Category Archives: Victoria in Parliament

VICTORIA PRENTIS MP SUPPORTS MACMILLAN’S COFFEE MORNING

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Victoria showed her support for Macmillan and helped to raise awareness of the issues faced by people affected by cancer on Wednesday by attending a World’s Biggest Coffee Morning event in Parliament.

More than 220,000 coffee morning events were held around the UK to raise money for Macmillan on and around 30th September and Victoria supported local fundraising events held in North Oxfordshire. Following the success of the national event Macmillan hosted a coffee morning in the House of Commons where MPs had the opportunity to hear about the challenges facing people living with and beyond cancer and to learn more about some of the services that Macmillan provides.

Following the House of Commons event, Victoria commented: “Macmillan’s coffee morning is a fantastic annual event and I was really glad to have the opportunity to attend one in parliament and two in my constituency. It was a great way to hear more about the support that Macmillan offers directly to people affected by cancer. With the number of people living with cancer increasing, this event is an important opportunity to not only raise funds for a worthy cause, but to bring people together to talk about an issue that will become more urgent in the future.”

Having raised £27million in 2015 and over £138million to date, the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning is the original and most successful charity fundraising event of its sort. The idea remains simple: get together with friends, colleagues or neighbours to hold a coffee morning and raise money for Macmillan, with every donation helping to ensure that no one faces cancer alone. For more information visit http://coffee.macmillan.org.uk/Home.aspx#.VClo2pRdVsE.

Kate Corney & Alison Thewliss MP

Victoria at the Macmillan Parliamentary Coffee Morning

NORTH OXFORDSHIRE MP PRESENTS TEN MINUTE RULE BILL ON THE HORTON

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On Tuesday 25 October, North Oxfordshire MP Victoria Prentis, presented her first Ten Minute Rule Motion to the House on the subject of the Horton General Hospital. The National Health Service Provision (Local Consultation) Bill was a direct response to events over the summer at the hospital, which saw the downgrade of the maternity unit to a midwife-only service with no public consultation.

During her speech, Victoria voiced her concerns about the way in which the decision was taken and emphasised the need for public consultation whenever there is a change to NHS services, even when it is in response to an emergency situation. Presenting her Bill to the Commons, Victoria said in the Chamber:

Madam Deputy Speaker, I was a civil servant for 17 years, and on the whole I believe the best of our public servants. I feel let down by the way we have been treated this summer, by the lack of good management, transparency or evidence-based decision-making.  I am concerned that without change to the law, other areas may also suffer as we have…..

“…This Bill would increase accountability of local Trusts and commissioning authorities. Where major changes to service provision are proposed, clinical groups and medical consortiums are not a replacement for public consultation. Doctor may know best, but only when he has listened to the patient.   Local decision making can work, but only with democratic accountability.”

Speaking after presenting her Bill, Victoria said: “I was really pleased to be able to speak at some length about the suspension of our consultant-delivered maternity service at the Horton. It provided an opportunity for me to voice the concerns of my constituents. I feel strongly that the public must be consulted whenever a service change is proposed, regardless of the circumstances surrounding any decision. My Bill called for exactly that; I was particularly grateful for the cross-party support from colleagues, including former Leader of the Opposition the Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP”.

You can read the full text of Victoria’s speech below:

Mr Speaker, I beg to move that leave be given for me to bring in a Bill to make provision about mandatory local consultation in relation to changes in services proposed by NHS Trusts and healthcare commissioning authorities; and for connected purposes.

This Bill is the result of our experience in Oxfordshire this summer; during which the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust suspended consultant-led maternity services at our local general hospital with no warning and no consultation.

The Horton General Hospital was a gift to the people of Banbury in 1872. It serves a community of around 150,000 people, though this number is growing by the day as a large number of new houses are being built. The Horton General’s patients are spread across six Parliamentary constituencies covering a large rural hinterland and some of the most deprived areas in Oxfordshire.  I was born at the Horton and four generations of my family have been treated there.  Like my constituents, I am proud of my local hospital, and feel passionately about keeping it. 

Our unit was fairly small by national standards, with about 1,500 births a year. It was well regarded, both medically and by the families who chose it, but despite this fine reputation, it has been under threat for as long as I can remember. The first speech I made in primary school was about saving maternity at the Horton. The last major threat we faced was in 2008 when my predecessor, and the former Prime Minister and the former member for Daventry, and the passionate Keep the Horton General group fought tooth and nail to save the hospital.

At that time, the matter was referred to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, who looked at the evidence in considerable detail and concluded that:

“There are major concerns over whether such a large unit as that being proposed [at the John Radcliffe] would be (a) safe and (b) sustainable. There are sufficient concerns about ambulance provision and the transfer of very sick babies from Banbury to Oxford to call into question the safety of what is being proposed by the Trust.”

