In the space of a week we have seen two terrible accidents on the A419 in which three young people have tragically lost their lives. Two weekends ago, 20-year-old Jack Savage, a former Ridgeway School pupil, died when the car he was travelling in collided with a lorry near the Commonhead roundabout. Then last Saturday, just a couple of miles up the road, 18-year-old Shaya Leigh and 17-year-old Kerrylee O’Leary-Staniford died when their car left the carriageway in the early hours of the morning. Three young men who were also in the car are seriously ill. Our first thoughts of course are with the families and friends of the victims, and we offer them our sincere condolences. But we must spare a thought as well for the emergency services and medical staff who deal with the aftermath of such terrible accidents. As we mourn the loss of young people who had their whole adult lives ahead of them, we also pay tribute to the professionals who work so expertly for our community in such difficult circumstances.
On to other matters. It was good to hear that the Mela, one of the highlights of Swindon’s cultural and leisure calendar, will go ahead this year after all. The event appeared to be in jeopardy because of doubts about the safe capacity of the Town Gardens. Swindon Borough Council suggested alternative venues but Mela organisers said they would cancel the event instead. However, further talks were held and an agreement was reached allowing the Mela to go ahead in its traditional venue. I’m delighted that wise heads have prevailed. I try and go to the Mela every year. It celebrates all that is best about Swindon’s multi-cultural communities. We have a proud tradition of people from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths all living and working successfully together. The Mela demonstrates that each year, with 10,000 people coming together to enjoy a colourful array of sights, sounds and tastes. For me, it is the food which is the highlight! Congratulations are due to the Council and to the Mela organisers for reaching an agreement which has saved this important event. Let’s hope the summer weather doesn’t let us down this year.
Finally, on Friday I attended Swindon Borough Council’s annual Mayor-making ceremony. Cllr Nick Martin has made some excellent choices of charity to support in the coming year. One of them is Swindon Women’s Aid, who provide a much-needed refuge for victims of domestic violence. The exact location is understandably kept secret, but I am proud that we have such a vital facility in South Swindon and I hope the Mayor is able to raise a great deal of money to support it.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 22nd May 2013)
On Thursday 16th May I attended an event by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) to pledge my support to protect vital services for deaf children.
Deaf children rely on a range of services, including Teachers of the Deaf, speech and language therapists and social care. Specialist Teachers of the Deaf provide one-to-one support to help deaf children overcome communication barriers in the classroom, ensure the equipment they use, such as hearing aids, is working and support classroom teachers to meet the unique needs of deaf children.
I boarded the NDCS Listening Bus, which travels around the country to provide support to deaf children, to learn more about support in their area, and also talk to a group of deaf children about their hopes for the future and the help they need in school. Reassuringly, I was told that Swindon has one of the best services for deaf children in the country.
I was also informed that as part of the campaign, NDCS has been running a petition to support calls for the debate. Nearly 50,000 people have signed the ‘Stolen Futures’ petition so far, calling on the Department for Education to intervene at a national level and ensure local authorities protect funding for deaf children.
It was good to attend this event and learn more about the reality on the ground for these children. There is widespread agreement that we must protect funding for vulnerable learners, so it’s deeply worrying to learn of these reductions to vital services. I hope that we can have a Parliamentary debate to shine a spotlight on this key issue.
One of the policy areas in which I take a particular interest is the care, help and support we provide to people with mental health issues. One of the biggest challenges is the provision of a properly ‘joined-up’ service, ensuring that many different organisations work efficiently together. There are so many areas of overlap that it’s often bewildering to know where to turn; and conversely there may be people who ‘fall through the gaps’ in the system. I want to make sure that we have the best possible care services in Swindon, as well as acknowledging the very hard work done by many people in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. So last Friday I organised a meeting to bring together many of the groups and individuals who provide services in this area to discuss the way forward.
It was gratifying to see so many dedicated people coming together. Among the organisations represented were the Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership, MIND, Swindon Borough Council, local GPs, the new NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, charities and voluntary sector groups. As a starting point, I asked everyone to consider what the provision of mental health services looked like from the point of view of the service user. Is it clear and helpful or does the current system exacerbate mental health issues in some circumstances?
There was concern that some people do indeed slip through the net and that currently services were not well coordinated, with people finding it difficult to access information. It wasn’t always clear who all the organisations were that could help service users. The added challenge, as with so many things, is the cost. It’s predicted that by 2022 all local councils would be spending 92% of their budget on Adult Social Care. That means people need to be encouraged to think more positively about what they can do and not focus on what they cannot do. Swindon Borough Council are doing a lot of work with their partners to achieve an integrated mental health service, and this is a really positive way forward.
