My week started with Mr Speaker calling me to ask a question in Department for Work and Pensions Oral Questions. If an MP is not selected to be included in the listed questions on the Order Paper, there is a convention that Mr Speaker can call that MP to ask a supplementary question, but the MP has to stand up when the particular question they want to be included in is called, so that the Speaker is aware that the MP wants to be called. This is called “bobbing”. I wasn’t fortunate to be on the Order Paper, so I bobbed, throughout the listed questions, but I wasn’t called. But there is a Topical Section on the Order Paper following the listed questions for most Department Oral Questions, which allows MPs to ask a question on any subject within that Departmental brief. So I continued to bob and was nearly the last question to be called in the Topical Questions section. I referred to research by the Bevan Foundation in February 2023, which showed that Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which is the responsibility of the UK Government, is not the solution to the cost of living crisis and housing crisis for families who are on low incomes and the most vulnerable. The LHA determines how much assistance a low income household living in the private rental sector can receive towards their rent through the benefits system. But LHA rates have been frozen by the UK Government since 2020, whilst private rental costs have escalated. There is a severe shortage of private rental properties available at LHA rates. Only 32 properties across Wales were advertised as available at LHA rates, which is 1.2% of the market, and 16 of the 22 local authorities did not have a single property available at LHA rates. Households on low incomes are faced with moving into an unaffordable property, sometimes of poor standard, risking financial hardship, or seek assistance from local authority homelessness services. I asked whether the Minister, Mims Davies MP, would help people who are most in need by uprating the Local Housing Allowance to reflect current private rental costs. Unfortunately, the Minister did not answer the question, and referred to her UK Government’s support package for most vulnerable households, which includes the household element of Universal Credit, or those entitled to housing benefit, and discretionary housing payments from local authorities.
I rushed from the Chamber to attend the AGM of the All Party Group (APPG) for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), and was proud to be re-elected vice-chair. John Howell MP was re-elected chair. ADR is a method of resolving disputes between consumers and traders that doesn’t involve going to court. In the UK there are 4 main types of ADR. Independent negotiation is the first option, because in some cases, both parties can solve arguments by taking a ‘cards on the table’ approach and attempting a compromise. If required, ADR specialists can take instructions and negotiate on behalf of the parties. Mediation; when a mediator is a jointly instructed neutral party, who assists with communication between the parties to achieve a settlement, but not offer an opinion or assessment. Conciliation; is a common ADR used for employment disputes, and is a mandatory process before an employee can take a claim to an employment tribunal. The conciliator will discuss the issues and try and help the parties reach an agreement often providing their own opinion. Arbitration; where an independent third party, often a specialist in the field of dispute, considers the facts and takes a decision that’s often binding on one or both parties. In the UK, there are well established ADR schemes for financial services, energy, and telecoms, but it is expanding in its popularity, because it is less formal, less costly, less stressful and often much quicker than court proceedings.
I called in to the Endometriosis UK Action Month event. Endometriosis is a condition where cells similar to those lining the womb are found elsewhere in the body. Each month they react to the menstrual cycle in the same way as in the womb, building up, breaking down and bleeding. But this blood has no way to escape and leads to inflammation, pain, and scar tissue. The condition affects over 1.5 million in the UK, approximately 1 in 10 women, and those assigned female at birth. Common symptoms include pelvic pain, difficult periods, pain when urinating, painful bowel movements, and fatigue. I agreed to become a member of the APPG for Endometriosis.
I was in the Chamber to listen to the Home Secretary deliver her statement about the Illegal Migration Bill. She said her decisions are supported by the British people through their elected representatives not by people smugglers and other criminals breaking into Britain daily. She said that the Bill will stop the boats bringing tens of thousands to our shores in flagrant breach of our laws and the will of the British people. She blamed illegal arrivals for overwhelming our asylum system, which increased the backlog of over 160,000. And that they should have claimed asylum in the safe countries they had passed through, such as Albania. She said that the vast majority were adult males under 40 rich enough to pay criminal gangs thousands for safe passage. If you enter Britain illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed, to your home country or to a safe country like Rwanda. The Bill enables detention of illegal arrivals for 28 days without bail or judicial review, until they are removed. The Home Secretary can suspend removal only to those under 18, medically unfit to fly, or at risk of serious and irreversible harm. And when they’ve stopped the boats, the Bill will introduce an annual cap on the number of refugees the UK will settle via safe and legal routes. She said the British people are fair and patient but they’ve seen their country taken for a ride.
