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It is a pleasure to follow so many distinguished speakers this afternoon. In particular, I would like to add my agreement to the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend
One of the joys of our role as Members of Parliament is being able to work with so many community organisations that, all year round, do such valuable work for people who are often the most vulnerable in our society. During a public service and volunteering week I held earlier in the autumn, I had the pleasure of spending some time with a range of organisations, including Age UK, the Springboard Centre, Black Country Food Bank, the dementia unit and A&E volunteers at Russells Hall hospital and the West Midlands police.
At Christmas in particular we value the role of our community organisations, but they do such work all year round. It is very difficult to pick out any one individual example above any other but it would remiss of me not to highlight Wordsley community centre in my constituency, led by the formidable Janet Blakeway, and its work to improve the centre’s accessibility. I recently launched its new stair lift, which had been made possible by Janet’s work to bring in local firms, CE Solutions and Handicare, to do the work for the local community, really transforming the services that are on offer.
The big society may have passed into political history as a buzzword, but the work that so many unheralded volunteers and community organisations do—every day of the week, every week of the year—continues regardless of passing fads in our political lexicon. Some argue that, in the selfish age in which we are supposed to live, people are no longer interested in working for a community, giving up their time or supporting good causes. That is certainly not my experience from the support for the Macmillan coffee morning or the community clean-ups we have held in Dudley South, which have been extremely well supported by the community. I hope that the deputy Leader of the House will ensure that the Government continue to look at how they can make it easier for people to give up their time and for businesses to donate resources and skills to help the communities around them.
I am particularly pleased to see a growing number of friends’ groups supporting our local parks and green spaces; at a time when local authorities are having to look at how and where they can dedicate resources, communities are saying that these things are important to them and going out and taking practical action. Most recently in Dudley South, the Friends of Cot Lane Park group was formed a month or so ago on a wet Wednesday evening, but still attracted 60 people from local estates. The group was formed in response to damage and disruption caused following an unauthorised Traveller camp at the park.
The Black Country has seen an unusual number of unauthorised Traveller camps over the summer and into the early autumn. Many have been responsible and considerate to local neighbours, but sadly some have behaved criminally. There has been disruption and criminal damage and police have reported not only robberies but violent crimes. While local authorities in my own borough of Dudley and neighbouring boroughs have pursued successive magistrates court orders, those who seek to take advantage of the system know that that means that they have at least seven days before they have to worry about it. As a result, some of the less responsible and considerate groups have merely gone from one park or play area to the next, causing the same damage and disruption at each.
I hope that the Government will look again at practical questions such as whether authorised land for Traveller camps can be pooled so that local authorities can come together to make adequate provision across a wider area rather than in a single authority area, and whether it is time to allow local authorities to designate particular land or categories of land as sites where unauthorised camps attract criminal penalties and the realities that go with that. Of course we must always consider the genuine human rights of Traveller communities, but they must always be balanced with the legitimate rights of settled communities.
I was pleased that the then Chancellor was able to announce in the Budget in March this year the approval of the enterprise zone in my constituency. We are still waiting for the final approval of the business case, and I hope that the Deputy Leader will make inquiries about it so that the new jobs, investment and increased prosperity can come into my constituency and benefit not only those whom I represent but those in neighbouring constituencies.
Similarly, the Government have signed off the extension to the metro network between Wednesbury and Brierley Hill in my constituency. It is being underwritten by the new West Midlands combined authority, meaning that it can go ahead sooner than expected. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to extending it further to Stourbridge so that the tram link can connect back in with the main line rail network and people can enjoy some of the benefits of HS2 connectivity.
The final theme I want to raise before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess is the need to work to ensure that everyone in our communities has the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed. I have been lucky enough to visit every school in my constituency since I was elected last May. Clearly, there is much excellent teaching and school management around Dudley and the wider Black Country. It is important that I make that point because my wife has recently returned to the classroom and I know that she is listening; it could be a cold Christmas if I forget to emphasise that.
Invictus Education Trust and Windsor Academy Trust in my constituency are showing the power of schools working in partnership to drive up standards. However, across the wider Black Country, Ofsted has raised serious concerns with the four local authorities. Children in those areas start below the national average, but sadly they slip further behind across key stages 1 to 4. The performance, sadly, is less good than similar local authorities elsewhere in the country with similar levels of deprivation, so we really need to consider how we can ensure no child is left behind, whichever part of the country they live in. High performing schools and academy trusts must be able to innovate, so we can have more diversity and tailored education provision in state schools. The Invictus Trust, which has one school in my constituency, is preparing plans for a specialist secondary school that incorporates part of an almost military-style curriculum, together with core EBacc subjects, to really target those in danger of becoming disengaged with the education system. I hope the Government will give that serious consideration when the application is submitted.
As I said, we have a lot of talent in our schools. I saw that recently when I received a letter from India, Thea and Jasmine from Belle Vue primary school about the scourge of modern slavery. I have taken up this issue with Ministers, and I know the Deputy Leader of the House has done a lot of work on it in the past. The quality of the letter and the depth of understanding it demonstrated, not only of the slave trade in the early 19th century and the abolition of slavery in the United States but how it affects our communities now, was remarkable for primary school children.
You will be aware of the talent of some of my constituents, Mr Speaker, from the Christmas card I hope you received, which showcased the artistic talents of Alex Maher and Lucy Hannon of Maidensbridge primary school, William Hetheridge of Glynne primary school, Millie Millard of Ashwood Park primary school, Tia Worrell of St Mary’s Church of England primary school, Thomas Pinches of The Brier school and Reggie of Netherton Church of England primary school. I am delighted that the seven excellent entries were all able to go on the Christmas card. Merry Hill shopping centre in my constituency was so impressed with the standard of the entries that it has put them on display, so that people doing their last-minute Christmas shopping can see just how many talented artists we have in Dudley South.
I think that that is a good point on which to finish. I again wish you a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and best wishes for the new year.