October Bedford Independent Column – The Queen’s speech was ‘a party-political broadcast for a Conservative Government in panic mode’

This week the Queen was summoned to Parliament to read out Boris Johnson’s Government’s agenda.

But this was a highly unusual Queen’s speech, because the Prime Minister, now 45 MP’s short of a majority, is unlikely to get his wish-list through Parliament.

A Queen’s speech should set out the legislative process for the year ahead, but the Prime Minister can’t even say what will happen next week. And the General Election he is calling for will end the new Parliament barely before its begun.

This was little more than a party-political broadcast for a Conservative Government in panic mode, and who better to deliver it than our 93-year-old, politically neutral monarch? I’m sure she was less than thrilled.

With just days to the third Brexit deadline, the Prime Minister wasted precious time on pointless pageantry. It was another ploy to distract us from the chaos and confusion of his weak and dishonest administration.

Closer examination of the Government’s agenda gives little comfort. With no less than eight bills dedicated to law and order, the message rang out loud and clear.

Boris wants the electorate to think he will be tough on crime. But longer sentences for prisoners won’t solve the problem. There was no strategy for rehabilitation, no recognition that it is years of cuts to our public services that have caused our prison population to balloon.

Nothing for youth services or public health and no realistic settlement for local government on the horizon. A few warm words about improving mental health provision but nothing concrete and we have been waiting years for the in patient mental health beds to be reinstated.

And while it is welcome news that Bedfordshire police is getting 54 additional officers, 440 are needed, so we’re very short of where we need to be. Bedfordshire has lost 8% of its police officers over 10 years of austerity, while violent crime levels have soared.

The Prime Minister talks about more funding for the NHS, but we now know only a handful of hospitals will benefit. Bedford has been offered nothing as a result of the merger and severe staff shortages are crippling our NHS.

Since 2010 there are more workers in poverty, more children in poverty, more pensioners in poverty. There are more families without a home of their own and more people sleeping rough on our streets. Wages are still lower than a decade ago, a million work in the insecure gig economy and foodbanks have become the norm.

Even the things that were promised in the speech are dependent upon the delivery of a form of Brexit that doesn’t cripple the nation – and right now Boris can’t tell us how much poorer we’ll be under his plans.

He’s also recklessly bluffing that he’ll take us out of the EU without a deal.  I think the public should get a chance to have a final say on whether his ‘dodgy deal or no deal’ approach works for them, and I’ll be voting to make that happen.

Read the article at Bedford Independent. 

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

August Bedford Independent Column – Local Healthcare

Stalled discussions over the merger between Bedford Hospital and the Luton & Dunstable were revived at the start of August by a promise of investment.

It’s not hard to see why Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make such an announcement at this point  – the threat of a vote of no confidence when MP’s return after the summer break looms, and giving money to hospitals might seem like a way to secure support from MPs.

But this is not a new pledge.

The money for this merger was bid for and promised a long time ago – it’s just that the treasury wouldn’t release it.

For Bedford Hospital, the announcement ends years of uncertainty, and will be good for staff morale and retention.

I am pleased that services will be retained at Bedford after what has been a long and hard-fought campaign, and I will hold NHS bosses to their promises to keep A&E, Maternity and Paediatrics at Bedford.

But these merger plans don’t offer much in the way of enhanced facilities for Bedford, with most of the capital earmarked for upgrades to the Luton site.

I now want to see real investment in our healthcare facilities locally; for a return of inpatient mental health beds, for better access to primary care and better facilities for our GPs, and for enough money to keep essential services like our hydrotherapy pool running.

It’s not just acute NHS services that will need extra cash if we are to tackle the burgeoninghealthcare crisis either.

If more money isn’t provided for social care, hospitals will continue to pick up the slack. Bedford Borough Council are particularly good at ensuring seamless transfers of care, but the system is undoubtedly struggling.

The workforce shortages we see throughout the health and social care system will significantly worsen if strict post-Brexit immigration rules force lower income workers to leave the UK.

If Boris Johnson is serious about our nation’s health, he’ll provide some genuinely new money for the whole system.

He’ll scrap his dangerous no-deal Brexit plans that further threaten the stability of our health and social care workforce and would likely disrupt medical supply lines.

And he’ll reverse short-sighted Public Health cuts so that people can be helped to live healthier lives. Prevention is not only better than cure, it’s cheaper. But perhaps he doesn’t think he’ll be PM for long enough to see the benefits.

Read the article here at Bedford Independent

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.”

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.