As a break from Brexit, this week I’ve spent a fair bit of my time concentrating on trees! Climate campaigners Extinction Rebellion have been blockading roads around Westminster all week to highlight the climate emergency to MPs. While I appreciate their tactics are contentious, they’ve been very careful not to close down parliament itself, recognising the importance of parliamentary debate. And their invitation to MPs to pop over to Old Palace Yard just across from the House of Commons to collect a tree to plant in our constituencies was a lovely gesture, as well as a chance for them powerfully to make the point that we need to plant millions more trees to protect our planet from climate disaster. I’m therefore also very pleased to be supporting the plans for a Northern Forest, which will see 50 million more trees planted across the north.
I’ve been inviting local parks groups and town centres to suggest where I should plant my tree – so let me know if you have any ideas!
Meanwhile of course, Brexit matters haven’t gone away. Earlier this week, I pressed ministers on their plans for possible long queues of lorries waiting to cross the channel if a deal isn’t in place. I’m particularly worried as UK drivers would need a European driving licence, but many haven’t yet applied. As I write, however, rumours are growing that Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have agreed the basis for a deal. This follows a chaotic few days when it seemed as if the most likely (and most dangerous ) outcome would be that we’d leave the EU with no deal at all. The next few days really are crunch time for our country, and I will be taking every opportunity to ask questions of ministers, and speak up for my constituents. I won’t support our leaving with no deal, or a bad deal, and I will continue to press for voters to have the final say on any deal that is agreed.
I’ve spent some time over the past week working on one of the areas in which I take a particular interest – penal policy. I had a very useful meeting with Birth Companions, who support pregnant women and new mothers in prison, to discuss the support they receive, the lack of access to Mother and Baby units, and the tragic event that took place at Bronzefield prison last week, when a woman gave birth alone, and the baby died. Whatever you think of women who offend, their babies are guilty of no offence, and we should be ensuring they receive the best possible care.
I was also able to raise with ministers my concern that releasing people from custody with just £46 in their pocket and a potential 5-week delay until they can receive universal credit is setting them up to reoffend. The minister agreed with me that introducing Jobcentre Plus staff to prisoners before release would make sense, but seemed to miss the point I was making about enabling them to begin to apply for their benefits from within the prison ahead of their release date.
Yesterday, I attended an incredibly powerful performance by theatre company Clean Break, performed by four women inside a prison van, to show us what it’s like when you’re transported from court to custody. I’d never been in a prison van before, and I have to say the experience was extremely distressing – even for just ten minutes. I’m shocked that pregnant women, people with serious mental health issues, people who experience claustrophobia, and women and men together, are transported in this way.
Theatre performances bring to life very starkly the true effect of government policies. I was also very moved by a performance at Home last Saturday, in which four asylum seekers working in a pizza shop told their stories in a beautifully acted short play.
It’s been a busy few days back in the constituency. I had useful meetings with NHS managers to talk both about mental health and GP services in my constituency. I thoroughly enjoyed the service at Christ Church Davyhulme to mark the church’s 50th anniversary. And a big thank you to everyone who attended my coffee afternoon to share your views on politics and parliament with Harriet Harman and me. We had a very stimulating discussion, and were particularly pleased to be joined by children from St Mary’s primary school council, who contributed their thoughts about how parliament should be run. Harriet has been reflecting on what everyone said, as she participates in hustings for the election of the speaker of the House of Commons, which will take place at the beginning of next month.