My first speech in the House of Commons

Making my first speech in the chamber of the House of Commons

Making my first speech in the chamber of the House of Commons

An MP’s first speech is known as their maiden speech.  I gave mine on Tuesday 11 December, a week after being sworn in.  It’s traditional to pay tribute to your predecessor, to your constituency, and to lay down some markers about what you hope to achieve without being overly party political.  I invited three victims of the riots along to sit in the gallery while I spoke and referred directly to their experiences.  Here is the text of my speech. 

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I am honoured to stand in this Chamber as the Member of Parliament for Croydon North. During the recent by-election, I spoke to thousands of people across the constituency, and one of the things that most struck me in every part of the community was the great warmth and affection for my predecessor, Malcolm Wicks, and the profound sadness that people felt at his passing just a few short weeks ago.

Malcolm was a man of great integrity, a genuinely decent human being, and a man with a sincere and lifelong commitment to social justice. He made a difference, improving support for carers, for children and for older people. In Malcolm, the people of Croydon North had a true champion and a good friend. As many in the Chamber will know, Malcolm had a great sense of fun—he did not take himself too seriously—and that much was clear to the office staff who walked into his office one afternoon to find him bouncing around the room playing air guitar with his good friend Keith Hill, the former Member of Parliament for Streatham. I know that Members on both sides of the House miss Malcolm very much.

Until my election as a Member of Parliament, I had the pleasure and privilege of leading Lambeth council. I am proud of the work I did there, alongside many talented colleagues, to turn around a once failing council. Lambeth children’s services were in the bottom 3% nationally when I was elected leader, but were rated by Ofsted as the best in the country when I left. I hope that that experience of transforming public services will be of value to the House and the people of Croydon North.

At Lambeth, I pioneered the concept of co-operative councils and co-operative public services. I believe that public services work better when they do things with people rather than to people, and that means finding new ways to give people and communities more control over what happens to them. It means giving people the power they need to make the changes they want. We can see the benefit of that in tenant-managed housing estates that become better places to live, in community-led youth services that give young people a better chance in life, and in care services for older and disabled people where the service user has the power and support to choose what they want, rather than be told what they will get.

I pay tribute to the growing number of councils and dozens of other organisations nationally that are pioneering more co-operative ways of running public services so that they are more directly responsive and accountable to the people who use them. This is the future of public services, and I hope to continue championing it here with my colleagues.

I would like to pay tribute to the constituency I represent. Croydon North is one of the most diverse and vibrant places in the country. People have come to live there from across the world. The area’s greatest strength is its diversity. Anyone who walks along the London road, which runs through the constituency, will find restaurants, businesses, faces and languages from every corner of the globe. In an age of globalised trade and communication, that diversity is a resource to be harnessed for the good of everyone. I was heartened by the fact that during the by-election those who sought to divide the community were rejected. People in Croydon North understand that we best confront the challenges we face when we stand together in solidarity.

Croydon North faces real challenges. It is a relatively poor area, and people living there feel let down because the slow decline of the area over recent years has not been addressed. Unemployment is too high, the streets are not clean enough, and people worry that police are being taken off the streets when crimes such as robbery are on the rise. There is real concern that the help and investment promised after last year’s riots have not come through. Croydon was one of the areas worst hit by the riots, and Croydon North bore the brunt of the mindless hooliganism, looting, burning and destruction that so appalled the nation in the summer of last year.

The Rozario family lost their home in a fire, but they have not received any compensation because of a lack of support from the public authorities. The Hassan family saw their business – the sole source of their livelihood – burnt down, but they have been left struggling and in debt, instead of being helped to get back on their feet. Charlene Munro and her four-year-old son fled their home when they saw hundreds of rioters approaching; they returned the next day to find it destroyed. Instead of getting the help they needed, they feel abandoned. These are hard-working people—the backbone of their community, strivers. I want to make a plea on their behalf and on behalf of so many others like them that the promises made to Croydon North after the riots be met in full. The people who live and work there deserve nothing less.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to conclude by thanking you, Members on all sides and the staff of the House for the very warm welcome I have received here. I hope during my term of office to represent the people of Croydon North to the best of my ability. If, when I finally leave this place, I have earned even a fraction of the respect and warmth that people felt for my predecessor, Malcolm Wicks, I will have done well.

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My blog’s moving to Croydon North

In November I had the great honour of being elected as Member of Parliament for Croydon North.  I immediately resigned as Leader of Lambeth Council so that I can focus on my new duties representing the people who chose me to be their MP. 

I’ve now changed the name of my blog site to reflect my new role, and future entries will cover my work as a Member of Parliament and issues affecting people across Croydon North. 

