Amber’s contributions in Debates
- On the 12 June 2012, Amber spoke in the Defamation Bill debate:
This is a timely debate. The Bill might be uncontested, as we have heard from many Members, but it is not uncontroversial. Free speech and freedom of expression have been brought to the forefront by the Leveson inquiry, which is happening a mile down the road. In this House, we know that there is a fine balance to be struck in weighing the right to freedom of speech and expression against the right to privacy. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, when it comes to the law on defamation it is vital that we get the balance right. Every Member who has spoken has mentioned the difficulty of getting it right. The solution is not a simple one and great care and caution must be taken.
I, like many other Members, believe that our libel laws are outdated and have made it far too easy for the rich and powerful to suppress and stifle criticism. Even many small-time bloggers, journalists and academic professors are afraid to tackle important issues for fear of being sued—a sad reflection of the current law’s unintended consequences. The Government’s reforms seek to redress the balance, maintaining the importance of free speech while giving people the opportunity to defend themselves against unfair and malicious allegations.
We have heard a lot today about libel tourism. I appreciate that there are mixed views on the matter and on how much of a problem it is in the UK. Some Members have felt that it is overstated, others that it is not, but I think we all agree that it is a problem that London has been labelled in such a way. It is crucial to emphasise that not only the number of cases reflect the problem caused by the libel tourism tag. The threat of proceedings can be used to stifle much-needed investigative journalism, regardless of whether a case is ultimately brought.
I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Buckland, who spoke so eloquently about libel, that it is important that everybody from every walk of life should have access to protection from libel. Libel tourism is hardly an attractive label to be attached to the UK. Here we are, in the mother of Parliaments, standing up for our country, and we do not want to hear that label used. We have so many wonderful attractions in this country—and, dare I say it, in Hastings—so let us try to lose the tag as a
destination for libel tourism as we tackle the issue of defamation. I therefore strongly welcome the provision in clause 9 to tighten the test applied by the courts in cases brought against people who are not domiciled in the UK or the EU.
I support the provisions in clause 11 on the presumption against a jury trial in defamation cases. Of course, I understand the importance of trial by jury in most cases, where it provides a fair hearing for all concerned. Many Members have spoken about the importance of maintaining the true and honest right of British citizens to be tried by their peers, but the existence of the right for either party to opt for trial with a jury has its problems. As we heard earlier, it can often impede settlements, create additional costs and increase the length of cases which, on average, take about 12 months from the issue of court proceedings to trial.
The outdated law surrounding privacy and defamation is highlighted by the online traffic that many Members have discussed. Our internet hosting sites are a particular example. Twitter and Facebook especially have driven a significant rise in online libel claims. For example, last year a county councillor was ordered to pay £3,000 in damages and costs to a political rival over false claims made on Twitter. Operators of websites, both large and small, are also at risk of action against them in respect of comments posted by a third party. It is almost impossible for many websites, such as social networking sites, to police that. The owner of a book store would not be prosecuted for a sentence contained within a book sold at the shop, so why should online sites be fearful of such action being taken against them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is a broader point about some books, but there are quite a lot of books that are not subject to such analysis. I am sure that the Minister will address that point later.
At the moment, internet hosting sites are obliged to remove allegedly defamatory material from their website when they receive a complaint, often without knowing whether the comments are defamatory. That is an attack on free speech and the Bill addresses that issue. The provision in clause 5, which offers website owners a new process governing the responsibility for publication on the internet, will undoubtedly give websites greater protection against a threat of legal action. I am sure that is welcomed by Members on both sides of the House.
Above all, I welcome, as I know my constituents in Hastings and Rye will, the clarity that the Bill will provide in an area that remains unsettled and unclear to many.
Let me mention clause 13, which repeals the Slander of Women Act 1891.
- On the 26th April Amber spoke on the debate regarding EU Working Time Directives and the NHS:
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom who, as always, speaks with such authority on the relationship between this country and Europe. I was particularly interested to hear the relevant experience of my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston. Most hon. Members have said that we do not want to go back to 100 hour weeks; her rather shocking and frightening examples remind us all why that is so. What we want is flexibility—F for flexibility, as Ian Paisley so helpfully put it—so that we can try to get a better outcome for everybody.
So much has already been said and covered, particularly by my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie, who did so well to secure the debate. As she made her remarks, I was concerned that she was going to cover absolutely everything. She pretty much did, so I will just concentrate on one area—surgery—where the effect of the working time directive has been particularly damaging.
Although, as some hon. Members have pointed out, the British Medical Association has said that all training can fit into 48 hours, surgeons I have spoken to are concerned. The body that represents trainee surgeons, the Association of Surgeons in Training, has stressed that surgery is very different from all other aspects of the medical profession. It has clearly taken on the BMA in trying to make that point. As Kate Hoey said, surgery is a craft specialty like chefs, for example—a lot can be learnt from books, but in the end there is nothing like hands on practical experience. Operative and procedural skills define the surgical craft and they are finite in number, with the majority to be gained during working hours. By limiting those hours, we are working against their training and therefore their competency as future consultant surgeons. As the ASIT survey confirmed, the majority of surgical trainees would welcome the opportunity to work in excess of the hours permitted—we are not doing them any favours by restricting their hours.
The Royal College of Surgeons estimates that 400,000 hours of surgical time are lost every month. ASIT believes that the restrictions imposed by the directive will be detrimental to the quality of training for junior surgeons and, therefore, to the quality of surgical service and provision in the future. Ultimately, as said by many of my colleagues today, the restrictions will be harmful to patient care. We also risk deterring junior doctors from specialising in surgery, as they are only too aware of the consequences of the restrictions. The royal college and ASIT both call for flexibility to enable UK surgeons to work up to a maximum of 65 hours per week, including time spent on call.
In addition to the effect of the working time directive on doctors’ training, the legislation is impacting on the continuity and quality of patient care in our hospitals. According to a survey by the Royal College of Surgeons, 80% of consultant surgeons and 66% of surgical trainees
said that patient care had deteriorated as a result of the directive. Those consequences are worrying, and we need to focus on them.
I am talking about evidence, and every Member present has been talking about their own evidence—
Anecdotal evidence is absolutely relevant. We get such evidence from talking in our hospitals to consultants, patients and surgeons. That is much more relevant sometimes than the box-ticking consequences from a more desk-driven survey.
Our 24-hour health service has had to make dramatic changes to how hospitals are staffed. The effects of the reduction in hours have been further compounded by the Jaeger and SiMAP rulings of the European Court of Justice, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West. Those decree that all time spent in the workplace should be regarded as work, whether at rest or not, which is a dramatic change from previous arrangements. As a result, hospitals have had to scrap all on-call arrangements in favour of full shift rotas, which is creating a multitude of problems. Consultants at the Conquest hospital in Hastings told me that, in order to staff a full shift rota in one department, they now need eight people instead of the six they used to have on the old on-call system. Sometimes there is not even enough work. Indeed, the exposure of each doctor to training opportunities in the day is diluted, and the extra doctors are employed purely to service a working time-compliant rota.
The rota and the system are driving health arrangements, which is surely wrong. It is an inefficient and costly way to manage doctors, and it is damaging to the quality of their training. It is particularly harmful for district general hospitals such as my own, the Conquest, which find that they are no longer able to support certain specialties, such as the neurology department in my example, which has now largely moved to the nearby Eastbourne general hospital. Unfortunately, as we have heard from other Members, the same impact on certain specialties is being experienced in their district hospitals. The doctors at the Conquest do a fantastic job, and I am extremely grateful for the hard work and commitment that they put in; but, from my conversations with the consultants, I know that those doctors are being stretched too thin.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point about that particular problem for rural hospitals.
The shift system means that, instead of continuity of care, patients see—as we heard earlier, and I shall repeat the unpleasant phrase—a conveyor belt of doctors. Doctors do not get what they want either, which is to see patients through to treatment. Each time one shift ends and another begins, we have the handover process. As a consultant surgeon from the Conquest hospital said to me, someone unfortunate enough to be admitted to hospital at 7 pm on a Sunday evening would see four different sets of surgeons in just 24 hours. I know that there have always been handovers, but there are now more than ever, and each handover creates a risk of vital information being missed. We heard earlier about Chinese whispers, when expertise and important details may be lost. What is more, doctors are now under time pressure to clock off, so the chances of further mistakes are increased.
The Health and Social Care Act 2012 rightly puts doctors at the heart of the NHS, because they are best placed to manage the service and to deliver better results for patients. It is the doctors who are calling out for regulation to be relaxed, and it is essential that we listen to their cries for help. I am calling for a compromise and some flexibility that allows individual doctors and departments to make sensible decisions. Surgeons are asking for a maximum of 65 hours a week, including time spent on call, and that seems sensible.
We also need flexibility in how on-call time and compensatory rest for trainees are calculated. If a trainee wants to stay after their shift to watch an operation, to learn, and to benefit their training, they should be able to do so. We all want tomorrow’s doctors to be as good and as experienced as today’s doctors, so we must allow them to be the doctors that we expect them to be. We trust doctors with our lives, so we should trust them when they tell us they need more time to train.
- On the 15th March 2012, Amber spoke in the debate regarding the Common Fisheries Policy:
Does my hon. Friend agree that the best outcome for our country’s relationship with the common fisheries policy would be what was described to us as a “toolbox”? We would operate our own toolbox, given our certain allocation, and that would perhaps give us the best option in terms of the European balance and the UK fishing balance.
t is a pleasure to follow Austin Mitchelland to hear his support for our report.
