Thangam In Parliament
On Thursday 30 November I took part in a debate about mental health and suicide in the autistic community. Following my recent surgery for autistic adults and parents of autistic children in Bristol, I described how we still have more to do to make the UK autism-friendly. Public spaces and services that are not accessible to autistic people breed isolation, exclusion and – in turn – poor mental health.
We need to take real action to correct this. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have found that roughly 40 per cent of autistic young people have symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder at any time, compared to up to 15 per cent in the general population.
In my speech I called upon all of us in Parliament to show leadership. I’m campaigning to make Bristol an autism-friendly city, and my constituency office team has had training from the National Autistic Society and the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service in how to make our workplace autism-friendly. But I also suggested that Parliament itself could take the upcoming refurbishment programme as an opportunity to make the House of Commons more accessible. A quieter, calmer, more welcoming Parliament would not only benefit autistic people who want to participate in democracy, but would be a benefit to us all.
Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West)
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for bringing this debate before us and the hon. Member for East Kilbride etc. for leading on it. I also wish to say a special thank you to Mr Speaker and Mrs Bercow, who have done so much to support autism awareness in the House and beyond, particularly through their support for the National Autistic Society.
I should make a declaration of personal interest: I have a young cousin on the autistic spectrum, and I am married to someone who runs a special educational school for people with autism. My constituency team has also prioritised making Bristol an autism-friendly city. We have made a start, but we have more to do. We have held a training event for employers on how to make reasonable adjustments in recruitment and employment practices, and have had training for my team and made some adjustments ourselves.
That matters because unemployment is unacceptably high among people with autism, which contributes to mental ill health. According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of adults with autism are in full-time paid work, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work, compared with 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people, and we know that unemployment affects mental health and self-esteem. The Government have committed to halving this autism employment gap by the end of this Parliament. In the interests of the mental health of people on the autistic spectrum, I urge the Minister to urge her colleagues to do everything they can to meet that much-needed target.
I have heard from schools in my constituency that funding pressures are affecting their specialist provision for children with special educational needs and mental health problems. Some families have told me that they have experienced effective or partial exclusion from school because of a lack of understanding of autism or of specialist support. That in turn leads to further mental health problems and is exacerbated by a lack of autism-focused specialist mental healthcare and high demand for mental healthcare generally. They have also told me of brilliant support and help from some teachers and schools, but they have fears about staff changes and worries about funding.
I have talked to public venues about what they can do with the help of the National Autistic Society and others to make themselves more autism-friendly. It cannot be acceptable that, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ briefing for this debate, autistic people are more than seven times more likely than non-autistic people to commit suicide and that so many young people on the spectrum have at least one anxiety disorder. None of us wants to accept this, and we do not have to, and there is much we can do.
As I have said, my team has made autism a priority. In association with the fantastic Bristol Autism Support service and the local branch of the National Autistic Society, we recently held what we think was the country’s first MP constituency surgery specifically for adults with autism and parents of children on the autistic spectrum. I encourage all colleagues to do likewise, and I am happy to talk to them about how we did it. It meant that adults with autism and the parents of children with autism could come and tell us about challenges they faced with simple things such as transport and public spaces, as well as housing and employment, all of which affect mental health.
I am not going to repeat things that hon. Members have already said, particularly the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and so on—I am so sorry, I cannot pronounce the last bit.
Madam Deputy Speaker
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Lady comprehensively listed recommendations that I urge the Minister to follow. I will finish by recommending two things. First, I suggest that hon. Members who care about autism and the 1% of our population who are on the autism spectrum consider, as I have done, asking a member of staff to champion that cause. I work closely with my member of staff, Councillor Mike Davies, who is our local autism lead on the council and within my own team. He has patiently taught me a great deal about how to make Bristol a truly autism-friendly city. We have a lot more to do, but I know that, with someone like Mike, I will be able to do much more than I would otherwise have done.