Thank you for reading my blog – I hope you’ll enjoy what you read here, and please continue to add your own comments or email me with your views on the issues. 

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It’s time for action on fuel poverty

 

Warm words won’t stop people shivering this winter. The Government must act.

Recent events show that the government’s energy policy is a total shambles. Millions face real financial hardship as a result of sky-rocketing prices, yet the Government doesn’t have a plan.

It’s in poorer areas like south London where rising energy prices really hurt. More people depend on prepayment meters and fewer homes are likely to be insulated because they were built before cavity walls were a requirement. An above-average number of local households are fuel-poor.  And when you combine rising fuel bills with the high cost of housing and rising train, bus and tube fares, the result is a big squeeze on the disposable incomes of hard-working people.

It‘s clearly unfair and unnecessary. Yet most people feel powerless to act. What option have you got when the marketplace is dominated by the ‘big 6’ energy companies? I believe it’s time to give power to the people. I want to see active consumers with power to make decisions about their lives, rather than passive onlookers who are forced to pay more and more to heat their homes. National and local government must take a lead in giving people the power to change things. Why? Because empowering consumers will deliver greater fairness.

Here’s how we can do that on energy prices;

First it’s time for the energy regulator OFGEM to end the unfairness of the poorest paying higher energy tariffs than the rich. Why should a millionaire in a mansion pay a lower tariff than a hard pressed family on an estate? One of the starkest examples is pre-payment meters. Around 6 million people in the UK use meters. Many of these are among those on the lowest incomes. Most are unable to switch accounts or take advantage of deals to save money including direct debit and fixed rate contracts. The meters cost substantially more than the standard tariffs offered by energy companies. So the poorest end up paying hundreds of pounds more every year than those on middle and high incomes. This is unfair and should be put right by a regulator on the side of consumers.

Second, it is time to end rip-off energy exit fees. Millions of people face charges of up to £100 in ‘exit fees’ just because they want to switch their account to a lower tariff. This is anti-competitive and contradicts the Government’s advice to customers that switching accounts will save them money. The Government must change the law to make switching energy tariffs free. Why should those who act of the advice of Government and consumer groups and switch accounts be penalised just because they want cheaper fuel bills?

Third, the government has the power to place caps on the price of a range of services, for example rail fares. Yet when it comes to regulating energy companies and the cost of fuel the Government is silent. If the Government really wanted to shift power from big energy companies to consumers it would place a mandatory cap on prices. This would end the annual increases way above the rate of inflation which are forcing thousands into fuel poverty.

Fourth, it’s time to get serious about insulation. Just 15.2 million homes have loft insulation and 12.9 million homes have cavity wall insulation. Earlier this year the Energy Saving Trust said that London is at the bottom of the league table for insulating homes. Since 2008 just 5.1 per cent of London’s homes received insulation compared to 16% in the North East, the best-performing region. The Government’s Green Deal scheme was launched on October 1st to give people the chance to insulate their homes. Yet interest rates on the Green Deal loans will be as much as 7.5%. This has led to real fears that consumers will end up paying more than twice as much for their home improvements. To make the Green Deal work, ministers must ensure finance is provided at an affordable rate. That way, consumers will get greater power to make decisions about how and when to insulate their homes.

Finally we need to encourage more energy purchasing cooperatives to start up to provide competition for the big 6. In 2011 residents in Brixton set up Brixton Energy Solar 1, the UK’s first inner-city, co-operatively owned energy project on a housing estate, with support from Lambeth Council. A solar power station was installed on the roof of Elmore House on the Loughborough Estate. It’s been a great success generating renewable energy, providing an annual return of 3% for investors and delivering savings for residents of Elmore House through lower bills. We need the support of Government to champion cooperative energy to catch up with countries like the US where 42 million citizens are members of energy co-operatives. Local energy cooperatives also need support to navigate complex planning rules, manage their finances and develop their businesses. Local authorities and other big users of energy should explore how they can work together to purchase energy cooperatively and make savings which can be reinvested into services or to help those facing financial hardship.

If the Tories were really serious about creating an ‘aspiration nation’ they would act against spiralling fuel prices. Hard working people are seeing their incomes fall before their eyes while the cost of living rises out of control. And warm words about aspiration will be of little comfort to families who will shiver in their homes this winter. Fuel poverty is a reality in our communities, but it is not inevitable. We can tackle it by putting real power into the hands of people. Enabling people to make decisions about their lives leads to a fairer and more just society.

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Gove must make schools accountable to local communities instead of centralising control in his own hands

Tory education reforms will threaten children’s futures if the Government refuses to change course.

