As we approach the end of a tumultuous year, I want to thank you all most sincerely for re-electing me to serve Stroud – particularly to those who campaigned so tirelessly – and for your continued support. I’m sorry for the circular, but it is also a good opportunity to share with you what has been going on in the first six months. We have been incredibly busy and that looks set to continue.
The House of Commons has been subsumed by the EU Withdrawal Bill. The so-called Europhile rebellion finally arose last week, narrowly defeating the Government’s bid to prevent MPs from debating the final deal. It is difficult to predict the outcome of all this. There are more difficulties to come, not least the question of who will want to sign a free-trade deal with us other than the US, which would be a disaster.
Besides Brexit, Parliament has been marked by the government’s apparent perception that it is above executive scrutiny. It has been obfuscating, obstructing and simply ignoring conventions, such as what it should do when it loses a vote. It has lost votes on social care, the Brexit impact papers and state-pension inequality for women. Holding it to account on these matters remains the Opposition’s main responsibility.
Taking on the Opposition front bench role for Farming, Food and Rural Affairs has proved a major new challenge. In the past four months, I have met with many different organisations as we move towards developing Labour’s position, and we will be making a range of new policy announcements in the New Year.
My senior caseworker and two part-time caseworkers are receiving 15-20 new cases each week and have dealt with almost 500 cases so far. The most frequent problems concern housing, welfare benefits and social care.
Common issues are overcrowding, living conditions and waiting times for social housing, as well as homelessness. Rising rents and Universal Credit will make this worse, particularly in the private sector.
The biggest problems include disability benefits and assessments. We are also starting to see how Universal Credit will push people deeper into poverty through its five-week wait for payment, which is not backdated, meaning that people are falling behind on their rents and facing eviction.
The situation is precarious, with a lack of providers, funding and care workers to support people at home. Many have been transferred to care homes while home carers are unavailable, some for weeks on end.
Other issues include underfunding in education; the lack of support for mental health issues; the isolating effect of reduced community transport funding; and changes to the state pension age (particularly to women). To help our constituents we have been engaging with local and central government and other bodies, and working with charities and organisations that can help those in need. If you, or anyone you know, are in a difficult situation and not sure where to turn, please contact my team and we will do all we can to help.
I am happy that a rethink is underway for the Stroud Subscription Rooms, which I hope will remain in community hands. I am concerned about the Boundary Commission’s proposal to removing Cam and Dursley from the Stroud Constituency, although I’d welcome the return of Minchinhampton. These areas are an important part of our community; I hope the Commission will take all our comments into account.
We have all been shocked by Gloucestershire County Council’s failure to keep children safe, as revealed by Ofsted, another example of the care services failing both children and adults. Cuts to local government are having a huge impact on the daily lives of many constituents. There remains a desperate need for housing and I will be campaigning for affordable homes in appropriate locations across the district.
I have been able to bring Stroud issues to the Labour front bench, and have been working on an alternative waste strategy in Westminster on the back of my opposition to the Javelin Park incinerator. I am planning a rural conference next year, which Jeremy Corbyn hopes to attend, as well as a conference on farming in cooperation with the University of Gloucestershire.
Times are tough and we see many people in difficult situations, but the great work being done by charities, voluntary groups and individuals is heartening to see and a huge inspiration to us all. Thank you once again for all your support. Have a very Happy Christmas, look after each other, and come back ready to campaign in the New Year!