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 and my response 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.
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.
Free School Meals
Many residents contacted me about government changes to free school meals entitlement.
As you know, currently all children living in households that receive UC are eligible for free school meals. However, the Government has brought forward new proposals to introduce an earnings threshold of £7,400 for all UC claimants from April 2018. I believe these proposals are deeply concerning and I am aware that these changes will affect many families across the UK and in our area.
I agree that free school meals have significant benefits, as children are more attentive and ready to learn when they are fed a healthy meal. I believe it is a scandal that the Government is pressing ahead with a plan that could leave over a million children going hungry.
In addition, I share your concern that the proposals will create a dangerous cliff-edge in support, and will make it harder for families on low incomes to make ends meet. Families should not have to refuse pay rises or avoid extra work for fear of losing their entitlement to free school meals. I believe the Government should step back from introducing this cliff-edge in eligibility and instead introduce free school meals for all primary school children, and all secondary school children whose families claim UC.
As you may be aware, the Opposition secured a debate on this subject on Tuesday 13 March and put forward a motion to annul the Government's proposals on free school meals. Unfortunately, the motion was defeated with the support of Government MPs.
Moving forwards, the Commons' Work and Pensions Committee is holding an inquiry on UC and is seeking evidence on how the eligibility for free school meals should be determined. I can assure you I will follow the progression of this inquiry closely. I remain concerned that the rollout of UC is causing real suffering in our communities, which is why at the General Election I stood on a manifesto which pledged to reform and redesign UC. In addition, I believe the Government must provide further investment in UC to ensure that work always pays, and that children and young people are not pushed into poverty.
Refugee Family Re-unification
This was another issue that many residents contacted me about.
I appreciate that concerns have been raised about family reunion rules, the effectiveness of their implementation, and that a number of organisations have also called for there to be an expansion of the criteria.
I agree that more needs to be done to reunite families and I share concerns about the efficiency of the processes in place for those who are entitled to join family in the UK, particularly children. As we know, unaccompanied migrant children are highly vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse.
In the last Parliament, during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, a number of attempts were made to review the rules around family reunion for refugees including options for extending the criteria. It is incredibly disappointing that the Government rejected these proposals and reiterated that it has no plans to extend the family reunion criteria.
If a child refugee has been granted the right to be here, I support that right also being granted to their parents or carers. I also believe that children who grew up in this country with a parent who has a right to be here, should be allowed this right even after they turn 18. This would allow child refugees to be reunited with their families, and end the terrible practice of deporting children who grew up in the UK to countries which they often know nothing about.
The manifesto I stood on at the General Election last year promised to produce a cross-departmental strategy to meet our international obligations on the refugee crisis, and I hope this is something that the Government will consider. I believe we need effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis and continue to uphold the proud British tradition of honouring the spirit of international law and our moral obligations by taking our fair share of refugees.
Many residents contacted me to share their frustrations with inconsistent food packaging that does not clearly represent the animal welfare that actually takes place.
I am committed to promoting best practice in cruelty-free animal husbandry and to ensuring better enforcement of agreed standards.
I am aware of the recent investigation by the Times which found that some supermarkets have labelled meat and dairy products using specific images and phrases to suggest higher animal welfare standards than what is the reality in many cases.
There are no requirements for most food products (including meat, milk and dairy products) to display information on method of production, although some producers provide it on a voluntary basis. EU law says that food labelling, whether compulsory or provided voluntarily, must not be misleading to consumers, including information on the method of production.
The UK Government acknowledges that it is not always clear to the consumer what standards underpin welfare terminology and that definitions on labels, such as the term "grass fed", can vary between retailers. The Government says that when we leave the EU, there will be an opportunity to review labelling requirements for all foods, to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of quality and transparency for consumers. However, it has no plans to introduce compulsory method of production labelling once we leave the EU.
I believe food labelling must be clear and unambiguous so that consumers know exactly what they are buying. Improved food labelling is also vitally important to encourage consumers to buy British.
Access to Legal Aid
Many constituents contact me about the legal aid system and their inability to access legal support. A recent Law Society report has outlined that where early professional legal advice is received, on average 25% of people resolved their problem within 3-4 months of it occurring - compared to 9 months for the same percentage of those who did not receive such advice.
I believe that cutting early legal advice was a false economy, and that when people face life-changing decisions but don't get the early legal support they need, it can end up costing the state much more, further down the line. Cases can escalate into costly family court battles, people are forced to represent themselves, and people can lose their homes, jobs or good health.
I stood on a manifesto at the General Election in 2017 to immediately re-establish early advice entitlements for cases in the family courts, and I was concerned to see that a Government memorandum in October has shown the number of families and couples seeking mediation has significantly dropped since legal aid reforms were implemented.
The Government is undertaking a post-implementation review of legal aid reforms made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and I will monitor developments on this closely. My colleagues and I will be joining with civil society over the coming months to ask the Government to use this review to restore early legal help for housing and welfare cases.
I believe that if the Government is serious about using its review to repair damage to people's ability to access legal services, then it is essential that proper funding to restore early legal help is the starting point.