Fabian's September 2013 Newsletter to supporters and friends
Leeds North East Constituency
September 2013 Newsletter
I hope that you were able to enjoy a summer break in the unaccustomed fine weather that came to the UK this summer. Rosy and I managed a few days in Holland after my charity cycle ride to Dortmund in aid of St Georges Crypt. A big 'thank you' to everyone who sponsored me - more than £4000 was raised and knowing that made the effort feel very worthwhile. Back in Leeds I was able to get out on regularly on my bike into our beautiful Yorkshire countryside.
Heads down again for the new parliamentary session
The new parliamentary term has started with a vengeance with many events of concern both at home and abroad. My parliamentary year has started with my work as a member of the International Development Select Committee (IDC) which asked me to be part of a delegation going to Washington DC and then on to Brazil. The level of overseas international aid given by the United Kingdom sometimes attracts controversy when cuts are being made at home. I respect the way that David Cameron has safeguarded and increased the aid that the UK provides to people around the world so very much poorer than ourselves. The IDC visited the World Bank in Washington DC and Brazil as part of its enquiry into the Future of Development Co-operation. In Washington there were two days in meetings with the World Bank, the Latin American Development Bank and USAID - the US Department for International Development.
We then flew overnight via Sao Paolo to Brasilia, the country's capital city purpose-built and designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer just over fifty years ago. Niemeyer was one of the founders of the modernist architectural movement and died just last December aged 104. We met with Parliamentarians and Ministry officials in Brasilia to discuss the future of Development Co-operation with them. It was interesting to learn of their different approach and of what the Brazilians consider to be their priorities. The Brazilian Development Bank is state owned and funded and spends about fifteen percent of its turnover on development projects outside the country, mainly in Africa. Eighty five percent of its budget is spent on development and infrastructure projects in Brazil itself, however, amounting to around $500 billion per year - a staggering sum.
Brazil is a huge country covering half of South America and has a population of 300 million compared to 60 million in the UK and there is still much grinding poverty. Its most famous region is Amazonia, which is also one of its poorest states. The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as President ten years ago saw a massive investment in the eradication of poverty in Brazil and whilst there are still plenty of very poor citizens, huge inroads were made. Lula's policies have been followed up by his successor, Brazil's first woman President, Dilma Rousseff - known as Dilma - although her presidency has not been without its critics as seen in the recent huge public demonstrations.
We flew from Brasilia to the former capital and world-famous city, Rio de Janeiro on Monday night and spent our last two days there seeing the Favelas, or shanty towns which surround the main city of Rio. These centres of poverty and violence have no roads or transport infrastructure or indeed services of any kind, except for the recently built cable car system which links six of the largest Favelas together and provides essential transport for their inhabitants to get to places of work.
The cable car network was part-funded by the World Bank and the head of its Brazilian office, Chilean-born Boris Utria, accompanied us on our visit. Two years ago, he told us, it would have been impossible to have visited these six Favelas because of the drug lords and the extreme violence. Now, thanks to the investment, and to the work of the famous UPP, the 'Pacifying Police', the violence has sharply reduced and the drugs almost eradicated. That does not mean that there are no more problems in these shoddily-built tin and brick shacks where there is still crime and extreme poverty, but considerable progress has been made. The six cable car stations also provide much-needed community facilities for the residents. We were told that the idea behind the cable car network came from Colombia but could be applied to many other huge cities not only in Latin America but also in Africa.
On our final day, Wednesday, we went to the Favela nearest to the centre of Rio which is set on a steep hillside in sight of the famous statue of Christ which overlooks the city. This area is home to more than 10,000 people, though nobody really knows exactly how many live there. We had the privilege of speaking (through our interpreter who was a Leeds graduate) to some of the residents who showed us inside their appallingly cramped homes. We spoke to children and young people playing football on the hilltop sports ground, the training centre for future Brazilian International players. It was winter, but very hot and dry - the summer months are the hot rainy season.
Clearly, Brazil has a long way to go and still has many problems and much discontent. In Brasilia we spoke to one of the protestors who told us of his grievances. Corruption is still too common but huge strides have been made over the past ten years and the economy has grown at a rate which would make any EU member jealous. But the country's ability to feed itself without importing any food and the massive advances made by Biotech Brazilian companies such as Embrapa, whom we visited and where we attended a fascinating seminar, told us that Brazil will overcome many of its problems over the coming years and if it continues its current political course will see real and lasting wealth redistribution - one of the policies which is causing some of the current discontent in that country.
The lesson I took from Brazil was the fact that overseas aid, carefully targeted, can bring about progress, inspire greater social cohesion and nurture economic independence. Investment in overseas aid is in the long term interest of the UK. When countries fail, people living there have no alternative but to become refugees and seek a life elsewhere or turn to crime or join terrorist organisations that will sustain them. That is often why so many want to come to the UK from overseas. Helping such countries as Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan is so much better and effective than simply trying to raise the drawbridge at the UK immigration desk. Helping countries like Brazil in the long term develops the world economy and thus our prosperity,
Like the majority of people in the UK, I was frightened by the prospect of a military response to the use of chemical weapons against the long suffering population of Syria. Who committed that heinous crime? My money would be on the Assad regime, but even if we were 100% certain, I was sure that sending in the cruise missiles would be a catastrophic mistake. Whatever the progress of the current civil war, armed intervention by the West would be like pouring petrol onto an already raging bonfire and no one could promise to limit the extent of the consequent damage to the region or to the world. At the very least we would have witnessed even more Al Quaeda-linked terrorist groups pouring into the region eager to take advantage of any change in the balance of military power. Provocative attacks upon Israel to 'up the ante' of the instability in the Middle East would have been inevitable.
