On Monday afternoon, I joined a briefing for Labour MPs hosted by Kevin Brennan MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Northern Ireland Backbench Group. We heard from Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the political situation in Northern Ireland, the stability of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the up and coming legacy legislation and an update on the broader political situation in Northern Ireland.
The past 8 weeks have rocked the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson being elected unopposed as its third leader since Easter, following Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots being removed as DUP Leaders. Sir Jeffrey will have to resign his seat in Westminster and join the Northern Ireland Assembly and take over as Leader. Sir Jeffrey said when he was running for Leader that he will “vigorously oppose the protocol in principle and in practice”, but the EU will not agree to abolishing the protocol and the majority of Northern Ireland voters want the UK to agree to regulatory alignment with the EU. When he was elected he called on the UK and EU to “step up and recognise the flaws of the protocol” which may be the start of a more realistic, but challenging effort to steer unionist opinion away from insistence on the protocol’s removal. But it would be difficult to shift unionist opinion and Boris Johnson vacillates between indifference and insulting the EU, for example “the sausage war”, but in Northern Ireland exports to the Irish Republic are unaffected. This must be seen at a time when the DUP are at its lowest ever rating in opinion polls with 16%. Labour is calling for stability and a proper set of negotiations.
On Monday evening I spoke in the Opposition Day Debate on Protecting Britain’s Steel Industry. I supported our motion to bring forward emergency legislation to give Ministers powers to reject the Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) recommendations, temporarily extend all 19 steel safeguards so they do not expire at the end of June, and allow time to find a long-term solution to protect the British Steel Industry. Under current legislation, the Secretary of State can accept the TRA’s recommendations to scrap 9 of the 19 safeguards, or reject them and we will lose all 19 when they are due to expire on 30th June. Dropping 9 of the 19 safeguards will open up the UK market to thousands of tonnes of cheap steel imports with no defences to stop it, and have dire consequences for every steelworks in the UK because of the interconnectedness of the steel industry. The British Steel Industry produces 7 million tonnes of crude steel every year, which is 70% of the UK’s annual requirement, of which 90% is recycled over and over again. The TRA’s recommendations puts 33,700 well-paid, average salary £34,299, highly-skilled jobs at risk, many concentrated in South Wales. The UK Tory Government voted against our motion, but I shall continue to fight for steelworkers in Neath and in the UK, and push for better protections for our steel industry.
On Tuesday morning I joined the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Parkinson’s chaired by my dear friend Baroness Anita Gale of Blaenrhondda. The meeting discussed accelerating Parkinson’s research, and we heard from Professor David Dexter, Associate Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK and Tim King, who has lived with Parkinson’s for over 8 years. David said that during the first Covid wave 90% of Parkinson’s research projects were stopped, and 100% of clinical trials were stopped. There has been £270 million reduction in charity funded medical research. Parkinson’s sufferers have had limited access to Parkinson’s nurses and neurologists. And no access to branch meetings, exercise classes, support services, which has worsened symptoms, impacted on mental health, and caused a huge increase in demand for Parkinson’s UK helpline services. But Covid trials, drugs and vaccines were set up in days, not months, without compromising patient safety, and similar innovation could dramatically speed up Parkinson’s research. Parkinson’s is the fastest growing neurodegenerative condition. We need to apply the lessons from Covid, seek UK Government funds for research and find a cure. We are striving to predict onset, and need early detection and better diagnosis. Tim spoke passionately about living with Parkinson’s during Covid, the regression and the social isolation, but said that he was better off than most because he is not a needy person and has access to a garden. Tim has recently set up an online appointment with his speech therapist. He said that the link between Covid and mental illness is real, and he is very worried about future social care costs as his symptoms worsen. Baroness Anita Gale said that the Legacy Benefits case has been listed to be heard in the High Court in the summer, and our Judicial Review appeal for continuing healthcare is listed for next Wednesday. The Health and Social Care Bill has not been published yet, but that we shall be working on amendments to strengthen the Bill, if Parkinson’s is not covered adequately in the text of the Bill. And I shall be meeting members of the Parkinson’s UK All-Wales Research Interest Group in the near future.
