The day the House of Commons returned from the Christmas recess, I pressed the Education Secretary on the lack of transparency on free school applications. I asked him why information relating to Government decisions is not being released, especially since such decisions relate to the use of public money and are surely in the public interest. I wasn’t convinced by his argument in response (apparently information isn’t being released in order to protect unsuccessful applicants from attacks from “extreme left-wing organisations” such as the NUT !)
I also signed an Early Day Motion calling for Sixth Form Colleges to be allowed to operate on a level playing field with school sixth forms. The motion calls on the Government to reverse its decision to withhold the VAT rebate from colleges, and the cuts which have been made to tutorial and support funding.
NHS and health
Just before Christmas, I was privileged to join an evening shift as an observer with one of our local ambulance teams to see for myself the challenges they face . I was very impressed by what I saw, and the huge professionalism of all the staff I met.
Our shift started at 5pm, and continued well past its technical finish time of 1am, and the calls came in thick and fast. Whether it was dealing with the immediate aftermath of sudden strokes or the effects of under-age drinking, the team were unfailingly polite, professional, respectful and – what struck me more than anything – simply kind. A number of changes could make the service even more effective, including reviewing the categorisation of calls, which can often lead to perverse outcomes. In parliament, I’m calling on the Government to end the practice of issuing fines when hand-over times are missed. While it is in everyone’s interests to see hand-overs as swift as possible, depriving one part of the Health Service of money to punish it for delays beyond its control is divisive and counterproductive.
I’ve also signed an Early Day Motion expressing alarm that the Government is considering the introduction of an eligibility threshold for social care for people with mental illness. Given that such practical support can help stabilise mental health problems, a measure which will exclude many sufferers is short-sighted, unfair and discriminatory.
I’m co-sponsoring an Early Day Motion raising concerns about low levels of reporting of, and convictions for, domestic abuse. It calls for a new law, which would make domestic abuse a specific criminal offence for the first time. I’m also supporting a Bill, being published shortly, to put this law in place. It will be based on laws introduced in parts of the US, which have dramatically increased reporting of abuse and rates of convictions. In the UK, there is currently no specific criminal offence of domestic abuse. Instead offenders are prosecuted for crimes such as rape or assault, but in many cases previous abusive behaviour is not taken into account. The new law would provide a legal framework that would make domestic abuse a specific offence and allow for the examination of an offender's conduct over a period of time, with sentences reflecting whether an offence was part of a pattern of abusive behaviour.
Domestic violence is an appallingly common problem, and on its own a new law it won’t change things overnight (we also need, for example, to ensure that everyone in the criminal justice system receives better training on how to deal with it) but it would be an important first step.
I’ve also signed an Early Day Motion in support of Eve’s Law, which would address the fact that survivors of domestic violence and abuse are often placed at risk when forced to give their safe address in court.
This week, the Government’s Transparency of Lobbying Bill (better known as the Gagging Bill) will be debated in the House of Lords.
Along with many others, I remain concerned that the Bill imposes a quite astonishing range of requirements on campaigning organisations in the run-up to elections. In a Comment is Free article, I argued it would effectively shut down legitimate voices seeking to raise awareness on issues of public interest, whether they are on NHS reform, housing policy, or wildlife conservation. Campaign spending limits for "third party" organisations – such as charities and pressure groups – would be drastically cut, and the definition of what constitutes campaigning broadened.
I spoke out against the Bill at a public meeting, organised by the campaign group 38 Degrees, at St Mary’s Church. It was very well attended, and if the other local MPs (Conservative) had been present, they would have been in no doubt about the level of public anger at this chilling piece of legislation.
In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor said he would ‘accelerate’ the Network Rail study into improvements to the Brighton Mainline. The connection between Brighton and London is critical, and during a parliamentary debate on Inter-City rail services, I called on the Government to invest to get the second London line that we so desperately need. As well as increased capacity, it is also essential that we have a fast alternative route for passengers at times of disruption. Given the eye-watering amounts of capital being poured into HS2, it’s clear that funding is available - and would be better spent in enhancing capacity on services across the country.
On 1 January, rail fares rose by an average of 2.8% and I’m supporting an Early Day Motion calling for a freeze. Of course I believe the only long term solution to high fares and poor services is to reverse privatisation, and I’ll be continuing to push for more support for my Private Members Bill to bring our railways back into public ownership.
In a response to an oral question I asked during Environment questions, the Minister George Eustice confirmed that the remit of the Independent Expert Panel on the badger culling pilots will be restricted to the first six weeks of the cull, even though the cull period was extended to nine weeks in Somerset, and 11 weeks and two days in Gloucestershire.
I raised concerns that the Government is deliberately restricting the remit of the expert panel as a get-out to justify the failure of the culls. If the panel concludes that culling was not effective, DEFRA may be able to argue that longer culls are necessary in future.
Visit to Royal Mail
Ahead of Christmas, I visited staff at the Royal Mail Delivery Office on North Road.
Many thanks to Office Manager John Beard, who showed me around and introduced me to some of the incredibly hard-working postmen and women responsible for delivery of hundreds and thousands of items over Christmas. It was a hugely impressive operation.
In a debate on housing, I argued that the shortage of affordable homes is a particular problem in Brighton and Hove. Since this Government came to power, the net housing supply has fallen even further, and the number of people in Brighton and Hove on the Council housing waiting list has increased by 40%. I also asked the Shadow Minister what a future Labour government would do to address the crisis, and was disappointed that he would not commit to lifting the cap that restricts the amount councils can borrow to invest in new homes.
On the same day, Parliament debated the proliferation of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, which I’ve consistently opposed. In the Brighton Pavilion constituency, there are an estimated 70 machines, and in Brighton and Hove £270 million was gambled on them last year. I argued that councils need greater powers to prevent the spread of these machines, and that maximum stakes should be drastically reduced.
I’ve also written to the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, welcoming confirmation of investment in the network of transmitters for the broadcast of local radio stations.
The media helped keep me busy over Christmas. In separate Radio 4 debates I took on the energy minister Michael Fallon and the Director of the Countryside Alliance. I also wrote to the Guardian about political apathy.
My work next week includes a visit to the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals on Robertson Road, and a Keep Trade Local walkabout around the North Laine.
If you are a local resident and want help with case work or to find out more about my activities locally please contact me at the office of Caroline Lucas MP, Brighton Media Centre 15-17 Middle Street, Brighton BN1 1AL. Tel: 01273 201 130. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I hold regular surgeries across the constituency. If you want to book an appointment at a forthcoming surgery please call Liz Collis on 01273 201130. She coordinates my constituency office and is able to help with most local enquiries.
If you want to know about my parliamentary work please get in touch at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA. Tel: 020 7219 7025. Email: email@example.com