News

Today, members of the UCU - University and College Union - are striking to protect their pensions. Many members of staff at the University of Bristol (and those who work at other universities but live in Bristol West) have told me of their frustration at having to take this action, and their desire for their employers to engage in meaningful dialogue with unions and staff members.

Staff are faced with the prospect of their pensions moving from defined benefits (DB) to (DC). They're not alone in this, and this has implications for people in private and public sector jobs. This move makes planning for old age a lottery. Rather than knowing what proportion of your final salary you're going to have as a pension, it's all down to the highs and lows of the financial markets. And we all know how reliable they are!

It's not too late for employer representatives to head off further disruption in this case, if they enter into proper negotiations over their staff's pensions. I'm also frustrated that the government has sat on the sidelines and let this situation develop under their watch.

I'm lucky to represent a constituency with a world-class university in it, but it only achieves and maintains that status through the hard work of their staff - lecturers, librarians, technicians and administrators. It's vital that their hard work and efforts are properly valued, and that their pensions are protected - especially given increased casualisation and precariousness within the higher education sector that this government has presided over. I have written to the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University about this. And I urge all the national bodies to get back to negotiating for the good of all staff and students, and the future of our wonderful university sector.

UCU Industrial Action

Today, members of the UCU - University and College Union - are striking to protect their pensions. Many members of staff at the University of Bristol (and those who work at other...

hamiltonhouse

Bristol is known for its world-class culture, encompassing art, music, theatre, media, architecture, festivals and more. Culture is central to our economy (an £84bn industry), our communities and our everyday lives.  However it doesn’t just arise from nowhere – there needs to be space for people to work on their craft and for creativity to incubate.

For ten years Hamilton House in Stokes Croft has been at the heart of Bristol’s creative community. This space is home to a dizzying array of artists, small businesses and social enterprises who have made an immeasurable contribution to this city, its cultural landscape, and the local economy.

I am very concerned about the eviction of the tenants of a large section (Block C) of Hamilton House, scheduled to take place on 1 March. This will cause turmoil to a large number of current tenants, many of whom have no alternative space to go to, putting their livelihoods under threat.

Until recently I had not realised the breadth of activity, and the diversity of occupations, that this space supports, including: theatre producers; costume makers; seamstresses; illustrators; community journalists; photographers; painters; furniture makers; event organisers; a community radio station; therapists; a mural painter; sculptors; community art workers; stained glass artists; mosaic artists; weavers; textile artists; the Bristol bike project; screen printers; music management; and a charity supporting disadvantaged families and children.

I’ve met with some of these tenants; with Coexist, the organisation which manages Hamilton House; and with Connolly & Callaghan, who own the building, to discuss how a resolution can be found.

I am aware that Connolly & Callaghan intend to develop some of the Hamilton House site for housing, which has prompted the current series of events. We all know there’s a shortage of housing in the city. The demand for new housing must be met, particularly in sustainable central locations. However, cultural and creative spaces must not be seen as expendable as more and more sites are earmarked for residential development. What is most profitable in the short-term shouldn’t starve the city of what contributes to its unique character. Culture and housing need to complement each other, not compete.

I don’t have the exact answer to what the solution for Hamilton House should be. I appreciate that the building is in need of upgrading, and that its financial model needs to be viable. However, I urge Connolly & Callaghan to work constructively with the whole Hamilton House community in finding a positive outcome to secure its future. There are great opportunities for how Stokes Croft can develop, encompassing housing, culture, retail, businesses and the third sector. This story must have local people and their needs at its heart.

The Future of Hamilton House

Bristol is known for its world-class culture, encompassing art, music, theatre, media, architecture, festivals and more. Culture is central to our economy (an £84bn industry), our communities and our everyday...

Recently I was able to see first-hand some of the cutting-edge cancer research taking place at the University of Bristol.

The university has invested significantly in developing world-class facilities and attracting leading scientists in the field, making Bristol an international centre for cancer research. So I was thrilled to be invited to the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine to explore the laboratories and meet some of the talented and dedicated scientists working on pioneering research.

I was welcomed by the new Head of School, cancer biologist Professor Anne Ridley FRS, and Wellcome Trust research training fellow Grace Edmunds. I met Grace last year at a community event and was fascinated to hear about her work at Bristol on blocking the stop signals which cancers use to evade the immune response. It was this meeting that prompted my recent invitation to the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

It was a marvellously informative tour.

I visited the laboratory of Professor Eugenia Piddini’s group, where fruit fly tumour models are used to study the impact of cell competition in cancer.

I was given a demonstration of a high-throughput fluorescence microscope in action in Professor Rafael Carazo Salas’ lab. The microscope allows researchers to image live cells over time, to investigate how human stem cells grow and develop in vitro and to improve tissue engineering techniques.

I paid a visit to the Flow Cytometry Facility, to see how single immune cells are isolated from tumours to study the immune response to cancer.

