Christmas Adjournment — [David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 20th December 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 3:39 pm, 20th December 2018

What an appropriate and enjoyable way to round off my first full calendar year as a Member of Parliament. It is great to recap—indeed, I was just looking at my stats. It feels like it has been a whirlwind in some ways and an eternity in others, but it is certainly never boring. In the past year, I have spoken in 167 debates, so clearly I cannot shut up in this place, but it has been good fun and a challenge, too.

The best feeling as a Member of Parliament—a view probably shared by many hon. Members, including Jeremy Lefroy, who spoke so powerfully about various issues close to his heart—is being able to achieve a really good outcome for a constituent. It may seem like a trivial administrative exercise for the Member of Parliament, but it can have a life-changing impact on a constituent. That has really been the most rewarding aspect of being a Member of Parliament, and I reflect on the power of elected Members to do good. We are all here fundamentally for the right reasons. In the context of a confrontational and acrimonious national debate, we should take cognisance of that as we approach Christmas, and focus on the good aspects of being Members of Parliament and serving in the public interest.

The debate on Brexit rumbles on about the most appropriate measures in the national interest. I share the sentiment of my hon. Friend Martin Whitfield about the urgent need for the Government to rule out the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, because it is quite clear that that would not be in the national interest. This Government—any Government—must govern in the national interest. It is not on for the Government to hold us to ransom in that way. Blackmail of Parliament is not appropriate in a democracy. It is appropriate now for the Government to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

I was all geared up and prepared to speak in the debate on the draft agreement, but, of course, the Government moved the goalposts on that. I understand that the vote will now be held on 16 January, which will be my 30th birthday. What better birthday present than the opportunity to vote down this utterly moribund and rubbish deal, which will not serve our national interest in any way whatsoever? I look forward to Parliament then taking control of this process and exerting the will of the people, which was not clearly expressed by the Government and is not being reflected by the Executive branch of our democracy. We must reassert the will of Parliament to deliver in the national interest. I am looking forward to a challenging first quarter of 2019, as we steer the ship away from the rocks, hopefully towards a calmer course, back to prosperity and stability.

One of the greatest challenges in my constituency this year has been the roll-out of universal credit, which started at the end of November. As many hon. Members have mentioned, it has been very challenging, not least for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, which has been a pilot area for the roll-out. The fact that it is rolling out in Glasgow, an area that already has significant social challenges, not least in my constituency, is a particular concern. Once full migration happens, I will have the largest number of universal credit claimants in Scotland—over 16,000—so I am bracing myself for the impact of that change on my constituency casework. I hope we can help people as much as possible to avoid the worst effects of a social security system that has moved away fundamentally from the founding spirit of the Beveridge principles: that we should create a floor below which none should fall and above which everyone can rise.

As a society, we must restore the principle that we have a minimum level of dignity that no one can fall below. We need to restore that, because the current situation is simply not on. An unfortunate measure is the rate of homelessness. I mentioned in the House that, on average, two people a week are dying in Scotland as a result of having to sleep rough. The average life expectancy of those living on the streets is just 39. In Glasgow, the picture is that, in the last year, 5,300 people found themselves homeless. That figure covers just homeless applications, and does not include those who do not present themselves to apply as homeless.

The council in Glasgow had a statutory duty to house 4,200 people. There are only 8,000 social rented lettings available per year in Glasgow, so the council was able to secure accommodation for only 2,400 people. The physical capacity of the state to help people is failing. That is not on and we need to address it. That is a shameful figure. It should be a fundamental human right to have shelter. We should restore that to the principles of the governance of this country. That is something I hope we will find a consensus on in the new year.

As a Member of Parliament for the only city in Scotland that is a dispersal area for asylum seekers, another challenge has been immigration and asylum cases, which account for the bulk of my casework. We work very hard and are challenged by the situation that faces a lot of people. People have come to this country in the most appalling circumstances. I could regale you with many tales of incredible human resilience and courage. It is quite moving to understand what the people who have been able to exist in those circumstances have been through. However, to then see the cold bureaucracy of the Home Office stifling what resilience they have left and destroying what hope they have in their future is devastating for me, as I recognise my limitations as an elected Member to help them. Often, we do get good outcomes, which is reassuring, but it feels like a constant war of attrition. It cannot be right. We have to look at a more compassionate basis for our asylum and immigration system as we move into 2019. I hope we can achieve that together as a House.

