I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today, and for all the opportunities I have been given to speak by all the Chairs this year. Jim Shannon and I have a running competition to see who will get in first, and he would be here today but for his being in Westminster Hall at the moment, leading on another debate. I also wish to thank the Leader of the House for seeking to answer my endless list of questions in the most charming of ways and always making sure to follow up after business questions. Most importantly, let me say a huge thank you to all the House staff, from those in the Libraries to those in the kitchens, from Committee Clerks to Doorkeepers: you are the glue that keeps this place together, and we would not be able to carry out our duties without every one of you.
This has been a big year, and when I reflected on how I wanted to approach my speech today one person immediately came to my mind, Sir David Amess, whom Bob Blackman mentioned in his speech. Sir David was a seasoned professional when it came to these debates. He loved to recognise all the good people, organisations and charities in Southend West, and I know colleagues from across the House will still be feeling his absence. I hope we can emulate his enthusiasm and dedication to our constituencies today.
It has been a very busy year in this House. The excitement and privilege of securing a private Member’s Bill has still not lost its novelty. I am incredibly honoured to have brought such an important piece of legislation, no matter how small or technical, to this Chamber. I am grateful to my colleagues who helped me secure its Second Reading, and am excited to usher it through the remaining stages of its passage next year. It is a similar feeling of excitement and privilege when we manage to secure a good outcome for our constituents. This year, that has been especially true in a particular case I had. I refer to a constituent who is a veteran of the armed forces and whose time in live action has left him with scars, physical and psychological. He and his family have become well-known to my office, and it was a shared delight when we were able to successfully liaise with the Ministry of Defence to resolve a pensions issue that had been rumbling on for more than a year. It was just one of a few issues that we continue to help him find a resolution to. It has been a journey that has opened my eyes to how difficult a return to civilian life can be. I must express my gratitude to the many people who helped along the way, including Veterans First Point, which works tirelessly to provide a wide range of services for veterans in Scotland, and the veterans champion at our local health board, who has helped so much with casework.
I could not speak about the armed forces without mentioning an event that saw an avalanche of casework for every one of us—the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I do not want to labour points that have been made so many times already in this Chamber over the past few months, but I must recognise the toll that has taken on us and our staff, but most of all on the constituents who have been desperately trying to help their families left behind. I think many of us are on the same page about how events played out. I would add “and how they continue to play out”, but the Government have become somewhat quiet on the matter. That has not gone unnoticed.
A constituent of mine has decided that he can no longer wait for the support promised by Ministers. He told me this week:
“I feel that the Government isn’t working on any Afghan cases at the moment and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be high on their agenda anytime soon.”
I raised this case with the Foreign Office and the Home Office in August and unfortunately did not hear back. I raised it again in the Chamber in September, and the Secretary of State for Defence promised to investigate it. Despite repeated chases, we have not heard back.
I do not want to spend too much time focusing on the lows, though; despite a difficult year, there is much to celebrate. This autumn, Glasgow hosted COP26, which I was lucky enough to attend. I can proudly attest to the inspiration that it sparked in my constituency, which lies a little outside the city centre. The children from St Charles’ Primary School decided that they wanted to encourage people to travel greener, so they sought to make Newton station more attractive. Not only did they create a beautiful growing space for plants, but they were out and about chatting with the community and undertaking random acts of kindness.
We have also seen a huge increase in volunteer litter pickers. I have mentioned before the Cleaning up Cambuslang campaign, which saw volunteers collect 26 bags of litter for 26 days in the run-up to COP26. Bonnie Blantyre and pals are another fantastic group working on everything from litter picks to creating and maintaining community gardens. SOC—Supporting Our Community—is another I have to pay due recognition to. The group in Hillhouse are active and well known, supporting people of all ages and pulling together lots of community events.
Blantyre Soccer Academy opened a community garden of its own, which is open to anyone in the community free of charge. It is a beautiful space for quiet reflection and has been put to good use by locals. The provision of these spaces cannot be taken for granted; they have become ever more essential to our mental wellbeing.
That brings me nicely to other groups working to better our mental health. I met the head of the local Samaritans branch this year. It was quite a heavy conversation, but it was invaluable. The work the volunteers there do is emotional and sensitive, but I know we are all grateful for their resilience. They provide not just the crisis line, but a whole host of prevention work, educational resources and funding. The Hamilton branch has had volunteers that have committed decades of their lives to the cause. I admire them greatly and wish them good luck for the future.
I also met the charity Place2Be, which takes a holistic “whole school” approach to mental health. It recognises that to help children, the whole system must be in a good headspace. I was grateful to hear that the charity is currently providing some counselling in schools in my constituency, and I encourage all colleagues to get in touch with it to find out more.
The Beacons, with hubs in both Blantyre and Cambuslang, is a commendable organisation. It helps people through their recovery from addiction and is staffed by volunteers. Crucially, it actively seeks volunteers with lived experience, who have a unique insight into addiction and how to help. It is an organisation that helps people rebuild their lives and take back control.
There are so many organisations I want to highlight that are real pillars of the community. I will start with the big name—the citizens advice bureau. Our local branch has taken many a phone call from my office and from constituents. The team there are fantastic, working away at helping people out of difficult situations. Food banks, too, have become a necessity across the UK. It is a sad reality that they should need to exist at all, but I am very grateful and thankful that they do, and I pay tribute to Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Hamilton food banks in my constituency for the work they do. They took the brunt of the universal credit uplift cut and did a sterling job.
My constituency has also seen an increase in new residents’ and tenants’ associations, which is excellent. I have liaised with quite a few and the community spirit is outstanding.
I have just a few more people to thank. First, I thank those at South Lanarkshire Council for their continued engagement on casework matters and for making themselves available. Next, I thank the community councils throughout my constituency that work so diligently for the communities they represent and achieve so much. Finally, I thank my staff, Lynne, Laura, Gillian, John and Kim, who have made it possible for me to support my constituents and represent them here, for their hard work. All MPs know that they could not carry out their role without the support of their hard-working staff.
I am not quite finished yet, as I have been lucky enough to land the final Adjournment debate of term after this debate, but I am very much looking forward to returning to business in the new year. I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, all the Speakers and all my colleagues a very good and well-deserved break, and a happy Christmas when it comes.