Brexit – the ‘Meaningful vote’ next week and the immediate aftermath
As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible to write anything about Brexit without risking it being out of date by the time you read it! The next ten days will be critical, although, despite there being only 77 days to Brexit, even now we may not see matters resolved – a fact not helped by the Government’s decision to delay the ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement from the original date in December to next week. Despite wasting a precious month, there is no significant difference between the deal before Parliament in December and that before us next week and it will almost certainly be voted down.
As I have made clear previously, I will vote against the Government’s deal for reasons I have set out at length previously including in my last newsletter which you can see here.
A ‘no deal’ exit should be ruled out once and for all and I was one of over 200 MPs who signed the cross-party letter earlier this week calling on the Prime Minister to do just that.
We will continue to hear that the choice is between this deal and ‘no deal’ but this is a false choice and must (and I believe will) be resisted. One of the defeats suffered by the Government this week demonstrated that the sensible majority in Parliament will not allow us to be crashed out of the EU without a deal.
If Parliament votes down the deal next week, the focus will then shift to what we immediately do with the other options available to us.
I am clear that the flawed deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated is the logical outcome of political choices that she made and the product of negotiations that have been spectacularly mishandled by her Government – it is, for example, astonishing that it is only now that any attempt has been made to build cross-party consensus, or to involve civic groups like trade unions! However, while we must not rule out the possibility that an acceptable deal might somehow emerge before 29 March, we must also recognise that because Theresa May has run down the clock, the window for substantively renegotiating the deal on offer has almost certainly now closed.
I believe therefore that the best option is to suspend Article 50 and ask the people to vote again on a choice between the deal on offer for leaving the EU and an option to remain.
That option is not without considerable risk. There is a danger that a ‘no deal’ option finds its way onto a referendum ballot paper, which would be catastrophic for our economy and puts the two-decade long peace settlement in Northern Ireland in jeopardy. There would be anger at what some will present as a refusal to acknowledge the validity of the 2016 result (I don’t think this is the case but I don’t doubt many will). But I believe it is the least worst of the very difficult options in front of us, and it is what I will continue to vote and argue for.
EU Nationals Advice Project for residents living in Westminster
Although broad commitments have been made by both parties in relation to the status of foreign nationals following Brexit, the precise details of how EU Nationals resident in the UK will have to apply for settled status are not finalised. The UK Government has reached a basic agreement with the European Union on Citizens’ Rights. This agreement will protect your rights after the UK leaves the European Union and enable you apply for settled status.
My office continues to receive requests for advice on the future of EU nationals resident in Westminster as well as the thousands of more general enquiries about the Brexit negotiations.
Unfortunately as a Member of Parliament I am not in a position to give specific immigration advice to individuals. However, if you’re one of the 30,000 EU citizens living in Westminster and you’re worried about your rights after Brexit, Westminster CAB, the Migrants Resource Centre and Westminster City Council continue to run a helpful advice project.
The Dedicated Westminster Residents’ Advice Service and helpline is an advice service and helpline that has been set up to help EU nationals living in Westminster who are worried about their status in the run up to Brexit. You can call 0300 330 9011 (open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 2pm). Or visit www.westminstercab.org.uk/advice/eu-nationals-advice-project.
You can also visit eucitizensrights.campaign.gov.uk to find out more about your rights, whether you qualify for settled status and a step-by-step guide to help you through the application process.
My Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill becomes law
I introduced a Private Member’s Bill to update the law to protect tenants forced to live in unfit properties after doing well in the MPs ballot in 2017. I am absolutely delighted that, unusually for a PMB, it completed its journey through Parliament just before Christmas and has now become law-coming into effect at the end of March.
Finally seeing the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill become law and receiving Royal Assent the week before Christmas was a sweet pleasure. And no one could say it was a rush job, either! It isn’t only that my own first attempt came via the 2015 Private Member’s Ballot (I was a lot lower down the list), or that this second shot has taken 18 months from introduction to conclusion, or that we tried to introduce it as an amendment to the 2016 Housing and Planning Act. It is that the Fitness Act finally implements a Law Commission recommendation from as far back as 1996. The fact is, giving tenants, in both social and private sectors, the ability to act against landlords letting unfit properties is long overdue. Private tenants do have rights if the property is in disrepair, but disrepair is only one way in which a home can be unfit- so, if the boiler is broken, a tenant has rights. But if a house or flat is freezing cold or riddled with damp or mould because the heating is completely inadequate, or because of a design or structural problem, they don’t. Importantly, the Bill was strengthened as it went through Parliament by extending the remit to the common parts of, for example, a block of flats- so ‘fitness’ also covers things like the windows, roof and outside walls
Private tenants can turn to their local council to enforce on their behalf and some councils do a fine job, but capacity and willingness to act are hugely variable. We know from the English Housing Survey that some three-quarters of a million private sector properties are seriously sub-standard, yet enforcement action rates are far, far below this level. Tenants in council homes – a quarter of a million of which are unfit – don’t even have this protection since councils cannot enforce against themselves.
