Lyn Brown MP

Member of Parliament for West Ham


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On the 11th of September 2015, I spoke against the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill in the House of Commons during the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill second reading debate. You can read my speech below.

I am afraid that I cannot support this Bill. My concern is that we will fundamentally change the way that our society thinks about and deals with the terminally ill, severely disabled people and the vulnerable, troubled and elderly.

My mum died suddenly and unexpectedly, riddled by cancer, but I know that my mum, faced with a terminal prognosis in a world where there was the possibility of state-assisted suicide, acceptable and accepted by society, would have tormented herself during her last months with the question of when she should ask for that button to be pressed. She would have worried about the stresses that my sister and I would have endured, she would have worried about the weight of her care being shouldered by the nurses and the doctors, and she would have been anxious that folk would think that she was consuming too many resources, selfishly staying alive, costing money, when she could and should just die.

My mum was not vulnerable. She was not alone or a depressive. She was dearly loved; and yet I know that the mere existence of legal and assisted suicide would have placed an enormous burden on her. But what of those without a loving family? What of those elderly people—let’s face it, they do exist—with families more interested in the cost of care, and its impact on their dwindling inheritance, than the priceless gift of life? Would not some of my more vulnerable constituents think that they ought to take a course of action because it is available and despite the safeguards in the Bill, which I acknowledge have been carefully crafted? Can we be absolutely sure that they would not be pressured into it?

It is naive to believe that we can prevent an elderly, expensive or asset-rich relative being encouraged, coerced or emotionally blackmailed into taking their own life. And if just one person makes that decision to end their life as a result of such pressure, that would be a tragedy.

This Bill seeks to provide the right to assistance in dying only to those who are terminally ill. I believe supporters of the Bill have real integrity and do not intend its scope to be extended further. But if the Bill is passed, I believe that its scope will be extended, partly by case law, to apply to more people. Holland introduced assisted dying for the terminally ill in 2002. Initially, hardly any patients with psychiatric illnesses or dementia sought suicide. Now, just 13 years later, assisted suicide is sought and granted to elderly, lonely or bereaved people. Pressure for doctors to accede to requests comes from patients and relatives, as I believe it will here.

I am against this Bill because I worry that the mere existence of the process of assisted dying will make the vulnerable more vulnerable. It will change fundamentally the relationship between a patient and a doctor, and I oppose it most strenuously, because I think it will fundamentally, slowly but inexorably, change our society’s attitude to death and the dying, with a creeping invidious expectation that our elderly, infirm or disabled should take themselves out of the igloo of old, and die a dignified death, leaving the young, fit and able unencumbered by their burdensome, difficult, messy, expensive, pain-filled and challenging lives.

Life is precious. But the virtues in a society that set it apart as wholesome, decent and ethical are those which nurture and value that life. They are the qualities of tolerance, understanding, forbearance and, dare I say it, love, which are such precious commodities. They engender and sustain compassion and ensure a growing humanity, a more civilised society for the living, that shields and truly values life.

Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill Speech 11th September 2015

On the 11th of September 2015, I spoke against the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill in the House of Commons during the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill second reading debate. You can...

Over sixty MPs are down to speak in the Trade Union debate today. Given I spoke on Friday, I won't be able to deliver my speech. Here is why I will be voting against the Bill. 

Mr Speaker. Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP, was elected to this House by the people of West Ham in 1892. It is by no accident that the proud trade unionist was first successful in an area which now forms part of my constituency. The Royal Docks, which I lived beside, supplied much of the employment for locals, and the dockers worked on a ‘call-on’ system of labour. They never knew when they were going to get work or how much they were going to get. Still they had to be available at the crack of dawn just in case there was a ship to unload. It was a zero-hours contract system in the 19th century. My grandad also stood on the stones but was never called: he was a trade unionist and was blacklisted.

The first majority Labour government abolished this appalling system of exploitation. They did so with former Docker’s Union official, Ernest Bevin, sitting at the cabinet table. It is only by generations of workers organising that we have secured the right to a decent living; a fair reward for the production of the enormous wealth of this nation.

The neighbouring constituency of Bow used to house the Bryant and May Matchstick Factory. In fact, my family grew up within walking distance of its chimneys. The factory was the site of the Bow Match Women's Strike of 1888 where working class women, subjected to the poison of white phosphorus, stood together in solidarity, demanding a safer working environment. And they won.

Trade unions continue to play a vital role today as the old evils that they were formed to combat are, in many ways, still with us. 744,000 people are trapped in zero-hours contracts, a further 1.7 million people are under-employed and seeking additional hours, and there were over 690,000 work related injuries last year. Worst of all, 142 workers died at work, including someone working in my constituency. That is why 6,400,000 of our citizens pay to be a member of a Trade Union. They recognise the vital role that Trade Unions play in leading campaigns such as shaming Pizza Express into no longer pocketing tips intended for staff.

A government with the best interests of workers and the economy at heart would want to work with organised labour. Unfortunately this Bill sets out this Government’s intention to do quite the opposite. It will make collective organisation far more difficult, it will subject workers to a barrage of unnecessary and burdensome regulation and, at its worst, it will deny workers their basic rights to freedom of expression and association. I think this Bill is frankly disgusting.

What are the Government’s motivations behind such illiberal proposals? A look at Britain’s industrial relations suggest that it can’t be a response to industrial strife. Our industrial relations are harmonious by both historical and international standards.