I called into the school’s bioprinting facility to see how 3D printing is used to print tumour spheroids (which mimic the structures of solid tumours). Dr Adam Perriman presented me with an amazing 3D-printed cello as a souvenir of my visit!

Finally, I dropped into a teaching lab to see an undergraduate practical class, where first-year students were studying the hallmarks of different cancers.

My own experience with breast cancer in 2015, when I received such wonderful treatment by NHS doctors and nurses, gave me a keen interest in cancer research and led me to become a breast cancer ambassador for Breast Cancer Now. I’m proud that so much vital research is happening in my constituency, and it was truly inspiring to meet so many brilliant researchers who are committed to furthering our knowledge and understanding of this disease.

Pioneering cancer research at the University of Bristol

Recently I was able to see first-hand some of the cutting-edge cancer research taking place at the University of Bristol. The university has invested significantly in developing world-class facilities and...

On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed and gave some women the right to vote in the UK for the first time.

So today, 100 years later, I’m celebrating my right to vote! I’ve made sure I’ve exercised that right at every election since my 18th birthday.

It’s interesting to note that recent research by the Electoral Commission showed that:

  • three quarters of women say they always vote at general elections;
  • two in three women were motivated to vote by civic responsibility at the 2017 Parliamentary general election; and
  • women were four times more likely than men to say that ‘people fought to win them the right to vote’ as a motivation for casting their ballot.

You can find out more about the Electoral Commission’s own Your Vote Matters centenary celebration. But you’ll also see a number of other celebrations to mark the centenary taking place across the country today.

I was also able to pay tribute to the Women's Cooperative Guild who were stalwart campaigners for the right of women to vote. You can see my question in Parliament here:

Celebrating the right to vote

On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed and gave some women the right to vote in the UK for the first time. So today, 100...

I secured a Westminster Hall debate to discuss how we can improve the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism today (Wednesday 31 January). MPs from across parliament all contributed to discuss ways we can ensure that all of our public spaces are truly accessible. I've posted the text of my speech below, but you can also watch the whole debate, if you prefer, by scrolling to the bottom of the page. 


Thank you Mr Betts and it is a pleasure to serve you in the chair.

Mr Betts, imagine what Parliament could be like if there were less information.

Bear with me!

Less information at once, anyway.

Imagine if we all agreed that there could only ever be one voice speaking in our debating Chambers and committee rooms.

If we redesigned the atrium of Portcullis House so that it was less of a goldfish bowl of sights and a cacophony of sounds.

If there were quiet areas where Members, staff, and members of the public, could retreat to if there was simply too much going on, and we needed to still our minds.

If we had routes through the Parliamentary estate that steer people logically from one place to the next, with predictable and straightforward signs, few distractions and gentle lighting.

If we did all of this, we would be removing many barriers to people with autism using our public space.

And would it not make a better place for all of us to run the country from?

Are these changes too much for us to contemplate? As Honourable Members are right now debating the Restoration and Renewal (R and R) of the Parliamentary estate, would it be so difficult for us to consider taking this once in a lifetime opportunity that the R and R presents, to make Parliament a place of greater sensory clarity, reducing the sensory overload, not just for people with autism, but for everyone?

Are these changes too much for custodians of other public buildings to contemplate?

Mr Betts, these changes are not too much for us. It would benefit us all to make them. It would benefit people with autism as users of public buildings, as employees within them and as potential employees.

There are now so many other organisations doing so that we no longer have any justification for not doing so in public buildings.

Mr Betts, fifteen years ago, several children with autism came into my life. Friends and family had young children on the spectrum, and my now-husband, then-partner, Kevin, started working with children with autism. I am grateful to all my friends, family and husband, and his colleagues, particularly Paulla Keen, and to my own staff member who takes a lead for autism in my team, Councillor Mike Davies, for what they have taught me about autism, and about how bringing down barriers to people with autism can help us all.

Like 99.5% of the public, as surveyed by YouGov polling in 2016, I had heard of autism. But as a person whose life has been immeasurably enriched by people with autism I am sad to learn from the National Autistic Society (NAS) report ‘Too Much Information’, also published in 2016, that only 16% of people with autism and their families think the public understands autism in any meaningful way.

The consequence of people’s lack of meaningful understanding of autism is that autistic people and their families are effectively excluded from many public spaces. Half of autistic people and their families told the NAS in the 2016 survey they sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about the public’s reaction to their autism. 28% have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism.  79% of autistic people reported feeling socially isolated.

But it does not have to be this way.

Although I am far from an expert, I am going to share with colleagues here today some of what I have learnt about autism and making public institutions accessible.

First, a definition. The International Classification of Diseases, tenth edition (ICD10) is the most commonly-used diagnostic manual in the UK. 