There is always more to do. Legal Aid will be available on the same basis as disrepair is currently, but we know that there is a wider issue with access to Legal Aid and Legal Aid lawyers. Concerns about retaliatory eviction are real and I am strongly of the view that we need to move on next to improve tenant security by removing Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. The Act does not replace the role for local authority enforcement – it complements it- but local councils are under financial pressure as never before and it will always be the most vulnerable who suffer most.
Despite that, this is a good and important measure for tenants and it will make a difference. I am hugely grateful for the expert housing lawyers – Giles Peaker and Justin Bates, who drafted the legislation. The government got behind it a year ago and the MHCLG have been hugely constructive. And there has been backing across the sector from housing campaign groups like Shelter and Generation Rent to the main landlord associations, which recognise that good landlords have nothing to fear and can support measures to tackle the rogues. No one should have to live in an unfit home. This Act will help make that aspiration a reality.
Section 21 Debate
On Thursday 6th December I sponsored a Backbench Business Debate on the use of Section 21 Evictions in the Private Rented Sector. Over the course of this three hour debate we heard some shocking accounts from MPs of retaliatory evictions and families facing multiple evictions in quick succession. You can watch the debate here.
This debate was the culmination of efforts made as part of the ‘End Unfair Evictions’ campaign which has been building momentum since summer. Over 50,000 people signed a 38 degrees petition calling for the Government to give renters stability and certainty in their homes by abolishing Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act.
The petition ran for 10 weeks before reaching 50k signatures and was handed to the Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire on the 23rd of August by representatives from Generation Rent, London Renters Union, and ACORN. At the time of the debate there had been no official Government response and it was helpful to have Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – Heather Wheeler present to clarify their position.
For those of you who have not followed the campaign, the reason I felt this issue was so important is because a majority of renters will have Assured Shorthold Tenancies which in theory will only guarantee them a minimum of 6 or 12 months in their home. This initial fixed term of the tenancy is the only period during which tenants can have the security of knowing they cannot be asked to leave their home, for no reason, at any time. Outside of this period a landlord can serve a Section 21 eviction notice giving tenants 8 weeks’ notice to vacate the property.
On average, these unwanted house moves cost around £2,306. Many tenants in the Private Sector will experience two or more such moves in quick succession so it is not hard to understand the serious financial difficulty people can face renting on low incomes.
On Monday 12th November, the health equality campaign group Medact delivered a letter signed by 200 health professionals to James Brokenshire, warning that short-term tenancies and no fault evictions harm tenants’ mental and physical health. We have also heard about the detrimental effects of evictions on children, in terms of both social life and academic attainment.
Beyond the devastating personal impact this process has on tenants, Section 21 evictions are now believed to be the leading cause of homelessness in the UK and burden local authorities with temporary accommodation costs of £845m per year.
Over the course of this debate, MPs shared some truly upsetting stories from their own constituencies of the instability faced by some in the Private Rented Sector. Labour have called for the scrapping of Section 21s outright, and has proposed the introduction of three-year tenancies instead.
Heather Wheeler responded to the debate arguing that “Section 21 provisions provide an important guarantee to landlords that they will always be able to get their property back at the end of the tenancy. The flexibility for landlords and mortgage providers to recover their asset if they need to is crucial to retaining investment and supply in the sector, including the availability of buy-to-let mortgages.”
The impact of Airbnb and ‘short let’ accommodation
The rise and rise of the ‘short let’ accommodation sector – including but by no means limited to, Airbnb, is having an increasingly significant impact on our communities. I contributed to this major feature on the issue in the New Year edition of the Mail on Sunday, including an opinion piece which you can read below. The full MoS article is here.
NHS Long Term Plan
The Government published their NHS Long Term Plan last week. And made a statement to Parliament about it.
