Whitsun Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 4:09 pm, 23rd May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow the many interesting speeches, which have focused on great priorities that we ought to debate in this House. My time in this Parliament has been dominated by one massive issue—a constitutional impasse—and I lament the fact that it has displaced so many fine, pertinent and vital matters that should be the focus of our democracy and national life. I hope that improvements to our leadership and the country’s governance will help us to get back on track. I hope that our focus will shift from that constitutional impasse back to meaningful societal improvements that will determine our quality of life.

I am well aware that there is an election going on today, and Members of the House are thinner in number than they would otherwise be. We should pay tribute to the thousands of activists who are out there pounding the pavements for their respective parties as we speak. It is easy to forget the huge amount of unpaid, and often uncredited, work put in by so many people who are committed to our political life. Although it is fashionable to be cynical about politics, we should take the time to pay tribute to all who put gargantuan amounts of effort into participating in our political life and political parties, of whatever colour.

I am thinking particularly of Angela Bretherton, a local activist from Dennistoun, in my part of the world, who is standing for the first time as a Scottish Labour MEP candidate. She is an amazing Unison trade union official who fought for equal pay for women workers in Glasgow who were denied justice for many years, and she was integral to achieving that gain for women workers. That is a small flavour of the huge, rich tapestry of our democracy, and I give all credit to those involved.

While we are focused on the Punch and Judy show of constitutional politics, I was intrigued by some of the proposals from Stephen Kerr. There is ongoing debate in the Labour party about how to cut through the binary discourse that has dominated politics in Scotland for so long. The nationalists are focused on one political objective alone—destroying the United Kingdom—but there is a danger that another form of nationalism will feed off that nationalism, and it is important that we guard against that. To be frank, I think the Conservative party in Scotland has often benefited from defining itself in opposition to the nationalists by merely bringing nationalism of another colour into the debate, and it is important for the party to be conscious of that.

I was very moved by what Gordon Brown said this week, namely that that Punch and Judy show is destroying the fabric of our political discourse, particularly in Scotland. We need to get back to discussing the important issues, including performance in public life. The reality is that the current situation is a function of two Governments that are failing the public by obsessing about constitutional issues to the exclusion of other things. I hope that we can move beyond this impasse and reboot our politics. If we can focus on something other than constitutional issues, perhaps we can turn the tide.

In my time in the House, I have tried to focus on representing my constituents as best I can, because I understand why they sent me here. As I alluded to in my maiden speech, I understand that they yearn for a political system that shifts power, wealth and control in their favour, and that is what we should focus on. The bulk of my casework stands as testament to that. Most of it relates to political failure and failure of governance—primarily at the Home Office, with the huge amount of suffering caused by our dysfunctional and appallingly callous immigration and asylum system, which I have to deal with on a case-by-case basis as an MP. I resent having to do that because it is actually a symptom of me having to firefight the failure of the Government. They are causing so much hardship to people, who have a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every day. These people do not know whether they will be sent back to their torturers and the people who killed their families. It is appalling. I represent one of the few areas in the country with an asylum dispersal area, so I have to deal with these issues all too frequently.

I also have to deal with a lot of failure of the Department for Work and Pensions. The transition to universal credit and changes to disability benefits have been disastrously managed and are visiting a lot of harm on people. The barometer for me is to ask, “Who is coming to see me? Who is suffering? Why did they resort to seeing their MP about these issues?” The answers to those questions tell me that there is a real problem with the way in which the Department is functioning, and we need to focus on how to fix that problem. We cannot simply be here to reflect prejudices and reactionary politics. We should be led by evidence and an understanding of what will improve the general happiness, contentment, wellbeing and prosperity of all parts of our country and society. If we can agree on that, we should recognise and be aware of the failure of current policy; I hope that we can do that.

After that rather despondent sermon, it is also important to recognise that there are lots of people and organisations working really hard to do what they can—in whatever small way they can—to improve the condition of our communities and society. I can think of a few in my own constituency. This work happens in the face of huge cutbacks to councils, which were seen to happen disproportionately to councils in Scotland. Since austerity, amplified by a Government in Edinburgh, Glasgow City Council has seen a percentage cut seven times the size of that to the Scottish Government. A big part of that has been the withdrawal of services such as music tuition in schools, but there is a great organisation in my constituency called the Beatroute Arts Centre, which has been providing huge opportunities for young people, including creative outlets and tuition in the face of the funding cuts.

Bolt FM is part of a local church in my constituency and has been around for 18 years, involving young people in opportunities that they might not otherwise have—for example, presenting their local community radio station and going to Africa to work with local communities there on how to build their resilience. It is a wonderful, fantastic example.

We often tie together cuts with the problems faced by constituents who have a low disposable income and might be suffering poverty, but there is also the issue of trying to be environmentally friendly. How do we turn that into a positive thing for those people? My constituent Donna Henderson set up the Balornock Uniform Bank. Donna’s idea was to give back to her community by organising the donation of good-as-new school uniforms and other children’s clothing, and offering them to other families for free in an exchange. Young people are growing at a very fast rate, and quickly grow out of their school uniforms, which are often perfectly good to be reused. Rather than throwing these things out, why not recycle them? Donna has actually turned something that might be a source of shame—to have to exchange clothing—into something that is entirely sensible to do. All credit to her for thinking of a great practical intervention that is benefiting my community.

Speaking of credit, I want to mention the urgent need to debate and focus more on the need for credit unions in this country. This House often discusses the transition from banking services to a more cashless society, and the impact that that transition is having on those who are left behind. The extraction of banking services from poorer communities, which is a disproportionate fact of life in this country, has seen a litany of branch closures in my constituency. The latest announcement was the closure of the Santander branch, so I have seen credit unions becoming ever more critical.

