Introduction

Each year I organise a community consultation, the Big Conversation, which helps me to set the priorities for my work in Parliament, which is followed by a report summarising the issues raised. You can read the report on the 2019 Big Conversation here.

As well as ensuring that the broad themes are reflected in my work, I try to follow up on every specific issue raised in meetings, conversations and survey responses – and this report outlines the action I’ve taken from last year’s event. This has obviously been an exceptional year. The unexpected General Election in December, for which Parliament was dissolved for six weeks, and further disruption caused by the Covid crisis have affected my ability to follow up on all the issues, but

This report only covers work I’ve done to take forward issues raised in last year’s Big Conversation. My work is also shaped by issues raised by constituents throughout the year. You can read more about my general work in my monthly updates (subscribe here if you don’t already receive them), updates on my blog and issues pages on my website.

 

Overview

The Big Conversation was held around the time that Parliament was unlawfully prorogued by the Prime Minister and Brexit was inevitably a concern raised at almost every meeting. Receiving views from lots of people was useful before returning to Parliament to challenge the Government on their approach and in the manifesto. I continue to work on Brexit as, although we have left the EU, the second part of Brexit – our future relationship – is still being negotiated and I have produced regular updates here.

Many of the other issues raised during the Big Conversation were also part of the national discussion during the General Election period.

Climate change, which was the joint-top concern along with Brexit, was prominent during the election. Labour’s policy of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, addressed many of the concerns that had been raised with me. The same is true of the other issues which came up time and again during the Big Conversation: the NHS, the state of our politics, poverty and inequality, jobs and the economy. adult social care, spending on education, and policing.

In Parliament, there have been three significant debates in which I’ve raised the issues that I heard during the Big Conversation. In October, with Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister, the first Queen’s Speech debate about his plans for Government gave me the opportunity to press Ministers on many of the concerns raised with me: including adult social care; school funding; special needs support; knife crime; access to mental health services; the rise in homelessness, rough sleeping and street begging. You can read more about the speech here.

In January, in the Queen’s Speech after the election, I used the opportunity to give voice specifically to the concerns that I heard from young people at Big Conversation events in schools and colleges.  These focused around the themes of addressing the climate emergency; increasing school funding; broadening the curriculum; and improving mental health support. You can read more about that speech here.

In March, shortly before Parliament was suspended as part of the coronavirus lockdown, the Government set out their budget and in the debate on it I pressed on the way that “over the past 10 years, the capacity of the state to respond to crises has been deeply weakened by ​the funding decisions made for our public services”, and that this “is a position that the Budget has left essentially unchanged.” Across the range of issues raised in the Big Conversation, the loss in the ability of public services, as well as the voluntary sector, to meet the needs of people who need them most was an underlying concern.

 

Main Themes

Climate Change and Environmental Issues

I’ve taken forward the concerns around climate change in the Queen’s Speech debates and with questions to Ministers. In my speech in January, I told Johnson’s newly-elected Government: “[ young people] are looking for us to take the sort of radical measures needed to tackle the crisis that are absent from this Queen’s Speech, which repeats the 2050 net zero target. That commitment fails them, The Queen’s Speech also wrongly describes the Government’s policies on climate change as ‘world-leading’, which they simply are not.” I’ve also supported the youth strikes and again wrote to the Government to urge them to remove the barriers to onshore wind.

I challenged the Government on the weakness of the Environment Bill, highlighting in particular the lack of a ‘non-regression’ clause which would stop environmental standards being lowered after Brexit, and also pressed on whether they would keep up with EU policies working towards a circular economy. Many people raised points about reducing both carbon emissions and local air pollution from transport, and I spoke in a debate to highlight the need for proper investment in bus services and cheaper ticket prices as part of decarbonising transport.

 

Brexit

Straight after the Big Conversation, I was immersed in Brexit as I was leading for Labour on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which paved the way for our departure from the EU on 31st January and the transition period that we are in until 31st December. During the debates I took forward many of the points raised in the Big Conversation, as they coincided with Labour’s concerns. You can read more here on my work and views on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

We have now started the second phase of negotiations, on our future relationship with the EU. In my response to the Government’s announcement on their approach to negotiations, I highlighted how far they have lowered their ambitions. They started with a commitment to securing the “exact same benefits”, then scaled it back to “frictionless trade”, to protect our vital supply chains. Then it was ‘Canada ++’, now it’s ‘Canada’ – so long as that doesn’t get in the way of ending our alignment with the standards that we’ve previously enjoyed. I’ve also pressed Michael Gove on the need for full transparency during this phase of negotiations.

A key part of my work as Shadow Minister for Brexit and EU Negotiations has been on protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK, which were raised by constituents, and  I tabled amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on these and other issues, which were all voted down by the Government.

 

Poverty, Inequality, Social Security and Jobs

Labour’s election manifesto included many commitments to address the concerns raised on the huge inequality in our country, and on precarious and underpaid work. I took forward points raised about economic inequality and cuts to public services in a debate about corporate tax avoidance, and highlighted the failure of Conservative governments to tackle the issue. I’ve also continued to press for regional economic funding, to drive local economic growth and support skills training.

I’ve supported action on exploitative conditions in the gig economy, taken forward points about improving benefits assessments, including disability assessments for chronic conditions, and the effect of universal credit, including foodbank use. The changes to the pension age for women were raised in the Big Conversation, and addressed in our election manifesto, and I’ve met with the WASPI campaigners.