We have to recognise the extent of human suffering that exists in our communities, often cheek by jowl with great prosperity. A lot of the people who find themselves in these situations are very dignified and do not want to talk about the extent of the hardship they face, but none the less, it is there. I want to pay tribute in particular to the Rev. Brian Casey and the Rev. Linda Pollock, two Church of Scotland kirk ministers who have risen to the challenge of the hardship faced by a lot asylum seekers in my community and have mobilised so many in their congregation to work to help many people facing deportation, detention—without limit, in many cases—and the constant fear of being sent back to their torturers and tormentors. At this time, when we think of Jesus being a refugee, it is appropriate to reflect on the way we treat some of the most vulnerable people in the world who are in our midst.

I also pay tribute to the incredible work of the pupils at Springburn Academy, who rallied to the cause of two of their fellow pupils, Pakistani Christian boys who are facing persecution and had family members killed in Pakistan, by arranging a huge petition. That is a really appropriate thing to think about as we move into the new year: people do rise to the challenge, and our communities are resilient and will act in what they see to be the best interests of their fellow human beings. I think that Government should step up and try to follow the example of the compassion shown by our communities.

Another key issue in my constituency is the number of drug-related deaths, which in Glasgow is more than 1000% higher than the European average. It is a critical issue. It is a public health emergency in my city. It is urgent that policy is adapted and reflects the urgency of this crisis in Glasgow. In the new year, I am looking forward to the establishment of the first heroin-assisted treatment facility in Glasgow, hopefully by the summer. In due course, we hope to expand its scope into a full safe drug-consumption facility, which will enable people to interact in a clinical environment to consume drugs and minimise the harm that they face as a result of their addiction, and treat addiction as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue. I will persist with that in the new year.

I also want to pay tribute to the amazing community organisations, some of which I have mentioned. The Beatroute art centre helps to engage people who are socially excluded in the wonderful joy of exploring and realising their musical talents. The Barmulloch Community Development Company has just been awarded the Architects’ Journal award for the best public building of 2018, for developing a brand new, state-of-the-art community centre in the heart of Barmulloch, which is an amazing facility in the heart of a community that has historically been quite deprived. It shows that even the poorest communities in our country deserve world-class public services and public buildings, and we should develop our communities in that way, with nothing less than the best quality provision for everyone.

I also recognise Possilpoint, which does amazing work to support disabled people in my constituency, as well as Possobilities, which does similar work. Possilpoint also has a charity called Young People’s Futures, which does a great amount of work to divert young people from being snared by the drug barons and organised criminals in my constituency, and show them that there is a better way forward. That is a really worthwhile effort, particularly by Ann Lawrance, who leads that work.

The Mallard charity provides care for adolescents, particularly those suffering from severe disabilities who require respite care away from their families. It does an amazing bit of work to give their families an opportunity for time away from that constant need to care for their family members. Again, however, once that child transitions from adolescence to adulthood, there is a cliff edge and no support. We need to work hard to look at how we can provide care provision for young people through their adult years, and have a national care service, as Labour has proposed, so there is a cradle-to-grave approach to care and it does not simply drop off a cliff when someone reaches the age of 21.

The Carntyne credit union also does great work, particularly through its food bank, to support people who are suffering at this time of year. The Balornock uniform bank promotes an environmentally sustainable way to save money by exchanging school uniforms. Kids grow so quickly that people can do that without feeling shame, because it makes perfect environmental sense to have an exchange. It is a worthwhile and wonderful project that was started by a constituent.

The Quarriers and Penumbra also do amazing work. Penumbra deals with people who have faced problems from alcohol-related brain injuries. That is a cross-section of the amazing work that I have encountered when going round my constituency as a Member of Parliament in the last year. They are all wonderful people, who are often hidden in plain sight—someone going about their private life would not know, but they can be there without anyone being aware of it. Discovering those amazing activities and championing them as much as I can is one of the most wonderful aspects of becoming a Member of Parliament. Hopefully, somehow, some of those amazing pockets of excellence will be embodied in national policy one day.

Another major issue that erupted in Glasgow this year was the tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, of which I have been trying to champion the restoration. Hopefully we can find a way forward for that wonderful, iconic building—the most important architectural edifice in my city. As someone who has championed the built environment in Glasgow for many years—long before I was a Member of Parliament—it is very close to my heart.

It is also a reflection of how we need to treat the quality of our public realm and our public buildings in cities across the UK, many of which were built at the highest watermark of Britain’s industrial and commercial prosperity between 1870 and 1914. Most of our city centres are Victorian and Edwardian in character, and they are now of a certain vintage, which means that intensive intervention will be needed to maintain the quality of the built environment in our urban areas.

We have to look, as I will in the new year, at how we adapt our public policy to preserve the wonderful built environment of our great cities across the United Kingdom. In particular, I will look at policies such as VAT, which is levied on renovations but not on new builds. Right away, that creates a 20% perverse incentive against renovations vis-à-vis new builds. We have to look at those sorts of perverse incentives as they apply to our urban areas and ensure that we maintain the amenity of our great cities.

