Recent figures from End Hunger UK indicate that over one in ten adults and almost one in four parents with children under the age of 18 have skipped a meal because of a lack of money. The Trussell Trust has also recorded that food bank usage across the UK is at a record high with a 13% increase in 2017-18 compared to the previous year.
These statistics are shocking, and I believe It is shameful that in the world’s fifth largest economy a vast section of society is experiencing food poverty. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. But increasingly benefits are unable to cover essential living costs and issues with payments remain one of the most common reasons for referral to a foodbank.
For example, the minimum five weeks wait for a first Universal Credit (UC) payment, experienced by those moving onto the benefits system, has dramatically fuelled food bank use increases. The problem doesn’t end there. On average, 12 months after UC rollout, Trussell Trust foodbanks saw a 52% increase in demand.
UC was intended to lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, the programme has been used as a vehicle for this Government’s appalling austerity agenda. I have previously called for the Government to scrap its rollout of UC in Parliament for this very reason however, this has fallen on deaf ears. But the impacts cannot be ignored for much longer.
In the week before Christmas my local foodbank in Penge gave out over 300 food parcels. It’s outrageous that at a time of year when most people are celebrating, Tory austerity has meant that many are having to rely on foodbanks. On my return to Parliament this month I called for an urgent debate on the impact Tory austerity has had on food bank usage and food poverty across the UK. Unsurprisingly my question was evaded.
The small consolation on this issue is the generosity of our community. The Penge foodbank and our nearest Trussell Trust foodbank in Lewisham receive so many donations that they struggle to find space to accommodate it all. After liaising with our local Trussell Trust and Lewisham Council on this matter I am pleased to say that Lewisham have been able to find the Trussell Trust some free Council space to help store this surplus. I am still making representations to Bromley Council on this issue for the Penge foodbank.
We need to do everything in our power to address this shameful increase in food poverty across the UK. A start would be for the Government to ensure benefits payments reflect the cost of living and to reduce the waiting time for UC payments. However, ultimately the Government needs to stop the rollout of UC and deliver a social security system that supports people rather than one that pushes many into poverty.
The tragic event on Samos Road at the beginning of November shocked us all. Ayodeji Habeeb Azeez was just 22 when he was murdered in broad daylight, a year on from the murder of teenager Michael Jonas which shook the community back in 2017. I am sure that I speak on the whole community’s behalf when I say our thoughts are with the families of Ayodeji and Michael.
Despite this tragic incident I would like to say how heartened I have been by the community’s response. In the face of such terrible circumstances the community has come together and worked so hard to rebuild that sense of society which was lost.
Firstly, I wish to thank the Samos Road community for organising a flower planting on Samos Road in memory of Ayodeji, I was very honoured to attend. And secondly, I wish to thank Louise Knox and the Stewart Fleming Primary school for hosting a community coffee morning and bulb planting with pupils, residents, the local police, Councillor Ian Dunn and myself.
However, despite the community’s fantastic work, the point remains, these murders should never have occurred in the first place and this crisis in youth violence must end.
Following on from the murder I had meetings with the police, councillors and community leaders and I raised the incident in Parliament. In my question I called on the government to recognise the knife crime crisis, end police cuts and put in place a proper plan to combat this, see here.
I also had a meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss this. However, tackling youth violence is not just about the police - we need a public health approach that joins up health, education, youth services, the home office and the justice system. Sadly, ever since 2010 these services have seen some of the most devastating cuts.
If we are truly going to tackle this, then we need a public health approach that joins up these services and adequately funds them. I spoke at length on this in Parliament and called on the government to adopt this proposal, see here.
Ultimately, we cannot bring back those we have already lost but we can act to prevent more from losing their lives. We can help prevent our vulnerable young people from turning to crime. And we can offer them, aspiration and a stake in our society. All that is needed is the funding and political will to do this.
When the Government’s shambolic handling of the Brexit process has led us to a position that cannot even satisfy their own ministers, we must look at all options that will help us avoid entering a further period of long and protracted political deadlock.
Theresa May and her Brexit plan is currently at the behest of the rampant Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Any Brexit craved by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his friends is not one that I could ever be comfortable with.
I respect the outcome of the 2016 poll, but it does not mean that we must blindly accept the Government’s approach or their draft agreement. The people need to be given their voice again.
The political landscape has changed drastically since the referendum and it becomes excruciatingly apparent with every week we come closer to exit day that the promises made to the British public during the campaign are far from the reality of today.