The group of autism profiles is defined as "A group of disorders characterized by qualitative abnormalities in reciprocal social interactions and in patterns of communication, and by a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests and activities. These qualitative abnormalities are a pervasive feature of the individual's functioning in all situations".

A revised edition (ICD-11) is expected in 2018 and is likely to closely align with the latest edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). This definition includes sensory difficulties and has clearer diagnostic criteria.

When my cousin Sunitha, who lives in Chennai, India, found out her young son Ricky was on the autistic spectrum, it was not a surprise. She’d known something was not right, as Ricky was not speaking at age 3, and there were other things which meant she knew he understood social interaction in a different way to other people. It was a difficult adjustment to make at first. But I am so proud of how my Suni, her husband, her beautiful daughter Rachael and the extended family changed how they interact, with each other and with Ricky, and how they support Ricky’s interaction with the world. Their experiences in India illustrate so much of what needs to and can change in public buildings and public life here in the UK, and beyond.

Like many, but not all, people on the autistic spectrum, Ricky does not speak much, though he is no longer non-verbal. But he has outstanding skills in listening, reading and writing in several Indian languages. His lack of fluent speech, and that of many autistic people, could come across as standoffish. It might make it harder to get information about how to use a public building. Though some of his skills are way beyond most people’s, they are not typical.

Making a public building accessible therefore, needs to include giving information clearly, visually and logically, and include non-verbal means.

Like many, but not all, people on the autistic spectrum, Ricky likes routines and sometimes has trouble adjusting to changes. Some people may say at this point, well, does that make me a little bit autistic, I like routines and I don’t like change. That’s one of the myths about autism that I’ve heard, that the National Autistic Society mention on their website, that ‘we’re all a little bit autistic’. No, we’re not.

My routines help me to organise my day. Ricky’s help to prevent him from experiencing sensory overload, and help to soothe him when he does. He wants to be able to take the same route to school each day –that’s fairly straightforward. But when he goes on holiday, as he does with us when my husband, mother and I visit India, there are some experiences which are tricky for him – such as a very noisy, chaotic queue for a zoo, which we quickly left. That’s an example of something which we did to accommodate Ricky, but benefitted us all!

We have been able to enjoy holidays mostly because his amazing mum and the rest of the family are so brilliant at facilitating what Ricky needs to be comfortable – certain books, access to certain things on his mum’s phone, certain foods – and we are all pretty much in agreement about avoiding the noisy, chaotic experiences which would cause him sensory overload. We’ve all realised we like spending gentle, restful time just being together, doing familiar things. It works for me! But it also means Suni and her whole family can have a holiday.

We’ve built up to several days holiday each year because we have found places to stay, particularly the Green Hotel in Mysore, where Ricky knows what to expect and where the staff show great understanding of Ricky. They do this without, by the way, any special training, but with thoughtfulness and responding to specific requests from one of us which help him.

So, although visiting a public building will be a new experience at least for the first time, the organisation can help. They can provide information in advance on a website, or on arrival in a leaflet, with matching, visually clear and logical information, in the building itself. But also, even without training, or even an explanation of the autism, staff and colleagues can be encouraged to be accepting of different ways of communicating.

Sometimes when Ricky is experiencing sensory overload he will use repetitive movements or sounds or actions to try to bring about some order and method into a stressful situation with too much going on.

This could be profoundly misunderstood, seen as being disruptive, weird, or irritating, or even aggressive. Staff response to it may make a public building unwelcoming. Indeed, 28% of autistic people and their families told the NAS in the 2016 survey that they had been asked to leave a public space.

Some people with autism will have different ways of understanding non-verbal social information than neuro-typical people. They may be very literal in their interpretation of what someone says, so jokes or sarcasm don’t register or work in a different way. This again might be seen as weird, or irritating, or difficult and again, our responses to it can make a public building unwelcoming to people with autism, as users or as colleagues.

If people in public buildings are given clear information about autism and how it might present, what might contribute to sensory overload, how social interactions might be different with people with autism, they can learn to adjust their responses to people who behave in ways they don’t expect, to prevent unnecessary, non-physical barriers to people on the autistic spectrum being able to function comfortably in the space.

Some people’s autism will not be noticeable. You may have no idea what is going on, but this does not mean they are coping with an over-stimulating environment, or sensory overload, or disruption and noise.

Autism is a difference, not a disease. Understanding the difference will help the people who work in public buildings to make adjustments to their interpretation of people’s behaviour, or change how they present the building and the services in it, so that even if they do not know someone is autistic, the building and organisation are more accessible to autistic people.

I’ve chosen to focus on public buildings, because we should all have access to them as users and as potential employees. As employees, and as potential employees, their ability to do great work and to flourish could be even better if the building were more accessible to them. And speaking personally, my relationships with people with autism are a privilege. Their different interpretations of the world around us are insightful and illuminating. Making public buildings more accessible to people with autism bring those insights into public life, to the benefit of all.