Tuesday lunchtime, as vice-chair of the APPG for Boxing, I joined an officers’ meeting to discuss the forward work plan for the next twelve months. We discussed the possibility of inviting representatives from either side of the debate on White Collar Boxing to address the APPG so that we can further understand aspects of this vastly growing element of boxing and the call for its regulation.
On Tuesday evening I attended two consecutive APPGs specifically on matters in Wales.
The first was the APPG Rail in Wales AGM and I was honoured to be re-elected as a vice-chair. My friend and colleague Chris Elmore MP was re-elected as chair. We received a presentation from CAF UK and Ireland Business Directors, Kate Austen and Richard Garner. CAF is a multinational group with over 100 years of experience in supplying comprehensive transit solutions at the forefront of technology. CAF provides a flexible array of products in railway-related markets, including, rolling stock, components, infrastructure, signalling and services, towards a single, global, specific solution. CAF announced a rolling stock factory at Celtic Business Park in 2016, and was producing rolling stock by 2018. CAF has produced high speed trains, light rail, locomotives and trams for transport throughout the UK. CAF is also producing long-life train batteries for trains and buses, and hydrogen buses in its Poland factory. CAF will be supplying the next batch of trains for Transport For Wales which will have WiFi, air conditioning, with bicycle storage and wheelchair access. These will be built in Newport and the members of the APPG will be visiting the factory in the near future. The second was the APPG Wales in the World, of which I’m a vice-chair, where we heard from Fiona Stewart the owner and Manager Director of the Green Man Festival about the difficulties of preparing to hold a music festival during the pandemic. Green Man is one of the five large independent festivals left in the UK the remainder are run by ticketing companies. Green Man is run as a business and not funded by Welsh Government, nor Arts Council Funding. Fiona has fought off take-overs from multinational companies. It is located in Glanusk, and even though the backdrop is beautiful, the rental costs have risen considerably every year and are unaffordable, so Fiona is looking for a permanent site within Wales. Fiona uses local materials to build the Green Man and on-site stalls source local food produce. Fiona attracts the acts herself and brings new groups to the stage every year. She said that the festival is covered extensively by UK media – Guardian, Telegraph, New Musical Express, Independent, Brooklyn Vegan – but receive little exposure from Welsh media. The 25,000 tickets for this year’s four day festival from the 19th to the 22ndAugust sold out in 18 minutes, but Fiona doesn’t know whether it will go ahead due to increasing concerns about the new Delta variant in Wales. And the UK Government hasn’t provided insurance cover for cancel of festivals, so the organiser takes the risk and bears all the costs. Hopefully, one day I’ll visit the Green Man festival, perhaps when it celebrates its 20th Anniversary in 2022.
On Thursday I chaired Westminster Hall, as part of my duties as a member of the Panel of Chairs. The Chair of the Select Committee for Education, Robert Halfon, presented a statement on the First Report of the Education Committee, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, HC 85. And took questions from MPs. Mr Halfon stated that his committee is dedicated to championing left behind groups and decided to examine decades of neglect of disadvantaged white pupils who underachieve in education. That his committee understands the justified anger people feel about racism, prejudice and discrimination, but the picture for white British children eligible for free school meals is particularly bleak. And that the UK Government’s Department of Education approach is not working and it needs a targeted approach including: tailor-made funding and support at local level to level-up educational opportunity; disadvantaged white families must have access to strong early years support and family hubs for parental engagement to tackle multigenerational disadvantage; ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options whilst boosting access to higher education; all students must have access to the best teachers; stop pitting one group against another and find a better, less divisive way to talk about racial disparities in the UK. Mr Halfon took questions from MPs, some of whom were members of the committee who praised the report. Those MPs who were not, scrutinised the findings. In particular, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP stated that the committee’s finding that the use of terms such as “white privilege” contributed to neglect of white working class pupils was utter nonsense. It is not based on the colour of their skin, it is the continual cuts and lack of UK Government funding leave all kids from poor backgrounds perennially pushed out. Mr Halfon completely disagreed and stated that the use of terminology such as “white privilege” is wrong for three reasons: it applies a collective guilt when individuals should be responsible for acts of racism; it portrays white working class disadvantaged communities as white privileged; it is factually incorrect as those from almost every other ethnic group on free school meals do much better than their white working class counterparts.