 

Health and Social Care

I took forward the deep worries about the NHS and adult social care in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. I called for the Government to bring forward proposals to tackle the crisis in adult social care, which have been promised for many years, and have also written to both the Prime Minister and Chancellor to press the point. I also spoke of how difficult it is for carers to access the necessary respite care, and that the capacity of care workers to provide adequate care has been eroded by short appointments, poor training and inadequate supervision.

In my speech for the budget debate, I criticised the Government for again failing to make any progress towards addressing the crisis in adult social care, saying that “eight months on, it is clear that he never had a plan and his Budget does not have a plan.” More recently I pressed Boris Johnson on pay for care workers at Prime Minister’s Questions.

I highlighted the general difficulties of waiting times with GPs and A&E, as well as particular problems experienced by young people seeking support for their mental health, who often have to wait 25 weeks or more before they receive support. I wrote to the Health Secretary with some of the specific points raised, such as the transition to adult mental health services, and also raised the added pressure from cuts to school budgets. I raised the concerns over mental health services with the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and will be meeting with them again soon.

 

Education

I pressed the Government in the Queen’s Speech debate on the 8% real-terms cuts that schools have seen since 2010, and that even under their proposals, 80% of Sheffield schools would still be worse off in 2020 than they were in 2015. Linked to this is the need for additional funding to support children with special needs, and in a debate I called for greater funding and better national guidance to address this. I’ve also met with the Council to discuss the issue.

Some pupils also made comments about the purpose of education and the curriculum, which I raised in the Queen’s Speech debate, saying: “they wanted to see more time spent on citizenship education and on teaching life skills. I hope that Ministers will reflect on their concerns and ask themselves whether the straitjacket of the national curriculum … is enabling them to provide the rounded education and preparation that our young people want for the increasingly challenging world that they face.

On Higher Education, a point was made about the student funding system and whether a graduate tax would be better; I chaired an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students meeting about reforming the student funding system which discussed this point and more. We also had a meeting earlier this year about student mental health, which was also raised as a concern.

I’ve taken forward particular points raised about guidance for schools about relationships and sex education, which has been controversial, and about the lack of classes for sign language, about which I spoke to the Sheffield College, which is reintroducing courses, and wrote to the Minister.

Transport

I shared the comments about bus services, and changes to particular routes, with my colleague Clive Betts MP, who is chairing the independent review of bus services and feel that many of the concerns were reflected in the report produced by the review team . I also backed a funding bid seeking to re-establish the number 31 route. I’ve also spoken in a debate in Parliament to call for proper investment in bus services and make the link with reducing emissions. I joined a school streets pilot, a scheme I want to see extended, and wrote to the Government to press for proper investment in cycling and walking infrastructure. At a City Region roundtable, I pushed for more electric vehicle charging points.

Homelessness, rough sleeping, street begging and housing issues

Concerns were raised about people who are sleeping rough, and about aggressive street begging. I raised these in the Queen’s Speech debate, highlighting the huge numbers of people who are homeless in temporary accommodation, the need to build affordable social housing, and the need for more funding to support getting people with complex needs off the streets.

In Sheffield, the Help us Help scheme, which I helped to launch, continues and I’m exploring ways in which we can step up activity on street begging and support rough sleepers off the streets with the Council. I’ve liaised more closely with the Council and a member of my staff team now participates in the Homelessness Prevention Forum.

At the housing meeting, much of the discussion was about how Labour would address the general housing crisis and some specific issues around private rental. Our election manifesto included pledges on these points, including a significant housebuilding programme with a focus on social housing and ending unfair ‘no fault’ evictions in the private rented sector.

Crime and Policing

I spoke about the significant concern I heard about knife crime in my debate on the Queen’s Speech, and shared points made by young people that there should be out-of-school activities, saying: “they made the case for the out-of-school activities that used to be common before the cuts, which … have led to a collapse in youth services.” Concerns about the shortage of policing were hotly debated during the general election, with manifesto pledges from both main parties, and I passed any specific points about police issues onto the police.

I’ve liaised with South Yorkshire Police over specific problems that were raised and have met with the Police and Crime Commissioner to discuss some of the general issues raised about policing. As mentioned earlier, and I’ve also met with the Council to discuss supporting rough sleepers off the street and tackling street begging, to address the concerns that the city centre doesn’t feel safe.

 

Other Points

Among the individual points that were raised on which I’ve taken action:

  • Many young people pressed for votes at 16, which I continue to support. In my speech in the Queen’s Speech debate, I said that the Big Conversation events I had at schools and colleges are “a great advert for why our democracy would be strengthened by extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds.”.
  • Concerns were raised about the state of our politics, which I share. I continue to be closely involved in the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, and have sought commitments from all the candidates for Labour’s leadership on the issue, as well as working with the Alliance for PR.
  • I followed up with the Council on concern over funding that was received by the from the ‘controlling migration’ fund and was reassured that the funding received is towards integration, not enforcement.
  • I’ve continued to raise concerns about immigration detention centres, am a founder member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention and backed an amendment to the Immigration Bill on indefinite detention.
  • I joined a student demonstration in Sheffield about the situation in Hong Kong and wrote to the Prime Minister on the issue.
  • There was a point of feedback about my newsletter, which was appreciated as I’m constantly reviewing it, along with my other communication.

 

I’d welcome any feedback on the work that I’ve undertaken from the 2019 Big Conversation, along with any further thoughts on the issues raised in it. Contact me at paul.blomfield.mp@parliament.uk

 

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