Black Lives Matter

Many constituents are contacting me about the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m appalled by the killing of George Floyd and distressed to see the violence escalating across the USA, which has caused shockwaves across the world and here in the UK.

Sadly, it is a reality that racism is still endemic across the globe, and whilst I’m proud to be Bedford and Kempston’s first BAME Member of Parliament, representing residents long since proud of our multiculturalism and diversity, there is still racism in all our towns and cities.

Whilst the most obvious acts of overt racism may be less common in UK society today, more subtle forms of racial bias are still prevalent. What is clear from the strength of feeling across UK communities distraught by George Floyd’s death, is that if a person can lose their life because of their race, then we are still very far from achieving equality.

I am pleased that Labour leader Keir Starmer used Prime Minister’s questions last week as an opportunity to express our anger at the death of George Floyd and ask that the Prime Minister uses his relationship with President Trump to call for urgent reform. Despite the lack of an answer from Boris Johnson, it is my sincere hope that the Government will use the UK’s influence to demand change.

Until we can be sure no more BAME individuals will face discrimination, when there is no chance of being murdered because of the colour of your skin by somebody in a position of power, we must keep pushing for the complete elimination of racial bias across all institutions, workplaces and the community, and combat this ignorance through discussion, education and legislation.

It is shameful that the UK continues to supply tear gas and rubber bullets to the USA which were used by the police against peaceful protesters. I have signed a letter from Dawn Butler to the Government calling for an immediate suspension of all export licences to the USA that are linked to riot related items, and signed the Early Day Motion #520 with the same call to action. Emily Thornberry MP has written to her opposite number Liz Truss, the Shadow International Trade Secretary on the same issue and you can read her letter in full. We as a country must take a stand against injustice.

More widely it is important that we continue to support the BAME community. The publication of the report into the effect of Covid 19 on BAME individuals showed that people from minority backgrounds are more at risk to the virus. I am concerned about the lack of recommendations in the report. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has said that his department will now be looking at practical solutions but this is yet another delay. I can assure you that my Labour colleagues and I will press for these recommendations to be released as soon as possible.

I urge those who are feeling the desire to act, to channel this determination into a force for good. It’s always been simple and should never be controversial, black lives matter.

May Bedford Independent Column: Government is losing public confidence over return to schools

On 10 May the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return to school on 1 June.

Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have since expressed concern about the safety of classrooms and believe the Government is trying to shift the responsibility for safety in schools and community health, during a health pandemic, onto individual headteachers without a safe national framework.

Parents in Bedford and Kempston now face the agonising choice between the obvious benefits of their child returning to the school structure and environment versus the unknown risks of compromising the lock-down when the infection rate is still not under control.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still observing the lockdown and a handful of councils across England have instructed schools not to open more widely, for fear of the virus spreading again.

This is a novel virus, so scientists are divided on the risks to children. Some studies show pupils are less likely to become ill if infected and their ability to transfer the virus is low, while others show they are as infectious as adults, even if asymptomatic.

The Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser admitted the Government’s plan could risk spreading coronavirus since there is a “low degree of confidence” that children transmit the virus less than adults.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove could not guarantee that teachers and pupils would not catch coronavirus. But when I asked the Secretary of Health if he could reassure parents and teachers it was safe for young children, unable to socially distance, to return to school he maintained that parents can be “confident that school is a safe environment for them.”

The Government is losing public confidence just when it’s most needed to persuade anxious parents to send their children to school; it’s been eroded by endless contradictory advice and slippery pledges made to fill front pages for a day, that are exposed as untrue soon afterwards.

When there are differences of opinion between scientists on what counts as safe, only honesty about what is uncertain earns political trust. But too often now, this Government’s bold pledges, including those on testing, PPE and their myth that they had “put a safety ring around care homes”, have been exposed as falsehoods. The horrific death toll tells the real story.

Now we learn that the tracing app, integral to the testing, tracing and isolation strategy and so vital in preventing a second surge, will not be rolled out before children in England return to school.