After this, we thought the fight was over for some time. How wrong we were.

On 20th July, I was invited to what seemed a routine meeting with the Trust.  I asked a member of staff to go on my behalf. No other Members of Parliament were asked to attend, nor of course could they have done so on a sitting Wednesday. I was horrified to hear the report: the Trust had failed to recruit sufficient obstetricians, and as a result The Horton would be downgraded as an emergency. There would be no consultation; on 31 August the Trust Board approved this. Three weeks ago obstetricians left, and we became a midwife led unit, or MLU.   

Colleagues know that I am, with good reason, passionate about both maternal and peri-natal safety.  Nevertheless, I accept that for most deliveries, MLUs are the best place to be, particularly as most are located alongside or very near an obstetric unit.   

And that is the nub of our problem: if an emergency arises, or a woman simply changes her mind about having an epidural, our labouring mothers will have to be transferred by ambulance to Oxford. It is around 23 miles. The average time taken in a blue light ambulance from door to door will be between 30 and 45 mins. The traffic is dreadful and unpredictable; many of my constituents, myself included, go to some lengths to avoid driving into Oxford.  NICE guidelines make clear that when an emergency caesarean needs to take place, it must be done within 30 minutes. Once you factor in transfer time, and moving a labouring mother into and out of an ambulance, that will be quite impossible from the Horton.  The worry is of course, that some won’t make it in time. 

Clearly most women will no longer be permitted to deliver in Banbury. In fact, there have been 12 births since the unit became midwife led. Ordinarily there would have been around 90.

Many of the women who will now deliver in Oxford live an hour and a half’s drive from the JR. I worry about these women; about the babies that will be born at the side of the road and about everyone’s experiences of labour. I can barely begin to imagine the situation of women who do not own a car. The journey to Oxford by public transport from many of the villages is virtually impossible.

I have repeatedly asked the Trust to see risk assessments, and have been sent nothing.  My office eventually tracked down some risk assessments on-line, which showed an alarming number of “high risk” factors including transfer time, ambulance provision and the ability of the John Radcliffe to cope with the additional births. I asked for an explanation and have received nothing.

I struggle, without evidence, to accept that patient safety has been fully assessed; the unit should have been staffed by locums and professionals from the Trust’s other sites, while this was done thoroughly. I must also question how it all became an emergency, when I have since been told that the Clinical Research Fellows programme had become increasingly unsustainable over the past eighteen months. Serious concerns have also been raised about whether sufficient and timely efforts were made to recruit. As a new MP, meeting the new Chief Executive, I would have expected this problem to have been flagged. I would have welcomed the chance to try to help solve the problem, as my constituents are now doing; offering discounted housing, school fees, and even free Hook Norton beer to those who apply to be obstetricians.

My constituents are fearful and angry.  We have had a summer of protests. Many local consultants and GPs are against the suspension, and have complained furiously that such an important decision was taken over six weeks during the school holidays. I have considerable sympathy for those who believe this is part of a wider conspiracy to downgrade our local hospital. For many years a vociferous contingent at the Trust have wanted to centralise services in Oxford, and use our site for more outpatient services. One of the options proposed in the forthcoming Sustainability and Transformation Plan is for exactly that, with maternity services at the Horton becoming midwife-led. We fear the situation this summer has been engineered in order to make this a fait accompli.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I was a civil servant for 17 years, and on the whole I believe the best of our public servants. I feel let down by the way we have been treated this summer, by the lack of good management, transparency or evidence-based decision-making.  I am concerned that without change to the law, other areas may also suffer as we have.

The Trust holds all the cards. Only it has the ability to manipulate the number of births each centre receives. We have no control over recruitment; only they have the power to make the posts attractive. They have all the evidence, and carry out all risk assessments.  The Clinical Commissioning Group has been notable by their silence.

This Bill would increase accountability of local Trusts and commissioning authorities. Where major changes to service provision are proposed, clinical groups and medical consortiums are not a replacement for public consultation. Doctor may know best, but only when he has listened to the patient.   Local decision making can work, but only with democratic accountability.

We in North Oxfordshire and the surrounding area remain hopeful that our unit will reopen next year, when sufficient obstetricians have been recruited.   In the meantime, our mothers and babies suffer.”

Victoria Prentis MP (25 October 2016)

VICTORIA PRENTIS MP REMINDS ALL THOSE AT RISK OF FLU IN NORTH OXFORDSHIRE TO GET THEIR FLU VACCINATION THIS WINTER

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Victoria Prentis MP today attended Westminster Flu Day, a flu vaccine clinic held in the House of Commons, to encourage her constituents to get this season’s flu vaccine in line with Government recommendations.

