Budget debates are usually predictable: the government proposes and the opposition opposes. The government’s flagship tax proposal from this budget was an increase in the higher rate of tax threshold. This would in practice be a tax cut to some of the more better off in our society at a time when local authority budgets and vital public services are still being cut under austerity.
If Jeremy Corbyn is known for anything, it probably would be opposing tax cuts for the wealthy. It was then an incredible about turn, based on opinion polling and focus group results more synonymous with Blair spinnery than Corbyn’s Labour, but the Shadow Chancellor announced that Labour would not be opposing the Conservative’s tax cut of the rich.
After an internal row broke out, the Labour whips – including Bristol West’s MP Thangam Debbonaire – instructed MPs to abstain on this issue. Labour was even happy for there not to be a vote on the issue, probably to save face. The Lib Dems demanded better and insisted on a vote on this controversial package. The Liberal Democrats again lead the opposition to this Tory government.
With Labour abstaining, it was a clear victory for the government. 21 Labour MPs defied the whips and voted with principle rather than with party and voted with the Lib Dems against this indefensible tax cut for higher earners.
Whilst Labour huff and puff about wanting more investment in public services, when it came down to vote against giving help to those who need it least, they simply abdicated from the debate. That money could have been used to properly fund Universal Credit or end the benefits freeze. Progressives should be defending the most vulnerable in their communities, not giving the well off a windfall.
I and other Bristol West constituents challenged Thangam on this. Her response was to dodge the question, talk about another amendment and insist that Labour would vote against the budget, but apparently didn’t feel like voting against a tax cut.
Then came her inevitable criticism of the Lib Dems. Rather than defend her decision or admit she made a mistake, Thangam employed whataboutery a tactic that is increasingly destroying political discourse. She seems to believe that she is beyond criticism because of decisions taken by others.
Thangam, again, made the wrong call. Rather than standing up and representing the interests of her constituents, she and her partners in the whips office forced Labour MPs to sit on their hands whilst the Tories gave the rich another helping hand – probably for those little extras.
This is becoming a frustrating pattern. Whether it's on Brexit, civil liberties or fair taxes, Thangam and her Labour colleagues are proving again and again why the Liberal Democrats need a larger voice in parliament. We need a strong, progressive and outward-looking voice for Bristol West.
This year’s budget was billed as the end of austerity. This was the budget that would announce to the country that the years of struggle have been worth it and a better future was just around the corner. Instead, we were treated to a complete non-event. Growth remains low, Brexit continues to deflate our economy and public services and local authorities remain stretched to breaking point. This was a sticking plaster Budget, aimed at keeping the government ticking over until Brexit hits.
This government seems to have a routine on mental health – talk the talk, don’t walk the walk. Whilst any extra funding is welcome, the money being given by the Chancellor doesn’t come close to what experts are suggesting is needed to meet demand. The services announced have the potential to change lives, but when the funding doesn’t follow more and more people fall through the cracks. This is unacceptable.
For us Liberal Democrats, these plans feel all too familiar. Much of the announcement on mental health was a rehash of the Coalition government’s blueprint for children’s mental health services; Guaranteeing a named mental health lead in schools and dedicated professionals for specialist services have been in the pipeline for years, but the Conservatives have consistently failed to deliver. I won’t be expecting anything to change this time.
I demand better for mental health services in Bristol West. The Tories will continue to pat themselves on the back, but until we have a proper funding formula for mental health, they cannot guarantee that money will get where it is needed. I will continue to work with local charities to ensure that the case for mental health funding is made locally and passionately.
The Chancellor seemed particularly pleased with himself when he announced funding “little extras” for schools. For teachers up and down the country, this is frankly an insult. Primary schools in Bristol West, which are now in the bottom 20% of the country in terms of quality, won’t benefit much from a £10,000 one-off gift. This won’t stop kids being sent home with begging letters from headteachers, or end the staff shortage crisis. The Tories have cut £1.7 billion in school budgets since 2015; much more is needed than a few little extras.
