Fabian Hamilton MP Newsletter December 2014
Leeds North East Constituency
December 2014 Newsletter
In my newsletter this month I will try to share with you some of the work that I have been undertaking both in the constituency and at Westminster. Many people who write to me ask for my opinions on the key issues of the day and I have shared some of them with you in previous editions. This month however, I will concentrate on outlining some of the events that have filled my diary recently.
Arctic Circle Conference Iceland 30th October - 3rd November 2014: Ever since I spent time in Iceland as a student I have had a fascination with the place. In recent years that country does seem to have occupied a position in world affairs out of all proportion to its size or population. Remember the Cod Wars when Iceland asserted its right to control fishing in its coastal waters and, more recently, when the country was brought to its (financial) knees with the collapse of its major national banks which were caught up at the heart of the global financial crisis? With the growing international concern about global warming and the future of our planet - Iceland, located just below the Arctic Circle, is one of the key places in the world where the consequences of climate change are being clearly seen.
Arctic Circle is a think tank that encourages large organisations and national governments worldwide to study and discuss the future of the Arctic and the many other important and related issues including ice melting, extreme weather, shipping / transport infrastructure, fisheries and tourism. I joined a UK delegation led by James Gray MP (Conservative North Wiltshire) that included four other MPs (Including myself) and a member of the House of Lords. I was pleased to note that two of the contributions to the conference were made by PhD students from Leeds. All the conference sessions were hosted by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, which was indicative of the importance to his country of the issues discussed.
Link: Arctic Circle Assembly
Constituency case work: A large part of the time I spend in the constituency each week is taken up with trying to help constituents who seek my assistance. I meet them at surgeries and normally two are held each weekend at various locations. Currently I am using the United Reformed Church in Roundhay, Moor Allerton Library and the Reginald Centre. I have also been using Meanwood Church Hall. Typically I meet a constituent for a fifteen minute appointment but the follow-up work by my staff and me takes very much longer. It is hard to generalise about the issues that are raised but in the summer I was almost overwhelmed with problems people were having renewing passports. Many regular queries concern the sometimes bizarre and seemingly unfair benefit rules and the hardship that is being caused by assessments the government uses to try and determine whether or not someone should be seeking work. Also common are problems that constituents have with public utility companies and local authority housing.
It gets no easier. As privatisation has been extended, more and more of the organisations with which people have to deal are in the private sector. They are not accountable to the government for their policies and decisions, and I have no authority over them. Fortunately most organisations are seeking to provide a responsive service and it is very rare for a matter that I raise to be completely ignored or rejected. Sometimes this can mean that a decision is looked at again at a higher level and thus issues can often get resolved. I also continue to get very many queries over immigration and visas. Some constituents hope that I can alter Home Office rules in individual cases but, sadly, I cannot. Even the Immigration Minister can only intervene after all due process on a decision has been exhausted. He alone can decide to allow someone to stay in the country when every appeal has been exhausted. Immigration issues are often such very sad and frustrating cases to have to deal with.
Now we have nine Labour Councillors in three of the four constituency wards, it has become very much easier to help constituents whose problems arise in areas of Leeds City Council responsibility. Planning, housing, roads, environmental services and schools are frequent issues raised by constituents but I am able to call upon my colleagues on Leeds City Council who are always willing to try and help.
A surprise nomination: An organisation called The Patchwork Foundation which believes in promoting and highlighting best practice in the area of under-represented, deprived and minority community engagement, each year organises an award for MPs whose work has furthered its aims - but they can only be achieved after nominations have been received from individuals or grassroots community organisations and looked at by an independent panel of judges. I was delighted to discover that my name had been proposed by a former student, Callum Greenhough, at Leeds Metropolitan University. I do not expect to be chosen as a winner of the award of MP of the Year, but it was an honour, nevertheless, to have my name put forward.