In a few weeks’ time, the picture may look quite different. We are all coming to terms with moving forward to live with a different level of risk until a vaccine can be found. Bedford Borough have committed to opening schools when it is safe to do so. But the Government must address teachers’ concerns, and put in place the plans to test, trace and isolate before teachers and parents can be confident that sending children back to school won’t trigger a second deadly peak.

Please note I have reinstated surgeries, which will take place virtually until further notice. I will be holding appointments for Zoom meetings from 3-5 on Fridays. 

April Bedford Independent guest column: Government’s response is an epic failure

I want the government to succeed in fighting the biggest crisis in peacetime history, to save lives and protect livelihoods.

As an Opposition MP, it felt important to provide constructive support to the Government, only challenging when we think serious mistakes are being made or something is not happening that needs to happen.

The Sunday Times report last weekend changed things.

The news that Boris Johnson skipped five emergency Cobra meetings on Coronavirus, ignored early calls to order protective gear and was dismissive of scientists’ warnings of the severity the threat posed to the security of the UK, confirmed an extraordinary complacency from a Prime Minister renowned for his disregard for detail.

We now know that the Prime Minister’s long weekend holidays, even during the winter floods, his requests to keep briefings short – otherwise he wouldn’t read them, and his two week holiday with his fiancée at a countryside retreat in Chevening were the backdrop to a sequence of failings in February that has undoubtedly cost thousands of lives.

NHS England had already declared the virus outbreak as a “level 4 critical incident” at the end of January, the first ever of this severity.

Lack of provision for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our health and social care workers is the story that has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis.

I’ve been written to by local doctors, care home providers and dentists, all raising concerns about PPE and testing.

Months on, and the deaths of at least a hundred frontline, health and social care workers later (according to a nursing website Nursing Notes), the cries from the frontline about PPE shortages are now deafening.

But the Government seem no nearer to securing a stable supply line to keep workers who are risking their lives to help us, safe.

And local authorities are bearing the brunt.

Last week, Bedford Borough Council contacted me to express “real concerns about the delivery of PPE”.

Although equipment is filtering through in fits and starts, deliveries have been late, incomplete or incorrect.

Bedford’s Local Resilience Forum and Bedfordshire Police are working flat out to ensure we do not reach a position of rationing, but the reality is that there is a big gap between what the Government is telling us and what is happening on the frontline.

The public policy void in the UK – where there should be a coordinated central direction – is now grossly irresponsible.

March Bedford Independent Column: Public health crisis

We are living through a global emergency. Governments throughout the world are struggling to deal with this public health crisis – the like of which has not been experienced for a century.

There are no easy solutions.  My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died, with those who have contracted the virus and with the keyworkers and all the frontline workers including the incredible staff at Bedford Hospital who are working around the clock to keep us safe.

For most of us, the illness will be mild but for others, particularly for those over 70 with underlying health conditions, it can be fatal.  All of us who do not fall into an ‘at risk’ group have a duty to act in the public interest, to keep those who are vulnerable safe and strictly follow the social distancing guidelines if we develop symptoms.

Many of you are writing to me with me concerns about how your business is struggling, or how you will cope if you are off work sick.

People are already losing their jobs and businesses and wondering how they will keep a roof over their head. Renters are worrying about the threat of eviction due to loss of income.

No-one should be forced to choose between health and hardship – between working a zero-hours job with symptoms, or self-isolating without access to sick pay, potentially struggling to make ends meet.

A quarter of the vital staff we need to support us in this crisis, such as cleaners and care sector workers, are working on zero hours, low-paid contracts.

The further announcements laid out by the Chancellor yesterday include a statutory sick pay relief package for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England, small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief and a grant funding of £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with property with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000.

However, the package isn’t good enough to meet the scale of the crisis and lacks the certainty required amidst growing public anxiety. It goes nowhere near far enough in protecting workers, renters and those who have already lost their jobs.

The Government must give confidence now to the two million people who work in low income jobs or are on zero hours contracts, including a quarter of social care staff and almost half of home care workers.

They must commit to extending statutory sick pay to all workers, paying at least the level of the Real Living Wage, so that people are not pushed into poverty by doing the right thing.