There was more in this budget for potholes than for schools. Whilst potholes do present a daily bother for most people, surely investing in a 21st Century education for our children is a slightly more pressing matter? There was nothing in this budget to plug the gap in our schools’ budgets. Thousands of schools across the country, including in Bristol West, will still see their budgets cut in real terms.
I demand better for schools in Bristol West. Before this budget, I wrote to the Chancellor explaining the need for greater funding for primary schools in our community. This appears to have fallen on deaf ears. I will continue to reach out to headteachers in our area, and to put funding for the most disadvantaged kids in our society first. The Tories think that the problem can be fixed with a few extra pens and stickers – we need real change for our schools.
Brexit, as ever, lingers like a bad smell in this budget. Before the budget announcement, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were at odds at what a no deal Brexit would mean. The Prime Minister thinks it’ll be fine, the Chancellor has warned that an emergency budget may be required to stabilise the economy.
It’s what made this budget feel like a complete non-event. For all the headline grabbing, short-term giveaways, all the funding and investment is contingent on Brexit not damaging the economy. Nobody seriously suggests this is possible. The government added half a million more to its no deal preparations, now a total of £3.5 billion. This will surely go down as one of the largest wastes of public money spent by a government. I can’t help but think about the lives that could be changed if we invested that money in mental health services or schools.
I demand better than Brexit for Bristol West. We cannot be allowed to pursue a policy that we know will make our country poorer. Whilst our Labour MP sits on her hands, I am demanding a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal so we can exit from Brexit.
Last weekend an estimated 670,000 people marched through the streets of London demanding a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. At the front of the procession were young people and students, marching for their future and to be given the final say over their own destiny.
I was honoured to join the University of Bristol Student’s Union at the march, joining dozens of Bristol students who like me are anxious about their future. The greatest divide in our country today is generational. My generation, the young in this country, feel that we have been short changed by the previous generations. A banking system that was allowed to bloat and collapse the entire world economy that remains unfixed. The promise of one day owning your own home which is now for so many an impossible dream. Inaction on climate change which threatens the very future we will inhabit.
And, of course, Brexit. The theme of this march was a march for our future. Young people voted overwhelmingly for a different future to the one that the government is trying to force on them. The young are being betrayed with Brexit. One generation forcing a vision of the future that those who will inhabit that future simply do not want.
It was the Brexit vote that inspired me to stand up for my generation and the next, and I am proud to march with students and young people from across the country in demanding a people's vote.
Whilst I was inspired by the numbers of people who turned out in London, I was also angered and disappointed by those who didn’t. Labour know they have the support of a lot of young people and on Brexit it is clear they are taking them for granted.
I am perplexed as to why Bristol West’s MP Thangam Debbonaire who prides herself as a remainer and who represents a constituency which is disproportionately young will still not back a people’s vote. Her reasoning against has been weak and transparent, and every day that passes that she and her colleagues on the Labour front-bench don’t back a vote, the chance slips further out of reach.
The next stage of the People’s Vote campaign is to encourage people to write to their MPs and show the strength of the numbers who are demanding a final say on the Brexit deal. I will be continuing to work with Our Future, Our Choice and the Bristol SU to plead with Thangam to fight for those who voted for her and give the young the final say on their future.
Climate Change, along with Brexit, poses the greatest political challenge we face. This week, a UN intergovernmental report on climate change warned that we have just twelve years to get our act together to have a chance at preventing catastrophe. Some, including many in the government, roll their eyes at what they see as sensationalism from environmentalists. They are wrong. The threat is real. The consequences are already unfolding. Climate change is a crisis not for the next generation, but for all of us now.
Given the sobering effect of this report it seemed frustratingly illustrative of this Tory government that whilst these headlines were circling, two policy changes were announced. Firstly, fracking for shale gas would go ahead after a court appeal failed. Second, a scheme to subsidise electric cars to make them more affordable and viable would end. The Tories clearly don’t care about the future, just interested in making more money for their donors.
Climate change presents a threat but also an opportunity to advance public policy decisions that can create a genuinely better world. Whilst the Lib Dems’ plastic bag tax has been an overwhelming success, it is almost literally a drop in the ocean. More needs to be done.
