Brexit for breakfast, and lunch and dinner

While writing this, news came in of the bomb attack on a crowded tube at Parsons Green station.  As someone who travelled through there at rush-hour for more than 20 years I know just how crowded it gets.

It looks as though there are no life-threatening injuries, but the experience for anyone caught up in it must have been terrifying.  It is a further reminder, if one were needed, of the constant risk we face just travelling around the city.

We put our trust in the emergency and security services and I think they do an excellent job.  Fire, police and ambulance were on the scene in a few minutes and know exactly how to cope.  And the number of attacks that happen are a fraction of those stopped by good intelligence and policing.  

Social media that so often lets us down showed a resilient and compassionate response from locals.  If you walk a few minutes from Parsons Green tube you will pass several former bomb sites where whole houses and streets were destroyed by enemy action.  London will keep calm and carry on as always.

Brexit for breakfast, and lunch and dinner

You may wish Brexit wasn’t happening.  Or – whether you voted Leave or Remain – that we would just get on with it.  Or that we would talk about something else for a change.  Whatever your wish, it is not going to be granted soon.

In the first of many late night sittings this week, Parliament narrowly voted through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.  Several hundred MPs tried to speak, though to be honest the argument against the Bill was brilliantly put in the first hour of debate by Sir Keir Starmer and there was little new to say after that (that rarely stops MPs).

In any case this Bill is ‘just’ about the mechanism for incorporating 40 years of EU legislation into UK law.  It is a constitutional outrage because it allows ministers to make law across the whole of government without the scrutiny of Parliament – a huge irony given the claims that leaving was about restoring Parliament’s power.  But it is not about the consequences of leaving on our trade, our security and our relations with the rest of Europe.

In another debate in which I took part, the future rights of Brits in Europe (and by implication of the 3m EU citizens here), were questioned, with not a single Tory MP present to hear the whole debate. This is important - as is the money we will have to pay on leaving, the risks to peace and cooperation in Ireland and the many other Bills – on immigration, farming and fishing for example – coming down the track this autumn.

However, we are nowhere near even starting the process of decoupling the hugely complex links between the UK and the EU27.  This is the biggest challenge – for our economy and our constitution – since 1945.  It is entirely self-inflicted.  But to listen to ministers stumbling to explain how second-rate, half-thought-out alternatives will be put in place to fill the gap left if we leave the single market and the customs union, you would think it was a natural disaster – our own Hurricane Irma that has caught us off guard and which we are doing our best to survive.

I put this point to David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, this week.  Although an ardent Brexiter, you can tell that he is beginning to understand the magnitude of the task he has been set.  He and others in the Government will have to follow Labour’s lead in saying that we need several more years of negotiations keeping the status quo if there is any hope of putting together an alternative to EU membership. Indeed they already are.

My view is that if we go down this path it is likely that at some point the public will conclude that we are better off in a reformed EU (which Merkel and Macron may well have in mind) than out in the cold.  But the fear that voters may get buyers’ remorse is what drives the ultras on the Tory benches to demand a clean, cliff-edge break in 2019, with all the chaos that will result.

Theresa May is a prisoner of this cabal, as David Cameron was before her.  And she has no majority and no authority in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the rest of her manifesto is abandoned or on hold.  It is difficult to imagine how a government could reduce itself to impotence more effectively if it planned to do so.  Which is why the other controversial debate this week was over the Conservatives (with the paid assistance of the DUP) voting themselves a majority on the all–important legislative committees (that’s right, the same ones that will rubberstamp what replaces EU law on everything from the environment to human rights).  A majority that they could not win in the General Election three months ago.

I think we will have another election sooner rather than later as the strains all of this is putting on Parliament are not sustainable.  A further piece of evidence for this was the Labour motions to cancel the tuition fee increases and end the seven-year freeze/cap on public sector pay.  As the DUP had not been paid to vote against these, the Government acquiesced.  So now it appears, so long as we choose our topics carefully, Labour can make government policy.  

Cold comfort in Calais

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One forgotten consequence of Brexit is the effect on refugees of leaving the EU.  At present an EU Treaty (Dublin III) allows refugee children traveling alone through Europe to be re-united with family in the UK.  If we leave, that treaty no longer applies.

