that the last Back-Bench speech in most debates goes to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). May I say to him, following his contribution today, that he is a much-loved Member of this House?
A recurrent theme from those on the Opposition Benches has been the chaos surrounding the Government this year and their dismal performance. On that note, I thought I would follow in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) at Prime Minister’s questions by offering a new interpretation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, as it is the end of term. This year, we have had: 12 years of Tory failure; 11 Ministers at the Ministry of Justice since June; at least 10 trips to Downing Street by removal teams, as well as 10 different Ministers at the Department for Transport since September; nine different Tory DEFRA Secretaries since 2010; 8 billion unusable PPE masks currently in storage, costing £2.2 million a week; seven candidates rumoured to have refused the Prime Minister’s offer to take up the role of ethics adviser, a post that still remains vacant; six different steel Ministers—an issue very important to Newport East—since the last general election; and, this year alone, five different Education Secretaries, four Chancellors, three PMs, two Tory leadership contests and slightly less than one week between the Home Secretary losing her post after a serious security breach and being reappointed by the Prime Minister.
I also want to mention the number 30, because a constituent explained to me on Friday that her husband’s pension pot was cut by 30% after the disastrous autumn mini-Budget, meaning that the couple will have to postpone a well-earned retirement for at least a few years. We must be clear that there has been a real human cost to this Government’s failures and a distinct lack of contrition from those who crashed our economy—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in her excellent contribution.
The 12 days of Christmas are also insufficient to contain the number of overdue and forgotten Bills and White Papers promised by this Government; we would probably need at least two advent calendars. I will not list everything that is missing, as that would not be fair to anyone in the Chamber, but what on earth is happening with the Victims Bill, the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the 10-year plan for dementia, the regulations on physician associates—I certainly have constituents who are waiting for those—the Gambling Act review White Paper, the promised White Paper on regional health inequalities and the football governance White Paper?
As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned, there are delays in responses from Departments, too. So much legislation and policy seems to have become stuck in the quagmire of chaos that has engulfed this Prime Minister’s premiership, and his predecessor’s, and her predecessor’s. This Tory Government are the worst joke you will find in a Christmas cracker over the coming years.
On a cheerier note, there were excellent contributions from Members across the House. The theme of broken and bust Britain under this Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) called it, in his inimitable style, was raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South, for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—there are a lot of Whips in here today. They rightly highlighted the Government’s record this year on mortgage rises; the impact of inflation and the cost of living; the treatment of public sector workers, postal workers and more, and the need for the Government to get round the table, which many hon. Members mentioned; energy costs and the lack of a plan after March; and the terrible choices that local government is being forced to make due to Government cuts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen mentioned delays to the levelling-up process. I thank her for her work on online abuse, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East was right that if the Government cannot make a difference now, they should step aside—or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, press the reset button. He was right: let us have a general election now.
A number of hon. Members mentioned rail services—a popular choice in these debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport was right in his criticism of Avanti. That gives me the opportunity to say again that the Government’s record on rail investment is woeful. Wales has 11% of the rail network and 2% of rail enhancement funding. The Government must do better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South did a great service highlighting the need to talk about the take-up of mammograms. We are very sorry for her loss. It must have been difficult to speak about that today, but she has done a really good thing.
My Whips Office colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, raised debt collection practices and the use of bailiffs in collecting council tax debt, which is important to highlight.
I thank the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for talking about AI, although, knowing my hon. Friend—we grew up together in Cwmbran, as a point of trivia—I cannot imagine that he writes many speeches down and, given his wit and style, I am sure we could tell the difference. They were both right to highlight the benefits and threats of AI, and the need for us to engage with the technology and find a balance.
I wish the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney all the best with their safety campaigns following tragic incidents—and a special mention to the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his remembrance of Ballykelly.
At this time of year, we think of those in need, including those across the world facing the threats of malnutrition, persecution and war. That includes the people of Ukraine, who have suffered unimaginable pain and loss this year as a result of Russia’s barbaric invasion. I also send our thoughts to the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who are facing that devastating blockade. I highlight to the House the remarks made in the Chamber last week by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who called on the UK Government to do what they can through their diplomatic links with Azerbaijan to bring an end to the blockade and the continued repression of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
At Christmas, we also think of all those facing hardship in the communities that we represent in the UK, and we know that this will be an especially difficult Christmas for many of our constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen referred to her community organisations and I, too, am grateful to all the organisations and volunteers in Newport East who provide support to people who need help. I also thank the many emergency service workers in my constituency and across the country who work hard to keep us safe over the festive period. On that note—I hope that I have not taken too much time—I say Nadolig Llawen pawb: a merry Christmas to everyone, and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, given your wonderful Welsh connections.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate. When we think of Adjournment debates, as many hon. Members have said, we think of our dear late colleague Sir David Amess. As the debate developed today and we spoke about AI, I wondered what would happen if we asked the relevant apps to write an pre-recess Adjournment debate speech in the style of Sir David. Many hon. Members spoke about lots of different issues and carefully crafted their speeches by weaving those issues into a central theme or linking them, but Sir David proved that that was totally unnecessary. We certainly miss him, and we miss his contributions.