The Springburn winter gardens is a major project that I have been championing in my constituency. It is a category A listed building and the biggest glasshouse in Scotland, but sadly it has been derelict since 1983. It is my personal mission to see it restored, and I hope we will make big progress on that front in 2019. We have already seen encouraging movement through various funding applications.

Like my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, who talked about the closure of a local hospital and the disposal of the site, I am concerned by the major issue of Stobhill Hospital in my constituency, where my younger brother and I were born. It closed as an in-patient hospital several years ago and it has been left to total rack and ruin by the NHS board in Glasgow. More than £1 million of lead and copper cabling has been stripped away by organised criminals, which is a huge loss to the national health service. It has simply walked away and does not care about the ongoing maintenance of such buildings once they are no longer in use.

The site is also a huge blight on my community. I have engaged with the health board on how we bring forward the community to look at the future of that site and manage it in the future. There are often short-sighted policies about the clinical focus of the NHS, but we should look at the legacy of now redundant buildings and how they can be used for a new public purpose to continue to improve our communities. I will do that in the new year as well.

Coming from a shipbuilding background, I have often contributed to defence-related debates in the House and raised the issue of our shipbuilding and associated industries. I am hopeful that in the new year, we will continue to make the case to the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence about the importance of maximising the power of public procurement in this country to pump-prime and provide a sustainable future for our heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, because a huge skill base is invested in them.

If we were to build every ship required by the Ministry of Defence in this country, we would achieve a saving to the Treasury of 20% through wage and supplier payments, rather than giving that to Fincantieri in Italy or Daewoo in South Korea. They are not bidding so low out of altruism; they want the contract because it makes economic sense for them to build those ships. We should take the hint and build them in the UK. We should have a consistent policy that for every major public sector industrial procurement contract that can be done in the UK through our UK manufacturing base, the first preference should be given to UK-sourced manufacturers to maximise the impact of the public purse and the multiplier effect across the UK economy.

That has never been more important than in the last few days. A major crisis has erupted with the potential closure of the St Rollox railway works in my constituency, which could lead to the loss of 200 jobs. The railway works has been there since 1856—the dawn of the railway age—and it would be an absolute tragedy for a community that once built 60% of the world’s locomotives to lose its last railway works. Of course, I am sat next to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, whose constituency is another major centre of the railway industry. It is important that those skills are there.

The enterprise is fundamentally viable. I will do everything I can to protect and secure the future of the railway works, even if that requires a workers’ buy-out or some means of the workers taking ownership of the site. One of the big problems that the site has faced is that it became a branch plant of a works in Milton Keynes. It then became owned by a German company, which is not out there batting for the works, but treats it as a marginal part of its operation. If that site was the master of its own destiny, the management and entrepreneurial spirit of its team could fight for it, and it would have a better, more prosperous future.

We should reflect on the structure of ownership of major industries in this country. The railway works is one example of how great talent and skill, and a critical mass of wealth creation, can be destroyed through the ignorance and lack of entrepreneurial spirit of faceless multinational corporations that come and strip assets and value out of our communities. We have to fight back against that, and I will work on that.

Another major issue I have raised this year is the plight of veterans, and particularly veterans’ suicides, which is a huge problem, including for a significant number of people in my former regiment, the Royal Regiment of Scotland. We continue to raise the problem of the mental health of veterans and those in service in the armed forces. We need to continue to rise to that challenge.

It is the duty of the state to provide a minimum level of support in accordance with the military covenant to ensure that those who have served our country in the most challenging circumstances are not left behind once they leave the service—they must be sustained in their careers afterwards. We must do more to protect them. It is simply tragic that so many of them are not being heard, or when they are being heard, that they are not being properly cared for. Often, people have reached out and tried to get support, but they have been ignored or they have not been properly satisfied. It is a horrible situation and we have to do more to raise awareness.

Finally, MPs’ unsung heroes are their staff—the people who support us and stand behind us. I could not do it without my staff and I want to namecheck them: Tom Dickson, James Burns, Hollie Cameron, Stevie Grant, Angus Bugg-Millar, Pat Rice, Alex Paterson, Sophie Dicker and Jordan Agnew. Every one of them has made me the MP that I can be today. It is a reflection of their efforts that I won The Herald’s Scottish MP of the year award this year. I was quite chuffed with that unexpected accolade, but I could not have done it without them. I am merely the figurehead of the operation, but there is a much more robust and intelligent cohort behind me that makes it all happen. I am sure I speak for all hon. Members when I pay tribute to our staff and those who support us, and wish them all a great Christmas and a happy new year.