Earlier this month saw two new rail franchises awarded to rail companies that serve the North of England. This announcement followed the recently published Transport for the North (TfN) Autumn Report on the Northern Transport Strategy.
The TfN report is a welcome vision for rail users North of the Watford Gap. As a Greater Manchester MP whose constituency is located at the foot of the Pennines, travelling across the region should not be as challenging and as time consuming as it is. The October announcement of the ‘unpausing’ of electrification of the North TransPennine line under pressure from Labour showed that the Government is at last starting to grasp the importance of improved rail connectivity between the northern conurbations. But at what cost?
Network Rail will have to sell billions of pounds worth of assets to deliver on its promise as well as borrowing an extra £700 million from taxpayers. This follows the West Coast Main Line franchise debacle in 2012 which cost taxpayers over £50 million. It therefore begs the question, how long does the Government expect taxpayers to fund their continued failure to deliver railway infrastructure projects?
If we are to have a truly globally competitive economy across the North, we need to clarify certain aspects of the transport infrastructure of the Northern Powerhouse vision. For example, the vision of having a smart ticketing system should be outlined in more detail. I believe that rail users should be able to move across the North with similar ease as rail users do in London and the South East. This leads me to ask what the long-term vision is for TfN to ensure that it delivers for everyone across the North of England?
And then we have high speed rail. The government announced recently that the completion date for HS2 between Crewe and Birmingham has been brought forward by six years but can we be confident that this will be delivered, on time and on budget? The track record of this Government is that they big on announcements but fall short on delivery.
HS2 is vital for unblocking the capacity and connectivity constraints that continue to hold transport services in the North back, but it is also crucial that costs are kept under control. With the work of Lord Adonis’s Infrastructure Commission on-going, and the potential benefits that could be brought by HS3, there cannot be an ‘either-or-strategy’ when it comes to rail transport for the North.
Fundamentally, we need reliable and modern services that are affordable. I want people who live in my constituency to be able to work in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool or Hull. To deliver one north with one economy, the agenda must be stringent, constantly assessed and provide value for money. As Shadow Rail Minister, I will continue to push for clear objectives and innovative solutions that will ensure that the Northern Transport Strategy becomes a reality.
Further to my statement last week (click here to view the statement), I listened very intently to the Prime Minister last Thursday when he came to the House of Commons to present his case for extending British airstrikes to ISIS targets in Syria. Despite my scepticism, I was willing to be convinced. In many ways I was hoping to be convinced. However, I cannot say that I was convinced. I therefore intend to vote against British airstrikes in Syria when the vote takes places tomorrow.
My fundamental concern remains that, whilst I want ISIS to be destroyed, I do not believe that airstrikes alone will be a sufficient strategy to do this. Ground forces will be required. The PM clearly acknowledged this in his statement, but his claim that the Free Syrian Army has sufficient forces to do this is not one I can agree with. Even if these forces are as numerous (i.e. 70,000 strong) as claimed, many are already engaged in fighting the pro-Assad regime Syrian Army. It seems the Government are still unwilling to acknowledge the unpalatable truth, which is that it is not possible to intervene on one side of a civil war without giving de facto assistance to the other side. ISIS clearly represent a threat to us in the UK, but the Assad regime has killed by far the most civilians and significantly fuelled the refugee crisis affecting Europe. There are no easy or simple options here.
Essentially, we are being asked to commit British forces to a theatre of war in which they would be pro-Free Syrian Army (FSA), anti-ISIS, and anti-Assad. In the same theatre are the Russians, who are anti-FSA, anti-ISIS, but pro-Assad. ISIS themselves are anti-FSA, anti-Russia, and anti-us. Meanwhile in Iraq, our allies against ISIS are the Turks and the Kurds, but they oppose each other. Turkey is also in a major stand off with Russia, having shot down one of their planes. In addition, our ally in the Middle East Saudi Arabia has a history of support for ISIS, whilst our major opponent, Iran, is on the same side as us in opposing them. I could go on, but it is reasonable to simply say this is a very complex situation that requires more than just military engagement. A wider diplomatic and political agreement, supported by regional ground forces and possibly then, Western air power, is the only way forward. This lack of a compelling overall strategy is why I will vote against the Government tomorrow, and it is a point echoed by many other members of the House of Commons, such as the Conservative Chair of the Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis MP.