Since launching the Autism Friendly Award in 2016, The National Autistic Society has supported over forty venues, public and profit-making, to become autism-friendly. Each took steps to improve staff understanding of autism, introduced pre-visit information; adapted their physical premises or layout; consulted with autistic people and families, and encouraged wider public awareness of autism.

With help from the NAS, over 1000 sites will be autism-friendly in 2019. They are currently working with a large banking group who alone has over 800 sites.

Clearly, there are businesses who understand that there are benefits to them to making their building autism-friendly, that they have excellent employees and potential employees as well as customers who are on the autistic spectrum. It benefits their businesses if they adopt autism-friendly practices and space.

Public buildings, and the public organisations in them, have no reason not to do the same. Local authorities can and should take a lead, but schools, health services, police and other public bodies should make the most of the help the NAS and other autism organisations can provide. In my own constituency, not only the NAS but the Bristol Autism Support Service has helped me to provide a more autism-accessible service as an MP. For example, this includes working with me to hold what we believe to be the country’s first autism-specific constituency surgery, something I strongly encourage other Honourable Members to do.

We could and should lead by example in this place.

In summer 2017, the Houses of Parliament received The National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award, joining the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and Stormont.  

As Parliament goes through large scale renovation, there is an opportunity to make some of the physical changes to make the building more accessible for autistic people.

Under the Equality Act 2010, businesses and public spaces are not allowed to discriminate against an autistic person because of their disability. I am sure staff in restaurants and council buildings alike would not dream of saying ‘you’re autistic, you must leave’. But their lack of understanding could mean they react unhelpfully to what seems like odd behaviour, leading to a situation which causes them to ask the autistic person to leave, in effect because of their autism. My experience with Ricky at the Green Hotel showed me that staff in public space do not need to discriminate, however unintentionally, in this way.

Businesses and public bodies have an ‘anticipatory’ duty under the Act to make reasonable adjustments. This means thinking in advance about what autistic people might reasonably need.

In October 2017, over 5,000 restaurants, shopping centres and other venues across the UK took part in ‘Autism Hour’. For 60 minutes they took simple steps to make their premises autism-friendly. They dimmed lights, reduced noise and carried out autism-awareness activities. In my own constituency, local voluntary parents’ group SEND a Welcome, who provide mutual support and public awareness raising for families with children with special needs including autism, have encouraged many local businesses, such as the Boston Tea Party on Gloucester Road, to do similar things so that their families can use more local shops and businesses.

Mr Betts, this is so promising, and so welcome, but all public buildings should have more than autism hour. They should have autism days, months, years – they should simply be accessible to the one in a hundred people on the autistic spectrum – it’s in everyone’s interests. What’s good for people with autism is good for us all!

The findings of The National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information research suggests that these adjustments are not happening as consistently as they should be. The NAS resources can help with this, but this needs to be supported by the Government.

So as I draw to a close, I have questions to put to the Minister. I am grateful to her for the commitment I believe she has to doing better for autistic people to have their rights to public spaces.

I quote my constituent H, a young woman at a local mainstream state school. H is on the autistic spectrum and has been in touch with me about the need for greater understanding of autism. I contacted her this week about this debate and H said:

“I would like to ask the Minister whether there will be a campaign to raise autism awareness in schools. I ask this because I recently went on a trip, and became distressed with the noise levels from my fellow students on the coach. To prevent this happening again, I would suggest a short course for students in which to learn about the signs and symptoms of autism, and how to help someone in distress due to them.”

I add to that:

  1. What support will the Minister give to local authorities to ensure that their staff benefit from training on autism awareness, to help them to make the physical space and the atmosphere and staffing of public buildings such that people with autism and their families can use them comfortably?
  2. Given the high level of social isolation experienced by autistic people, will the Government ensure that there is a specific focus on making public spaces accessible to people with autism and their families, in their new strategy to tackle loneliness?
  3. How else will the Minister encourage more businesses and all public spaces to become autism-friendly?
  4. What steps will the Minister to ensure that the renovated Parliament meets the access needs of autistic people and their families?
  5. And finally, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that managers of public buildings and organisations are aware of their Equality Act duties in relation to autistic people? I’m talking here about schools, health centres, police stations, as well as council buildings.

Mr Betts, I asked at the start of these changes were too much for the custodians of public buildings to contemplate.

They are not.

The time to contemplate them is now.

This week in Parliament we have had the debate yesterday brought by my honourable Friend the Member for Cardiff West on autism and the criminal justice system, today the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism report on autism and education, an enquiry ably chaired by the Honourable Members for Lewes and for Bexhill and Battle. We have the leadership shown by the Honourable Member for Chesham and Amersham, and by Mr Speaker. Many Honourable and Right Honourable Members have demonstrated great commitment to autism awareness.  

One in a hundred people and their families deserve these changes as a matter of right, so that they can have their equal right to use public space respected.