Parliamentarians who were not eligible for a free seasonal flu vaccine on the NHS made a £10 donation to the Carers Trust. £10 is equivalent to the cost of a private vaccination.

54% of at-risk people and 27% of people over the age of 65 in the Oxfordshire area were not vaccinated against flu last year, even though the consequences of not having a flu vaccine can be serious. This compares to around 55% nationally of at-risk patients and 30% of people over the age of 65.

People in a risk group, such as pregnant women, people who are immunosuppressed and people with an underlying health condition such as liver disease and heart disease, are at significantly increased risk of dying as a result of flu. Every year, an estimated 12,000 people die from seasonal influenza in England and Wales. Flu is the most frequent cause of death in pregnancy and very occasionally a child may die from flu.

Victoria Prentis MP said “The best way to help protect yourself against the flu is to get the flu vaccine. I would urge everyone who is entitled to a free flu vaccine to go and visit their GP or pharmacist.”

Nicola Blackwood MP, Public Health Minister added: “Make sure you get your flu jab this winter. People often get the flu in winter and it can lead to more serious illnesses and even death, so it is good to protect yourself”.

Westminster Flu Day is an established event in the Parliamentary calendar. It is sponsored by the ABPI Vaccine Group in partnership with the Royal College of Nursing and Carers Trust and with the support of the Department of Health and Public Health England.

VICTORIA’S SPEECH TO THE COMMONS DURING THE BABY LOSS DEBATE

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 13 October 2016:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): What an honour it is to follow that speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). She and I have worked closely together over the last year on difficulties relating to infant cremations, and I very much listened with interest to what she had to say.

When my son died, I was told by our consultant that, one day, it would be possible to put my grief in a box and open the box only when it suited me. Obviously, at the time, I thought she was completely insane; now I realise it is possible to have an element of control over lifting the lid in public—although it is not one I have exercised particularly well today.

Over the years, I have talked about my experiences to raise money for charities, including mental health charities, and I have learned that nothing opens those wallets quicker than a few tears. I have also trained hundreds of midwives for Action on Pre-eclampsia; midwives are fairly used to emotional mothers, so the lid can be fully lifted with them around.

It is an honour to be vice-chair of the all-party group and to have been there at its conception one very late night in the Tea Room. We have well and truly lifted the lid this week in Parliament, which is an achievement in itself. However, just as importantly, we have succeeded in enlisting Health and MOJ Ministers—certainly to date—to our cause. The emotion of the Secretary of State for Health was obvious to all yesterday, and I was pleased to see him here earlier in the debate. The charitable fundraiser in me did wonder whether, next year, we should ask a well-known tissue manufacturer to sponsor Baby Loss Awareness Week in Parliament.

In brief, my story is that, following two miscarriages, I developed severe pre-eclampsia and HELLP—hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count—syndrome during my third pregnancy 16 years ago. My son died soon after he was born, and for some time it was not at all clear whether I would survive. To put that in context, my father was slipped from this place at a time of enormous difficulty for the Government, which shows that my condition was clearly very serious. I went on to have two more children, now aged 15 and 13.

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to touch first on learning points from my own experience and then on some of the work the all-party group has done this year, and finally to make some general points about maternity care going forward.

The learning points from my own experience are out of date, but, sadly, not all of these things have been put right—in fact, most have not. Obviously, physical care comes first where maternal and baby death is a real possibility. However, someone needs to be tasked with the mental care of the whole family, because the death of a baby, as we have heard, leaves deep scars in so many of his or her relations. Memories, clothes and photos make a real difference later, however much they seem like fripperies at the time. Putting bereaved mothers ​in with live babies is simply not on, however ill they are. Explaining what is going on all the time is critical, and it may need to be done many times to different family members. Medical conditions have to be understood by those who are suffering.

Midwives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) said, need considerably more than one hour of bereavement training. They also need training on how to have grown-up conversations on things such as lactation—conversations which were utterly lacking, in my experience. In fact, training all obstetric staff is important, as so many parents go on to have more children. GPs, who are often the first port of call, and other health workers, also need to be aware of the very long-term effects of baby loss.

It is difficult to go back to hospital with whatever condition in the future, let alone one to do with pregnancy. Where possible, parents should not have to tell and re-tell their story at every appointment. HELLP syndrome, which I suffered from, leads to multiple organ failure. I am not a doctor, and I do not really understand what is wrong with me, but if I go to the doctor with a minor condition, I have to go through the whole blinking story again. It would be easy to have a simple flag on my notes so that every time I have my blood pressure taken, for whatever reason, I do not have to re-tell everything.

