I’m glad to say this evening’s train from London back to Manchester seems to be on time! Makes a pleasant change.
Despite my late arrival home last Thursday, I was in my constituency office early on Friday for a day of interviewing candidates for a caseworker post in my office. We had some fantastic candidates, and I’m delighted to have appointed Andrew Parsonage to the post. Andrew’s been working as a caseworker for my colleague Tristram Hunt MP, so he comes with lots of experience. We are looking forward to his joining the team after the Christmas holiday.
Saturday was a busy day. I was very pleased to be invited to address the North West TUC equalities conference in the Mechanics Institute in Manchester first thing in the morning. Then it was back to Stretford to staff the mulled wine stall at the immensely popular Victoria Park Christmas Fair, alongside Cllr Tom Ross. We were in non-stop demand from thirsty customers, but I managed a quick drink to sample our stock, while Tom downed a Gaelic coffee. The Fair, as usual, was a huge success, a great credit to the efforts of Shelley and the Friends of Victoria Park who organise it.
Then it was back into Manchester to attend a very moving event organised by Women Asylum Seekers Together, who had invited me to the launch of a new book of stories and poems by women seeking asylum. I was shocked at some of the experiences they described, and ashamed that we treat those fleeing persecution so poorly when they arrive in this country.
I headed back to London on Sunday ready for a very special sitting of parliament on Monday. The whole day was given over to tributes to Nelson Mandela. The tributes were opened by David Cameron and Ed Miliband. I was particularly impressed with the speeches of those who’d actually met and known Mandela, especially Gordon Brown, who gave a personal and very funny speech, and Peter Hain, whose family were involved in the anti apartheid movement and eventually had to flee South Africa. It was Peter who emphasised Mandela’s belief in peace and reconciliation.
On Tuesday, I joined a small group of colleagues on the first session of the public bill committee to scrutinise the Mesothelioma Bill, which will provide for payments to mesothelioma sufferers who can’t trace an employer or employer’s insurer. We’ve spent four sessions in all this week in the committee, going through the detail of the bill. I’m very disappointed the Minister hasn’t accepted any of our proposals to improve the scheme to make it more generous to sufferers. We will make a further attempt in the New Year when the bill is once again debated on the floor of the House of Commons.
I also spent some time in the chamber on Tuesday, as we had managed to force Iain Duncan Smith to come to the House to explain the disastrous and much delayed implementation of his new universal credit. Rachel Reeves had secured an urgent question on the matter, as IDS had tried to evade a grilling from MPs by slipping out a statement about the delays last Thursday when parliament was fully occupied with the Chancellor’s Autumn Spending statement. In the event, it did him no good at all, as dozens of my colleagues queued up to challenge him on the millions of pounds wasted so far, and the continuing saga of delay.
By contrast, I spent very little of Wednesday in the chamber, but was busy with meetings, on the Care Bill that we’ll be debating next week, on services for deaf people, on measures to tackle violence against women and girls, and on support for disabled children.
Thursday began with questions to the Culture, Media and Sports Ministers. I had two questions on the order paper, one on enabling football supporters to develop cooperative ownership models for their clubs, and one on the exceptionally hostile media portrayal of disabled people. I was also able to get in a further question later to the Leader of the House, who’s responsible for the business of Parliament, asking for a statement from Ministers on funding for 18 year old students. I had been contacted by the principal of Trafford College the day before, who was angry and concerned that the Department for Education was cutting the funding by £800 per student. I wasn’t the only MP to raise the matter, and it seems colleges across the country are extremely angry. Later, I spoke to our education team about it, and I hope there will be further opportunities to raise it in parliament next week.
After the final session of the Mesothelioma Bill committee, I finished Thursday helping to finalise a press release on the latest independent report on the Work Capability Assessment which chronically sick and disabled people have to undergo to qualify for Employment and Support Allowance. The implementation of this test has been a disaster, and the latest report doesn’t suggest things are getting better. More than 80 per cent of applicants have apparently been waiting more than 90 days to get an assessment. And the reliability of the decisions has been shocking, with a very high success rate when cases go to appeal.
It’s one more example of Iain Duncan Smith’s total lack of grip on the Department for Work and Pensions.
For good measure, I then tabled a few written questions on changes to the child support scheme, which will mean in future separated parents could have to pay a fee if they owe or receive child maintenance. We will be debating regulations to introduce this in the New Year, and I want to have the facts and figures ready. I’m very worried it will mean even fewer single parents getting the maintenance they should to provide for their children.
Now I’m on the train with a pile of reading. That will definitely keep me going until I get back to Manchester!