Bosnia and Herzegovina
I visited Bosnia last week with an all-party group of MPs given concerns about growing inter-communal tensions of the kind that led to the war in that country some three decades ago. For me it was a return visit as I served as Minister for the region in our Foreign Office back in the 90s.
Bosnia then, like Ukraine today, shocked the world because genocide seemed something from another era but bit by bit the killings began. In Bosnia the killings took a toll of 100,000 Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs all of whom had lived alongside each other in relative peace for generations. Untold numbers of women were raped. Sarajevo, the capital, became known for its nightly appearance on tv and one part of the city became known as sniper alley as Serb snipers shot and killed anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tuzla, like other Bosnian cities, saw its share of gun deaths and bombings. But it was in Srebrenica where the worst single massacre took place. Over a very few days over 8000 Muslim men and boys were herded up and murdered because of the failure of UN troops to challenge and stop the Serb armed forces. Women were not killed but, again, many suffered sexual violence. This genocidal massacre at last galvanised the international community and a kind of peace emerged in that the mass violence stopped. But reconciliation was hard to broker and even now the bitterness lies unresolved across the different communities. President Milosevic from neighbouring Serbia and General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander at Srebrenica, and others were tried at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague but many war criminals got away to freedom. Incredibly, it is only recently that denying genocide, like that at Srebrenica, was a crime and there are those who still claim that these events did not take place.
More happily, I met with groups of young people who are working together to change all this, who are owning the horror of the past and who want to build a better life but the challenges are there in a poor country which the world ignored in the build-up to genocide and ignored again when the fighting stopped. Europe and the world cannot afford for places like this, like Ukraine now, like Palestine, like Kashmir to descend into this kind of horror. The young and the not-so-young deserve better and we, as internationalists, should stand with them.
Nobody is surprised anymore when the Prime Minister fails to tell the truth. It’s his style of engagement. Some deplore it. I do. Some make excuses or shamefacedly laugh about it. But on several occasions the Prime Minister has shown his utter contempt for the rule of law and for upholding international agreements and is content to set the worst possible example to those we would want to condemn for these same practices.
Take the Rwanda refugee proposals. The government and its MPs bleat because the European Court of Human Rights has reminded us of the obligations we willingly undertook in being one of the main authors of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Take the ripping up of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The government is clear it will rip up the agreement it signed up to – risking, if things do go wrong, a trade war with the EU when we cannot afford the economic shock and Ukraine cannot afford a continent divided.
Take the Northern Ireland legacy proposals which would, for example, stop families pursuing a route through the inquest system and using it to discover what happened to their murdered loved-ones. Imagine if we took the same approach to the inquest into the Manchester Arena bombing. There would be uproar and rightly so.
Boris Johnson: Vote of confidence
A vote of confidence in Boris Johnson should have happened much sooner. Lying in Parliament aside, there have been countless examples of the incompetence of the government led by this Prime Minister. Days before the vote, I wrote directly and through the Rochdale Observer to local MPs Chris Clarkson in Heywood and Middleton, Jake Berry in Rossendale, James Daly in Bury North calling on them to be brave, seize the moment and tell Mr Johnson that it’s time for him to leave Downing Street. But they couldn’t bring themselves to call for him to go. They may well raise a glass to ‘their pal Boris’ in the last chance saloon, but they cannot ignore the fact that 148 of their colleagues voted against the Prime Minister’s leadership, and any claim of a decisive vote of confidence is fictional.
The real test would be to put the question to electors at a general election. They are the ones who are finding it increasingly difficult as prices outstrip pay. The UK has more foodbanks than McDonald’s, and it is those foodbanks which have seen increases in working families coming to them for help. Boris Johnson’s government delivered brutal state pension and Universal Credit cuts, and put taxes up for those in work. A different Tory Prime Minister wouldn’t change any of this, but voting for Labour will.
I signed a Parliamentary motion calling on the government to fix the crisis affecting families with children suffering from extreme epilepsy who cannot secure NHS prescriptions for medical cannabis. Medical cannabis was legalised four years ago, but many patients still can’t get access and for those who should benefit, their suffering continues. Quite frankly, that’s outrageous. There are considerable benefits to accessing medical cannabis. In some cases, patients who are almost comatose after being pumped full of powerful pharmaceutical drugs and still wracked by seizures are almost seizure free and living close-to-normal lives after having access to treatment.
On the back of the law change, there is now a growing private medical cannabis sector issuing prescriptions for a range of conditions in adults which was made possible by the 2018 law change, a change which is largely down to the campaigning efforts of the families of the children with extreme epilepsy, and yet, no other similar families can get access to the medicine. The government must now look at ways to overcome the current clinical barriers. My message to the government is clear: get on with it.