I raised this with the government twice last week after travelling to Calais to see for myself the plight of those who had made it that far.  Last year I visited the infamous Jungle camp there – a shanty town of 10,000 people from Syria and other war torn countries.  Last October the French bulldozed the camp, and said they would relocate the residents around France while their asylum claims were assessed.

750 children came to the UK under Dublin III to join family, though Theresa May shamefully failed to implement the ‘Dubs amendment’ (pushed through Parliament by Hammersmith resident Lord Alf Dubs) that would have allowed many of the other unaccompanied children to come here, instead leaving them prey to traffickers and other abusers.   

Many of those relocated within France have returned to Calais and are living rough in the woods and by the roadside.  Some have the right to come to Britain, but are not being processed.  Others want to come here because their treatment in France has been so bad. We heard numerous reports of police violence and of bedding and belongings being seized.  It was only after the Mayor of Calais was taken to court that charities were allowed to provide food and toilets.  There are still no showers.

It was shocking to see young people being treated this way having risked their lives to travel thousands of miles fleeing persecution.  The UK Government is funding not only the razor wire surrounding the port but the riot police enforcing this brutal regime.  Meanwhile, the office where asylum claims to the UK can be made has been moved 100km away.

The recent Panorama report showed how abuse is also happening in detention centres here.  The UK is the only country in Europe that allows indefinite detention of refugees, who have committed no crime but are locked up indefinitely alongside criminals.  

If you are interested in finding out more about the situation in Calais and the other refugee centres in Europe contact Safe Passage or H&F Refugees Welcome.  If you want to join the campaign for a 28 day limit on detention contact Refugee Tales or Reprieve.

Grenfell Inquiry begins  
 
Three months after the fire, the Grenfell inquiry opened this week.  It hopes to produce an interim report by next Easter, and will look at not only the cause of the fire and the way it spread but the wider lessons for how high-rise buildings are constructed and maintained.

I’ve got two main concerns about this response.  The first is that the Government has used the pace of the inquiry (and other investigations into technical aspects of construction and criminal responsibility), to soft-peddle on the most urgent issues.

We have still not been told how the fire started beyond the fact that it was seated in a Hotpoint fridge.  I have led the campaign in Parliament for better product safety and recall systems following the Shepherds Bush tumble dryer fire a year ago but they have refused to tell me what the fault was that caused the Grenfell fire, if they know.

Only a limited range of cladding and insulation materials have been tested.  It is clear that building regulations allow highly combustible materials to be fixed to the outside of tall buildings.  And that ministers declined to update these over the past ten years.  But while we can now expect a root and branch review of these, this also takes time and in the meantime we do not know the risks not only to residential blocks but to hospitals, offices and other tall structures.

A statement from the Government last week revealed that only three families have been permanently rehoused of almost 200 that need to be.  The rest are almost all still in cheap hotels, including the very young and the very old.  I am told they may be there for Christmas.

The Chair of the Inquiry expressed his consternation that a disaster like this could happen in 2017, the worst for 30 years in the UK.  I am afraid that the aftermath, from RBK&C’s incompetence to the Government’s foot-dragging, perfectly illustrates the low priority that is given to the health and safety of our constituents and especially to those living in social housing.

It is not neglect but deliberate policy that has seen council and other affordable housing, which 40 years ago housed a third of the population, turned into a Cinderella service.  It is shameful that the Prime Minister refused to include a review of housing policy in the Grenfell Inquiry, but her Party has much to hide on the issue – not least in H&F.

I think that is enough for now, but in the next eNews I will look at the local housing situation, how under the Tories H&F became a no-go zone for all but speculators and the very rich, and what we can do to make housing decent and affordable here again.  If you think I am exaggerating, go and look at the new flats next to Hammersmith Bridge, prices start at £1.15m for a 2-bed.

Donate to Grenfell survivors

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One bright note was Game4Grenfell. I was at QPR on 2 September to see a full stadium watch two celeb teams play to raise money for the survivors.  Great performances by everyone from Sir Mo Farah, who scored, to local resident and Royle Family star Ralf Little, who played the full 90 minutes.  Firefighters and Grenfell residents also took part and the game ended surreally with Olly Murs putting a penalty past Jose Mourinho.  You can still donate to the fund here.

And lastly...

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