At the start of a new session of Parliament, MPs spend many days debating the programme proposed by the Government – the Queen’s Speech. After the initial headlines are put out there by Government spin-doctors and rebutted by their opposition equivalents, individual MPs often use the chance to link the programme to the problems and challenges facing their own areas. So for me, most of Monday this week was spent in the Commons chamber in a six hour debate waiting for my chance to have my five minutes, to make our case to the Secretary of State. I pointed out that it is only reasonable that when the Government bring forward their programme, they can hardly be surprised when the Opposition offer criticism – that is part of our job! But I was slightly surprised that this Government is making it so easy for us. When the country is struggling with rising prices and a climate emergency, there are obvious measures that any Government could be taking, whether introducing a windfall tax or helping us insulate our homes. The question I found myself asking was: why on earth are the Government not doing any of those things? Answer came there none, of course, but I suspect these issues will not go away.
In my brief scan of the proposals I picked on some things that seemed to me of particular significance to Cambridge. I first mentioned the Government’s proposals to reform data laws – for many of our research and tech institutions a really important issue, and one I follow closely. There is little detail on what is proposed, but I gently reminded the Minister that if we end up with a very different set of rules from our neighbours, there will be difficult consequences. That is of course, an understatement, in the week that we have seen the very future of the UK put at risk in Northern Ireland because of the Government’s continuing refusal to admit the obvious – that there is always a border somewhere, and that if you have two sets of standards, it adds to cost.
For most people though, the more immediate challenges are housing, education and health. The Government proposes a new Schools Bill, but it is insipid stuff with more tinkering with structures. What I hear from teachers when visiting Cambridge schools is that there is a real problem with very young children who really missed out during the pandemic with all the soft social skills, and that is where the Government should be putting the focus. When it comes to Universities and Colleges there is better news in that everyone thinks that helping people learn throughout their lifetime is sensible, but again there is precious little detail. On the big issues facing universities like ours in Cambridge there was silence. Large budgets and collaborative networks hinge on our relationship with European Union research programmes, but the prospect of an association agreement, as promised eighteen months ago, is diminishing every day, with the risk that many leading researchers will leave.
In a city where so many people have to rent, the promise of more protection for renters is welcome, but some of this has been promised before, and I’m sceptical that the Government will address the rapidly rising rents being faced by many. My fury though, was reserved for what is happening in our health service. Staff, at every level, are doing all they can, but wherever you turn, there are problems. I’ve been talking to local dentists for months about the lack of access to NHS dentistry and a report last week highlighted that we now live in a ‘dental desert’. I never imagined we would reach a state where people in acute pain can no longer get help—that is happening all over the country, and from harrowing accounts from constituents, far too frequently here in Cambridge. The reasons are deep-seated and long-standing, but the failure to sort out the recognition of qualifications held by dentists from overseas hasn’t helped, and of course many have returned to the EU.
And it isn’t just dentistry. On ambulance waits, again, we have reached a situation where people are paying for the National Health Service but can no longer rely on it. Last weekend, a paramedic who works for the East of England Ambulance Service told me how she is haunted by the memory of an elderly woman who had fallen but was left to wait 18 hours for an ambulance. The complications that followed as a consequence meant that she did not recover. I was looking the Secretary of State straight in the eye. “Lives are being lost. Where is the urgency?” I asked. I referenced his leadership on tackling the virus, and implored his Government to show the same urgency now.
I finished with an appeal to get our infrastructure sorted, including making sure that the promised East West rail link to Oxford is delivered in full, and with a cry from the heart to stop the foolish Government attacks on our universities, one of our great success stories. The Government should stop picking fights, having pointless arguments and stoking up culture wars; we should concentrate on what we are good at and start celebrating our universities.