The common fisheries policy is friendless—I think we will hear more about that from hon. Members this afternoon. However, it is not just we who say that: it is the fishermen, the environmentalists, to whom it has not been the solution they expected, and—let us face it—now the population at large, to whose attention the issue of discards has been brought. Discards are the very manifestation of the failure of the CFP. However, we have to be careful, as my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh said in opening the debate, to ensure that we do not wish for the end of discards without explaining how to get there. We all want to see the end of discards, but the current system, with the mixed quota and a mixed fishery, does not allow for it. We therefore have to proceed in a measured, step-by-step way that will allow for what we all ultimately want: the end of discards.
I cannot overstate the mess and confusion that the industry faces. If Mephistopheles himself had tried to design a system intended to confuse and inhibit people, and to get the worst possible outcome for all the stakeholders, he just might have come up with the current system.
I return, however, to the main issue I have with discards, which is that that they are, I believe, down to the quota system being allocated for particular fish stocks, rather than for what we actually have, which is mixed fisheries. In part, that is an indication that we have a major problem with the fishing industry. I am entirely sympathetic—I know that many other Members here are too, as are those on our Committee—when it comes to the difficult pass that the Minister has been given. He has to find a difficult balance between the different interests in the fishing industry.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and quite radical suggestion, which brings me to my next point. Perhaps the Minister should consider an independent review of some sort. There are so many different interests involved, and so many ways of trying to move the goalposts and achieve one outcome or another, that I am not sure it is possible for one Minister to act as referee. Perhaps he should consider appointing an arbitrator to conduct an independent review, in order to achieve an outcome on which all the stakeholders could agree.
One proposal on common fisheries policy reform that our report has looked at involves transferrable fishing concessions. My concern, and that of other Members, is reflected in the report. It is that such concessions would not be good for the under-10 metre community. The evidence from other countries is that they have worked against smaller communities, and that the under-10s tend to suffer under them. Those communities tend to lose out in the initial allocation of quota, there is no route for new entrants, and the environmental and social performance is not taken into consideration. Under the present proposals, there is 5% of potential quota allocation for environmental and social performance. I would propose—this is not in the report—that, if we had such a system, there should be a far greater amount allocated to social and environmental performance, which is incredibly important. That would also help to stimulate the under-10 metre communities, which tend to do a lot of social and environmental work locally
The nub of the matter is the question why can we not have a fisheries policy that supports fishing communities? Our current policy has failed—the evidence of that is in our report. Communities find themselves diminished, and the discards continue. We need a new impetus, a new effort and new ideas. Under the new Government, we definitely got the new effort. We began well, by introducing a measure that the smaller, under-10-metre communities had been seeking for a while—namely, a one-off re-allocation of the quota. Obviously, as someone who comes from such a community, I would say that that was not enough, and that it was too conservative, but the Minister will have found, when he embarked on the re-allocation, that he had entered a swamp of divisiveness and infighting between the different interests. The previous Government tried to work with the under-10-metre communities, but they ended up suffering from fishing reform fatigue and gave up their effort to help. Another great advantage of having a Conservative coalition Government is that we have a new impetus and a new effort. I say to the Minister: keep up the energy and the enthusiasm, so that we can get the reforms that this country so badly needs.
I want to reiterate my concerns about the transferrable fishing concessions. We must not allow them to cement what should be a public resource as a private commodity. When the Committee went down to Hastings and held discussions with both sectors, they acknowledged the need for decommissioning. As hon. Members have said, however, there have been problems with that in the past, even though it was supported by Government money. Mr Doran mentioned that the process had had limited success.
In Hastings, we also welcome the support for alternative initiatives. We have been lucky enough to receive £1 million of the £8.7 million put aside under a European initiative involving Fisheries Local Action Groups—FLAGs—to help to support fishermen into new initiatives. I urge fellow Members to come and look at the exciting, adventurous work being done on the Stade in Hastings, where our fishing fleet is, to find alternative methods of employing fishermen and to upgrade their kit and provide new tractors. That is a positive way of trying to help our fishermen into the future.
Above all, when we consider how we can help our fishermen, we need to try carefully to find the balance between satisfying the environmentalists, which we all are, the fishermen who need to continue their lives and the needs of the population who will not accept a system that has so many discards. I am fortunate to come from Hastings, where fishing is so important. It is crucial that my residents in Hastings and Rye know that this issue is taken very seriously. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and the remaining comments from other Members.
- On the 14th March 2012, Amber spoke in the debate regarding Women’s Aid:
Like many Members here, I supported trying to get individuals responsible for their housing benefit. The fact that 75% now have to pay out of their own housing benefit is a positive step forward for individuals. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that women in refuges or in Women’s Aid are allowed to have their housing benefit paid not directly to them, but to the supportive housing. I understand that the Department is still considering the matter, and I share his concerns that we need to ensure that the most vulnerable do not have to deal with their own finances and housing benefit in this way.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of universal credit, which I am sure we will hear more about, is that child benefit—as we know, it will be paid only to lower earners—will still be paid directly to women? That is important for protecting women’s financial situation. It is not going to be rolled up in universal credit.
It would be interesting to see the evidence for that. I say that in all honesty, because the right hon. Lady’s argument is interesting, but for some women being in shared accommodation with other women in a refuge might be helpful. Shared support is important.
May I just make the observation that men can also be very helpful and sympathetic on issues of domestic violence? I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.
The point I was making was that I welcomed the fact that men are participating in a debate that is primarily about women. I totally support what the right hon. Lady says, but I also welcome the fact that it is not only women who are supporting action on this important issue.
Sometimes, it is important to pay housing benefit directly to refuges to secure their financial future. Private landlords may get into trouble or have difficulty, but they are supported by the law and can enter into negotiations with their tenants. For refuges, having a secure financial commitment is important to their survival.
- On 8th March 2012, Amber spoke in the debate regarding the importance of International Women’s Day:
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Glindon. I share her enthusiasm for the scouts and the guides.
Why is there no international men’s day? I cannot be the only Member to have been asked that, not just by acquaintances but by one or two Members. Let me say that it made me wonder why they think like that, before hon. Members hazard a guess about what side of the argument I might take. Why do they think that? The answer is that there is much to celebrate. If we look at ourselves professionally in the country, 42% of all doctors are women, although the figure for consultants is only 31%; in the law, 60% of current trainees are women, but only 21% of partners and only 22% of judges are women. If we consider the FTSE, only 15% of directors are women—that has already been much trailed and debated in Parliament. However, the figure was 5.8% in 2001—again, we must celebrate the progress that has been made. We are making a tremendous effort in all parties with the team led by Lord Davies on the 30% aim. Of civil servants, 53% are women, although that figure is only 35% at senior level. We have much to celebrate, but major problems remain.
We have much to celebrate when we consider the young people in our education system. Every year, when GCSE and A-level results are announced, we hear about the segmentation of the genders and how well the young women have done. In 2011, the girls outperformed by the boys at A-level by 78% to 74%. That is encouraging. In exams and at entry level, women are doing well, but in senior positions, they are not doing so well. For me, that is one of the main reasons why we need an international women’s day. We still have the problem of getting women into senior positions. The Suffragettes thought that the answer was to get the vote, but 100 years later we find that that is not the case. We have not achieved that equality, which they would be amazed to see still eludes us.
The media seem to think that the debate is about whether feminism means wearing high-heeled shoes or pole dancing. In my view, it does not. We must not let that mask the seriousness of what is going on and the economic difference that persists between men and women. Women earn 75p in the pound to every man.
Some people say that we do not need an international women’s day or quotas and so on because they see younger women doing so well at A-level and at entry levels. However, they fall down at more senior levels.
I think that the main reason why women do not make real progress is child care. We often debate on the Floor of the House who has better answers to that, but we know that child care went up by 50% under the previous Government. I am longing for more initiatives from the Government to build on those we have because I believe that child care is the big problem that prevents women from getting on.
This afternoon, we will hear about individual campaigns and particular issues championed by hon. Members. It will be an exciting afternoon. Many women Members of Parliament have got young women from their constituencies shadowing them. I have Amy Gibbons and Alice Williams from Parkwood in Hastings shadowing me today. I know that they are most welcome here.
We need today to reinforce the message that Members must continually champion women’s lives. Tremendous progress has been made, but the position is still unfair nationally and internationally; the world is still lop-sided. We have an important role to play in highlighting that.
Internationally, 19% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and only 16 of the world’s directly elected 188 leaders are female. Does it matter? You bet it matters. When colleagues here say, “We don’t necessarily need more women MPs—I can speak for the women”, one might tactfully suggest that they look around the Chamber today to see who is speaking up for the women. From whom will we hear this afternoon about individual issues that matter to women and their communities? The answer is, of course, women.
What key issues do I hope will be discussed this afternoon? We will hear about pay, child care and opportunity. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend Mrs Grant about safety, which is another key issue for women. So many women are not safe in their houses. The United Nations has said that one in three is likely to be a victim of sexual assault. Violence against women causes more deaths and disabilities in women aged 15 to 54 than cancer, malaria, road accidents and war. Tremendous progress has been made, but we must never let that make us complacent.
We need international women’s day, not to be just like those countries, such as China, Russia and Vietnam, that make today a national holiday—would not that be
a nice idea? Some countries make it make it a national holiday for women. Perhaps that would get the attention of some of our colleagues.
The serious point is that the personal is political. We need to do more to help women, not just in the workplace, although it is important, not just in schools, but in their homes. We must never take our eyes off the ball.
- On the 27th February 2012, Amber spoke on the issue of Olympics and Paralympics funding:
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, who is known, among other things, for being an able sportswoman herself. Sadly, I am no athlete but, like many Members and residents of the country, I will be looking forward enormously to the Olympics.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing to the important political front of house that goes on at the Olympics. It is interesting to remark on that, because we tend to focus on the sporting and cultural elements.
