David's Autumn Round up: A lot done, but a lot more to do...
I have had hundreds of enquiries from constituents and Labour Party members regarding Brexit. They do not all say the same thing – many are calling for another referendum, some would like us to support Theresa May’s deal for fear of ending up with no deal, still others are angry that Brexit is not going the way they would like.
The deal currently on the table is the most uninspiring piece of writing. I have read the entire document and it doesn’t hold together on many counts. It would tie us into the sphere of the EU but with few guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental protection.
The proposed Northern Ireland/Republic arrangement of a temporary customs union and access to the Single Market is hopeless. And there are many other areas where it will be difficult to migrate from the transitional arrangements to something permanent. It depends on reaching a free trade agreement but there is no indication the EU will be prepared to let us have this.
Labour does not accept that the choice is between ‘the government's deal’ or 'no deal'. We will work across Parliament to prevent a 'no deal' outcome. As always, the priority must be to support jobs and our economy and guarantee rights, standards and protections across the board.
If Parliament votes down the government’s shambolic deal, as seems likely, this will represent a loss of confidence in the government. The best way forward will then be an immediate general election. This will give us the opportunity to start rebuilding after eight years of austerity and achieve a better outcome for the country.
If we do not get a general election, Labour supports other options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote. However, it really is not clear how we can reach that stage as a second vote needs to be voted for by parliament. And there is a very real risk of polarising the country still further. The reality is that we need to change the dynamics of the debate so that Leavers have a reason to change their mind.
You can listen to my interview on BBC Radio Gloucestershire here.
Since the September recess, much of my time in Westminster has been filled with scrutinising the government’s Agriculture Bill, the largest piece of legislation in the sector since 1947. The Agriculture Bill attempts to set out post-Brexit policy for our farming and food production.
This has involved line-by-line scrutiny of the detail of the bill in a bid to tackle serious concerns, such as the lack of accountability. In the Agriculture Bill’s 36 clauses, 26 powers were accorded to the Secretary of State but only three duties imposed, leaving far too many important details up to the government’s discretion.
As the opposition, we have combed through the Bill, consulted with dozens of stakeholders, listened to written and oral evidence and done our own research to make sure this vital opportunity to have a say on agriculture in the UK is not missed. Over the course of the committee stage of the Bill, our team tabled over 60 amendments in hopes of improving it.
Protecting - and increasing - standards of animal welfare, food quality and environmental protection is vital.
As Shadow Minister for farming, it is important for me to have a clear picture of the impact Brexit will have on farming. I spent two days in Northern Ireland and the Republic at the beginning of this month, meeting farmers and representatives from the Irish government and the Northern Irish assembly. It was a full and fascinating two days, in which I covered a lot of ground both physically and politically.
It’s only when you spend time with those who are, quite literally, on the Brexit frontline, that you realise the enormity of dismantling and restructuring our integrated agricultural systems.
Seeing the now-derelict huge storage sheds near the border makes it clear just how much has been achieved, and is at stake, in these border regions. It was clear to see why remaining in a customs union is so crucial. A hard border would lead to fragmentation of farming and food production and be economically and socially destructive.
I have had several meetings with headteachers in the constituency who are very concerned about different aspects of the funding crisis in education.
Gloucestershire was already underfunded compared to other regions, but the situation here has worsened despite government promises of a new ‘fairer’ National Funding Formula.
Gloucestershire County Council is trying to plug the £3 million gap in its High Needs funding, which is predicted to rise over coming years. GCC’s proposal to transfer money from the ‘Schools Block’ to cover the £3 million debt will affect funding across almost all of our secondaries, taking huge sums of around £100,000 to £200,000 from each of their general budgets.
Secondary headteachers are already telling me that they will likely be faced with staff redundancies if this goes ahead, and the so-called ‘minimum per-pupil spend’ of £4,800 per secondary pupil won’t materialise in Gloucestershire.
I have written to Education Minister Damian Hinds requesting that the government properly funds provision for High Needs so that schools aren’t faced with such horrendous choices and Stroud children actually receive the minimum per-pupil funding promised by the government.
I have also requested an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons to address the education funding crisis in Gloucestershire.
Special Schools are also facing funding difficulties, with increasingly complex needs and rising costs. Several have approached me to address their specific concerns.
I continue to visit schools regularly, both to engage with young people and raise political awareness, as well as to meet with staff to find out about funding issues and other concerns.
Since September I have visited Sir William Romney, Thomas Keble, Stroud High and Maidenhill, as well as quite a few local primary schools.
My monthly surgeries in Stroud are always fully booked, and this autumn my casework team has started their fortnightly outreach sessions, designed to meet people across the constituency who need help but are unaware of what an MP’s office might do for them.
They are looking for new locations for 2019, so please get in touch if you have any ideas. We are especially interested in visiting community groups such as those for elderly people or young parents.
In October I held a ‘pub politics’ session at The Old Spot Inn, in Dursley. This was well attended, with around 30 people engaging in a discussion that ranged from Brexit to speeding traffic and university fees. We’re planning more of these sessions at other pubs as an opportunity to hold discussions open to all constituents.
The rollout of Universal Credit in Stroud is now 21% complete and so far there has been an alarming fallout. Foodbank usage is up by 14%, rent arrears are increasing and we are seeing a rise in requests for assistance with Universal Credit.
The issues include delay in payments, unfair work-capability assessments, and substantial reductions in the amounts of money being received.
I have invited Labour MPs in the south west to join me in writing to Amber Rudd to call for Universal Credit to be scrapped or, failing that, for an urgent review of the next phase of implementation. Many charities have expressed concern about the so-called ‘managed migration’, which will see the large-scale transfer of claimants to Universal Credit.
Wrongly assessed PIP applications are still common, as are the long waits for PIP decisions to be heard at appeal.
Housing remains an issue with significant overcrowding for many families. Winter weather highlights the lack of good, affordable homes in the constituency.
Stroud constituency news
I will be joining the Stroud District Foodbank on Friday 29 November to help with its food collection at Tesco.
I was also pleased to attend the Homeless First seminar, which brought charities and agencies together to look at ways to improve Stroud’s support for rough sleepers this winter. I am working with The Salvation Army, P3, Stroud District Council and others to try to improve emergency provision. There are only a handful of rough sleepers in Stroud - but providing shelter during extreme weather requires community effort, and I’m happy to try to support that.
This year, as usual, I attended the Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Stonehouse, but also attended events to mark the Armistice centenary in Painswick and at Gloucester Cathedral and the Mass for Peace in Stroud.
I spent a very late night in Stroud on Saturday with the Street Pastors, who work hard to keep people safe in the town, and I saw for myself the challenges they face and the dedicated work they do.
Last but not least, my huge congratulations to Trevor Hall and the team in Dursley! I know everyone worked very hard and it’s great to see Trevor as part of the team at SDC.