Nobody voted for a Brexit that will see Britain giving away control and leaving people poorer. Whether it’s a no deal or this terrible deal, the result would be the same: a miserable Brexit for the UK threatening business confidence, our NHS and the future of young people.
It’s only going to get worse with the biggest issues unresolved while we follow rules over which we will no longer have any say – and suffer long term damage to our economy.
Unsurprisingly, the draft withdrawal agreement presented to Cabinet has been met with a chorus of criticism from both sides of the Brexit divide and even the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has resigned, the second in four months.
I have previously vowed to not support any form of Brexit that would be detrimental to my constituents. London voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the European Union and in Lewisham West and Penge this was by a factor of 2 to 1.
A bad deal would be devastating for London. Analysis has shown a no-deal Brexit could see 87,000 jobs go in London alone and the capital’s economic output 2% lower in 2030 than what would be expected under a softer Brexit. This is the harsh reality we now face.
The June 2016 referendum was the biggest democratic exercise in our nation’s history. The only way we can resolve the democratic conundrum and political deadlock of the Brexit process is to go back to the people once more.
By calling for a People’s Vote, I believe the electors should again be extended their democratic right to have their say in the make-up of our future relationship with the European Union with an option to remain.
This vote should not be thought of as running the referendum again, but what we now face is something that wasn’t on the ballot paper in 2016.
The negotiations have been both chaotic and shambolic and the promises of that campaign are a distant memory. We find ourselves at a defining juncture in our history and it is only fair that the people decide on what comes next.
On Tuesday the Civil Liability Bill will enter its remaining stages in the House of Commons. My Labour colleagues and I have continually warned that the implementation of the Government’s package of measures, formulated under the auspices of tackling whiplash fraud and reforming personal injury claims, will leave deep and long-lasting damage on access to justice.
The Bill, which passed Committee stage in September with minor amendments, will see widespread changes to damages for whiplash injuries by replacing the established Judicial Studies Board guidelines with a rigid tariff system - injured claimants could receive up to 87% less.
The Bill is coupled with increases in the small claims limit from £1,000 to £2,000 in all personal injury claims and from £1,000 to £5,000 in all road traffic injury cases, meaning thousands of injured people could fall out of scope for free legal advice and representation and could be potentially denied justice. This is because costs are not recoverable from the losing party in the small claims court so injured people will either have to pay their legal costs themselves, which can often be expensive, or forego legal assistance altogether.
Whilst genuinely injured people will find it harder to access justice, insurance companies are predicted to save £1.3 billion a year because of these changes. Ahead of the debate at Second Reading, both in correspondence to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee and in response to the Committee’s report on the small claims limit, the Government pledged to bring in an amendment that would mean these savings are passed on to customers.
Yet what we were presented with was little more than a fudge. The Government came forward with an amendment which merely requires insurers to supply information about the effect of the enactment of the legislation, rather than any onus on them to pass on the billions worth of savings. It has become increasingly apparently that this Bill is solely for the benefit of the insurance industry.
The changes made at committee stage have done nothing to address the very real worry that the combined implementation of the Civil Liability Bill and forthcoming adjustments to the small claims limit is predicted to see around 350,000 injured people put off pursuing a claim for an injury that was not their fault. Access to justice should not be considered a luxury yet with the introduction of this package of measures that is precisely what it is fast becoming.
We should be working to strengthen access to justice for people up and down the country, not curbing it. All these measures do is prop up the balance sheets for the insurance companies, yet consumers will see little to no change in their premiums and it will become more and more difficult to pursue a claim and to access justice.
The Bill and its appendages are flawed and damaging. The Tories abysmal record on access to justice will only get worse and the lessons of LASPO or employment tribunal fees have not been heeded. It is becoming patently obvious that the enactment of this Bill will see access to justice eviscerated for many. It is surely time to think again.
Since being elected as an MP over a year ago I have consistently received reports from constituents that waiting times for children and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) referrals are in excess of nine months. This is totally unacceptable and a recent report by the Charity YoungMinds found that 76% of those waiting became more unwell during this time.
Moreover, it has been estimated that only one in four children & young people who require help for mental health issues actually obtain access to CAMHS services. This limited access would not be tolerated in the acute sector so why has it been allowed to happen for mental health and especially for the mental health of our children?
