The week started with the very sad news that the former first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd had passed away on Sunday 26th February. Betty was a remarkable woman, who was firm but fair, and presided over many very important historic debates in the Chamber, including the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Betty became a Baroness in 2001, and sat as a crossbench peer, which is the convention for former Speakers. I had the honour to meet Betty when she was Madam Speaker, and when I became an MP in 2015 I spoke to Betty on many occasions when she was in the tea room. Betty commanded massive admiration, huge respect, and her contribution to democracy will never diminish.
I attended many events this week, which started with the excellent Bevan Foundation and Cost of Living Crisis Briefing event that focused on the housing crisis. Wales is in the middle of a housing and cost of living crisis, greater numbers of households are struggling to live. The Bevan Foundation has researched the role that the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) plays in creating and perpetuating homelessness and housing insecurity in Wales. The LHA is the mechanism used to calculate the amount of Housing Benefit or housing element of Universal Credit (UC) that someone renting in the private rental sector is entitled to claim. The determining factors are: allowing a tenant to rent in the cheapest 30% of a market area; the location of the property (there are 23 Broad Rental Market Areas in Wales); the number of bedrooms; and a separate calculation for shared properties for under 35s with no dependents. The Bevan Foundation’s latest findings show that only 24 properties were available at or below the LHA in May 2022 in Wales and the situation has significantly worsened since 2022, which makes the need for the UK Government to take action to uprate the LHA – whose rates have been frozen since 2020 and does not reflect the rise in rental costs since 2020 – which is absolutely crucial to improve the rental market in Wales. I have been a member of the Bevan Foundation for many years, and support the marvellous research work that they do to highlight the crises facing many families and individuals in Wales. I fully support campaigning for the UK Government to reform the LHA.
Every year I attend the drop-in for World Book Day, whose mission is to offer every child and young person the opportunity to read and love books by giving free books to children so that they have a book of their own. When children read in their spare time they are happier, improve reading skills, and are more successful in school. Adults are encouraged to help children by reading to them, having books at home, letting children choose what they want to read, making time for reading and most of all, making it fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t have these opportunities as a child, so I have been passionate about reading since becoming an adult. I spoke about my passion for murder mysteries, my interest in forensic science, and the pleasure of discovering a new author, and then reading their entire back catalogue. My latest discovery is Sharon Bolton, who I recommend to anyone interested in a book with a good and unconventional murder plot. All her books are different and gripping!
I was proud to be re-elected as chair of the APPG for Vegetarianism and Veganism at our AGM, and very pleased that The Vegan Society and Vegetarian for Life have agreed to continue as secretariat. My thanks to all the parliamentarians who continue to support this APPG.
As chair of the APPG for Hairdressing, Barbering, and Cosmetology, I met the outgoing Registrar of The Hair Council, Keith Conniford, to thank him for the many years of dedicated service that he has given to the hair sector. I also met the new Registrar Gareth Penn, who I am sure will be as diligent as Keith in representing all areas of the hair sector.
The Vegetarianism and Veganism APPG, and the Hairdressing, Barbering and Cosmetology APPG, will be holding their first joint event in the near future with speakers representing each APPG discussing the availability and quality of hair products for vegetarians and vegans.
I must be one of the few teetotallers who attended the Long Live the Local drop-in event. My parents and grandparents managed a variety of public houses and RFCs when I was a child, so my support for locals is historical, and there are many locals in my constituency that provide traditional services, but some have expanded to be a hub providing added help for people who for example those struggling with heating and internet provisions.
I was in the Chamber to listen to the Prime Minister delivering his statement on the Northern Ireland Protocol, in which he announced that The Windsor Framework (TWF) would deliver free-flowing trade with the whole of the UK and protect Northern Ireland’s place in our Union, and that it also safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland. The PM stated that it preserves the delicate balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, removing thousands of EU laws and making permanent legally binding to the protocol treaty. The majority of Conservatives supported TWF, apart from the European Reform Group (ERG) and the DUP who expressed serious reservations and stated that they would look at the details of the proposal and take time before coming to a decision.
The two Official Opposition Day debates featured: expanding the NHS Workforce and Getting Britain Back to Work. The Labour Party pushed the first debate to a vote at the conclusion of the debate, and won by 224-0 because the Tories did not take part in the vote. The second debate concluded at 7pm and the Labour Party did not push it to a vote.
As vice-chair for the APPG for Restorative Justice I attended a discussion on the recently released HMPPS Restorative Justice Policy Framework (RJPF) which has raised concerns with members of the APPG, its Advisory Board, and the wider RJ sector about the ability of services to deliver effectively on the ground. UK Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) investment over the last 7 years has produced expertise and success for restorative justice, and a recent economic evaluation found there is evidence that there are cost benefits for reducing reoffending and delivering victim satisfaction of £14 for every £1 spent on restorative justice. The key recommendations from our APPG Summer 2021 Enquiry into Restorative Justice included automatics rights for victims through the Victim’s Law and making restorative justice more accessible by ending blanket bans. Elements of the RJPF will impact negatively on victims, particularly those who are victims of serious crimes, and suggests that prisons and probation services are not required to comply with the Victims Code of Practice. Any person on probation reporting as a victim must be given information about local restorative justice services, but there is no requirement for victims under HMPPS to be proactively given information, and the British Crime Survey states that only 5% of victims are aware of restorative justice. The RJPF is not clear on training for offender managers and probation practitioners who will be tasked with explaining restorative justice. There are nine limitations listed, including hate crime, extremism, domestic abuse and sexual offending, which suggests that victims of these crimes will not have access to restorative justice. The chair of our APPG, Elliot Colburn MP, will be writing to the Secretary of State for Justice seeking clarification on our concerns.
