I am in the process of responding to the many emails I have received from my constituents about the current appalling crisis in Gaza. Please see my most recent statement on this website.
On 23 August I will be in Mons, Belgium for the 100th anniversary of the opening shots fired by British troops in the First World War. The first British soldier to die in that great conflict, John Parr, is buried in the St Symphorien military cemetery, just southeast of Mons. Coincidentally, and in large part due to Mons being lost in the very opening stages of the war and regained at the very end (from a British perspective), his grave faces that of Private George Edwin Ellison who was the last British soldier to be killed in the war. He came from Richmond Hill in Leeds and I plan to find his grave to pay my respects.
On the subject of World War I, last Sunday I attended a special commemoration event organised by the Saxton Gardens Residents Association. There was a big crowd and a very moving presentation from Lee Toomes about what life was like for those who fought in the trenches. A big thank you to Pearl, Marcus and all the members of the residents association for a really successful event.
Last Friday, I opened the extension to the Siemens mechanical drives factory in Stourton. The company has recently won a contract to service train motors and has taken on six additional staff. This is a highly specialised manufacturing company which exports and is training apprentices to ensure that it has the skills for the years ahead. One of the things we can do to support them is to encourage young people to think about engineering as a career. After all, we have quite an engineering history in this country what with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Frank Whittle, Michael Faraday, Sarah Guppy and Beatrice Shilling.
The Scottish referendum is now less than two months away, and it is a decision that could have momentous consequences for the whole of the United Kingdom. Recently, I travelled up to Paisley - where my grandmother Margaret was born - to support the campaign. While door knocking, I talked to three families. All of them will be voting No because they think that the current arrangement works well for them and for Scotland. The message we should send is that the United Kingdom is all about solidarity and standing together. When the Rosyth naval dockyard near Edinburgh was threatened with closure, the trade union members in Devonport - who would have benefited from the additional work - stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with their Scottish comrades. An example of how the word ‘union’ has two meanings!
I have seen a significant increase in the number of constituents coming to my advice surgeries about sanctions imposed by the job centre resulting in loss of benefits. The review that was set up after complaints has found that about 1 million cases had been referred for consideration for sanctions in 2013, the vast majority relating to people on the Work Programme. Following reviews and appeals, 28.7% of cases ultimately resulted in a decision to remove benefits while 71.3% did not. More than 40% of initial sanction decisions were overturned after a review. The research also found that some claimants were not clear about how the system works and this was a particular problem for vulnerable groups. The letters used by DWP were also criticised for being very difficult to understand. The government says it’s going to make some changes but I will be monitoring the situation carefully.