Huddersfield Examiner column – October 2019

I write a monthly column for the Huddersfield Examiner about my work as Colne Valley’s MP, locally and in Westminster. This month’s column is below.

Examiner column October 2019 – Thelma Walker MP

Although the judgement of the Supreme Court means that I have had to curtail time spent in my constituency, I am pleased to be back in Parliament and able to do the job I was elected to do – representing your views and holding this Government to account. It is shameful that our Prime Minister has broken the law to silence our democracy, and it has never been more important that we are able to scrutinise what his government are doing. 

Although I may never have agreed with much of what past Conservative Prime Ministers did and said, I never doubted that they believed in the values of free speech and democracy. Unfortunately, everything Boris Johnson does demonstrates his utter contempt for anyone who disagrees with him – and that he is prepared to go to dangerous lengths to further his own self interest. 

Locally, I have been contacted by many residents about the proposed housing development on Netherton Moor Road. There are a lot of myths circulating about what Kirklees Council has done and is able to do, and what influence MPs have over the planning process. 

I have committed to supporting residents to voice their concerns about this specific development to the council, and agree that many of the issues being raised are sensible concerns – for example, around our school infrastructure when all local schools have faced significant cuts in recent years, around increased traffic flow, and doctors/dentists’ surgeries to name but a few. I know that local Crosland Moor & Netherton councillors have also committed their support to residents. 

However, Kirklees  – like all local councils – has had their power in planning matters significantly curtailed. 

Radical planning reforms in March 2011, including the creation of our current National Planning Policy Framework, forced councils to adopt a “presumption in favour” of development in all planning concerns, including when designing their Local Plans. It also removed the requirement on developers to ensure that their plans benefit the natural environment. 

These decisions were voted for by Colne Valley’s previous Tory MP despite representations from organisations like the Telegraph’s Hands Off Our Land campaign, the National Trust, English Heritage, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth, the British Wildlife Trust, the Campaign for Better Transport, and the Campaign for Rural England. A previous draft of our Local Plan was rejected by the government because it did not contain enough houses. 

So while I will always listen to the concerns of local residents and support you locally to raise these concerns with Kirklees as our local planning authority, I will also commit to pushing nationally for policies which protect rural areas and help them become sustainable. I will work to bring forward policies which will provide the houses we so desperately need, without sacrificing the unique character of our local area to a government which cares only about the wants of big developers. And I will never oppose development locally for a quick populist win and a photo opportunity, but vote nationally for policies which mean our local council has no choice but to accept the degradation of our towns, villages, and natural environment. 

Also in relation to our environment, I was proud to support local young people and councillors of all parties at the climate strike rally in Huddersfield town centre last month. It was an incredibly positive day, and it left me even more convinced as a politician to lead from the front on climate change and ensure that our children and grandchildren have a livable planet. 

To those criticising our young people for taking this action, I would say, please look at the bigger picture. 

First of all, as a former teacher and head teacher, I am so impressed at how informed and engaged these young people are. I think it is incredibly important for the next generation to learn outside the classroom, and to experience direct democracy and making their voices heard locally, nationally, and internationally. 

It is easy for the older generation to criticise the ‘youth of today’ for being uninterested in their community and disengaged from politics. But I for one feel much more hopeful after seeing how concerned and involved our local school and college students are in the most pressing issue we currently face. 

Secondly, climate change is affecting us all already. In the last few years we have seen unprecedented high temperatures, severe flooding close at hand in Calderdale and some areas of Kirklees, and moor fires above Marsden coming perilously close to people’s homes and businesses. This should not just be a ‘youth’ issue, but one which all of us take seriously and demand action on. Climate change is now the biggest issue of concern for people in this country, and is something that none of us will be able to avoid. 

Although the national situation is chaotic at the moment, and it is difficult to predict what will happen next, I promise to continue doing my best to represent you and your concerns in Parliament. That does not just mean on Brexit, but on the whole range of other very serious issues we face as a society, and which come into my constituency office every single day. As always, if you have any issues, questions, or concerns, please feel free to contact me on the details below.  

Notes from Conference 

Labour Party Conference took place in Brighton in September and I was pleased to join colleagues from across Colne Valley and Huddersfield to discuss and debate our plan for the country. 

I was overjoyed to hear Labour’s plans for reducing the power of ‘big pharma’, and the ability of pharmaceutical companies to hold our NHS – and people’s lives – to ransom. I have written in this column before about my campaigns for constituents with Cystic Fibrosis and Batten disease, to name just two conditions which have had life-changing medicine withheld for financial reasons. It is heartbreaking to sit with sufferers and their families and hear stories of how the medication exists, and how transformative it can be, but that it is out of reach. It is long overdue that our politicians take a lead on this, to stand up for these most vulnerable patients. 