I was honoured to be re-elected as a vice chair of the Acquired Brain Injury APPG at its AGM. Chris Bryant MP was re-elected as chair. We had presentations from Chloe Hayward, UK Acquired Brain Injury Trust, and Davina Jones, Disability Trust, a charity which now focuses totally on brain injuries.
There was a lovely early morning start to St David’s Day when Mr Speaker held an outdoor service at Old Palace Yard. A children’s choir aged 3-11, dressed in Welsh costumes, sang Dewi Sant, and all the Parliamentarians, staff, and parents, sang the Welsh National Anthem when the Welsh Flag was raised. It reminded me of when I went to school dressed in my Welsh costume on St David’s Day.
I always support Marie Curie events, and I called in to the drop-in to support its Great Daffodil Appeal 2023. Marie Curie is the leader in end-of-life experience in the UK, and provides a better life for people living with terminal illness, and their families, offering expert care in homes, and its nine hospices. Last year Marie Curie provided direct support to over 66,000 people. The Great Daffodil Appeal is in its 37th year, and people from all over the UK come together to raise funds so that Marie Curie can continue working on the front line giving expert care. This week I was proud to wear my Marie Curie daffodil and extra proud on St David’s Day.
I was fortunate to draw number nine in Wales Questions, and very fortunate that Mr Speaker called me as the last question before PMQs. Unfortunately, it was the Minister James Davies MP, and not the Secretary of State for Wales, David T C Davies MP, who answered my question, which prevented me from referring to the fact that David T C Davies was the previous chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. However, I ploughed on and asked whether he would urge his Conservative colleagues to accept the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recommendation that HS2 is reclassified as an England-only project which would result in Wales receiving Barnett Consequentials estimated at £5 billion and would allow the Welsh Labour Government to continue to expand public transport services, and people in Wales can receive the same benefits from HS2 as those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Minister replied that HS2 is the backbone of Britain’s rail infrastructure and it’s important for Wales to plug into and take advantage of it, but he didn’t explain how that would happen.
I attended the APPG for Ukraine, chaired by Alex Sobel MP, and listened to updates from charity workers on the frontline in Ukraine. Emily Tripp, Director of Airwars, which is a not-for-profit transparency watchdog which tracks, assesses, archives and investigates civilian harm claims, resulting primarily from explosive weapons used in conflict affected nations. Founded in 2014, Airwars has tracked over 66,000 locally alleged civilian deaths.
Mike Newton, Regional Director (Europe) of the Halo Trust, which is the world’s largest de-mining charity, said that it is doubling its staff in Ukraine this year as it faces an epochal challenge to clear liberated areas of explosives. After a huge training program, it is hoping to have around 1,200 staff by this summer. It is impossible to know how many mines, rockets, and shells require to be disposed of, but it is likely to take decades. Mike said that over 125 minefields have been identified in northern Ukraine. Up to now, anti-vehicle mines have been prevalent, but personnel mines and booby traps are emerging in areas that have been recaptured by Ukrainian troops.
Philip Spoerri, Head of Regional Delegation for UK and Ireland International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that they have been working in Ukraine since 2014, and have massively upscaled its response since the Russian invasion. ICRC has over 700 staff working in 10 locations across Ukraine to deliver relief items to the displaced, provide medical supplies to health care facilities, restore water supply for millions of people, and other lifesaving activities. It is hard to exaggerate the toll that the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine has had on civilians in recent months, on top of 8 years armed conflict in Donestk and Luhansk. Civilians have been killed, injured, lost homes, loved ones, poured into neighbouring countries, or stayed and lived in underground shelters. Homes, schools, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure has been destroyed. The ICRC estimates that over 17 million people need humanitarian help.
Marysia Zapasnik, Ukraine Country Director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) told us that the survey they conducted has demonstrated the devastating impact the conflict has had on the people of Ukraine. With the bitter winter, 27% people said they had insufficient heating, 93% said they could not meet basic needs. What families need is protection, safety and warmth, access to humanitarian assistance to survive, and economic support to rebuild lives in the future. To date the IRC and its partners has reached over half a million people with critical humanitarian assistance, providing support directly to displaced families to buy food, children’s clothes, and pay bills; helping older people to teach medical facilities and heat homes; and help with acute anxiety, stress, and trauma. Marysia emphasised that we must never forget Ukraine.
I attended the Ceramics APPG meeting to discuss how the recently launched Commission for Carbon Competitiveness can work with the Ceramics industry. The Commission is a cross-party and cross-industry effort to explore how the industry can achieve net zero without undermining the competitiveness of British industry. The Commission is chaired by Conservative MP John Penrose, and Stephen Kinnock MP is the Labour representative. The aims of the Commission are to examine imports where environmental standards are lower than in the UK, so have a high level of carbon, and has a cost advantage. And focus on carbon which is produced abroad and piped into the UK and the implication of introducing a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) in the UK.