London’s 33 boroughs have challenged the Government to change their policy on schools so that children get the chance of a better education.  Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to convert all 24,000 schools in the country into academies and then centralise control in his own hands.  Quite simply, that will not work.  The Department for Education is too remote to oversee so many schools and spot the warning signs of failure early enough to intervene and prevent a crisis developing.

I was delighted the proposals I put forward won support from all London’s borough leaders of all political parties.  It’s important we remove the most damaging aspects of the Government’s reforms.

We want councils to hold schools to account for local communities by scrutinising their performance.  If a school’s standards are slipping, or the school is coasting, councils should issue a warning notice and call the school’s leadership in to explain in public how they will turn things round.  All schools, including free schools and academies, are publicly funded and they should all be publicly accountable.

London Councils predicts that by 2016 one in ten primary-age children in London will not have a permanent school place.  That is a terrifying prospect for parents.  We have offered to work with the Government to identify council-owned buildings and land that can be used for new schools.  But this will be on condition that the Government does not impose inappropriate free-school providers on local communities, that new school buildings are suitable for educating children, that funding for new schools is prioritised for areas where the shortage of places is most severe, and that the Government itself makes surplus buildings and land available just like local councils will.  At present the Government does not follow these common-sense principles in allocating funding to new schools.

We are also calling for data about how every school is performing to be published, including how they manage their finances and information about what happens to students after they leave school so parents can see how many end up in good jobs and how many go on to further or higher education.  Without this information parents will remain unable to make informed decisions about which school to trust with their children’s education.  It is unacceptable that free schools and academies are able to conceal information that other schools have to make public.

We want every school to have members of the local community on their governing body so there is a link between the school and the community it serves.  And we believe it is important that every school takes its fair share of challenging students, including those with special education needs.  It is wrong that, as things currently stand, some free schools and academies refuse to educate children like these.

Most parents I’ve spoken to were astonished these proposals are not already part of Government policy.  But the fact is they’re not.  The Government is so ideologically blinkered about education that they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a dogmatic attempt to remove councils from playing any role.  What parents are finding is that Whitehall is too remote to oversee 24,000 schools, that you can’t empower parents by concealing data on how schools are performing, and at a time of financial austerity it makes no sense to open new schools in areas with enough places while denying children places in areas where the shortage is most severe.  London’s councils’ proposals will put these things right.  Let’s hope we can make Michael Gove listen to good sense because London’s children will suffer if he refuses.

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Planning reform: fewer homes, more unemployment – and a threat to the privacy of your home

Under new proposals, the Tories and Lib Dems will let your neighbours build an ugly 8 metre extension that overlooks your property

The Tory-led Government has spectacularly failed to get the British economy growing again. They inherited an economy that was recovering from the global recession, and they pushed it back into recession by making unprecedented public spending cuts that crushed consumer confidence and forced up unemployment. At the same time, there is a crisis in housing as fewer affordable homes are being built at exactly the same time as homelessness and overcrowding are rising.

The Government have already admitted that the prime objective of the coalition Government has failed – they will not be able to pay down the deficit by the time of the next election due in 2015. They are flailing around trying to find ways to get the economy growing again so they can stave off electoral Armageddon. To that end they have announced that developers will no longer have to include affordable housing as part of new housing developments, scrapped rules intended to restrict the conversion of office blocks into housing, and intend to scrap the requirement for home-owners to secure planning permission before extending their property by up to eight metres. Far from boosting the economy this will slow it down.

Lambeth has already granted permission for huge regeneration schemes in our borough. New privately-funded developments are planned in Vauxhall, the Albert Embankment, Waterloo, Streatham and elsewhere. As part of these, private developers will provide thousands of new jobs and hundreds of new affordable homes paid for by the developers’ profits from selling private apartments. These schemes have already been agreed, and work is about to begin. But thanks to the Government’s latest wheeze all that could come to a juddering halt. Developers may come back to the council to negotiate removing the affordable homes that won’t make them any profit. They’ll make more money as a result, but hundreds of people on the housing waiting list will be denied their new home, and planned jobs will be delayed as building work fails to start on schedule.

The conversion of offices into luxury homes will be just as damaging. Currently owners of office blocks need the council’s permission to convert them into different uses. That allows councils in areas with high land values (like Lambeth) to protect jobs. Fewer offices in the area means fewer jobs.

