Priorities for Government
Now that we have a new Prime Minister, the focus will be slightly different as we move forward. Already, Boris Johnson has set out his priorities. Among other things, he wants to deliver Brexit by 31st October; ensure that the extra spending being provided to the NHS gets to the front line, where it is needed; recruit an extra 20,000 police officers over the next three years; provide minimum funding levels for schools across the country; extend high fibre broadband across the country; increase and improve our infrastructure; and continue to grow the economy so that we increase prosperity and fund our public services. These are goals which we can all support.
Campaign: Families Together
The UK’s resettlement schemes are an integral component of our humanitarian response. Our current policies address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees and provide safe and legal routes for their settlement in the UK.
Over the past five years, the government have granted over 26,000 family reunion visas to family members of refugees. More than half of those resettled under the governments existing programmes are children, the majority of whom have been resettled with their families. The government understand that family relationships are not always simple, which is why there are separate provisions that allow extended family to sponsor children to come to the UK.
The government recognise the importance of family reunion for refugees and will continue to support this where possible.
Abortion and same-sex marriage Northern Ireland
The question of abortion and same sex marriage are devolved matters, as are so many others, to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unfortunately, the institutions in Northern Ireland have been suspended for over two years. This situation, for many reasons, is not satisfactory. However, I do believe that such decisions should be made by people in Northern Ireland, so I think the correct way forward is to work towards restoring the institutions, which the government is doing. Some people have (wrongly) argued that Brexit puts the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the peace process and devolution at risk. It does nothing of the kind. But cherry picking the bits of the law in Northern Ireland that we want to change, with no reference to the people in Northern Ireland or the local politicians which they have elected, might just do that, so I voted against taking such steps. I therefore believe it is wrong - and dangerous - to drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement in this way.
This legislation received a second reading in the House of Commons without objection, so there were no votes. I spoke to the Minister about the proposals. Basically, while continuing to promote marriage, the government is concerned that the current laws require fault to be found with one party or the other in order to divorce before five years of separation have passed and that this causes further distress. The government also feels that, in order to escape marriages, some people do exaggerate the claims they make against their spouses, which causes further distress. The changes being proposed do not make marriage easier as such and do not affect the right of each party to ensure that the appropriate ongoing arrangements are put in place for them.
As early at 1997, when I was first elected, I supported a Ten Minute Rule Bill which proposed providing free television licences to those over 75. I am very disappointed to hear that the BBC have decided to no longer fund TV licences for over 75s from 2020. The BBC is a fundamental social part of this country; it is important for people of all ages, but particularly for older people, who value television as a way to stay connected with the world. It is vital that the BBC understands the effect that their decision will have and take its broader social responsibilities seriously.
In the Digital Economy Act 2017, the BBC was given the responsibility of funding over 75 TV licences in exchange for the ability to increase licence fees in line with inflation. The government agreed a phased transition to help the BBC with its financial planning to ensure that the licences would be covered. At the time the BBC director-general noted that, “The Government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC” however, following a consultation the BBC has decided to go back on this deal.
The Government recognised the importance of the licence fee when we agreed a funding settlement and even noted free licences in our 2017 party manifesto. Sadly, the delivery of any manifesto requires the co-operation and assistance of others, in this case the BBC. The government made clear that there was an expectation free licences would continue before the decision was taken; and have since made clear the great disappointment following the BBCs decision. What the government must do now is engage further with the BBC to discuss what further action it can and should take.
It is important to understand that those who are entitled to pension credit will still have a free TV licence. Age UK estimated that 37% of single pensioners and 50% of couples entitled to pension credit are not claiming. This means each year £3 billion goes unclaimed, a saving that the government does not wish to make. It is important that more people to come forward and claim the pension credits they deserve. The government will work with the BBC to support an increase in pension credit claims to ensure those most in need get the help they deserve.
I am against at the decision that the BBC has reached, but I accept that it is the BBC’s decision, and not the governments. I will do what I can to support talks with the BBC and hope that they will review their decision.
The Government took all necessary legal steps conducting the recent European parliamentary elections, including compliance with the EU Council directive 93/109/EC. This requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of, sufficiently in advance of polling day. The UC1 form ensures that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. A similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. UC1 forms are not unusual, the same process was used during the 2009 and 2014 elections.
It was clear that UK would fulfil its legal obligation, as a member of the European Union, to hold the elections if necessary. On the 3rd May the Electoral Commission published advice about the upcoming election which included guidance on registering to vote and a copy of the UC1 form. On Tuesday 7th May the government confirmed that the UK would take part in the elections. There was no restriction on submitting a UC1 application before the UK’s participation was confirmed. Many EU citizens who are resident in this country successfully made arrangements to vote in this election and turnout was higher than previous European parliamentary elections.
Going forward, the government will carefully consider the points raised by the Electoral Commission look at whether any changes are required. However, there is no intention to take part in the 2024 election following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Standing Up Against Torture
I oppose the use of torture and am proud of our history of offering asylum to those in need. In March 2018 the government laid draft statutory guidance before parliament to implement a new definition of torture for the purposes of immigration. The government considers all asylum claims in a sensitive manner on an individual, objective and impartial basis ensuring that all cases are managed effectively throughout the asylum process to avoid unnecessary delay.
Beer Tax and Pubs
I have long campaigned for fairer taxes for pubs and made representations to the Chancellor for cuts in Beer Duty. I am a regular patron of pubs myself and will continue to do all I can to help them.