Despite the best efforts of NHS staff CAMHS services are struggling to meet rising demand. Around one in ten children have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet just 8% of the total NHS mental health budget is spent on CAMHS. Meanwhile, the Government’s austerity agenda has meant that more than 60% of NHS trusts saw cuts to mental health budgets between 2011/12 and 2016/17 and further underfunding has lead to money intended for mental health being used to plug funding gaps in the wider NHS.
South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM), which provides mental health services in our area have been required to make savings of £70m in the last 2 years, with an additional £16.4m to be saved in 2018/19. Despite this, both Lewisham Council and Lewisham CCG have agreed not to reduce funding for their CAMHS services for 2018-19. But this still does not mean they have adequate funds to operate.
As it stands just 0.7% of the total NHS budget is spent on CAMHS, yet referrals increasing by two-thirds and unacceptably long waiting times show that CAMHS needs more funding. This is something I have consistently raised in Parliament, challenging the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury on. To date, I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.
This lack of commitment to resolving the issue has lead the Governors of SLaM, myself and fellow South London MPs to send a joint letter to the Health Secretary calling on the Government to commit the necessary funding to mental health and specifically CAMHS services in South East London. We await the Health Secretary’s response.
If the Government is to be taken seriously on this issue then they must ensure waiting times for treatment become minimal and that supply is apace with demand, all of which require just funding. Our children are our future and if we do not commit to looking after their mental health now we could potentially be allowing for far larger problems to develop later on in their lives.
Access to justice for all is something which we have prided ourselves on for generations. It forms part of our legal fabric and democratic values. Yet under this Government access to justice is fast becoming a luxury of the few.
The Civil Liability Bill currently navigating its way through the Commons forms part of the latest package of measures which would see widespread changes made to claims for whiplash and personal injury.
At Second Reading on Tuesday 4th September, I outlined how changes implemented by the Bill, such as the measures to replace Judicial Studies Board guidelines with a rigid tariff system will see genuinely injured claimants receive up to 87% less.
The Government would have us believe that we are in the midst of a compensation culture epidemic, but this Bill would do no more than to shore up the profits of insurance companies, currently calculated to be over £1bn per year as a result of the package of measures the Government have brought forward.
The Bill, at present, contains no mechanism to pass on these savings to customers through their premiums, and suggestions from Ministers that they will bring forward an amendment on this is merely an afterthought in their latest ideological attack on the justice system.
Of course, fraudulent claims are wrong but to paint all injured claimants with broad brushstrokes is deeply misguided and one which will severely inhibit access to justice. Insurance industry data has shown that in 2016, 0.17% of all motor claims were proven to be fraudulent; a fall from the 0.25% recorded in 2015.
If the Government are intent on fraud reduction, they should not let the genuinely injured suffer and I welcome the amendments being prepared by my Labour colleagues which will seek to heavily alter the Bill at Committee stage.
We must remember that Tory governments have a horrendous recent track record on legal issues and in the ten years from 2010 to 2020, Ministry of Justice funding will see a real-terms cut of 40%.
The Government were warned at the time of proceeding with LASPO that it would severely impact access to justice, but its effects have gone further and deeper than was ever intended, with the number of civil legal aid matters initiated falling by 84% between 2010 and 2017.
The changes to employment tribunal fees brought in under another Tory Lord Chancellor, which have since been found to be unlawful, caused a 68% fall in the number of single cases received per quarter between October 2013 and June 2017.
The Civil Liability Bill and secondary legislation changes to the small claims limit is predicted to see around 350,000 injured people put off pursuing a claim for an injury that was not their fault.
Access to justice underpins so much within our society. It cannot be banded around and dismissed with the cavalier attitude that is currently shown by this Government. The Civil Liability Bill will see a regression in the ability of genuinely injured people to seek compensation and justice for their injuries.
This cannot be right, and we must not find ourselves deeper in a rabbit warren of legal advice vacuums and stories aplenty of access to justice denied as a result of this Government’s flawed package of measures.
Last Friday the Government announced that it will terminate its contracts with companies that run probation services two years earlier than planned.
Ever since their inception in 2015, privately run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) have completely failed those they were set up to serve and their failures have also come at an immense cost to the taxpayer.
Just last year the Government had to bailout the service by £342 million and the redrawing of these existing contracts will cost the government a further £170m.
In addition to this, 71% of fines made to the companies by the Ministry of Justice for poor performance have been waived to help keep these companies afloat.
