Yesterday I held a debate in Parliament on the voter ID pilot which took place in the May local Government elections across five Boroughs, including Bromley which part of my constituency covers. The pilot required voters to present identification before casting their ballot and is part of a programme to prevent impersonation at polling stations. Impersonation is a type of fraud whereby someone votes at a polling station pretending to be someone else.
The Government have hailed the pilot as a success which demonstrates that a voter ID scheme is “a reasonable and proportionate measure to take”. However, I believe these are the most disproportionate and ill-thought changes to our electoral system in recent years and proposals to roll the scheme out nationally should be scrapped immediately.
Electoral fraud is a serious crime and every allegation needs to be investigated fully. However, the proposals outlined by the Government are clearly disproportionate. Data from the Electoral Commission shows that in 2015 there were just 26 allegations of fraud based on impersonation, amounting to 0.000051% of overall votes cast and in 2017 there were just 28 allegations with one prosecution amounting to 0.000063% of overall votes cast.
It is also virtually impossible for voter impersonation to affect an election result on any large scale. It is only possible to ‘steal’ one vote through impersonation. Therefore, to effectively influence an election would require a professional campaign coordinating thousands of fraudsters, the nature of such a campaign would make it easily identifiable.
In addition, the introduction of the scheme would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence, or electoral expenditure. Therefore, Voter ID would do little to prevent determined fraudsters from acting.
As such it would seem this is a solution in search of a problem. On top of this the Cabinet Office previously claimed the trial was deemed necessary “after reports of alleged electoral fraud through voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016”, citing Electoral Commission data.
However, shortly after this, the UK Statistics Authority condemned this statement as misleading the public. Although the number of alleged cases of impersonation rose from 21 to 44 from 2014 to 2016, the total number of votes cast rose from 29 million to 64 million. The number of cases subsequently dropped to 28 in 2017.
The main issue is the extent to which this scheme would disenfranchise a vast swathe of the electorate. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have previously warned the Government that voter ID would have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people, and people with disabilities.
Interestingly, none of the five Boroughs in the trial had a significantly poorer or ethnically diverse population than the national average, which to my mind puts in question the validity of the trial. Furthermore, evidence from the USA (which has strict voter ID rules) has shown that the scheme disproportionately affects marginalised groups because those who can’t afford to drive or go on holiday don’t spend to get the required ID.
In response to these points, the Minister for the Constitution made the case that the pilot had been a success commenting that only 340 people were unable to vote. However, this is a figure 12 times greater than the national number of voter fraud allegations in 2017. If this figure was scaled nationally it would represent a significant percentage of the population being denied their vote.
This is particularly salient considering the recent Windrush scandal, which has shown that even those who are both legitimate citizens and voters have struggled to access services which they are entitled to. Further expansion of these voter ID schemes could see the Windrush generation also denied their democratic rights adding further insult to injury.
There is no doubt that citizens were denied votes in the trial and there is no doubt that voters were put off; disproportionately so in comparison to previous reports of voter fraud. How can this flagrant disregard for disenfranchising voters be regarded as a success especially when we are celebrating the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote?
The Minister further went on to make the case that electoral fraud is not a victimless crime and that the impact of the crime on voters means taking away the victims right to vote as they want. Whilst I have no dispute with this statement and believe that appropriate measures should be taken to mitigate electoral fraud I return to the evidence from the trial that more people were denied their right to vote than people who had their vote stolen nationally in 2017.
The 2017 figure that 0.000063% of overall votes cast were allegedly fraudulent is set against data that shows 7.5% of the electorate do not hold any photographic ID. This would mean those at risk from disenfranchisement outweighs allegations of voter fraud by a factor of over 119,000. I have previously used the analogy of a sledgehammer to crack a nut but I am no longer confident that it is a sufficient metaphor to describe the utterly disproportionate methods we have seen trialled this year.