To add insult to injury, the Government have come up with a plan tailor-made to anger home-owners in suburban streets. Anyone who wants to extend their home by up to eight metres will be able to do so without any need for planning permission. The process of getting permission exists so that neighbours who fear they will be overlooked, have daylight blocked out, or be faced with a hideous monstrosity out of keeping with the area can be prevented. The Government’s going to sweep all that away. You may value the privacy of your home and garden, but the Tories and Lib Dems don’t.

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Lambeth judged ‘outstanding’ for supporting vulnerable children

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Government inspectors have ranked Lambeth’s children’s services the best in the country

Lambeth is officially the best council in the country for looking after vulnerable children.  Ofsted judged this month that Lambeth’s child protection service is ‘outstanding’, services for children in care are ‘outstanding’, and the adoption service is ‘outstanding’.  Lambeth is the only council in the country to be judged outstanding for all three services.  The achievement is all the more remarkable because Lambeth is one of the poorest boroughs in the country with high levels of demand for care services for young people unable to live with their family or at risk of domestic violence and abuse.

This marks a dramatic turnaround since Labour won control of the council in 2006.  The council’s previous Lib Dem-Tory coalition was voted out of office after the Audit Commission ranked them among the bottom 3% of councils in the country.   During the dying months of the Lib Dem-led council, Ofsted judged children’s social services to be in the bottom quartile nationally and declared that services were ‘delivering only minimum requirements’. 

I subscribe to the belief that a society can be judged based on how it treats its weakest members.  Children at risk of violence, abuse or without the support of a loving family are among the most vulnerable in our community.  That’s why Labour pledged to improve children’s services.  As soon as we won the election, Labour put in place tight monitoring of service performance, brought in talented new managers, rewarded successful staff and refused to accept failure in any part of the service.   With that strong leadership, children’s services staff have delivered steady improvement and I pay tribute to their hard work, dedication and professionalism.     

The Ofsted report notes that despite severe Government-imposed funding cuts “front line services have been protected and there are sufficient numbers of qualified and experienced staff”.  The report commends the council’s work to prevent violent youth crime, noting that “a range of interventions are appropriately targeted on preventing children and young people becoming involved in gangs or being victims of gang violence.”  The inspectors also praise ‘strong leadership’ from politicians, managers and staff; strong partnership working; and praise Lambeth’s cooperative council approach for its ability to “better meet local need and maximise the benefits of using the community and voluntary partners”.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to the turnaround of these vital services.  In a very real sense this inspection report shows that some of Lambeth’s most vulnerable young people have been given the chance of a better life.   It’s hard to think of an achievement more worthwhile than that. 

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Lib Dems oppose council staff volunteering in the community

Lambeth’s Liberal Democrats have opposed plans to give council staff time off work to volunteer for local community organisations.  Under the new plans introduced by Labour, all council staff will be offered up to three days to carry out work in the community.  They will be paid, and managers will make sure there is no adverse impact on council services.  It’s not a new idea – many government departments do the same thing, including government departments run by Liberal Democrat ministers.  So why have the Lib Dems opposed it in Lambeth?  Just because Labour introduced it.  That’s pretty childish isn’t it?

Here’s how the local free newspaper, the Streatham Guardian, reported the story:

Lambeth Council staff to be paid for three days off to volunteer

Nearly 3,000 council staff are being offered three days off work a year, fully paid, to do voluntary work in the community.  Lambeth Council said local groups and organisations would benefit, but critics said staff should volunteer in their own time.

The scheme, which could create almost 9,000 days of volunteering, would allow registered groups or voluntary organisation to invite council employees to work on local projects – such as play  schemes, repainting youth clubs, serving food at pensioners’ lunch clubs, or planting community gardens.

Councillor Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth Council, said: “Community groups do fantastic work right across Lambeth, but they often tell me they could do even more if they had more volunteers.    At the same time, people sometimes tell me the council can feel remote from the local community.

“I think it’s a great idea to get the council’s employees out of the town hall and into the community so they can hear directly from residents what problems they are facing and then give their time  to help fix them.   This will be good for our community and good for our employees, and it’s a real example of the cooperative council in action.”

The move would not affect frontline services, a council spokesman said, and allow staff to get “a better idea of the issues facing Lambeth residents in their daily lives”.

But Jeremy Clyne, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Streatham Hill, said “shouldn’t they [employees] be doing that already, it’s part of their job”.

He said: “This is hardly volunteering – staff who put themselves forward will be doing it in their paid work time.  It sounds like a desperate to spark enthusiasm about Labour’s Coop Council. A lot of staff appear to be sceptical and unconvinced about the whole project.”

But Councillor John Whelan, the Conservative group leader in Lambeth, said the scheme was a good move.   He said: “Our streetcare contractor Veolia already does this and hopefully more of our suppliers will do so as well.”

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