Finally, much of the debate on this issue has been interpreted through the prism of the internal politics of the Labour Party. I regret this a great deal. I can promise all constituents that, on matters such as these, I make up my own mind regardless of the intentions of colleagues or the party leadership. The first thing I ever did as our MP, just days after the 2010 election, was attend the funeral of a young man from Hyde who lost his life in action in Afghanistan. Amongst a great many emotions felt that day, I promised myself I would only ever vote for British military action abroad if I was absolutely convinced of the case that had been made for it. There is a case for action in Syria, but I am not convinced it is sufficient to warrant voting yes tomorrow. My vote will therefore be to oppose the Government.
Photo credit: Freedom House (Creative Commons license)
On Wednesday 2nd December, I will present the ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill’ to Parliament as a 10 Minute Rule Motion. The Bill will seek to change the way MP’s are elected, from the current ‘First Past the Post’ system, to the Additional Member System used in places such as Wales, Scotland and Germany.
First Past the Post as a system for electing MP’s is simply unfair and no longer fit for purpose. It has led to a narrow and unrepresentative politics, which in turn has turned people off from voting and politics as a whole. The last general election saw massive discrepancies in the number of seats a party got compared to their share of the vote. Not only is this hugely undemocratic, but the fact that we have reached 2015 yet still many people are unlikely to ever be represented by an MP from the party they vote for is shameful.
The Additional Member System is already used in Scotland and Wales and we use a form of PR for European Parliament elections, so PR is not an alien concept to British voters. My Bill, which has cross-party support from Lib Dems, Greens and others, seeks to address the current imbalance and bring a greater semblance of fairness to our democracy.
The headline from yesterday’s Autumn Statement, Chairman Mao aside, is George Osborne’s apparent U-turn on cuts to tax credits, but that was just about the only piece of good news there was. What the Chancellor was hoping this would distract from is the devastating and swinging cuts that are about to be inflicted upon already decimated local authorities.
Tameside Council has already seen its budget effectively halved since 2010, having to make cuts of £104 million already, with another £90 million to come, and the cuts will keep on coming. It’s not just Tameside where these cuts are being felt, as you may have seen from my question to the Prime Minister last week, but shamefully more often than not it is less well-off areas who are seeing the biggest cuts.
New measures such as social care funding being moved from national to local taxation is especially worrying for an area such as Tameside, which has very large local health needs. The Chancellor has attempted to justify this by allowing councils to raise extra money for social care through council tax, but this simply will not be enough. What makes this even worse is that George Osborne was warned by councils in the North of England that this would not even constitute a sticking plaster over what is needed to adequately fund social care, but he went ahead and did it anyway.
We should of course welcome the fact that even George Osborne, who is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people in areas such as ours, has finally realised just how unpopular his cuts to tax credits were. It was vital that Labour colleagues and I campaigned against the Government and got the victory on this. Lots of constituents contacted me about this, some sharing very personal stories about how much they would suffer if the cuts went ahead, so I am especially pleased that these cuts will not be going ahead yet.
Don’t be fooled however that this indicates any desire from the chancellor to see the error of his ways and scrap his wish to scrap tax credits. As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg points out here, these cuts are simply postponed until 2020, which makes it even more necessary that we beat the Tories in five years’ time. The country, and in particular areas such as ours, cannot afford 15 years of Tory rule. I will continue to work hard to fight against the devastating cuts handed down by George Osborne and the Tories, making sure that local people are not left behind by this Government.
Sir Peter Hendy, the Chairman of Network Rail has issued the report into its future projects.
It is welcome that this report confirms that Transpennine electrification will definitely go ahead, something I have actively campaigned for ever since the scheme was put on pause by the Government earlier this year. This is a victory for local rail users who regularly use Stalybridge station for commuting in and out Manchester. However there is still real disappointment felt by passengers that the original deadline will not be met, which the Government and Network Rail have to take responsibility for.
Lilian Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, responding to the Hendy Report has said:
“Ministers are cynically trying to hide bad news by publishing this report late on the day of the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s an insult to taxpayers that incompetent planning has created a £2.5 billion budget black hole that will be funded by £1.8 billion of asset sales, along with £700 million of additional borrowing. Labour and the Transport Select Committee repeatedly warned the Government that its rail electrification programme was in jeopardy, but Ministers refused to address the issue until after the election. We now know that electrification costs have risen by over 70 per cent, and after already announced delays to ‘Northern Powerhouse’ projects of up to four years, other important projects will also be delivered late. Ministers could have got a grip on these issues much earlier, and passengers and taxpayers are paying the price.”
A copy of the Hendy Review can be found here.