Concluding the debate the Minister for the Constitution stated that “this really is a simple matter of principle: do we or do we not believe in stamping out electoral fraud?” There is no doubt that electoral fraud must be combatted, but it remains, the problem is almost non-existent. However, if disenfranchising segments of the electorate is a ‘matter of principle’, then this shines an interesting light on the Government’s view of who should and should not be allowed to vote.
The feedback and statistics from the pilot suggest that preventing people from voting in this way will have a far bigger impact on election results than current alleged fraud does. A concern which has been echoed by the Electoral Reform Society who state the measures may potentially indicate an attempt by the Government to deter some citizens from voting.
This alongside the UK Statistics authority condemnation of the Government for misleading the public gives weight to the argument that they are pursuing this scheme to alter the course of future elections through voter suppression as opposed to trying to prevent a crime which is far from rife in our society.
All of this leads me to believe that instead of being a 'practical policy' the Government's Voter ID scheme is better represented as 'political tactics' to disenfranchise voters.
The Justice Committee this morning published the ‘Small claims limit for personal injury’ Report which makes very clear criticism of the Government’s Civil Liability Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords.
The Report makes strident criticism of the Bill and concludes that:
• The Government should not proceed with it’s plans to increase small claims limit to £5000 for road traffic accidents and £2000 for employer’s liability and public liability claims.
• Small claims limits should only rise in line with inflation since 1999 to £1500. The Government have not set out a compelling case for a further increase and the Committee is extremely concerned this could impede access to justice.
• Proposed online claim systems should not be extended to employer’s liability and public liability cases due to their complex nature.
The Civil Liability Bill which, on the face of it seeks to tackle the issue of an increase in the number of whiplash claims in the UK, will actually take away the right to free legal advice from hundreds of thousands of people injured at work or on the roads every year whose claims have nothing to do with whiplash.
Currently, anyone in England and Wales who are injured in a workplace accident or on the road and whose injuries are worth more than £1,000 can claim back the cost of getting legal help to advise them on a possible claim. The rationale for injured people having their legal help funded by the guilty party is that the relationship between the injured and the defendant is ‘asymmetrical’; it isn’t one of equals. On the one hand, you have an injured person who has (hopefully for them) never made a claim before and on the other a well-funded insurer who knows the ropes.
The hidden agenda behind the Bill is for the Government to use powers that aren’t on the face of the Bill to increase the small claims limit by 400% from £1,000 to £5,000 for all road traffic accident cases and by 100% from £1,000 to £2,000 for all other cases, including accidents at work. Those powers lie completely outside of Parliament’s usual procedures for scrutinising changes to statutory rules and regulations.
£2,000 is a lot of money for most workers, let alone £5,000, yet the Government think it’s OK to leave people injured through no fault of their own to fight well-funded insurers by themselves. The Justice Committees Report begs to differ.
It is revealing that in Scotland the decision was made in 2014 to exclude personal injury claims from their equivalent of the small claims track altogether precisely because of concerns about inequality of arms between the parties. Noticeably Lord Keen of Elie QC Advocate General for Scotland who is steering the Bill through the Lords for the Government failed to answer direct questions on the Scottish exception that came from, amongst others, Baroness Berridge on his own backbench.
It is estimated that up to a million people every year would be left on their own and trade union legal services, which provide an important route to redressing wrongs for injured members, will be undermined if the Bill goes ahead. From the person injured at work who could have lost several months’ pay to cyclists, pedestrians and even children, the injured will be left to fight a legal battle they don’t understand, and financially cannot afford, against those who do and can.
The government is claiming the Bill will reduce ‘fraudulent’ claims. However, there is no independent evidence of a problem of fraud from people injured on the roads – in fact, the only statistics on fraud come from the insurers themselves. If there really was a problem with fraud why do insurers concede that they paid out in 99% of all road traffic claims last year? I simply don’t buy the weak line proffered by insurers (and parroted by the Government in the Bill’s Impact Assessment) that they must pay out because it would be un-economic to fight fraudulent claims.
The way society deals with those who break the law (in this case alleged fraud) is to prosecute and punish. This Bill doesn’t stop fraud, it allows potential fraudsters to continue whilst taking away free legal advice and introducing lower compensation for those who are law abiding.
