Well, what a week it has been in parliament! Theresa May survived a vote of no confidence only 24 hours after her government suffered the biggest defeat in history, watching as its flagship policy withered on the floor of the House of Commons.
Our country’s future is at stake. The decisions the government and parliament take in the coming weeks will not only determine our relationship with our closest neighbours, but also who we want to be as a country and as a people.
It will determine the opportunities that our children and grandchildren will have – will they, like us, be able to study, work and live anywhere they want? And will they be able to fall in love with whoever they want? This is why, as deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, I have relentlessly been making the case for a people’s vote and for us to stay as members of the European Union – that’s the best deal we will ever have.
But, if you manage to break through the Brexit noise, you’ll see that our country faces so many other challenges, for which the government simply does not have time. Homelessness. the recurring NHS winter crisis, child poverty and many, many more.
I am so glad that as a party the Liberal Democrats are united in our resolve to fight for staying in the EU – it means we don’t need to waste time on internal infighting. Instead we can think and act on the other serious issues that people up and down the country face every day.
So as well as fighting to stop Brexit, we have been fighting to protect civil liberties too. The government has been trying to slip through new authoritarian laws in its Counter-Terrorism Bill, such as making it a crime just to travel to certain parts of the world. The Bill passed the House of Lords this week, but we have managed to limit its impact on individual rights, including exempting aid workers and journalists from the new travel ban.
Since 2016 we’ve been campaigning to improve the rights of renters, especially those on low incomes who are being ripped off by stratospheric admin fees, which puts them at risk of homelessness. And even when the government finally decided it needed to act, the Liberal Democrats had to fight tooth and nail to close various loopholes.
We secured significant limits on the fees that could be charged to tenants, better explanations for unreturned deposits and caps on security deposits to five weeks’ rent. There are many who cannot afford to buy their own place, but that does not mean they should become easy prey for unscrupulous landlords.
I am so proud of my colleague Wera Hobhouse, whose campaign against upskirting forced the government’s hand. The vile invasion of taking upskirt photographs will no longer go unpunished, after the Voyeurism Bill cleared its last parliamentary hurdle this week.
Last summer I started a campaign to get large companies to publish their parental leave and pay policies on their websites. This would help prospective candidates understand what benefits they can expect and reduce the risk of discrimination that so many women still face at interview. The campaign was a success with ten large companies, employing about 150,000, signing up to the initiative and the government promising to consult on the policy.
Whatever happens with Brexit it will shape our country’s future for years to come, but so will technology. Yet few in Westminster are talking about it. I want the UK to be a global leader in developing and deploying technology, but I also want us to ensure that the benefits are fairly shared across society.
For so many in the UK, the social contract is broken – the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll reap the rewards. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies are just as capable of fixing the social contract as they are to weaken it further. I am leading efforts in our party to get to grips with these questions, consulting world leading experts and setting out how we can make technology work for every single person.
However, despite all we are doing, there is still so much that is falling by the wayside while this Conservative government tries to keep it together. Long overdue legislation on domestic violence and social care, for example, is being delayed. Meanwhile homelessness continues to rise and every week we hear of more young people losing their lives on our streets.
Brexit is not only a national embarrassment, it has also sucked attention away from other important issues. The poorest and most vulnerable in our society are paying the price for ideological Brexiteers to chase their wildest dreams.
The fastest way out of this mess is to go back to the public and let them choose between May’s deal and staying in the EU. I urge the government and Jeremy Corbyn to stop dithering and get behind a people’s vote – let’s sort out this mess so we can tackle the real problems in the UK.
Jo Swinson is the Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire
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