Unfortunately, like many other Members, I did not get tickets. I am hoping to get them in the next round; otherwise, I will be glued to the television at particular points of the event.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. She is well known for having a way with words, and today is no exception.
The Olympic torch relay represents peace, unity and friendship, as the flame is passed from one torch bearer to another. The torch relay in 2012 will give everyone in the UK the chance to be part of this historic occasion. The torch will go to almost every corner of the UK. LOCOG has achieved its ambition of taking the flame to within an hour’s journey of 95% of the population. We should applaud and congratulate it in achieving that endeavour.
The torch and the relay are not innovations. They were important elements of the cultural festivals surrounding the Olympic games of ancient Greece and they are just as important to us in 2012. The torch relay will spread the excitement of the games across the UK and mark the final countdown to the games.
I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting point. I agree that if the Olympics can contribute to the emancipation of women in other countries, it will be a further benefit of what we are doing.
- On the 12th January 2012, Amber spoke on the issue of women’s representation on Parliament:
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I feel very strongly, as I know do many fellow Members, that it is important to raise diversity issues constantly in the House in order to get a better outcome for everyone. I saw a very good film this week about a young woman who was very clear and focused on what she wanted to achieve, despite the obstacles in front of her. She became a Member of Parliament and then Prime Minister. As we reflect on the issues we can address in order to raise diversity in the House, I feel certain that many people who see that film, whatever their politics, will be as shocked as I was at the sight of one woman among so many men. The film shows very clearly the difficulties she faced but nevertheless overcame.
I now have to put my glasses on—my diversity is something to do with age as well as gender.
We have come a long way since Lady Thatcher, but there is still a lot to do, which is why we are having this debate. Each party is addressing diversity in its own way, but it is absolutely clear to me, having listened to the debate this afternoon, that everyone is committed to it. It is important to say that it is not right to think that there can be one solution for all parties. Each party has different political philosophies and it is inevitable that we will have different ways of approaching the diversity issue. The Labour party has dealt with it through all-women shortlists and quotas and has had its success as a result—of course it has; they are all-women shortlists—but I do not believe that that is a desirable way of introducing more women into Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution—it is always nice to have one’s views confirmed in so eloquent a way.
Where are we now? Some 16% of Conservative MPs are women. Only 12% of Liberal Democrat MPs are women, but it is nice to hear that the Deputy Prime Minister has that in his sights. The figure for the Labour party is 32%, which brings us to an average of 22%. I believe that the figures for the parties masks a very significant success for the Conservative party in introducing more women. It was suggested earlier that the Conservative party effectively had all-male shortlists before, and those of us who have followed party selections and elections to Parliament for some time were slightly surprised at the 2001 general election when only one of the 26 new Conservative Members elected was a woman. However, from that very low base the party has made a tremendous change, and I think that the evidence for that change is the fact that we could achieve it by persuasion, nudge and training.
Between 2005 and 2010, we had a clear strategy to deal with the issue. We had an organisation called women2win—
It was ably supported by my hon. Friend—who is here and a man; it is always nice to have a man stand up in support of more women in Parliament—by Baroness Jenkin and by my right hon. Friend Mrs May, who is of course the Home Secretary. That organisation did an enormous amount in mentoring and training and, if I may say so, in persuading the Conservative party to improve the training of those who make the selection, because they also need to understand that there are different types of MP.
I agree. It is absolutely essential that the item remains at the top of the agenda for all political parties, but my point is that my political party will not, I believe, be introducing all-women shortlists. Most of my colleagues agree with that, because it is not the only way to achieve this much-needed increase in the diversity of representation.
After the 2010 election, we had 147 new Conservative MPs, of whom 36—or 25% of the new intake—were women. Now, 25% representation is a big step up from the 9% that we had before 2010, so that approach has been a tremendous success, and we have achieved it without the undemocratic approach of all-women shortlists.
The problem that we are trying to address is not just to do with Parliament, however, because there is a problem with women’s representation not just at Westminster but, as we have discussed in previous debates, in public companies, at the top in boardrooms and in different elements of life. I picked up a copy of The Guardian recently, and it stated that
“78% of the UK’s newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men, and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men.”
Women and ladies, we need to do something about that.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for improving on my case.
My point is not to hide from the important problem that we have to address in Parliament, but to say that it is a wider problem that the Government as a whole need to address in order to ensure that we get all women to the top of the ladder, and to demonstrate to young women that they, too, can achieve and get to the top. As we have heard, it makes good business sense, and in public life it is absolutely essential, because if we want to be truly democratic we have to reflect the diversity of the whole country. It is more important in Parliament than anywhere else.
It is an incredible privilege to be a Member, but we have a responsibility to ensure that Parliament as a whole reflects the diversity of the country. We should not, however, have a system of mandatory quotas beyond each individual party deciding to make its own case for them, because each party must have its own approach.
To me, and to my colleagues in the Conservative party, all-women shortlists are a form of surrender, because what do we admit if we introduce them? We admit that somewhere the problem is so ingrained that we have to impose a shortlist. It is far better to ask,
“What is the problem? Why are we not getting more women, more people from ethnic minorities and more disabled people? And what can we do to support them so that they are equally valued and equally selected in a selection process?” Let us not surrender. Let us not approach the matter in terms of quotas. Let us look at the root of the problem and, in that way, try to encourage more people to come through and, like us, become Members of Parliament.
- On 30th November 2011, Amber spoke in the Living Standards debate:
Did my hon. Friend experience what I did, in the similar coastal community of Hastings? During those Labour years, there was a dramatic fall in average income in comparison with the rest of the country. In Hastings, it fell by £100 a week per person during that period.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s commitment to provide 4,200 new health visitors will help to reinforce that early intervention message?
Does my hon. Friend agree that that situation was particularly highlighted by the fact that this country could have been in danger of having its debt downgraded? Before the general election, Moody’s and Fitch were watching the previous Government, and had threatened to downgrade.
Has not the hon. Lady heard the comments from my colleagues and me about growth in the private sector? Five hundred thousand new private sector jobs have been created in the past year. I dispute her statement that these jobs are not being created in the private sector—they are. But I am in no way complacent. I know that we are in difficult times and that people’s living standards are being squeezed.
The Government are doing an incredibly important job. They are doing their best in difficult times to keep up living standards. Above all, they need to get out of the way of job creation, which is the best way of helping people out of poverty.
There has been much talk this afternoon about real people. Thinking about the incredibly important subject of living standards, I thought about a real person I met in 2007. In my constituency, in an extremely poor ward, I met a woman who had just come back from work. She said to me, speaking about the then Government, “Why do they bother giving me a pay packet at all? All I get is the leftovers. Why don’t they just give me the pocket money?” She had just been affected by the 10p tax cut, which famously affected 60% of women and was so damaging to the lowest paid.
Living standards is the overriding important issue that politicians try to work on to improve quality of life for everybody. It is the practical application of the famous phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”, because it is the private economy, the budget, of individuals and families. There are so many levers that politicians try to move to work on living standards, and in the time allowed to me I will focus on two: taxation and jobs.
I mentioned the lady from Hastings, who lives in Bevan court in Hollington. As a low earner, she will now be approaching being taken out of tax. This has been referred to many times this afternoon, and I repeat that taking people out of tax is one of the most important things the Government can do to combat poverty and raise living standards. I urge the Government, however choppy the economic waters get, to ensure that they stick to the commitment to increase the level to £10,000. Aligned to increasing the level is tax simplification, which really would be welcomed.
Undoubtedly the best way to raise living standards is to help people who do not have a job to get one. I welcome the Government’s initiatives in relation to the youth contract and apprentices, because poverty really becomes entrenched where families follow each other into unemployment. I hope that the universal credit will mitigate some of that, with its associated reforms to help make work pay, such as introducing free child care for when mothers go out to work for one hour rather than their having to work a minimum of 16 hours. The best way to improve living standards is to create jobs and the best way to do that is to stimulate the private sector. I thought that the new president of the CBI, Sir Roger Carr, put it very well when he said:
“Government can set the climate, but it is business that must deliver the goods.”
Yes, we can set the climate, but we cannot produce the jobs. We must encourage the private sector to do that. This Government are doing their best to set that climate fair, despite what is going on in the Eurozone and despite the inheritance we had. That is the best way to raise living standards.
It is great to hear about that marvellous triumph of the private sector. There is another example in Hastings: a year ago Saga moved into the town with up to 800 new jobs. Only 350 have been filled so far, but I hope that they will continue to build on that number.
We have high public sector employment in Hastings, so with these changes and cuts, we are delighted to have a major private sector employer able to provide jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I would like to take the opportunity to say how much I respect the people who work in the public sector. I value the important work that they do. I and my family have used our local hospital in Hastings and they do an excellent job. It is important that we recognise the enormous value that the public sector provides, but we need more job creation in the private sector.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government’s initiative to bring in work experience is valuable and I understand that the scheme is going well, with people picking up jobs after their work experience.
Has not the hon. Lady heard the comments from my colleagues and me about growth in the private sector? Five hundred thousand new private sector jobs have been created in the past year. I dispute her statement that these jobs are not being created in the private sector—they are. But I am in no way complacent. I know that we are in difficult times and that people’s living standards are being squeezed.
The Government are doing an incredibly important job. They are doing their best in difficult times to keep up living standards. Above all, they need to get out of the way of job creation, which is the best way of helping people out of poverty.
- On 29th November 2011, Amber spoke in the debate of Educational Development of Girls:
Okay. I am interested in talking about this topic because confidence is probably the single most important element in a young woman’s life choices. One of the most destructive factors is a young woman not having the confidence to be able to make the choice to get her qualifications and develop her career, and instead making what is effectively a choice to have a baby very young. That is why this is absolutely about confidence. It is about having the ability to make that choice.