Additionally, what have people injured at work who will be hugely affected by this got to do with fraud? The answer is nothing, as neither the Government nor the insurance industry suggests there is any problem with fraud by people injured at work.
The Government isn’t making a lot of noise about the admission in the Bill’s impact assessment that the changes will take £6m every year from the NHS and £140m every year from the taxpayer, while generously providing an extra £1.3 billion profit every year to the insurers.
The ‘sweetener’ the government is keen to talk about is premium savings for motorists. The ‘savings’ have fluctuated, first they were £50, then they were ‘about £40’ and in the latest Queen’s Speech they were ‘about £35’.
Interestingly we have been here before – insurers made promises to reduce premiums in 2012 when the Government delivered on changes the insurers lobbied for - and since then (on the Association British Insurers’ own figures) claims costs have fallen by 42%, the insurers have saved over £11 billion yet motor insurance premiums are higher now than ever (along with record profits and CEO salaries).
Insurers cannot be trusted to pass on savings to motorists. They have broken previous similar promises and the Government has gone on record in connection with this Bill to say that they won’t force insurers to do so.
The Justice Committee Report expresses deep misgivings about where the Government is going with this Bill. To me this appears to be a stitch-up between the insurers and Government, ramping up fears of a “compensation culture” in whiplash injuries to distract people from the Government’s true intentions: to attack access to justice for all injured people, including workers and to pass billions onto the insurance industry.
2018 is a very significant year in the gender equality calendar. It marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law, which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time; 100 years since women aged over 21 had the right to stand for election as an MP; and 90 years since all women were given electoral equality with men.
We have come a long way in terms of gender equality in the last 100 years, and Lewisham too has played it’s part in history. In the 1970s, Lewisham was the first Council in the country to set up a committee for women’s rights. This group was called the ‘Lewisham Women's Rights Working Group’ and worked to look at the disparity in women’s pay and roles in the council and constructed policy to address these issues. It is credit to this group that to this day Lewisham Council has a negative gender pay gap and a senior management team that is majority female. In addition to this, I feel immensely privileged to be one of the three female MPs who represent our Borough.
For me, all of these advances were beautifully symbolized at the end of April by the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square. I was lucky enough to be in the audience witnessing the first female to be represented on the square, joining the other 11 male statues. Millicent was the suffragist who dedicated 62 years of her life campaigning for women’s right to vote. She began in 1866 aged 19 collecting signatures for a petition. In 1867 she helped set up the first suffrage society and undertook her first speaking tour aged just 22, at a time when women rarely spoke in public.
By 1897 suffrage societies across the UK came together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which she became President of in 1907. In 1917 she led a delegation to Parliament and negotiated the amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which led to some women getting the right to vote and she continued campaigning until full equal voting rights were finally won in 1928.
Millicent’s story is one of absolute courage. To do what she did in the face of a society where everything belonged to men, including women, is remarkable. It is therefore fitting that adorned on her statue is the phrase “Courage calls to courage everywhere”, a line from her speech attesting to the bravery of Emily Davison, who died in the fight to get women the vote.
We have achieved so much since women first won the right to vote but gender inequality still persists, particularly in the workplace. The gender pay gap scandal is evidence of this. It is absurd that to this day a woman doing the same job as a man can be paid less. There are measures that the Government could take to help change this, such as proper paid paternity leave, making flexible working the norm rather than the exception and better funded childcare. However, culture takes a long time to change, and without the courage to challenge it, culture will remain as it is.
Therefore, as we celebrate this centenary we should remember Millicent’s words “courage calls to courage everywhere” and let them remind us of Millicent’s bravery and use them to inspire the next generation to stand up and challenge embedded gender inequality so that one day we can achieve equal representation and equal power for women in all their diversity.
In this weeks PMQ's I challenged the Prime Minister over Government cuts to the Metropolitan Police (Met) and the recent rise of violent crime in London.
Violent crime has recently surged across the capital. Statistics from the Met show that between July 2016 – July 2017 knife crime increased by 34% and gun crime by 37% compared to the previous year.
