|Here is the report from last week’s business at the House, sorry for the delay. In the section on Personal Independence Payment I’ve included a blog post I wrote for my website www.marierimmer.org.uk
- European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (Ping Pong)
- Britain’s Place in the World Debate (Budget Resolutions)
- European Council (Government Statement)
- Education and Skills (Budget Resolutions)
- Personal Independence Payments (Urgent Question)
- Visible Religious Symbols: European Court Ruling (Urgent Question)
- Class 4 National Insurance Contributions (Government Statement)
- Counter-Daesh Update (Government Statement)
- Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill (Ping Pong)
- National Citizen Service Bill (Report Stage and Third Reading)
- Sky/21st Century Fox: Merger (Government Statement)
European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (Ping Pong)
On Monday the House of Commons debated the Bill which gives the Prime Minister power to trigger Article 50 and begin the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
MPs considered two amendments to the Bill proposed by the House of Lords. The first sought to guarantee the residence rights of EU citizens presently in the UK. It would have required the Government to introduce proposals for achieving this within three months of the triggering of Article 50. I believe this is a matter of principle because there are 3.2 million EU nationals who have made their homes in the UK including many in our area. They do vital jobs in our local NHS and in our public services and are valued members of our community.
The second amendment sought to guarantee that the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and our future relationship with it, should be subject to votes in Parliament. This amendment sought to formalise the promises that the Government has already made to do this.
I have supported the important protections and safeguards behind both these amendments throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament and Monday was the last opportunity for them to be put into legislation. I was therefore disappointed that the Government opposed and defeated them.
The Bill has now become an Act of Parliament and I expect that the Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 shortly.
I will continue to argue on behalf of my constituents for a strong future relationship with the EU – one based on collaboration and co-operation – and oppose any Brexit that puts jobs, the economy or living standards at risk.
Britain’s Place in the World Debate (Budget Resolutions)
This week the House of Commons continued to debate last week’s Spring Budget, and on Monday this focused on defence, foreign affairs and international development.
The Foreign Secretary stated that commitments to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development and 2% of GDP on defence would be honoured by the Government.
While these seem like clear commitments, there are many unanswered questions about how funding is split between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, and about how this money is spent.
The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review allocated another £300 million of the aid budget to the £1 billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund overseen by the National Security Council, involving, amongst others, the Foreign Office, Home Office and MoD. I am concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability in relation to cross-departmental aid spending. Aid spent outside the DfID budget is not subject to the same rigorous requirement to focus on poverty reduction, as set out in the International Development Act.
The FCO has faced cuts of 38% and I am concerned about the loss of skilled linguists and experts, the consequences for our standing in the world and for our global reach and influence.
Since 2010 the way that our 2% of GDP defence spending is calculated has changed and now includes, for example, war pensions. I believe we should look very carefully at whether we should go back to the old way of calculating the 2% that was used before.
European Council (Government Statement)
On Tuesday the Prime Minister made a statement following a meeting of the European Council.
The Prime Minister reported that the issues discussed included the challenge of managing mass migration; threats from organised crime and instability in the western Balkans; and the measures needed to boost Europe’s growth and competitiveness.
The Prime Minister said, following the Bill on Article 50 completing its passage through Parliament, that she would return to the Commons before the end of the month to notify when she had formally triggered Article 50 and begun the process through which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.
The Prime Minister was pressed to focus on securing a transitional agreement with the EU at the earliest opportunity to give people and businesses some short-term clarity. She was also asked to bring certainty to EU nationals living in the UK, and to protect jobs and living standards by securing tariff-free access to the single European market. Additionally, she was pressed on the Government’s response to the refugee crisis.
As the Government moves towards the triggering of Article 50, it will be my parliamentary role, and that of my colleagues, to fight for jobs and the economy on behalf of my constituents, using every method of scrutiny to hold the Government to account.