Of course, I was also very pleased at our proposals for education and schools. Particularly welcome were commitments around bringing schools back into local authority control, and of removing charitable status from private schools. 

While I know the latter policy has been controversial, this is not about vilifying parents – who I know always try to make the right decision at the time for their children. I have spoken to several local parents who talked about the sacrifices they made to send their children to private school, because they were not confident that their children’s specific needs would be met in the state sector, particularly due to a lack of funding. This is unfair not only on those parents, but on the parents of children who cannot afford to make this decision.   

Labour’s policies are about providing real choice in education, throughout our lives, which is accessible for all. It is about ending the stranglehold that two or three incredibly elite schools have on the positions of leadership in our country. It is about creating a truly just education system  – and not one where we say to working class children ‘this far but no further’. 

Michael Mansfield QC agrees to chair ‘People’s Commission’ into future of HRI

As a supporter of the #HandsOffHRI campaign since the beginning, I was very encouraged to hear the most recent update from the campaign – that Michael Mansfield QC has agreed to chair a ‘People’s Commission’ into the proposed removal of local A&E services and downgrade/closure of our hospital. Michael Mansfield is one of the highest profile barristers in the country and has previously chaired two such commissions into proposed hospital closures, as well as inquiries into the Grenfell and Hillsborough disasters and more. 

I want to thank and pay tribute to the #HandsOffHRI campaigners, who have kept up their campaign for four years now. As a local resident, I was a member of the campaign, and as your MP, I have continued to support campaigners in Parliament – so I know how hard they have all worked to keep up the pressure against this threat to our NHS.

A statement from the campaign today said:

“We believe it’s vital that we test out these proposals and hear, first hand, from people who work and use the services. We’re delighted that Mr Mansfield has agreed to lead this Commission. He will bring his famously analytical mind to what has become a complex set of plans and proposals from a myriad of organisations and he will test the robustness of these plans. An organising committee will be formed to co-ordinate and oversee the process and volunteers who feel they have the necessary skills and interest are encouraged to apply via email to admin@peoplescommissionhudds.org”.

Human rights abuses in Kashmir

Many constituents have written to me recently about the human rights crisis in Kashmir. I was honoured to be able to meet Prime Minister Farooq Haider Khan in Westminster, along with other Labour colleagues, to discuss the escalating situation. It is crucial that MPs in the UK support all those around the world suffering human rights abuses – and I am keen to also support constituents of the Colne Valley of Kashmiri background, many of whom still have family there.

Beaumont Park awarded “Best Park in Yorkshire”

I was incredibly proud that Beaumont Park in Crosland Moor was awarded the title of “Best Park in Yorkshire” in the UK’s Best Park 2019 Competition. I remember taking my own children to the park when they were young, and of course it was the scene of Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to our area in 2017 when huge crowds filled the park to listen. This is an incredibly well-deserved award – well done to the Friends of Beaumont Park volunteers and to John, the park’s head gardener.

Holmfirth Street Surgery

Today I spent some of the morning in Holmfirth centre talking to local people. I had discussions about the river, the road scheme and of course the national picture, among many other issues. Spending time in the constituency, talking to local people, remains my favourite part of being your MP!

Visit to the Welcome Centre

This morning I visited the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield to talk to them about the #FeedingFamilies project. They are so well organised and provide a brilliant service, but it breaks my heart that in one of the richest countries in the world, vulnerable children depend on food banks to survive.

Since the Conservatives took power in 2010, a million more children are living in poverty. More than 8 million people struggle to put food on the table. For the first time in history under this Government, most people living below the poverty line are also in work. The users of food banks are not a handful of the very poorest – they are professionals, graduates, nurses, teaching assistants, those with two or more jobs struggling to make ends meet. The Conservative Government’s sanctions regime has given the state licence to quite literally starve people – with no justification in most cases; roughly half of all appeals are upheld.

As a former teacher and head teacher, I am all too familiar with children returning to school after the holidays visibly malnourished and underfed. Far from being ready to learn, these children suffered poorer concentration, more challenging behaviours, lower attainment, and physical health problems. It was heartbreaking to see.

I will continue to support our local food banks and tackling poverty initiatives – and fighting in Westminster to stop them being needed.

Slaithwaite Street Surgery

It was great to be out in Slaithwaite over lunchtime today with local Labour councillors, chatting to local residents.