This has occurred whilst the Government has made significant cuts to the Met. Since 2010 the Met’s budget has been reduced by £600 million and even after a rise in the council tax precept, a further £325 million worth of savings have to be found by 2021.
These cuts have already led to the loss of 30 per cent of police staff, 65 per cent of police community support officers, 120 police buildings and most of the capital’s police station front counters.
The Home Secretary has stated there is no evidence to suggest a lack of resources is influencing violent crime. However, recent leaked Home Office documents claim the cuts have “likely contributed” to the rise in violent crime.
This all comes amidst the news at the beginning of the month that six people had been stabbed in four separate attacks across the capitol within a 90-minute window. The total number of suspected murders in London this year is 60.
Addressing this, I warned that cuts so far have reduced the Met’s operational capability and that further cuts will only make tackling violent crime more difficult. Sentiments which have further been expressed by Cressida Dick the Met commissioner.
I pay tribute to all those within the Met who work so hard to keep our streets safe. But cuts so far have made it harder for the Met to operate effectively and as such we have seen a surge in violent crime. Further cuts will only make an already difficult operating environment that much harder.
As part of Labour's front bench International Development team, I am proud that this week, our shadow Secretary of State, Kate Osamor launched Labour’s new vision for International Development.
In our policy paper, ‘A World For The Many, Not The Few’, we set out Labour's plan for tackling the root causes of global poverty, inequality and climate change. Our paper also commits to setting a second twin goal for all international development spending: not only reducing poverty, but also, for the first time, fighting inequality.
Inequality is the challenge of our generation and it is getting worse, over 75% of people in the global South are living in societies in which income is more unequally distributed today than it was in the 1990s. In virtually every city and country around the world, extreme wealth and poverty now co-exist side by side.
This growing inequality and widespread poverty combined with climate change is already subjecting millions of people to unacceptable living conditions bereft of opportunity. We can’t stand by and let this happen. The UK must play its part in helping tackle the root causes of these global crises and not just addressing their symptoms, which is the Governments current approach.
Our specific policies to help do this include:
You can read the full paper here.
I am very proud to be part of this plan led by our Shadow Secretary of State, Kate Osamor. However, if we truly want to tackle these global crises, we need to take drastic action. At present, this is not happening, only a Labour Government is offering a vision to do this.
In this week’s Prime Ministers Questions I questioned Theresa May over cuts to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
I raised the issue of long waiting times and the referral process children have to go through in order to receive treatment and questioned the Prime Minister on Government cuts, including a 5% reduction to Lewisham CAHMS, which will only make matters worse.
Theresa May responded saying “we're clear that we want to see parity of esteem between mental health and physical health in the National Health Service”.
Despite the Government signalling their wish to emphasise the importance of mental health, their current approach and proposals do not amount to meaningful long-term action.
40% of NHS trusts saw cuts to mental health budgets in 2015/16 and NHS underfunding has lead to money intended for mental health being used to plug funding gaps in the wider NHS. Furthermore, since 2010, there are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses in the NHS.
All of this has meant CAMHS are struggling to meet demand. Almost one in four children and young people referred for treatment are turned away and the referrals that are accepted can be subject to a postcode lottery of waiting times, which can be up to six months for a first appointment and up to eighteen months for the start of treatment.
If we want to truly tackle this issue we need to stay true to our words and fund it properly. See my question to the Prime Minister in the video below:
This is not the first-time I have raised cuts to CAMHS in Parliament. In February, I questioned the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, on referral & treatment times:
I also questioned the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, over the possibility of reversing the Government cuts:
At the beginning of March, I also questioned the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Steve Brine, over inadequacies in the Government’s Green Paper on ‘Transforming Children and Young People's Mental Health Provision’:
Last Thursday marked International Women’s Day and this year was particularly significant as we are also celebrating the centenary of some women getting the right to vote. We have come a long way in terms of gender equality since then, the Borough of Lewisham being entirely represented by female MP’s demonstrating this. However, despite this and other advances, gender inequality still persists and particularly so in the workplace.