I encourage the Department for Education to engage with the charity Straight Talking so that we have more representations from women who have been in that situation and can deliver peer-to-peer advice in schools, so that young women can focus on that choice. I welcome the fact that the Department is consulting on the subject–if any Members would like to input into it, the consultation closes on 30 November. If we are going to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy, which is a casualty of lack of confidence, addressing confidence is absolutely paramount.
I agree. It is incredibly important that young women realise that there are other women out there who can help them to make smart choices. We need to reduce the impact of all the advertising and television that seems to suggest to them that celebrity and early parenthood are a way forward. It is well known that these young women sometimes make what we call a choice to go ahead and have a baby at a young age. They think it is a smart choice—they see the welfare benefits—but in the vast majority of cases it is not a smart choice, and it has unhealthy outcomes for the young woman and the baby.
In schools, we can do two things. We can raise educational standards, of course. In some cases, it is hardly fair to say that young women with no qualifications make choices. They do not make choices, because they are left with no qualifications. Having qualifications is incredibly important, and I hope that this Government raise standards.
We also need to help young women with their self-esteem, so that they have, quite simply, the confidence to make choices—to say “No” when they want to, and to ask for birth control so that they do not end up having babies quite so young.
Last week I saw Hilary Pannack of Straight Talking, a leading UK charity, which was set up in 1998 to combat the high levels of teenage pregnancy. The charity does an extraordinary thing, delivering peer-to-peer education in schools. It employs young mothers who have had babies as teenagers to go into schools and make clear the sort of life that lies ahead. They do not say, “This is a disastrous thing to do,” because no life is a disastrous thing, but they do explain the hardships of young motherhood and the lack of choice about their own lives. The organisation is very successful. It told me that it tries to explain why not to get pregnant:
“The approach is centred on the belief that young people might know how not to get pregnant”—
this is not pure sex education; they understand the facts—
“but they also need to know why not to get pregnant.”
My experience of talking to young women in Hastings is that that would be a very useful guide.
Coming back to the impact of deprivation, in 2007-09 the teenage conception rate in Hastings was, unfortunately
- In a later session, Amber spoke further on the issue:
Of course, Mrs Main. I will adhere to that, confidently. With qualifications and confidence—king. Without qualifications—trouble, absolutely. But anyone who is brimming with confidence can get on and make the right choices.
It is very important that, along with studying for their qualifications, young people learn confidence at school, but why is it particularly necessary for girls? We so often see girls outperforming boys in qualifications, so why is it that when I go, as I often do, to the mixed schools, particularly the secondaries, in my constituency and get up and talk to the pupils, I get many questions, but very rarely from the young women? They seem to think that they have to sit quietly, and that worries me. It worries me that the next generation of young women are not confident enough in the classroom, and that will have an impact on their future lives. We know what low confidence is about; it is about low self-esteem, and in areas of high deprivation, such as the ones I have in Hastings, we are more likely to get the low self-esteem that goes with lower family expectations and unwise choices.
The topic I want to address today is teenage pregnancy. The UK has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe and the developed world, and one of the highest in the whole world. The previous Government made strong efforts to tackle the problem. In 1999 they put together a 10-year strategy to reduce the number of teen pregnancies, and a lot of money was spent on it. The different impacts and influences on the young women making the choices were analysed, and we found out a lot about the effects of welfare, of access to employment and housing, and of confidence, but unfortunately the strategy did not have a tremendous impact. Over those 10 years, the number of teen pregnancies fell by only 13%; the goal had been 50%. Any decrease is of course good, because having such high levels is an unacceptable way for communities to operate, but we could do more, by boosting confidence in schools. We must have a platform that addresses how we can influence young women so that they make smart choices.
The Government are right to put so much emphasis on qualifications and on raising school standards. Every time our excellent Secretary of State for Education gets up and raises the flag for higher standards in schools, I want to cheer him, and as a parent I harass my children regularly, with mixed results, but I must confess that there is perhaps one thing more important than qualifications and that is, of course, confidence. If you have confidence and qualifications you are king and are likely to become a Member of Parliament—
On 15th September 2011, Amber gave her speech on the Food Security and Famine Prevention (Africa):
I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the contribution of the British public, via the Disasters Emergency Committee, and the British Government to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa;
recognises that emergency food relief must always be the last resort and that improving the productivity and resilience of domestic agricultural systems in Africa must be a priority for the UK and the international donor community;
and calls upon the Government to increase its focus on improving awareness around nutrition and agriculture in the developing world to support farmers and secure greater international food resilience and to champion the welfare of those in the developing world in the discussions on food price volatility at the upcoming G20 Summit in Cannes.
The motion was tabled by me and Heidi Alexander and is supported by 30 other Members—it is truly a cross-party motion supported by Members from throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that that reflects the seriousness of the subject matter and the settled desire of the House to have the opportunity to debate it.
One might think that things had improved in the horn of Africa if one only followed the media, but unfortunately they have not. The food crisis has, I am afraid, got much worse. Last week, the UN announced that a sixth region of Somalia has entered the famine. There are now 750,000 people at risk and an estimated $2.5 billion is required to prevent that starvation escalating, but there is currently a $950 million shortfall without even estimating the needs beyond December 2011.
Despite such uncertainties, the UK has led the international response. Despite the many economic difficulties we all have at home, the UK Government have led and I believe that they should be commended for that. They have done what they set out to do and have not tried to balance the books on the backs of the poorest, and they have contributed £188 million. The UK public’s generosity through individual gifts reflects their support for the Government in this generosity. By the end of last week, they had given £57 million, which is greater than the amounts given by the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Switzerland put together. The UK Government have a responsibility, however, both to the general public, who have given so much, and to the citizens of the horn of Africa, who have so little, to ensure that that money really delivers.
Famines are political. We all know that the immediate response to a famine must be food, aid and shelter, but we should also look hard at what else can be done
earlier on. It is not the lack of food but the fact that some people cannot get access to the food that causes the famine. The main cause of food security in Africa is war and conflict. Famine is about so much more than food: it is about a famine of education, democracy, health, transport and so many other items. The food famine becomes a symptom of that vast failure. The last famine in Europe was the Irish potato famine, which was a failure of politics as much as a failure of the agriculture that season.
I believe that we in this House should encourage and support the efforts towards conflict prevention through the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and any Government Department, and we can work with the organisations that are already settled in such societies to try to do that. I am aware that external interventions in fragile states are fraught with risk. We know that they can make things worse, but we must nevertheless be bold and try always to support good governance so that we can try to promote the emergence of civil society.
As the Nobel prize winner Professor Amartya Sen famously noted, there are no famines in democracies that have a free press. We can and should help support organisations that help with building a free society—that is the true version of early prevention of a famine. We also must not lose sight of the help we can give towards building agricultural resilience to famine. Agriculture is the lifeblood of the national economies of the horn of Africa. In 2009, 50% of the gross domestic product of Ethiopia came from agriculture, and the equivalent figure was 22% in Kenya and 60% in Somalia. The majority of the labour force in those countries work in rural areas and 80% are smallholders working less than 2 hectares. When we consider that the Palace of Westminster covers 3 hectares, we can begin to get a feeling of what a small area they have to work in and how precarious their living is. We should try to focus our support on the organisations working with those small farmers and micro-scale producers who can produce a much greater yield than the large monoculture farms. Seven out of 10 of the world’s hungry are members of those small rural households.
The UK public, generous as they have been, expect results from UK aid. I welcome once more the huge international effort, of which the UK has been so supportive, to provide immediate famine relief, which is saving lives day by day, but we must also focus on long-term agricultural resilience, helping communities to improve their yield. If we do that—if we can help them build up their own incomes—we also help them towards building up their own civil societies. A community who have a surplus can invest in their own education and in their own health service, so we have the twin benefit of helping with the production of agriculture and helping communities create their own incomes, thereby building, from the bottom up, the civil society that can then provide the stability of a democracy that is less likely to go into famine.
We all know that this is complex. When we talk about famine, people start listing, as I have, its many different elements. We must not let the complexity of the subject put us off. We must continue putting our efforts into prevention. We must try to work
with the famine as it is at the moment, but above all we must try to make sure that it does not happen again by supporting people so that their own civil society can emerge.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will wind up the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bob Stewart. It is always interesting to hear from him about his passionate support for the people of Africa and about what his wife has been doing to support them.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for attending and thank their opposite numbers for kindly coming here as well. The common theme of the debate has been that we need to do all we can to help the people of the horn of Africa. All Members have taken the time to congratulate the UK public on their contribution and express wholehearted support for the Government’s efforts, only stopping to try to redirect those efforts and introduce their own examples or themes regarding things they think can really make a difference.
I should like to repeat a couple of the points that have been made and ask the Under-Secretary to respond to them in due course. Sadly, he will not speak on this occasion, but I am sure that he will come back to us individually. First, I will comment on food price volatility and commodity trading. Alison McGovern said she was not sure whether that is a matter of concern although it has been suggested that it is. It would be helpful to those of us who are concerned about food security to achieve a settled view, if that is possible, on whether it is something that we should be concentrating on. If it is, we absolutely need to address it, but if not, we do not want it to distract us from all our other efforts. Time and money are limited and we need to know where to focus them. It has also been interesting to hear so many Members speak strongly about the importance of focusing aid towards women, who support their homes and families, and I emphasise that point to the Under-Secretary.
