I started this week in Parliament (virtually) asking the Department for Justice about the assessment made of the effectiveness of court fine deductions in reclaiming fines for people in receipt of Universal Credit. Deductions from benefit orders are made by the court, and when the court makes them, the judge will take into account the affordability and the means of the person who is having the deduction order made. But the Government have ordered Job Centre staff to apply the maximum 30% deduction from Universal Credit for claimants who have to pay a court fine, regardless of their circumstances. This approach is failing on two fronts. It pushes vulnerable claimants further into poverty and recoups less money. The Ministry’s own data shows that the amount of money recouped in respect of court fines fell by over 13% between June and August last year, when the arbitrary 30% deduction was applied to all claimants. The Department must accept that this is the worst of all worlds, and must begin urgent discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions to follow the data and allow local decision makers a greater degree of discretion as to how much is deducted from each individual claimant to pay a court fine.
We’ve had some responses this week from ministers in the Foreign Office on the situation facing the Uighurs in China. Canada has recently voted in their Parliament to deem the actions of China on the Uighur population as genocide; in the UK our ministers continue to feel “gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang”. This is simply not good enough. The Government continually argue that any judgement as to whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court, in their opinion an international court. But, of course, in order for the Hague to make a decision on genocide, a case needs to be brought before it. The UK Government is not doing that. While the UK Government twiddles its thumbs and waits for someone else to lead and take action the appalling human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Government continue. Hardly an auspicious start to Britain’s new leadership role on the international stage.
There was some good news from the Lords this week as the House of Lords passed an amendment to the fire safety bill proposed by the Lord Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, by 326 votes to 248, to ensure leaseholders do not have to pay for the removal of unsafe cladding from homes. There is cross-party support in the Commons for assurances to be made in the Bill that leaseholders will not bear the burden of the costs to fix the fire defects that are not of their making. While Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick promised £3.5 billion to help homeowners last month, it would still result in those leaseholders in buildings under 18 metres high having to take out loans to pay for their own remediation work. Many Tory MPs are furious at the Government for their callous treatment of leaseholders; Labour MPs are up in arms; now the Lords have put forward this amendment – we must have justice for the thousands living in fear of their unsafe homes.
I was pleased to meet with Baroness Stedman-Scott this week to discuss the challenges around exempt accommodation and the vast amount of housing benefit that is spent on the sector without having any benefit for those within exempt accommodation or those living in the area. There are no checks and balances and stronger regulation is needed to ensure that those managing exempt accommodation premises are capable of and committed to performing the duties that are expected and required of them. Exempt accommodation can house some very vulnerable people who need the help and support of the management to allow them to live full and proper lives. The Baroness said she would take my comments back to a meeting with the Department and provide an update in due course.
This week saw the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Parliament – a Bill that, if passed, will significantly change policing powers and the criminal justice system. It comes against the tragic backdrop of the murder of Sarah Everard and the disturbing images of police action at the vigil held in her memory at Clapham Common. I know many constituents have taken to social media to share their experiences as women in modern Britain. I share the anger of so many in response to violence against women perpetrated by men, an unspeakable outrage that takes place every day. I understand that the trial of the man alleged to have killed Sarah will continue in Autumn, and it is important that any comments about the case do not prejudice a fair trial. However, like women across the country, I am horrified at the prospect that a serving police officer, entrusted to protect the public, will stand trial accused of murder and kidnap of a young woman.
There is now a renewed focus and national demand for action to tackle violence against women. The last thing the government should be doing is rushing through poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill does not meet the challenges posed by violence against women and girls, and it’s not right that this Bill could lead to harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman. That’s not to say that some aspects of the Bill don’t include good and important reforms, indeed reforms that I would happily support. However, on balance the Government’s proposals are too poorly thought-out and will actually do a disservice to victims of crime. They will also impose draconian measures to restrict free expression and the right to protest and on that basis I voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
We are now 500 days away from the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the organisers are starting to look for volunteers to help organise, run, and manage the event. There will be skilled roles in technology, sport, and medical services, as well as the thousands of roles that will not require any formal training, such as stewards who will truly be the face of the Games and will greet the thousands of visitors and spectators to this exciting event! If you are interested in volunteering, register your interest now on the Games website.
If there are issues you want to raise with me as your local MP, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 0121 661 9440. My team and I are of course subject to many of the same challenges and restrictions as other families in Birmingham Ladywood at the minute, but we will do everything we can to help constituents in these difficult times.
Keep your social distance, stay safe and healthy – and please, keep washing your hands!