Secondly, I would like us to take a leap. In the House restoration and renewal programme, we could decide to work with the National Autistic Society to make this place autism-friendly. Doing so would help not just people on the autistic spectrum, including children and their parents, but all of us. It would make the place calmer, more welcoming and truly more accessible for everyone. It would be the mother of Parliaments leading by example to the rest of the country so that we can truly make the United Kingdom autism-friendly and address the chronic levels of mental ill health and suicide risk for people on the autism spectrum. I recommend that colleagues consider the suggestions that have been made by me and my team, and by others in this House.
On Thursday 30 November I took part in a debate about mental health and suicide in the autistic community. Following my recent surgery for autistic adults and parents of autistic...
On 30 October 2017 in questions to ministers for the Department for Communities and Local Government, I asked the government to consider allowing local authorities to raise business rates from university accommodation providers.
The University of Bristol and the University for the West of England make a huge contribution to the city's culture and economy. But their planned expansion in student numbers creates pressures for the city's infrastructure and public services that must be managed effectively.
The government's choice to pursue austerity has left Bristol City Council in an impossible position. It has to find ways to finance services for a growing population, but the Conservatives are inflicting more and more cuts on the council's budgets. Finding new ways to fund the growing demand for public services would help, but the government refuses to give councils that option.
Local authorities are in this situation because of the government's failed plans. That they won't even consider suggestions that might help is infuriating.
In Bristol, university expansion means that a significant increase in student numbers is putting pressure on stretched local services right now, yet student accommodation providers contribute almost nothing to the costs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss bringing student accommodation within the scope of business rates, like other businesses, to help to ease this strain on Bristol and other councils?
Marcus Jones (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
I can confirm to the hon. Lady that we have no plans to change business rates by bringing student accommodation into their scope as she advocates.
You can watch the exchange below:
On 30 October 2017 in questions to ministers for the Department for Communities and Local Government, I asked the government to consider allowing local authorities to raise business rates from...
On Thursday, Labour tabled an Urgent Question to ask the government to give an update on their action in response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
As part of that debate I asked Sajid Javid what the government was doing to build public confidence in Bristol about the content, scrutiny and enforcement of building safety regulations. His response that he had written to council chief executives to remind them of their powers was inadequate. Elsewhere in the debate, he again refused to commit government funding for the retrofitting of sprinklers in tower blocks. Something he also failed to do when I asked him about this directly on 3 July.
As Labour's Shadow Minister for Housing, John Healey said in his opening statement, when events like this happen people look to the government to act and to lead. It's time they did so - passing the buck to underfunded local authorities is just not good enough.
What is the Secretary of State doing to build public confidence among the people of Barton Hill, Kingsdown, Redcliffe, Hotwells and elsewhere in my constituency in the content, scrutiny and enforcement of fire and building safety regulations?
The hon. Lady will know about the work that has been going on with respect to publicly owned buildings, which include those owned by housing associations as well as by local councils; I have set that out previously and done so again today in detail. Like all other Members, she will have in her constituency private sector buildings, including the tall buildings above 18 metres, some of which we have tested if samples have come forward to us.
On 5 September, based on the expert advice that we had received, I wrote to the chief executive officer of every council to ask them to put in place a procedure to work out what other private buildings they have that would meet the criteria, to make sure that they are tested and to confirm for themselves that they are safe. I also took the opportunity to remind local council leaders and chief executives of the powers they already have under the Housing Act 2004 to take enforcement action, if they need to, on building regulations, if the work was recently done, as well as the powers that the fire and rescue services have under the fire safety order.
You can watch the exchange below:
On Thursday, Labour tabled an Urgent Question to ask the government to give an update on their action in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. As part of that debate...
On 17 October 2017 in questions to Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ministers, and specifically during questions that focused on the disputed status of Kashmir, I asked what progress was being made to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan:
“There have been threats from both sides to target nuclear facilities, and talks at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation have broken down, so what exactly will the Government and the Foreign Secretary do to defuse those tensions and promote dialogue?”