Fathers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) mentioned, get ignored. We need proper evidence of the effects on relationships of babies dying. We have some evidence, which he touched on, but it is not broad enough or good enough. Let me read from an article about stillbirth in The Lancet this January:

“Fathers reported feeling unacknowledged as a legitimately grieving parent. The burden of these men keeping feelings to themselves increased the risk of chronic grief. Differences in the grieving process between parents can lead to incongruent grief, which was reported to cause serious relationship issues”.

The effects on grandparents should also be considered. My parents had to cope with the loss of their grandchild and the near loss of their daughter.

Access to mental health provision must be standardised, and good practice copied. According to Bliss, 40% of parents of premature babies need some mental health intervention. I would suggest that every one of those whose babies die needs at least an assessment. Relationship counselling should also be offered as part of an automatic deal, although I do not know at what stage that would be beneficial. At the very least, we need evidence on the effects of baby loss on relationships.

The all-party group is made up of individuals with different experiences and talents. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester is excellent on parental leave. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury knows more than all others about pathways of care. My role this year has, sadly, been dealing with the issue of infant cremations, not least because of a constituency case I had. I am aware that the Minister is not the Minister who should respond on infant cremation, but it is important that we have a cross-departmental and joined-up approach to the issue, and I would welcome it if he could intervene or at least speak to the MOJ about it.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I have been horrified in listening to this debate. I have never lost a baby in my family, but I am horrified and upset. Surely for a mother who gives birth to a child, stillborn or not, that is her ​baby or the family’s baby, and surely she and the father should have absolute rights about what happens with the cremation and thereafter. I am absolutely horrified that they do not do so at the moment.

Victoria Prentis: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. We in the all-party group welcome the MOJ’s consultation and the subsequent response, which was published just before the summer. It seems that we are—I really hope we are—on the cusp of making some very important changes in this area. I ask that we push for these changes to happen speedily, because they are really important.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Philip Dunne): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for letting me intervene during her impressive and important speech. On the back of that comment, I want to inform the House that my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), announced last month the formation of a national cremation working group. It is now working with all interested parties, and it intends to take evidence from Members of the House. I strongly encourage all hon. Members with such an interest to participate.

Victoria Prentis: I very much thank the Minister for that intervention. We in the all-party group were thrilled about the formation of that group.

In that contest, may I give the House a few more examples from the response of the MOJ that we feel are particularly important to take forward speedily? We hope that the MOJ will provide a statutory definition of ashes to make it clear that everything cremated with a baby, including personal items and clothing, must be recovered. We hope that the MOJ will amend cremation application forms to make explicit the applicant’s wishes in relation to ashes that are recovered. Crucially—I know this point is very important for many Members in the Chamber—we hope that the cremation of foetuses of fewer than 24 weeks’ gestation can be brought within the scope of the regulation, where parents wish that to happen. There is some positive news in this very sensitive area.

Moving on to the future of maternity services more generally, my overriding constituency concern at the moment is the future of the Horton general hospital. In fact, if I am honest, it occupies most of my waking moments, and my children complained during our summer holiday in August that I cannot formulate a sentence without the word “Horton” in it, which I fear is true. This summer, I found the lid repeatedly lifted on my own experiences, as we have real safety concerns about the downgrading of our obstetrics unit at the Horton general hospital.

Since last week, a midwife-led unit remains at the Horton general hospital, but all mothers who might—might, not necessarily will—need obstetric care, which is of course the majority of them, have to go under their own steam or be transferred as an emergency to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. In a blue-light ambulance, that journey of between 22 and 27 miles, depending on the route taken, takes about 45 minutes. If my labouring mothers travel in their own car—of course, not all of them have one—the journey can easily take up to an ​hour and a half, depending on where they live and on the state of the Oxford traffic. The decision to downgrade the service was taken on safety grounds, as the trust had failed to recruit enough obstetricians, but I must say that I have severe safety concerns for the mothers and babies in our area. In 2008, an Independent Reconfiguration Panel report concluded that the distance was too far for our unit to be downgraded. As I see it, nothing has changed except that the Oxford traffic has worsened. I am keen, generally, that we start to be kinder to mothers during pregnancy and birth, and in my view, that does not mean encouraging them to labour in the back of the car on the A34.

We know that personal care leads to better outcomes. We need to take very careful note of Baroness Cumberlege’s recommendations in her “Better Births” report. She said that births should “become safer, more personalised, kinder, professional and more family friendly”.

We must use the impetus of events such as this week to drive through her major recommendations.