The decision to privatise this service was made by the coalition Government following on from the 2013 “Transforming Rehabilitation” (TR) consultation.
The service was split in 2015 into the national probation service, which is public and deals with high-risk offenders, and the outsourced, private community rehabilitation companies, which work with medium and low-risk offenders.
The reasoning behind this split was an aim to make it easier to reduce prisoner re-offending rates. Whilst the number of people re-offending has reduced slightly, those that do re-offend are committing crimes much more frequently.
Yet, the Justice Committee, of which I am a member, recently produced a report on the TR reforms which found that they are not meeting the then Government’s aims.
The report states: “We are unconvinced that as things stand the TR model can ever deliver an effective or viable probation service.”
This was evidenced by the fact that by the end of June 2017, CRCs had met an average of just eight of the 24 targets set under their contracts, with the worst-performing CRC meeting only four.
This consultation was not just about rehabilitation, but also about protecting the public—a linchpin of any justice system.
However, in a recent BBC Panorama documentary, the Chief Inspector of Probation stated that she could not say for certain that every private probation company was managing to protect the public as well as it should.
In its investigation, Panorama spoke to an offender who was released from a short sentence in May. He said that he had not met his probation officer for almost a month after release, in the past, he knew exactly who his probation officer was, but now it was hard to tell.
The documentary went on to reveal that one CRC covering London had a record of 15,000 appointments being missed by offenders over a 16-month period. A whistle-blower from this company said that CRCs are employing fewer staff, so individual members of staff have higher caseloads.
The whistle-blower also said that staff were instructed by the CRC to alter records, so that missed appointments were wiped if they were more than two weeks old.
Probation is ultimately a caring profession and it should be viewed as being a bit like teaching or social work. However, it is clear that those who work within the service are being hugely let down by privatised and profit-driven CRCs.
This profit motive has turned the service into a tick-box exercise, but it is not a profession that should be driven by such targets; it requires a well-rounded approach centred on individuals and their needs, not—as we see all too often—on offenders’ ability to provide profits to the CRC.
It is clear that the privatisation of probation services has failed, and the overarching point, which repeats itself time and again, is that this is yet another example of Government-led privatisation that has gone wrong.
The original arrangement and subsequent contracts were not fit for purpose in the first place, and what we are left with is a system driven by the ideological desire to privatise key elements of our justice system and defend the cause even when it evidently fails.
There are some institutions which when the profit motive is the guiding principle behind the actions, the service stops functioning for what it was set out to do. The probation system is one such service and it is an affront to our justice system that this Government have let this happen.
The Government’s announcement to terminate its contracts two years early is further evidence of this privatisation failure.
It is now time, once and for all, to bring the failed schemes back under public control, so that we can get to the root causes of re-offending and provide rehabilitation services that are fit for purpose.
As chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Backbench Justice Group, I hosted a meeting on the Government’s Civil Liability Bill ahead of its return to the Commons which if passed, I believe, would be detrimental for access to justice.
On the face of it, the Civil Liability Bill’s target is to reduce the number or fraudulent whiplash claims which the Government believe represents an ‘out of control compensation culture’.
However, the whiplash case has been used as a smokescreen to mask a more insidious measure. The Bill, as it currently stands, will take away the right to free legal advice for hundreds of thousands of people injured at work or on the roads every year whose claims have nothing to do with whiplash.
Although not on the face of the Bill, the proposed increase in the small claims limit would see the limit raised from £1,000 to £5,000 for road traffic accident-related personal injury claims and from £1,000 to £2,000 for other personal injury claims.
Below these proposed limits, the injured claimant will have to either fight their case themselves or pay for a lawyer out of compensation meant to be for their injuries and their losses. This means that even if a claimant’s case is successful they will generally not be able to recover their legal costs and therefore not receive the full compensation they need to secure their immediate future.
Around 40% of cases are below these proposed limits which would mean leaving up to 500,000 people a year without the free legal cover they are entitled to. I believe this is an active assault on our access to justice.
Firstly, this undermines the longstanding legal principle that the guilty party pays and thus unfairly leaves victims liable for greater legal costs.
Secondly, the idea that people will have to represent themselves is absurd. The pain and trauma of an accident will make it extremely unlikely that the victim will then take on the further stress and burden of pursuing a claim without legal representation.
