The Bootle constituency community is committed, involved and passionate about issues that affect us in our “neck of the woods”, and more broadly, the country. Every month I hear from constituents about issues close to their hearts. Here I will try to summarise the issues that have generated a high volume of correspondence from constituents so that you can keep up to date with my work in the constituency, as well as in Parliament. I hope you find this information helpful, and if you would like to get in touch about a particular matter, please send me an email.
Ofcom – Make the Air Fair
I have been contacted by various constituents about the Make the Air Fair campaign.
Access to high-quality mobile phone services is essential. As well as helping people to interact it is also key for the economy and public services. I would like to see mobile connectivity improve and I believe that the mobile market should be fair and competitive.
Customer choice and reliable coverage should be available everywhere in the UK. Indeed, the National Infrastructure Commission has said there are "too many digital deserts" across the country, and ranked Britain 54th in the world for 4G coverage.
During the last Parliament, the Coalition Government failed to improve mobile connectivity and while I welcome some measures within the current Government's Digital Economy Bill, I am concerned that it will not do enough.
Ofcom has recently consulted on the release of the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands of the mobile spectrum. I am aware that several organisations, including 'Make the Air Fair' are calling for a cap of 30% spectrum ownership for any one network operator.
This band of spectrum is one of our most significant public assets. How it is auctioned and regulated are issues of critical importance to the economy.
I am concerned that the Government has failed to foster a competitive communications market. More competition means better service, more investment and lower prices, and Ofcom should be supported to make sure that happens.
Homeless Reduction Bill
I share the concerns of constituents about rising homelessness and rough sleeping.
While the number of people sleeping rough fell by three-quarters from 1997-2010, it has doubled since 2010, and across England homelessness has risen by 50% in the last two years alone. These figures are a terrible reminder of the consequences of the seven years of the Government’s housing policies: ending investment in new affordable social rented homes; taking £5 billion from housing benefit and payments; inaction on short-term lets and soaring rents in the private rented sector; and overseeing deep cuts to funding for vital homelessness services.
The aims of the Homelessness Reduction Bill would make a huge change to homelessness law, both through the emphasis placed on prevention and through new duties to assist non-priority groups, particularly single people, in finding accommodation. However, legislation alone will not cure the epidemic of homelessness and it is vital that the Government honours its promise to fund the costs of the Bill in full.
The measures in the Bill must be the first step in a wider Government strategy to reverse rising homelessness. Ministers must also act now to build more affordable housing, give more security to private renters and re-think crude cuts to housing benefit.
The Bill passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons on Friday 27 January. Following pressure from the Opposition, I am pleased that the Government has committed to undertaking a review of the implementation of the legislation, including its resourcing and how it is working in practice.
I believe the Government should be setting out how it will end the national disgrace of rough sleeping, starting by doubling the number of homes reserved for people who have slept on the streets.
Sex and Relationships Education
A number of constituents have contacted me recently about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in schools.
Age-appropriate SRE should be a statutory subject in all state-funded schools and at the 2015 general election I stood on a manifesto that included a commitment to introduce compulsory SRE in order to teach children about mutual respect and the importance of healthy relationships.
The Children and Social Work Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and I agree that this Bill offers an opportunity for the Government to make the changes in our education system that are needed in order to protect the best interests and the health of children and ensure that young people are provided with the skills and knowledge they need to stay safe, happy and healthy in the 21st century.
During the Committee Stage of this Bill, an Opposition-backed amendment would have required local authorities to ensure pupils educated in their area receive accurate, age-appropriate Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), including SRE. My Opposition colleagues on the Committee that considered the Bill voted in favour of this amendment but unfortunately, the Government voted against it and it was defeated.
However, the Government did commit to look at how access to effective SRE and PSHE can be improved and has previously stated that it is keeping the case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery under review. I can assure you that I will follow progress on this closely and will continue to press the Government to introduce statutory SRE.
I also believe that more should be done to drive up standards in the subject. As well as being a statutory subject, the programme of study should reflect the challenges young people face today, including new guidance, updated to reflect the onset of widespread internet and smartphone usage. Far more needs to be done to equip young people with the resilience and knowledge they need to stay healthy and safe in relationships both off and online, and to spot the signs and feel confident to report manipulation and exploitation.