My cousin Sunitha and her family, my husband and his colleagues, the NAS, the Bristol Autism Support Service, the SEND a Welcome Parents group in Bishopston in my constituency, my assistant Mike, they and many others have all shown me that this can be done.

Not out of pity. Not because being autistic is inherently a ‘struggle’. Being autistic means seeing the world and relationships in it in a different way, it’s not a disease and many people on the autistic spectrum value their identity as neuro-diverse. We neuro-typical people too often make the struggle for autistic people. We create barriers where none are needed.

Autistic people are not asking for special pleading, or for us to feel sorry for them.

They are asking for equal rights.

They have a right to use public space.

And it’s time we made that right a reality.

Thank you.

Accessibility of public buildings for people with autism

I secured a Westminster Hall debate to discuss how we can improve the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism today (Wednesday 31 January). MPs from across parliament all...

Thangam challenging the government over schools fundingHas your child brought a letter home from school asking you for donations to help buy classroom supplies? Have you seen subjects cut from the curriculum, or support for pupils with special educational needs stretched further and further?

If so, you might be as sceptical as I am about the claim that our schools are receiving "more money than ever before".

On Monday 29 January during Education questions, I asked the new Secretary of State to stop focusing on structures in education and address the crisis in funding schools are facing.

This weekend even Tory party donors and heads of academy chains warned that schools were facing real-terms cuts to their funding as costs continue to increase. And schools in Bristol West have repeatedly told me that they are being asked to deliver more and more with less money coming in. That has a clear impact on what subjects they are able to offer, what training and support they can provide to staff, and what programmes they can put in place to help pupils who need assistance to get the most out of their education.

I'm pleased that the Times Education Supplement picked up on my question. I'm going to continue speaking out against the government's rhetoric of increased funding. Bristol's schools tell me that in real terms, the amount of money they receive per pupil is going down, not up. Hardworking students and staff deserve a properly funded education system and the government must do more.

Thangam Debbonaire

All the focus on structures is taking us away from the real issue, which is that this weekend even Tory party donors and academy chain heads were talking about real-terms cuts to funding. That is what I am seeing in the schools in my constituency. Will the Government face up to the real crisis, which is the real-terms cut in school funding?

Damian Hinds (Secretary of State for Education)

There is more money going into our schools in this country than ever before. We know that real-terms funding per pupil is increasing across the system, and with the national funding formula, each school will see at least a small cash increase.

You can watch the full exchange here:

Challenging real-terms cuts in our schools

Has your child brought a letter home from school asking you for donations to help buy classroom supplies? Have you seen subjects cut from the curriculum, or support for pupils...

On Thursday 10 January, I asked Jeremy Hunt what kind of explanation he could possibly give to a cancer patient who had her operation postponed due to the terrible pressures our NHS has been under this winter.

PhD student Carly O'Neill wrote movingly in the Guardian about how her operation has been rescheduled for February because there simply were no beds in the hospital for her to recover after the operation.

This is a scandal. I know from my own experience that the prospect of a cancer operation is scary enough, without having uncertainty about whether or not it will even take place. As Carly wrote: "Life feels a little like it’s on hold until this cancer is dealt with."

Jeremy Hunt claims that NHS England's guidance was clear - that cancer operations should not be postponed as they are so critical for recovery. But if NHS staff are pushed to their limit and there are no beds left for patients, then it is clear that something is going badly wrong. The Health Secretary and the government must get a grip on this crisis. Making patients like Carly wait in continued uncertainty is utterly unacceptable.

In his response, Jeremy Hunt invited me to let him know about individual cases of patients who have been affected. So if you live in Bristol West and have had a cancer operation cancelled or postponed over this winter, or if you've had any other treatment that has been delayed, please do let me know so I can raise this directly with the government. You can contact my office via email at thangam.debbonaire.mp@parliament.uk.

 

Thangam Debbonaire

I have to intervene. I had treatment and an operation for cancer. If my operation had been cancelled, I would have been able to come to this House and ask the Secretary of State personally to intervene, but I am speaking today on behalf of Carly O’Neill, who went to the press to talk about her cancer operation. What explanation does the Health Secretary have to give Carly O’Neill and other cancer patients for their operations being cancelled?

Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State for Health and Social Care)

I say, very directly, that the instructions from NHS England could not have been clearer that cancer operations should not be cancelled, because they are deemed to be urgent. From the perspective of the Government and NHS senior leadership, such cancellations ​are not acceptable. If the hon. Lady knows of individual cases, she should raise them with me and we will look into the matter. It is precisely because we want to preserve capacity for people who need it the most that we have taken these difficult decisions.

You can watch the exchange here:

 

NHS Winter Crisis

On Thursday 10 January, I asked Jeremy Hunt what kind of explanation he could possibly give to a cancer patient who had her operation postponed due to the terrible pressures...

