Parliament is in a strange state right now as we find ourselves moving inexorably towards Brexit day without a viable plan from the government in sight. This week, I’ve again been dealing with a range of non-Brexit related subjects, but Brexit is always at the back of our minds, and MPs can be found endlessly huddled in corners together, discussing possible ways ahead. My own position remains that if the Prime Minister can’t come back from Brussels with a deal that enables us to trade freely and easily with our EU neighbours, keeps the Irish border open, protects our security, and maintains the highest possible employment and environmental standards, I won’t be backing her deal. And I simply don’t think she can – though Jeremy Corbyn wrote this week to explain the conditions for Labour’s support.
In the absence of Brexit debates, I’ve been picking up on some of my longstanding interests in parliament. It was great to meet Paula from the Home Owners Alliance to discuss ideas for maintaining pressure on the government to improve rights and protection for new-build homebuyers, following my debate on the subject last December. We’re working on some campaign ideas together, and I’ll be sharing details of how to get involved soon.
I was also very pleased to attend an updating meeting from the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care partnership, in which I raised the long waits for GP and child mental health appointments, and the pressure on recruitment and retention of social care workers in Trafford. It’s hard for care homes and social care providers to compete for skilled care staff, when jobs with better pay and easier conditions are on offer nearby – for example, in retail, at the airport and in offices in the city centre. We desperately need the government to improve funding for social care so that we can attract more staff to take on these vitally important roles.
This week, the government published its review of the Legal Aid changes which were introduced under David Cameron’s government. Huge cuts were made to advice on a whole range of legal matters, including housing, debt and family law. I was a member of the committee that scrutinised the Legal Aid bill way back in 2012, and many of the concerns we expressed then have turned out to be absolutely correct. The government has now announced it’s relaxing some of the rules at last, and I went into the chamber to hear the Lord Chancellor describe the changes that are being made, but with only 2% of the value of the previous cuts being made good, it’s clear we’re still facing widespread advice ‘deserts’ for people who need, but can’t afford, legal advice.
Late last year, I had the chance to visit Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan with Oxfam UK, who run projects to support the Syrian refugees there. It was a pleasure therefore to welcome the Jordanian ambassador to the UK to parliament this week, along with my parliamentary colleagues Lord Alf Dubs and Tim Loughton MP who were also on the visit, to talk about what we’d seen there. We discussed a forthcoming UK/Jordan government conference which will be held in London later this month, in which I hope to be involved. With the employment rate among Syrian refugees in Jordan at an exceptionally low level, despite many refugees being highly qualified and desperate to work, I’m hoping the conference will address the need for UK investment in Jordan to help grow the economy and create more jobs, while bringing a return for UK investors too.
Finally, I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with two schools in my constituency in the last few days. It was great to participate in a digital debate with students at Wellacre, organised by the fabulous Politics Project. We discussed everything from nuclear disarmament to free bus travel for young people, and the questions and comments were really thought-provoking. Thanks to all the students and staff involved.
And together with local Councillor Graham Whitham, I visited Acre Hall last Friday to see for myself the extent of the parking problems round school at the beginning and end of the day. I feel very sorry for local residents whose drives are blocked, green space is churned up, and roads become so congested that buses and car can’t travel along them, because of inconsiderate parking by a small number of drivers picking up and dropping off children at school. The council has set up working group to look at the problem of parking and traffic around our schools, and I know from parents and school councils that this is a big issue right across the constituency. If you’ve got any comments about the situation at your local school, or – even better – any ideas for how we can improve matters, please let me know.