September 2013 Report

Parliamentary Business

Parliament returns

This month Parliament returned 2 days early from the summer recess to debate and vote on potential military action in Syria. The House than sat (ie was in session) for 2 weeks before rising again. The Houses of Commons and Lords both return on Tuesday 8 October.

Syria

The shocking images of the aftermath of the chemical attacks on the Syrian people and the seriousness of the vote lent a serious tone to the debate and votes.

I thought long and hard about my vote and whether I could support a military intervention. I decided I could not support a bombing raid because of the likely impact on regional stability and because I was not convinced that such an attack would lead to less bloodshed. I chose to abstain even on the Labour Party motion that called for military action only if certain key tests were met – mainly that there was clear evidence before intervention.

In the end the Government itself was defeated by a majority of 30 votes as a number of Government MPs voted against intervention.

Following the vote in Parliament, the Prime Minister made clear that the UK will not take part in military action in Syria. Since then we have seen slow diplomatic steps towards tackling President Assad but still no real answer to how to provide humanitarian protection to the victims of Syria’s bloody civil war.

That doesn’t mean the UK should wash its hands of trying to bring an end to the conflict in Syria. Labour asked the Government to bring Syria to the top of the formal agenda of the G20 last week.

The UK must work with our allies, to ensure a renewed diplomatic initiative to bring together the warring sides of conflict, to contain the crisis within Syria and minimise its spill over across the region, and address the shameful shortfall in international humanitarian support to victims of this conflict.

There are no easy options to end the violence in Syria but I do not believe that military intervention is the way forward.

Lobbying Bill

I have had a lot of letters about the latest proposals in the bill to curtail lobbying by charities in the run up to General Elections.

I favour greater transparency in lobbying but have been a long term sceptic of this bill. I am lobbied regularly by individuals, local groups and companies. I publish my diary so constituents can see who I meet.

The lobbying that causes concern is generally informal and this is not tackled in this bill. Were it to be included it would be difficult to define.

The late addition of charities and trade unions is, frankly, bizarre. It has diverted attention away from other inadequacies of the bill and in the rush to pass it (it is scheduled for its final stages to complete by 9 October) it is possible that other changes will just be agreed, however ill thought out.

There is a need for transparency in the political system and especially in third party campaigning. The bill only applied to ‘consultant’ lobbyists who account for one percent of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists.

The section of the bill relating to trade unions is unnecessary. The bill will require trade unions to supply an annual membership audit certificate to the Certification Officer and unions with more than 10,000 members will be required to appoint an assurer who will provide a certificate stating whether or not the unions meet requirements.
I agree with the TUC who have questioned the Government on their reasons for bringing in these changes. As the TUC state, they are unable to discern the problem that this part of the bill is meant to remedy.

I voted against the bill at second reading.

Debate on cycling

Earlier this year the All Party Group on Cycling, of which I am vice chair, produced the Get Britain Cycling report. This month Parliament debated the recommendations of the report. I attended the debate along with more than 100 MPs and there was strong support for the recommendations.

During the debate I raised the issue of speed limits and how we might improve safety for cyclists.

Legal Aid Reform- Update

I spoke in a well attended debate on the changes to legal aid. I have voiced concerns over these changes on a number of occasions and repeated my concerns. The next day the Secretary of State for Justice came to the House of Commons to announce a watering down of his proposals to reduce choice.

He was responding to over 1600 responses to the consultation on the changes.

The u-turn is welcome but there is a lot of detail to unpick and I still fear there could be areas of the country where there will be very limited cover by firms willing to provide legal aid.

Funding for creative businesses

The Financial Conduct Authority is currently consulting on the future regulation of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is an important source of funding for creative businesses. I recently visited a new ceramics studio, Turning Earth, and have been interested to learn about a community cafe in Homerton, We are NANA, which were partly funded through crowdfunding.

There are many different models of crowdfunding. These include lending to individuals, buying shares in a new business, buying services from a business as well as long term investment in green energy. The common factor is that the financial contribution can be as small or large as the lender wants.

There is a need to ensure that consumers are protected but I am concerned that the FCA model of regulation could stifle this emerging sector. It is often local investment that can be raised when banks have been turning their backs on local business investment.

I raised my concerns with arts minister Ed Vaizey MP in the House of Commons.

Child protection

I recently spoke in a debate on child protection.

I raised issues surrounding accusations of witchcraft and the abuse that can occur as a result, paying tribute to the charity AFRUCA (Africans Against Child Abuse), which does excellent work in trying to highlight, educate and prevent such abuse.

