Welcome to my latest Parliamentary newsletter. If you would like to receive these updates by email, you can sign up here.
In Birmingham Northfield
Many constituents will know personally the issue of crime in our area. But one particular area of worry is that of knife crime. As you will likely have seen recently, three teenagers were stabbed to death within 12 days across Birmingham and there have been almost 300 knife crimes recorded so far this year. Nationally, since 2012 there has been a 93% rise in the number of young people being stabbed. These cases are tragic, truly shocking
Ministers have themselves admitted that knife crime is at its highest level since records began, that serious, organised and violent crime is on the increase and tearing apart communities. However, they are rightly also facing serious criticism for their response, particularly the continuing refusal of the Prime Minister to recognise the link between cuts to Police numbers and rising crime. Here in the West Midlands, today there are over 2,000 fewer police officers than there were nine years ago. Cuts of that magnitude have an impact, particularly in undermining the capacity of the Police to undertake the ongoing neighbourhood work that is vital to preventing crime in the first place. Of course, preventing crime is not only a matter for the Police. As in so many other areas however, Government cuts are also having a big impact, with family support services under strain, youth services cut back and not enough being done to reduce the number of school exclusions that too often end up a route through which end up falling prey to those who would lure them into a life of crime.
I am one of a number MPs who have called on Ministers to treat the increase in violent crime as the national emergency it is, by convening a crisis summit and leading an integrated strategy right across Government to address the issue. I have also called on them to agree to the call from the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner for an emergency funding package to help address the issue in our region. Ministers say they are listening but listening alone is not enough. Now is the time for action, not only words. Along with my Labour colleagues I will continue to push the Government to take that action.
Nursery School Funding
A large number of nurseries around the country have been facing difficulty due to the fact that they had no certainty about funding for their schools as soon as autumn this year. In response to that, at the end of January I spoke in a debate on funding for nursery schools arranged by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Nursery Schools led by Lucy Powell MP. I then visited West Heath Nursery School in early February to discuss the challenges they have been facing and to thank them for sending a petition to me on behalf of staff, parents and pupils at the school.
On the back of those campaigns by the APPG and nurseries across the country, at the end of February the Government announced that they will be providing an additional £24m for maintained nursery schools in recognition of the need to provide the sector with certainty in academic year. This is obviously very welcome news and congratulations are due to the Nurseries APPG and especially to nursery schools, staff and parents for a fantastic campaign. It is important though that we keep pressure on the Government to secure commitment to sustainable funding for the future.
Merritts Brook Academy Visit
Early in February I visited Merritts Brook Academy. The pupils there have been doing a lot of work on air pollution and clean air, responding to a campaign by Unicef. You can learn more about that here. There were some amazing questions and discussions on everything from air pollution to equal pay and Brexit. Thanks to all the school ambassadors who took part and for all the work they have been doing on clean air.
Homelessness Summit in Birmingham
I recently attended a summit on homelessness held in Birmingham with other MPs as well as representatives from the city council and charities. At the meeting, we discussed ‘Kane’s Law’, named after Kane Walker who tragically died near the Bullring in January. There is a chronic shortage of affordable homes in Birmingham that is affecting a wide spectrum of families. Often though, those most vulnerable to ending up on the streets already face a range of complex problems – from family breakdown, to domestic violence, mental illness, and alcohol and substance use. There is no doubt that Government cuts have already had major impact on the availability support services that could otherwise intervene early to help prevent people ending upon the streets in the first place. That is why We are calling for more investment in those support services and for a clear duty on different statutory agencies to cooperate to prevent homelessness.
Homelessness in the UK is at crisis level. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has more than doubled and, since 2014, the number of homeless people who have died on the street has increased by 24%. But homelessness comes in a number of forms and isn’t just about rough sleeping. There are also all those people stuck in temporary accommodation, sofa surfing or waiting to be housed. With around 12,000 people already on the Council’s waiting list because of homelessness, overcrowding or other genuine reasons, there is no doubt that Birmingham faces a major housing crisis. The number of people approaching my office for help with housing issues is increasing dramatically. I don’t believe Birmingham City Council always gets the way it handles cases of homelessness as they should and that is something on which I regularly speak up. However, solving the housing crisis involves a lot more than changes in the way Birmingham City Council organise their support services to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. Crucially, Government backs a major house building programme across the country and that a much higher proportion of the homes built are truly affordable than is the case at present.