Budget Debate (Education and Skills)
The House of Commons continued to debate last week’s Spring Budget on Tuesday, with a debate focused on education and skills.
I am disappointed that this Budget did not take any of the necessary steps to ensure that Britain has a school system that allows every child to fulfil their potential.
Despite the Government’s Social Mobility Commission recommendation that it should not implement its proposals for new grammar schools, the Government remains committed to expanding the use of academic selection. The Chancellor used the Budget to announce plans to spend another £320 million on the next tranche of new free schools. This money is supposed to create 140 schools, providing 70,000 school places. However, this is unrealistic when figures from the National Audit Office show that, given the average cost of creating a place in a free school, the Government will be unlikely to create even a fifth of the spaces it has promised.
The Government also announced that it is providing £5 million a year to transport children to grammar schools. However, this follows a £6million cut to school transport budgets last year, which left no statutory provision for disabled 16 to 18-year-olds and others, who were forced to change school.
The Chancellor pledged £216 million for every other school over a three-year period. However, the National Audit Office has said that £6.3 billion is required to ensure that all existing school buildings are at least satisfactory.
The Budget included no plans to address the growing financial black hole in the schools system and it did not commit any revenue spending to address the £3 billion in cuts that are facing schools across the country. The Government previously committed that not a single pupil in the country would see their funding cut. Yet the National Audit Office has found that there will be an 8% drop in per pupil funding this Parliament.
Personal Independence Payments (Urgent Question)
On Wednesday my colleague the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary asked the Secretary of State to make a statement on the recommendations of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) on the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) (Amendment) Regulations 2017.
In a letter dated Monday last week, the Social Security Advisory Committee made a series of recommendations for the Government including greater scrutiny of the regulations, an in depth assessment of the impact on existing claimants and greater consultation with healthcare professionals.
The Government was rightly pressed for a guarantee that its changes to eligibility would not result in anyone seeing a reduction in their PIP award.
The rules around Personal Independence Payments (PIP), which help with the extra costs of a long-term health condition or disability, will change from today (Wed 15th March 2017) .
Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people as a result of additional associated costs, and PIP is a key source of income to prevent real hardship. Disability charity Scope has estimated that these additional costs amount to approximately £550 a month.
The Government says it is making these changes because two court judgements have made access to PIP – to people with debilitating mental health conditions or cognitive impairment which means they need support to navigate a journey – beyond what they had originally intended. This contradicts their response to their 2012 consultation on the new PIP assessment process and the arguments they made in a 2015 court case, where they argued that “psychological distress” should be included in PIP assessments.
On Tuesday the Government back tracked on their tax hikes for the self-employed in response to the uproar from small businesses. Now they should listen to calls from more than 30 disability charities who have written to ministers urging them not to restrict access to PIP. The charities have echoed Labour’s calls that people will be left without vital financial support if these draconian changes go ahead.
In addition they should listen to their own Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), who, like the charities and disabled people’s organisations, they failed to consult prior to introducing these changes. In a letter to the Minister for Disabled People this week, SSAC recommended that there should be wider engagement prior to any changes and that proposals should be tested before implemented.
Labour has been fighting these regulations since they were sneaked out at the end of February. The changes will see over 160,000 disabled people and people with chronic mental health conditions not be able to access the full support they are entitled to – an effective cut worth £3.7bn. For a disabled person this means the difference between £21.80 and £57.45 a week.
We need to see people with mental health conditions being treated fairly and being properly supported to live full and independent lives. The proposed changes would create a legal distinction between mental health problems and other kinds of impairments when it comes to assessments. So much for parity of esteem.
The Government has fallen well short of fulfilling their commitment here. Evidence from the mental health charity, MIND, shows that 55% of people with mental health conditions transferring from Disability Living Allowance to PIP receive less support or no support at all. In addition the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions claimed that the new regulations meant people with a mental health condition could receive the enhanced PIP mobility rate when the new PIP assessment guidelines make it absolutely clear that they cannot!