The Minister for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field replied: “Obviously we will do our part within the international community—as a member of the P5 at the UN, for example—to encourage all sides to maintain a positive dialogue, but the pace and scope of that must be for India and Pakistan to determine. We cannot insist on that. As I have said, we will continue to discuss the Kashmiri issue at every opportunity, both here in London, and out in Islamabad or New Delhi.”
You can watch the short exchange here:
On 17 October 2017 in questions to Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ministers, and specifically during questions that focused on the disputed status of Kashmir, I asked what progress was being...
This morning in oral questions on International Trade, the Minister of State for Trade and Investment spectacularly sidestepped my question about giving Parliament the right to debate and vote on new trade agreements arising from our leaving the EU.
My first question was: “What steps he is taking to ensure that the principles of fair trade, workers' rights and environmental protection are included in future trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU.”
(Because this was on the order paper, I only had to say 'question number four'.)
The Minister of State for Trade and Investment Greg Hands replied: The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally including successfully supporting workers’ rights and environmental protections as a member of the EU, and the UK will continue to play a leading role on these as we leave the EU. We are committed to upholding the UK’s high standards; our prosperity benefits from us reinforcing these high standards, not abandoning them.”
My follow-up question was: “I’m glad the White Paper mentions respecting the role of Parliament but, in order to protect workers’ right, fair trade and environmental rules, will he now guarantee to transfer to this house the rights our elected representatives in the European Parliament have to scrutinise, debate, amend and vote on trade agreements?
The minister answered: “The government has been absolutely clear on the importance of this House and this Parliament scrutinising trade agreements. But can I just mention to her the irony in her question? Only last month she voted against the EU Withdrawal Bill that actually wrote into domestic legislation forty years of workers’ right and environmental protection coming from Europe. She didn’t want to see that transfer and now today she’s calling for us to introduce European procedures. She even whipped her own side to vote against the Withdrawal Bill and I think her actions speak louder than her words.”
You can watch the full exchange here:
This morning in oral questions on International Trade, the Minister of State for Trade and Investment spectacularly sidestepped my question about giving Parliament the right to debate and vote on... Read more
On Thursday 14 September, I was able to ask the Solicitor General what assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the level of prosecutions for hate crime towards EU citizens.
A number of groups, such as Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI), have told me they have seen an increase in reported hate crimes against EU citizens living in the UK since the EU referendum last June. I was pleased that the Solicitor General recognises the need to tackle online hate crime, and I look forward to hearing what work the government and police will do in this area.
It is important that all Bristol residents are able to have confidence that their safety is valued, and that the law will protect them. If you are the victim of a hate crime in Bristol of any kind, please report it to Avon and Somerset Police. You can find more information on their website at https://www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/hatecrime.
6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the level of prosecutions for hate crime towards EU citizens.
The Solicitor General (Robert Buckland)
The Crown Prosecution Service does not disaggregate its data by victims’ nationalities, but it has a strong record in tackling racially and religiously aggravated hate crime. In 2015-16, there were just over 13,000 prosecutions for this type of hate crime. That was 84% of total hate-crime prosecutions, showing a 1.9% increase on the previous year.
I am grateful for that response, but what I really need to know is what steps the Solicitor General will take to reassure my constituents, who tell me of increased hate crime directed at EU citizens. Local organisations that tackle hate crime, such as SARI—Stand Against Racism & Inequality—tell me the same thing. What will he be doing to reassure my constituents that their safety is valued and that the law will protect them?
You can watch the exchange below:
On Thursday 14 September, I was able to ask the Solicitor General what assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the level...
On Thursday 14 September I asked the government to take action and reverse the decline in young people taking qualifications in music in school.
Figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications showed there was a 7.7% drop in students in England taking GCSE music this year compared to 2016. There was a 9.4% drop in A-Level music entries in the same period.
I am concerned that the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) - a performance measure for schools introduced by Michael Gove - is leading to schools narrowing their curriculum and causing them to sideline valuable creative subjects. The decline in music education is hugely damaging for the future of our creative sector - a study by UK Music showed that live music added £123 million to Bristol's economy alone in 2015.
