Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
I can’t quite let this column pass without making some reference to the recent goings-on at Westminster and 10 Downing Street.
I have been involved in politics for over 40 years and I have never known a time like it. We have had three different Prime Ministers in the space of just two months, and historians will record that the previous incumbent was in her job for as long as Brian Clough lasted as the manager of Leeds United in 1974.
This is not the place to dwell on the party politics of what has happened, but recent events have damaged the economy, put up people’s mortgages and undermined our international reputation. And as the economic problems facing us become more acute, we are now beginning to see the true economic costs of leaving the European Union.
We now have the lowest level of investment in the G7, and if you make it more difficult to sell to your biggest trading partner – and that is exactly what has happened as businesses face new costs, bureaucracy and red tape in trying to export across the Channel – then it harms investment and growth.
I say that not to revisit the referendum arguments – that decision has been made – but because, as the new Prime Minister has said, we have to be honest with each other about what we are facing if we’re going to take the right decisions to get us out of the mess we are in.
In response to rapidly rising energy bills and with winter beckoning, Leeds City Council has published a map of warm spaces across the city. These are places where residents can go to keep warm during the day. The list currently shows Leeds City Council community hubs and libraries – which will be offering free hot refreshments and things to do – but additional warm spaces, like churches, will be added as they are confirmed. This is a really welcome and practical initiative.
I have written before about the vital job that food banks do locally to help families who are struggling, and I recently visited the Leeds South and the East Food Bank depot in Millshaw to find out how they are getting on. They told me that the pressure on them and other food banks in the city is increasing. Across Leeds as a whole there are now 99 food bank locations. Demand is going up and donations are down as the cost of living crisis bites on everyone, including those who make regular contributions. So far this year, the Leeds South and East Food Bank has helped to feed over 10,000 people, half of them children. When you reflect on those numbers, they are truly shocking. As one of the staff in South Leeds said to me “Our aim never changes. We want to be out of a job,” Sadly, that hope is a long, long way off.
Also shocking are the pictures we have seen coming out of Iran where women and girls have shown enormous courage in standing up for what are universal human rights, following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. She had been arrested simply for not wearing her head scarf properly. The protests have spread right across Iran and many people have been killed by the authorities for taking to the streets. In sending our solidarity to those calling for basic human freedoms, I know this will mean a lot to those risking their lives, but also to refugees from Iran to whom we have given safe shelter in South Leeds. Like us, they long for the day when peaceful change for the better comes to their country.
On a much happier note, I greatly enjoyed my recent visit to Westwood Primary School in Middleton where I had been invited to talk to year 4 and 5 pupils about my job. As ever, their questions were excellent, and at one point I started to try and explain how votes take place in the House of Commons. The language that we still use isn’t a great aid to understanding; for example phrases such as “As many as are of that opinion say Aye”, “To the contrary Noe” and “Division” are not terribly user-friendly. So I enlisted the help of some of the pupils to play the part of the Speaker and the Tellers. They were magnificent. I decided for some reason that the motion under debate would be whether chips should always be on the school menu. They all seemed to enjoy it and so did I. Afterwards, I met members of the School Council who have taken the first step in getting elected to represent their fellow pupils. I reckon there could be one or two future MPs amongst the wonderful pupils I met.