Many MPs on both sides of the chamber were shocked by the Home Secretary’s language and answers to questions regarding her statement posed by MPs. I think that the Rt. Honourable Member for Haynes and Harrington, John McDonnell’s question and the Home Secretary’s answer summed it up. “I have nearly 2,000 people who have exercised their legal right to claim asylum living in hotels in my constituency, probably more than any other MP. I welcome them into my constituency. I have toured the hotels, met many of them, and held advice sessions. They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan-Iraq, Iran and Eritrea. Some of them have shown me their wounds from torture, many are suffering post traumatic stress disorder. They have been in the hotels for 12 to 18 months. I am amazed by the range of skills and qualifications that people have. They just want employment. They want to be able to contribute. They want a job and to contribute to our society and our economy, but they are trapped in this system because of the lack of processing. I take up their cases and get sheets of the same three or four sentence responses, and the cases move no further. Could the Home Secretary at least provide the House with a monthly report on how the processing of their cases is proceeding? May I say one final thing Mr Speaker? Will the Home Secretary please tone down her inflammatory language? It is putting these people and those who represent them at risk.“
Suella Braverman replied “We are making good progress in bearing down on the legacy backlog in our asylum system. We have increased the number of decision makers and streamlined the decision-making process, and we are increasing productivity. We will continue to bear down on that because it is a big factor in the hotel accommodation issue”.
The majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work, so many rely on state support, currently set at £40.85 per week, that’s £5.84 per day for food, sanitation and clothing. Housing is provided, but asylum seekers cannot choose where, and it’s often hard to let properties which council tenants do not want to live in. The UK had 72,027 asylum seekers at the year ending September 2022, and does not have more asylum seekers than other countries. In the EU, Germany had the highest, 127,730, followed by France, 96,510. According to UNHCR statistics, in the UK at the end of November 2022, there were 231,597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases, and 5,483 stateless persons. The war in Ukraine drove a large increase from the previous year. The backlog is produced by the historical lack of staffing in the Home Office to deal with applications.
There has been a massive reaction to the Bill since last Monday, including: The Red Cross said that the Bill breaks the UN 1951 Convention; The Archbishop of York condemned the Bill and said that it is cruelty without purpose and is immoral and inept; more than 350 charities, businesses, unions, and legal groups said the Bill is cruel and unworkable to detain and immediately deport people coming to the UK in small boats, and will break the UN Charter and European Convention on Human Rights; Lord Dubs said that the Bill is a reversal of undertakings the UK Government gave that children would be exempt, and children would not be able to claim asylum and would be removed; and Baptist, Methodist, and the United Reform Church leaders said that the Bill fosters discrimination, distrust, and causes immeasurable harm to people already vulnerable from conflict and persecution, and is an example of ignoring our neighbours and walking by on the other side.
I’m so grateful that the people of Wales are compassionate towards strangers, and we are a Nation of Sanctuary.
I was honoured to be re-elected vice chair at the AGM of the APPG Coalfields Communities. Alex Davies-Jones MP was re-elected chair. The APPG received a presentation by the Secretariat, Industrial Communities Alliance, on the next steps in their ‘Levelling Up the Former Coalfields’ Inquiry, whose remit is to give the APPG a clear strategic direction. The inquiry will publish its report and recommendations in the near future.
I attended the APPG for Hospitality, Events, and Major Food and Drink Businesses in Wales, chaired by Jess Morden MP. We received an update from businesses in Wales, which included: Dave Chapman, Executive Director for Wales, UK Hospitality; Nick Newman, chair of Pubs Cardiff; Glen Evans, vice chair of North Wales Tourism; Daniel Bounds, Sales Director, ICC Wales and Deputy Chairman of ICA; Mike Morgan, Welsh Rarebits Collection; and Rod Ali of Taste Wales Trade Association. Dave told us that the UKH Cymru Conference is planned for May, and the UKH Conference will be in June. All speakers agreed that the Chancellor should provide financial help for the hospitality, events and businesses sector in the UK, which will benefit those in Wales.
My Shark Fins Private Members Bill completed all legislative stages in the House of Commons on 20th January and now proceeds to the House of Lords. I met with Maggie Jones, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, who will be taking my Sharks Fins Private Members Bill through the House of Lords, starting with its Second Reading on Friday 24th March. I wanted to make sure that Maggie has all the briefing notes regarding the Bill, and answered any questions that she had. Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist will be the Conservative UK Government Minister, and Baroness Hayman of Ullock will be speaking for the Labour Front Bench.
I attended the APPG for Sport International Women’s Day event which was so well attended that people were sitting on the floor. We listened to inspirational sportswomen of all ages and backgrounds who told their stories of their involvement and dedication to sport. The Minister for Sport, Stuart Andrew MP, spoke first and pledged more funding for women and girls in grassroots sport.