Chief among these recommendations must be the recommendation for continuity not of care but of the carer, which has been shown to reduce premature deaths by 24%. Professor Lesley Regan, recently elected the first woman president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for 64 years, has done a plethora of well-evidenced research on miscarriage, demonstrating again and again that a system of reassurance and continuity, with weekly scans and meetings with a midwife, has reduced the rate of recurrent miscarriage by 80%. That figure of 80% is for women who have miscarried three or four times.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury mentioned the excellent work being done at Queen Charlotte’s as well. In this context, I am troubled that the sustainability and transformation plans might push us towards larger and larger units with less personal care. I may be wrong— I hope I am—and perhaps it is safer for such giant units to deliver the majority of babies, but I worry that in our case in Banbury decisions are being taken about my constituents without their views being considered and without real evidence of the risks involved.

Everyone in the House today is clearly committed to reducing baby loss, and I have never heard such emotion in a debate. We have evidenced-based research to show us how, in part, to do that. I refer the Minister very firmly to Baroness Cumberlege’s report. Yes, better bereavement care is important. Sadly, some babies will always die, as mine did, but let us really now make a commitment to reduce miscarriages and deaths from prematurity.

I need to be able to tell my constituents that they will not have to suffer as I did.

VICTORIA PRENTIS MP RAISES THE HORTON GENERAL HOSPITAL AND BABY LOSS AWARENESS WEEK IN PARLIAMENT

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Victoria Prentis MP, a long-time campaigner for maternal safety and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Baby Loss, made two important contributions to Parliamentary debates in the first week back after the conference recess. On both occasions, Victoria focused on the challenges that Banbury is facing following the temporary downgrade of its maternity unit at the Horton General Hospital.

On Wednesday 12 October, Victoria asked the Prime Minister if she shared her sadness that the majority of Banbury’s babies would no longer be born in the Horton General Hospital following the downgrade. Victoria’s question was followed by her fellow MP and co-chair of the APPG on Baby Loss, Will Quince, who asked about bereavement care for grieving parents. The Prime Minister stated that “what matters is a safe maternity service for mother and baby”, and that “ the best possible bereavement care [must] be given to parents at this tragic moment in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable.”

The following day, Victoria took part in a Backbench Business Debate on Baby Loss, organised by Antoinette Sandbach and Will Quince. It was an emotional and powerful debate from MPs, many of whom who were there not as politicians, but as bereaved parents. Party politics was put aside as they shared their own stories, those of their constituents, and debated how to reduce baby loss in the UK and provide better care for parents. Victoria spoke about her own experience and her worries for Banbury’s families following the decision to downgrade maternity services at the Horton General Hospital. She took the opportunity to explain to the House her concern that babies would be born on the road on the way to hospital, and her fear that mothers and babies would not be able to access urgent and essential medical care when they need it most.

Victoria Prentis MP said: “It has been an emotional week for everyone involved, but it is all worth it if we can raise greater awareness of the devastating experience of losing a baby. Aside from making representations in the Chamber, we were also able to hold a reception and a memorial service for bereaved parents and the charities who do so much to help people through their darkest days.

Baby Loss Awareness Week is such an important occasion. I really hope that we can continue to break the silence on this often under-reported issue, and I thank all of those who were brave enough to tell their stories this week. It was an honour to stand beside my colleagues and to represent the many constituents who share my very real fear over the changes to our much-loved and essential maternity unit at the Horton General Hospital. I can only hope that sharing my own experience will make a difference, and go some way towards making sure that none of my constituents will have to go through what I did.”

VICTORIA PRENTIS MP ASKS QUESTION ABOUT THE HORTON IN PMQS

During Prime Ministers’ Questions on 12 October 2016, Victoria Prentis MP highlighted the cause of the Horton General Hospital to Theresa May.

Speaking up against the downgrade of Horton maternity services to a midwife-led unit, Victoria asked:

“Does the Prime Minister share my sadness that the majority of Banbury’s babies cannot currently be delivered, as I was, in the Horton General Hospital? Will she join me in using any influence and putting any pressure we can on the Trust to encourage it to recruit the obstetricians we need to reopen our much valued unit?”

The Prime Minister agreed that what matters is a safe maternity service for mother and baby.

VICTORIA HIGHLIGHTS THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGES IN EDUCATION

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 10 October 2016:

Justine Greening (Secretary of State for Education): Absolutely. Indeed, new schools such as Northampton International Academy, which have an academic curriculum with a language specialism but also links to schools in other countries, are the sorts of schools that can really play a key role in ensuring that there are strong options for children on languages.

Mr Speaker: I call Victoria Prentis.

