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.

Report published by Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee

Earlier this year I joined the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and this week the committee published its report on Local Government finance and the 2019 Spending review.

When I first became a Councillor in 2006, under a Labour Government, Councils were funded to meet the needs of their populations. Since 2010 however, Councils have seen their grant from Central Government slashed, and their spending power has reduced by a quarter.

Meanwhile the demand for services has been growing faster than our population – people are living longer, but not necessarily healthier lives, and the numbers of looked after children are increasing each year (by 27% over the last decade in fact).

Many Councils are left with no choice but to cut non-statutory services, and Local Authorities up and down the country are struggling to cope with the rising demands of social care with much less money than they once had. Hard working council staff are under extreme pressure and morale is low.

This report sets out the current challenges very clearly, and gives a number of recommendations. I hope the Government will take heed because our Councils are on the brink of collapse.

 

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

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.