Sense is a national disability charity that supports the UK’s 1.6million people with complex disabilities to be understood, connected and valued. Sense supports children, young people, and adults in their homes and in the community, and offers practical help to family carers including information advice, short breaks and family events. I attended Sense’s Parliamentary event on the cost of living crisis on disabled people. Sense is campaigning for: a benefits system that provides enough to live on, a review of the level, the process that sets benefits, and how they are updated; and targeted energy support for disabled people who use more energy, including a social tariff, and an urgent review of the list of medical equipment that qualify for energy rebates. Since the start of 2023, the situation has severely worsened for more than three quarters of disabled people, and over half are now in debt. Nearly half are missing meals to save money, struggling to keep their homes warm, and 20% using food banks. I hope that the Chancellor has listened to Sense and his budget next week will include help for disabled people.
I met with representatives of The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and learned some new skills to draw attention to the importance of scientific research in solving challenges that affect constituents and people in the UK. The RSC is an international organisation connecting chemical scientists with each other and with society as a whole. Founded in London in 1841, with a current membership of over 50,000, it supports chemical scientists with resources to make vital advances in chemical knowledge, and teachers to inspire a future generation of scientists. Sophia Michell and Dr Ian Gameson from Lab Tots, which teaches fun science to nursery school children, showed me everyday chemistry that we can do with accessible materials at home. It was great to take part and meet Sophia and Ian, connect with science and learn about working together on evidence based policy ranging from climate change and energy security to economic growth. My thanks to Val Vaz MP for hosting the event.
I bobbed throughout the Women and Equalities Oral Questions because I wanted to highlight TUC statistics that show that despite the UK Government requiring companies employing over 250 to publish their gender pay gap information since 2017, there is still a widening gender pay gap, currently at 15%, and women are working for free for 54 days in the UK and 45 days in Wales. I would have asked the Minister whether she agreed with the General Secretary of Wales TUC, Shavanah Taj, that companies need clear targets, monitoring, evaluation, enforcement and fines for companies who don’t comply. Unfortunately, Mr Speaker didn’t call me, but I published my question on Social Media because I believe that the UK Government needs to do much more for women in the workplace.
I have been a supporter of the RSPCA for many years, and I attended their event on the Impact of the Cost of Living Crisis on Animals. The RSPCA centres are full, 700 pets are on waiting lists, there is a 25% increase in pets abandoned, a 13% rise in neglect calls, the intake is up by 8%, rehoming is down by 8%, because people cannot afford to feed their pets. The RSPCA is collaborating with animal and human welfare charities to help keep pets in their home during the cost of living crisis. The RSPCA Partnership (Wales) was set up in the summer 2022 and it supports food banks across Wales to provide pet food. The RSPCA has set up a phone helpline to support peoooe worried about the cost of living crisis on 03001230650, open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
Sarah Champion MP hosted the International Rescue Committee event “Time to Stand with Women Leading in Crisis” and I was honoured to sign the pledge board “I stand with women leading in crisis”. Women are best positioned to lead during crisis and prevent gender based violence, but often their organisations are cut out of humanitarian response. The UK Government has published its Women’s and Girls Strategy and now is the time for the UK to stand with women leading in crisis: tackle systemic funding barriers; create space and decision making roles; and establish partnerships based on equity, trust and accountability.
I attended the APPG for State Pension, chaired by Andrew Gwynne MP and Peter Aldous MP, for a confidential briefing on Stage two of the PHSO investigation into DWP’s communication of changes to State Pension age and associated issues.
The Public Order Bill came back to the Commons from the Lords where it had been amended by Labour and Cross-Bench peers working together to remove the draconian Conservative policies against civil liberties within the Bill, such as free speech and public assembly. The votes taken by the UK Government in the Commons are to “disagree with Lords amendments”. Unfortunately, the Conservative MPs outnumber the opposition MPs in the Commons, and we lose every vote, unless enough Conservative MPs rebel against their own Party so as to cancel out their majority. This did not happen in this case, and the opposition’s support for the Lords amendments was defeated at every vote. Amendment (a) was not a Lord’s amendment and was moved by a Conservative MP.
Amendment (a) which would specify and exempt consensual communication, silent prayer, and peaceful presence from criminalisation, was opposed by MPs from across the House because nothing in Lords amendment 5 (restricting protests to within 150 metres of an abortion clinic, known as a buffer zone) would criminalise prayer, and is clear that there is a time and place for everything, whereas amendment (a) creates confusion for the police who will have to enforce buffer zones. Amendment (a) was lost 116-299.
Amendment 6 removes clause 11 which gives the police power to stop and search suspicion-less protest related items, such as a person or vehicle. The vote was lost by 236-281 votes.
Amendment 1 provides a definition of “serious disruption” on the face of the Bill, because the UK Government are trying to lower the threshold. The definition is – causing significant harm to persons/organisations/life of community. The vote was lost 235-286.
Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1 is an attempt to raise the threshold somewhat but is still unacceptable, so it was pushed to a vote, which was lost 231-285.
Amendment 20 removes clause 20, introducing serious disruption orders other than on conviction, which means that an order made by a magistrate court on application from a chief officer of the police on application not at the point of conviction, from the Bill. The vote was lost 232-280.