Rail Fares Set to Increase Again

Rail Fares Set to Increase Again

The news this week that rail users are going to see yet another fare hike is extremely unwelcome. As I have said many times, we already pay some of the highest fares in Europe to use appallingly unreliable, overcrowded trains – and regular travellers will know that we’ve had another summer of cancellations and disruption. (Network Rail have responded to me following the recent heatwave disruption.)

Our rail services under the Tories are a disgrace and Bedford has been particularly badly affected. People are being driven away from sustainable transport and onto already congested roads. Successive rail ministers have failed to hold train operating companies and Network Rail to account for their failings – and nobody stays in the job for long, given the number of rail ministers over the previous two years.

Railways should be owned by the people and run for the people, not for profit – they must be brought back into public ownership.

 

Network Rail Response to Heatwave Disruption

Network Rail Response to Heatwave Disruption

I have received the following response from Rob McIntosh, Managing Director, Eastern, Network Rail, to my letter asking what plans Network Rail are putting in place to prevent the level of disruption we saw recently as a result of the hot weather:

“Initially I want to acknowledge the understandable concerns which you’ve expressed about the impact of climate change and how increasing extremes of weather will affect our railways. This is something which it is extremely important that we plan adequately for and so I welcome the opportunity to provide more information about the work my team has done and will be doing in the future on this.

“In addition to the interventions outlined in my update from 30 July to proactively put in place a temporary speed restriction between Leicester and London St Pancras and reactively undertake repairs to damaged overhead line equipment at Belsize Tunnel, we prepare for and manage hot weather by utilising a number of other methods.

“The design and condition of the track is one of the key aspects of this. I can confirm that there are no sections of jointed track on the passenger route between Sheffield and London St Pancras. This means that there are significantly fewer instances of the tracks buckling in very high temperatures due to them expanding.

“Rail is also painted white at some vulnerable locations, such as at Trent South Junction in Leicestershire, where this improves asset reliability and prevents failures caused by the steel expanding. Our use of this intervention on the Midland Main Line is fairly limited though because track inspections are predominantly carried out by our Plain Line Pattern Recognition Train, which makes use of high-density cameras and lasers and so can be impeded when rail is white due to the reflective glare which is caused.

“In terms of our activity whilst the hot weather is happening, my Track Maintenance Engineers use remote monitoring temperature probes, located at critical locations across the Midland Main Line, to provide the route with up-to-date temperature readings. This allowed the targeted deployment of inspection teams to sites along the route during the event last month, after it recorded a rail temperature in London of 54 degrees, in Bedford and Kettering of 56, and in Leicester of 53. These are amongst the highest we can remember. The approach we follow ensures sites are monitored and speed restrictions are imposed which balanced safety against trying to keep passengers moving.

“Our rail on the Midland Main Line is stress-tested to the high standard of the industry, and this meant that once some speed restrictions were put in place we were able to manage the impact of the hot weather on the track. On the London North Eastern and East Midlands Route we had around 350 members of my team deployed to watch the tracks after passing trains to make sure there was no track movement taking place. In addition we also used extra response teams to manage weather-related infrastructure failures.

“I do appreciate though that this will be of little comfort to Mr Yasin’s constituents who were so severely affected, especially by the overhead line failure near West Hampstead, and again want to provide an assurance that this is something we will learn the lessons from. If you require any further information about specific aspects of our response which aren’t contained above or in my update from 30 July and which the review will be looking at then of course that will something we will be happy to provide.

“I hope that this is a helpful summary of the broad range of interventions we employed last month to try to keep passengers moving, but please do accept my apologies for the impact the disruption had for passengers in Bedford.”

Private Prisons Fiasco

Private Prisons Fiasco

In April, the Government announced it would take HMP Birmingham permanently back from G4S into public ownership, after an appalling violence and inspection report last August.

Despite this failure, the Government plans to invest in private prisons, starting with two additional prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva whilst HMP Bedford is starved of adequate funds.