But I thought the most positive outcome of the meeting was simply that so many of the groups and organisations who work in this area sat round a table and talked together – some of them for the first time. It showed how many hard-working, dedicated professionals and volunteers there are providing services. Yes, it highlighted where we could do better, and everyone has come away with a ‘to do’ list to consider how improvements can be made. But overall I think we have good reason to be positive about the way mental health services are provided in Swindon now and in the future.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 15th May 2013)
Today sees the State Opening of Parliament for the 2013/14 Session. Members of Parliament, me included, will walk down to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech, in which the Government will set out its legislative plans for the coming year. This splendid occasion reminds us not only of the formal role of the Sovereign but also of the hard-won independence of our Parliament. As well as being a ceremonial event, the Speech will also be a very important indicator of the Government’s priorities for the next twelve months.
The Queen’s Speech is finalised well in advance and cannot be rewritten at the last minute to take account of events, except in exceptional circumstances. As one commentator elegantly put it, the Speech has already been ‘inscribed on vellum’ and can’t just be re-printed on a sheet of A4 paper! The Speech is expected to include some vital measures, for example an Immigration and Deportation Bill. The government has reduced net migration and will be introducing further restrictions, as well as making it easier to deport foreign nationals who are here illegally. The new measures will restrict their rights of appeal and will limit the grounds on which people can argue that they should be allowed to stay in the UK.
The Queen’s Speech is expected also to contain the Care & Support Bill, which heralds radical reforms to the system of care for elderly people and vulnerable adults. There will be reforms to the law relating to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that will streamline the system, plus changes to dangerous dog legislation to cover instances such as the dreadful incident in Swindon last year. A Bill to reform future State Pensions will also be introduced, as will further measures to reform banking regulation that will be based upon the final conclusions of the Banking Standards Commission.
As well as new Bills, the new session of Parliament will see further debate on a number of measures introduced last year but carried over to the new session. One such example is the Children & Families Bill. I have spent much time sitting as a member of the Committee that debated its detailed provisions, line by line. The Bill covers a range of issues but at its centrepiece is the bringing together of education, health and adult social care to ensure a more comprehensive provision of services for young people with special educational needs. These are radical and welcome improvements which will help to improve the way in which services are delivered in this area and which will help to address the problem of the ‘cliff edge’ faced by many young people whose support is withdrawn almost overnight when they leave full time education.
Today’s Queen’s Speech isn’t a comprehensive list of everything that will become law. Some items of legislation are proposed by backbench MPs or members of the House of Lords. In the last Session, ten Private Members’ Bills passed all their stages through Parliament and became the law of the land. Whilst the Government has much business to transact, there has still been time for backbench Bills to make it, too.
(This article was first posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 8th May 2013)
On Monday I had the privilege of chairing the Pears Ambitious about Autism Annual Lecture at Portcullis House in Westminster. I was joined by Youth Patron David Nicholson, York Council’s Head of Integrated Services for Disabled Children Jessica Haslam, Minister for Children and Families Edward Timpson MP, and even the Speaker John Bercow MP, a Parent Patron, who attended the lecture.
David Nicholson, an impressive young man, discussed how autism has affected his life, his aspirations and the potential impact of the Children and Families Bill, which I have been working on a great deal. Jessica Haslam then shared examples of good practise with the audience and demonstrated how the principles articulated in the Bill could be implemented on the ground. The Minister, Ed Timpson, then gave the keynote speech and reassured the audience that those with Statements of Special Educational Needs will retain their current legal status until they are replaced with the proposed Education, Health and Care Plans. He also generously answered a number of questions from young people with autism and their parents and carers about their concerns.
It was a really enjoyable event and it brought together service users, professionals and policy makers in an effective way. I was particularly pleased to get 6 questions from parents and service users about the Bill and the future of special education needs policy. If you would like to read more about this event, please visit the following webpage: http://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/page/who_we_are/news/article/index.cfm?articleId=284
On Monday I attended the jobs fair organised to help employees affected by the redundancies at Honda. The event was put together by the Honda Task Force, which was set up in January as soon as the job losses were announced. North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson and I were both invited to join the group, along with representatives from the Job Centre, Council, Forward Swindon and other organisations. The Task Force invited about 750 people to the event at Stanton House Hotel. Crucially, these were not just Honda associates directly affected by the job losses, but also workers in the supply chain whose companies are feeling the knock-on effects.