So, if the government won’t act, it falls to cities like Bristol to be more pro-active in pushing for greener policies. The Liberal Democrats were founded on principles of environmentalism and localism, and by combining the two in Bristol – a hotbed of progressive politics – we can demonstrate that fighting climate change doesn’t have to be an overwhelming or expensive task. It can transform our economy and our communities.
In Bristol, it is believed that over 300 people die every year because of pollution in our city. The city has failed to comply with EU legal limits on air pollution for years, and we need to act now at all levels to bring that down to zero. This is unacceptable.
The council is currently consulting on its future transport policies and is considering several options. Personally, I support the creation of an ultra-low emissions zone in the city which would dramatically cut air pollution, freeing the road from high-polluting vehicles and encourage Bristolians onto public transport and the cycle network. Another proposal not currently being considered would be for all private hire vehicles and diesel buses licensed to operate in Bristol to run on ultra-low emission or zero emission fuels by 2024. Making our transport greener and emission free will have a profound impact on people living in the city, as well saving our local NHS trusts millions every year.
We cannot afford delays and half measures. We cannot afford to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy, we have to provide both. It’s time to invest properly in clean energy, producing clean jobs and a clean economy. Bristol is the city to lead this clean revolution.
As your MP, I would be lobbying the government, the regional Mayor and the Bristol City Council to set up Bristol as a green pilot city. We can and should be leading the way on in transform our cities into modern, sustainable urban areas. There is much we can do at every level, but without government support we cannot achieve everything.
We have got to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees to avoid global catastrophe. We are running out of time. That challenge may seem daunting but it is a challenge we must meet and we will meet. We might even create a better world in the process.
During the party conference season, other stories can easily get lost and forgotten. Whilst Theresa May was trying to humanise herself by dancing to ABBA, a week previously a thousand headteachers took the streets of London to protest the cuts to school budgets.
Since 2015, the Conservatives have cut school budgets in real terms and the investments that have been made have benefited the academies and not the vast majority of schools. Lib Dem achievements like the pupil premium - that supports students in disadvantaged areas - have been gutted, classrooms are getting bigger and teachers are being forced out of the profession. It's obvious why for so many enough is enough.
Headteachers are at the heart of this crisis. Every day they see the impact of Tory austerity on their staff and students. They have every right to stand up for their schools. In fact, they have a responsibility. I am proud to join them in solidarity.
The Tory government have ignored the countless warning from teachers and headteachers about the impact that their education policy is having. Cutting staff and support staff numbers, heaping more and more pressure on fewer people. Dropping subjects from the curriculum, prescribing a closed and antiquated education for the next generation. We’ve reached the point now in Bristol and across the country where parents are being asked to chip in for basic school supplies. Surely our kids deserve better than this.
The Liberal Democrats demand better. Not just better funding and resources, but a better education for our children.
That is why this week I will be writing to all secondary schools headteachers in our community, to show my support and to learn from them the individual challenges that our schools face.
The government can only fob off the teaching profession for so long. The headteachers who marched and are in our schools every day are everything they can to provide the next generation with the tools to thrive. This Tory government, however, is holding them back.
I wholeheartedly support the headteachers in their protest. It is vital that this time the Government finally listens to them and puts an end to these crippling cuts.
When Theresa May first entered Downing Street, there seemed to be a genuine change in tone from the Conservatives. Mrs May set out what she believed were the great modern-day injustices in our society:
- Being poor made you more likely to die almost a decade early.
- White, working class boys are less likely to get into university.
- The privately educated are more likely to get a top job than somebody who went to state school.
- Women earn less than men.
- People with mental ill health do not have the support they need.
- Young people will find it even harder to own their own home.
All of these struck a chord with me. These are the undeniable truths of our society. It felt strange, almost refreshing, that here was a Conservative Prime Minister who had a clear understanding of what was broken in our society. It suggested that Liberals and Social Democrats would not have to spend our time debating whether or not these problems existed, but instead how we could all go about tackling them.
Two years on, and this speech seems like it was made in a different universe. The Conservatives have gone out of their way to avoid tackling these injustices. Instead, they have spent every ounce of political capital fighting with each other over how best to fall off a cliff-edge.