Whilst a number of the principles are entirely sound – such as a renewed focus on prevention – and it does make sense to review the overall strategic priorities for the NHS, there are nonetheless a number of concerns. If prevention is so important, for example, why cut the public health budget which is specifically *about* preventive health measures? Why, as the Royal College of Emergency Medicine point out, does the plan fail to commit to retain the four-hour wait A&E target? The RCEM say this is “a serious mistake and will result in misery for patients in their time of need”.
In the statement I asked about the fact that Central London is facing substantial real-terms cuts in funding, which will affect all aspects of health care, including mental health:
Money might not be everything, but transforming a service against a background of real-terms cuts is almost impossible. The Central London clinical commissioning group is in the middle of a 13% real-terms cut, the West London clinical commissioning group is having an 8% real-terms cut, real-terms cuts are being made in mental health services, and Westminster City Council has cut 31% of its funding for social care. Can the Secretary of State indicate whether inner-London residents will see any benefit as a result of this plan?
I will be looking to see whether the upcoming financial allocations make any substantial difference to this picture.
Universal Credit was intended both as a simplification of the tax and benefits system and as a way of improving the financial advantages of work for people on low incomes, but, fine as these aims are, it was always oversold, over-ambitious and built on incorrect assumptions about the system it replaces. Eight years after Universal Credit was outlined to Parliament, it still does not work properly. Its introduction was not helped by the Government cutting funding for it in 2015, only to have to restore it later. Whilst some people undoubtedly gain from UC, others have seen dramatic falls in income, resulting in rent arrears and debt problems and a need for emergency help such as via foodbanks.
The next stage of UC was always going to be the most difficult – the moving over of some 3 million people – many with long term illness and disabilities- from their previous benefits. The Government have, in light of the difficulties making UC work effectively, wisely put back the decision on doing this until more work has been done on managing the risks.
However, many people will still be applying for Universal Credit as new claimants and as their circumstances change, and 2.4 million households will be more than £2,000 a year worse off under Universal Credit. There are also still £4.7 billion of further benefit cuts to be administered between now and 2020.
Speaking in the Parliamentary statement last week I asked:
I served in 2011 on the Welfare Reform Bill which paved the way for UC, and it is clear that the questions the Government could not answer then about UC they still cannot answer now, eight years later—and a little humility on the part of the Minister would be very welcome. Does he recognise that managed migration clients will not for the most part be the same as roll-out clients? There will be a higher level of vulnerability, with many people unable—and will continue to be unable—to work because of sickness and disability? What extra provision is he building into the system to make sure even this pilot does not leave people with a debt crisis and at risk of losing their home?
The hon. Lady gets to the point of the pilot phase, as that is precisely what we want to make sure happens: we want to get this right particularly for the most vulnerable. We are working with a range of stakeholders. I set out in an earlier answer the work-streams we are working on, and we will continue to do that until we get this right.
Minister’s Response on Access to Justice in the Disability Benefits System
In August I wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions following a number of recommendations published by the advice and advocacy charity, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, in their report ‘Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System’.
Z2K do fantastic work surrounding Benefits locally; in assisting claimants with general advice and appealing refusal decisions. They also conduct important research such as this report. I wrote to the DWP in support of the recommendations put forward because my office receives correspondence on a weekly basis from claimants whose refusal has been upheld at Mandatory Consideration stage and who experience great difficulty in accessing the right assistance and advice.
There is clearly a problem with the current MR process whereby only 11% of original decisions are overturned by the DWP, compared with nearly 70% at independent appeal stage later on. Below are some of the key recommendations of the report which I asked the Department to take into consideration:
The DWP should require MR decision makers – and give them sufficient time and training – to conduct a full case review. This means considering all the evidence, addressing any oversights shown in the assessment report and recording, and if necessary contacting the claimant for further information.
The DWP should extend the deadline for claimants to submit an MR request from 28 to 56 days.
The Government should reinstate legal aid for all disability benefits cases. DWP should extend the standard deadline for lodging an appeal from 28 to 56 days.
The Government should introduce a ‘PIP pending appeal’ rate for all those previously in receipt of DLA or PIP.
The DWP must immediately stop discouraging GPs from issuing fit notes and instead return to the original wording of the letter, informing doctors of the process through which their patients can claim ESA pending appeal.