More than 2,000 vacancies were on offer from 23 different employers. Given the nature of the event, it was good that carmakers Jaguar-Land-Rover and Nissan were represented, since many of the skills of the Honda associates will be directly transferable. Also at the jobs fair was Amey, the company that has won the contract for the electrification of the Great Western mainline. It will create up to 150 jobs, and Swindon will be the hub for the project with the electrification fanning out from here. There were also several smaller employers from further afield including a small firm that makes specialist diesel pumps in Gloucestershire and a number of businesses on the A419 corridor. Of course not everyone will have the flexibility to move due to family commitments, but it was important that all options were available. It was a very encouraging event, and thanks are due to the businesses for coming and to the Task Force for all the hard work they’ve done to make the event a reality.
A very different event I attended in the last few days was the Old Town spring clean on Sunday. About 70 residents took to the streets to spruce up the area. The Pipers Way Residents Association and local businesses had raised £1,200 to pay for improvements including planting flower beds and providing colourful displays. There was also a lot of litter picking, weeding and general tidying. It made a real difference to the area and everyone involved should be congratulated.
Finally, this Friday I am holding a residents’ surgery at a new venue. I’m very keen to hold surgeries at locations where people who may just be passing by can stop for a chat, rather than having to make a special trip to a community centre, for instance. So on Friday from 3pm to 4.30pm I’ll be at John Lewis at Home on the Mannington Retail Park. No appointment is necessary, but if you have a complex case it may help to phone the office first on 01793 533393.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 1st May 2013)
At the moment we’re being bombarded with a great many economic statistics. Last week’s unemployment figures showed a drop in the overall proportion of people claiming Jobseekers Allowance in Swindon. Conversely, the same set of figures appeared to show an increase in the number of long-term unemployed. However, this is probably more to do with changes in the way the figures are recorded. That’s not to say long-term unemployment isn’t a challenge, and of course the government is offering assistance. This includes up to £12,000 being spent per person on re-training, and the Enterprise Allowance scheme which can help people start up their own small business But overall we are seeing a steady fall in unemployment rates in Swindon, which is very much welcome.
Then yesterday we had further proof that the government is getting Britain’s borrowing under control, which is absolutely crucial if we are to have a strong economy in the long term. The news prompted a political war of words between the parties about the difference between debt and deficit and how the figures are calculated. The important thing, though, is that the government’s policies to bring down Britain’s borrowing are working, albeit with some tough decisions needing to be made.
And then tomorrow we will have the overall figures for the state of the economy which will show whether or not we have slipped back into recession. Much will be made of this either way, but we should remember that these are technical figures which really do not take account of individual circumstances in places like Swindon. Here, in our home town, the economic news continues to be optimistic. We have just had figures showing an increased number of new businesses started up in the area last year. 10% more new businesses were registered in Swindon during 2012 compared with 2011. Swindon also made it into the league table of UK towns for company growth, ahead of neighbouring towns such as Reading and Gloucester. We must be fair and recognise that not all new business registrations necessarily mean more employment, but it is a sign of optimism in the local economy.
We have also recently had the Centre for Cities report for 2013. The study ranks 64 towns and cities in the UK in a number of economic league tables. Interestingly, Swindon comes right at the top when you look at the ratio of jobs in the private compared to the public sector. This shows that Swindon is leading the way and is benefiting from the one million new private sector jobs created since 2010. Overall, of course there are challenges ahead, but there is much to be optimistic about in our local economy.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 24th April 2013)
I’m a big supporter of our schools and colleges and regularly visit the campuses to meet staff, students, pupils and managers. One of the messages I always take away is the challenge to find alternative sources of funding. That’s why I was delighted this week by the news that Swindon College has been successful in its bid for a pot of money from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. It’s one of 46 colleges across England to get a share of the £550m in new funding announced in the Autumn Statement just before Christmas.
Colleges were asked to place bids for the money and priority was given to those in greatest need and with the greatest potential to support growth in the areas they serve. Swindon College has secured nearly £800k of that public money, but importantly it unlocks the door to an additional £1.8m of private funding as well. That means a £2.6m project of improvements can now go ahead. This funding will make a real difference, helping Swindon College to modernise and update their facilities and giving them a much-needed boost at a time when their role in the community could not be more important. This investment will make a significant difference to learners and, vitally, employers in Swindon. Congratulations are due to the College for their successful bid, and it will be good to see the investment starting to make a real difference soon.
On a separate matter, on Saturday I was delighted to present the awards at the end of the Harold Jolliffe One-Act Play Festival at Swindon’s Art Centre. Harold Jolliffe was the Chief Librarian and Curator of Swindon Borough Council for 23 years. He died in1969 at the tragically young age of 54. Harold oversaw the opening of the country’s first dedicated municipal Arts Centre, here in Swindon and is often referred to as the father of the town’s cultural life. It’s fitting, then, that this festival is dedicated to his memory. The standard was incredibly high and served to demonstrate yet again that the arts scene in Swindon is among the most vibrant of any town of its size.