Link: The Patchwork Foundation
Elections are coming: Colleagues at both constituency and ward level are gearing up for the next general and local government elections which are getting ever closer. Next May 7th will creep up on us much faster than we realise and I want to give a special word of thanks to Keith and Sue White who provided such wonderful hospitality at their home for an Alwoodley Ward fundraiser with fireworks on 6th November 2014. Please give a thought to how you might help with the forthcoming campaign because help is urgently needed for campaign funding, leafleting, door knocking and telephone voter identification. It's important that we take nothing for granted at the next election as the other parties will be gearing up speedily to try and win both Council seats and the Parliamentary Constituency. It is important for the whole country that Labour gains power in government again and that the Party remains firmly in charge of Leeds City Council. Please think about what contribution you can make to our success.
Local strategy: On 7th November, I was invited to an important conference organised by the Labour Councillors in Leeds. This and similar meetings used to be called away days but now they are held in the Civic Hall as a cost-saving measure. They are nevertheless very important as they give quality time to councillors for the consideration of the best way to proceed with key priorities. I was asked to speak on two issues - housing and devolution. It is vital that the next government undertakes a grand programme of building more social housing and I am in the process of producing a report which will shortly be published with plans on how this can be achieved. Local councils need to be 'ready to go' if the opportunity arises and I hope my contribution will help.
The second issue that I addressed was devolution. In the wake of the Scottish referendum and the proposal to delegate substantial new powers - including taxation - to the Scottish Parliament, there is a strong feeling that England too must have greater separate control over its governance. My belief is that this can and should be achieved by restoring to local government many of the powers and responsibilities that have been progressively stripped away from it by successive governments in the decades since the end of the Second World War. My work with the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee at Westminster has made me very aware of the issues surrounding delegation of responsibilities, powers, the location of decision making, and devolution. I hope that my input to Labour Councillors will have been informative and helpful. If there is a Labour government after the next election then I'm sure that we will see a reinvigoration of local authorities with councils working in unison together in order to meet the aspiration for English voices to be heard on the decisions that concern them.
Speaking to students: I always try to find time to meet local students who show an interest in politics. I believe it's our duty to encourage all young people to be better informed about the importance of politics and, in particular, to try and nurture those who might become the political leaders of tomorrow. On 7th November, I was invited to speak to students studying International Development at Leeds University and shared with them a perspective on the connections between International Aid and UK Foreign Policy. Some politicians, (you might guess from which party), want to end international aid seeking to reduce taxes and just be generally mean towards others in the world so very much less fortunate than ourselves. The main issue is one I have addressed before; if, through lack of aid, countries fail, then anarchy, corruption, terrorism and genocide can quickly take over and the problems may even land on our doorstep. It is no surprise that the greatest number of refugees crossing Europe and who try to jump onto lorries in Calais come from countries where governance has failed. This leaves those citizens with energy, ambition and a will to survive no alternative but to seek a new life elsewhere.
Links with Turkey: For some years now I have chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Turkey, a committee of MPs and Peers with a special interest in that country. Recently this gave me the opportunity to meet he newly appointed Turkish Ambassador to the UK, Mr Abdurrahman Bilgiç who succeeds Mr Ünal ÇevikÅz. My interest in Turkey stems principally from a perspective about the importance of that large country (population 75 million) which is largely Muslim sitting at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. More than ever, I believe that we need to develop the closest links we can with Turkey, its government and its people. It's on the front line of the civil wars and mayhem that are ravaging the neighbouring countries of Syria and Iraq. The evil organisation ISIS that is committing terrorism, genocide and religious persecution across swathes of those countries does not respect international boundaries nor wishes to confine its attention to the present theatre of war. Turkey needs to be helped to hold the line and it needs help in looking after the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has so far been able to shelter. Turkey must remain an example of secure and stable democracy in a region where those with power eschew it. In a 21st century world where countries have become so interdependent, diplomacy is of vital importance and this must not be forgotten even when simply meeting a diplomat in the sheltered cloisters of Westminster or in a London embassy. I support and encourage the moves Turkey has made towards becoming part of the European Community. If fundamentalism ever took hold in that country, present troubles in the Middle East would seem minor in comparison with what could subsequently ensue.
Link: All Party Parliamentary Group for Turkey
Remembering: This year the November Acts of Remembrance have been particularly poignant, 100 years after the outbreak of the Great War. Nobody can fail to have been moved by the spectacle of the ceramic red poppies surrounding the Tower of London and I had the privilege of laying the wreath on behalf of all Leeds MPs at the Leeds Civic Ceremony held at the Cenotaph on The Headrow on Sunday 9th November.
