I’ve spent most of the time since I was elected to parliament specialising in policy areas on which I could use the experience and expertise I had what I’d done before I became an MP. I’ve concentrated on working on policies to tackle poverty and inequality, on education and employment, and on improving the criminal justice system and reducing crime. More recently, I’ve benefited from having the amazing Heather from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project seconded to my office. Thanks to her excellent support, I’ve added asylum and immigration policy to my repertoire too.
But this week I’ve been well and truly outside my comfort zone, spending my time on policy subjects that I knew much less about. On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee held an important hearing on action to tackle air quality breaches. Knowing how much this matters to us in Stretford and Urmston, I was determined to ask questions on behalf of my constituents. In particular, I wanted to ask about the government’s approach to Clean Air Zones (CAZ) – as we’re all aware that mayor Andy Burnham has been directed by the government to implement a CAZ in Greater Manchester, and it’s causing a lot of controversy.
I make no apology for supporting measures to tackle traffic pollution. Air quality in parts of Stretford and Urmston breaches legal levels, threatening our health and our quality of life. But what emerged from Monday’s hearing was that the government’s focus on charging schemes as the default means of implementing a CAZ ignores the broader approach we could take in Greater Manchester, looking at what impact wider transport measures to encourage active travel, reduce fares and upgrade polluting vehicles could achieve. I asked if the government should revisit its default assumption about charging, something Andy has been calling for. The Government officials didn’t agree.
Air quality has long been a big issue in my constituency, so although it’s not my specialist area, I’ve done my best to learn as much as I can over the years. But on Tuesday and Thursday, I faced an even steeper learning curve. I’m serving on the committee scrutinising the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) bill, a subject that was really new to me, and I’ve had to read up on it fast!
This legislation aims to allow targeted genetic changes to be made to plants and animals in order to produce benefits that could also occur through traditional breeding and natural processes. It’s controversial and highly technical, and I was lucky to be briefed by my constituent Liz from GM Freeze, who is an expert on the subject, before sitting through two days of listening to scientists, breeders and campaigners sharing their views (they certainly didn’t all agree). There are so many issues to consider, from protecting organic farming to animal welfare to information for consumers. Next week we’ll have two more days when the committee will debate these matters and scrutinise the government’s proposals, and I’m reflecting carefully on what I heard in our sessions this week.
Finally, I want to express my warmest congratulations to my great friend and colleague Cllr Andrew Western, who was selected by Labour party members on Sunday to stand as our candidate at the next election when I stand down, and will be Stretford and Urmston's next Labour MP! Andy is a brilliant leader of Trafford Council, a formidable campaigner, and will be a great MP. We’re both looking forward to spending lots of time getting out and about, chatting to residents and hearing your views in the coming months!