Thangam DebbonaireOne of the best things about representing this constituency in Parliament is how engaged and informed residents in Bristol West are on a host of issues. Lobbying and questions from you directly inform the work that I do in Parliament. So I wanted to start 2018 by writing about how you can both follow the work I'm doing as your MP, and how you can get in touch to raise issues with me that are important to you.

Following what I’m doing as your MP

The best place to read about what I’m doing as your MP is my website. This also has links to other useful sites, such as Hansard (where you can find records of everything I’ve said in Parliament) and the written parliamentary questions page (where you can find everything I’ve asked a minister).

You can follow my voting and speaking record on various independent websites such as TheyWorkForYou and Public Whip. These are not always entirely accurate in the way they summarise or describe specific votes so if you’re not sure about something, do email.

You may want to follow me on Twitter (@ThangamMP) or Facebook (Thangam Debbonaire for Bristol West) as well.

Keeping in touch with your MP

Bristol West is one of the most engaged constituencies in the country and I’m proud that we regularly top the charts for emails and petition clicks using the Parliamentary and other petition websites. But there are lots of ways to keep in touch.

Have a chat when you see me out and about: Lots of you do this and I love to chat, so do stop me if you see me out and about.

Labour doorknock: As you may know, teams of Labour councillors, volunteers and I go out and knock on doors in different parts of Bristol West almost every weekend on Friday lunchtimes, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, all year round, whether or not there is an election. This is so that you get to tell me what you think I need to know, so that we can pick up information about what is happening in local neighbourhoods, and to make sure you know when I can help with individual problems.

Email: Some of you also email me or click on petitions (on parliamentary and other petition websites) to let me know how you feel about something. Because of the volume of emails I do have to prioritise, but my team and I always try to answer every single email eventually.

Constituency surgery appointments: I hold regular constituency surgeries for people to speak to me about casework and policy. Very often my caseworkers and I can help you without you needing to come to an appointment, but sometimes this is helpful. Appointments are 20 minutes long – we can get a lot done in that time. Please email to arrange an appointment and one of my staff will get in touch to find out more from you about the situation or question. This will help me to prepare and help you to get the most out of the appointment.

Public meetings: I hold regular public meetings for constituents to be able to hear directly from me and to ask questions and make suggestions. Over the last year I have held several meetings on the topic of the UK’s relationship with the EU as this is the subject you ask me about most often. I will continue to hold these – the next meeting is at Redland Park United Reform Church on Saturday 27 January at 2pm. I’ll be joined by Nigel Costley from TUC South West, with other speakers to be confirmed. Book your place here.

Visits to schools, businesses, university departments and other organisations: On my constituency days (usually Thursday evening, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes other weekdays during parliamentary recess) I visit as many organisations as I can. If you’d like me to visit your school, place of work, or voluntary organisation do get in touch.

Casework: While I do not have a magic wand, there are some things I can do to help with individual problems involving national or local government departments. I have two highly experienced caseworkers to help me to do this.

This could be part of an immigration process (in the first instance you need to get legal advice and we will always advise this), a difficulty with the tax and benefit offices or any government department. If you have a problem with the Council we would always recommend that in the first instance you take the matter up with them directly. As your MP I can usually at least find out what stage your process has got to and ask for the problem to be fully investigated. It always helps if you can email the key facts and include a phone number for us to call you back for further information. Email is always best, but if you know someone who needs my help and does not use email, please pass on my constituency office phone number: 0117 379 0980.

Policy questions: Sometimes the problem has passed but you want me to know about it to try to change the system, or you don’t have a specific problem but have identified something which is not right about policy. This could be on access to mental health support, or housing, or healthcare for example, or it could be about government or Labour Party policy on something specific such as school funding. I have various things I can do to help shine a light on a problem, or challenge the government to change or explore further whether a policy needs to change. This could be with a written parliamentary question (MPs can question government ministers on anything and this is in the public domain); or by trying to ask a question in one of the daily ministerial oral question times (every government minister, not just the Prime Minister, has to do these on a rota); or applying for a short debate in Parliament; or writing to, or meeting with, the minister privately.

My Facebook page: please ‘like’ or ‘follow’ my Facebook page Thangam Debbonaire MP for Bristol West to get regular updates from me in Parliament and in Bristol.

Facebook live video: During parliamentary sessions I try to do one 45-minute Facebook live video session each week, usually on a Monday evening about 7.15pm, from my Thangam Debbonaire MP for Bristol West Facebook page. You can type in your question and give your views and I will answer as many as possible. I then upload the video so you can watch it later.

Visiting Parliament: You may not be aware but a lot of the parliamentary estate is open to the public. You can watch debates or question time sessions (with the exception of Prime Minister’s Questions, which requires tickets to gain entrance) when Parliament is sitting. Full details are available on the UK Parliament website. On Saturdays, or when Parliament is in recess, you can also book a tour – again, full details are available on Parliament’s website. I’m always happy to try and meet Bristol West residents visiting Parliament if the diary allows. If you can give me plenty of notice before you visit I can try and meet you during your visit. Sadly the packed parliamentary diary means this isn’t always possible but do get in touch and I will do my best!

