Friday, 18 October 2013

My week in Parliament

Summary of this week in Parliament:

Opposition Day debate on zero-hour contracts
Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill: Report and Third Reading
Urgent Question on the Al-Madinah Free School
Opposition Day debate on high streets and change of use orders
Backbench business debate on funding and support for deaf children
Government Statement on Afghanistan
Backbench business debate on defence reforms
Government Statement on accountability in schools

Opposition Day debate on zero-hour contracts

I know that many local people share my concerns about the marked rise in the use of zero-hour contracts, under which a person is not guaranteed any work, is usually expected to be around whenever the employer wants them to be and never knows when will their next work will come.

Up to a million workers are now estimated to be on zero-hour contracts and over a quarter of workplaces use them. These contracts have been in use for many years and, while it is true that some workers welcome the flexibility they can offer, for most working people zero-hours contracts mean insecurity for them and their families.

That is why on Wednesday I supported a Motion in the House of Commons that called for the Government to stop the use of exploitative zero-hour contracts. The motion proposed four ways to achieve this - by preventing employers from insisting that zero-hours workers be available to work even when there is no guaranteed work available; by banning zero-hourcontracts that require workers to work exclusively for that employer; by ensuring that anyone on a zero-hours contract that is in practice working regular hours is entitled to a contract that reflects this, and by introducing a code of practice on the use of zero-hour contracts. The motion also called for the Government to carry out a full consultation and formal call for evidence on the use of zero-hours contracts.

Zero-hour contracts have been the exception but they areincreasingly becoming the norm in some sectors. Insecurity at work also goes to the heart of the living standards crisis that is affecting communities up and down the country.

That is why I am so disappointed that the Government rejected this motion on Wednesday and that they have done solittle, if anything at all, on this important issue.

Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill: Report and Third Reading

This week the Government's Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill returned to the House of Commons for Report stage and Third Reading.

I did not vote against this Bill as there are a number of important areas that I support – for example the creation of a College of Policing, new measures on witness protection, measures on terrorism and on terrorists travelling abroad, and the extension of the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission to private contractors. I also particularly welcome the introduction of Sexual Offence Prevention Orders – which build on the work the previous Government did to help protect children and vulnerable adults – and long-overdue measures on forced marriage.

There are, however, several measures in the Government's Bill that I remain very concerned about – in particular the changes to ASBOs which will weaken anti-social behaviour laws and reduce powers of the police and communities at a time when anti-social behaviour is a growing problem. I also do not support the Government's decision to introduce thresholds for low-value shoplifting and I would have liked to see the Government go further on tackling dangerous dogs by introducing Dog Control Notices.

That is why I supported amendments this week that would have strengthened the Bill and provided a number of important protections. For example, I supported new clauses that would have introduced simpler and stiffer sentencing guidelines for attacks against public facing workers and toughened laws against dangerous dogs. I also supported an amendment that would have created a presumption that anyone with a conviction for domestic violence should not be able to get a firearms licence.

Unfortunately the Government rejected these important improvements and I hope that the House of Lords will now look carefully at them as the Bill progresses.

Urgent Question on the Al-Madinah Free School

On Thursday there was an Urgent Question in the House of Commons about the Al Madinah Free School in Derby following the publication of a damning report by the schools watchdog Ofsted that concluded the school was 'dysfunctional' and 'inadequate across every category of inspection'.

Ofsted's report reveals that the 400 pupils at this school have been failed on every possible level and exposes the Government's free school programme as a dangerous, dysfunctional free-for-all.

I know that parents will want to know how the Government allowed the failings at Al Madinah to take place: why a school was allowed to be run by large numbers of unqualified staff, why 'dangerous levels' of safety and behaviour were sanctioned and why children with special educational needs were left to struggle? The Government also need to explain why funding was given to this school when Ofsted warned before it was opened that Al Madinah was failing to meet basic child protection standards.

This is a crisis entirely of the Government's own making and one that they urgently need to resolve.

Opposition Debate on High Streets and Change of Use orders

On Wednesday the House of Commons debated an Opposition motion opposing the Government's changes to planning rules for our high streets.

High streets and town and city centres are vital to local economies but many are struggling to survive. 1 in 7 shops are sitting empty and many others are being turned into more payday lenders and betting shops, taking the place of independent retailers and clothes shops. Indeed, there are now 20% more pay day loan shops and 3% more betting shops than a year ago. Small businesses are also finding it hard particularly under the pressure of business rates rises, which are increasing by an average of nearly £2,000 during this Parliament.

The Government's fragmented and piecemeal approach has failed to rise to the challenge of revitalising and regenerating our high streets and town centres. New planning rules announced in May and August also strip communities of a say over their high streets and deregulation means that a number of types of business will no longer have to apply for permission to convert a building for a new business or residential use. I am concerned that this will make it easier for payday lenders and betting shops and make it harder for councils and communities to have a say in the future of their town centres.