Under the Conservatives, the driving down of prison staffing levels and budgets was an explicit attempt by the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to lower the costs of public prisons to those in the private sector.

This has proven a dangerous race to the bottom. Grayling also oversaw the disastrous outsourcing of prison maintenance works to Carillion.

Despite the widespread failings at private prisons, the same companies – G4S, Sodexo, Serco, and others  – involved in these failures could be charged with running the proposed new private prisons.

These new private prisons are to be built with public money, with notorious blacklist Kier winning the construction contract for the first of them in Wellingborough, yet the profits won’t go into the public purse as the prisons will be then be handed over the private sector.

I asked the new Prison’s Minister why the public sector was banned from bidding for the contract and his answer made no sense. He said he wanted to keep the distribution balanced by offering half to the private and half to the public sector. He cited HMP Birmingham as an example of awarding a contract to the public sector, yet it only came back into public ownership at a cost of £450m because the private company G4s was stripped of the contract when it failed so spectacularly to run it safely. 

The Government defends its decision to build more private prisons by arguing that all opposition is simply “ideological”, but the truth is that running prisons for profit simply doesn’t work.

Today, I asked the Justice Secretary David Gauke why the public sector were not allowed to bid for the contract to build the new prison at Wellingborough. His dismissive response about the need to ‘balance the estate’ and have a ‘mix of providers’ is absolute nonsense. I seriously doubt that there is any evidence whatsoever that having such a mix is beneficial and it is clear in fact that both the privatisation of the prison and probation service has failed.

I’ll follow up my question with a letter, asking him to explain his comments – and also to tell me why our local prison is being starved of much needed investment.

April Bedford Independent Guest Column – Cuts Correlate with Crime

My latest guest column for Bedford Independent focuses on the correlation between cuts to police and public services and the rise in violent crime.

This month, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made another speech about rising violent crime among young people.

In what some interpreted as a leadership bid, Javid said, had he not had the good influence of his parents and teachers he could have had a life of crime himself and worried about his teenage children out on the streets.

“If I don’t feel safe or don’t think the streets are safe enough for my own children,” he said, “then something has gone terribly wrong”.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The country has seen a massive increase in youth knife crime. In Bedfordshire, knife crime has gone up 86% since 2014 and we have one of the worst knife crime rates outside of London.

In the last month alone, we have seen the trials of two horrific murders in Bedford. Five men were jailed for a total of 102 years for the death of Przemyslaw Golimowski.

And a 20-year-old and three 15-year olds, who filmed their brutal attack of 16- year old Cemeren Yilmaz, were found guilty of murder – a case of children killing children in gang related violence.

Until the Conservative Government acknowledge that cuts to police and other public services correlates to the rise in violent crime, they are not going to tackle the problem.

The Government have offered a one-off fund, but this is a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to what is needed.

10 years of austerity has hit our nation hard and the damage of such social violence cannot be underestimated.

As well as giving the police the funding they need to do their jobs effectively we have to start taking a public health approach to youth violent crime and find out why kids are joining gangs, carrying knives and hurting each other.

There are plenty of teachers, youth workers, scholars and parents who know what needs to be done but the Government won’t listen.

A damning report by the United Nations poverty envoy in November found that the UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity.”

Labour have called for more police officers and a real, concentrated effort to tackle the root causes of knife crime.

This involves supporting vulnerable young people who are at risk of falling into crime and developing comprehensive prevention and support strategies.

These changes would tackle not only knife crime, but other related crimes too.

Mr Javid talks of his escape from a possible world of crime, but his Government are reducing opportunities and life chances for young people.

There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2016-17. Is it that surprising that children are being seduced into a world of crime when their families can’t even feed them?

A much larger, co-ordinated effort is needed to prevent violent crimes and give our young people the chances that they deserve. The current approach has failed and is costing lives.”

Compromise in a time of crisis

No one following events in Westminster over the last weeks and months would deny that we are in a moment of crisis. That is why MPs have been engaged in a process of indicating their preferences in terms of Brexit options going forward over two sessions, the first last Wednesday and again last night. This is, I believe, a sincere attempt to break the deadlock.