The complexity of the causes of the famine has not put the House off; instead, each Member has dealt with them with in their own way, drawing on their own experience to do so. The House should be proud of the fact that Members have put in such effort, resulting in a very good debate. The most important message to emerge is the urgency of improving agricultural resilience in these countries. If we can help people to grow their own food and feed themselves, we will help them to mitigate the difficulties that cause the famine we are now witnessing.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate and congratulate everybody on their speeches. I have very much enjoyed hearing so many Members speak so strongly and passionately about other people and countries that they care about. It is good for the House that we have done that. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to .
That this House welcomes the contribution of the British public, via the Disasters Emergency Committee, and the British Government to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa; recognises that emergency food relief must always be the last resort and that improving the productivity and resilience of domestic agricultural systems in Africa must be a priority for the UK and the international donor community; and calls upon the Government to increase its focus on improving awareness around nutrition and agriculture in the developing world to support farmers and secure greater international food resilience and to champion the welfare of those in the developing world in the discussions on food price volatility at the upcoming G20 Summit in Cannes.
- On 29th June 2011, Amber gave her speech on a debate on Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders:
The Bill falls into two distinct parts, despite its tripartite title: first the reforms to sentencing and the punishment of offenders, and secondly the changes to legal aid.
On the first part, I welcome the key changes. The public need reassurance that this Government can protect them from crime and tackle the issue of reoffending, about which my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips spoke so well. I particularly welcome the work for prisoners’ reform. Locking up offenders is fine, but how much better to have them repaying their debt by working, and increasing their own motivation for and appetite for work on exit. Part of that must be the crackdown on drug abuse inside prisons. I completely agreed with my hon. Friend Anna Soubry when she pointed out how many people recently have expressed their concern and outrage at the concept of drug-free wings in prison. Our ultimate aspiration must be drug-free prison. That, above all, will help people avoid offending. I welcome this tough but fair Bill, which addresses the problems of drugs and worklessness in that respect.
Turning to the legal aid side and the cuts in the civil sector, the Government have provided much evidence of the disproportionate costs of legal aid in this country,
and I do not doubt it. I agree heartily with the strategy of discouraging too much litigation, particularly at a cost to the public purse. But surely the challenge that we are setting ourselves is to fillet out areas of waste while leaving intact the essential service of legal aid for the most vulnerable.
I wonder whether the cuts as currently set out fall too harshly in an area that has as its sole objective the support for people who are least able to speak up for themselves. As Karl Turner said, that area is not replete with fat cat lawyers; it is mostly populated by men and women who are committed to helping the most needy in their communities. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] As we know, not everyone is able to speak up for themselves. We talk of telephone lines and of self-representations at tribunals, which are things that MPs could do, although naturally we hope not to be in that situation, but which many people who are less educated simply cannot.
I therefore ask the Government to consider carefully the issue of taking welfare benefits out of scope. That phrase needs some explanation; when talking to colleagues I have found that not everyone understands it. What it means is professional advice going to people who need it, regarding their welfare claims on the ground. It sounds trivial but it is absolutely not. This is about critical sums of money for families who need every penny—and, by the way, most of these situations do not involve a lawyer.
In Hastings, three agencies have come together. They have a contract for £270,000, and last year they gave face-to-face service to 1,500 people—detailed advice and support, often including accompanying them to tribunals. Make no mistake: we need those services. I am told that 56% of those who attended that service had long-term illness or disability, and of those 69% had mental health issues. Where will they go? I hope we shall have an answer, because although we have had some encouraging comments from Ministers we need reassurance that there is somewhere for those people to go if that service is taken away.
Last year, the Hastings advice and representation centre supported 250 benefits appeals, of which it lost only two, which clearly demonstrates the value of that work and the fact that it takes things on only where there is a real case to answer. If we knew that the Department for Work and Pensions made only good decisions and that the reforms to universal credit which we are so looking forward to had come through and the system worked 100%, I would have no doubts about supporting the cuts to that aspect of legal aid, but at the moment we know that is not the case, and while that problem exists we must have a system to support these people.
I am not saying that there are no cuts to be made—oh no. We have a major deficit to sort out and we must make these cuts. The Law Society has made some suggestions; I have another. I would like to look very carefully at the funding of trivial human rights cases, in which lawyers have spent huge sums on establishing largely technical violations of the European convention. For instance, how much money was spent last year by the last Government on legal aid for prisoners? Can we have less legal aid for prisoners and more for the most vulnerable in our society?
- On 17th June 2011, Amber gave her speech in the Adjournment debate on rail links to Hastings:
I should like to set the scene, if I may, of a beautiful town on the south-east coast. Some very exciting new projects are taking place in Hastings. We will have a new gallery at the end of this year, and we are rebuilding our pier after recently receiving Heritage Lottery Fund money. Saga, which moved to the town in the past year, is bringing 800 new jobs. I could go on and on about the amazing positive developments that are taking place in Hastings, but we also have some major problems, and sadly, I should like to take this opportunity to draw attention to those for a few minutes.
The index of multiple deprivation is like a sin list for boroughs. There are 352 on the list and Hastings has risen steadily up it—the top is the worst. We recently found ourselves, sadly, at No. 19. There is poverty and a lack of industry in the town. There has been much debate in the town on what can be done to change that. How can we bring about the regeneration that we so desperately need? Everyone has a different view, but transport is the one matter on which we are united. How can we improve transport, and particularly rail links to London, to stimulate the regeneration that we need?
We feel cut off, like an island. Road problems compound the rail problem. From London, it takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to get to York by rail, 1 hour 55 minutes to get to Cardiff, and 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hastings. It is clearly absurd that such a short distance takes such a long time. Under the previous Labour Government, we had no investment in our roads or rail. We were shamefully neglected.
I am encouraged by the Government’s speedy and affirmative action in respect of electrification on the Great Western route and other railways in the north-west of England, and I dare to hope that they will also deliver improvements for the people of Hastings.
Why is the train service in Hastings quite so bad? This is an unfortunate, historical situation. We were let down when the new railway was built in the 1850s, because it competed for speed with the one being built to Brighton. We have problems with our tunnels, single lines in certain areas and we are vulnerable to points failure and slow periods during journeys. We also have electrification problems, so 12 cars cannot go south of Tunbridge.
How do we achieve the improvements that we so badly need? I am happy to say that Network Rail is working with Southeastern trains on small improvements. Incremental improvements are being made that will shave seconds, possibly minutes, off our journey times. We so hope that we will not for ever be known as the Cinderella line. Improvements are being made this year to some of the assets, including the points, and in order to rein back some of the speed restrictions.
We had horrific problems over the winter caused obviously by the snow, but what my constituents really objected to was the lack of information—they were kept waiting for hours unable to access the right
information. I am told that Southeastern Trains and Network Rail are now working closely with National Rail to provide that information. However,I am ambitious for my constituency. I want to get rid of this end-of-the-line reputation, and I want us to have a much, much better line in order to achieve the necessary regeneration. I do not want just these incremental improvements; I want a first-class line, so that we can make the great leap forward that we need. We need a better quality of line, and we need that without enormous costs to the taxpayer.
The recent McNulty report leads the way. We were faced with the shocking statistic that our lines cost over 40% more than European ones. It points out how to stop above-inflation rises and it tells us about the reforms that can be instigated within our railway lines to stop this constant rising of costs and deterioration of services. My constituents have had enough of these constant inflation-busting rises. McNulty stresses value for money, and that is what we need but are not getting in Hastings. We need the reforms to stop these constant rises.
I believe we need to be ambitious with our railway service. I believe that we need investment—we cannot make these changes without investment—but I am very aware of the situation in which the Government find themselves with the terrible deficit they inherited. Where else can we look for the investment we so desperately need? We should look to a longer franchise. Those of us in Hastings were disappointed when the Secretary of State for Transport said that there was likely to be a three to six-year franchise after 2014. We should remember that the McNulty report calls for longer franchises—he makes the point that it simply makes good business sense. Sadly, we are told that the franchise proposal is because of Thameslink, but why should Hastings, which is so urgently in need of regeneration, be subject to Thameslink? We feel that we are always an afterthought—the little sister to be hushed up in the corner. I respectfully ask the Minister to stop ignoring us when it comes to deciding transport priorities. We do not want always to be a consequence of what is going on in the Thameslink project. Let us have a longer franchise—at least in double digits—and then we can get some investment in our line.
We can surely include some requirements for change to modify and adapt within the Thameslink requirements. We should be part of the consideration of Thameslink. Thameslink can go ahead, and we can have our franchise extended within certain requirements for modification if Thameslink requires it. However, having three to six-year franchises, as suggested, is like treading water with a repeatedly shoddy line. We urge the Minister to ensure that we are not let down and to reconsider the proposal. However, if the Department proceeds with a shorter franchise, at the very least we would ask it to focus on requiring an intermediary timetable change across the network for Hastings services to ensure that one of the existing trains per hour converts to a fast one.
My rail action group had a meeting with Southeastern Trains to put this proposal to it, and it responded by showing us the existing franchise to demonstrate that it had no room for manoeuvre. If we are to have the same type of shorter franchise as a stop-gap, which is not what we desire, we would ask that it be less prescriptive, so that we can at least have some fast trains a day. What we need from this investment is upgraded electrification
and, eventually, double-tracking. I urge the Government to consider what could be done to help us achieve that. Perhaps there could be match funding when the new franchise is introduced. With £34 billion going into High Speed 2, perhaps we could have a small amount down in Hastings, so that the new franchise could have some investment to encourage the upgrades that we so desperately need.
I would also like to mention European funding. It sometimes feels like an elusive rabbit that keeps skipping across us in the picture. People say to us, “Have you tried European funding?” or, “What about TEN-T funding?”, but it seems to slip away from us whenever we try to reach out, or find out where it comes from or who can guide us. I would therefore be grateful for any guidance from the Minister on whether we should try to get European funding.