It was obviously disappointing to receive a response which seeks to defend a system that is so clearly not fit for purpose, link here. In particular, the refusal to consider introducing PIP pending appeal on the grounds that to do so would encourage appeals; it would also suggest that the Department had no confidence in the decision made, is disheartening because we currently have no reason to have confidence in the initial decisions made by the DWP and encouraging appeals is exactly what we ought to be doing.
I am afraid for the time being, claimants who feel that they have had their Benefits stopped or new claims rejected unfairly, should seek advice from organisations like Z2K and CAB Westminster so they can receive help in challenging these decisions. As always, please also feel free to contact my office for assistance.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK
On the 30th November I hosted a group of Commonwealth Parliamentarians from Kenya, Ghana, Malawi and Namibia in Westminster North as part of a CPA project on Modern Slavery. Modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour are problems which, due to their very nature, cannot be easily addressed by any one country acting alone.
It is currently estimated that over 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking. Cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination is vital if these problems are to be addressed effectively.
The CPA UK’s Modern Slavery Project supports MPs from Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and other countries to strengthen their anti-trafficking legislation and exercise scrutiny over government anti-trafficking efforts. This visit allowed Commonwealth MPs the opportunity to meet local voluntary sector organisations.
One of these organisations was The Passage, who are a local homelessness charity who also help to deliver Westminster Council’s ‘Housing Options’ Service to single homeless applicants. We heard from their anti-slavery coordinator about some of the work they do with vulnerable people who have been the victim of trafficking and modern slavery and some of the measures which can be taken to prevent this from happening. You can read more about their work here.
We also heard from ‘Stop the Traffik’ who have conducted some of the most extensive research into modern slavery and trafficking and were able to share some of the key findings from the intelligence they have gathered. You can read more about their amazing work here.
Both organisations helped to shed some light on the key risk factors surrounding trafficking and modern slavery. We also heard from various Commonwealth MPs on the issues uniquely affecting their countries and how a coordinated approach can help to provide a more effective response to this tragic and growing problem.
Saving All Stars Boxing club
All Starts Boxing gym is an iconic sports programme in an iconic building, and the managers are to be admired for their perseverance in keeping going despite funding pressures and endless problems with their landlords and the building. Thanks to a timely intervention from the Octavia Foundation, a crisis was survived in the late Autumn and there have since been some very successful fund-raising initiatives, including The Save our All Stars music concert which featured Sophie Ellis-Bextor, The Feeling, Beverly Knight, Ed Harcourt, Chrissie Hynde and Sid Griffin which has really sparked this 2nd phase of fundraising with interest from the Press and articles in the Daily Star, Evening Standard and Kilburn Times. The concert raised £10,500 with a further £1000 raised via online donations since we announced the concert.
The artists involved have been fantastic and have pledged to continue supporting our fundraising campaign, we’re organising an online “celebrity auction” on eBay for which they have donated prizes such as an hours flight in one of the artist’s light plane.
However, the fight has to go on. I am working with the Octavia Foundation, Queen’s Park Community Council and ward councillors to see what further help can be given, but please do spread the word – all help and suggestions are welcome.
I have had a great many representations about Kindred Studios, who are operating a very popular studio/workshop facility on a temporary basis in the former City of Westminster College building in Croxley Road. The building is now surplus to the requirements of the College and has long been due for sale as part of the wider development programme and, as a public, educational facility, I fully appreciate that the College needs to generate income from the sale. Many public sector organisations are under financial pressure to sell land and buildings so the income can be used It has never been easy to find sums of money on this scale for site purchases, of course, and I would certainly welcome the possibility of continuing with the provision of much needed affordable work space. The arts and creative sectors make a massive economic contribution as well as a cultural one, and should be supported. What I absolutely don’t want to see is simply more luxury housing that meets no local needs at all! The Maida Hill Neighbourhood Forum made a successful application to designate the site as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ before Christmas, which allows a short time to consider alternative options and local councillors and I are liaising with Kindred, Paddington Development Trust and others to see if there is a way forward.
Closure/relocation of Victoria Coach station
There has been some speculation that, following the prospective closure of Victoria Coach station when the lease expires in 2023, Transport for London are considering Royal Oak amongst other options for re-siting. There is cross-party opposition to this locally, which has been expressed to TfL in unequivocal terms. This area is already congested and has some of the worst air pollution in the country, so there can be no question of making that worse.
