This week, I welcomed Labour leader Keir Starmer’s ‘New Chapter for Britain’ speech: his economic policies provide a sorely needed long-term route forward to address the many inequalities following a decade of tory cuts and short-term thinking, which have been further exposed – and deepened – by the current pandemic. The British Recovery Bond for the funding needed to invest in our communities, funding for start-up loans, proper funding for local authorities and affordable housing would rebuild Britain into a prosperous and just society.
Be assured my labour colleagues and I will continue to fight for a fairer distribution of support in anticipation of the Chancellor’s Budget, and for the safe reopening of schools and for the prioritising of vaccines to critical workers. Next week should see the PM announce the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown restrictions, which we will take care to scrutinise closely – and hope that lessons have at last been learned.
After three months of high admissions of Covid-19 patients to Bedford Hospital, my sincerest gratitude to all the frontline workers who continue their vital work despite exhaustion and the personal sacrifices they have made.
In the constituency
I’ve received a steady stream of queries and concerns about the vaccine roll out, and I’ve continued to meet with the Vaccine Minister, Health Portfolio Holder Cllr Louise Jackson and the CCG to better understand any pressure points and advocate on behalf of my constituents. Given we have an older demographic, the decision by local Primary Care Networks to work together to offer two clinics appears to have been sound, with a very large proportion of the top four priority groups successfully receiving first vaccine doses by the Government’s deadline of mid-February, and I thank all the staff and volunteers making this happen.
Post Brexit concerns are manifesting in emails about the passage of the Environment and Trade Bills through Parliament. Constituents express concerns that previously afforded protections are being retrenched and new proposed legislation is not adequate. Highlights are the campaigns around Neonicotinoids and Bees, shortcomings of the Environment Bill, the ability of Parliament to scrutinise future Trade Deals and in support of the recent Opposition Day debate around protecting working hours.
We have seen a concerted campaign to Support Pubs (and the wider hospitality industry) in a number of ways including advocating for a cut in Beer Duty and supporting a campaign to reopen safely. People have also written in significant numbers expressing concerns about the ongoing effects of the pandemic on people with Dementia living in Care Homes who have been unable to receive visitors consistently for nearly a year.
There are come constituents who remain concerned about the impact of refusing a vaccine and find the messaging from Government around the topic inadequate. We have received emails on the interrelated matters of a Medical Freedom Bill and Domestic Vaccine Passports.
A national movement which had significant local ramifications was the Choose Love directed campaign around appalling asylum accommodation conditions, advocating for the closure of Barrack dorms at Penally and Napier. This segued with the vital local drive to prevent the Home Office opening temporary asylum accommodation on the wholly inappropriate Yarl’s Wood site.
Last week, after pressure from myself and Labour councillors to provide grants to taxi and private hire drivers, Bedford Borough agreed last week to waive licence fees, which is progress. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve worked with Shadow Rail Minister Tan Dhesi on the issue of taxi permits at rail stations. Given that rail operators have received financial support from the Government given the dramatic drop in rail users, I firmly believe this support should be passed down the line to benefit taxi drivers who have been extremely badly hit by the slowing of trade through the pandemic.
Taxi and private hire drivers are of course not the only sector struggling due to a lack of support: the beauty industry, for example, is reeling following closure for many months of the past year, without the same alternatives for diversifying and offering services online available to some other sectors and I will continue to fight for decent financial support packages to ensure these businesses can reopen once restrictions are lifted.
I was pleased to virtually meet Year 12 students at Mark Rutherford last week, and I hugely admire the continued efforts of all teaching staff across Bedford and Kempston as they face the challenges of delivering virtual and in-school teaching. I will be meeting with members of teaching union NASUWT next month to hear their concerns.
This week I will meet with the British Transport Police regarding policing activity to tackle County Lines criminality in Bedford and Kempston.
The pandemic has exposed the digital divide across the UK, with approximately 9% of children without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet to access remote education, including in Bedford. I continued to work with the Lord Lieutenant on Bedford laptop drive.
Whilst I welcome the infrastructure investment, I am concerned by the news that the East-West rail investment connecting Oxford to Cambridge will be used by diesel trains. The Government declared a climate emergency, as did Bedford Borough Council. New infrastructure projects need to be based on clean energy – I wrote to the Transport Minister to raise this but haven’t yet received a response.
There are widespread concerns that some communities, especially Black Asian and minority ethnic communities are showing vaccine hesitancy. I joined with a number of other Asian MPs across the political divide to record a video to share on social media.
It has been an ongoing source of frustration that the Government have refused to publish local level vaccine data, and missing ethnicity data has been an avoidable obstacle in the challenge of overcoming vaccine hesitancy, but I’m aware that hard work is going on at grass roots community level working with the CCG to allay any fears and to combat untruths to ensure as many people as are eligible take up their opportunity to be vaccinated.
I would have hoped to share the Health Secretary’s responses to my letters in January about vaccine delays and the issue of data, but I have not had the courtesy of any replies.
I raised the concerns of the dental profession in Parliament over the impact of Covid.
In a huge U-turn following sustained opposition by me and Bedford Borough, the Home Office pulled their plans to open accommodation on the Yarl’s Wood IRC site for asylum seekers.
HCLG Select Committee
The HCLG Select Committee held sessions on local government financial sustainability and section 114 notices and on the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector. The Committee has also told the Government it has not gone far enough in compensating the victims of the cladding scandal.
I made the following representations recorded on the Hansard:
26th January – HOC Chamber: Educational Settings – Remote learning
3rd February – HOC Chamber: Support for University Students, rental accommodation
11th February – HOC Chamber: Future of Health and Care, Emergency dental treatment