The franchise should be longer, but less prescriptive. My right hon. Friend Greg Clark has long campaigned for this. He has recent experience of travelling on the line—I believe at the front of the train, with the driver—and supports our efforts to secure a longer franchise.
Let me say a word about the Cannon Street to Hastings line. Every few years, it seems that we in Hastings have to fight once more to keep the service. Once more, we are being told, “Well, you may or may not get to keep it—it depends on Thameslink.” Please do not make us dependent on Thameslink. We need our Cannon Street service. We are a town that has some areas of deprivation. I hate going on about the deprivation—I would much rather extol the virtues of Hastings—but given that we have those problems, I must point out that the commuters who take the Cannon Street line are important to us because they are the higher earners. Sometimes people say, “Don’t worry about Cannon Street: if they get to Blackfriars or St Paul’s, they’ll be absolutely fine,” but I do not agree. Some 80% of the passengers who arrive at Cannon Street make their way on foot. Arriving at London Bridge or St Paul’s is entirely different. We need to keep the Cannon Street service, and we will campaign hard to do so.
My hon. Friend Gregory Barker has asked me to add his voice to this debate. He has said that the Cannon Street service is
“essential to both commuters and businesses”
in his constituency, and that it
“should not be put under threat or in any way adversely affected by the Thameslink programme. Rail companies in East Sussex are already struggling to maintain a reasonable level of service due to poor investment in the track, signalling and rolling stock in the past. My constituents deserve a better deal. I seek investment to improve rail travel to make it affordable, reliable and sustainable.”
He puts it well and reinforces the arguments that I am making.
My constituents are patient, but we believe that we deserve better. We are ambitious for our town and for our regeneration. We have a rail action group, the St Leonards and Hastings Rail Improvement Programme, which is known locally as SHRIMP. SHRIMP is not known for its militancy, but we hope to change that. We will be stepping the campaign up and making our case, to make it clear that the rail links for Hastings are not incidental to our regeneration, and that we do not
want to be incidental to the Thameslink programme. I would ask the Minister to consider helping us to structure a franchise to deliver a first-class line to a first-class town.
- On May 19th 2011, Amber questioned the Secretary of State for Transport on the results of the McNulty Report:
Wages in Hastings have fallen dramatically against the rest of the south-east in the past 10 years, but wages of commuters are significantly higher. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we manage to redress the imbalance between the continually deteriorating service and higher wages, we would improve the regeneration of towns such as Hastings as well as the quality of life of commuters themselves?
- On 24th March 2011, Amber questioned the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, which was followed by a further question:
What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the nuclear safety regime in the UK; and if he will make a statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I must tell him that a number of residents of Hastings and Rye have written to me, and although they share heartfelt sympathy for the people of Japan, as they live next to Dungeness they now have additional concerns. They want to know what action can be taken to ensure that our country’s nuclear facilities are made even more safe.
- In a later session Amber spoke on the isusses of maternity services:
I am worried and my constituents are worried. There are many issues that Members of Parliament campaign on in their constituencies, but those to do with health provision must be the most important. We can all agree that maternity services deserve to be a high priority in health planning. This is about the safety of mothers and babies.
Our hospital in Hastings, the Conquest, has a full-service, consultant-led maternity unit. Within East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust, which we are part of, Eastbourne also has a full-service maternity unit. Four years ago, it was proposed that one of those units should close, and that we should have one midwife-led service and only one full maternity service for the area. The community rose up in arms. We campaigned in our thousands. We marched with babies and with prams. Every local MP objected, and we did not let up until we won-and win we did. I would like to pay tribute to the able, determined and dedicated campaign leaders, Margaret Williams and Liz Walke.
In September 2008, the decision was made by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, which advised the then Secretary of State for Health, that both units should stay open with their full service. The chair of the IRP said:
“The needs of local women and their families were at the heart of this review…we concluded that women’s access to and choice of services would be seriously compromised if the proposals were implemented.”
The campaigners already knew that, but we were reassured and, indeed, jubilant that the final decision makers also took that view. This was nearly three years ago. Some people might, ask “What’s the issue now?” or “Why are you campaigning when there is no formal proposal for closure of either units currently on the table?” They would not share my concern-my unease-about the latest information coming out of East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust. We are being signalled that there may be change in the air. It is not change itself we are frightened of, but the possible outcomes for mothers and babies.
The Care Quality Commission visited both hospitals in February this year, and it has raised concerns about the maternity services. The hospital trust, to its credit, was swift to contact stakeholders and MPs to inform them of this and to reassure us that action was immediately being taken to ensure high standards of safety and to address the concerns that the CQC had raised. I would like to thank the chief executive of the trust, Darren Grayson, for his swift action in disclosing this important information. I must confess, however, that we are not entirely reassured. We, the campaigners-my constituents-are still worried. I am not reading any motive or plan into the trust’s response to the CQC; I am simply here to highlight, once more, that the outcome of these concerns must not lead us down the very road we have travelled before-namely, having to protect our full-service maternity units.
We do not want to stick our heads in the sand. If there are problems with the maternity units that might impact on safety in any way, we must address them. However, this must not be a shortcut back on to the damaging road of trying to shut one of our units. We will not accept that. I urge the trust not to present that as the answer to the current problems. I would like the Minister to consider that in her response.
There are other answers, and they are in the very problem that the trust is highlighting-namely, staffing. The original decision to maintain both units urged the trust to address the issue of staffing by getting the right and safe mix of experience and qualifications among the doctors and consultants. The report of three years ago accepted that staffing was a problem, but critically it urged the PCT to
“consider alternative staffing models which have not been explored so far”.
“It is incumbent on the local NHS to explore the potential of these roles to develop midwifery careers and support doctors’ roles locally.”
It agreed that there was a problem, but urged the local NHS to develop a strategy to deal with it. But here we are. As was anticipated by the report three years ago, we have a staffing problem that may be impacting on the service, and in such a way that doubt is once more being cast on the viability of having two full-service units.
Each hospital handles about 2,000 births a year. I am pleased to say that the strategic health authority recently commissioned an external head of midwifery to review midwifery, leadership and staffing levels, and she confirmed that the trust was safe. The latest annual regional report also praised the trust for having the lowest caesarean section rates in the region, thereby supporting women to experience a normal birth.
Eleven consultants cover both sites, and we have our designated number of junior doctors. However, we are short of middle grade doctors. There should be eight at each site, but there are only seven at the Conquest hospital and six at the Eastbourne district general hospital. The gap is filled by locums, which is expensive. An agency locum costs approximately £79 per hour, which equates to £18,000 per agency doctor per month, as against a trust doctor, who costs approximately £9,000 per month. In these times of increased pressure on funds, even though NHS funding is ring-fenced the NHS is still being asked to make efficiency savings and to improve services. The locum costs are therefore an unpleasant and substantial addition to the hospital overheads.
Unfortunately, the staffing issue is exacerbated by the European working time directive. I know that the arguments against the directive for parts of the medical profession are being examined, but in the meantime the outcome of restricting working time to 48 hours per week simply puts yet more pressure on the staffing levels in these units.
I appreciate that some might say that I am panicking early. We have been reassured by the trust’s chief executive that there are currently no plans to close either unit, and a consultation is about to be launched on how to maintain a top service at both units. In this reassurance, there is a sting. It signals that the challenges of staffing may require a change. I fear that that could include the closure of one of the units. We must not let that happen.
The town of Hastings in my constituency has high levels of deprivation. Its teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the country and, as we know, this country has the highest rate in Europe. Some 22% of its residents are in the bottom 10% according to assessments of deprivation. Local doctors, to whom I speak regularly, tell me that young women can be reluctant to attend antenatal classes and often miss their appointments. These are the women who may encounter unforeseen difficulties, and who may need a full-service maternity unit at their hospital. They are not the women who are likely to hop in their car to go to Eastbourne for their check-up. In fact, in many parts of Hastings car ownership is running at only 40%, so many would have to rely on the local bus services and the local roads. If the maternity service were closed, it would effectively put up barriers to safety for that group of young women.
I wish to say a word about the local roads, on which I hope to secure a separate debate. If we look on the map, we see that Hastings is just over 20 miles from Eastbourne, and the AA tells us that the journey can be done in approximately 20 to 30 minutes. It is quite wrong. It is in fact the equivalent of a 40 or 50-mile journey elsewhere, and in my experience it takes at least an hour. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recognises the need for investment to support smaller units, such as ours, where there are significant distances involved. That is what we have in Hastings and Eastbourne-because of the nature of the roads, the towns are a significant distance apart.
Those of us who campaigned on the issue before know the arguments well, but we are up against what feels like the establishment. It is creating a tide that pushes us one way-to super-size maternity units, beloved of managers and some doctors but not particularly of mothers. Expectant women want choice, safety and accessibility. I can quite understand management’s preference for large units. It is easier to manage a larger group of people, more efficient for those delivering the service, more convenient for the consultants who are in overall charge and more flexible for training junior and middle-ranking doctors. However, we must not let the one-size-fits-all principle dominate our maternity services. We must remain aware of local issues that are relevant to any changes in configuration. In Hastings, I have mentioned geography, deprivation and the particular needs of some of the youngest, most vulnerable mothers in my constituency.
Although I speak up for the residents of my constituency, I urge the Minister to pay attention to the trend of addressing staffing issues in hospitals by moving towards super-sized units, particularly maternity units. “Bigger is not necessarily better”-that may sound like an extract from a nursery rhyme, but it is actually part of the name of a highly respected paper about the centralisation of hospital services. Even the well respected King’s Fund questions the assumption that outcomes are improved in bigger units.
