Season’s greetings to you all and welcome to my Winter Newsletter. Once again it’s been a busy time in Parliament and in Bristol East, and you can read about some of what I’ve been up to below. I hope you have all been keeping safe and well, and please do get in touch with any comments or questions you might have. It’s been a tough year for so many of us, but as my first story shows – there is light on the horizon! Let’s hope 2021 is much better all round.
We’ve recently heard the brilliant news that the Government has approved Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. It has purchased an initial 40 million doses of this vaccine ready for a mass immunisation programme, starting with those most at risk. Final trials of this vaccine show it has 95% efficacy, signalling a real light at the end of the tunnel. Here in Bristol, immunisation has started at Southmead Hospital, with 98-year-old Jack Vokes receiving the first dose. The vaccine will soon be rolled out into community settings, too, including a mass immunisation programme at Ashton Gate. Of course, there are challenges ahead in the storage and distribution of the vaccine, but this still offers strong cause to celebrate and feel positive, as it takes us one step closer to resuming our normal lives.
Thank You NHS / Support Nursing Staff
This has been an immensely challenging year for NHS and social care staff, who’ve been at the heart of the fight against Covid-19. I want to say a heartfelt thanks to all those on the frontline – in the health and social care sector and beyond – for all they have done for us. The clap for carers during the first national lockdown was a lovely way to show our support and solidarity, but I now think it’s vital to recognise and reward the contributions of health and social care staff by providing them with a decent pay rise.
Labour’s Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has made this request to the Secretary of State for Health in Parliament on numerous occasions. For my own part, I’ve written to Matt Hancock to ask for a pay rise for health and social care workers as part of various campaigns, and have also written specifically about pay and other support for nursing staff as part of the Royal College of Nursing’s campaign, too. The Chancellor did go part way towards meeting this in his recent Spending Review, but it only applies to some, and many other key workers will be on a pay freeze.
Fund Our Hospitals
Lots of you have also written to me recently about funding for the NHS more generally, particularly for our local hospitals. I share the concerns you’ve raised about how patients and staff are being let down by years of chronic underfunding in the NHS, along with cuts to public health and social care budgets. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the NHS is struggling to keep up with demand, so I have written to the Chancellor to ask that he puts forward a credible and comprehensive funding settlement for our NHS and social care sector. This would help to deliver much-needed improvements in care.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been campaigning on behalf of my constituent Jake Ogborne, who suffers from a condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 3, and is unable to access a potentially life-changing treatment called Spinraza on the NHS. Jake is excluded from getting Spinraza because of arbitrary eligibility criteria, which we’re fighting to get changed. You can see Jake talk about his story here, and you can help our campaign for him to get Spinraza by signing this petition.
Introducing my Supported Housing Bill
In November I presented my Supported Housing (Regulation) Bill in Parliament. The Bill would ensure that vulnerable people are only housed in decent, safe accommodation, where they will get the care and support they need – which currently does not always happen. I have since met with Government Ministers to discuss what the Government is doing to tackle poor standards in supported housing, and what more still needs to be done. It’s good that Bristol has been chosen by the Government to run a pilot, with a view to gathering evidence which will inform future action.
The Bill is now listed for Jan 15th, where it is unlikely to be debated or voted on due to a lack of time. The Bill could, however, progress straight to the committee stage but, unfortunately, any MP can shout “object” and prevent this from happening. I hope Government whips and certain Tory backbench MPs will refrain from doing so on this occasion!
St Anne’s Park Railway Station bid successful
The campaign to re-open St Anne’s Park railway station took a step forward as the bid submitted by me and local Councillor Tim Rippington to the Restoring Your Railway Ideas Fund was successful. This is such great news! It means the Government will part-fund (75%) of the cost of putting together a full business case, allowing us to demonstrate that there is a strong case to re-open this much-needed local railway station.
Tackling violence against shopworkers
I popped into the Fishponds Co-op branch on Straits Parade and met with staff and Usdaw representatives as part of Respect for Shopworkers Week. Abuse and violence are sadly a common experience for too many shopworkers, and this has got particularly bad this year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s shocking to hear that some Bristol stores are hotspots for incidents – staff shouldn’t be scared to go to work in our local shops. I am backing Alex Norris MP’s Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill to protect retail staff.
