Seven million households across the U.K. are facing fuel poverty this winter. This is a political decision made by the Conservative and Unionist government at Westminster. They are choosing not to impose a windfall tax on excess profits made by the energy companies. They are reportedly choosing to scrap the cap on bankers’ bonuses as they believe that will boost the City of London. We tried the trickle-down economy before. It didn’t work. It has never worked, and it never will work. There is a reason why the number of people receiving three days’ worth of emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks in the U.K. has gone from under 45,000 in 2009/10 to over 2,000,000 in 2021/22. And that reason is that the U.K. government has been spectacularly successful in keeping the rich in a manner to which they have become accustomed and persuading the impoverished that times are hard, and they have to find a way to manage. We even have the obscenity of a television game show when the prize is to pay your energy bill for a few months. Poverty porn as light entertainment, welcome to 21st century Britain. All of this can be changed. We either accept that poverty will be a constant pressure on one in every five people or we challenge it. Together, we can build a society where everyone has the income they need for a dignified life. We can strengthen our social security safety net, pay at least the real Living Wage, build high quality public services and redesign our economy to meet people’s needs. The week commencing 3rd October is Challenge Poverty Week, get involved by visiting www.challengepoverty.net.
The demise of the Queen has been planned for and the processes that followed her death were developed and agreed years ago. Operation London Bridge and Unicorn have been rehearsed and improved over time. That’s not cruel, it reflects two facts. First the Queen was well into her nineties, so no one was being premature and second as the head of the monarchy a transition is required that is quick and legally binding. We have known for years that Prince Charles would ascend to the throne. The speed of transition is to dampen down any discussion around a republic and also provide continuity which at least historically was seen to be desirable. The events that have taken place since the Queen died and will continue for two days after her funeral will seem to many as unnecessary or over the top. To others the pomp and circumstance around these ceremonies is valued and respected. I find myself as the elected member of parliament caught in the middle. I never like pomp and circumstance, I don’t like to stand on ceremony. It’s not something I am personally comfortable with. But I do understand that at times of great change there is a need for that change to be in the public eye and therefore it is open, transparent and can be critiqued.
On Monday, I was present at the Presentation of Addresses. This is basically two speeches from the House of Lords and House of Commons to the new monarch. The King then replied with his speech. This is the first time it has been such a public affair, it’s normally a more low-key event but this time it became a public ceremony in its own right. It would be wrong to say London came to a standstill to accommodate it but the city of Westminster did. During my short walk in to work there were noticeably more police vans parked up in side streets. A couple of police cars sped through red traffic lights with their blue lights flashing. The pop-up media city has grown overnight and my normal entrance to the estate is not available and so I enter the parliamentary estate via Black Rod’s gate at the House of Lords. There is a stillness and a calm within the estate but that’s not unusual for 8am. What is unusual is the queue of MPs that is already forming to get into Westminster Hall. Some MPs relish such events. Westminster hall is the oldest part of the palace estate and dates back over 900 years. It has seen many a state occasion and monarchs and prime minister have lay in state within its walls. It’s also where William Wallace was tried before the King in 1305 before being hung, drawn and quartered. It seems trivial amidst such history to note that the acoustics are not great and the sound of the band of the Household Cavalry emanating from their position below the south window balcony is slightly muffled. But nobody seems to care. The Yeomen of the Guard enter in their instantly recognisable red uniforms along with the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen with preposterous white feathered helmets. Together they are officially the King’s Bodyguard. They look a trifle old for that in my opinion and the men in blue suits with ear-pieces and bulging jackets standing inconspicuously at the fringes seem leaner and keener to me. Security is high. With MPs, Lords and the new Monarch all under one roof, I am not surprised. The media are accommodated with some very cleverly disguised partitions that look like the walls of the hall but they weren’t there the day before and they won’t be there the day after. The speeches are made, trumpets are blown, and everyone troops back out. Was it all necessary? Not really. It happens so people can dress up in costumes that make them and the event seem important and then people that attend hope the importance rubs off on them. The new King barely glanced at anyone in the crowd, but grown men and women cried at the thought of just being in his presence. I was happy to represent Inverclyde, but I didn’t shed a tear.