I know that Sir David would be incredibly proud of the success of the Music Man project—a choir and orchestra of people with learning disabilities who have already played the London Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall and who now have a hit single out that went to No. 10 in the iTunes chart last week. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) for encouraging anyone who has not already bought it to please buy it, because it would be fantastic if it was the Christmas No. 1. That is just one of the many fantastic cultural organisations in Southend West. If she is having difficulty encouraging her local council to be as ambitious as the Music Man project, she might wish to play the single in the council chamber at its next meeting.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) was a parliamentary first, and in using AI he gave me ideas about how I will handle my next meeting with the Standards Committee. He reminds us that we must pick up the pace and move with the speed that business and science needs us to. I thank him for his thoughtful speech. Similarly, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—henceforth known as KI—spoke about AI and the music industry. I hope that we can look forward to the standard of speeches in this place being considerably raised in the new year.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for opening the debate and I congratulate his local council on the reinvigoration of the high street. He mentioned the security fund for places of worship, which of course covers Hindu temples and has been bolstered. I also thank him for mentioning the trade negotiations with India, with which we already have a £30 billion trading relationship. It will be the third largest economy in the world by 2050, so it is vital that we can access it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing £620 million for his constituency since 2019, on his playgrounds project and on commemorating Pilot Officer William McMullen of 428 Squadron, who perished because he remained at the controls and saved enormous numbers of lives. In a similar vein, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke movingly about the Ballykelly bombing; we thank him for placing on the record the names of all those who were killed. We will never forget.
The hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda) spoke about the Online Safety Bill. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen will know, that is returning on 16 January. Although it is not exactly where she wants it to be, I thank her for recognising that it is an important step forward. I will pass on to the Health Secretary her request for a meeting with Solving Kids’ Cancer. I also thank her for raising the importance of voluntary and social organisations, especially at this time of year. We would all echo her thanks to emergency services and key workers at this time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) spoke movingly about his constituent Hasnath; we are sorry to hear of his passing. It sounds like he lived an incredible life and has left a very important legacy for the constituency.
I turn to the speech made by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Like many others today, she spoke about a tragic event, and I put on the record my sympathies and condolences to her constituents. She gave us a Dickens-themed speech and I would like to reply in a similar vein. If we were visited by the ghost of Christmas past, we would remember that in the time it took us to put up council tax by 36%, Labour put it up by 110%, and in the time it took us to reduce fuel duty by 7.5%, Labour put it up by 42%—we would be paying £1,000 extra in council tax a year and £40 extra to fill up our cars. The defence budget is in balance now; when we came to office, it was £71 billion in deficit.
The ghost of Christmas present would look at the work we have been doing to assist people through this difficult period in the wake of the pandemic and because of the Ukraine war. There is a package of £26 billion in the next financial year to support people, the maintenance of the triple lock and the introduction of the largest ever increase in the national living wage for 2 million workers. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) is able to appreciate the modernisation of the welfare system that universal credit has brought. Without it, I think legacy systems would have collapsed during the pandemic.
The wishes of the hon. Member for Nottingham South—that the ghost of Christmas future would bring a Labour Government—were echoed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I would not share those wishes, having seen how Labour operates in Wales, where waiting lists are five times longer than in England and teacher numbers are down by 10%.
The hon. Member for Rhondda raised a number of important consumer issues, including energy companies; that theme was also echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I am sorry to hear about the issues my right hon. Friend has been having with regard to King Edmund School and about the lift issues in his local block. The hon. Member for Rhondda also mentioned home insulation. The new £1 billion scheme, which is in addition to the £6.6 billion help to heat scheme, is helping improve the efficiency rating of homes. When we took office, 13% of homes had ratings of C or above; the figure is now 46% and we are on target to raise that to include every home.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) also spoke about consumer-related issues, particularly in respect of his local authority. He is right to hold his local authority to account on debt collection, which is incredibly important. I encourage him to take up the services offered by the Department for International Trade with regard to opening up opportunities, particularly when it comes to the trade deal with India.
