It’s been another varied week in Westminster! This week, I’ve spoken in a debate covering the work of the Department for Education, met firefighters Gavin and Juliette from Trafford, who’d come to lobby me about their concerns regarding possible cuts to the fire service, asked ministers why some pensioners are refused access to the Motability scheme (which provides adapted vehicles to disabled people), and sat on a session of the public bill committee considering the Divorce bill. Following the notorious Owens case, in which a woman was refused a divorce by her husband and forced to remain married against her wishes, this new legislation would introduce ‘no fault’ divorce and would prevent one partner stopping the other from obtaining a divorce. The bill enjoys cross-party support, so although we were scheduled to spend two days on it, we completed the scrutiny process in one.
There have also been some great campaign organisations visiting parliament this week, which I’ve been very pleased to support. A big shout out to the MND Association, who are demanding easier access to benefits for people with this terrible and fatal disease; to the campaign to ban animal trophy imports to the UK; and to Jane and her colleagues, with whom I’ve been working for several years to persuade the NHS to screen pregnant mums for an infection called Group B strep, which can cause death in newborn babies. We’re delighted that after a lot of hard work, the NHS has agreed to conduct a proper clinical trial to look at the difference that a screening programme could make. It’s good when persistence pays.
I’ve also been concentrating on the work I do on immigration. On Wednesday, I chaired a very interesting session with representatives of different business sectors, from farming to social care to universities, to discuss the government’s proposed minimum requirement of a £30,000 salary for anyone wanting to come to work in the UK after we leave the EU. That causes all sorts of problems for businesses that can’t attract enough workers in the UK workforce, and who need to fill jobs that wouldn’t meet the salary threshold. In Greater Manchester, that’s a lot of jobs, since the average wage is more like £27,000. Thankfully, the government appears to be having a bit of a rethink, and we discussed various more sensible alternatives which we will suggest to Ministers.
I also dropped in to a debate on visas for religious workers, something that is causing problems for lots of different faiths. Some MPs spoke of churches in their constituencies struggling to get visas for relief cover for priests on holiday or on retreat, leaving congregations unable to hold services. In my constituency, I represent many different faiths, some of whom experience the same difficulties in welcoming foreign priests year after year. You’d hope the Home Office would streamline the system, but instead it’s made it more restrictive and costly, as religious bodies in my constituency can confirm.
Most movingly this week was a debate on the law on assisted dying, which again picked up on a recent real-life case, that of Geoffrey and Ann Whaley, who were visited by the police after a tipoff that Geoffrey, who had MND, had decided to die at Dignitas in Switzerland. MPs, both those in favour of a change in the law and those against, spoke of their own family experiences, with great respect and kindness for differing views. Parliament isn’t all about shouty Prime Minister’s question time, and this was a careful, thoughtful debate. I felt privileged to take part.
And I also very privileged, and very happy, to attend the inaugural concert, performed in the Speaker’s apartments, by a new parliamentary string quartet. Made up of politicians, including my great friend Thangam Debbonaire MP, and ‘lobby’ journalist Cathy Newman, the quartet (known as ‘The Statutory Instruments (rather a good parliamentary pun – get in touch if you’d like me to explain), gave MPs the chance to have some down time listening to glorious music in the middle of the working week. What a treat!
And while I’m on the subject of parliamentary treats, we are all very excited that ‘Erskine May’, the rule book for the procedures we follow in the chamber, which was first published in 1844 (it has been updated since, and it now on its 25th edition) has finally gone online. If you’ve ever been puzzled by what on earth is going on in parliament (and I am, pretty well all the time), this is the guide for you; check it out at https://erskinemay.parliament.uk. It’s a fascinating read for parliamentary geeks – and explains all you ever wanted to know about statutory instruments too