|Parliament has now resumed after the summer recess and, after the first week’s business, here is a report on the main issues of the week. I hope you find it useful and of interest.
- Violence in Rakhine State (Urgent Question)
- EU Exit Negotiations (Government Statement)
- Grenfell Tower and Building Safety (Government Statement)
- Korean Peninsula (Government Statement)
- Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill (Committee Stage and Third Reading)
- Free Childcare Entitlement (Urgent Question)
- National Shipbuilding Strategy (Government Statement)
- Ways and Means (Government Motions)
- Hurricane Irma (Government Statement)
- European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (Second Reading, Day 1)
Violence in Rakhine State (Urgent Question)
On Tuesday, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific responded to an urgent question on the recent violence in Rakhine, Myanmar.
Following attacks by Rohingya insurgents in late August this year, Myanmar’s military has been engaged in persistent violent clashes resulting in civilian deaths and a worsening humanitarian situation. According to the UN, 125,000 refugees have fled the conflict to neighbouring Bangladesh and are living in terrible conditions.
I believe the Government must do more than express disappointment at this situation – it must ensure it is doing everything it can to bring this senseless violence to an end. The Government should set clear and unambiguous red lines for Myanmar’s authorities – civilian and military – when it comes to respecting human rights. As well as a complete end to all further violence and burning of villages, we also need to ensure that the thousands of people who have already lost their homes urgently receive the food, water and medicine they need.
Once a cessation of violence and humanitarian access has been achieved, the work of building a lasting peace must begin. This should include a recognition of the rights and freedoms of the Rohingya people, who have faced years of persecution in Myanmar, and an end to restrictions on their movement.
Britain and the rest of the world community must stand ready to support that process, but it will first rely on the civilian and military authorities in Myanmar living up to their responsibilities within a modern democratic government. As a long-standing, critical friend, we should expect and demand nothing less.
EU Exit Negotiations (Government Statement)
On Tuesday, the Brexit Secretary gave an update to MPs on the two rounds of EU exit negotiations that took place in July and August.
Brexit negotiations are currently in the first of two phases, focusing on the rights of citizens, Northern Ireland, the financial settlement and other technical separation issues. Only when sufficient progress has been made in this phase will negotiations move on to the second phase covering the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The Brexit Secretary noted a number of areas where progress had been made in the first phase of negotiations but acknowledged that more is needed.
There have now been three of five negotiation rounds in this first phase and I would expect agreement to be emerging on the key issues. However, rather than coming closer together, the Government and the EU appear to be getting further apart. I am becoming increasingly concerned at the slow progress.
I accept that the negotiations are complex and difficult, but substantive progress and clear outcomes are urgently needed. The Government must ensure that it achieves this at the next negotiation round. If the second phase of negotiations is pushed back, I fear that the risk of no deal being reached by March 2019 increases, which would be the worst possible outcome for Britain.
Grenfell Tower and Building Safety (Government Statement)
On Tuesday, the Government made a statement on Grenfell Tower and building safety.
The fire at Grenfell Tower must mark a change in our country on housing, so that such a tragedy can never happen again.
I believe the Government has three overriding responsibilities: first, to ensure that everyone from Grenfell affected has the help and the rehousing they need; secondly, to reassure everyone living in other tower blocks across the country that their homes are safe, or that work will be done to make them safe; and thirdly, to learn the lessons from Grenfell Tower in full.
It is disappointing that 12 weeks on from the fire only 29 households out of 196 have been rehoused, and Ministers still cannot answer how many of the country’s 4,000 tower blocks are safe. The Government’s system of fire safety checks on tower blocks is not fit for purpose; the testing programme is too slow, too narrow and too confused to do the job that is needed.
I welcome the publication of the terms of reference for the Grenfell Tower public inquiry and the independent review of building regulations. However, the regulations review fails to recognise the recommendations accepted by the Government in 2013 after the deaths in high-rise fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers. The public inquiry also fails to address the wider questions on social housing policy, an issue the Grenfell residents and survivors want examined.
I believe a hard look at social housing policy is essential to a full understanding of this terrible tragedy and to making sure it never happens again.
Korean Peninsula (Government Statement)
On Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary made a statement on the situation on the Korean peninsula.