So, along with my Labour MP colleagues, I voted against the UK taking action but I abstained on our Labour amendment as the issue of proof of guilt made no difference to my firm objection to any military action. Many constituents asked me to oppose action and in fact not a single person, to the best of my knowledge, suggested that I vote in favour.
I was asked on a Radio Leeds interview what I would do instead of bombing Syria. I suggested that John Kerry (US Secretary of State) and William Hague (UK Foreign Minister) sit down with Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister, whom I have met on several occasions when he was Russian Ambassador to the UN), and talk. Lavrov speaks good English. They obviously heard my interview, because that's what they have done. Let's hope it works. It's so much better than bombing which would cause further death and destruction!
So what now? It is good that Russia and the USA have agreed to work to destroy Syria's weapons of mass destruction and that Assad has said that he will comply. But only by his actions will he be believed. Sometime in the future he and his cronies must be judged on their conduct in the civil war at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. But how long, how long do we have to wait before we see governments in countries like Syria transform into ones where politicians believe their duty and mission is to protect their people and develop peace, justice, happiness and prosperity for everyone - not just the ethnic, sect, religious group or family clique to which they belong. That would be a start even if it is yet many more generations before multi-party democracy takes over from sectional interests clinging to power and guns.
The Economy - Any Green Shoots?
I am bemused by the totally predictable way in which the economy is being promoted as a growing success story as we now approach the 2015 general election. I welcome good news and I do not want to see the figures going downhill. If there has been some economic recovery from the global financial crisis that exploded five years ago, I genuinely welcome it. However I almost choke when I listen to George Osborne crowing about how his Plan A has shown itself to be right, that there are green shoots all around and that the Tories' policies have saved the nation.
Osborne must live on a different planet! There aren't many green shoots in Yorkshire, and here in Leeds things are still very tough. What we have got at the moment is a situation where the economic climate around the City of London has changed slightly for the better and those politicians and commentators whose political myopia means they cannot see past Watford are spouting their usual patronising nonsense. Why am I not yet prepared to concede that sufficient progress is being made?
Unemployment is still 7.7% of the UK working population and the proportion out of work is significantly higher than this away from the SE of England. The figure in Yorkshire is more like 9%
Although house prices are increasing - in fact they are spiralling upwards in the London area - this is not a sign of economic recovery. The government Funding for Lending Programme has given mortgage providers cheap cash to lend to first time buyers but has done nothing to directly stimulate the supply of new homes, especially in the social housing sector. The result was so predictable - house price inflation in the South East with shed-loads of housing problems elsewhere that are not being resolved. George Osborne derides the risk of another housing bubble and his careless optimism is irresponsible.
Manufacturing is still far too weak. I do not undervalue our service industries - their ability to make wealth is vital and we must continue to be the best in the world at selling honest insurance, banking and legal services. However I do wonder what is really going on when I read that there has been significant growth in the number of employees in the estate agency business and struggle to see how this shows a more productive economy. When factories throughout the land are hiring staff, creating apprenticeships and exporting successfully, then and only then, perhaps can an optimistic assessment be justified.
Wages for most of us have stagnated. We hear plenty about the high rewards (generally not deserved) given to the managerial cliques running large companies and organisations. Most pay has been stagnant for years yet prices have risen inexorably. This means that across the UK, and especially in the regions including Yorkshire, real living standards have plummeted. Only when there are 'green shoots' in everyone's garden will it be possible to talk about an economic spring. I still firmly believe that Osborne's policies of over drastic cuts in government expenditure have delayed economic growth by probably two years.
The Chapeltown Carnival 2013
My sincere congratulations to the organisers of the carnival, who in 2013 have taken the pageant and enjoyment of the 46th event to even higher levels. The good weather was a real bonus. I had a fabulous time even though I did not sport a costume this year. Perhaps I am reaching the years of discretion! The colour was tremendous, the food was great and many different sections of the community came together, caught up in the exuberant celebration inspired and organised by the West Indian community. I salute everyone who contributed in any way.
The planning application to build up 29 new homes on the former Yorkshire Bank Playing Fields site received planning approval the other week. Over a number of months now I have been working with the Moortown Councillors, community representatives, Scotfield Developments and the Planners over development proposals trying to ensure that any new building was appropriate, that part of the site could become a public amenity and that proposed changes were also agreed by local residents
Only about 28% of the site will be occupied by housing, the remaining 72% will be a public park, gifted to the Council for the benefit of the local community. Of the houses to be built, four will be of the type designated as 'affordable' and boundary vegetation will be retained. There will be a wetland wildlife feature as well as sports pitches including space for sports by pupils of Moortown Primary school.
This has been a very controversial site over the past sixteen years, but if nothing had been agreed this time, the site could have been left derelict and unusable for another sixteen years. I am pleased that a good compromise has been reached. We badly need more homes and many people aspire to live in North Leeds. At the same time we cannot lightly allow green spaces to disappear as they are so important in raising the quality of life in urban areas. Our grandparents and great grandparents knew this when the tradition of establishing public parks gave the green spaces in our cities that we value so much today. It would be hard to imagine Leeds without Roundhay or Potternewton Parks. The development of the Yorkshire Bank Playing Fields site will become part of that civic tradition and I sincerely hope that it will benefit local residents for generations to come.
With my very best wishes to you all.