These ‘indicative votes’ were intended to establish what Parliament might consider an acceptable outcome. It is a great pity that we have waited so long to embark upon this essential process and represents a failure of Government. Theresa May should have reached out to establish a consensus before Article 50 was invoked in March 2017.

A little over half of all those who voted in the referendum in Bedford & Kempston did so in favour of leaving the EU. I am always mindful of that fact, but the problem with the referendum of 2016 was that it did not give anyone the option of indicating how they wanted to leave the EU. It is clear from the correspondence that I am receiving from constituents that leaving the EU means a lot of different things to different people. Some have changed their mind. That fundamental problem of interpreting the vote is something that all MPs have been grappling with, and as we’ve approached the withdrawal date, matters have come to a head. Those differences of opinion about what ‘leave’ means are now reflected in Parliament. I know that my constituents are exhausted with the process and just want the uncertainty to stop.

No deal is not a realistic option. Just today we learned from a leaked letter to Government from the UK’s top civil servant how bad a no deal Brexit would be for Britain: bad because food supplies and standards would be at risk and food prices would rise, bad because jobs and livelihoods would be lost and worker’s rights would be compromised, bad because it risks the fragmentation of the UK and bad because it would be a terrible outcome for our NHS and security.

For me, this process is now about being open to compromise – looking carefully at what is realistic. Whilst all of the options presented for consideration last night have positive aspects, they also have drawbacks. I am aware that there is no outcome that will please everyone, but intransigence is not an option.

It is the PM’s steadfast refusal to adopt a sensible compromise approach to negotiations that has led us to this crisis – So I cast my votes yesterday as follows:

Customs Union – Seeking a UK Wide Customs union with the EU – For

Common Market 2.0 – Remaining in the Common Market and seeking a temporary customs union with the EU – For

Confirmatory Referendum – Holding a public vote to confirm any withdrawal agreement agreed by Parliament – For

Parliamentary Supremacy – Power for MPs to block leaving with no deal, cancelling Brexit if the EU won’t grant a further extension beyond 12 April – For

The first two options represent to me a pragmatic compromise on Brexit – softer options that would minimise the negative economic impact of leaving whilst still allowing the UK many of the freedoms that would not be permitted as a member of the European Union. I am aware that both options would not represent the clean break that many leavers would like to see. I have some reservations about both, but I have never been in favour of leaving without a deal and I do not consider Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement represents a good deal. I am persuaded therefore that a Brexit pursued in terms of either of these models would be broadly acceptable to me.

This brings me to my decision to support a confirmatory referendum. I have always had concerns about going back to the people on this issue, and I am aware that many people will be unhappy about that option. But I also think that opinion is very divided on the issue of how we should proceed. Parliament seems unable to decide so asking the electorate to confirm what they think about whatever deal is finally decided upon might be the best thing to do.

Finally, I voted for the motion to revoke Article 50 if the EU will not extend beyond the 12th April. The Brexit negotiation process has not delivered an acceptable outcome for Britain, and I do not think that is in dispute. The process of extending the leave date without any clear idea of where we are headed, runs the very real risk of an accidental ‘No Deal’, and leaving without any deal in place is something that I have already said that I cannot support, and indeed will actively resist. I realise that some people in my constituency would like this to be the outcome but as a representative not a delegate, I have to act in a way I believe to be in the best interests of all of the people that I have been elected to serve. If Article 50 were to be revoked, there is nothing to say that it could not be invoked again at a later date if agreement could be reached on how our departure from the EU could be achieved.

Unfortunately, none of the options gained a majority. These are complex arguments that I have tried to condense into a relatively brief post. I appreciate that I may not have covered everything to the satisfaction of all of the people reading this, but if you are a constituent and would like to email me for more details, I will be happy to provide a more comprehensive response. Please be mindful that my office is handling an unprecedented volume of email correspondence, so it may take a little while.