Over the parliamentary recess North Korea conducted three missile tests, including one that flew over Japan, and threatened to launch missiles at the US Pacific territory of Guam. Last week, the country tested the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated under the regime, triggering an earthquake ten times more powerful than the one created by the last detonation. North Korea claims that this was a hydrogen bomb capable of being delivered on an intercontinental nuclear missile.
The Foreign Secretary condemned North Korea’s actions and informed the House of Commons that the North Korean ambassador had been summoned to the Foreign Office. He also called on China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s overseas trade, to use the leverage it has to ensure a peaceful settlement to this crisis.
In response to the country’s continuing missile tests, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the toughest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea on 5 August, banning exports of coal, seafood, iron ore and lead. The Foreign Secretary emphasised that, if fully implemented, these measures would cost North Korea around $1 billion and reduce the country’s resources for nuclear weapons. However, sanctions agreed in November 2016 are still only in the early stages of being enforced, so I believe it is important that these new sanctions are implemented quickly and effectively, and given time to work.
I unreservedly condemn North Korea for its flagrant breaches of international law. Britain should be a voice of calm and reason on the world stage and I believe the only sensible options in this situation are dialogue and diplomacy. This should include a deliberate de-escalation of rhetoric and actions, the proper enforcement of new sanctions, and the restarting of the six-party talks to seek a new and lasting settlement.
Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill (Committee Stage and Third Reading)
On Tuesday, the House of Commons considered the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill. The Bill aims to boost investment in fibre broadband infrastructure and future 5G development by providing 100% business rates relief for five years for new full-fibre networks installed after April 2017.
If the UK is to have the type of economy that we want, we must make a concerted effort to deliver high-speed broadband to every community in the country. I therefore broadly support the Bill. However, I also have some concerns over how the business rates relief will be delivered and what impact it will have.
While big data providers such as Virgin and BT will be the initial beneficiaries of the scheme, it is hoped that smaller providers will also benefit and I believe we need more detail about how the scheme will achieve this. I would have liked the Bill to include a requirement for the Government to assess the operation of the relief in its first year, which would have enabled the Government to change the scheme if it were not working. I am also slightly disappointed that the Bill does not address the divide between urban and rural areas in relation to broadband, as this is a problem in the constituency.
Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill overall and believe it is an important step towards securing better broadband connectivity and access.
Free Childcare Entitlement (Urgent Question)
On Wednesday, there was an urgent question on the implementation of free childcare entitlements.
On 1 September 2017, the provision of 30 hours of free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds went live in England. Parents will now rightly expect to use their new childcare allowance this month. However, this was a policy shrouded in secrecy, misinformation and disorder, and I believe there are clear reasons for concern.
To receive this childcare, parents were encouraged to apply for an eligibility code before the deadline of midnight on 31 August 2017. However, I am concerned that only around 200,000 of the 390,000 eligible parents have applied. I am also worried about the number of children who have not secured a funded place.
I am further concerned that research by the Pre-School Learning Alliance suggests that 38% of nurseries could go out of business in the next financial year due to lack of funding from Government. In order to stay viable, early years settings will need to charge for extras such as trips out, nappies and lunches in order to pay their staff and keep the lights on. I believe the Government must guarantee that it will not allow a two-tier system to emerge, whereby parents who cannot afford to pay the extras do not have access to the policy and those who can do.
The Education Minister said on Wednesday that the Government would closely monitor delivery of all free childcare entitlements and that those parents who are eligible and who applied before the deadline would have a code to allow them to access 30 hours of free childcare. However, I remain concerned that the implementation of this policy will have a negative financial impact on providers and risks pricing out the poorest. I believe the Government must now listen and commit to re-evaluating the policy’s funding.
National Shipbuilding Strategy (Government Statement)
On Wednesday, the Defence Secretary made a statement on the National Shipbuilding Strategy. This included plans for the first batch of £250 million Type 31e frigates.
I welcome the publication of the strategy and the commitment to the long-term future for our shipbuilding industry. However, as well as investing in our naval fleet I believe we must also invest in the men and women who serve in our Royal Navy.
I am concerned that despite warnings over many years, our navy is facing a crisis in recruitment and retention. The Government is on course to miss its own target for the size of the navy and we simply do not have enough sailors to crew our naval fleet.