The next debate was secured by Dr Lisa Cameron and was titled “That this House has considered the role of the community in responding to the Covid-19 outbreak.” Dr Cameron called for the debate to give members a chance to formally recognise the unprecedented and undoubtedly life saving support that local community groups and their members have provided to those most vulnerable and in need during the Covid-19 pandemic. They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic and their dedication and sacrifice exemplified by the late Captain Sir Tom Moore and his fundraising efforts are an absolute inspiration to us all. If anything positive can be taken from this pandemic it is that it has shone a light on the strength of community spirit that has emerged through local groups and individuals who have delivered support to those most in need. Dr Cameron commended the work of many support networks, local schools, local council teams in her constituency, and concluded by mentioning that the Thank You Day celebrations are due to take place on Sunday 4th July and this year, teamed up with Keep Britain Tidy, have organised community litter picks across the UK. Many MPs spoke in the debate and thanked Dr Cameron for the opportunity to speak about the wonderful work of community groups and individuals in their constituencies. The Opposition Spokesperson Naz Shah spoke about people from every community, those of faith and no faith, from all four nations of the UK, stood up to play their part and support our nation in our time of need, with their kindness and generosity. She said that we saw British Spirit in this pandemic, whether it is the Muslim doctors who sadly were the first to die on the frontline, or the Sikh volunteers delivering langar; the black train driver in London, or the white taxi driver in Devon; the church providing PPE or the synagogue setting up a vaccine centre; the European supermarket worker or the refugee delivery driver; the doctor, the nurse, the care worker or the cleaner. Modern Britain is diverse, inclusive, all playing our part to protect our country, our NHS and our people. The Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall said that the debate has given members a chance to tell inspirational stories about their community champions. And to thank communities, organisations, volunteers and individuals for what they have done over the past 18 months and Mr Hall promoted the Prime Minister’s Points of Light awards which recognise all the work done by those at the forefront of the pandemic. And he agreed with Dr Cameron that when we start to build back better we will be holding the sacrifice of others at the forefront of our minds.
This week we heard an updated statement from the Ministry of Justice on the rape review, after reports that rape convictions and prosecutions are at a record-low following a decade of Conservative incompetence and cuts. The UK Government recently outlined its intentions to reinstate the number of rapists being brought to court and prosecuted to at least 2016 levels, but following calls from Labour for these targets to be met within a year, the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, has now branded such targets as “constitutionally illiterate”. This is an insult to rape victims across the country who are struggling for justice. The UK Government must stop shifting the blame and avoiding responsibility, and actually commit to much needed actions and investment.
On Saturday we marked Armed Forces Day. The pandemic has shown just how important our servicemen and women are in keeping the country going in times of crisis, with the forces playing varied roles throughout. From helping to build the Nightingale hospitals, to medics and dentists contributing to the testing and vaccination programme and lending their expertise in leading a crisis, we can be proud of the contributions of our Forces in Britain. Overseas our Forces work hard to protect vital shipping lanes from piracy, promote humanitarian work and provide essential support during hurricane season in the Caribbean. Saturday was an opportunity to remind ourselves of all the essential contributions the Forces make and to express our sincere thanks.
As always, if you have any questions or issues and want to get in touch about any issues that fall under my role as an MP, please do not hesitate to drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01639 630152. My staff are working from home to comply with the social distancing measures, but, as always, we remain there should you need to get in contact with us.
I hope you stay well, and remember – observe social distancing, wash your hands regularly and keep Wales safe.