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All of us rely on the NHS and appreciate the fantastic work of NHS staff in providing our nation with one of the best health services in the world. Recently I was diagnosed with breast cancer; I don’t know where I’d be without the kind and compassionate support of the staff who have been treating me.

Junior doctors up and down the country work incredibly hard in often extremely difficult circumstances to provide the best possible care for their patients. They do not do this for money or prestige: they do it because they feel they have a duty to help others, which I admire immensely.

I know that there has been widespread concern in the profession about proposed changes to the junior doctor contract, which include a substantial pay cut and an unreasonable reclassification of unsocial hours. This has been passionately expressed to me by many junior doctors in my constituency, who have emphasised the fact that they already work very long hours and often feel that their hard work is unappreciated.

I sympathise greatly with these concerns and am alarmed at the confrontational and imprudent manner in which the Health Secretary is attempting to drive through these changes, which fail to acknowledge the current strain the NHS is under. The Government’s priorities for the NHS are wrong and that they are out of touch with the reality that NHS staff face every day.

It is vital for a sustainable and properly functioning health service that staff are fairly remunerated and enjoy a satisfactory work-life balance, both for their sake and for the sake of the patients they are treating. You may have seen reports of an increasing number of junior doctors registering to work overseas – a damning indictment of this Government’s mismanagement of our health service.

I am keen to work with my Labour colleagues in Parliament to press the Government to reconsider the implementation of these proposals; and will be writing to the Health Secretary personally on this matter. I should stress, however, that these are not changes that Parliament will actually vote on (as a result of the Coalition Government’s NHS reforms). If you are concerned about this matter I would urge you to ask anyone you know who lives in a Conservative-held constituency to contact their MP so that the pressure on the Government is not just coming from the opposition.

You may also like to read a blog on this issue from Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Heidi Alexander: Jeremy Hunt Trying to ‘Take On’ Junior Doctors Is Precisely the Wrong Approach.


Junior Doctors' Contracts

  All of us rely on the NHS and appreciate the fantastic work of NHS staff in providing our nation with one of the best health services in the world....

“So where were you on Monday?” What your Bristol West MP does.

 Thangam by the M Shed

There was a mild furore this week when some people incorrectly assumed I had abstained on a vote against the Trade Union Bill, when in fact I was both legitimately absent from the chamber and, more importantly, I had made arrangements to ensure that my lack of presence to vote would make no difference to the overall differential voting. This is done via the whips, who organise voting for each party. Whenever an MP – front or back bench – has to be away from the House of Commons at the time of a debate and vote, they ask their party’s whip to arrange with the other party’s whip to make sure that one of their MPs also doesn’t vote. This is called ‘pairing’. I have no idea which Tory MP I was paired with – it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my constituents are represented in votes in Parliament even if I can’t be there in person.

But the furore occurred none the less, because of the way the votes are recorded – absent is ambiguous, so it could be interpreted as me being in the chamber but not voting against the Bill. This reminded me how little information there is for members of the public, even very political ones, about how Parliament works and what an MP does, other than turn up to vote. This is a very small part of what we do. But why would anyone know that? I rang round and discovered that even party members often don’t understand what an MP does, especially in Opposition, other than turn up for debates and vote (or not). Hence this blog. Please bear in mind that there is no job description for MP – that’s both a strength and a weakness of our job and the public’s understanding of it. So I am setting out what I am doing and some of what I aim to do in the coming years, as your MP, and what you can expect of me. Do let me know what you think.

My aims as your MP for Bristol West

I aim to use every bit of influence, power and knowledge I have to help to make Bristol West (and Bristol generally) a place where everyone has a decent, affordable home, and a healthy, clean and stimulating environment to live and work in. People deserve access to a good job with prospects for the future, transport which is reliable and non-polluting, high-quality education, and a cultural life which is stimulating, accessible and enjoyable. And people in our city desperately need protection from crime, outstanding health care free at the point of delivery, and childcare which helps to combine and support work and parenting and children’s needs. I want to work towards a world in which poverty is being eliminated, where equality of opportunity a reality, where carbon emissions are being reduced and climate change tackled. I can’t do it alone. It’s harder in opposition than in government. But under every one of those headings in our constituency workplan my team and I are developing, there are things I can and am doing, or will do, to help improve things for Bristolians, whether I act locally or nationally, or in some cases, internationally.

In summary, you can always expect that my team and I will do the following.

