WEEKLY COLUMN: I have written in my column this week about debate over our statues and other cultural expressions. I share the anger at the death of George Floyd and the contempt for racism in all its forms. But we shouldn’t let his death lead to a culture war in this country where the symbols of our past are torn down without proper thought and reflection.
We should be open to having a proper debate about all aspect of our history, good and bad. And if there is strong public opposition to a statue staying in place then there should be a democratic process for this to be pursued. More often than not though I’ll be opposed to bringing down our statues. I don’t think it’s in our national character to do so and our statues often have greater significance to our past and present than whether we consider the people they represent to be good or bad by today’s standards.
Following my meeting with Highways England earlier this month, today I asked the Secretary of State for International trade to work with HE to implement their plan to end closures of the Orwell Bridge by the end of this year. With the Port of Felixstowe, East Anglia should be at the heart of our country’s ambitious trade plans but that potential won’t be fully realised until road freight and our town aren’t brought to a standstill when it’s windy.
This issue deserves national attention and I hope the Secretary of State will recognise the national significance of getting the 40 mph speed limit solution in place as soon as possible and pull all necessary strings to ensure that happens. I’ve written already to City University to ask them to move ahead as quickly as possible to complete the additional safety work in their currently closed wind tunnel. But I’ll keep raising this issue at the highest levels to ensure that it’s treated with the urgency needed and the timeline doesn’t slip.
I have now co-signed a letter to the Lord Chancellor with the Chair of the Petitions Committee about the pressing need for pet theft reform. This follows my virtual meeting with the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance earlier this month where we presented their petition calling for pet theft to be made a specific offence with tougher sentencing.
The full video of our discussion is also now available to watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOKQOIPVIpM
Despite pet theft being raised a number of times through petitions and in Parliament over recent years, the Government hasn’t yet moved to make the necessary changes to the Theft Act which would make sentences of up to 2 years more readily available to our courts to punish this particularly cruel crime. I hope this letter will cause the Government to look again at changing the law because, as you can hear in our discussion, the law as it stands often results in pitiful sentences which only take into account the monetary value of the pet and not the emotional cost to the owners and the harm caused to the pet.
In the letter we have also stressed how the lack of a specific pet theft offence makes it harder to record pet theft cases and focus the full scale of this growing crime. Sadly we know that pet theft has increased during the Covid-19 lockdown, robbing many an important source of companionship during this difficult time, but many cases won’t even get a crime reference number and this issue isn’t attracting the attention it should.
The sentencing law on pet theft must be changed to deter this abhorrent crime and provide an incentive to our police to track down those responsible, and I hope the Government recognise this in their response. I do not plan on leaving this issue here though and I am reaching out to pet theft campaigners to look how we can continue to raise this issue in Parliament and make further direct representations to Government ministers. Watch this space.
BREXIT: I was ticked off by Mr Deputy Speaker today as I used a statement on the UK-EU negotiations to ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office about Keir Starmer’s tendency to go to ground on the big issues, especially the big Brexit-related issues, and how it’s vital that by contrast the Government is resolute in ending the transition period on the 31st December and Freedom of Movement along with it.
My question was quite political and this is what the Deputy Speaker picked me up on. But while I appreciate that Keir Starmer wasn’t there to respond, frankly I felt I had to ask someone about his position given that the Leader of the Opposition doesn’t seem so sure himself.
On a serious note, I think many members of the public are understandably confused about whether Starmer’s Labour Party supports an extension to the transition period. We know that the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens support an extension and so does the Labour Party in London and Wales, but we are still no clearer to knowing what the position of the Labour front bench is.
This is a case and point of how Starmer consistently ducks big judgement calls on key issues, and when he finally can’t duck them any longer, his message is often muddled and indecisive. This is a world-away from the leadership needed on this issue and it’s vitally important that by contrast we work to retain the public’s confidence by ending the transition period on time, and by delivering on fundamental aspects of the Brexit vote like ending Freedom of Movement.
I am glad that Michael Gove reaffirmed the Government’s complete commitment not to extend the transition period, and I thought his comment that we don’t know if Keir Starmer is the Scarlet Pimpernel or the invisible man was particularly apt.
Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, has welcomed the Government’s decision to reverse course on its earlier plans not to extend the Free School Meal Voucher Scheme over the summer holidays. The Government announced today that a new £120 million Covid summer food fund would be set up to ensure 1.3 million children in the most hard-pressed families receive a food voucher worth £15 a week over the 6 week summer break.
The Government’s change of course follows a number of efforts made by Hunt and other parliamentary colleagues behind the scenes to stress the importance of these vouchers to families facing hardship during Covid-19 and to urge the Government to extend them over the summer holidays. Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford also made a high profile intervention in support of the extension of the Scheme yesterday.
On 5 June, Hunt penned a letter to the Minister for Children and Families, Vicky Ford MP, detailing his support for the extension of the scheme and highlighting its importance to many families in Ipswich undergoing severe financial pressure and struggling to make ends meet. Hunt’s letter also came in the wake of a study finding that one in four children in Ipswich are living in relative poverty.
Hunt’s correspondence on the 5 June followed an earlier letter which Hunt co-signed as a Member of the Education Committee on 13 May which urged the Minister for Children to look early on into what can be done to extend the free school meal voucher scheme over the Summer holiday.
Today before the Government’s new plans were announced, Hunt was ready to vote against the Government in a motion calling for money to be available to disadvantaged children over the summer holiday.
Following the Government’s announcement today, Tom said:
“I am pleased the Government has listened to the concerns raised and has decided to extend free school meal vouchers over the summer as part of a new fund. This is an issue I have been intimately involved in as a member of the Education Committee and I know that for many families in Ipswich these vouchers are an essential source of support during Covid-19.
“In my letter to the Minister for Children almost two weeks ago, I raised the fact that there are 3 million children at risk of holiday hunger in the UK and that many of them will be children in Ipswich. This is a scenario which must be avoided and I was ready to vote against the Government today on this issue. But I am glad the Government has listened and will now provide a £90 food voucher for the most disadvantaged children over summer.
“The Covid-19 outbreak has been an exceptional time and it’s important we are ready to implement exceptional measures to ensure that no child is left behind. We will be dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on children’s education for many more months and years to come and it would only have compounded these issues if we didn’t do everything it takes to ensure children come through the summer holidays well-nourished.”