Most MPs have areas they specialise in, and I tend to concentrate on domestic matters rather than foreign policy (although Brexit is dominating everyone’s workload right now)!
But this week has seen a very heavy programme of debates in parliament on important foreign affairs. The Prime Minister made a statement on Monday on the bombing of chemical weapons sites in Syria last weekend. That was followed by a debate called by my colleague Alison McGovern MP on the wider situation in Syria. On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn called a debate on why parliament hadn’t been consulted before the bombing raids were launched.
A number of constituents have been in touch with me expressing concern that parliament was not given a say, and while the government is not legally required to hold a vote in parliament, and indeed I agree it should be able to act in pressing circumstances without the need to consult MPs, it’s hard to see why parliament could not have been recalled before action was taken last weekend. Of course, most MPs won’t have access to the full intelligence information that the government has in deciding whether to act. Some constituents have suggested that no action should have been taken until independent inspections to verify the allegations of chemical attacks by President Assad had taken place, and inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been waiting to get into Douma this week. Their entry has been delayed however, and I have to say that makes me very sceptical that they will find much evidence now – I strongly suspect the Syrian and Russian governments of taking the time to eliminate any evidence that might exist. In any case, the OPCW have no mandate to ascribe responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, but merely to assess if such attacks took place.
Other constituents have said there should have been UN approval for intervention. The problem is that Russia would undoubtedly exercise its veto at the UN Security Council to prevent this from happening, whatever justification might exist. I do not believe it can be right for the west to be stymied from taking action in the face of chemical weapons attacks, but we need much greater clarity in future about when and why we intervene, and what we seek to achieve. I therefore very much welcomed Alison’s debate, which enabled MPs to suggest a much more comprehensive, humanitarian-led strategy - albeit one in which military intervention might also play a part.
I heard the start of the Prime Minister’s statement, but had to leave before I’d had a chance to question her, because I wanted to attend the debate that was taking place at the same time in our second chamber, in Westminster Hall (you can watch the debate here). This was arranged in response to a number of petitions that have been presented to parliament on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who have faced torture, death, or been forced to flee their homes by the programme of ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Burmese government against them. In February, I presented one of the petitions on behalf of hundreds of my constituents in Stretford and Urmston, and was keen to attend the debate to convey the extent of constituents’ concerns. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are now taking refuge in camps in Bangladesh, and while the Bangladeshi government is to be commended for hosting them, it is of deep concern that attempts are now being made either to repatriate refugees back to Myanmar, or to relocate 100,000 refugees to a new island, Bhashan Char, while many are still without shelter as the monsoon season is due to start. I joined other MPs in calling on the UK government to help with the supply of aid and support to the refugees in Bangladesh, and to do all it can to ensure those responsible for the appalling brutality against the Rohingya Muslims are held to account at the International Criminal Court.
Jeremy’s debate on Tuesday was followed by a debate on antisemitism which saw powerful speeches from across the House. Very unusually, my colleagues Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth received applause for their speeches – something that’s formally out of order in parliament, but on this occasion we all wanted to show our solidary with them, and to commend them for their bravery in the face of the appalling antisemitic abuse they’ve received.
We also had an important question this week on the scandalous treatment of the so-called Windrush generation - Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK in the 1950s and 60s with every right to live and work in the UK. Shockingly, there have been reports recently that those who can’t supply evidence that they have this right have been refused NHS treatment, asked to pay for new documents, or even threatened with deportation. This is an important issue for my constituents, since many Windrush families made their first home in Old Trafford many years ago. The government has now set up a special taskforce to help them obtain documents, quickly and free of charge, but the way they’ve been treated up till now is a disgrace. If any constituent is affected by this situation or knows someone who is, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, and I will do all I can to help.
With Monday and Tuesday having been taken up with such serious and difficult issues, it was a real pleasure to welcome constituents from the Sri Guru Gobind Singh Gurdwara on Upper Chorlton Road to the Vaisakhi celebrations in parliament on Tuesday evening. I was also very glad to meet and congratulate Julie and Ian from the Lord Nelson pub in Urmston, who were in parliament to collect an award for their amazing fundraising efforts, which have raised over £62,000 for charity.
I am also glad to say that I did manage to spend some time this week on my favourite policy interests, attending a very interesting seminar on the youth justice system, and a fascinating roundtable on the different migration systems that apply in the USA, Canada, Australia and Switzerland. This gave lots of food for thought as we await the government’s proposals for the immigration system that will apply here after Brexit, when EU free movement rules would no longer apply. And also in connection with my interest in justice matters, thank you to Purple Futures, who run the community rehabilitation service in Greater Manchester, for welcoming me to your office last week. I learnt a great deal about the programmes that are in place for offenders sentenced to community penalties, and have come away with a number of questions I’ll be putting to ministers.