Despite the conflicting views about smaller or larger maternity units, one thing is clear: the staffing issue is about preparing and planning. That was highlighted to the health trust more than three years ago in Hastings. We must demand more from our trust now, and we do not accept that closure should be considered for either of our full-service sites. We need the complete service. We need in our communities the delivery of a safe, efficient local service, for the continued delivery of safe and healthy babies.
- On 10th March 2011, Amber spoke in a debate on UN Women:
It is a pleasure to follow Margaret Curran, with her powerful advocacy for the women of the middle east and her description of the very difficult lives that they are living out there.
I welcome UN Women‘s ambitious and wide-ranging plans for women. Talking about the differences and similarities between men and women can be tricky, but does it counter the strong, rational argument for equality to raise the clear differences that exist? For instance, if we say that women are more likely to fight for peace, do we make it less likely that they will be taken seriously in a military scenario? Can we discuss differences without falling into the trap of stereotyping men and women into caricatures of themselves-the pink team and the blue team? It might be tricky, but it is dishonest to ignore the clear differences between men and women-the positive differences that create better outcomes.
There have been several references this week to the report from Lord Davies on women in the boardroom. I should like to draw the House’s attention to a report that came out this week from the City law firm Eversheds, which carried out a study of 234 listed companies. It showed that corporate governance issues had absolutely no effect on the share price, except in one area. The fact that there were more women on the board of a company had a positive influence on the share price. Let us hope that fund managers will pick up this important news and perhaps make it obligatory for the businesses they invest in to take on this particular aspect of corporate governance.
I am not here to raise the issue of equality on my own behalf or for women like me, as I recognise that I have had many privileges, but the issue is vital for less developed countries. As my hon. Friend Mrs Laing pointed out, it is perhaps our duty, particularly on international women’s day, to raise this issue for other women. It is because of the differences and the vital but different contributions women can make that we need to fight for their opportunities and influence those outcomes when we can.
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution; in fact, I am about to talk about a similar situation. As she implies, the difference women can make to managing their families in the developed world can create an opportunity for non-governmental organisations and perhaps UN Women to focus on women as providers in their own communities.
The human rights case for equality is, I believe, glaringly simple. Girls and women should not be disadvantaged because of their gender, and where that is the case, we need to remove the barriers in their lives. We know what a lot of those barriers are: they are to do with education, health, and taking action against violence, and the UN Women initiative will focus on those. I feel sure that few would disagree with that.
I wholly endorse what the hon. Lady says: clean water is indeed essential for communities and we should work with women to bring it about.
I believe that the differences I mentioned can be seen at two ends of the society-first, in small communities through women’s commitment to their families; and secondly, in government through women gaining significant representation. I do not underestimate the commitment of men to their families; it is just that they often show it in a different way. Let me illustrate that with the example of the Barefoot college at Rajasthan in India.
As some colleagues may know, the Barefoot college is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1972. It is a solar-powered school that teaches illiterate women from impoverished villages to become, among other professions, solar engineers. The college takes women from the poorest villages and teaches them the necessary professional skills without requiring them to read or write. For the past five years, it has focused on women who have come over from Africa in order to take the skills back to their native country.
The point about focusing on women is that, as this NGO’s experience shows, they go home again and take their skills to their families and communities. The Barefoot college chooses to train for this particular solar energy course only women aged 35 to 60 who will want to keep the skills and the benefits in their community. I am afraid that the college describes the men as “untrainable”! The women, it says, are less likely to use the training as a means to move into a city or build up skills to take away from home. A certificate is not required at the end of it. The founders deliberately focus on women to make sure that the skills go home with the trainee.
The college trains women to build, install, maintain and repair solar electrification systems for off-grid electrification. Training takes six months. Once the course is completed, the equipment, along with the women who built it, is sent back to the villages where it is used to electrify the houses and schools. After five years of solar training since 2006, 97 villages in Africa have been electrified by their own trained women-a fantastic result. This initiative provides women with employment, confidence and purpose and it deliberately focuses on women as the natural supporters of their families.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and I thoroughly agree with him. A similar point was made by our colleague, Jo Swinson, who argued that this is not a trivial issue to be put at the bottom of the list, but one that should be at the top for the benefit of the whole of society, for the economy and, above all perhaps, for peace.
Trained, empowered women-illiterate or not-are more likely to have the confidence to raise their voices, and getting more women to participate in government is essential. Women such as those I have described at the Barefoot college will have the confidence to make an important contribution and perhaps get into local politics and eventually, we hope, national politics. There are many routes to getting more women involved in the business of government-education, mentoring, and, yes, even quotas-but it is essential to remove the barriers that stop their involvement.
Women may have some different priorities, views and interests from men. As we know, women are more than half the population and they need to be represented in Governments internationally. I welcome the UN Women initiative to promote that. It is essential to achieve it not just for equality as a human rights issue, but to get the best outcomes for everyone and particularly for women. In some countries, if women are not included in the conversation, they can be ignored or worse. As one east African woman politician succinctly put it to me: “We worked out early on that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
- On 17th February 2011, Amber spoke in a debate on Higher Education:
The university centre Hastings is doing some excellent work with children from poorer families who want to go on to higher education. It is very concerned about the future of higher education for them and asked me to inquire about the national scholarship fund and what more can be done to help children on free school meals when they leave school and might need some assistance.
- On 3rd February 2011, Amber spoke in a debate on Legal Aid Reform:
It is interesting to observe in the remarks made by those on both sides of the House that we are not talking about lawyers. As Yvonne Fovargue said in her opening remarks, this debate is more about trained, local, part-time and sometimes voluntary advisers who step in to help the vulnerable in need of advice. They work in citizens advice bureaux and other organisations in the voluntary sector and, in my opinion, although often not lawyers themselves, they are a rare example of legal provision at a low cost to the public purse.
I accept that reductions are necessary in expenditure and in the deficit that is, as we know, costing us £120 million a day-a point well made by my hon. Friend Anna Soubry. I am sorry Mr Bradshaw is not in his place, as I am sure he would challenge me on that and we could have an interesting debate. However, as each of us has only a few minutes to speak, I will plough on. The problem with the proposed cuts is that they will be expensive in the long run and that, as set out, they will not do what the coalition Government have set out to do, which is to protect and help the vulnerable.
I represent a town, Hastings, that is wonderful in many ways but deprived in others. The unemployment rate is high at 5.6%, compared with a UK rate of 3.5%, and we need the support of agencies to advise those on low incomes and the unemployed. In my town, agencies have formed consortia to win social welfare law contracts. They have vocal and powerful advocates who have been to see me. I mention in particular Julie Eason and, from the citizens advice bureau, Dina Christadoulis. They have convinced me of the need for the service that they provide. The average cost of what they provide to clients is £200 or less. Even if what they do takes three times as long, that is the cost-it is really good value. We need to make cuts, but that area of the front line is not the place for them. We should not be taking social welfare out of scope.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. I am speaking up on behalf of the agencies in Hastings precisely because I value the work that they do in helping the vulnerable there. I also make the point, as several Members have done, that removing the funding is not efficient for costs. He is absolutely correct that we need to find another source of funding in order to continue to protect those services.
The advice from those agencies is crucial to the clients, who in many cases cannot represent themselves. The agency I spoke with had kept records that showed clearly that 56% of its clients have long-term illness or disability and that 68% have long-term mental health problems. I am worried that some of my most vulnerable constituents may really struggle to manage their casework and prepare for a tribunal hearing without the help of legal aid-funded services.
I welcome the simplified welfare system that the Government are working on. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has some excellent proposals that will be coming through, which I hope and believe will make the welfare system much simpler. Until then, we must recognise the situation we are in and acknowledge that errors are made and that vulnerable people who cannot represent themselves must be able to have some representation.
Another benefit of having agencies work with those clients is that they can recognise when there is no case. If we allow individuals to represent themselves entirely, some will clog up the tribunals. The agencies are very effective at discouraging people who do not have a case from progressing with it, so only the cases that merit the sort of attention that the clients are seeking actually get it. In Hastings, for instance, the consortia to which I have referred have not lost an appeal for a client for employment support allowance or incapacity benefit since last April, which is testament to their right choice of clients and their professionalism. Last year they provided a service to around 20,000 clients in my area, and collectively they have more than £270,000-worth of contracts, which represents more than half the advice sector in Hastings.
We all know that local government funding is under pressure, and a key element of the funding it provides is to citizens advice bureaux. Given the cuts to local funding and the proposals for legal aid, I am worried about the future viability of the agencies that do so much work and whose advice is critical in a town with above-average needs. The social welfare contracts account for only 4.5% of the total legal aid bill. The early intervention that they provide is critical; if the advisers get involved early, they can stop things escalating and stop individuals getting to the stage where they might lose their houses.
I urge Ministers to consider the costs and consequences of the proposed changes to legal aid. We need to find alternative sources of funding to support the agencies if they are no longer to receive funds from that source. I associate myself with the argument made by other Members that, unless we find alternative funding, those of us who, like me, are not lawyers will have to train up pretty quickly because of the size of casework that we will receive.
- On 8th December 2010, Amber spoke in a debate on the regeneration of seaside towns:
I have sprung to my feet in defence of the town of Hastings in my constituency, as it was placed in a not very positive category by a number of my colleagues. Deprivation in seaside towns is a fact. The point is well rehearsed and has been repeated by many hon. Members here today. It is true that Hastings suffers on many indexes of deprivation, but I will not refer to that now, because I should like instead to draw attention to some of the many wonderful aspects of Hastings. It has a large natural park around it. We have wonderful food and drink, and next year will see the arrival of the new Jerwood art gallery, which I hope will contribute to regenerating the town.