Brexit has become the political equivalent of a black-hole. The domestic agenda has been sucked away. Apparently, this week at Conservative conference, Mrs May will attempt to articulate her post-Brexit vision, however the headlines have so far been dominated by Boris Johnson, a festival of Brexit and a Thick of It-style conference app failure. Not the most inspiring start, but completely representative of this mess of a government.
One of the main reasons the social mobility agenda has fallen by the way side is because too many Conservatives simply don’t value it. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg didn’t get into Parliament because they had a burning desire to see that every child had the same opportunities in life, or that the gender pay gap was a national embarrassment that needed to be ended. He and his ilk were driven by just one subject – Europe.
The reason Brexit so all-encompassing is because those with the real power are demanding it to be so. Social mobility can wait a generation or two, this is their one chance to drag Britain out of Europe and they will not be distracted.
Whilst I would like to believe that Theresa May will eventually stand up to the Brexit zealots and legislate for a people’s vote, I know it will not be that easy. But the injustices and inequalities as set out by the Prime Minister will not benefit from Brexit. The poorest and most vulnerable in our society will not see a Brexit dividend. If Theresa May is serious about building a truly just society, she needs to start working towards it. That means giving us an exit from Brexit and investing in people again.
As the Labour Party conference begins, there is much debate over the direction of your party’s policy on Brexit. It is unclear whether there will be a formal debate on the subject, but I have no doubt that you will spend a lot of time this weekend discussing the best way forward for your party, our city and our country.
I have emailed you, as one of your constituents, seeking your views on various details of Brexit and asked you to back a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. We have debated on Twitter and as the recently selected Liberal Democrat PPC for Bristol West I have even challenged you to a public forum in the constituency so that we can hear from the people of Bristol West and put forward our arguments for our apparently different strategies. Your response has always been that you don’t believe there is a debate. I respectfully disagree.
Whilst you have firmly and sincerely said that you don’t believe a people’s vote to be the best strategic choice, you have indicated you are open to the arguments.
The case for me is very clear:
- That the arguments put forward in 2016 have fallen into dust
- the Leave campaign has been found to have broken electoral law
- Promises made in the 2016 referendum will in no way match up with the reality of what comes next.
- There is no majority in Parliament for any flavour of Brexit, therefore, in order to advance, the final decision must be returned to the people with the option to remain in the European Union.
One argument you have used against this is that you believe a People’s Vote is too risky, and if lost could damage our relationship with the European Union irrevocably. I sympathise with this position, as I too want to have the best relationship with the EU. With all votes and decisions there comes risk, however, the risk any Brexit poses to our relationship with the European Union, the jobs, security and opportunities of my generation and the generations that follow means that I cannot be content to let Brexit pass without a fight.
Barry Gardiner, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have all made clear that if elected they will take Britain out of the European Union. You have described yourself as pro-European to your core, so how can you be comfortable asking the people of Bristol West to vote for a potential government that will not change course and will take us out of the European Union?
Many of your colleagues, including neighbouring MPs here in Bristol, agree with me that we need a People’s Vote. 71% of Labour supporters back a people’s vote and 79% of your constituents voted to remain. The TUC, NUS and many other unions see the damage that Brexit will do to worker’s rights and environmental protections and demand an exit from Brexit.
We have now less than six months until Brexit day. With Chequers dead in the water, the most likely Brexit is one that wasn’t even considered in June 2016 – a cliff-edge, no deal disaster. As a constituent and fellow European, I beg you to use your voice and influence to change Labour Party policy so we can have a proper and effective opposition to the Government’s Brexit and to join me in calling for a people’s vote on the final deal.
Time is running out. Please take this opportunity to be bold and do what’s right.
Liberal Democrats Bristol West Parliamentary Spokesperson
On Tuesday night, with very little fanfare, the Conservative government and Labour opposition voted on the third reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill. The bill came in response to the horrendous terrorist attacks in London and Manchester and sought to ensure that we remain safe and secure whilst giving the security services the powers they need to ensure these tragedies are not repeated. Whilst that is something we must all work to achieve, this legislation does not do enough to balance security and freedom and could have potentially chilling effects on our most basic civil liberties.