Unfortunately, we heard from far too many people who are struggling with issues like Universal Credit and insecure employment. I never stop being amazed and impressed by the creativity and resilience of Colne Valley residents, and it is heartbreaking to see how much potential is being wasted by the punitive austerity policies of this government.

This is not a Cabinet fit to represent our country on the national and international stage

With the appointment of every Cabinet since 2010, I have had concerns about the policies that appointed ministers are likely to pursue. However, this is the first time I can remember being so deeply worried about the complete lack of honesty and integrity that those now in charge of our country have displayed over many years.

Boris Johnson is clearly in a rush to appoint people to these posts, given that he has so little time left before the Brexit deadline of October 31st. But the office of Prime Minister is not to be taken lightly. These are highly responsible roles, with implications for all our lives, and it is typical of Johnson’s style of leadership that he has appointed such deeply inappropriate individuals in such a slapdash way.

Sajid Javid has taken up the post of Chancellor and now holds the reins of our economy. Javid likes to make much of his family background – the son of immigrants made good, experienced in being a victim of racism, working class Tory. It is therefore inexplicable that as Home Secretary, despite promises to create a more “humane” immigration system, he did nothing to resolve the Windrush scandal and infamously tried to deport a woman in a coma.

Priti Patel is in charge of our domestic security as Home Secretary – an incredibly concerning move, given that her last ministerial post ended abruptly after she was discovered having organised secret meetings with Israel to funnel UK foreign aid money to the Israeli army. Again, despite coming from an immigrant background herself, she has repeatedly blamed “immigrants” for the issues in our NHS despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is almost as concerning as her support for the death penalty – again, despite overwhelming evidence against it.

In another deeply worrying move for our national security, Gavin Williamson has been re-appointed to Cabinet in the role of Education Secretary. Like our new Home Secretary, Williams was found guilty and sacked just a few weeks ago for leaking details of a National Security Council meeting to a Chinese company, Huawei, with close links to the Chinese government. What he knows about education is yet to become apparent.

Michael Gove, who presided over the establishment of a joyless curriculum and the universal decline in standards in our education system, has been appointed minister for no deal planning. Presumably his strategy is that if we all just read a lot of Rudyard Kipling poetry, we will be filled with enough imperialistic zeal that we don’t notice the crippling food and medicine shortages.

Amber Rudd has kept her position as Work and Pensions secretary, possibly because nobody else is willing to touch the colossal disaster that is Universal Credit with a bargepole. The MP for Hastings, who narrowly kept her seat in 2017, most recently said that there needed to be “more compassion” in the DWP, which will come as a great relief to my constituent with double incontinence and constant severe pain, who has recently been told she is not eligible for PIP and needs to start spending 37 hours a week looking for jobs.

Astoundingly, Johnson has also appointed his brother Jo Johnson to a ministerial role in Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. For all the noises the Tories make about social mobility and rewarding talent, we are now drawing our highest offices in the land not only from the same school, but from the same family.

The issues in our transport system nationally – not least the problems on our railways, which I am contacted about on a near-daily basis – are crying out for strong political leadership and a strategic overhaul. Commentators from across the political spectrum have acknowledged that a major issue in how our railways operate is the complexity of the franchising system, and a lack of transparency and public accountability. Newly appointed Transport Minister Grant Shapps (aka “Michael Green”) is very well-placed to navigate his way through this, having previously used several pseudoyms to avoid detection of his multiple jobs.

At a time when the international situation feels increasingly febrile, it is frankly frightening that we have a Foreign Secretary who admitted failing to realise that many goods arrive to our island nation by boat. How can we trust such a man on the international stage on our behalf, trying to defuse deeply complex situations in the Middle East, or negotiating to avert a nuclear war, when the absolute basics have somehow passed him by?

As worrying as these individual appointments are, the big picture is also deeply disturbing. The new appointments represent a lurch to the right and an overwhelming majority of hard Brexiteers, at a time when a responsible Prime Minister would be seeking to bring the country together. There is also an unacceptable level of outdated views and prejudice which cannot become the new norm in our society.

This is not a Cabinet fit to represent our country on the national and international stage. It is a rogues’ gallery of the dishonest, the untrustworthy, the incompetent, and the intolerant, inflicted on us by less than 0.5% of the population. While I may never have agreed with the views of previous Tory Cabinet ministers, this unfitness for office is unprecedented. To put this group of people in charge at such a crucial time in our nation’s history is to gamble with all of our futures.

My constituents deserve better than this. Our country deserves better than this.