Following the creation of the Ebacc, the take-up of music education is going down. Given the value of the UK’s world-leading music industry to our economy—it was £123 million in Bristol alone in 2015—will the Minister please listen to the music industry, reverse the Ebacc and invest in music teaching?
I acknowledge the challenges to arts, cultural and music education, and I am looking at what can be done, through the cultural development fund, with the Arts Council to find ways of promoting increased participation. I am in active dialogue with other Departments over how we can deal with this reality that does exist.
You can watch the exchange below:
On Thursday 14 September I asked the government to take action and reverse the decline in young people taking qualifications in music in school. Figures from the Joint Council for...
On Tuesday 12 September, I participated in a Westminster Hall debate about the rights of UK citizens living in the EU.
My Labour colleague Daniel Zeichner had secured this timely debate, and I raised just one example of the kind of circumstances Bristol West residents have told me their families are facing.
Many people have told me their concerns about the impact Brexit will have on family life and their careers. If you have similar worries, please let me know by completing my latest Brexit survey.
I apologise, Mr Streeter; I too cannot stay for the whole debate. A constituent of mine has told me about her son, who is married to a German woman and lives in Germany with her and their two young children. She says that it is all very unsettling. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of legal certainty is causing great distress, disrupting family life and interrupting people’s ability to pursue their careers?
Daniel Zeichner (Labour, Cambridge)
I agree. The human cost has been completely underestimated. Whatever the final outcomes, the stress and unhappiness being caused now are real.
You can watch my intervention in the debate here:
On Tuesday 12 September, I participated in a Westminster Hall debate about the rights of UK citizens living in the EU. My Labour colleague Daniel Zeichner had secured this timely...
On Tuesday 5 September, I asked the government what it was doing to retain experienced prison officers in our prison service. The minister pointed to a net increase in prison officers compared to last year, but this does not solve the problem of the expertise and knowledge being lost from our prisons through 1,770 officers leaving last year.
It is vital that we are able to retain and develop talented public sector staff. The government needs to ensure that prisons are safe places to work, and that staff are properly rewarded for their efforts to protect and rehabilitate inmates.
While I welcome the Minister’s news about increased prison officer numbers in HMP Bristol in my constituency, I am concerned by the Department’s figures, which show that 1,770 experienced prison officers left the service last year. What is the Minister doing urgently to retain valuable experienced prison officers for the longer term?
It is always the case that people will leave an organisation voluntarily or due to retirement or—[Interruption.] May I finish my point? In some cases, people may leave because they have not been too happy with what has been happening in our Prison Service. A retention plan is available, but the numbers that I gave earlier—868 net new prison officers so far this year—take account of people leaving the service, so we are actually up on last year’s figures.
You can watch the exchange below:
On Tuesday 5 September, I asked the government what it was doing to retain experienced prison officers in our prison service. The minister pointed to a net increase in prison...
The recent ‘Refugees Welcome?’ report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees (which I chair) highlighted several problems faced by people in the UK who have been given refugee status. They only have 28 days to find accommodation and to access public services before government support is withdrawn, yet, for example, experience delays in receiving documents and a lack of employment and skills support. Refugees who contributed evidence to our inquiry also spoke of their difficulties in setting up bank accounts promptly – a problem that hinders their ability to make important contributions to our society.
This week, in topical questions to the Treasury, I was able to raise this issue with the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and was pleased to secure the offer of a subsequent meeting to discuss it.
The exchange was as follows:
Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West, Labour)
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I am told by refugees that they are desperate to work once they have achieved such status, but are hindered by various fixable problems in the system. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to make it easier for refugees to have bank accounts?
Stephen Barclay, Economic Secretary to the Treasury
The hon. Lady will be aware that when the Home Office grants refugee status, it includes the biometric residence permit as proof of the holder’s right to stay, but I am very happy to discuss with the hon. Lady any further measures that she feels would be helpful.
You can watch the exchange here:
The recent ‘Refugees Welcome?’ report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees (which I chair) highlighted several problems faced by people in the UK who have been given refugee...