  • I will advocate on your behalf, wherever and whenever I can. I’ll use my influence as your MP locally and nationally towards making sure everyone in Bristol West is free from poverty; has good housing, jobs and employment conditions; has access to high-quality, free health care and reliable affordable non-polluting transport; enjoys excellent education, a safe and healthy natural and built environment and outstanding and accessible cultural life in our wonderful city. This will always be my primary function. 
  • In particular, I will do everything I can to bring more high-quality job and apprenticeship opportunities to Bristol and to sort out the housing crisis in our city. See more on how I’ll do this below.
  • I’ll be a champion for Bristol West and all the groups, organisations and people who live and work here. Whenever I can, I will celebrate with you, thank you, cheer you on, commiserate with you, listen to you, be with you. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
  • We’ll help individual people who need assistance, or contact me for the specific help an MP can provide, and make sure they get a helpful and courteous response.
  • We’ll respond to your petitions, emails and letters. Some may take longer than others, but you will always get a response.
  • We’ll analyse the patterns of your contact with me to get a good perspective on your priorities for my time.
  • I’ll follow up issues from your contact with me with questions to ministers – lobbying them for changes we need, speaking out in Parliament or in the media.
  • I’ll prepare well for everything I do on your behalf – reading briefings, checking facts, consulting people with different points of view or expertise.
  • I will actively develop national policy development responsibilities using my existing areas skills and knowledge and developing new ones.
  • I will always act following the Nolan principles of public life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Below, I have written in more detail how I do all of that. Thankfully I have staff to help me, a dedicated team who work with me in the constituency and a part-time parliamentary assistant to keep me organised in Westminster.  

In the House of Commons

In the House of Commons chamber we do our debating, where we vote (until someone updates the system to join the 21st century, we vote simply by walking through either the ‘Aye’ or the ‘No’ lobby and having our names marked off, hence the problem when we aren’t physically there to walk through either), where we listen to government statements and where we question government ministers. I represent my views and yours, through the blogging I do on policy matters (we MPs read each others’ blogs to share information and expertise). I can submit oral and written questions to ministers. I can follow these up by lobbying ministers more directly if there is a specific situation which affects us in Bristol West, or a national matter of concern which I haven’t had satisfactory answers to. I meet with colleagues in the Labour party to discuss policy and to work out how we can best hold the government to account and provide an alternative vision.  

Select committees

These are another critical way which Parliament holds the government to account, through cross-party select committees which follow a specific department or topic. So, there is one for foreign affairs, one for defence, one for public accounts (Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, sits on that one, making sure our money is accounted for and giving government ministers a thorough grilling to account for it), and others. At the moment, while I am having treatment for cancer, I did not pursue election to any of these – but as soon as I am properly back in action and a space becomes available I will put myself forward. However, I still get to suggest topics to chairs of select committees, or provide information to MPs on a particular committee. I’ve done that a couple of times recently and will report back when these come up.

All Party Parliamentary Groups

These are less formal but still very influential groups of backbenchers across all parties, coming together to work on a specific topic. I am vice-chair of the APPG on Autism, vice-chair of the Performers’ Alliance (for performing arts) and chair of the APPG on Refugees, as well as member of a few others. As chair of the APPG on Refugees I have helped to ensure that there was parliamentary debate last week on the current situation for refugees trying to get to Europe, pushed for a rethink on the changes to allowances, and I will be leading a public enquiry into the UK’s treatment of refugees early in 2016. This in turn is helping to inform public policy on refugees but also on related issues such as foreign policy. (Trying to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place is vital.)

Constituency casework – helping individuals

People contact their MP when they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes that is because they have used other sources of help and they don’t feel they are getting anywhere. Sometimes it’s because they don’t even know how to get started with their particular problem. Sometimes it’s for something very specific which an MP can do. And sometimes it’s not about an individual problem but about a matter of policy which they are concerned about.

My team helps people with problems ranging from facing deportation to dealing with noisy neighbours or overflowing bins, from personal debt to discrimination or worries about a legal process. The majority of our casework in Bristol West is either immigration or housing. With immigration, there are sometimes things we can do when the processes have not been followed properly. Sometimes this ends in a decision being changed. Sometimes it doesn’t and we really feel for people who can’t stay in our wonderful city when they clearly love it. We do our best to make sure that the processes are properly and legally followed and to treat everyone with compassion.

When it’s something like bins or housing or noisy neighbours, the difference we can make is because of the influence an MP has. People will answer my calls. This can often help get a response to what seemed like an intractable problem. Sometimes this also helps improve things for the next person who has that problem. Sometimes it raises policy issues which I can then take up in Parliament or with the minister or local councillor responsible.

Answering your petitions and other policy emails

We get hundreds of these every day – Bristol West has one of the highest rates of engagement with MPs using petitions. I’m delighted and honoured to represent a constituency where people contact me every day about issues which don’t necessarily affect them personally or not right now, but are an expression of how you want the world to be a better place for all. It’s an honour, but it is also time-consuming for my staff, so we do have to prioritise casework and urgent parliamentary business sometimes before responding to petitions. We always respond – it just might take us a week or two.