Scrutiny: On 10th November, members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Justice for Equitable Life Policy Holders of which I am Co-Chair grilled Andrea Leadsom MP, the Economic Secretary at HM Treasury, in our campaign to seek better compensation for policy holders when they were let down by the failure of the government financial regulator. Feelings on this injustice are still high and there were 35 MPs present, all of whom have constituents that have been cruelly treated - seeing their retirement savings evaporate within a system that government was supposed to protect. Sadly there was no new good news to report.
Link: All Party Parliamentary Group for Equitable Life Policy Holders
On 11th November I was present as a member of the International Development Select Committee when we took evidence from Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for International Development, to query the response of the UK to the international Ebola Crisis. More meetings you might say! There are many countries worldwide where politicians are never put on the spot and held to account in public by elected parliamentarians, particularly those in opposition. I do not underestimate the way this process sustains good governance and guards against complacency and corruption.
Link: International Development Select Committee
Book launch: From the Leylands to Leeds 17 is the title of a book written by Diane Saunders and Philippa Lester which traces the development of the Jewish community in Leeds over the past 150 years. The Leylands refers to the tightly packed inner city district where refugee Jews first settled. The title celebrates the welcome that Leeds offered and the success and contribution to the community that has been realised by the generations of families who made their homes in our city. The book derives its inspiration from an original idea by Helen Frais of MAKOR, the Centre for Arts, Culture and Entertainment for the Jewish Community in Leeds. The challenge was taken up by Diane and Philippa who drew upon much anecdotal research and support from a large team of volunteers all keen to set on record just how much progress and mutual benefit had accrued from an immigrant community that found a welcome and a home here in Leeds. The book was launched at a ceremony held at the Etz Chaim Synagogue on the 30th November to which I had the privilege of being invited.
Philippa Lester and Diane Saunders with me at the book launch
Link: Makor Jewish Cultural Organisation
Celebrating our history: I love visiting schools and it was particularly rewarding to go to Highfield Primary School to see the work they have done teaching about the Magna Carta. (Readers - your homework for today is to explain in a few words why the Magna Carta was and still is so important for English history and justice.) Highfield's pupils know - none more so than Sam Rudd and Xavier Rickerby who were instrumental in designing a flag celebrating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. The boys joined me for a photograph.
On another theme, it was delight to go with retired Leeds Metropolitan University Professor of Women's Studies, Jalna Hanmer to a celebration of 40 years of Women's Aid held in the House of Commons. This is the the key national charity working to end domestic violence against women and children. The charity supports a network of over 300 dedicated specialist domestic violence services across the UK and was also attended by Theresa May, the Home Secretary. I wish more women in countries worldwide could benefit from the kind of support and practical help that the charity offers in the UK.
Professor Jalna Hanmer chats with House of Commons Speaker Rt Hon John Bercow MP
Link: Womens Aid Organisation
Just off my patch but so worthwhile: On 12th November I ventured across the frontier into the Leeds East constituency to visit ToastLoveCoffee in Hovingham Avenue which is a venture that offers hot drinks and good basic food to people in real need, particularly those who are refugees and seeking asylum. The organisation is run by Anna Dyson with the help of volunteers and uses just out of 'sell by date' food given to them by local retail outlets. It also gets support from Taylor's in Harrogate, packers of Yorkshire Tea and Coffee. I never cease to be moved by the extent to which so many people reach out to others to offer help and in so doing mobilise other sectors of the community to contribute.
Keeping informed: Please remember that I try to keep my website up to date with some of the work I do both at Westminster and the constituency. It also gives you the means to contact me wherever you are the world without needing to remember any phone numbers or email addresses.
Link: Website of Fabian Hamiton MP
The constituency office will close for the Christmas break at 12 noon on Friday 19th December and reopen on Monday 5th January 2015. Messages left on the answering machine will be monitored throughout the break and action taken on those that are urgent.
May I take this opportunity for wishing you all a very enjoyable and fulfilling Christmas.
With my best wishes.
Labour MP for Leeds North East.