The Government must also: raise the level of ‘new style’ Employment Support Allowance (ESA) payments; suspend all sanctions, rather than providing an approach based on the ‘discretion’ of work coaches;  introduce rent payment deferment options and ban any evictions of tenants affected by the outbreak; remove the requirement to attend an appointment at a Jobcentre Plus for Universal Credit, suspending sanctions and reducing the wait time for first payment down from five weeks; and support local authorities working with food banks in the purchase and distribution of food stocks.

We will get through this if we look after ourselves and each other. I am so proud of Bedford’s community response.

So many of you have volunteered to support vulnerable people and families through the crisis.

Bedford Borough Council has created a new community hub so do get in touch if  you can offer or ask for help.  Community Voluntary Service (CVS) Bedfordshire.

You can read the article here on Bedford Independent’s website

January Bedford Independent Column

It’s great to be back in Parliament to get on with raising the concerns of the people of Bedford and Kempston.

It’s not going to be easy. When the Government has such a large majority, it is difficult for Opposition MPs to change legislation, but I believe now more than ever, we need a strong Labour Party to hold the Government to account in what is going to be a vital time for the future of the UK.

My priorities for Bedford for the next five years will be fighting for funding for Bedford Hospital and improving health and social care provision; supporting Bedfordshire Police to make our town a safer place; and fighting to improve Bedford’s rail services.

I have secured a meeting with the Rail Minister this week to discuss Bedford’s dreadful rail service.

The Thameslink service remains unreliable, services north have been downgraded, and intercity trains to the south no longer stop at Bedford.

The franchise system has failed customers, who are fed up with paying more for reduced, undependable services.

I will be meeting Chief Constable Garry Forsyth to discuss how I can ensure Bedfordshire Police get the resources they need to protect people and fight crime.

Bedfordshire was hit hard by Tory austerity, despite facing soaring levels of organised and serious violent crime. The Government finally gave in to pressure on police numbers – but the Prime Minister is only pledging to replace the police officers that his Government cut.

I will work hard to ensure the Government delivers on that promise.

Knife crime levels and organised crime incidence in Bedfordshire are some of the highest in the country and funding Beds as a rural force isn’t working when the reality is that Bedfordshire faces similar issues to large metropolitan areas.

Our police force needs sustainable not piecemeal funding, so it can focus on preventing crime, not just reacting to it when another family has tragically lost a child to violent crime.

I will also continue to campaign for funding for Bedford Hospital, starting with a meeting with the Health Secretary, and continue the fight for the re-introduction of in-patient mental health beds to Bedford.

In Parliament, I will focus on getting the best Brexit we can which protects workers’ rights, food standards, citizens’ rights and environmental protections.

I will do all I can to pressurise the Government on improving and accelerating their very weak plans to tackle the global warming crisis.

There’s a long-road ahead and a lot of work to be done: supporting our schools, businesses and charities big and small; working hard to promote our wonderful town and doing all I can to protect our struggling high street.

But most of all I’m here to serve you and raise your concerns locally and in Parliament. Please contact my office if my team or I can offer support.

Read the article here at Bedford Independent.

Brexit developments this week

You may already be aware that I voted for the Letwin amendment on Saturday, and against the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Tuesday, and then against the ‘programme motion’.  

I am clear Boris Johnson’s deal would be even worse for my constituents than Theresa May’s deal, which I, and indeed the majority of Parliamentarians, felt unable to support on the three occasions it was put before the house.

This deal risks jobs, worker’s rights, environmental protections, and puts a border in the Irish sea – something that the PM promised he would never do.

I don’t believe Boris Johnson can be trusted not to sell off our NHS. A large number of my constituents have written to me to express their grave concerns about the potential for an NHS take-over as a result of deals with the unscrupulous Trump administration. Despite the PM’s assurances, actions speak louder than words, and I was dismayed that on Wednesday the Conservatives refused to back Labour’s motion to safeguard our NHS from being sold off to US corporations in a Johnson-Trump trade deal.

