Week in politics: Passport Office concerns & could Redcar replicate Nashville?

Mr Gove compared Redcar to Nashville this week, while Labour MP for the City of Durham Mary Kelly Foy highlighted what she described as "toxic working cultures" at Durham's Passport Office. Credit: PA/ITV News Tyne Tees

For all of its troubles, can Boris Johnson's government still make some real progress on that big promise of 'levelling up' prosperity around the country, to the benefit of regions like the North East?

His Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was up before the Levelling Up Committee on Monday afternoon, where he said: "the inflationary problems that we face only make the challenge at once more difficult and more important."

Mr Gove spoke of his recent visit to the United States, and how the city of Nashville was "booming" because of tax cuts.

He said he was "very keen" to shift powers over raising or lowering taxes to local leaders here, and "if [Tees Valley Mayor] Ben Houchen were able to do everything that he wanted in taxation terms, then it would be the case undoubtedly that Redcar would become the Nashville of England."

I think he was talking about rapid economic growth, rather than becoming a base for country music.

Mr Gove made similar points about devolving more powers when he appeared - via videolink - at a conference for northern Conservative MPs on Friday.

He was a last-minute stand-in for the Prime Minister, whose presence was expected in Doncaster, but who travelled to Kyiv instead, causing real anger among some Tories. 

There does seem to be some level of consensus within the party over policy direction though, with 'Northern Research Group' chair Jake Berry calling for "devo max" and local leaders being able to cut taxes.

During Health Questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting accused his counterpart of doing "precisely nothing to investigate the scandal" around claims of the North East Ambulance covering up details of patient deaths linked to mistakes by paramedics.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid responded by announcing: "we will be having an independent review and the NHS has agreed to do that."

We have asked the government for further detail on the review but have not yet received any.

A statement from NEAS included: "We welcome this independent scrutiny" and "we have been working closely with our regulators to ensure that there is full and transparent sharing of any learning from our internal investigations."

During Tuesday's debate on national delays in processing passport applications, Labour MP for the City of Durham Mary Kelly Foy highlighted what she described as "toxic working cultures" at Durham's Passport Office.

She said bosses had "refused to allow me to visit", so she used social media to ask workers to contact her.

She said there had been "alleged bullying tactics from senior officials" in pressuring staff to return to work after covid outbreaks, amid other concerns.

The Passport Office response said: "Our staff in Durham are rightly focused on working tirelessly to resolve applications as quickly as possible, this is our utmost priority. Coordinating a visit for an MP would divert vital resource."

During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Labour MP for Blaydon Liz Twist said: "on the eve of the biggest rail dispute in a generation, it has emerged that ministers have not held any talks whatsoever since March."

Boris Johnson responded: "when one union baron was asked about this, he said, 'I don’t negotiate with a Tory Government.'"

He continued: "We all know how much money the Labour frontbenchers take from the RMT. We know why they are sitting on their hands during Labour’s rail strike. They should come out and condemn it."

The Prime Minister had aimed a similar barb at Sir Keir Starmer a few minutes earlier, to which the Labour leader replied: "I do not want the strikes to go ahead."

Conservative ministers clearly see this as an opportunity to attack Labour, while Downing Street has insisted the government "can't intervene" in negotiations between unions and rail companies.

The strikes are due to cause widespread disruption, in our region and around the rest of the country, which means they are likely to dominate the political agenda in the week ahead.

Also during PMQs, South Shields Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck raised the case of constituent Mr Singh whose identity was stolen, and accused the government of "chaotic incompetence."

She said the Home Office "assured him that would not affect his immigration status, yet recently he and his wife and children were detained by UK Border Force while travelling for a family holiday."

The Prime Minister replied: "I am very sorry for the experience Mr Singh and his family have had", and "I will make sure that she gets a proper answer from the Home Office and the immigration department."

There were protests on Monday as former Sedgefield MP and Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair formally became a knight of Britain's most senior order of chivalry.

Watch my report here.

Catch up with this month's Around the House - featuring some of our region's politicians debating the key subjects in politics right now.