Experienced personnel are leaving because of dissatisfaction with pay and conditions. If the Government was serious about properly resourcing the Royal Navy it would lift the public sector pay cap and pay our servicemen and women properly.
More widely, I believe the Government’s commitment to a shipbuilding strategy must be complemented by a comprehensive industrial strategy. The strategy rightly focuses on the export opportunities for UK shipbuilding, and orders from overseas will be important in ensuring steady work for shipyards across the UK.
Ways and Means (Government Motions)
On Wednesday, the House of Commons considered Ways and Means motions which contained tax measures to form the basis for a new Finance Bill. Forty-eight motions were debated, each of which covered a different aspect of tax or financial policy. Generally, the measures had previously been introduced by the Government, and then withdrawn because of the General Election.
I was disappointed that there was nothing proposed to help investment, productivity or public services. I also felt the measures on tax avoidance were not strong enough, including on the tax advantages of “non-doms.” On the whole, I believe this was a missed opportunity.
There are 10,000 fewer HMRC staff than in 2010 and there was no commitment from the Government on Wednesday to properly resource the organisation so that it can enforce tax rules. I am also worried that there will not be enough support for businesses from HMRC if the Government goes ahead with its Making Tax Digital plans.
There were votes on three of the motions: on termination payments, business investment relief, and trading profits taxable at the Northern Ireland rate. I voted against each of them. I am concerned that the measure on termination payments may result in downward pressure on the compensation received by people losing their jobs. The plan to loosen the rules on business investment relief will in my view allow greater scope for avoiding taxes. The attempt to relax the rules around Northern Ireland trading profits will encourage tax avoidance in Northern Ireland and do little to deliver the jobs and investment it so desperately needs.
I do not believe any of the motions debated on Wednesday will provide the bold and radical solutions needed to stimulate growth, raise productivity and encourage investment in our economy.
Nevertheless, all of the motions passed, and the Finance Bill will now progress. The Second Reading debate is due to take place next week – I believe that this process is too rushed and that the Government is not allowing MPs enough time to scrutinise its proposals.
Hurricane Irma (Government Statement)
On Thursday, the Minister for the Americas made a statement on Hurricane Irma, a category five hurricane which is having a devastating effect in the Caribbean.
Hurricane Irma has hit four British overseas territories – Anguilla, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands – as well as Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guadeloupe and St Martin. The devastation that the hurricane has wreaked is terrible, with reports of several deaths.
The Minister stated on Thursday that officials in the UK and the British overseas territories had been working to assess the needs of the territories affected and to co-ordinate a cross-Government response. He said that the Royal Naval ship RFA Mounts Bay was already in the Caribbean and would reach the affected territories later that day to help respond to the disaster. The Minister also said that the Government’s emergency committee COBRA would meet that afternoon to discuss the relief and reconstruction effort.
I express my deepest sympathies to those whose lives and livelihoods have been lost to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma. The damage for those who live in the region will be both profound and lasting. It is important that the UK stands ready to provide a sustained commitment to longer-term reconstruction, as well as immediate humanitarian relief and consular assistance for any UK nationals affected.
The Minister promised to keep the House of Commons updated on the situation and its efforts to help those affected.
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (Second Reading, Day 1)
On Thursday, the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, also known as the “Repeal Bill”, was debated in the House of Commons for the first time.
This Bill is not about whether Britain leaves the EU – it is about how we leave the EU, what role Parliament has in that process and how we safeguard vital rights and protections as we leave.
I believe Brexit must not lead to any drop in rights and protections and that power should be brought back to Parliament and local communities. Unfortunately, the Government’s Bill would do the precise opposite. It would put huge and unaccountable power into the hands of Government Ministers, side-line Parliament on major decisions and put crucial rights and protections at risk. It would also undermine and introduce restrictions on devolved administrations rather than leading to the wider devolution of power we need to see.
As currently drafted, this Bill is flawed and needs to be repaired. It would cause lasting damage to the role and power of Parliament and it would do nothing to help deliver the Brexit deal that we need – one that puts jobs and the economy first and maintains rights and protections.
I therefore do not believe that I can support this Bill when it returns for a vote in the House of Commons on Monday at the conclusion of its Second Reading debate.