• Open University’s admissions policy on Cuban students

    I am aware that it has recently come to light that since 2014, the Open University (OU) has not accepted students from a list of “restricted countries”, including Cuba, Syria and Iran, due to “international economic sanctions and embargoes”. I know that this has provoked a great deal of concern from organisations such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the University and College Union. The OU has noted that the US has comprehensive sanctions in place against a number of countries, including Cuba. Since the OU operates in the US, has many employees who hold US citizenship and has other significant links with the US (for example using US financial systems), it has argued that the university is subject to US laws and cannot supply educational services to those countries without a licence. I am aware that the OU is currently applying for such a licence, but has said that in the meantime the ban on Cuban students must remain. As you are aware, the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for universities to discriminate against students based on nationality when deciding who to offer admission to. I am aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently investigating the OU to consider if this policy is indeed unlawful on these grounds. I will follow developments on this closely. The UK Government has previously noted that there are no UK, EU or UN sanctions regimes restricting transactions between the UK and Cuba. While the US has economic sanctions against Cuba, EU legislation counteracts the application of these sanctions within the EU. I hope the UK Government will continue to promote UK-Cuba cooperation across various sectors, including higher education, and I can assure you that I will continue to monitor this issue.

  • Local Housing Allowance

    I am opposed to the Government’s decision to freeze LHA rates and I believe that its failure to provide enough housing and support for the most vulnerable people in society is having a negative effect. I am concerned about the impact freezing LHA rates will have on residents in our constituency and across the country. Housing charities, local authorities and social landlords have all raised their concerns that this will result in shortfalls between rent levels and claimants’ entitlement to housing support. This could, in turn, result in rent arrears and increase the risk of homelessness for affected tenants. The housing charity, Shelter, has criticised the Government’s proposals saying it undermines the commitment to reduce homelessness as local authorities may struggle to find rented properties that are affordable for anyone needing housing benefit. More widely the Government has proposed to apply LHA rates to social rents, which charities, housing associations and councils all say will lead to the closure of vital housing for some of the most vulnerable people in our country. In the last six years the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has more than doubled, the number of homeless households has risen by almost half to nearly 60,000 and this year well over 120,000 children are without a home. At the General Election I stood on a manifesto that pledged to halt the Government’s plans to change the way supported housing is funded. The manifesto also committed to protecting the housing cost element of Universal Credit for 18-21 year olds which the Government has cut, and supported a review of the adequacy of support for housing costs through the social security system given the reduction in the housing safety net over the last seven years. Thank you once again for contacting me and for sharing your views. I will continue to urge the Government to abandon its proposed cap to LHA rates, build more affordable homes to rent, and give more security to tenants.

  • National Autistic Society Campaign

    I share constituents concerns about a lack of understanding of the needs of autistic people both in the workplace and in wider society. I am also concerned that people living with autism and their families can face terrible prejudice and stigma. I therefore agree that developing better awareness of the realities of autism would be a welcome development. I am pleased that Parliament is being recognised for its efforts to become a more accessible workplace. Nevertheless, I appreciate that in our constituency, and around the country, more needs to be done to make our public spaces and workplaces autism friendly. I pay tribute to charities such as NAS, Autistica, and Ambitious about Autism, which are fighting for people with autism and their families and are campaigning for proper diagnosis, decent treatment, social acceptance and full, productive lives for people with autism. Autism is a condition which requires an early diagnosis to enable individuals with autism and their families to be properly supported. It is therefore concerning that NAS has warned that children and adults are having to wait on average more than two years for a diagnosis.

    I also want to pay tribute to the many local groups and charities across St Helens North who are working hard to support people living with Autism and their families, groups such as Little Smarties and Inspire to Aspire.

    I know NAS also raises the important issue of the employment gap for people with autism. At the General Election in June 2017, I stood on a manifesto with the ambition to make our country autism-friendly. It committed to work with employers, trade unions and public services to improve awareness of conditions such as autism in the workplace and in society. Thank you once again for contacting me and for sharing your views. I can assure you I will continue to follow this issue closely and press the Government to make our country autism-friendly so that autistic people are able to access the whole of their community.

  • ‘Back Your Local Bookie’ campaign

    The ‘Back Your Local Bookie’ campaign by the Association of British Bookmakers has successfully highlighted positive stories from staff and customers about their local betting shops. There is a long history of betting shops in many communities, and I appreciate that they make a significant tax contribution. I particularly agree that staff who work in betting shops should be supported and I have consistently backed efforts to improve the safety of UK betting shops for staff and customers. The success and sustainability of our high streets is also important. For generations, high streets have been at the heart of our communities – centres that bring people together and define the character of a place. However, in recent years the economic downturn and changing shopping patterns have left our high streets under pressure. As you may be aware, the Government is reviewing the maximum stakes and prizes for gaming machines; the number and location of gaming machines; and social responsibility measures to protect players from gambling-related harm. I welcome this review and have long believed local communities should have more power to shape their high streets. I appreciate there are strongly held views on these matters and I hope that the Government will carefully consider all views that were raised in its recent consultation on this.

  • Illegal breeding of dogs

    I share constituents concern about the welfare of dogs that are bought and sold and about the detrimental impact that poor breeding practices have on the welfare of dogs. I believe it is very important that all breeders follow the high animal welfare standards enshrined in the Animal Welfare Act (2006) which was introduced by the previous UK Labour Government and which applies to England and Wales. This Act made it an offence to cause physical or mental suffering to an animal and made owners and keepers responsible for ensuring the welfare needs of their animals are met. It is vital that the standards enshrined in this act are properly enforced. As you may be aware, most elements of animal welfare, including welfare standards for dog breeding establishments, are devolved to the Welsh Government. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has passed legislation, which came into force on 30 April 2015, to improve welfare standards and to introduce tougher licensing conditions for the breeding of dogs. The Welsh Government’s Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014 introduced a number of requirements, including a maximum ratio of 20 dogs to one member of full-time staff in licensed breeding establishments. A licence is required if a breeder has three or more breeding dogs and either breeds, sells or offers breeding from their premises. The Welsh legislation also requires that breeders must retain ownership of puppies on their premises for at least 56 weeks (i.e. 8 weeks). This legislation has been welcomed by charities such as RSPCA Cymru, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association, who have called for similar legislation to be introduced in England. I welcome the fact that the UK Government is reviewing animal establishments licensing in England. The UK Government has consulted on this and its proposals are similar to the requirements of the Welsh legislation. For example, the UK Government proposes the prohibition of the sale of puppies under eight weeks old in England and a requirement for a licence for anyone producing three or more litters from their dogs in a 12 month period. I believe the UK Government should follow the lead of the Welsh Government and act to drive out unregulated breeders and dealers, in order to improve and safeguard animal welfare. I am pleased that my Shadow Frontbench colleagues in Westminster are calling on the UK Government to tighten current licensing requirements in England and to better enforce higher welfare standards and better target enforcement actions across the board. I hope the UK Government will now act to bring breeding regulations in England into the 21st century. In addition, the UK Government needs to promote better education to encourage responsible dog ownership and breeding.