I welcomed into Parliament Dumitru Alaiba (Moldovan MP and Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Economy, Budget and Finance) and Angela Ponomariov (Moldovan Ambassador). Moldova is probably the poorest country in Europe, and bordering Ukraine it has received by head of population more refugees than anywhere else and this places a huge strain on the country. At the same time, Moldova is under pressure from Russia because of its ambitions to move away from its historic past and towards the rest of Europe.
Collaboration on Dementia Research
I attended an event in Parliament as part of Dementia Action Week to put pressure on Government ministers and private care providers to work together to accelerate trials for the treatment of dementia. Many of us know, or have known, someone affected by dementia. In Rochdale, nearly 700 people are reported to live with Dementia, but that number will rise. It’s a disease still so little understood, but causes harm and heartbreak to families here and across the UK. Whilst the outlook for those with dementia is challenging, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The government and private care providers must collaborate to provide the pivotal research needed to accelerate trials for the treatment of dementia.
There are millions of people, many in Rochdale, who are unpaid carers. They make an enormous contribution to our society, providing vital and often hidden support to friends and family members. It’s only right that we value them properly, and ensure they have the right support at the right time. During Carers’ Week, I called on the government to develop plans to mitigate some of the negative impacts that caring can have on carers’ own physical and mental health. That must include a recovery and respite plan for unpaid carers, and it must recognise the enormous impact the Covid pandemic has had on carers’ lives.
Last week was National Volunteer Week. It has been an exceptionally difficult couple of years for many people in Rochdale and beyond, and we all remember the key role volunteers played during the pandemic response. The contribution of volunteers is often unseen and unrecognised, but their impact is felt by many in the heart of every community. Some people volunteer from home, others volunteer in-person with a local charity or organisation, but the point is that their contributions have not stopped despite the uncertain times we found ourselves in. Volunteers’ Week was a time to say thanks, not just to those who continued to carry out their vital work but also those who have not been able to because of the pandemic.
Deeplish Community Centre
I was pleased to attend the community event at the Deeplish Community Centre. It was good to see so many people at the event from the diverse backgrounds which make up today’s Deeplish.
Community Ownership Fund
A Community Ownership Fund has been set up to rescue prized local assets, such as sports clubs, music venues and historic buildings. It will run for four years until 2024/25. It’s important to ensure that people in Rochdale continue to benefit from local institutions whose future may be in doubt. That could be anything from a pub or business that’s facing closure, a heritage building that’s in dire need of repair, or a local sports team or community centre who face closure due to lack of facilities.
It’s vital that communities here in Rochdale benefit from the fund, and I welcome the news that reforms have been made to the application process and expanding the eligibility criteria. More information about the fund, and how to apply, can be found here.
Mayor’s Visit to Parliament
I welcomed Rochdale’s new Mayor, Cllr Ali Ahmed, into Parliament. With us were Apsana Begum MP, Ali’s niece, and Cllr Iftikhar Ahmed.
Asylum Seekers: Removal to Rwanda
Deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is an unworkable, unethical and extortionate policy. With no monitoring process in place as of yet, I pressed Ministers to guarantee to publish the types of people being deported to Rwanda and the conclusions of the monitoring committee, so that we can monitor the government.
Support for NATO Allies: Ukraine
I asked Ministers what steps the Government are taking to support NATO allies in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UK has done so much to support our NATO allies, and the UK has hit 2% of GDP contribution. That is important to empower those who argue within our NATO allies that they must hit the same figure. The government must ensure that the 2% will be maintained or even increased.
The Northern Ireland Protocol
To reduce friction with our European trading partners is the right thing to do. I asked Treasury Ministers, if they agree with that, whether this is the right time to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol and risk a trade war with Europe.
Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill I have participated in many debates over the years about this, and one of the things I find intriguing is that when I talk to former members of RUC, the PSNI and the armed forces they will say to me very directly that those who were guilty of criminal acts should be prosecuted, because their actions discredit those who served whilst respecting the law and to protect the people of Northern Ireland. The idea that we pit the rights of veterans in some way in opposition to the rights of victims is simply a dangerous fiction and one the government must dispense with. Every Northern Ireland MP is opposed to this legislation as is every party in the NI Stormont Assembly – a very rare unity.
Access to Childcare
For families in Rochdale and other parts of the UK, the financial benefits of going into work are swallowed up by childcare costs. Many people do not even access childcare because they cannot afford to. I asked the Education Secretary what he will do to address this.
Cost of Living Crisis
In Rochdale many people, before inflation began to become an issue, were already finding it difficult to make ends meet. That’s not propaganda, that’s a matter of practical reality. I asked Ministers what action they will take to help those who really are on the breadline.
Home Office backlog
I raised in the House the huge and outrageous backlog of outstanding Home Office cases, passports, refugee and asylum cases as well as other things, and called on Home Office Ministers to provide a strategy for resolving this issue.