Private messages and calling my mobile: I am rarely able to respond to these methods of contact in real time as I have to represent you in the Chamber, in meetings and in other activities. Please try to use email wherever possible when you want to contact me.

And finally…

I am really honoured to serve a constituency which likes to engage so much with the political process. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to keep informed, and to keep me informed.

 

Keeping in touch in 2018

One of the best things about representing this constituency in Parliament is how engaged and informed residents in Bristol West are on a host of issues. Lobbying and questions from...

I’ve always had an interest in drugs policy, but my concern about the impact of drugs, and our drug laws, reached new levels when I became an MP two years ago.

My constituency office is in a part of central Bristol where the effects of alcohol and other drugs are plain to see. On the worst days, the view from my office window is very upsetting. Several times I’ve found needles or comatose people on my office doorstep and had to call the emergency services.

I’ve heard from people in my constituency addicted to illegal and legal drugs and from parents exasperated at the lack of support for addicts. I’ve heard from those who use recreational drugs responsibly, and from many who want to see the legalisation and regulation of drugs – especially cannabis for medicinal use. People have told me about drug dealers causing problems in their neighbourhoods or having to keep their children from playing in certain parks, or even their own gardens, because of drug litter.

It’s why I agreed to take part in the groundbreaking BBC documentary series Drugsland. It allowed me time to analyse how drugs affect not just those using alcohol and other drugs, or their families and friends, but all of us. Throughout the filming process I’ve reflected on what I was learning and considered the implications for public policy.

I’ve met drug treatment specialists and people in treatment. I’ve been briefed by leading researchers and by clinicians developing testing facilities so people can find out what’s in the substance they intend to take. I’ve discussed drugs with policy makers in local and national government.

No consumption of any illicit or legal drug, including alcohol, is completely safe. In fact, alcohol is one of the most dangerous – to the people drinking it, and to others. But because many people will always want to consume alcohol or another drug at least occasionally, I want to focus on protecting people from harm and reducing risks. Taking part in this documentary has convinced me that our drug laws are contradictory and dangerous and not protecting anyone. It’s time for reform. 

I appeared in episode four: The Fix and I'm very grateful for all the supportive comments I've received since the programme appeared online and was first broadcast on BBC1 on 19 December. 

Taking part in Drugsland

I’ve always had an interest in drugs policy, but my concern about the impact of drugs, and our drug laws, reached new levels when I became an MP two years...

Key events:

  • The legislation which the government has referred to as the Great Repeal Bill, actually called European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, has been going through the committee stage. This is a stage of a bill’s passage through Parliament where MPs can propose and debate amendments to the bill. As this is such a momentous bill, it was debated in what is called a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. We had eight days of debate and votes during November and December, finishing late at night on Wednesday 20 December 2017.
  • While the government has described this as transferring all EU law and regulations into UK law to make the transition from EU membership to non-membership smooth, in fact it is not that straightforward.
  • MPs from all parties have been working to try to improve this bill and the current plans.
  • Labour MPs forced the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to make available the so-called ‘sectoral analyses’, otherwise known as ‘impact assessments’, for assessing the effect of leaving the EU on different industries. These were initially placed in a ‘reading room’ which MPs could only access under strict conditions and could not talk about what they had read.
  • Just before Christmas, the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union decided to publish these reports, minus the consultation feedback from the different sectors.
  • The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State concluded the first stage of the negotiation with the EU before Christmas.
  • Many organisations are now making it clearer how they believe leaving the EU, or leaving the Single Market or Customs Union, will affect them. This includes businesses employing many of you – such as the arts, or manufacturers who export or import parts from the EU.

What is the EU Withdrawal Bill?

This is the bill which has been described as ‘The Great Repeal Bill’. It is described on Parliament’s website as ‘a Bill to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and make other provision in connection with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.’ You can read more about the stages of the bill and all the hundreds of amendments here.

The government said that this bill would transpose all EU law into UK law immediately after Brexit day. This is simply not the case, which is why we had to put down so many amendments.

Lots of you contacted me during the EU Withdrawal Bill committee stage, mostly to ask me to vote for Amendment 7, the amendment laid by Dominic Grieve MP, former Attorney-General.

What happens next?

The bill has more stages to get through in Parliament. It will go to the House of Lords, where our colleagues will be putting down and hopefully voting on more amendments. It will return to the House of Commons after that for further scrutiny.

What are the key results in this stage of the Bill?

