An interview with Cardiff Central’s MP, Jo Stevens

By Sam Patterson

Jo Stevens is the MP for Cardiff Central having won the seat from the Liberal Democrats in last year’s General Election. We spoke to her in March about UK politics in general.

Critics of the cut to the ESA benefit point out that it coincided in the budget with a small cut to corporation tax, is this a telling observation?

I think it’s a pretty telling observation. What we saw was George reducing corporate tax again, which is something this government and the previous government have done, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with, but I do think if you’re constantly taking money from people who have very little in the first place, it’s not a fair approach to the economy. The Tories have put through policies which improve the life of already fairly wealthy people, and its people in the middle and at the bottom who are suffering, there’s only so much more of that you can do before people fall right through the safety net and it contributes to social issues that are developing.

The cut to the ESA benefit was defended as having being intended to help disabled people into work, was there any honesty in this claim?

If you talk to people who are in that group, they will say taking money from them is not going to make it easier for them to get into work. The most effective way to get people with disabilities and long-term health issues into work, is with help in the workplace, and that’s not where the government’s attention is. As a party, Labour have absolutely kept pressure on the government over this. We’ve voted consistently against the welfare bill and so have the House of Lords, I think Osborne and IDS got the mood of the country wrong.

What do you think of the sugar tax announced by George Osborne?

It’s something that we have talked about before. I thought it was a headline-grabbing announcement in what was otherwise a pretty downbeat budget, so it was taking attention away from the fact that our productivity is not rising, that Osborne has failed to achieve three of his targets he set himself. This is a bit of a gimmick because they’re going to increase the sugar tax, give some money to sports in schools, regardless of the fact that money has been cut to sport and schools. This isn’t really new money, it’s just replacing what they’ve already taken away.

Many say that Osborne’s deal with Google was a shoddy attempt to pander to voters who agree with Labour’s proposal of cracking down on tax avoidance as a major point of policy, is this true?

The Google investigation has been going on for almost 10 years, I think Osborne and the HMRC did a pretty poor deal with Google, for me it’s a simple moral argument which is, you should pay the tax you’re supposed to pay. HMRC is happy to go after small business, but Google, Amazon, Boots and many others seem to have so much leverage with HMRC. Many people, regardless of their political leanings feel that corporate tax avoidance is unfair, and we need to do something about it. The answer is always, “the tax rules are too complicated.” Well let’s sort them out then.

Can you elaborate a bit on the trade union bill?

Where do I start? The trade union bill is one of a number of measures the government is taking to silence opposition to them, it’s quite a clever strategy. Changes to voter registration, changes to parliamentary boundaries, changes to how the house of lords operates, changes to short money, which is the money which enables opposition parties to function, and hold the government to account. What the government will say is that we need the TU bill because there are too many strikes and they cause too much inconvenience. The reality is, strikes are actually at a ten year low. Any industrial action is taken as a last resort and is the result of a democratic ballot by members. There’s no urgent strike related issue that warrents government legislation of this sort. This is a merely a partisan measure designed to silence 6 million plus working people, many of whom don’t agree with Tory policy. There have been successes in the House of Lords and I’m hoping we’ll get some amendments to the bill when it comes back to the House of Commons.

Is the refugee debate over? Are you happy with the Conservatives’ plan to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020?

I’m absolutely not happy. We are the 5th richest nation on the planet and to say that we will take only 20,000 refugees over five years is pitiful, I’m ashamed of the government’s response to it, Yvette cooper is responsible for leading the task force looking into what we can do. There’s a lot of work going on trying to persuade sympathetic MPs in other parties to do more, because we can afford to do more. I’m old enough to remember the Vietnamese “boat people”. Everybody said we couldn’t take them, that we couldn’t afford it and that they wouldn’t integrate, yet they have made a huge contribution to our country and I know that many Syrian refugees would do exactly the same.

What do you make of the recent allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour, is this an exaggerated issue, or is something going on?

I am really concerned about the allegations that are currently under investigation about possible anti-Semitism within the party. Jeremy made it absolutely clear that he is against any form of racism, he has been all his life. The investigation’s underway, if there are any findings, I hope it’s dealt with properly. There’s absolutely no place for this in the Labour party.

Jeremy said his first priority in 10 Downing Street would be to address what he calls the “scandal” of homelessness, can we expect to see real changes with a Corbyn Prime-ministership?

I think you will see changes if Jeremy becomes PM. This is something that is absolutely at the forefront of his political priorities, and he’ll make references to it most weeks at PMQs. He believes, quite rightly, that everybody has the right to a roof over their heads. If you look at other issues such as family breakdowns, crime and debt, they stem largely from insecure housing. If people have got a decent home that they can afford to heat, the prevalence of many social issues would decrease. I think it’s a top priority, it’s a sensible and laudable aim to have and the time has come to do something about it. I think Jeremy can and will.