This is backed up by a survey conducted by Unison which found that 63% of members surveyed stated that they “would not have proceeded or been at all confident to bring their claim without legal representation”.
Even if defendants were to pursue their case without representation, the already overburdened civil court system would likely be unable to cope with the number of injured people attempting to run their own cases. Despite this, the Government believes that 75% of cases will be run by injured people on their own, without legal support.
However, when similar fees were introduced for Employment Tribunals there was a 90% decline in the number of workers pursuing a claim and the fees were later ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. This leads me to believe a similar decline in cases would occur should this Bill pass.
All in all, the Government seems to believe these measures will be combating an ‘out of control compensation culture’ but I feel this is unfair; is it not the responsibility of the insurers themselves to combat fraudulent claims? If they think a claim is fraudulent then they shouldn’t pay out, it’s as simple as that.
However, it would seem that instead of taking responsibility and resolving this themselves the insurance industry are in cahoots with the Tories to hit out against all injury victims, including those at work which whiplash has nothing to do with.
But for the insurance industry there is good reason to do this. An impact assessment on the Bill suggests the increase in the small claims limit means insurers will get an extra £1.3 billion a year. This figure includes saving £6m worth of pay-outs to the NHS and £140m worth of pay-outs to the Treasury every year.
The recent Justice Committee Report on this matter expressed deep misgivings about where the Government is going with this Bill. It stated that the Government had not set out a compelling case for a further increase in the limits and that the Committee is extremely concerned that any rise could seriously impede access to justice.
I wholeheartedly agree with these conclusions and adamantly oppose the Government’s plans. In our Backbench Justice Group meeting, it was heartening to see the strength of opposition to these proposals from the Shadow Justice team, Thompsons Solicitors and Usdaw.
I have tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to postpone their current plans for raising the small claims limit. We now need to win over support across the House to draw further attention to these damaging proposals.
If they pass, this will severely degrade access to justice and will be direct evidence of the Tories favouring the few in the insurance industry over the many who rely on these measures to receive justice.
On 5 June 2018, the Government presented its final proposal for an airports national policy statement (NPS), which outlined its support for plans to deliver a new runway at Heathrow, with a target date of 2026.
The Opposition has always argued that any airport expansion must meet four tests - that it can effectively deliver on capacity demands, that noise and air quality issues are fully addressed, that the UK's climate change obligations are met in full and that growth across the country is supported. I believe we owe it to future generations to ensure that these factors are dealt with in exactly the right way.
Whilst I recognise the need for additional airport capacity in the south east of England, after careful consideration, I do not believe that these tests have been met. I am of the opinion that Heathrow expansion is incompatible with environmental targets and cannot be achieved without unacceptable impacts on local residents.
I believe that we must support vital investment in our country's transport infrastructure, but every investment must be tested on whether it provides real value for money and sustainability. Unfortunately, I believe that a third runway at Heathrow fails this test.
Although I voted against the National Policy Statement on Monday 25th June, the motion was passed by 415 votes to 119.
The Lords Amendments to the EU withdrawal Bill came back to the Commons this month. I have consistently said that our future relationship with the EU must put jobs and the economy first and must therefore maintain the benefits of the Single Market. This is a firm test that I am committed to holding the Government's Brexit deal against in the future when it comes before Parliament for approval. If the Government's Brexit deal does not meet this test I will vote against it.
Unfortunately, two years on from the referendum, it is clear the Government has no plan for how it will protect jobs, standards, rights and the economy. It is for this reason that I voted in favour of the Lords Amendments including Amendment 51 to stay in the EEA. I believe that staying in the EEA will provide the best opportunity for a close future relationship with the EU and further ensure that Brexit does not lead to a race to the bottom on rights or to new barriers for UK businesses. As the frontbench position was to abstain, I have resigned from my role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. Please see my resignation letter below for my reasons.
I also supported an amendment that would have put the negotiation of a customs union with the EU back on the negotiating table as a key objective and an amendment that would have enshrined in law the commitment to preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland.
Finally, I have long believed that Parliament must be given a meaningful vote on the final terms of our exit from the EU. This is why I voted for a successful Amendment to the Bill in the Commons last December to require that the Government's proposed withdrawal deal be approved by Parliament. This month, I also voted to retain an Amendment made in the House of Lords that strengthens the terms of this meaningful vote. This will make clear that, should the Government's proposed withdrawal deal be defeated, it is for Parliament to say what happens next not the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this Amendment was not passed.