I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is pleased at the energy efficiency funds recently released for schools and that she is making progress on her football pitches. She raised a couple of questions, and she should talk to the district or borough monitoring officers about holding parish councils to account. I shall ensure that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has heard her concerns, as well as the development issues she raises. I have heard her suggestions on SMEs and, like many Members, she raised the quality of rail services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) also mentioned rail services, and particularly the franchise governing the TransPennine Express. He gave us his Christmas list, which includes a Cleethorpes to Kings Cross via Grimsby line, his campaign for Humber port, and to ensure that he gets a devolution deal for his county and unitary authorities. The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) rightly thanked family and friends—we sometimes do not do that in this place—and raised the issue of the menopause campaign, which is something that Members across the House have worked on together and enabled good things to happen. More is needed, but good progress has been made this year. I put on record my sympathies for her friend Michelle, and thank her for raising the importance of screening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) raised the sad loss of his brother Jeremy, and my thoughts are with him and his sister-in-law, Sophie. He rightly raised the importance of innovation in healthcare, and often it is healthcare professionals who come up with the most innovative ideas. I agree completely with what he said about the importance of alcohol screening and getting bespoke services for people. I also thank him for raising the importance of CPTPP, a £9 trillion market that—critically—will also increase the number of high-wage jobs in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) also gave us his Christmas wish list, which includes a banking hub and road funding—I shall ensure that the Department for Transport has heard about the latter. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke about a tragedy in his constituency, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) who mentioned the tragedy that has led to her button batteries campaign. I say to both colleagues that my door is always open to assist them with advice on legislation that they want to bring forward.
The hon. Members for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) understandably focused on healthcare. Dental care is not just about funding—at the start of this year we had a massive increase in dental funding—but it is about workforce issues, and flexibility in commissioning. I know that the Minister is gripping that issue. Over the past 12 months there have been substantial changes and there will be more to follow. Patient care is at the heart of this. We have spoken a lot, understandably, about the strike situation, but our focus needs to be on patient care.
We had a huge catch-up job to do following the pandemic. It is the biggest and most ambitious catch- up job in the NHS’s entire history, and just in the past 12 months immense progress has been made to reduce the backlog, through elective recovery—the first target in the elective recovery plan has been met—through taskforces, and through eliminating waits of over two years for treatment, as well as reducing the number of people waiting 18 months for treatment by almost 60% this year. As many colleagues have done, we must pay a huge tribute to our healthcare professionals and those who support them in that. I could mention many other things we have done, including new diagnostic centres. A lot of the waiting list is because of diagnostic care, and it is vital that we crack through that.
My hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter) also gave us their wish list. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley wished for a second university technical college and he is a diligent campaigner for his airport. He wants a new school and a health centre. The hon. Member for Warrington South is rightly celebrating his success in securing a new MRI scanner and the £42 million that he has for his local transport services.
The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), has been campaigning to save and preserve the jail, which I know well—not because I lived there; I lived in Reading for a time. I wish him good luck with that. I will certainly write to the MOD with regard to Gurkha pensions.
Many hon. Members have mentioned international issues, including Afghanistan, Iran—we will debate Iran on 12 January—the humanitarian situation in Armenia and, of course, Ukraine. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for highlighting the campaign for us to switch off our Christmas lights for an hour.
The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), made traditionally consistent speeches in both the views and topics they raised, as praised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) should never have to apologise for mentioning Christ in this place—especially at Christmas. We are in a place where the architecture is designed to turn our faces to God. I thank him for his Christmas message.
We have had quotes from the Bible, the Sugababes, Grace Jones, Dickens, AI and the Pimlico tube board. I want to close by giving some other quotes. As we await the King’s first Christmas speech, it is most appropriate to give hon. Members, in my last minute, a precis of Her late Majesty’s messages to us at Christmas, because they chimed with me as the debate was going on. In 1957, she said:
“It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and to cherish is much more difficult.”
In 1991, she said:
“None of us has a monopoly on wisdom…we must always be ready to listen and respect other points of view.”
In 2018 she said that “faith, family and friends” are our constant. In 1974, she said:
“We may hold different points of view but it is in times of stress and difficulty that we…have much more in common than there is dividing us.”
That particularly chimes with us today. Finally, in 2008, she said:
“When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.”
That has run through many of the themes of the debate. My thanks also go to all the House staff, the Doorkeepers, cleaners, Clerks, catering, police and security staff, broadcasters, Hansard and, of course, our constituency staff and civil servants, who all come together to make this place function. Of course, our thanks go to Mr Speaker and his team. I wish you all a very merry and, hopefully, peaceful Christmas.
In that case, I will take it. On behalf of—[Interruption.] I will put a two-minute limit on me. On behalf of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker team, I want to wish everybody who works here a merry Christmas and a happy 2023. Virtually everybody has mentioned their staff, so I had better mention Will, Amy and Michael in my office in London and those who support me in the Ribble Valley because they are on the frontline, dealing with the problems that we deal with, too. I thank them.
From the cleaners to the Clerks, the cooks and the security services and the police who look after us and protect us, I thank everyone who works on the parliamentary estate for what they do and wish them a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
There have been a lot of quotes. My late brother’s favourite Christmas movie was “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and it is one of my favourites, too. Just like Clarence, who got his wings several decades ago, I would like to give another angel their wings today and wish everybody a merry Christmas and a happy 2023.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.