It’s World Refugee Week, and there have been numerous events in parliament to mark it. I tried to get along to as many as I could, including a fascinating presentation on public attitudes (not as hostile as you might think), a discussion about the high cost and problems children face when applying for British citizenship, and a really powerful meeting addressed by two refugees, one who arrived on the Kindertransport, and one who came to the UK only recently. It was both moving and quite shocking to hear of the similarity of the challenges they faced, though 70 years apart.
Immigration and asylum policy is one of the areas I specialise in in parliament, partly because we welcome refugee families in my constituency, and partly because I’m lucky enough to have the supoort of my expert researcher, Heather, who has been seconded to work in my Westminster office as part of the RAMP project. This project seeks to reimagine an immigration system for an integrated and successful Britain. Read more about it at https://www.goodfaith.org.uk/projects.html
It couldn’t be more timely to have Heather working with me, because in recent years, Theresa May has blocked sensible immigration reform, first as Home Secretary, and then as Prime Minister. Her policies have hardened the so-called hostile environment, caused stress and anxiety to millions of people (not least 3 million EU nationals who make the UK their home, and the Windrush families who came to brief us in parliament this week), and proven totally counter-productive. A new prime minister is an opportunity to do things differently, and while I don’t like the Tory candidates for the role one little bit, there are signs that they want to make some big changes to immigration policy. Labour will be pressing for those changes to guarantee that anyone who comes to this country is treated with dignity and will never face destitution.
Although asylum and immigration policy has dominated the week, there has been time to get stuck in to a range of other important issues. On Monday night, I attended an event on fire safety in tower blocks, and I was delighted that my constituent, Phil Murphy from Stretford, who has tremendous expertise in this subject, was present at the meeting. Following the appalling Grenfell Tower fire, Phil has kept me very fully briefed about fire safety, and ensured that I’m asking the right questions of local landlords, including Trafford Housing Trust. We’re both pleased that THT are to install sprinklers in their blocks, but I can’t understand why on earth the government refuses to make this compulsory.
I’ve also spent time on another of my personal policy interests: women in the penal system. The all party parliamentary group, of which I’m co-chair, held a reception to mark our 10th birthday, and to honour the founder of the group, the amazing Baroness Jean Corston. Jean wrote a seminal report on women in the penal system in 2007, and is hugely influential. She argues for more investment in community-based women’s centres, which are much more effective and suitable for women than custody. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Manchester and Trafford women’s centre on a number of occasions, and seen the marvellous work they do to address women’s offending.
I also attended an event with Birth Companions, who support pregnant mothers who are in prison. I must say I was horrified at some of the stories women told us. One had been handcuffed when she went for a scan. Another was told to lift a heavy mattress onto her bed. I don’t think prison’s the right place for almost any women offenders, but these stories show just how downright unsuitable it is for the wellbeing and safety of pregnant women and their babies.
I also had a meeting with the Justice minister to discuss the miserable level of legal aid funding in the criminal justice system, meaning fewer and fewer lawyers can afford to provide advice in criminal matters. That’s a false economy, it means the wrong cases go to court, they’re poorly prepared – and of course, it denies people their right to justice. I’m particularly concerned that the lack of legal aid means that even if you’re acquitted in court, you can still have to foot your own substantial costs. This so-called ‘Innocence Tax’ is a disgrace, and I will continue to campaign for fair and adequate funding.
And things are just as bad when it comes to legal aid for civil law, as the Law Society told me. Apparently, in Trafford, there’s only one legal aid provider who offers housing advice, yet I know from my own advice surgeries how desperately this advice is needed. You can read more about legal aid ‘deserts’ at https://www.facebook.com/329876810499233/posts/1350034275150143?s=100000652339775&sfns=mo
Finally, and with so much to be gloomy about, it was nice to welcome guide dogs and their owners to parliament this week, and to be introduced to Diamond and her owner, Colin. These special, clever, loyal dogs change people’s lives, but we were told that they’re not always made welcome everywhere. Some owners have been told they can’t travel in taxis with their dogs, and the Guide Dogs charity is campaigning to stop this. I know many Trafford taxi drivers are happy to welcome assistance dogs in their vehicles, but I’d love to hear ideas for how we can make sure that always happens.