I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the amusement industry. We all know that the seaside tourism industry is linked to the amusement industry, and if the amusement industry is hampered, so is the economic growth of seaside towns. The amusement and bingo industry has been under pressure as a result of the Gambling Act 2005 and, as we know, that has been exacerbated by the recession. Given the wider debate about the economic viability of seaside towns, it is very important that the amusement industry is supported. We have heard today about many new initiatives to support seaside towns and their industries, but we must not forget the old one-the amusement industry and its slot machines, which are important in attracting tourists to our towns.
The regulatory framework of the 2005 Act is robust and exhaustive and went a long way in defending and supporting people, but it also had some unintended consequences, damaging seaside towns. I know that at the moment a Government consultation is under way about maximum stakes, premises and entitlements. I hope that the Minister will be able to introduce some positive changes when the consultation finishes, because many seaside towns have been suffering under those measures. I am thinking particularly of private clubs that are no longer allowed to offer high-paying slot machines. People who wish to use such slot machines must go instead to casinos and gambling places, which have a less benign atmosphere than private clubs, which causes problems. Will the Minister consider carefully what can be done to support the amusement industry, which is so important to seaside towns?
On 9th November 2010, Amber spoke in a debate concerning housing benefit:
Fairness is a constantly recurring theme today, and fairness has been the dominant feature of this reforming Government’s coalition agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend James Wharton that we must also be fair to the people who pay the taxes that pay for the housing benefit and local housing allowance.
I know what I am talking about, because my constituents earn extremely low wages. In the past 10 years the average wage in Hastings, which used to be £30 below the average United Kingdom rent, has fallen to £100 below that figure. I know about low wages. Mr Bain spoke of people who were vulnerable. People on low wages are also vulnerable, and I feel strongly that they should not be charged with paying the housing benefit of people who live in houses and in areas where those on low wages could not begin to live themselves.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making that point, because it is exactly the one with which I am about to deal. Earlier in the debate, we heard about sensational articles in newspapers and unrealistic reporting. I am afraid that Hastings has been on the receiving end of quite a lot of that. I have spoken to the councillors who made those comments and to our director of housing, Andrew Palmer, who has done excellent work. I asked him how many London councils had made inquiries of him, and he said none. I asked him whether he had had an opportunity to speak to the people who run the bed-and-breakfast establishments that he very rarely uses-although he has had to do so occasionally-and to the landlords whom he uses for the purposes of the local housing allowance. He said that he had spoken to all of them, and that not one of them had received such an inquiry.
I strongly believe that we have been reading sensationalist reports in the newspapers. There is an apocalyptic vision of a group of Londoners arriving on the south coast, but it simply is not happening. I think it important to repeat that so that people do not become fearful. They do not have to believe what is said by Caroline Flint about extra pressure on education establishments, because that is not happening at the moment.
We hope that rents will fall. Members will not be surprised to hear that I agree with much that has been said by Conservative Members about reducing rents. Mr Raynsford spoke of the unrealistic aspect of falling house rents, and referred to an article in the Evening Standard that focused mainly on larger houses. In my constituency at least, between 80% and 90% of people who receive local housing allowance live in homes with one to two bedrooms. The larger house element does not feature so much, although it represents a large cost. I am told by Westminster council, whose representatives I have consulted, that house prices in its area are falling rather than rising.
I am interested to hear that London is affected. We will see the consequences, but at present I am receiving different answers and people are reaching different conclusions. It is not entirely clear how the private sector will respond, but one thing is entirely clear: we cannot continue with the cost as it is now.
The 40% figure is totemic in this debate. As we know, 40% of private rented properties are used by the Department for Work and Pensions.
The hon. Gentleman obviously does not want to let the facts interfere with a good story. Some of the newspapers have taken the same view. However, he too should try to look at the facts. He should establish whether London councils are making such inquiries, and whether B-and-Bs are being booked up. There is absolutely no evidence of that. Rents are expected to fall, which will make things less costly for us all.
That is an interesting comment, but I can tell the hon. Lady that I have spoken to the cabinet member in charge of Westminster council-which has the largest supply of houses at the top level above the cap-and she told me unequivocally that the council was not doing that.
I also have a letter. Perhaps we can exchange letters later, and see what the conclusion is.
It is impossible not to see these reforms of housing benefit outside the context of the overall attempt to carry out the reforms of the welfare system to which the Government are so committed. I commend to all Members a fascinating article in today’s The Times by a former Labour Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in which he draws strong parallels between our efforts to reform the welfare system and the proposals on which he had been working for the past few years, until the last two years or so, when he was unable to obtain any traction and had to resign. He spoke of the line that Government must tread between the poverty trap and the welfare trap. That is exactly what this Government are trying to do, but let me add that there is not just a welfare trap or a poverty trap. The welfare trap is a poverty trap in its own right. It is not a good place in which to be, but our efforts to reduce housing benefit and introduce a universal credit will start to change the present position and make a fairer society for us all.
- On 14th September 2010, Amber spoke in a debate on maternity services and the importance of maintaining these services at the Conquest Hospital;
I know my hon. Friend Dr Poulter well, because he was the resident registrar at our local hospital, the Conquest. We had a major maternity campaign there two to three years ago to save our consultant-led service, and we stressed safety, which I know is a main issue for the Government. However, I would also like to stress, in support of my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, that supporting the vulnerable is very important to the coalition Government and it is sometimes the vulnerable who are most left out of the sort of decisions that we are discussing. Vulnerable young women are sometimes not able to think ahead and plan their pregnancies. They find themselves in difficult circumstances and particularly need the support of consultants and obstetricians. I therefore support my hon. Friend in this debate, and place particular emphasis on the vulnerable; that is the issue that we led with in Hastings when we saved our service.
- On 20th July, Amber spoke in the debate about Equitable Life and the compensation package the Government has announced;
The Minister kindly mentioned how the funds will be paid out. In my constituency, a number of people are concerned that because it will take a long time to appoint the commission, which will then have to go through its own procedure, further delays could be added. Can he tell us how the commission will be put together and what his expectations are of the timing?
- On 7th July 2010, in a debate about Jobs and Unemployment Amber discussed how young people might be supported into work;
I have noticed this afternoon that there has been a lot of talk about young people in unemployment. Both my hon. Friend Esther McVey and Alison McGovern were talking about that, and it is a common theme. It is one area that, I know, we all care about so much.
I was talking in Hastings, where we have very high levels of youth unemployment, to a young lady from Tressell training, which is a NEET-not in employment, education or training-college. I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was doing a training course, making a film about BMX bikes. I said, “That’s great. Do you do BMX biking yourself?” and she said, “No, I couldn’t possibly, because it’s dangerous and I’m pregnant.” My face fell, reflecting slightly what I thought about that, and she said, “No, don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking-you’re thinking I’m too young but I’m not, because I’m 16 next week.” She was reflecting something that we see a lot, and I do not think that it is a problem just in Hastings. A lot of young people are making a choice, because they look at the potential for jobs and do not see that it has anything to do with them.
In Hastings, 43% of the work force are in the public sector. To get into the public sector, people need qualifications. I welcome the comments made by the Secretary of State for Education today about the changes to education and the changes to our schools, which, I hope, will start to work with the lowest achievers and with the people who are struggling most. At the moment, I feel that we have a real problem with the young unemployed looking at the work force-they have no qualifications-and thinking, “That’s not for me.”
I have a radical proposal that I would like the Secretary of State and the Minister to consider. Instead of people going on to unemployment benefit-instead of their going on to the circuit of jobseeker’s allowance, then the flexible new deal and then, sometimes, back again-why not consider putting them on something new, which we could call “Vision for Jobs”, to give them purpose, work and training? In the example I am thinking of, people could start at 9 o’clock in the morning and be given two to three days of community service, one day of learning skills and one day of job search. They could be given pride in what they are trying to do by being given a weekly wage. In my vision, this weekly piece of paper would have on the right hand side “35 hours of meaningful work”, which would be set out, and on the left hand side, that slip would show what they had received-not just the jobseeker’s allowance but the council benefit and any credits that they might receive. Many young people do not know the full extent of the benefits they receive.
I know that such a scheme will be hard to deliver and that it is not straightforward, but I think that the current unemployment benefit system leaves young people to fend for themselves. It does not look after them. We need a new system. I ask those on the Front Bench and the Secretary of State to consider piloting such a scheme in Hastings. I know that he has had conversations with Tomorrow’s People and Debbie Scott, and she would be delighted to do that. We could make a change, and start it in Hastings.
- On the 28th June 2010, Amber spoke in debate about CCTV and the need to reduce paperwork for the Police;
What recent representations she has received on the amount of time spent on administrative tasks by police officers each year?
Recent statistics demonstrate that police spend 14% of their time on patrol and 20% on paperwork. Will he give an example of what administrative function might be cut from their work, so that we can give them the opportunity to spend more time out on the beat?
- On the 17th June 2010, in a debate on a high skilled economy, Amber discussed the problems of the Educational Maintenance Allowance;
I wonder whether other hon. Members receive complaints about the education maintenance allowance, as I do. I, too, represent a constituency where there are people on very low incomes, but I get a lot of complaints that the allowance is badly applied and often abused.
- On the 16th June 2010, Amber spoke in a debate about falling wage levels in Hastings;
Delightful though it always is to hear about the north-east, may I add that we have a town in the south east, Hastings, which is heavily deprived? Members may not be aware that, although it has received a good deal of investment, in the past 13 years the average wage has fallen from £30 to £100 a week below the United Kingdom average. We need the private sector investment that the Government are talking about.