If a child is accused of witchcraft or possession they can be subjected to all kinds of physical and emotional abuse.

You can read my full speech on my website

Public Accounts Committee

I sit on the Parliamentary spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, which examines Government projects to assess how well they have been managed in relation to value for money. Recent hearings include:

Private companies and public services

A hearing was held on the use of premium rate numbers by Government departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs.

I have concerns that services run by private companies, therefore funded by the taxpayer, are also using premium rate numbers.

I questioned the top civil servant in charge of the Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton, about whether there were any plans to introduce rules on the use of premium rate numbers for private businesses running public services. There are many businesses that run services for the Government which are wholly funded by tax payers and I believe they should be required to adhere to the same guidance that departments must follow.

Premium rate numbers can mean that the poorest pay most for services, although the complexity of phone tariffs means that there is not single simple approach.

I will continue to pursue this matter.

BBC severance payments

The Committee also held a hearing on BBC severance payments this month.

The committee questioned seven former and current BBC executives about how much they knew about severance payments.

It was unedifying to see this publicly funded institution’s leaders argue with each other about who knew what about pay offs which were high to begin with and were in many cases beefed up.

I used the opportunity to raise concerns about the relationship between the BBC and the BBC’s company BBC Worldwide.

Since the hearing the BBC have announced they will be re-examining the relationship between the licence funded BBC and BBC Worldwide.
There are still questions which need to be answered and this will be a issue the Committee will continue to investigate.

You can find out more about the work of the Public Accounts committee here

Other matters

Money for Life Challenge

The money for life challenge is a competition which encourages young people to find successful and innovative ways to improve the money management skills of themselves and others.

There are 250 grants of £500 available to teams wishing to take part.

The competition, which is sponsored by Lloyds Bank, is open to 16-24 year olds in education or training and teams should apply by 22 November 2013. For more information visit here

Broadband and telephone contracts

It is currently very difficult for consumers to switch landline and broadband providers. Companies all have different procedures and it can be confusing.

The communications regulator Ofcom has proposed a number of changes to help to tackle this problem, including making providers improve their processes so that consumers don’t lose their service whilst changing provider.

They will also require greater transparency on costs including termination charges. Ofcom is expected to finalise its proposals later this year.

Future of our waterways

The Environment Agency is currently reviewing plans for protecting and improving the water environment which will set out a strategy from 2015-2021.
It is encouraging members of the public to contribute to these plans through a new consultation Challenges and Choices.

The deadline for submissions is 22 December and the plans will be published at the end of 2015.

If you would like to contribute to the consultation go online to here

My Big Career

I was delighted to be at the launch of a new careers charity My Big Career which seeks to advise pupils face to face about their career options.

The charity is starting in Hackney and has an office base at Cardinal Pole school.

For the last few years I have hosted networking events for local sixth formers to open up ideas for future careers. I hope that having secured a Hackney base for this charity run by whirlwind careers expert Deborah Streatfield we can ensure that Hackney pupils get the best advice to make the right career choices.

Centenary of the First World War

With a year to go until we mark the centenary of the UK entering the First World War I am delighted to be invited to join a Parliamentary committee looking at how we can support its commemoration.

I am a long standing trustee of the charity the War Memorials Trust.

Community projects can apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund to learn about the First World War.

The Heritage Lottery Fund is making at least £1millon a year available until 2019 for small, community grants of between £3,000 and £10,000.

Find out more here

Crackdown on nuisance calls

New proposals mean firms making nuisance calls will be subject to heavy fines and call centres will have to obtain licenses.

The change would mean that regulators will be able to share intelligence about the firms responsible for nuisance calls so it will be easier to act against rule breakers.

If you have had issues with nuisance calls in the past or have any other comments to make on these issues then please do get in touch on meghilliermp@parliament.uk.

Hackney Issues

New NHS 111 provider for East London

A new partnership has recently been approved to deliver the NHS 111 service in east London.

The NHS 111 number was introduced to provide access to local NHS healthcare. It is an alternative to using the 999 emergency phone line for less urgent cases or for anyone not registered with a local GP.

A partnership of East London Co-operatives will be in charge of delivering the service to Hackney and East London.

TfL take on London train lines

Transport for London (TfL) will be taking over the running of routes between Liverpool Street, Enfield Town, Cheshunt and Chingford in 2015.

I had lobbied the transport minister Stephen Hammond in support of the proposal.

Every line taken over by TfL to date has improved services for Londoners. Crucially the transport commissioner has promised staffed stations. I hope this will also lead to a better service and mean stations are upgraded.