The most successful highlight was Amendment 7 to Clause 9, the Dominic Grieve amendment. Why does it matter? Two reasons for me – one, it gives Parliament a final vote over the Brexit deal, and two, it is the amendment which most of you contacted me about, by some margin. My part in this was not just voting, it was also my work as an opposition whip. As Parliament is so divided on Brexit, the role of whips is crucial, in that we had to make sure we had everyone there who could possibly be there, and persuade as many as possible of those MPs who campaigned for Brexit to vote with us or abstain. Unlike government whips, we use reason and persuasion rather than intimidation to achieve the result you wanted.

The major defeats, however, are significant. I’m pleased we had 12 Tories voting with us on a meaningful vote, but do note that they also had the option of supporting a Labour amendment on the same subject, one which would have been stronger, and said they would only vote for the one laid down by Dominic Grieve. Tory and DUP MPs did not join us for votes in favour of transposing all the environmental and workers’ rights, and animal welfare principles into UK law.

Further detail of Brexit process

I’ve met, talked, debated and discussed different elements of Brexit with many of you and I am grateful to you all for being willing to do this, in often uncertain times.

There has been a great deal of misinformation along the way. My position is clear: I believe, along with most of you, that the best relationship for the UK to have with the EU is full membership of the EU and I campaigned hard for that during the referendum.

I took the only legislative opportunity there has been so far to vote against the UK leaving the EU, by voting against Article 50 of the Treaty of the EU being triggered, in March 2017.

If, reluctantly, we leave the EU, I believe that the best second-best option for the UK is for us to remain members of the Single Market and a Customs Union.

I will now have the opportunity to vote against any inadequate deal, thanks to the work done by Labour MPs and others to vote through Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

I’m also participating in many of the various bills which will go through Parliament during the next fifteen months as a result of the Tory Brexit process. For example, the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, an Agriculture Bill and a Fishing Bill – the latter two will start their process in 2018; the former has already started in 2017 and will have final stages early in 2018.

Brexit ‘sectoral analyses’ or ‘impact assessments’

For eighteen months now, the government’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has claimed that there were ‘about 57 or so’ individual documents analysing by individual sector what the effect of leaving the EU is on different parts of our economy. However, he repeatedly said that these documents must be kept secret. I joined Labour MP Seema Malhotra in calling on the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU to publish these documents. Initially he refused outright. Then late in 2017 he appeared in front of the select committee scrutinising him and admitted that there were in fact no impact assessments. Then he made the documents (which he now referred to as ‘sectoral analyses’) available first only to the MPs on the select committee, and then to all MPs, but only through a complicated process and requiring MPs to agree to keep the content secret.

I went to the so-called ‘reading room’ to read these documents and was horrified to find that they did not include any proper analysis of what the impact of different relationships between the UK and the EU would be on key parts of the economy – putting at risk millions of jobs in our city, region and country. Despite the secrecy requirement, there was very little in the documents which was not derived from public documents such as government reports. In order to put pressure on the government to improve these documents and make them public, I gave an interview to the local press which prompted a story in the Daily Mirror and quotes in other national press articles. I also wrote a column for the national i-newspaper.  

Eventually, following a close vote, the select committee decided to publish the reports, minus the feedback from representatives of the individual sectors.

What you can do

  1. You can read the ‘sectoral analysis’ reports and decided for yourself if you think they’re adequate for informing government, Parliament and the public about our future relationship with the EU. Let me know what you think about any which you have specialist knowledge about or which affect you or your business.
  2. You can come to my next public meeting on the EU (see below).
  3. You can get involved in campaigning in your trade union, or trade association, or sector organisation. Make sure that these organisations know what you think and ask them what they’re doing to lobby government to represent your views and experiences.

My next public meeting on the UK’s relationship with the EU

This will be held at Redland Park United Reform Church on Saturday 27 January at 2pm. I’ll be joined by Nigel Costley from TUC South West, with other speakers to be confirmed. Booking is essential so we can keep track of numbers!

So far, I’ve held several of these public meetings for you to discuss with me the process, ask questions about what is happening and give me your views.  Many of you have taken these opportunities and I am grateful to you for doing so.

Do come along to the next one and hear more from me on where we are and give your views. This is hugely helpful for informing how I represent you in Parliament.

Other EU related legislation

  • The Nuclear Safeguards Bill will go through Lords and final Commons stages. This bill is to replace the EU nuclear safeguarding organisation Euratom. As whip for the Labour Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) team I am whipping this bill and we will continue to put pressure on the government over the considerable shortcomings.
  • The Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill, both from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), will both go through all parliamentary stages during the next 12 months. As whip for Labour Defra team I will be supporting the Labour front and backbenches on this bill.
  • An Immigration Bill will be introduced at some stage this year. As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees I have already met with the Immigration Minister about this and there will be significant work to do on this bill.
  • There will also be a bill on the final settlement deal, and the government may also put forward other bills and regulatory changes.

 

The UK’s relationship with the EU – where are we now?

Key events: The legislation which the government has referred to as the Great Repeal Bill, actually called European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, has been going through the committee stage. This is...

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