Victoria Prentis: Thank you, Mr Speaker—I cannot tell you how grateful I am not to be excluded this afternoon. Given the importance of China in the global marketplace today, not least to my constituents who work in Bicester shopping village, does my right hon. Friend agree that our children should be taught Chinese in schools?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is quite right that having more young people learning Chinese is important for the UK’s place in the world; indeed, many employers are looking for more staff able to speak Mandarin Chinese. This September, we launched a £10 million Mandarin excellence programme, and hundreds of pupils in England have started intensive lessons in Chinese. By 2020, 5,000 pupils will be working towards a high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

VICTORIA’S THOUGHTS ON HER FINAL DAY IN JORDAN

Victoria Prentis MP is currently in Jordan with Huw Merriman MP on a trip organised by Save the Children, one of the many major international charities operating in the country. The MPs are visiting refugee camps in Jordan and will also have meetings with local officials and representatives of aid agencies. Victoria is hoping to gain a greater understanding of the crisis in Syria, its impact on neighbouring countries, and the effect of the response of the international community.

Final Thoughts from Jordan: Friday 23 September

Today marks our final day in Jordan with Save the Children. The visit has given us a remarkable insight in to the refugee and migration crisis in the region and the support which a host country needs from its global partners in order to maintain stability.

What we found in Jordan was, despite the many difficult and harrowing stories, positive. Despite having to accommodate over 600,000 Syrian refugees (and this is just the official numbers), Jordan is a relatively peaceful country. The Syrian refugees are largely safe and secure albeit there is still work to do to ensure that the refugees can build a life with freedom to travel, study and work.

The role played by the UK’s aid programme gives us a sense of pride. The Jordanians are being supported by our financial aid and volunteer expertise. The support given by the UK, in managing this huge migration influx, brings with it the opportunity to champion the basic rights and welfare which the refugees need.

Having spoken to many refugees, we are left with the impression that they are not planning for a new life in Europe, or beyond, but want to obtain the tools to make a success of their lives in Jordan. The refugees ultimately want to get home to Syria, when conditions permit. There is a perception in the UK that every Syrian refugee is heading for Europe. This is not what we have found.

Delivering foreign aid on the ground is ultimately better value for money to the UK taxpayer than using it to support refugees in the UK. It is also better for our long-term security to help people to remain in their own region, where they want to be. Those who are uneasy about the UK Government’s £13bl overseas aid budget may wish to reflect on the immigration pressures and costs we would face at home if we did not fund in host countries. Using this logic, we continue to support the Government policy which protects the £13bl overseas aid budget and uses it to support refugees in their own region rather than taking more migrants directly in to the UK.

Of major concern is the desolate area on the Jordanian/Syrian border, known as ‘the berm.’ With around eighty thousand migrants trapped in this area, Jordan’s border being closed to them and the onset of winter fast approaching, it is vital to get aid to these people to keep them alive.   The conditions there can only be guessed at; humanitarian agencies have not been able to assess the situation properly for several months now.

We are conscious that there may be other host countries in the Middle East with differing experiences but we can only assess what we have found. We are looking forward to meeting with Ministers back in London to lobby for what is needed in Jordan.

We would finally like to thank Save the Children, and the Gates Foundation, for making this trip happen. Save the Children do an amazing job in Jordan. For many refugees, they are the difference between the gift of education and empowerment over ignorance and malaise. We promise to use our experience to lobby for all those who are in need of support and friendship in this remarkable country.

Huw Merriman MP and Victoria Prentis MP (22 September 2016)

MP VISITS EDUCATION PROJECTS IN AMMAN, JORDAN

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Victoria Prentis MP is currently in Jordan with Huw Merriman MP on a trip organised by Save the Children, one of the many major international charities operating in the country. The MPs are visiting refugee camps in Jordan and will also have meetings with local officials and representatives of aid agencies. Victoria is hoping to gain a greater understanding of the crisis in Syria, its impact on neighbouring countries, and the effect of the response of the international community.

Visiting Education Projects in Amman: Thursday 22 September

Today we have been visiting education projects which are run by Save the Children, and funded by Pearson, in Amman. Whilst many Syrian refugees are living in Jordanian refugee camps, 80% of the 655,000 officially registered Syrian refugees are living in Jordanian communities and the bulk of these are in Amman.

Education is hugely valued by Syrian parents but getting their children in to schools in Jordan is a challenge and is sadly out of reach for many. Projects run by Save the Children, and sponsored by UK Government Aid and private donors such as Pearson, help to provide education for those who cannot access a school. Official figures record that an estimated 50,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school, with 25,000 having been out of school for 3 years or more. Unofficial figures suggest an even greater number. 