Making sure I am as well informed as possible

As an MP I have access to a seemingly infinite amount of information and people who can brief me on any subject. I also have a duty to make sure I am as well informed as possible in order to act effectively. I load my tablet and phone up with documents to read whenever I have a spare moment. In the last 24 hours I have read: a briefing from the House of Commons on unemployment in Bristol West; one from the Children’s Society on refugee allowances; three academic papers on the German Social Partnership model of employer/employee relations and the impact on productivity; a briefing on the Education and Adoption Bill going through Parliament; briefings on the arms export licensing system; three Foreign Office reports on countries of concern for human rights. I’ve skimmed this week’s Economist and articles in various other newspapers and information from some of my colleagues on how their constituencies are dealing with the housing crisis. I’m also reading Tony Juniper’s book ‘What’s Nature ever done for us?”. I can recommend it!

When I am in Parliament I also have briefings in person from various organisations – for example, in the last few months these have included the Royal Society of Chemistry, 38 Degrees, Breast Cancer Now, the Refugee Council and the National Autistic Society. When I am not able to be there, I can and do request reports to be sent to me – and that’s why my summer reading list was definitely non-fiction!

I am developing expertise in various specific subjects so that I can be as useful as possible to developing policy within the Labour Parliamentary Party and beyond. I came to Parliament with 26 years of experience, knowledge and expertise in preventing and responding to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. I also had expertise in music, some knowledge of refugees and autism and skills in research and evidence-based policy making. I am developing these as much as I can, and am currently focusing on productivity (what would help our nearly stagnant rates of productivity to improve?); the arms trade; biodiversity and the European Union referendum.

Working with people in the constituency to bring about the changes I seek

Obviously I can’t solve problems on my own! I spend time in the constituency meeting with people and organisations who have specific roles – sometimes bringing them together as I did recently with my Housing Summit, to try to get progress on a particular problem such as the lack of housing. That summit was the first of several events, bringing together the key people who can help get things moving. We have already had some progress on housing, and there’s loads more to do. Working with organisations like ACORN on ethical lettings, the council to get their housing strategy right, housing associations and local people who want to see progress on the empty site in St Paul’s (1 Dove Lane) and others such as Brooks Dye Works and the Carriageworks. And knowing who can help with the development and planning and making sure they are involved. That’s the work my team and I are doing and will continue to do.

I’ve prioritised using my previous expertise to help to eradicate child sexual exploitation in Bristol. So far I am getting to know more about how the current system is working and where the strains are, so that I can advocate for more funding, for example, or identify problems in the system and the people who can help solve them and also be a strong public campaigning voice for changing attitudes.

There’s loads more – such as visiting small, medium and large businesses to find out what they need from me or from government or others to be able to grow and employ more staff or take on apprenticeships. I’ll be working with the National Autistic Society in the next eighteen months to organise a jobs fair and other events to help the one in hundred people who are on the autistic spectrum. Sometimes, just having the influence that the office of MP has can be the critical factor for bringing people together and getting things done.

From opposition to government

While I have laid out things I can do as an opposition MP, obviously I know that the aims I have for being the Bristol West MP can be much better fulfilled if Labour is in government. I built up a strong campaigning organisation structure in Bristol West and recruited many new members while I was a candidate. And obviously since then we have had many more join, which is great. Part of my role as a Labour activist is to continue to support that campaigning force, to inform and influence Labour policy using my knowledge and expertise but also to involve as many others as possible in campaigning and policy development. 

What your Bristol West MP does

“So where were you on Monday?” What your Bristol West MP does.   There was a mild furore this week when some people incorrectly assumed I had abstained on a...


This post originates from a response to letters I received from constituents asking me to speak out about the UK government granting licences for exporting arms to Israel, following the publication of a report by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), War on Want and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee. I will address these issues, but I have also widened the scope of this post to consider the application of ethical foreign policy-making principles to all UK arms export licensing decisions. I am concerned they do not respect international standards for human rights and democracy.

I have read the CAAT report very carefully, which led on to me reading many other associated relevant documents to get a better understanding of the regulatory framework and other sources of evidence about arms export licences to certain countries. This included the full text of the original and 2014 revised Consolidated EU and National criteria for granting arms export licencesthe EU Council Common Position Criteria which prompts these; the most recent annual report from the Foreign Office on Human Rights and Democracy; the sub-report on Israel as a Country of Concern listed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) report; the most recent annual report from the cross-party House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC); the most recent annual report from the UK government on arms export licences; and a 2012 report by the International Committee of Red Cross on Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian territories.

As I am sure most MPs do, I share my constituents’ concerns for the safety of the people living in countries with clear evidence of human rights violations against their own people.

I am very well aware of the nature and impact of the attacks on Gaza last year. Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband spoke out very clearly against them, I spoke at the large demonstration and march in Bristol during the attacks and am on record as condemning the attacks in many responses to people while I was a parliamentary candidate and since becoming an MP.