On the day when Scope published analysis revealing that 89% of PIP Mandatory Reconsiderations or Appeals were successful, the Tories were still trying to peddle the myth that everything is fine with PIP.
The new PIP regulations is one of a series of cuts in social security support since 2010, with more due in April. The results have been devastating to disabled people, with debt, poverty and failing health. For too many it has been too much and they have given up on life, as life seems to have given up on them.
I do not believe that, given the choice, the British public would chose cuts in Corporation Tax (which is lowest in the G7) over pushing disabled people into destitution or worse.
The Government needs to know that enough is enough. No more cuts in support to disabled people. So please join us, Disabled People’s Organisations, activists and charities to campaign against these changes. Tell your family, your friends, your neighbours and get as many people as possible to lobby their MPs, write to the Prime Minister and sign the petition
calling on the new regulations not to be implemented.
Stand with Labour, stand with disabled people. Enough is enough.
Visible Religious Symbols: European Court Ruling (Urgent Question)
On Wednesday, the Government was asked to make a statement on the recent European Court of Justice ruling allowing employers to ban workers from wearing religious dress and symbols in the workplace.
On 14 March 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies can ban employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf, but only as part of a wider ban which includes other religious and political symbols. The court found that such a ban is legal if it is “objectively justified by a legitimate aim”, such as a company’s policy of political or religious neutrality.
The judgment was prompted by the cases of two employees in Belgium and France who were dismissed from work after refusing to remove their headscarves. The Belgian employee had been working for a company which has a general ban on visible religious or political symbols, while the French employee was told to remove her headscarf after a client complained. The court emphasised that if a company does not have a wider internal ban, it cannot selectively discriminate against a worker at request of a customer.
The Government said that it is the right of all women to choose how they dress, and it does not believe that the recent judgment has changed that right. The Government said that the court’s ruling confirms the long-standing position of EU and domestic law that an employer’s dress code, where it applies in the same way to all employees, is justifiable if the employer can show legitimate and proportionate grounds for it.
However, I am concerned about the implications this judgement may have for faith communities. Whilst I am pleased that the Government is working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to update the guidance to employers on dress codes, I believe that it should reinforce the rights of employees in the UK to express their religious freedom.
I do not believe that a customer or service user would assume that a company is favouring one religion just by virtue of how one of its employees dress. Women and men must be allowed to choose how they express their faith and I do not believe that this judgment is consistent with the British liberal and human rights tradition.
Class 4 National Insurance Contributions (Government Statement)
On Wednesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a statement on national insurance contributions paid by the self-employed. He announced a u-turn on the tax rise announced in last week’s Budget.
The Chancellor said that the reason for reversing the increase was that MPs and others had questioned whether it was compatible with the tax lock commitments made in the Government’s election manifesto in 2015. The Chancellor said that there will now be no increases in NIC rates in this Parliament but that the Government will look for other ways to address the difference in the tax treatment of those who are employed and those who are self-employed.
I welcome this reversal, and I hope that the issues that self-employed people in my constituency care about will now be addressed instead, including: exploitation, late payments; the lack of access to maternity, paternity, adoption and sick pay, compassionate and carer’s leave.
The £2 billion that would have been raised by this tax rise was to go some way to tackling the serious problems in our social care system. So, it will be important for the Government to set out where these funds will come from now. The Chancellor was pressed on Wednesday to guarantee that no other tax rises for working people, or cuts to public services, would result from the change in policy.
Counter-Daesh Campaign: Iraq and Syria (Government Statement)
On Wednesday, the International Development Secretary updated the House of Commons on operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Since the last update in the House of Commons in November, Iraqi forces have made significant progress against Daesh in Mosul, Iraq, with support from coalition aircraft including those of the Royal Air Force. After three years of Daesh rule, east Mosul was retaken on 24 January this year. The next phase of the operation, to liberate west Mosul, was launched on 19 February.
