Friday, 2 May 2014

Summary of this week in the House of Commons:

Elsewhere in Parliament:
High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill, Second Reading
The main legislation in the House of Commons this week was the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, which gives the powers necessary to build the first phase of the High Speed 2 (HS2) project.

I support this Bill as I believe HS2 will cut congestion on our railways, better connect our cities, reduce journey times and, if it is managed properly, help rebalance the economy, creating new skilled jobs and apprenticeships across the country. HS2 is also urgently needed to ease the capacity constraints commuters on our railways face and it is the best way to move to the low-carbon transport infrastructure we need to meet climate change emissions targets.

It also vital, however, that the costs of HS2 are kept down and I am concerned that four years of delays and mismanagement under this Government have caused costs to rise. There can be no blank cheque for this, or any other project.

The proposed route of HS2 must also be refined where needed and the environmental impact must be mitigated wherever possible. Those whose homes are affected by the new line should be treated with the utmost sensitivity.

I hope HS2 will be of benefit to every nation, region and sector of our country’s economy and I am pleased that the House of Commons gave such a clear endorsement this week to the principle of building a new, high speed line from London to Birmingham. Much work, of course, remains to be done and the Government must now ensure the project is better managed and that the costs are brought down wherever possible.

Government statement on Oban House care home
I am sure that, like me, many local people were appalled at the shocking neglect and abuse of vulnerable older people that was shown to be taking place at Oban House care home on this week’s BBC Panorama programme.

When older people and their families take a decision to move into residential care, they must be assured of high standards. When poor care occurs it must be stamped out and those responsible must be held to account.

The truly shocking abuses that are shown to have occurred at Oban House raise very serious questions about the inspection of care homes and the role of local councils in monitoring and driving up care standards. I also believe that the Government should revisit their brutal cuts to social care budgets, which have been reduced by £1.8 billion in the first three years of this Parliament and make these kinds of cases more, not less, likely.

Above all, this is yet another reminder of the need for a radical rethink of how we care for older people. The Government must explain how they plan to prevent older people facing further abuse and indignity.

Government Statement on Ukraine
The Foreign Secretary updated the House of Commons this week on the continuing crisis in Ukraine and the extension of EU and US sanctions against Russia.

The Foreign Secretary was clear that the UK Government shares NATO’s assessment that the disorder and violence we have seen in a number of parts of eastern Ukraine – including the seizure of Government buildings by armed groups and the detention of journalists and military observers – is being planned and directed by Russia. The Russian Government has also done nothing to implement the agreement reached in Geneva on 17th April that promised to help reduce tensions in the region.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine continue to pose the most serious threat to European security in decades. It is vital that the international community demonstrate to the Russians that there are costs and consequences to these actions and it is right that sanctions have now been extended. I also welcome that the G7 is exploring the possibility of wider sanctions if Russia continues to escalate this crisis.

Treasury Questions and Debate on a Motion relating to Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

The House of Commons debated economic issues twice this week with Treasury questions on Tuesday and on Wednesday, a debate on a motion to approve the budget and economic information the Government are required to send to the EU Commission each year. 

It is, of course, welcome that there is finally some growth in the economy. However we have had the slowest economic recovery for 100 years with growth slower than the USA or Germany.

On Tuesday the Chancellor was pressed on the promises he made in 2010 to balance the books in 2015, and that living standards would rise “steadily and sustainably”. The Government have broken these promises. Borrowing is still forecast to be £190 billion more than planned and for most people living standards are falling year on year, wages are down £1,600 a year since 2010, energy bills are up almost £300 since the General Election and the Government’s Office of Budget Responsibility have confirmed that people will be worse off next year than they were in 2010.

Wednesday was an opportunity to debate the Government’s economic policy further and highlight the weakness of the Government’s Budget which failed to tackle the cost of living crisis and take the long-term steps we need to build a balanced and sustainable economic recovery for all.  

Defence Reform Bill,  Lords amendments
The Government’s Defence Reform Bill returned to the Commons on Tuesday for consideration of a number of amendments that have been tabled in the House of Lords.

These were generally technical amendments that make sensible changes to simplify the Bill and take forward the recommendations of the cross-party Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I therefore supported these amendments on Tuesday.