Protect free TV licences for the over 75s

Protect free TV licences for the over 75s

Over the course of the past few months, I have been contacted by several constituents concerned that millions of people over the age of 75 could lose their free TV licences. The free TV licence was introduced in 2000 in recognition that the licence fee could be a source of concern for many people over the age of 75, nearly 50% of whom were in the lowest three income deciles.

However, in 2015 – as part of the BBC’s Charter renewal – the Government shifted the cost of these licences to the BBC, without the funding to sustain the policy. The BBC reached an agreement with the Government to take on the cost of providing free TV licences by 2020/21. The BBC is now considering whether to keep, reform or end the free TV licence for over-75s. I understand the BBC is expected to reach a decision by this summer and I along with many others will be following this closely.

I recognise that many elderly people, along with Age UK, the Campaign to End Loneliness and Silver Voices have expressed concern at any changes to the licence. A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation outlined that pensioner poverty is currently rising, with one in six pensioners currently living in poverty. Ending the free TV licence could see approximately 2.4 million pensioners lose their licence and a further 50,000 pushed below the poverty line.

The TV licence is an important benefit for pensioners who suffer disproportionately from loneliness and social isolation. If TV licences are ended or means-tested, millions of older people, almost half of whom consider television their main source of company, will have to pay to keep the little company they do have.

The current Government was elected on a manifesto which promised to maintain all pensioner benefits, including TV licences. I believe it must keep this promise by taking back responsibility for the TV licence. In February I asked a question on this matter. Unfortunately, the Minister chose not to answer the question and to shift responsibility.

I will continue to press the Government to step in and save free TV licences for over-75s.

March Bedford Independent Guest Column – Christchurch & Social Media Reform

My monthly guest column for Bedford Independent focuses on the appalling terrorist attack in New Zealand and the need for decisive action by social media companies.

On Friday we woke to the terrible news that 50 innocent lives had been taken in New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack on two mosques.

This abhorrent act, carried out by a right-wing extremist, has shocked the world, and we all mourn with the people of Christchurch.

One of the most distressing aspects of the attack was that the terrorist live-streamed his appalling acts on social media. Footage was available many hours later and can still be found in less obvious areas of the internet.

Some of our national newspapers even carried the footage on their websites and one national paper uploaded the attacker’s full 74-page manifesto, deleting the document only after being accused of spreading terrorist material.

There must be a serious review of how these films were shared and why more effective action wasn’t taken to remove them and the associated material.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded quickly and decisively, pledging to cover the cost of funerals offering financial assistance for those affected – and most importantly promising changes to her country’s gun laws.

Her compassionate leadership has been praised globally. But this was an act of terror designed to send fear across the globe by use of digital media, and now the legislative response needs to reflect that.

The devastating attack on innocent men, women and children in their place of worship crystallises the case for social media regulation.

Social media platforms have become part of the terrorists’ tools, but they continue to deny their responsibilities as a publisher of the material.

Although Facebook claims that it removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2 million were blocked at upload, but questions remain about why an account displaying white supremacist material was not already banned.

The social media oligarchs have the tech to control output on their platforms but have so far resisted doing so.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg refused Parliament’s request to be questioned by MPs over data abuse in their inquiry into ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ which issued its final report in February.

The report was highly critical of media platforms; their illegal harvesting and use of our data and the threat to democracy in the UK and elsewhere.

Defenders of the media platforms and of extreme views always cite free speech as the reason why any regulation would be wrong, but free speech always comes with responsibility and does not trump the rule of law.

The right to freedom of speech certainly does not extend to the right to carry out or promote mass murders on the grounds of racial or religious hatred.

I am pleased that the Home Secretary agrees with Labour policy that new laws are urgently required to force the oligarchs of Silicon Valley to face up to their responsibilities, but meaningful action must be taken before more innocent lives are lost.