The International Development Secretary stated that her department has committed £169.5 million to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and that a significant proportion of these funds is contributing to the Mosul humanitarian response.
In Syria, Daesh also continues to lose territory. The wider civil war there is now entering its seventh year, and some 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian support.
The International Development Secretary also noted progress in countering Daesh’s propaganda, which is used as a recruitment tool, with its output having fallen by about 75% over the last year.
I pay tribute to the brave men and women of the armed forces involved in the fight against Daesh, and to the aid workers and others who are delivering humanitarian support to civilians. I hope the Department for International Development will engage with civil society groups and other local actors in mapping out the long-term future of Iraq and Syria. I also believe we must continue to give help to the most vulnerable fleeing terror and persecution.
Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) BilL
On Wednesday the House of Commons debated the Health Services Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill. This included consideration of the amendments made in the House of Lords.
The key purpose of the Bill is to allow the Government to act to ensure the cost of medicines used by the NHS is kept as low as possible. I support the Bill as it will allow the NHS to better control the prices of medicines and it will close a loophole which has allowed a number of companies to hike the prices of drugs.
However, I have concerns around access to medicines and treatments, which is why I supported an amendment to the Bill which would have ensured that patients have rapid access to new clinical and cost-effective medicines and treatments approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Unfortunately the Government voted against this amendment.
I believe the decision not to include this amendment represents a missed opportunity, however I strongly support the core of the Bill, which seeks to close loopholes and to secure better value for money for the NHS from its negotiations with the pharmaceutical sector.
National Citizen Service Bill (Report Stage and Third Reading)
On Wednesday, the House of Commons considered the National Citizen Service Bill.
National Citizen Service (NCS) is a summer programme that offers courses to 15-17 year olds during the school holidays in England and Northern Ireland. It is currently administered by the NCS Trust, a community interest company.
The Bill proposes to place NCS on a permanent statutory footing, with the aim of making the NCS Trust a national institution while preserving its independent ethos. It also proposes to establish appropriate administrative, funding and accountability arrangements for the NCS Trust and to enable HMRC to send information on NCS to young people.
Social integration is the most important function of NCS, and I believe that bringing together young people from different backgrounds broadens their understanding of their own country and the community of which they form a part, and it helps to build a sense of shared nationhood, which is very important for the future of our country.
I believe that the NCS has a great deal to offer young people, and I therefore welcome the Bill and its provisions to put NCS on a more secure footing. However, this week the Public Accounts Committee raised a number of concerns over the NCS and its value for money, governance and transparency. I hope the Government will show that it is listening to these concerns.
The proportion of NCS graduates from poorer backgrounds has fallen since 2011. The Government must do more to make NCS open to those who need it most. I hope that the Government will listen to these concerns as the Bill progresses so that we can harness the potential of young people to the fullest.
Sky/21st Century Fox: Merger (Government Statement)
On Thursday the Culture Secretary gave a statement to the House of Commons on the proposed merger between 21st Century Fox and Sky.
The Culture Secretary confirmed that she will intervene in the deal on the grounds of media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards, and I welcome this.
The Culture Secretary will seek advice from Ofcom on those public interest considerations, and from the Competition and Markets Authority on other issues and has said there will be a thorough regulatory review. The CMA and Ofcom are expected to report back by Tuesday 16 May.
Ofcom has a duty to be satisfied that broadcast licensees are fit and proper on an ongoing basis. Earlier this week Ofcom announced that it would conduct a ‘fit and proper’ assessment at the same time it considers the public interest test in response to the decision to intervene in the Sky/21st Century Fox merger. I welcome this, but I am concerned that Ofcom has only 40 days to conduct the assessment. I also believe that some of the questions can only be answered by going ahead with part 2 of the Leveson inquiry, the findings from which would be crucial to assessing whether James and Rupert Murdoch should be allowed to obtain 100% control of Sky.