As Shadow Minister for Justice, what reforms would you like to see in the prison system and the justice system?

What has happened in last 6 years, is that the justice system has become inaccessible to many people. For example, employment tribunals. If you lose your job, if you’re sacked because you’re pregnant, made redundant without proper process or you’re not paid your wages, you now have to pay a fee in order to take your case to an employment tribunal. Many people want to access them, and many can’t get justice. Legal aid has been removed from many areas. Criminal lawyers, who do a great public service in defending people, have had their rates cut and their average earnings are now about 25k. Michael Gove is talking the talk about prison reform, but we’ve got a prison system that is over populated, under staffed, a third of prison officers have left the service in recent years, violence is at its highest levels recently, drug taking is rocketing. You cannot reform prisons without getting the prison population down and spending money on educating people in prisons, to rehabilitate them. Gove has said he isn’t going to be reducing the population and he’s not going to spend more on education so I think his plans won’t make any difference whatsoever.

Many comment that Jeremy has taken Labour in a new direction, and a recent Yougov poll put him one point ahead of the Conservatives, do you think he will continue to increase in popularity?

I think Jeremy is starting to cut through in terms of what he stands for and his very different approach to politics. He’s constantly fighting against an extremely hostile media, but he is a decent man and he is a principled man. A lot of people think politicians change their views to suit the mood and that they don’t have any conviction, but Jeremy does. Many people will agree with him, others won’t, but you can’t say of him that he’s someone who will say what he thinks his audience wants to hear. I’m hopeful. Polls can be inaccurate, the only poll that matters is the poll on Election Day, but they’re heading in the right direction now and it’s really good news.

In parliament, you brought up the issue of what effect Brexit would have on the functionality of the European arrest warrant, have you had a satisfactory response?

We’re not getting responses on anything to do with Europe because the Tories are so split on it. Look at the ministry of justice team, half of them are voting in and Gove is the most prominent out voter so they’re not giving responses for anything at the moment. The whole focus of the government is containing the Tory party and keeping it on track until the referendum, so they’re not producing anything. Parliament is just ticking along and not really talking about anything important because they don’t’ want to upset their backbenchers over Europe. So we’re on hold until the 23rd of June

What would you say to students who are unsure on which way to vote in the European referendum?

I’m going to vote in, for three reasons mainly. Firstly, peace and security. We haven’t had a major war in Europe for over 60 years, and I think the European movement is central to that. Second, the social chapter, most of our progressive laws and rights come from Europe. Things like maternity pay, paid holiday leave, adoption leave that sort of thing, if we come out of Europe, those rights that have taken so long to acquire, health and safety in the work place all the things that protect us, will be whittled away. And finally, Cardiff Central and Wales in particular, are net beneficiaries of the EU so we have extra money coming in, it creates jobs, businesses invest here, we have three universities here in Cardiff, if we leave, the lost European research money means we might not be able to sustain three unis here in the future. So particularly for young people and students, the impact for that demographic will be even more significant if we come out so I hope students will vote to stay in.

Alongside working as an MP for Cardiff Central, you’re active in an NGO called Justice for Columbia, could you tell us a little bit about it?

JFC is an NGO that was setup by the TUC to lobby for and campaign and represent TU and human rights lawyers and community organisers in Colombia who have been tortured, disappeared and killed by paramilitaries under the instruction of the Columbian government over the past decade. I went out there as a trade union lawyer, I took an interest in working with political prisoners who had been incarcerated without charge in the most horrific conditions and so I have made that a corner stone of my campaigning life over the last decade. I visit lots of prisons in the UK and there’s some pretty awful stuff you see but compared to the womens’ prison in Bogota, yeah absolutely horrible.

If Jeremy were to become PM in 2020, what would be the major changes we’d see?

You will see the return of the rail system to public ownership. You’ll see an economic credibility and economic review that is going to produce economic policy taking into account expert views from the panel that John McDonnell has put together and you’ll also see, what will be called workplace 2020, which I’m working on alongside with Ian Lavery TU Shadow Minister, about producing a new piece of legislation for 2020 to reflect what rights and responsibilities employers and employees should have in 2020, tackling all sorts of issues, highlighting good practice and good social partnerships and working between good employers and trade unions and getting rid of the exploitative conditions that are currently in place like zero hours contracts. But this will be a detailed discussion over the next 18 months, and we’re particularly interested in hearing from young people in insecure employment about what they want to see in 2020 under a Labour government in the world of work. It will be launched in May and I’d really actively encourage anybody who’s interested to feed into the review because we want to hear from you.

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