The Jordanian authorities have recently committed to delivering 50,000 formal and 20,000 informal school places for Syrian children. The 50,000 new places will be delivered by additional school shifts around the existing Jordanian pupils. This will cause teachers to work longer days. The UK Government have committed over £80m to provide education resources to help deliver this plan. The programme’s immediate focus is getting children a place in school. There is also a need to improve community coherence and eradicate violence which has flared up between Jordanian and Syrian pupils as their school days overlap. Organisations are pushing for better integration to allow Jordanian and Syrian pupils to co-exist in a single-shift school day.

At our first education space, Hayy Nazzal Child and Family Centre, we met some pupils who have a place at school (but were off school due to the elections) as well as pupils who were not able to access a school at all. We spoke to the mothers of these children who explained to us why a school place was out of reach. For some, their nearest school was refusing to take Syrian children on the basis that they do not have the necessary visa papers. The Jordanian Ministry of Education has stated that school places should no longer be contingent on registration, visas and paperwork but we heard plenty of examples where the schools were failing to implement this relaxation. With a total absence of school transport, we heard examples of parents being unwilling to send their children on public transport. The second shift schooling tends to be later in the day, when daylight has gone. Understandably, these parents did not want their 6 year old daughters to be travelling across Amman on a public bus. The fear of violence between Jordanians and Syrian children crossing shifts was another reason. 

At our second education space, Al Ashrafiyyeh Child and Family Centre, we were given another reason why children could not access school. In Jordan, a child cannot attend school if they have been absent for school for 3 years or more. Given the difficulties in accessing schools, this is a sad reality for many. Thanks to Save the Children, and Pearson, the children we met, ranging from 5 to 16 years old, were receiving literature and numeracy classes and, in time, should be in a position to demonstrate that they are ready for school. The remarkable, but ultimately sad, feature is that these children want to learn, are exceptionally well behaved and engaging and full of determination and optimism but cannot access formal education. It is heartbreaking to see them denied a place in school which many of us in the UK regard as a given. 

We are looking forward to visiting the UK’s ambassador to Jordan and Department for International Development staff later today to press the point that the changes in policy, and Government aid, which is designed to deliver school places for Syrian refugees, is not yet reaching all places on the ground. 

It was a privilege to meet some remarkable children who, despite what they must have been through, and continue to go through, demonstrated talent, determination and potential. It is vital that the authorities work to unleash it.

Huw Merriman MP and Victoria Prentis MP (Thursday 22 September)

VICTORIA PRENTIS MP SPEAKS IN DEBATE ON PRISON SAFETY

On 15 September, Victoria Prentis MP took part in a Westminster Hall debate on Prison Safety. As a member of the Justice Select Committee, Victoria takes a keen interest in all matters relating to the penal system.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 15 September 2016.

Victoria Prentis (Con) (Banbury): I apologise that—with your permission, Mr Stringer—I have to leave before the end of the debate so I will not be here to hear the closing speeches. Members of the Justice Committee, and indeed anybody who has met me for longer than 10 minutes, will know that very few things could drag me away from a debate on prison safety, but I am afraid a meeting about the Boundary Commission and boundaries is one of them. I thank hon. Members for their indulgence on that score.

Serving on the Justice Committee is an enormous privilege and most of the time it is a pleasure. However, as is clear from the passion of Members’ contributions today, it is not always a pleasure, because we have heard some very disturbing facts and figures about safety in our prisons. I am not a stranger to the Prison Service, having conducted litigation on its behalf for many years—it is nice to see some former clients in the Box today. I know that the Prison Service is staffed by many dedicated individuals, who work hard to ensure that people in their custody are safe, and to rehabilitate them. I also know that the spotlight has never shone so brightly on what is happening inside our prisons.

Although our predecessor Committee felt that the Government and the National Offender Management Service had underplayed the seriousness of the situation, our Committee does not now feel that is the case. This year, the former Prime Minister and former Member of Parliament for Witney gave strong leadership in his speech on prisons. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the former prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), were aware of and open about the appalling state of prison safety.

The reform programme is bold and motivated by all the right reasons. In our report we praise the considerable efforts made by the Ministry of Justice and NOMS to alleviate the situation, but political will is very far from being enough. The previous Secretary of State’s response to our review was characteristically robust; he acknowledged the extent of the problem and found an extra £10 million to deal with aspects of it.

It has to be said that, in its short time in post, the new prisons team has made it clear that it is fully live to the issues. In its response to our report, it says that prison safety is the Department’s top priority. The new Secretary of State told us last week that the position was unacceptable, and the Department has confirmed that legislation will be put in place to continue the reforms set out by her predecessor.