I pay particular tribute to the Carntyne and Riddrie Credit Union, which is run by John Lyons. And not only does he run a credit union; he has also set up Glasgow’s first non-referral food bank. When he went to see how a food bank works, he was appalled that one of the questions asked of a lady who went there to seek food with her children was, “Are all the children from the same father?” Does that matter? What on earth is the relevance of that question? Why was that food bank trying to create a source of shame for someone looking for need in the most vulnerable situation? It is already embarrassing for many people having to seek help like that, before having to go through some sort of ritual humiliation by people who just want to exercise power over others in a vulnerable situation. The fact that John Lyons has set up a non-referral food bank is remarkable. He is also trying to connect people into accessing financial services and has set up a credit union service that is delivering much more than just those services to the community. It is a hub for the community, and he practically lives in that facility. It has been really inspiring to see the work going on there. As MPs, we can be born, live and die in an area but never know half the stuff that is going on. Being an MP is a journey of discovery, as we find out about all the amazing things that are happening, and that is just one example I have encountered in my time.

In my maiden speech—you were in the Chair on that occasion, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mentioned the amber nectar of Tennent’s, which is the oldest business in my constituency and a fine Scottish business. It has been around since 1556, brewing beer on the banks of the Molendinar Burn in Glasgow, and it is one of Scotland’s most iconic brands. It has bred another business adjacent to it: the Drygate brewery. That brewery has been contributing significantly to the local economy, and it is lining up a number of events to celebrate its fifth anniversary this year, which is fantastic. I have been impressed by not only the trade union traditions of that business, but the amazing community work it does quietly to support local people facing hardship. That is just another example of a fantastic, innovative business going hand in hand with compassion for the community.

Businesses face significant hardship in my constituency. Lots of businesses are thriving, and local entrepreneurs are flourishing, despite the hardships, but one big problem they face is punitive business rates. That issue was mentioned in relation to the steel industry, but it also affects small businesses. Business rates are often a blunt instrument that do not reflect a business’s performance. They can often sink a business that would otherwise be entirely viable. I think of Tibo in Dennistoun, a fantastic bistro that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It has been tenacious through difficult times, and it is flourishing and doing a great job. When I visit, I am reminded of the looming threat of a revaluation of business rates, which could sink the business overnight. It is difficult for business owners to plan year to year when facing that potential change.

Many of the groups I have mentioned also face a gamble year to year. They spend so much of their time not focused on delivering the services that the community relies on, but thinking about where the funding is coming from for the next year. They spend a huge chunk of their resources and time applying for grants from local councils or Government, just to stay in business. They are living hand to mouth. Would it not be far better to give those organisations certainty by saying, “You’re doing a great job in the community. We know you add value and are integral. You have security of funding for a much longer period, so you can focus on delivering your service.” That would be a fantastic change, and I feel it is worthy of debate in this House.

Fantastic work is going on to help people in all walks of life. People with disabilities are often disproportionately excluded from our society. The Glasgow Disability Alliance is one of the UK’s largest disability charities, and it is thriving in the community. I pay tribute to one of its stalwarts, John Paul Donnelly, and his family, who organised a successful fun day on 11 May to ensure that people in Milton have access to peer-to-peer support and understand all the organisations that can help them. Disabled people are often particularly excluded because of the way our society is constructed.

That event could only be put on through participatory budgeting, which is becoming more fashionable. It involves people voting for what they want funded, but it is often a cover for asking them, “What do you want to be cut?” It passes the buck for who makes cuts. While it has some positive aspects, it should not be regarded uncritically. Disabled communities are often the ones who are excluded, and it is those with the sharpest elbows who have access to resources and can mobilise their people—it is a popularity contest. That is another example of a problem we need to deal with.

I mentioned at the business question the huge effort going on locally to regenerate the community. Springburn saw 80% of its built environment demolished during the 1960s and 1970s, with a motorway cut through the area and high-rise tower blocks built. A huge amount of physical damage has been caused to it due to wrong-headed urban planning decisions of the time, but the community are determined to fix that. It has been fantastic to see grassroots efforts come to the fore, with the Springburn Regeneration Forum and the Springburn community council set up in the last couple of years. The Springburn Winter Gardens Trust is focused on regenerating the A-listed Victorian glasshouse in Springburn, which was once a great symbol of civic pride in the community and was built at the height of Springburn’s industrial success, as the centre of Britain’s locomotive building industry. We hope that will rebuild some of the civic pride in the area, with a great effort being led from the grassroots in the community. It is fantastic to see that all happening, and it is something we take as a great source of hope.

There are also organisations helping those in need, including from minority ethnic communities, such as the Glasgow Chinese recreation centre. There is a huge Chinese community in my area whom I have got to know over the last few years, and it has been fantastic to see the rich diversity in the schools in Glasgow, some of which have over 40 languages in them. That is a huge change even in my lifetime—the diversity and the change that has happened in my community—and it has been fantastic to meet those at that the Chinese recreation centre. Indeed, they had a visit from the Leader of the Opposition last year, which they loved. They had their annual general meeting on 22 May. They have made a fantastic contribution, particularly in celebrating the Chinese new year in Glasgow, but also in helping those with issues, particularly those with asylum issues. The Asylum Seeker Housing Project is one example, and it continues to provide essential support to asylum seekers in exerting their housing rights, and to conduct research into living conditions for asylum seekers in Glasgow. That is so often overlooked, particularly given the scandal of potential mass evictions by Serco last year, at the behest of the Home Office. We do need to tackle those issues in our community.

This shows the wealth of all the really positive things that are going on in our communities. We can get hung up on the constitutional impasse in this country, but we need to focus on how we harness the potential of our communities and help all those organisations that are so desperately in need.