Such a trade deal would inevitably lower food standards. In March the US published its negotiating priorities for any post-Brexit trade deal with the UK and the US ambassador to Britain invited us all to look again at US production methods and to drop our opposition to certain practices, such as the use of hormones in beef and chlorine washes for chicken.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister or his Government can be trusted to retain our current standards on food, environmental and consumer protections or worker’s rights. In fact, I believe the end game is to erode these long-fought rights.

I want the UK to maintain close ties with the EU, our geographically closest trading partners. Whatever happens next, we cannot ignore the largest trading bloc in the world.  This bill creates more distance and therefore more uncertainty than even Theresa May’s deal. It explicitly rules out a new customs union and a close future relationship with the single market – a key demand of industry and trade unions.

Despite promises of frictionless trade, it is now explicit that there will be new trade barriers with the EU and additional checks at borders. Provisions on services have not been improved and commitments on rights and protections are now significantly weaker. There has also been no progress on the question of our future participation in security arrangements or agencies.

I remain extremely concerned that this deal isn’t sufficient to rule out a departure on WTO terms, in the event that a free trade deal is not negotiated by the end of the implementation period. It would be highly unusual for such a complex agreement affecting so many states to be agreed within a matter of months – even relatively simple trade deals take many years to negotiate. It is anticipated that negotiating the next stage of Brexit will take about 3 years, even before implementation. So, although we all want Brexit to end – I’m afraid we haven’t even completed the first stage of negotiations. The next stage will be significantly more complicated.

I have said many times that I will do all I can to avoid a No Deal Brexit, because I think this would have a disastrous effect on our economy. I believe this because I have listened to the many expert witnesses giving evidence to parliament and read the many, many documents published in Parliament on the impact of Brexit – including the Government’s own assessments. I have weighed this against what was promised my constituents and I know they have been short-changed. It is now clear Brexit will make the people of Bedford poorer. It may be the case, some are prepared to accept this outcome, but some won’t. And we need to be sure. This is why the fairest way to proceed is for the Government of the day to seek the consent of the public on the final deal.

The ‘programme motion’, which I voted against on Tuesday, would have resulted in this flawed piece of legislation being pushed through at breakneck speed. Even if I had thought that Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill was worthy of my support, it deserves proper consideration by MPs who can try to improve it, and a majority of MP’s shared that view. Rushing such an important Bill just to satisfy an arbitrary deadline of the 31st October was highly irresponsible and in my view a cynical attempt by the Prime Minister to pit Parliament against the People.  Parliament is doing its job – scrutinising and improving legislation. That is how laws are made. Circumventing this vital process is dangerous for democracy.

However frustrating this is, the reality is Brexit is extremely complicated. MP’s need more time to work through the bill to shape into something that does not risk jobs, living standards, our NHS, or food standards, or do untold damage to our manufacturing industries.

 

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. 

No deal Brexit: National Audit Office warns of risk to medical supplies

On the 5th September this year, I asked the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay what level of mortality he would consider acceptable in the event of a No-Deal Brexit. He dismissed my question, answering that the medicines industry had gone above and beyond to ensure sufficient supplies. I am sure that both suppliers and our NHS have been working flat out to plan for No-Deal, but it’s not enough.

Now we’re just days before we are due to leave and we’re nowhere near ready. This report from the National Audit Office today on NHS readiness and the potential disruption to medicine supplies makes extremely worrying reading, but it’s not a surprise.

The report acknowledges that there is no way of knowing what may happen at the UK/EU border when the UK leaves the EU, with ministers asking government departments to be prepared for a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’.

This is based on assumptions that the flow of goods across the channel could be reduced to 40-60% of current levels on day one, not returning to close to current levels until 12 months after leaving the EU. Over half (7,000) of all medicines are estimated to come to the UK from or via the EU, with a further 450,000-500,000 different types of medical supplies that are used by the NHS and distributed to hospitals, care homes, dental practices, pharmacies and individuals at home.