So with all this light, why is the situation getting worse? In my view, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) was right: the ratio of staff to prisoners is critical. I also agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—despite the boundary changes, I will not call him the hon. Member for Wormwood Scrubs.

This is not a time for a debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about whether the size of the custodial population matters, but it is clear that unless we are going to pour new resources into our Prison Service, we have to reduce numbers if rehabilitation is to be effective. I do not say that through a wish to be soft on criminals; rather the opposite. It is in all our interests for those in prison to be changed to stop them offending again. If the upshot of that is that tough diversionary sentences have to be used as an alternative to prison, effort should be put into piloting them. Restorative justice, as the Committee said in a previous report, may well have an important part to play.

Alex Chalk (Con) (Cheltenham): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of our problems as a society is that we have not quite solved the problem of how to generate a community penalty that is sufficiently robust that gives members of the public genuine confidence that it is a proper punishment? As soon as they feel that community penalties are a proper punishment, there will not be such an imperative to send so many people to prison

Victoria Prentis: My hon. Friend is right. He will remember that, on our excellent Justice Committee trip to some restorative justice schemes in the United States, we saw some really good new alternatives to prison that we are extremely keen to see taken up and piloted here. They may well be part of the solution, but public opinion will have to be brought along with us. If results can be shown to be good, I am confident that public opinion will come along too—even in Shipley.

I do not see how it is possible to run safe prisons, let alone rehabilitative prisons, with insufficient staff. Prison officers have only limited time to give to supervision and to building up the relationships that we know help people to change. It is often difficult to find sufficient staff to move prisoners to the classrooms for desperately needed education. We have heard examples of wings where only one officer is now on duty when there were previously two. A body-worn camera, while welcome, is not the same as two sets of eyes. There is concern that lack of patrolling perimeter fencing is making it too easy to smuggle contraband.

We applaud the Department’s efforts to recruit more staff, but experienced officers take years of training and greater efforts must be made to retain them. The former prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), has covered that issue fully; I emphasise his point that it is the net gain in numbers that should always be considered when looking at staffing levels.

The second reason, in my view, for the continued decline in safety is the exponential increase in the use of new psychoactive substances. The prisons and probation ombudsman says that 61% of prisoners use them regularly and that they have overtaken tobacco as the currency of choice inside.

During an excellent session at Reform earlier this summer, a prison officer told us about an inmate who had been found unconscious in his cell. Four officers went inside to assist him and all four of them needed hospital treatment for secondary inhalation. These drugs are not cannabis as some Members of the House may have known it; they are cannabinoids and they are very dangerous mind-altering substances, which are doing extraordinary damage to our prisoners.

The Government have criminalised possession of these substances, but a great deal of resource needs to be put into testing these drugs and searching for them if we are ever to hold back the tide of them. Blocking mobile phone signals, which we now have the ability and the powers to do, is surely a good step to consider, while we fight the organised providers of these drugs. I hope that the body scanner being trialled in Wandsworth works and that this device can be rolled out very speedily to other establishments. The Committee looks forward to hearing further details about it.

As others have already said, it is now for the new team of Ministers to put the flesh on the bones of the reform programme. I am grateful for the taster that we have had of that programme in the Government’s response to our report. In my view, prison reform is not a place for dogma, and there is considerable consensus across the House and on our Committee about what needs to be done. Forgive me for saying so, but we have a captive audience and it should be possible to pilot the best schemes, and to assess quickly the extent to which new ideas work. Historically, a shameful lack of data have been produced by the Ministry of Justice, but slowly that issue is being addressed. Nevertheless, the new ministerial team needs to be very vigilant about it.

To add to the list of those reforms currently under way, which are set out in the Government’s response, I would also suggest focusing on improvements to assessment on entry to prison, and asking new prisoners about previous head injuries and traumatic experiences surrounding bereavement, all of which are proven, as we know, to indicate a greater propensity to self-harm. Those prisoners who are recalled should be properly assessed, however many times they have been inside prison before, as we know that they are particularly vulnerable.

Busy prisoners are safer prisoners, and real resource must go into both education and employment. Almost half of prisoners lose touch with their families, and yet it has been shown that those prisoners who maintain family relationships through visits demonstrate a 39% reduction in reoffending. Better visits, Skype and in-cell telephones should not be seen as “nice to have” luxuries that for lily-livered liberals or prisoners but as a useful tool in the fight against future crime.

Of course, all these ideas need testing and evaluation, and the Daily Mail and Shipley will not like them all. I accept that it is difficult to push through major reforms at the same time as managing a dangerous and—quite frankly—unstable situation, but unfortunately the Department does not have time on its side.

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