Picture – ©UK Parliament_Photography by Roger Harris
Recess is over and normal life, if such a thing exists, at Westminster resumes. First day back is always a bit of much ado about nothing so I delay my departure until Tuesday as there are always productive things to be done in Inverclyde. Our council has rightly been praised for the way it has handled the arrival of refugees from around the world in recent months but every so often there are issues that need addressed and my office plays it’s part, particularly when it comes to visas and passports. It was a busy day.
Caught the red eye to London, happy birthday to me! My first diary entry was the All-party Parliamentary Group for the Arctic & Nordic Councils. The guest speaker was H.E. Wegger Chr. Strømmen Norwegian Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He is always a good speaker and this time he covered in detail Norway’s proposed Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2023 and challenges faced in the High North due to geopolitical tensions. He made a very serious issue, given that Russia is currently waging war in Ukraine, interesting and even humorous. The Norwegian politicians I have met are always very capable and confident. I had a briefing from a number of stakeholders regarding access to cash prior to the Finance Bill debate scheduled for Wednesday.
With a new Prime Minister due to make her debut at Prime Minister’s Questions it was understandably extremely busy. It is always interesting to see which Conservative and Unionists don’t turn up and most of the last administration was noticeable by their absence. Liz Truss sneered as she does but the bookies are already predicting she won’t last until the planned general election in 2024. Boris is hanging around and making veiled references to comebacks. The ghastly and obscenely expensive décor of the Prime Minister’s residence will be a daily reminder of his presence should she need one. I spoke in the Financial Services Bill in the House of Commons and focused on the continued need for free access to cash. There are nods in that direction in the bill but nothing conclusive.
I should have been up the road last night, but the Government have brought forward a debate on UK energy costs. It was an inauspicious start to Liz Truss’s tenure as the statement she read should have been published in advance and circulated to members. Her predecessor was not good at this and at her first attempt she also failed. This means we are debating something we haven’t read. She announced her intention to cap bills but not to impose a windfall tax on the energy companies. The debate was overshadowed by the announcement that the Queen was unwell. It’s the first time I have witnessed a mass exodus from the media benches so we knew something was up. While I was waiting to travel home the news came through that the Queen had passed away. Nobody wants to predict the end of life of the Queen but Operation London Bridge has been developed over the years with the Queen’s input and covers all the necessary arrangements and protocols. The demise of the monarch is a finely choreographed occasion that lasts 10 days. I hope the mass media can find it within themselves to allow those closest to the Queen to mourn her passing in private. My thoughts are with her family.
In line with parliamentary protocol, I was duty bound to cancel all my engagements today.
When the war in Ukraine started, the Scottish Government promised to take 3,000 refugees and when the process was being strangled with red tape by the UK Home Office, the Scottish Government introduced the Super Sponsor scheme to speed up the process in Scotland. The bureaucracy around immigration is at times clumsy and obstructive, but of course there is also the need to exercise caution, getting the balance right is key. Through the Super Sponsor scheme, we have proven that we can safely accommodate many more Ukrainian refugees than we expected and much quicker. The latest figure in Scotland is 15,000, that is 18% of the entire UK figure. But this is an on-going crisis, war still rages in Ukraine and more people will be displaced. Providing immediate shelter is crucial but we must be seeking to house refugees in our community in the long term. To do this we need the UK Home Office to process asylum seekers in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, going by the experience of those currently housed in the Holiday Inn this is not happening. An initial six-month period to start interviewing and processing has extended to a suggested eighteen months to two years. These men have been driven out of their homelands and many desire to work and contribute to their new country. But they can’t until the Home Office gives them settled status. By keeping them in hotels and pushing them from pillar to post, by slowing down the process, we deny them the chance to move on with their lives, we prohibit local employers access to an able and keen workforce, and we ostracise asylum seekers who should be building new lives as new Scots. Inverclyde has a proud tradition of accepting immigrants from many countries and hopefully that will continue but the UK Home Office has to take action to facilitate that sooner rather than later.