Before being elected to Parliament I worked as an employment rights lawyer. During this period, I encountered countless examples of women being demoted or dismissed after returning from maternity leave, employers placing unnecessary barriers on staff for flexible working and women being paid less than men for doing work of equal value.
These issues are so pervasive in our working environments that I started my own legal business providing affordable legal advice to women facing maternity and sex discrimination at work. I wish that there was no demand for a business such as this, but there was and this is borne out by the statistics.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 women a year are being forced to leave their jobs simply for becoming a mum and that 77% of mothers surveyed said they had a negative or discriminatory experience before, during or after their maternity leave. As it stands today the gender pay gap in this country is 18.4% and at the current rate of progress, it will take another 100 years to close this gap. This is not acceptable.
To remedy this a cultural shift in the workplace is needed whereby stereotypes regarding women being a burden on business and the assumption that they alone will be responsible for childcare duties are ended. This can in part be achieved through policy such as the introduction of properly paid paternity leave paid at a rate closer to actual earnings and flexible working becoming the norm so that families can better juggle their work-life balances and ensure that having children doesn’t diminish prospects at work.
Additionally, it should be harder for women to be made redundant after their maternity leave. Although women have some protection against redundancy when they are pregnant and whilst on maternity leave, the protected period ends once the mother returns to work. However, it is very often exactly at this point, that women begin to feel pushed out. Therefore, the period of protection against redundancy should be extended to 12 months after a woman returns to work.
I am proud that the Labour Party recently announced its new plan to help tackle the gender pay gap. The policy requires all organisations that employ over 250 staff to audit their gender pay gaps and further prove that they are taking action to close the gap or otherwise face a fine from the Government. I welcome this proposal as if employers risk losing money, they will be more likely to comply with their legal obligations.
We have achieved so much since women first won the right to vote but if we truly want to achieve gender equality at work then we must end the gender pay gap, make flexible working the norm and promote shared caring responsibilities. I raised these points in last week’s Parliamentary debate for International Women’s Day (see video below). However, as the suffragettes said 100 years ago, we need “deeds not words”. Current policies are providing slow, incremental progress at best; we need to implement transformative policy, otherwise true gender equality will be another century away.
As I said before the election, I respect the fact that Britain voted to leave the EU – despite having been desperately disappointed at the result of the 2016 referendum. However, I am immensely concerned about the potential for a chaotic Brexit to harm our economy and make lives harder for working people across the country.
The Bill, which has now completed all stages in the House of Commons, should be about Parliament's role in the withdrawal process and how we ensure that our legal system is maintained and that vital rights and protections are safeguarded as we leave the EU.
As it currently stands, I do not believe that this Bill is fully fit for purpose. It would still put huge and unaccountable power into the hands of Ministers, side-line Parliament and the devolved administrations, and put crucial rights and protections at risk. I have therefore supported several amendments designed to repair and remove its worst aspects.
These included amendments to restrict the use of "Henry VIII" powers, to protect workers' rights, safeguard environmental and animal welfare standards, ensure devolved governments are not side-lined, legislate for strong transitional arrangements, and to bring the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law.
I tabled my own amendment, NC79, which was debated in the House. The New Clause sought to ensure that both women’s rights and the rights of workers and employees with caring responsibilities would be no worse after Brexit than had Britain remained a member of the EU. I also voted in favour of Chris Leslie’s NC13, which would have kept open the option for the United Kingdom to stay in the customs union.
Disappointingly, the Government rejected these amendments. However, I voted in favour of Amendment 7 which aimed to give Parliament, not the Government, a final say on the Brexit deal and I was very pleased that we managed to defeat them in this vote on December 13th and the Amendment has been added to the Bill.
The Bill will now undergo scrutiny in the House of Lords and I am hopeful that it may return to the Commons with further amendments. I can assure you that I, as pledged during the General Election, will continue to fight for a Brexit deal that protects jobs, the economy and rights for all.
My amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill was debated last week in the House of Commons. The amendment (NC79) sought to ensure that both women’s rights and the rights of workers and employees with caring responsibilities are no worse after Brexit than had Britain remained a member of the EU. The clause would enforce this by ensuring that Parliament is informed, after Brexit, if the EU provides any new rights that would have applied to Britons if the UK was still an EU member, and commits the Government to consider their implementation.
The EU has a strong history of developing employment and gender rights since the 1970s. There is a fear however, that Brexit could undermine four decades of progress. The Fawcett Society has previously said that while the Equality Act 2010 has achieved a great deal in terms of protecting women’s rights, it is essential that EU derived legislation and cooperation are safeguarded post-Brexit, given prevalence of gender inequality, discrimination and the gender pay gap.
New EU legislation is proposed on issues such as pay for parental & carers leave and measures to support women’s participation in labour markets leaving scope for the UK to fall behind. It is vital that we do not fall behind the EU in the years ahead. People voted to leave the EU for many varied reasons but they didn’t vote to be worse off. Our laws on this matter must be no less favourable than they would have been had the UK remained a member of the EU.
Unfortunately the Tories voted against my new clause and as such will not be included in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Nevertheless I am extremely grateful to the 295 MPs who voted for it, especially those that added their name to the clause & that helped me navigate the process.
Earlier this month I hosted a loneliness summit in the constituency as part of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. I brought together local parents and organisations to talk about parental loneliness and how we can tackle it. Experiencing isolation in the early months of parenthood, especially among new mothers, is an issue which has previously been often overlooked but has a huge impact on large numbers of people.
Research by Mush (a mobile app which helps connect mums) found that 50% of new parents leave their house only twice a week and 25% of parents leave only once a week and a recent survey by Action for Children found that 52% of parent’s experience loneliness. The survey of 2000 people found that the majority felt cut off from friends, colleagues and family after the birth of a child. In terms of the causes of loneliness, many cited lack of money and the inability to leave the house when caring for small children, leaving them feeling isolated.
In Parliament two weeks ago I spoke about my own experience suffering from loneliness after I became a mum. For me, the shift from having a busy job and a good social life - to being at home every day with a lot of time to suddenly fill and little structure, was quite a shock. After my maternity leave finished I started working from home and I could sometimes go for days without having a proper conversation with another adult. It became a vicious circle where the more isolated I became, the harder I found it to go out. You can se my speech in the video below.
At my loneliness summit, hearing about all the work being done to combat isolation was encouraging. From the Red Cross ‘Connecting Communities’ service to Mush - a mobile app which helps connect local mums. We also heard about the work of local children’s centres, Bromley & Lewisham Minds ‘Mindful Mums’ sessions (free groups for mums to build mental resilience) & Mummy’s Gin Fund (an online parenting community).
However, what was most clear from our discussion was the impact reduced NHS funding is having on Health Visitor and midwifery services. Health visitors and midwives play a vital role in supporting families with the physical health of their new child as well as the mental health of the parents. The mums who attended the summit told me that families rarely receive a continuous dedicated visitor and while the service is great at identifying mental health issues such as loneliness & post-natal depression, they often lack the resources to follow through and treat these issues. Mums also told me about the limited support available for breastfeeding.
Worryingly, the Health Visiting services were recently cut from Beckenham Beacon, leaving limited support for new parents in that area. I met with Bromley Council recently to raise my concerns about this and to ask for a new service to be provided locally. I am pleased to say that a new Health Advice Clinic will start at the Neighbourhood church on Cromwell Road on 30th November. I hope that this means more parents will be able to access support, as well as reducing the strain on the Health Visiting services at nearby Community Vision in Penge.
However, what is clear is that more funding is needed for these vital services to ensure that new parents get the help and support that they need – a big factor in tackling parental loneliness.
I will continue to fight for good local services and confront the challenge and stigma of loneliness. It is fantastic that awareness of parental loneliness has grown, helping parents to know it is ok to say they feel lonely and to ask for help. However, it is vital that services are properly funded so that when parents do ask for help, the services and resources are there.