Opportunity to make your voice heard on ME

Opportunity to make your voice heard on ME

If you are a constituent of Bedford and Kempston who suffers from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), your views and experience could help shape significant changes with the current Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefit assessment and interview processes.

I was pleased to speak recently at a debate in the House of Commons about the urgent need to fund and support research to find more appropriate treatment for sufferers of ME. Some 250,000 people suffer from ME, with 25% of individuals house or bed-bound, yet the only treatments available on the NHS treatments available on the NHS, have been shown to be ineffective, and can even worsen their condition.

There are also significant concerns that those with ME are being discriminated against as a result of a lack of fair access to the benefits to which sufferers may be entitled. I and my colleagues in the Labour Party continue to put pressure on the government at every opportunity as their hostile policies toward people living with disabilities and illness when they make benefit claims must be reformed. Medical evidence is largely overlooked or given little weight within the DWP’s assessment processes, which include interviews and physical assessments.

Many individuals within the ME community have voiced concerns about health assessors who carry out these assessments for benefits displaying an insufficient understanding of ME and not properly applying the assessment criteria. These factors, combined with tests which often leave a patient exhausted for weeks afterwards, mean that we assessments must become more accessible and accurate for those with ME.

A recent meeting with senior SNP MPs and representatives from the DWP has resulted in a request to all MPs to submit case studies from constituents with ME who have encountered these or any other issues whilst making a claim and being assessed for benefits.

If you have ME and have previously made a claim for benefits, attended an assessment or interview, or are attempting to do so currently, and would be happy to me to share your experiences, please contact my office by email on office@mohammadyasin.org or call 01234 346525.

Your personal details do not have to be shared as you can remain anonymous, but your experience could help shape more considered, accurate, appropriate and humane benefit assessment processes.

HMP Bedford

HMP Bedford

I’ve been pushing for issues around Bedford prison to be addressed since my election, and most recently I’ve twice brought a serious security issue to the House of Commons – and in writing – but to no avail. There are broken screens at HMP Bedford that have resulted in constituents who live close to the prison having to put up with loud, intimidating and lewd behaviour from prisoners, and daily intrusions on to their properties by criminals smuggling contraband through their gardens and over the prison wall.

The Prisons Minister Rory Stewart MP committed to immediately raising the matter with the governor, but this easy to fix security issue has still yet to be addressed. I’ll be picking this up with him again next week.

Mr Stewart has used smoke and mirrors when he claimed this week there’s been a drop in violence across the ten ‘back to basics’ prisons, whilst the actions and financial support necessary to make improvements to security and living conditions across the prison estate, including HMP Bedford, have not been forthcoming.

These are desperate tactics here from a minister who gave a commitment to resign if he failed on prison safety, yet apparently has done little to address the terrible conditions within the prison itself.

If the recent HMIP report is anything to go by, Bedford Prison certainly ought to have been identified as one of the worst in the country. But perhaps acknowledging a problem that his government will not commit the resources to fix is not convenient.

 

Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting Imports

Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting Imports

I have been contacted by several constituents calling for a ban on the import of hunting trophies into Britain. Amongst other species, elephants, lions, hippopotamuses, leopards and rhinoceroses, popular with British trophy hunters, are fighting for their lives.

I agree that the practice of importing hunting trophies is wrong and requires firmer action. The UK must show global leadership by tackling illegal wildlife trade and bringing an end to trophy hunting. I gave my support to the Early Day Motion back in November, which called on the Government to commit to halting imports of hunting trophies as a matter of urgency and I will continue to put pressure on this Government to follow the precedent set by Australia, France and the Netherlands, and introduce import bans.

The Opposition consulted on an Animal Welfare Plan between February and May last year. It included a proposal to end the import of wild animal trophies from species that are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and to expand this ban to species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The international rules for the import and export of hunting trophies are established under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Killing endangered wildlife for pleasure has a direct impact on the conservation status of some of the world’s most endangered wildlife: it is cruel, archaic and immoral and has no place in today’s Britain.

https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/illegal-wildlife-trade