Parliament under Scrutiny

May 17, 2011

Parliament has had publicity again over allegations of misbehaviour by MPs and as a member of the Standards Committee, I do get involved in deciding how to tackle some of these cases. Less has been said about the way in which the House of Commons has been doing its job of carefully scrutinising legislation and Government.

Recently a large lobby of disabled constituents came to Westminster, who wished to have their say over the new Welfare Reform Bill. It was good that so many came to put their views at a point in the parliamentary debates when their input can carry weight and make a difference to the legislation. I was pleased to meet three groups from North East Hertfordshire – with very different disabilities and concerns, but united in a desire to be heard.

I think there is good evidence that the Government is prepared to listen to serious points made. On the Housing Benefit changes, the Government has removed the controversial proposal to reduce Housing Benefit after one year, just because a person has not found a job. They are also reviewing how best to meet the mobility needs of those in residential homes and have looked carefully at how to improve the assessment of whether or not a person is capable of some work and have begun to roll out the improvements.

For too long the culture has been to leave people with disabilities on benefits and not help them to work. For years campaigners have pressed the case for a right to work and help into work. It is important that the chance now available through the Work Programme is not missed. Of course, some people are unable to work and must continue to receive benefits, but the better future comes from work, where possible.

The new Personal Independence Payment is also subject to debate. This will replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with a streamlined system with more regular checks to ensure people are receiving the help they need. There are currently many DLA recipients whose needs have not been assessed since it was introduced in 1992 and another large group have not had their position checked for 10 years. This means some people will not have received help they need and some may be receiving more DLA than needed. Compassion and efficiency need to go hand in hand, but a Bill can always be improved by debate and listening.

Treasury and Charity

June 9, 2010

Yesterday at the House of Commons the debate was about the economy and work and pensions. After voting in the Deputy Speaker elections, doing some case work and tabling written questions about the Government’s plans to improve the quality of our rivers, I spent the afternoon in the Chamber. There were lively Treasury Questions with Coalition Ministers explaining the need for deficit reduction. Before the Election, Labour Ministers claimed that cutbacks had no international support, but the latest reports and meetings show that major countries, economic groupings and institutions are supportive of deficit reduction. Since the wobbly state of the Greek economy became known, international eyes have turned to look at nations with big deficits. The UK has one of the biggest. It is therefore vital that we can show that there is a plan to reduce it or there could be worse trouble with higher borrowing costs and interest payments becoming one of our largest expenditures. The burden of a high deficit also means higher taxes than are good for business and jobs. We need to get the country back on track. The Chancellor was good at explaining this in answers to questions and later in the main debate.

I also attended the launch of two campaigns – the RNIB on how to represent constituents with blindness or partial sight, which was full of good practical advice. I also went to the National Autistic Society launch of “You Need To Know”, their campaign for better Child and Mental Health services for children with autism. Parents and a user of services spoke movingly and Ministers Sarah Teather MP and Paul Burstow MP explained how important this issue is to Government and about a new initiative to drive improvements. I have signed an Early Day Motion by St Albans’ Anne Main MP asking for improved support. I have long supported this campaign and in the last parliament was one of Cheryl Gillan’s supporters for her Bill. It is good to see the battle continuing.

Recognition For Prisoners with Mental Health Disorders

March 31, 2009

The saying goes that people in prison are mad, bad or sad. There is some truth in this. When I started work as a barrister I often visited prisons to meet defendants and some were just plain bad. But, I was struck by how many people suffered from mental ill-health, particularly after “care in the community” came in. People who had been in the sanctuary of institutions were finding it difficult to cope in a non institutional world. The other shocking aspect was how many prisoners were illiterate. The average reading age in prison is 11 years. That’s not an excuse. Terrible crimes call for tough sentences and the public need protection from such criminals, but there are vulnerable people in prison who need help to rehabilitate and it is all our interests to help them.

The Centre for Social Justice has recently published a strategy for reforming prisons and rehabilitating prisoners, called “Locked Up Potential”. It advocates policies such as giving prison governors similar budgetary freedoms to NHS Foundation Trusts and shifting the focus of the criminal offender system towards rehabilitation. Iain Duncan Smith is right to focus on this, but the part which caught my eye was the section on Improving Mental Health Care. The report recommends that much greater attention and recognition should be paid to prisoners with mental health disorders.

When I was the Party’s spokesman on mental health I went with Liam Fox to Wandsworth Prison to meet staff and prisoners on the Hospital Wing and I was convinced that good treatment for mental illness is vital in prisons. This latest report calls for early assessment of those with mental conditions and better training of prison staff to ensure “early diversion of many mentally unwell prisoners away from prison to more appropriate facilities”. Ultimately it comes down to compassion. People who suffer from mental illness are sufferers foremost and a caring, compassionate society should look after them, protect them. Some people need the sanctuary of a hospital. Some need treatment. Today that just doesn’t always happen. This report suggests a new approach under the Conservatives and I welcome that.