One of the most controversial measures in the Government’s Defence Reform Bill is to pave the way for defence procurement to be contracted out to a Government-owned/Company-operated (GoCo) group. I have always had questions about this proposal and it was a major embarrassment for the Government when they had to drop their initial attempt to create a GoCo last year.

The Bill, however, still allows for a future Government to consider this option so I supported an amendment on Tuesday that would have ensured Parliament has a minimum period of 12 weeks to scrutinise any future proposal for a GoCo and to compare this with the current model. The Government have listened to some of the concerns that have been raised about this as the Bill has progressed but this amendment would have ensured greater scrutiny and transparency so I am disappointed the Government rejected it.

Due to pressure from the Opposition throughout the course of this Bill, the Government have, however, accepted calls for increased scrutiny of their reforms to Army reserves. With the Government having missed its own targets for reserves recruitment, the public must have confidence in the progress of these reforms so I am pleased that Government has pledged to publish regular reports that scrutinise progress of army reforms.  

Government Statement on Stop and Search
This week the Government came forward with their much delayed proposals to reform the use of police stop and search powers. It has been four years since the Equality and Human Rights Commission described the use of stop-and-search as disproportionate, inefficient and raised concerns about racial discrimination.

Last year there were a million stop-and-searches, only 10% of which led to an arrest. This means that hundreds of thousands of stop-and-searches led to resentment, particularly in ethnic minority communities that are most affected.

Unfortunately, the Government’s proposed package of reforms is extremely limited and goes nowhere near far enough. The measures announced are welcome such as the review of training by the college of policing and revising the police code of practice. However, the new scheme requiring a senior officer’s authorisation is only voluntary, the law on Section 60 (i.e. stop-and-search powers where reasonable suspicion is not required) is not being changed and the guidance on race discrimination is not being put onto a statutory basis.

This is an area where there is cross-party support and it is very disappointing that this Government seems to have ignored the benefits of further sensible reform for good policing, tackling discrimination and building community confidence.

Home Office Orals
At Home Office questions this week the Shadow Home Secretary raised concerns over new figures that show a 7% drop in the number of sex offences being taken to court. This comes at a time when the number of such offences being reported to the police has gone up by 16%. Additionally, there has been a 9% drop in convictions for violent crime in the last year, even though the number of recorded violent crimes fell by only 1.5%.

I am concerned that more serious criminals are not being convicted under this Government – with huge drops in the number of violent crimes, domestic abuse, rape and child abuse cases taken forward by the police. The Government needs to do more to ensure that victims are getting the justice they deserve.

Wales Bill, Committee of the House
On Wednesday the Government’s Wales Bill started Committee Stage in the House of Commons. I support elements of this Bill, such as moves to devolve more powers to Wales – particularly borrowing powers – but there are parts of the Bill that need improving and others that I oppose outright.

One of the measures in this Bill that I oppose is the Government’s proposal to allow candidates to simultaneously stand on a regional list and as a constituency Assembly Member – so-called ‘dual candidacy’. The previous Labour Government introduced a ban on dual candidacy in 2006 as the system was open to abuse. I fear that removing this ban will once again allow candidates who have been rejected by the electorate to become Assembly Members via the back door. That is why I supported an amendment on Wednesday that would have removed this clearly partisan proposal from the Bill, but unfortunately it was defeated.

I also have concerns that the tax powers in the Bill, as drafted, could be used to spark damaging tax competition across the UK.  I am not in favour of a race to the bottom, where one part of Britain undercuts another through tax competition and it will be important to address this.

Rana Plaza disaster, Westminster Hall debate
This week saw the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, when some 1,100 people lost their lives and 2,500 were injured after a clothing factory collapsed. On Wednesday there was a debate on this in Westminster Hall.

I know from the large number of letters and e-mails I have received that many local people remain concerned about the working conditions that some people in the garment industry experience in Bangladesh and other countries.

Following the Rana Plaza tragedy there has been some progress to improve safety standards in clothing factories in Bangladesh but it is clear that much more needs to be done. In particular, I believe it is vital that the UK Government support the work of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which helps raise working standards across the world.  I also hope the anniversary of this disaster can help reinforce the need for further progress.