Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, visited Stevenage’s Lister Hospital yesterday (Monday, December 12), and we took the opportunity to speak to him about issues affecting the town.

During his visit, he was critical of the Home Office's use of two Stevenage hotels to accommodate up to 361 asylum seekers, branding their decision as "chaotic and cavalier".

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage, the leader of Stevenage Borough Council, recently blasted the government for booking out a second hotel for asylum seekers. 

Sir Keir echoed her views, saying: “Instead of consulting locally and getting enough information to ensure this can be done well and effectively, they’ve [the Home Office] given 24 hours notice. 

“This piles chaos on chaos. They are massively behind in processing asylum applications. 

“Of all the people that arrived across the Channel on small boats in 2021, only four per cent have been processed. 

“That’s the biggest cause of this problem, a backlog. 

“And then to give local communities and local leaders 24 hours notice means that it’s nigh-on impossible to do the job properly. 

“Everywhere you look on asylum seekers leads to one root cause which is a shambolic government and the Home Office, which is letting the country down when it comes to the way we’re dealing with asylum seekers.” 

Labour recently announced that it would fast-track the processing of applications from ‘safe’ countries if it wins the next General Election.

The Comet: From left: Sir Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting (shadow health secretary), Baroness Taylor and Kevin Bonavia speaking to staff at Lister HospitalFrom left: Sir Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting (shadow health secretary), Baroness Taylor and Kevin Bonavia speaking to staff at Lister Hospital (Image: Labour Party)

Labour’s candidate for Stevenage in that election will be Kevin Bonavia, who joined Sir Keir on the visit. The Labour leader was keen to sing Kevin's praises, describing him as "a fantastic parliamentary candidate".

"I’m really, really pleased that he won against very good competition so that we can have the best team of Labour MPs coming in at the next election. 

“What Kevin brings is roots in the community, a voice for the community – a powerful voice for the community. 

“What I want to see here is a Labour MP working with a Labour council, and a Labour government. Imagine what that could deliver for communities locally, that would be an absolutely winning combination.

“As for Kevin’s chances – all of our chances – at the next General Election, we are not complacent, every single vote has to be earned, every single vote. 

“I knew that my task was to change the Labour party, turn it inside out, make it face our communities and speak for our communities, that was task number one. 

“Task number two was to expose the government as not fit to govern and they’ve been helping us with that in the awful decisions they’ve been making over the last few weeks and months. 

“And then to put forward Labour’s positive plan for the future, and that’s why we’ve said so much about growing jobs and doing that with our local communities in Stevenage."

The Comet: Sir Keir Starmer hugs Baroness Taylor of Stevenage, who he recently nominated for a peerageSir Keir Starmer hugs Baroness Taylor of Stevenage, who he recently nominated for a peerage (Image: Labour Party)

Sir Keir also celebrated Baroness Sharon Taylor, who he recently nominated for a peerage. He said: “Under Sharon's leadership, we’ve had fantastic initiatives. 

“I’ve been to see some of the council houses being built, where those that are going to live in the houses have had a say over what they look like, and they’ve got shops just underneath and to the side of them because that’s what the local community wanted. 

“I’ve seen the redevelopment of Stevenage town centre, and that’s come a long way in the two years I’ve been leader – my first trip as leader of the Labour party was to Stevenage.

"There’s a real sense that with that combination of a Labour MP, Labour council, Labour government we can really, really make huge strides for local communities."

The NHS was another hot topic, following our recent reports showing that Lister Hospital faces surging A&E waiting times and some of the worst ambulance handover delays in England.

The Comet: Sir Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting and Kevin Bonavia viewing the surgical robots 'being pioneered' at Lister HospitalSir Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting and Kevin Bonavia viewing the surgical robots 'being pioneered' at Lister Hospital (Image: Labour Party)

Sir Keir praised the work “being pioneered” at Lister, involving the use of surgical robots on patients.

He added: “We’re the party that established the NHS, we’re the party of the NHS and we’ve got huge plans for the future of the NHS, not least the ending of non-dom tax status so that we can train up 15,000 medical staff to come in as the new cavalry of the NHS. 

“We’ll push the government really hard but we need a Labour government really now to give the NHS the support that it needs, particularly in relation to buildings and new buildings but also reforming the NHS. 

“We think that we can support, transform the NHS and make it into the service that everybody wants and needs. 

“But at the moment the NHS is, I say it’s on its knees, I think the staff would say it’s on its face, after 12 years of mismanagement, underfunding, under-supporting, and chronic, chronic lack of staff. 

“There’s a basic problem with staff at the moment. We’ve got a plan to deal with that, this government’s got no plan." 

Asked about the integration of health and social care, he said: “You can formally integrate or you can work together and nobody is going to argue against working together. 

“At this hospital they were very clear in the briefing they gave us this morning. The problem on one level is the ambulances at the front door, but the real problem is at the back door, getting people out of this hospital into communities, because there is no coherent thought through plan from government.

“Wherever you look … there’s been a chronic failure of leadership from this government over 12 years. 

“There’s heartbreaking decisions that ambulance crews have to make about what they can do in circumstances like this. It’s a real frustration. 

“Formal integration is one thing and that works well in some places … but what we need is the working together to make sure that our communities can support people coming out of hospital, so that then our ambulances can get in in the first place.”