Several measures have been introduced across Government to support pubs, including a freeze on beer duty announced at Budget 2018. This means that the price of a typical pint of beer in 2019 is 2p lower than it would have been had duty increased with inflation and 14p lower than it otherwise would have been since ending the beer duty escalator in 2013.
Many small pubs are benefitting from the business rates retail discount announced at Budget 2018, which cuts bills for eligible businesses by one third from April 2019 for two years. It is available to eligible businesses with a rateable value below £51,000.
Additionally, some 2,000 pubs have been listed as Assets of Community Value (ACVs), meaning that if they are put up for sale, the community can have up to six months to bid to buy them. Planning regulations which came into effect in May 2017 removed permitted development rights from all pubs, meaning that planning permission must now be obtained prior to change of use or demolition.
I believe that pubs are vital parts of our communities, especially though not exclusively in rural areas, and I have always taken an interest in their survival and wellbeing. As well as campaigning for lower taxes, I have also taken a deep interest in the free-of-tie arrangements which pubs owned by the larger pub companies (pubcos) can now obtain.
Campaign: Talking Buses
I have received a number of emails from constituents raising the issue of ensuring buses are accessible to those with hearing or sight impairments. This is a very important issue and directly impacts the independence of those with disabilities. The Government has outlined the following:
The Bus Services Act 2017 includes powers for the Secretary of State to make Regulations requiring bus operators to provide audible and visible information on local bus services in Great Britain.
The Government understands the importance of accessible on-board information in helping bus passengers to travel with confidence, and in Summer 2018 published a public consultation on proposals to require its provision on local bus services throughout Great Britain. This follows the Government’s commitment, set out in the Inclusive Transport Strategy, to invest £2 million towards ensuring that audio visual equipment is installed on buses.
The Government is currently analysing responses to the consultation and expect to announce our next steps regarding the making of Regulations and publication of guidance later in the year.
I am very supportive of steps being taken to ensure buses are accessible for all and will follow this issue closely.
Campaign: Employment and Support Allowance "Misleading Letters"
I have received emails relating to Department for Working and Pension letters being sent to GPs regarding sick notes. The Minister has advised the following:
A revised version of the ESA65B letter was introduced in August 2017 following engagement with key clinical stakeholders through the Department’s ‘GP Forum.’ The wording was amended to make the letter simpler and clearer, to emphasise the benefits of work for disabled people and those with health conditions, and to ask GPs to encourage their patients in their efforts to find, or return to, some form of work.
When these changes were made, some wording was removed which set out the circumstances in which GPs could continue to provide fit notes (subject to their clinical discretion). The intention was never to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes.
The DWP is committed to ensuring that its communications products are clear, understandable and fit for purpose, and we are alive to the concerns raised regarding the wording of the ESA65B letter. Following the extensive stakeholder interest, officials in the Department are working to put in place a revised version of this letter as soon as practicable and we expect this to take place in the summer. We will take account of the comments and concerns that have been raised as we revise this letter to ensure absolute clarity. As part of this we are again consulting the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners on the proposed revisions.
Until we can revise the letter, and by way of mitigation, we have worked closely with the BMA to issue a communication in their newsletter to GPs reminding them of all the circumstances in which fit notes may continue to be issued for those found fit for work.
Therefore, the Government is aware of the concerns surrounding this letter and are taking steps to clarify their communications.
I am supporting the expansion of Heathrow Airport and am pleased that the government is progressing this. Heathrow is a well-positioned, world-leading hub airport which brings a great deal of benefit to the whole of the United Kingdom.
UK airports handle over 260 million passengers - up 20 per cent in the last five years. Heathrow is already the UK’s biggest airport for passengers and freight and a new runway would enable Heathrow to nearly double its freight capability, offering businesses across the country the chance to increase exports. Heathrow has been at capacity for over a decade, meaning that new connections to the rest of the world – and to the rest of the UK – have been constrained, negatively impacting UK competitiveness as European hub airport competitors in Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt continue to increase their global networks.
I recognise that constituents have expressed concerns in relation to the environmental impact of this expansion in terms of noise and air pollution. The government has secured a world class package of mitigation, worth up to £2.6 billion which covers insulation, compensation and respite from noise. This will comprehensively combat the impacts on local communities. The promoter has pledged that expansion will not lead to more airport-related traffic on the roads and committed to a target of at least 55 per cent of passengers using public transport to access the airport by 2040.
In terms of protecting the environment, it isn’t a matter of whether we fly or not, because if we don’t expand Heathrow, other airports will take up that capacity, and they may not all be in the UK. For example, Dublin is expanding its airport, and Paris and Amsterdam have benefited from delays under previous governments in expanding Heathrow. We are already introducing cleaner planes, and that is the way to protect the environment.
Regional airports are important, but they appear to be in favour of expanding Heathrow as well, because of its hub airport status and the benefits that brings to them. And expanding Heathrow doesn’t prevent, for example, Birmingham or Bristol from expanding.
I have always been opposed to the HS2 proposals. It is a very expensive scheme and I believe that that money could be better spent elsewhere. In spite of its name, High Speed, it will not cut journeys by much time and is now about capacity. I recognise the need for the latter, but again believe it can be better provided. The cost-benefit business case ratio is quite poor. And it will only benefit very few of my constituents and certainly not many in the South West. Boris Johnson has said that he won't cancel the project, but will review it.