The Treasury will be allocating £150million to the Department for Transport to secure freight capacity from October, to prioritise medical supplies amongst other critical goods, however the procurement process to employ the necessary companies to operate this service is still ongoing. I’m greatly concerned that the report warns that there is limited time available to complete the procurement process: it has started later than anticipated, and now depends on the process ‘running smoothly’. Beyond that, there is further uncertainty and risk whether the successful operators will be able to mobilise quickly enough, and it is acknowledged that only some of the service will be ready to operate in time, with much of it only ready a month after leaving.

So much uncertainty; with departments having to work on the basis of untested assumptions determined by ministers, it’s clear that leaving without a deal presents a level of risk that no competent or moral leader should ever remotely consider. A no deal Brexit could spell disaster for the most vulnerable people in Britain.

A phoney spending review from a Government with no majority

Our public services have been decimated under the Tories, and today’s announcement on spending from the new Chancellor, Sajid Javid was nothing more than an election stunt.

Even if Boris Johnson’s Government do deliver any of what they have promised, which is highly doubtful, it’s nowhere near enough to make up for almost a decade of slash and burn.

The £1billion bung for social care won’t come close to reversing the £7 billion of cuts since 2010. Councils face a £2.6 billion gap for social care this year alone. It is a drop in the ocean.

The money that he has promised for education is far less than what teachers say is needed to reverse the savage cuts schools have endured under Tory rule. The funding will do nothing for those who have had their life chances ruined by Tory education policy.

Drilling into the detail of the spending commitments on policing reveals that even if the money materialises to make it happen, only 13,000 of the promised 20,000 officers will be on the frontline. That doesn’t replace what we have lost in police numbers and can never compensate for the loss of experienced staff across our police force.

The same can be said of prisons. The Prison Officers Association has been repeatedly ignored by successive Tory Government’s on safety, yet the Chancellor thinks the answer is more prison places in privately run super prisons, which they have been told are dangerous and don’t work.

The Chancellor wants to ‘kick-start an infrastructure revolution’ but he wants it to be driven by ‘private investors’ and ‘independent institutions.’

This will ring alarm bells for anyone who regularly struggles to get to work on time or back home to their families on our shambolic and unaccountable privatised rail network.

And finally, the NHS. Despite a 6 billion maintenance backlog across our NHS estates, the Government announced just £1.8 billion for our health service, the majority of which had already been promised under the previous administration.

The bottom line is that all of these are hollow promises, totally inadequate and meaningless in the context of the unprecedented political, constitutional and cultural crisis we now find ourselves in. Boris Johnson lost his majority yesterday and then in an extraordinary act of sabotage, expelled 21 moderate Tory MPs from the party. He now has a working majority of minus 43. He cannot govern.

We are hurtling towards a General Election – something that cannot be allowed to happen before the EU withdrawal date of the 31st October. The danger of a disastrous No-Deal Brexit is a threat to the jobs and living standards and security of the people of Bedford and I will do all I can to stop it.

Boris Johnson, let me do my job

I am elected to represent YOU in Parliament. But without your consent the unelected Prime Minister is stopping me from doing the job that you entrusted me to do. 

Unlike some in Government, I am no stranger to a hard day’s work, and I expect to be able to carry out what I have been elected by residents to do. 

To shut down Parliament and prevent it from performing its duty, to hold the government to account on the most important issue of our time, during a national crisis, is profoundly undemocratic and is a deeply cynical and cowardly move. 

Boris Johnson is behaving more like a dictator than a Prime Minister. He has no mandate for a no deal Brexit from the public or Parliament. Instead of seeking your views he is committing a constitutional outrage.

It flies in the face of parliamentary sovereignty, precisely what many of those who voted to leave the EU say they wanted to protect.

This is a power grab by the Government who are putting the interests of the Conservative Party above the national interest. At least six members of the cabinet, including the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the Chancellor Savid Javid and the former Leader of the House, now Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom have spoken out against proroguing parliament recently but now stay silent. They are more concerned about their own careers than doing what is right and decent. 

I will not stay silent in the face of hypocrisy. This is not about Brexit but about Parliament holding the executive to account – a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy. 

There is cross-party support against the suspension of Parliament, and I will be working with colleagues across the House to stand up for our democracy and to ensure the UK isn’t forced out of the EU on a damaging no deal Brexit against their will.