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.

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.