There were 12 UK arms export licences to Israel which were suspended during the violence and for many months afterwards. However, the UK government, when it announced last August that they would continue to suspend granting new licences for exports to Israel and the Occupied Territories, also announced significant exceptions. This meant that although some licences were suspended or not allowed, others were.

As of 16 July 2015 the UK government announced that all these suspensions were now lifted. This is despite the fact the FCO continues to list Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a ‘country of concern’ for human rights. It is important to note that while the majority of the matters listed as concerns were committed by the Israeli authorities, some were committed by Palestinian authorities. I do not consider these to be remotely equal or equivalent – I am fully aware of the imbalances of power and resources between the Palestinian people and the Israeli government. I simply think it is important to be aware that there are also risks for Palestinians, particularly women and girls, from their own authorities. This also needs to be addressed.

In the months that followed the bombardment the UK approved further arms export licences to Israel. There are eight criteria listed for consideration in the Consolidated EU and National Arms Licensing Criteria document. It appears to me that four have very clear implications for any licences to Israel, depending on the nature of the goods under application. I contend that in relation to Israel and the Occupied Territories, criteria relating to violations of international law, human rights, threats or use of violence for occupation and/or internal repression (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the 8) are all directly relevant.

While doing this analysis it also became very clear to me that there is evidence from parliamentary scrutiny committees and from a government department of similar contradictions applying to other countries – countries with well-documented human rights concerns to which we are granting arms export licences.

On 6 March 2015, the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) published their most recent annual report. In it they state: ‘The Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticizing their lack of human rights at the same time.’  CAEC comprises members of parliament from all parties, who are members of one of the four relevant select committees: Business, Innovation and Skills; Defence; Foreign Affairs; International Development.

CAEC noted in the 2015 report that the UK is granting export licences to 12 of the 27 FCO ‘countries of concern’: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the OPT, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Uzbekistan and the Yemen. CAEC also noted in the same report licences were also granted to seven further countries about which they have concerns in relation to granting arms export licences: Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Hong Kong, Qatar, Tunisia and the Ukraine. It is important that in our discussions and campaigning we are clearly opposed to exporting arms to any countries which violate human rights. I think it is also important that we note that some of the countries listed above are also countries from which thousands of refugees are fleeing. I do not know enough to say definitively if there is a connection between our arms export licences and the exact reasons why refugees are leaving. I am simply noting this correlation.

I still believe in the potential for long-term global peace and security and, while this may seem wildly optimistic, I believe that politicians from all parties and many countries owe it to the people we represent and to the world to do everything we can to work for this.

I am pleased to see that my Labour MP colleague Ann Clwyd has secured a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 17 September 2015 (this week as I write) on the UK government’s arms export licences practice.  I regret that my treatment schedule will keep me from being there in person. I hope that publishing this post and encouraging my colleagues to attend will be a helpful contribution.

I believe the current government’s application of the system of regulating arms export licences is matter of grave concern with serious implications for our humanitarian and other obligations. I am determined to use my role as an MP to do what I can to change this. I will start with the following actions:

  1. This month (September 2015) I will write to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (the government department responsible for granting or refusing these licences) to ask on what grounds the UK government continues to sign off arms export licences for countries of concern, as identified by CAEC and FCO. In particular, I will, in response to my constituents’ letters, also ask for specific clarification of why they do not agree that criteria 1-4 are likely to be breached by granting arms export licences to Israel in the current climate and what rationale they have for this.
  2. I will ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to describe how UK government ensures that the eight criteria are consistently, thoroughly and appropriately applied in all export licences. I will give the specific examples relating to the evidence I have found in the CAEC report and elsewhere.
  3. During September and October, I will read more of the evidence heard by CAEC on the human rights violations in the 18 countries of concern to CAEC and also the impact of granting arms export licences to those countries. I will also read all the other FCO reports on ‘countries of concern’, 27 in total.
  4. If the answers from the Secretary of State do not prove satisfactory I will use further appropriate opportunities to ask these questions in parliamentary public debates and other public settings to help to highlight the government’s actions and the impact.
  5. I will also use other opportunities to speak out about the government’s interpretation of arms export license legislation and the impact in specific countries. I will do this on my own blog (I will publish a version of this letter on my website during September) and in media coverage of armed conflict and the UK’s role in promoting global peace.

If all the criteria were consistently applied to all countries, including but not confined to Israel but also the other 18 countries listed by CAEC (and probably others as well), this could constitute a de facto ban on exporting arms to those countries, based on proper and consistent application of our own regulatory systems and using sound evidence. This is essential for ethical foreign policy making.



Arms Export Licences

This post originates from a response to letters I received from constituents asking me to speak out about the UK government granting licences for exporting arms to Israel, following the publication...

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