Birmingham Labour MPs also met with the Secretary of State for Housing in the last week of February to put this issue and these demands to the Government. The Housing Secretary has agreed to come visit our city to hear from the front-line and talk further about what can be done.
Police Grant and Local Government Finance
The Government recently announced their new funding arrangements for local government and the police. Yet again, they’ve done the bare minimum and passed responsibility for the majority of funding to local police, councils and taxpayers, ultimately sourcing most of it through your Council Tax bill.
The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, David Jamieson, has been clear that in order for West Mids Police to maintain its current working and just stand still, they need an increase of funding in excess of £24m. The Government’s response was to give it just over £15m, leaving the police force with a real-terms funding cut. From 2010-2018, West Mids Police has lost a total of £165m in funding from the Government, the second-highest cash terms decrease among all police forces. As a result, WMP has lost 2,045 officers (down 24%) and 338 PCSOs (down 42%), while at the same time we have seen an 84.6% increase in violent crime. These two statistics are not unlinked.
When it comes to local government funding, the picture hasn’t been any better. Since 2010, Birmingham has lost £376m of spending power, a reduction of around 30%. In cash terms, that is by far the largest reduction across all local authorities in the country (the closest being Manchester which lost out on £183m). Again, the Government’s claimed ‘increase’ in funding is dependent on Council Tax bills going up, so the Government aren’t actually putting in any extra money at all, you are. Government money to LAs is actually being reduced by a further £1.3bn.
Evidently the Government do not quite get the harsh impact their failure to fund local authorities and the police is having. You would think that after 9 years, they’d at least stop to think that maybe their actions have played a role in hollowing out our local services and our police forces. We will continue to make that case to them, but at this stage it is only a Labour government that can give these services the funding and support they need.
Brexit Update (again)
Things continue to move very slowly on Brexit, while the clock ticks down to the 29th March deadline. The Government have finally announced that the next meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s deal will be taking place in the second week of March. However, it is not yet clear whether that deal will be exactly the same one that was defeated by 432 votes to 202 in the House of Commons, or whether the Prime Minister will bring back a slight or substantial amendment to it. Crucially, this leaves precious little time between the vote taking place and the 29th March deadline.
Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce reflected the frustration and anger that so many businesses feel when they said last week that “Business doesn’t run to the same short-term chaotic timetable as our political leaders currently appear to. There are companies who already have shipments in transit that aren’t set to arrive at their destinations until after March 29. Giving businesses just 12-13 working days to adapt to any deal, no deal or extension of this uncertainty is simply not good enough.”
The Government did, however, announce that – should their deal fall in the House of Commons – votes would then take place on whether to extend Article 50 or to exit with no deal in place. I am pleased that Parliament will now be given the option of at least protecting businesses from the prospect of a cliff-edge no deal taking place within those 12 or 13 working days. But the Government need to at least give UK businesses some small bit of certainty that they will not themselves expect businesses to face that cliff edge if PM is unable to secure majority for her new deal. To do that, they need to make clear that a no deal Brexit on 29th March isn’t something the Government would ask Parliament to vote for when they are given the option to do so. You can read some of the things I have written about Brexit in recent months here.
Last month I spoke at an event in Parliament held by Remembering Srebrenica, a charity which seeks to educate about the genocide that took place in Srebrenica back in the early 1990s and seeks to use that as a basis to build a cohesive society by fighting against discrimination, hatred, extremism and exclusion. Their event in Parliament launched their new theme for the year, that of ‘why we commemorate’.
Commemoration gives us an opportunity to learn from the past and avoid repeating it, but it also allows us to remember and honour the victims of genocide and to ensure that survivors have the space and time to share their testimonies. We owe it to them to not only hear their stories and share in their reflection, but also that we learn the lessons of standing up to hatred and intolerance, wherever it is found. In doing so, we must all make the effort to reach out across divides to bring people closer together and improve understanding in our societies. The most important thing to recognise is that genocide is not something that happens ‘somewhere else’ or out of the blue. When intolerance and prejudice are left unchallenged, they can be manipulated into hatred and then grow into a crime against humanity.
If you are interested in reading more, I visited Bosnia back in 2016 with Remembering Srebrenica and wrote this piece reflecting on my trip.