One of my father’s favourite sayings was “you should never see how they make sausages - just enjoy them”. I was reminded of this as the government’s reshuffle unwound this week.
My dad’s sausage metaphor doesn’t wholly apply to ministerial changes because what we see is important to a government’s reputation - but smooth sausage-making process it certainly wasn’t! The purpose of a reshuffle is three-fold; firstly to demonstrate the government is going in a clear direction, secondly to bring in some fresh faces and thirdly, to demonstrate prime ministerial power. It has to be said that it was not a terribly edifying episode. With some cabinet ministers refusing to go or be moved, others trailed in the press for days before that they were on the move, ending up staying where they are and, in one bizarre instance, promoted publicly by Conservative central office as an accident only to then be hastily removed. It all added up to former MP and leading contributor for the Tory in-house website Conservativehome, Paul Goodman, claiming it was “the worst-handled reshuffle in history - perhaps ever.” A bit harsh perhaps but in the Westminster bubble what we all saw in an instant, and this is the dangerous bit for Theresa May, was that she lacked the power to get her way. Lethal in politics and particularly if you are supposed to be our nation’s leader.
I also had another opportunity to put my favourite (not) minister on the spot in the Chamber this week. The ubiquitous Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport. The NAO (National Audit Office) came out with a pretty damning report on the DftTs lamentable record over the whole GTR/Southern Rail franchise. One of the comments from the NAO was that ‘problems could have been avoided if the DfT had taken more care to consider the passengers in designing the rail (GTR/Southern) franchise.’ This is an astonishing comment as it essentially says the DfT hadn’t given enough consideration to the actual rail passengers in designing the franchise! Good grief. An extraordinary statement from such a respected and independent body. I challenged Grayling over this on the floor of the House, asking if he might like to apologise to Southern Rail passengers. True to form he wouldn’t and instead answered a question that I hadn’t asked. Just hopeless.
On a more positive note, one of the first people who came to see me after I was re-elected was a young lass called Lauren Backler. I’ve written about her before as her mum, sadly, had died far too young from bowel cancer. Since then she had been closely involved with the national charity to try and reduce the current age when people are automatically tested, from 60 years to 50. I was extremely impressed with what she’d already achieved so made contact with the charity in London. Shortly afterwards, I drafted an Early Day Motion urging the Department of Health to listen to the clear evidence that lives will be saved if the age of screening is brought down. And there’s been a few murmurings coming from the depths of Richmond House (Dept of Health HQ) in the last week which indicate they may be listening, so it’s vital we keep the pressure up. Lauren set up her petition on change.org and now has well over 375,000 signatures. If you haven’t already signed please check out the link below as well as her update: “We now have 53 MP’s who have signed up in support of my local MP Stephen Lloyd’s Early Day Motion. Lets start the year off with a bang, get more MP’s to sign up, and try and secure a second debate on lowering the screening age for bowel cancer.” Thank you Lauren. We’ll keep up the fight and I think we’re heading toward a result. If you haven’t already signed please input ‘bowel cancer screening’ at change.org and it will take you to the petition.
Finally, I also secured a debate this week on the impact of Universal Credit on the private rental sector. This is an issue I tried to address when I was last your MP. The then Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, was insistent UC tenants should receive their housing benefit direct and, in theory, they’d then pass the housing benefit onto the landlords themselves. I saw all those years ago this would lead to major problems - particularly in the private sector where frankly many landlords already don’t like letting to tenants on benefit and that this new rule could kill the market stone dead. And with 1.2m tenants on benefit in the private sector across the UK it’s still a very substantial market. Many of them are on automatic payments to landlords as part of the previous benefits regime and all of them over the next few years will be moved to UC. So you can see where I’ve been coming from! Unfortunately IDS wouldn’t budge and it remained UC policy. On my return to parliament in 2017 though, I saw immediately that I’d been proved right and landlords were refusing to take UC tenants as all too often either the money wasn’t being paid over or there were long delays. So I ramped up my opposition again and now as the Lib Dem’s DWP spokesman had more clout. Many others have joined me including a number of the landlord trade associations. They saw clearly what was happening on the front-line and it wasn’t pretty. Then credit where it is due as the government finally began to acknowledge what we’d been telling them - in my case for years - and did a little U-turn announcing in the recent budget that it would now be possible for landlords to receive money direct on behalf of their UC tenants. There still too many caveats though so I aim to keep pushing to get to where I believe the policy really should be; an automatic default payment to landlords for anyone on UC. In the the debate this week I was, unusually, also supported by three conservative MPs so I am hopeful we will win this one. Not least as it’s common sense.
That’s it folks. Have a nice weekend and I hope to see you around town.