Last year there were 151 work stoppages which led to a total of 788,000 lost working- days. By contrast, 30 years earlier there were 1,206 work stoppages and 27,135,000 days lost for British workers. The current numbers are part of a long-term trend, with 1 working day being lost over this decade for every 10 that was lost in the 1980s. International statistics paint the same placid picture. According to the European Trade Union Institute, Britain has just over half the level of disputes as the EU average. Over the course of a year we lose 150 fewer days per 1,000 workers than the French. The Thatcherite Members opposite might be stuck in the 1980s but the working people of this country have moved on.

I can only conclude that the motivation behind these measures is both petty and spiteful. It is a Bill in search of a problem and it’s a Government in search of a fight. It is completely disconnected from the labour needs of this country.

Whilst it is clear that we currently have harmonious industrial relations, there can be no doubt that this Bill has the potential to return us to strife.

Last year workers voted to strike on 638 occasions, yet there were only 151 work stoppages. This disparity is because negotiators primarily use their authority to call a strike as a means of ensuring that their balloted members' claims and views are taken seriously. Strike action, even when approved by a ballot, is only ever a last resort.

The removal of rolling mandates, and regulations insisting that strike ballots name an expected date for industrial action, will eliminate the capacity for negotiators to use ballots with any flexibility. It is clear that strike ballots will become a blunt instrument, which have to be utilised to be effective. To anyone who understands industrial relations, this aspect of the Bill is clearly a recipe for more days lost to strike action. Workers, managers and the British public don’t want this, but it seems that is exactly what this Government is determined to do.

The proposals to prevent public sector employers from deducting union subscriptions at source are particularly spiteful. The jargon of modernisation is being used as an excuse to make it difficult for workers to pay subs. But there is absolutely nothing modern about creating duplication.

Public sector HR departments already process pension deductions, professional membership subscriptions, bike loan repayments, charitable donations and other collective endeavours pursued by employees. By denying workers the same right for industrial organisation, the Government are sending a clear message that they’ll do everything they can to disrupt union activity. The Government’s stance is weakened further by the former Chief Secretary of the Treasury, that renowned socialist Danny Alexander, who told his colleagues that there is ‘no fiscal case’ for these changes as costs are ‘minimal.’

Mr Speaker, I would now like to turn to the proposals to create super-majority requirements for strike ballots.

The 40% support threshold for key public sector workers, and the ‘majority of a majority’ proposals for all other workers, are entirely arbitrary. We accept the legitimacy of many democratic votes that fail to meet them. The Secretary of State for Business and Industry, for example, only received the support of 38.4% of the 73,337 people eligible to vote in his constituency. I have to admit that I too would fail to meet the threshold, and that is despite having one of the strongest mandates in Parliament. But I’m not the one proposing these radical changes. How can it be right for the Secretary of State to set a test of legitimacy for industrial democracy that he can’t even meet himself? Some democratic offices do not even meet the lower threshold. The Government’s Police and Crime Commissioners were elected on an average turn out of just 15%.

The thresholds are not only arbitrary but also unfair. The Government is still barring Unions from using online voting, which would allow Unions to reach all of their members during a ballot. If anything, this Bill makes paper balloting even more onerous by demanding all sorts of new information, and detailed descriptions of each dispute. This refusal clearly shows that the Government isn’t really interested in ensuring that workers are engaged in the democratic processes of their unions. It is just one more obstructing mechanism.

What we have here is a Bill in search of a problem and a Government in search of a fight. Anyone seriously interested in industrial relations in this country must reject this petty and counter-productive set of proposals, I shall do so with pride.





Trade Union Bill

Over sixty MPs are down to speak in the Trade Union debate today. Given I spoke on Friday, I won't be able to deliver my speech. Here is why I...

I'm glad to say the Labour Party voted against the Budget, against the Queen’s Speech and, contrary to misleading claims, against the Welfare Bill.

Labour put down and voted for a motion which made clear that we, ”decline to give a Second Reading to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, because the Bill will prevent the Government from continuing … to reduce child poverty.”  The Green MP and the SNP did not vote for this motion.  If our motion had been passed, the Bill would have been dropped.

Labour did not vote against the whole Bill, as it contains measures we support:  a commitment to three million apprenticeships, including more at higher and advanced levels; extra support for ‘troubled’ families, (a scheme that works well in Newham and that I support as part of my shadow Ministerial brief), and lower rents in social housing.  In circumstances like these, where there are things in the Bill that we don’t oppose, but others with which we disagree fundamentally, a “reasoned amendment” is laid.

There are some myths abroad that it is the Welfare Bill which will slash the Working Families Tax Credits of three million working families by over £1000 per year and scrap the maintenance allowances for the poorest students.  These are issues I have spoken about and against in my column.  The cuts to Tax Credits and the maintenance allowance for students are not in this Bill.  They were not debated.  Those cuts will form part of other votes later this year.  I will vote against them.

The clear reality is that Labour did oppose the Welfare Reform Bill.  We voted for a Labour motion that would have stopped the whole Bill altogether, had enough MPs voted for it. 

The vote on July's Welfare Reform and Work Bill explained

I'm glad to say the Labour Party voted against the Budget, against the Queen’s Speech and, contrary to misleading claims, against the Welfare Bill.

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