In its third reading, the legislation came under scrutiny and criticism, including from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. The committee – which is cross-house and cross-party – determined that “some of these offences risk a disproportionate interference to the right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought and belief, and the right to freedom of expression.” There have also been doubts raised on whether or not the legislation would be accepted under the European Convention on Human Rights, a breach that should concern those of us who continue to campaign for international cooperation on human rights.
Many of the clauses seem entirely open to abuse. Clause 1, for example, changes the offence from “inviting support” for an extremist organisation to simply “recklessly supporting” one. The concept of recklessness is already confused and open to huge levels of subjectivity with regard to physical acts of harm, however there is no legal precedent for reckless speech. This legal loophole opens up all sorts of potentially innocent behaviour to being criminalised.
Perhaps the most chilling part of this legislation is the extra powers given to border security staff. Under Schedule III of this bill, security guards will now be able to stop, question and detain individuals at the border without having to justify their reasoning at any level. To quote the bill, that Conservative and Labour MPs including Bristol West’s Thangam Debbonaire voted for, “An examining officer may exercise the powers under this paragraph whether or not there are grounds for suspecting this person is or has been engaged with hostile activity.”
This not only represents unprecedented powers for our border force, but an inability to hold bad behaviour to account and protect people under the law. How on earth can Thangam Debbonaire, as Chair of the APPG on refugees, not believe that these extra powers will be targeted at vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers?
These powers go beyond anything we’ve seen before. We have never been comfortable giving unrestrained powers to our police and border control team. Not only are they unwanted by the police, they have been decried as unnecessary by counter-terrorism experts.
For me, it was hugely significant that it was the Liberal Democrats in Parliament led the opposition to this bill. Only 10 MPs voted against one of the most significant pieces of legislation this parliament will pass. Like many in Bristol West, I am appalled that our local representative sided with the Tories over the rights and liberties of her constituents
Parliament returned from summer recess this week. With the Conservative Party pulling itself apart over Brexit and Labour mired in an antisemitism crisis, it can be easy to forget that the day-to-day work continues. This week offered up a rare bit of good news as Wera Hobhouse’s upskirting bill began its journey through the House into becoming law, making upskirting a specific criminal sexual offence.
The Bath Liberal Democrat MP put forward the private member's bill before the recess, representing the peak of a campaign to make upskirting a specific criminal offence. That this wasn’t already an offence shows the scale with which Parliament and our laws are struggling to keep up with modern day misogyny. Conservative dinosaur MP Christopher Chope, however, blocked the bill, but public outrage and passionate campaigning have forced the government’s hand and the bill is now well on its way to becoming law.
This should in no way be the end of it, however. Whilst this is a crucial victory, there is still much more that needs to be done. Loopholes in the law mean that so many crimes that devastate the lives on their victims are not classified as sexual offences and therefore do not offer the legal protections that this brings.
Revenge porn, for example, whilst a criminal offence it is not a sexual offence. This distinction denies victims their right to anonymity in what are harrowing cases. In government, the Lib Dems made revenge porn a specific criminal offence and in 2016 we tabled amendments that would have taken this further and made it a sexual criminal offence. The amendments were sadly rejected by the government. It is, therefore, important that the upskirting bill is not seen as an end but as a precedent for how we can go further.
The bill has not only opened up a national discussion around upskirting but has informed a wider conversation around consent, the distribution of sexual images and the attitudes towards women generally. The concept of consent has got to be at the heart of sexual offences legislation, and the precedent this bill sets out must now be applied to the litany of crimes which are not designated sexual offences and do not offer justice to their victims.
I am very pleased with the speed with which this bill is being progressed. Not only does it show the power of cross-party support in fighting an injustice, but illustrates that even with just 12 MPs Liberal Democrats are making real change and fighting injustice in parliament.
The momentum is now on our side, and the government has shown itself at least open to changing laws. The pressure and campaigning to modernise our judicial system must accelerate as we seek to end not only injustice in the law but misogyny in our society.