A&E in crisis
Many of my constituents have expressed concerns about health funding.
First and foremost, I commend the dedication and commitment of NHS workers and I believe the Government is letting them down.
The NHS is going through a winter crisis in which the number of patients being turned away from A&E and sent to other hospitals is at a record high. Huge numbers of patients are also facing long waits for a bed and I am aware of reports that in the first week of January there were more than 18,000 "trolley waits" of four hours or more.
What happens in the NHS in the winter is a sign of wider problems. The NHS is going through the largest financial squeeze in its history and we have seen £4.6 billion cut from social care budgets. On Wednesday 11th January I supported an Opposition motion which called for extra funding for social care to be brought forward to help hospitals cope this winter, and for a new funding settlement for the NHS and social care to be part of the March Budget. I was disappointed that the Government opposed the motion - it is wrong for it to continue to ignore calls for extra funding for the NHS.
I am concerned that instead of dealing with the problems, the Health Secretary has suggested that the four hour A&E target should be downgraded and no longer apply to minor injuries. The Government needs to bring forward a plan for how it will tackle this crisis, and I can assure you that I will keep putting pressure on it to take action.
In the Spring Budget, the Government has provided no extra resources for the NHS which is remarkable.
Personal injuries claims
It is vital that anyone who has been the victim of a road traffic accident is able to fairly and effectively claim compensation for injuries they have suffered as a result of negligence. This must also be balanced against the need to ensure that insurance premiums are affordable for responsible motorists and that people are not able to make frivolous or fraudulent claims.
At the Spending Review and Autumn Statement in November 2015, the Chancellor announced plans to end the right to general damages for minor soft tissue injuries, including minor whiplash, and raise the Small Claims Track limit from £1000 to £5000. In November 2016, the Government launched a consultation, 'Reforming the soft tissue injury (whiplash) claims process', on the two measures outlined at the Autumn Statement 2015 and a further two measures. The consultation closed on 6 January 2017 and the Government expects to publish its response by 7 April 2017.
The Government has indicated that it will take its proposals forward in supporting legislation in the Justice Bill. It has also stated that it expects savings made by insurers to be passed on to drivers.
I understand that a number of organisations, including Access to Justice, the Association for Personal Injury Lawyers and the Law Society, have expressed concern about these proposals. I am also aware that there was a Government e-petition calling on the small claims track limit to remain at £1000 which attracted 24,398 signatures, before it closed after 6 months in May 2016.
While affecting the victims of road traffic accidents, I am also concerned that the proposed reforms to whiplash will also impact many others, including those injured at work. The current Small Claims Track limit has not been increased since 1991. However, the proposed increase to £5000 would exclude 90% of all personal injury claims. I am concerned that such a dramatic increase will undermine access to justice, effectively leaving people with legitimate claims without any legal representation for what can be complex cases.
Protection of police dogs and horses
In October 2016 a police dog called Finn was stabbed in the head and chest while chasing a suspect. For many people the charges brought in this awful case have highlighted a wider issue with the protections available in law for police animals.
People who attack a police animal can be charged under the Criminal Damages Act 1971. This legislation is designed to deal with destruction or damage to property, not animal cruelty. Those who attack police animals can also be charged under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it a criminal offence to subject an animal to unnecessary suffering. The maximum punishment is six months in prison or a fine of up to £20,000, which is much lower than the maximum penalty of 10 years available under the Criminal Damages Act.
The 'Finn's Law' campaign has said that police animals deserve better protection than property and I agree. I am concerned that many of those who work with police animals think the law is currently failing to offer that protection. Police dogs and horses are not merely police property; they are valued public servants. I believe the law should recognise them as such and give them the protection they deserve.
In response to a petition on this issue with over 100,000 signatures, the Government had said it considered an additional offence dealing specifically with attacks on police animals unnecessary and that an additional and separate offence may not result in more prosecutions, or increased sentences.
I recognise that it is good practice to avoid duplicating laws on the statute book. However, I believe Ministers need to address the serious concerns about the legal protection afforded to animals working in the police service.