Supporting British bike manufacturers
Despite warm words from the Government on supporting cycling, it is badly letting down British cycle manufacturers and retailers. It is both slapping 25% tariffs on bike frames and other components imported from the US as part of the Boeing and Airbus WTO dispute, meaning hold-ups at Customs and an extra cost on UK bike companies, whilst threatening to scrap the current EU anti-dumping duty on cheap bike imports, which will lead to a flood of poor quality bikes. During Transport Questions, I called on the Government to act to protect the sector rather than punishing British bicycle manufacturers.
Question to Education Secretary about SEND school pupils
Following a Statement from the Education Secretary on how 2021’s examinations will be handled, I asked for assurances that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) would not be forgotten, and cited research from the Education Policy Institute that suggests increased use of internal assessments may unfairly penalise children with additional support needs. School pupils have already faced extraordinary pressures this year and many children with SEND have faced disproportionate disruption. The Government must ensure SEND children get the support they need.
It has been a couple of weeks since the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak outlined his spending review, and at a crucial point in our recovery from this crisis, failed to offer the reassurance that the Britain people needed. The Spending Review did little to offer a solution to the glaring gaps in the Chancellor’s existing financial support schemes. I’ve been in constant contact with several exhibition companies who, along with the self-employed and limited company owners, continue to be excluded. I raised their plight again in the House of Commons at the end of October here. This eventually resulted in the announcement of extra regional funding, with the Local Restrictions Support Grant released a week later. Of course, any additional assistance to local authorities is welcome but this limited scheme only offered minimal respite to those struggling.
On 19th November I criticised the Government’s cronyism over the awarding of contracts and public funding (watch here) after the Town’s Fund scheme had seen Ministers conveniently award funding to Tory seats including that of the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick. As the Government’s £4 Billion ‘levelling up’ fund comes into effect, it will be interesting to see if this too favours certain MPs.
The Government’s inability – or unwillingness – to communicate with councils has hampered local efforts to respond effectively to the economic consequences of this crisis. I asked the Prime Minister to commit to talking to the Core Cities group, in which Bristol plays a leading role – watch here. He seemed completely thrown by my question, which suggests a worrying lack of grip, and a failure to fully grasp the economic reality facing my constituents, whose businesses and livelihoods have been devastated.
The hospitality sector has been hit particularly hard, and I have written to the Chancellor on several occasions over the past few months, on behalf of constituents who feel very strongly about the need to protect their locals. It’s not just about being able to enjoy a pint – pubs are important community hubs too. The Government has now offered a one-off payment of £1000 for ‘wet pubs’ unable to open in tier 2 or 3, but for many this barely covers the cost of a keg of beer.
Brexit negotiations are approaching their final stages and I’m hoping a resolution can still be reached, to avoid the catastrophic effects of a No-Deal Brexit scenario. The Prime Minister and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested on Monday night that we still remain apart on three issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries. If a deal is reached in the coming days, MPs will then have a chance to vote, once details of the agreement are published and properly analysed. I will be very much involved in the Labour discussions about it in coming days, as I lead on Brexit for the shadow Transport team.
It was encouraging on Tuesday to see the Government agree to drop parts of legislation that could have seen the UK break international law after reaching an “agreement in principle” on the Northern Ireland Protocol. This approach to trade negotiations would have set a precedent on the world stage for reneging on agreements which are upheld by the rule of law. This is no way to govern and would have irreversibly damaged our international reputation.
I have continued to work on environmental issues in my role as Shadow Minister for Green Transport, including contributing to the transport section of Labour’s ambitious green economic recovery report. I recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, calling on the Government to do more to act on international shipping emissions, following a disappointingly weak international agreement on the issue – as covered by The Independent.
I have also been pressing the Government on wider environmental issues. I gave a speech in favour of increasing the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals from six months to five years – after years of campaigning on this issue – and another speech in response to the findings of the UK’s first national climate assembly. I also pressed the Church Commissioners on their failure to increase tree planting on Church of England land.
I wanted to say a special thank you to all the children of Bristol East who submitted an entry to my Christmas picture competition. I’m incredibly impressed by the creativity in my constituency! After much deliberation within the team, we finally whittled it down to these four. Congratulations to the winner, ‘Safety First Snowman’ by Frank, aged 9 from Fishponds (main picture) who will receive a prize of art materials.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter, please get in touch if you need assistance. My team and I are always on hand to help the constituents of Bristol East. You can email me at email@example.com or call 0117 9399901.