I would like to see communities given a greater say over the shape of their own high streets and town and city centres, such as new powers to allow councils to encourage the types of businesses they want to see whilst cutting down on the spread of others like payday lenders and betting shops. The motion Isupported on Wednesday also called for the Government to cut business rates for small business from 2015 and keep them frozen for the following year. This would help 1.5 million small businesses, many of which are on our high streets, andmean a saving of at least £450 a year for our small businesses.

Backbench business debate on funding and support for deaf children

I know from the many constituents that have contacted me and signed a related e-petition that there is real concern aboutprotecting specialist services for deaf children and young people. On Thursday there was an opportunity for MPs to debate this in the House of Commons.

There are, regrettably, still some very serious challenges facing deaf children and their parents. Deaf children currently underachieve throughout their education, the vast majority of local councils already do not have any specialist social care services for deaf children and 29% of local authorities have indicated an intention to cut specialist education services.

This must be extremely worrying for parents of deaf children and I believe there are a number of issues that the Government should look at. For example, the important role of specialist speech and language services needs to be recognised. I hope that the Government also consider whether Ofsted should inspect specialist education services for deaf children and whether local authorities should be required to publish details of how much is spent on special educational needs (SEN) provision and what local services are available. It should also be easier for parents to hold local authorities to account on the services they provide.

This was an important debate and I hope it can be built on when many of these issues are considered in the Children and Families Bill that is currently progressing through Parliament.

Government Statement on Afghanistan

On Thursday the International Development Secretary updated the House of Commons on the situation in Afghanistan.

I support the Government's aid and development work in Afghanistan and it is clear that some progress has been made. More Afghan children are attending school, access to healthcare is improving, the Afghan economy is growing and Parliament-approved elections are due to take place for the first time next year.

However, this progress is not irreversible and huge challenges remain. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world, violence and corruption persist and the resilience and capacity of the Afghan security force remains uncertain. It is also concerning that the International Development Committee recently stated that the situation for women in Afghanistan had 'deteriorated in some respects'.

It is now vital that a political settlement is found outside as well as inside Afghanistan. It is also clear that the success of our aid and development programme will be increasingly important in building lasting stability in Afghanistan and ensuring that the tremendous achievements and sacrifices of our armed forces endure.

Backbench Business debate on defence reforms

On Thursday I supported a motion in the House of Commons that urged the Government to delay the disbandment ofregular units of the British Army until it is established thattheir plan to significantly increase the number of reservists is viable and cost-effective.

Under the Government's plans the Army Reserve – as the Territorial Army will be renamed – will increase from 19,000 to 30,000 by 2018.

Reservists make a tremendous contribution to the defence of our country and continue to serve with skill and bravery in some of the most challenging of conflicts, including Afghanistan.

It is clear, though, that the Government are implementing this policy without thinking it through. There is currently a crisis in recruitment for both regulars and reservists that urgently needs to be addressed. There is also very real concern that Government's plan to increase the number of reservists is not for operational purposes but to fill the gap left by their decision to reduce the size of the regular Army by 20,000 by 2020.

I believe that reductions to the regular forces should be made contingent on an uplift in reservist recruitment. The Government, however, are pushing ahead with their plan, which I fear could put the defence capability of this country at risk in the not-too-distant future.

Government statement on Secondary School accountability

On Monday the Government made a Statement on the future of secondary school accountability following a recent consultation.

Currently secondary schools are judged by the proportion of their pupils who are awarded five GCSEs at grade C or above, including in English and maths. The Government's new proposals include four key measures that schools must publish including pupils' progress across eight subjects, the average grade that a pupil achieves in those subjects, the percentage of pupils achieving a C grade in English and maths and the proportion of pupils gaining the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

In addition, the Government announced that a new progress measure will be introduced that takes into account a pupil'sresults at end of primary school and sets an expectation of what they should achieve at GCSE, with schools getting credit when pupils outperform those expectations. The new system will begin in 2016 for students currently in year 9 althoughschools will be allowed to opt into the new system from 2015 if they wish.

I will study closely the details of the changes proposed and I hope they incentivise a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools. However, it is important that the proposals allow teachers to help pupils of all abilities to achieve the best results they can and that there are no new perverse incentives. There also needs to be more detail about how the changes will impact on technical and vocational education and I would like to see the Government support calls for all young people to continue to study maths and English to age 18.

I also appreciate that many parents, pupils and teachers are concerned at the Government's tinkering with the exam system and it is important that the Government meet with headteachers to discuss how these changes are implemented.

These materials have been produced by the Parliamentary Research Service (PRS) and are intended for use solely by PRS Members in support of their Parliamentary duties.


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