One other event I was delighted to attend was the fifth birthday celebrations of community radio Swindon 105.5. I’m a huge supporter and am full of admiration for Shirley Ludford and all her volunteers. They’ve had some really positive news recently, with a licence extension and new transmitter coming on stream – both thoroughly deserved.
Finally, a reminder about this Friday’s surgeries. You can make an appointment between 0930 and 1100 at the Milton Road office by calling 01793 533393. Or see me at the Central Library from 1230 to 1.30pm.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 17th April 2013)
I am glad to be able to add my voice to the warm and proper tributes paid to this most remarkable of Prime Ministers. I joined the Conservative party back in 1985 in south Wales in the middle of the miners’ strike. It was another world politically. We have heard a lot about the politics of division. The truth is that the country was a different place and the issues at stake were pretty visceral. I played my part in campaigning for the Conservative party that I believed in then and believe in now and with which I am proud to be associated.
At a time when politicians seemed to loom very large in the lives of us all, Margaret Thatcher loomed the largest. Thinking about it, the role of politicians now looms somewhat less in our lives precisely because of what she achieved. She came to power in an age when far too many of the major decisions affecting day-to-day life in this country were made directly by the state, which possessed far too much control over too many of the levers of power in Britain. Her greatest legacy is that she ceded control over many of those levers and gave power back to the people.
Margaret Thatcher’s uncanny knack of understanding the aspirations and concerns of the people of this country was reflected in her deep commitment to wider home ownership and her passionate belief in trusting families and individuals to make the most of the key decisions affecting their lives. She shared the instinctive suspicion of the British people for those who wielded and abused unaccountable power. Her fight to tame militant trade unionism here at home and her fight against Soviet hegemony abroad were testament to that innate understanding. The message for us today, in the House and beyond, is that we should not shy away from
facing up to those who abuse power, whether in the form of a poorly regulated banking sector or monopolistic self-interest.
Much has been made of Margaret Thatcher’s background as a scientist, and there is no doubt that that was important, but she was also a lawyer. She was a qualified member of my profession, and I firmly believe that that honed her skill not only for debate but for analysing evidence and for testing it in argument before putting it to the people. She developed policy by debate and discussion, but once her mind was made up she was determined and took action. She did not shy away from the maxim that it was deeds, not words, that mattered.
Mr Sheerman described Mrs Thatcher as a Gladstonian Liberal, but she was far more than that. She was driven by ideas but not ideology, which makes her very firmly a Conservative. She understood the value of meaningful tradition, and her beliefs in freedom, the rule of law and the old Tory slogan, “Trust the people”, shall and must endure.
(This speech was originally given in the House of Commons on 10th April 2013; the Hansard entry is at the following link: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130410/debtext/130410-0003.htm#130410-0003.htm_spnew6)
I was very sad to hear of the death of Lady Thatcher. I first met her at the height of her powers in 1987, and last saw her just three years ago. From the myriad of comments that have been made about her since Monday, it is clear that she divides opinion. Defeating the Soviet threat, fighting for the Falklands, and refusing to accept that managing decline was the way to run Britain – all these things make her truly remarkable. The changes to trade union legislation and privatisation have had a lasting impact. Added to which, of course, she has a place in history as the first woman Prime Minister.
Swindon re-invented itself under her leadership and in many ways reflected the huge strides we made as a country. I was listening this morning to one commentator who remembers Swindon in the 80s. One of the greatest impacts of the Thatcher years on our town was the sale of council houses, allowing people to buy their home for the first time. Many people who could never have aspired to be homeowners were suddenly given that opportunity, which transformed large parts of Swindon.
The times were different – more polarised in many ways, but she made changes for the better. And I do think she was actually more pragmatic and ready to compromise than is remembered now. The myth about her was that she was a right-wing ideologue, which those who worked closely with her dismiss as just that – a myth. She liked keen debate, and her Cabinets contained plenty of traditional “one nation” Tories right through her time in office.
Something else unique about Lady Thatcher, particularly when compared with 21st century politicians, was the fact that she took no notice of opinion polls or focus groups and very rarely read newspapers. She had a clear view and didn’t want to be deflected. Depending on your viewpoint, that was either a sign of strength and decisiveness, or a bloody-mined unwillingness to listen to others’ views. That perfectly illustrates the contradictory nature of a lot of the coverage following Lady Thatcher’s death. People will remember her in very different ways depending on their political bias, and will never be persuaded to change their views. In death, as in life, Lady Thatcher polarises opinion.
The truth of course is that she presided over changing times which were challenging for many people. My greatest memory of her time in office was that wonderful autumn of 1989, when country after country in Eastern Europe arose from the Soviet yoke. There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher played a key role in world politics. History will remember her as a great leader.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 10th April 2013)