There has been considerable concern about the standard of service at Randolph Surgery over the last year or two, and so I was not sorry to learn that Virgin have now handed back their contract and the Clinical Commissioning Group are consulting now with the patients regarding the future of the practice. They are proposing to appoint a new provider for GP services. Local Councillor Geoff Barraclough has written to the CCG with a number of questions about the continuity of care, the recruitment process and the consultation, so please do let me know if you are interested in seeing this or any reply (or if you have any questions yourself you would like us to pursue).
Jubilee Sports Centre site
Local councillors and I have been repeatedly pressing Westminster Council on the issue of empty buildings, both private and public. Former pub sites such as the Windsor Castle and Neeld Arms in Harrow Road look dreadful and create an air of abandonment which no one wants in the neighbourhood. Only a sustained campaign forced the owners to tackle the dilapidation of the Chippenham, which had actually reached the point of being dangerous. We have also expressed concern about the delay in the re-development of the (now closed) Jubilee Sports Centre in Caird Street, following the opening of the Moberley Centre last summer. Sadly (though perhaps not surprisingly) the site has now been broken into and squatted. We have been told the following by the Council:
I am writing to inform you of the latest situation and an issue regarding the development of the Jubilee Sports Centre site.
Officers have been informed that a small number of squatters have broken into the facility and occupied part of the centre. It’s understood that they have caused damage to the security cameras, doors and windows.
Since the centre was closed, the site has been fully secured with site hoarding, security sheeting over the window and door openings up to the second floor and security cameras. Since the reports of the break-in, a 24 hour on-site security team have been deployed. The Police have also been engaged and Officers have commenced legal processes in order to resolve this issue as soon as possible.
I will keep you updated as this situation progresses.
In terms of the commencement of the development, Officers are in discussions with the appointed developer with a view of progressing works as soon as possible. Increasing construction costs and a challenging residential property market has prolonged negotiations but it is anticipated that this phase of works will commence in the Spring.
Serious youth violence
Many people living in and around the Harrow Road and Church Street areas will know that there has been a serious issue with anti-social behaviour and youth crime in the last few months. This pattern is not unique to us – violent crime has risen in almost every area of the country, with bigger increases outside London than in, but this is not comforting. We have lost a third of our police in Westminster since 2011, the Met has had cuts made to its budget of over £750 million pounds, and the Council withdrew all funding for Youth Services, after school and most holiday provision in 2016, as well as making huge cuts to Children’s Centres and other early interventions schemes.
But I will continue to make the case for help to tackle this problem, locally and nationally. Together with other London MPs I met Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick last week and asked for a high level meeting with Westminster Council and local police to get more help into the most affected areas before there is a tragedy.
…there is £1.2 million to make Victorian lampposts on the Embankment look nicer
Labour Councillors have condemned Westminster Council’s decision to spend £1.2 million on refurbishing Victorian lamp columns lining Victoria Embankment at a time when the Council has cut its funding to local youth organisations, libraries and the vulnerable.
The Council plans to spend £1.2 million grit-blasting the Victorian lamp columns back to the bare metal, before being repaired and repainted. Yet:
- In September 2016, Westminster City Council ceased funding voluntary sector youth clubs and youth providers. This had a dramatic impact on local youth services. The Stowe Youth Club on Harrow Road, for example, was forced to close almost all its services for local young people and lay off its dedicated and experienced staff. Now, the Stowe Centre is only able to provide a replacement one night a week session for 11-19 year olds and is a massive blow to the community and life choices of the young people in the area.
- And in 2016, the Council announced a funding reduction of £1.4m from Substance Misuse programmes and £0.7m from Sexual Health schemes. This led to the closure of the vitally important North Westminster Drug and Alcohol Service (NWDAS) in Harrow Road, which serves the whole of the northern part of the City including parts of the West End.
- In 2017, half of the staff at Marylebone Library, were axed as part of Westminster Conservatives’ plans to cut £750,000 from the Libraries budget. In addition, 2 jobs were cut at Charing Cross library, 2 jobs went at Victoria Library and over 4 jobs were axed at the Music, Archives and Reference Libraries.
Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Labour’s Environment and City Management spokesperson, said:
“Once again, Westminster Conservatives have shown a warped set of priorities. The £1.2 million could have been better spent on young people, vulnerable residents and other local services, rather than on repainting 150-year-old lamp posts. I think most people would agree that maintaining services to local residents should take priority.”
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP