Tomorrow sees the Autumn Statement, when the Chancellor makes a series of announcements about the economy. There’s been much speculation about what George Osborne might say, but we’ll know for sure in 24 hours so I won’t add to the crystal ball-gazing here. Suffice it to say that the cautious optimism which has been evident for a few months now, does seem to be well-placed.
I sense that optimism most clearly when I visit the many successful small businesses in South Swindon. These are often ‘one man bands’ or family-run companies – everything from shops to cleaning firms, and from IT repairers to plumbers. It’s these sorts of companies that are the focal point of Small Business Saturday this weekend. This is Britain’s first-ever day dedicated to supporting the nation’s five million small businesses. It’s no coincidence that it’s taking place on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, which gives us all an opportunity to do our Christmas shopping locally. We’re blessed with many good independent shops and cafes in Swindon, and particularly in Old Town where there’s a great variety of smaller retailers. These are exactly the sort of firms to be supporting on Small Business Saturday. They remain the lifeblood of our economy – 99% of British businesses are classed as small or medium sized, and they account for half of all business activity in our economy.
I regularly meet with the leaders of the main business groups inSwindon, as well as individual companies, to help promote their interests. The Conservative Party is doing a lot to support small businesses and the hardworking families who run them, for example by cutting National Insurance payments by up to £2,000 from next April. I’m also delighted that we’ve launched the Start Up Loan Scheme – providing people at those difficult early stages of business with the confidence they need to set up shop and generate capital and jobs. We’ve just awarded the 10,000th Start Up Loan – taking the amount of support we’ve given to small businesses through this scheme to over £45millon. InSwindon, figures show that already ten new small businesses have been helped by this scheme, with nearly £60,000 worth of loans arranged. That cash is giving people the boost they need when they’re taking their first steps in business.
We’ve also appointed entrepreneur and star of ‘The Apprentice’ Karren Brady to be our small business ambassador. Karren will be travelling the country, meeting with as many small businesses as possible, listening to their concerns and promoting the interests of entrepreneurs all overBritain. In the meantime, we can all do our bit locally by supporting Small Business Saturday in Swindon this weekend.
(This article originally appeared in the Swindon Advertiser on 4th December 2013)
On Monday the Home Secretary announced that ‘Clare’s Law’ is to be rolled out across the country following a successful pilot scheme right here in Swindon and Wiltshire. This is a system which allows people to find out from the police whether their partners have a history of domestic violence, reducing the risk of becoming victims themselves.
Clare’s Law takes its name from Clare Wood, who in 2009 was murdered by a former boyfriend with a violent background. Clare was unaware of his history, but had made several complaints to the police about George Appleton before he killed her. Since her death, Clare’s father, Michael Brown, has campaigned for people to have greater rights to know about the violent past of partners.
With my role on the Justice Select Committee, this was something in which I took a close interest, and I lobbied for Swindon & Wiltshire to be one of the pilot areas. We now have the figures: during the trial, 118 requests for information were made in the Wiltshire Police force area. Of those, 25 were successful and disclosures were made. At first sight, people may wonder whether this represents a success, given that around 80% of requests were turned down. But it’s that very statistic which shows that the system, and its safeguards, are working. There were concerns from some quarters that Clare’s Law would allow anyone to gain sensitive information about people’s previous convictions, simply by going to a police station and making a spurious allegation. Worse still, information received from such ‘fishing expeditions’ could then be used to damage that person’s reputation or, in extreme cases, even as a form of blackmail. However, the figures from Swindon and Wiltshire show that the authorities are being meticulous in assessing each request that comes before them. This is down to the work of a body known as the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARACS), which gathers experts from a range of bodies to carry out a proper risk assessment and decide whether to disclose information.
It’s worth remembering that Clare’s Law cannot eliminate the risks altogether. But it means that vulnerable people, male or female, now have a system to turn to which could prevent them ending up in an abusive relationship.
Domestic violence is a dreadful form of abuse. The fact that two people are killed by their current or former partner each week in England and Wales shows just how urgent is the need for action. The government is committed to ensuring that victims are protected as much as possible from domestic violence, and I am pleased that Swindon and Wiltshire have successfully led the way in what is now a national scheme.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 27th November 2013)
I have long campaigned for improvements in the support we provide for children with special educational needs & disabilities (SEND), as well as their parents and carers. Many more families than we realise are affected, and that’s why we should all welcome the news that things now seem to be moving forward. Last month the government published a revised Code of Practice which sets out the statutory guidance for all those working with, and caring for, children and young people with SEND.
For the first time this code covers the age range from 0 to 25 and is very clear about the expectations from education, health and social care professionals to ensure that every individual has their needs met across all services. The code of practice will come into force on 1 September 2014, but a consultation exercise is underway now, and I hope as many people as possible will have their say.
I’m delighted that Swindon and Wiltshire are at the forefront of these new arrangements. Wiltshire is one of only 20 parts of the country to be designated as a ‘Pathfinder’ area. It will help to establish best practice and gather information to coordinate services in the future. Swindon is playing a major role with the establishment of the SEND Project Forum, which met for the first time a fortnight ago. It involved staff from across education, health and social care, as well as representation from the local Parent & Carers Group. One of the key items on the agenda was the need to develop what’s known as a Local Offer – that is, what services and support children and young people with SEND can access in Swindon and the surrounding area. Children, young people and their families must be involved in developing and reviewing the Local Offer, which will be published by September 2014. This is a positive step forward and I look forward to supporting it through the work I am doing with the Swindon Special Educational Needs Network.
One of the most important aspects that needs to be addressed is to ensure that young people with SEND don’t suddenly lose all their support once they turn 18 or leave school, as happens too frequently nowadays. I’m pleased therefore that the new code of practice clearly makes provision for young people right up to the age of 25. This is something I have been pushing for in Westminster as part of my work on the new Children & Families Bill, so it’s good to see this coming to fruition. I will continue to work to make sure we get the best outcome possible for the many families in South Swindon who face these difficult challenges.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 20th November 2013)
Last Sunday there was a welcome break in the weather and it was a bright, crisp autumn morning for the Remembrance Day service in Swindon town centre. Once again, it was an intensely moving and thought-provoking event. The period of silence, when the usual hustle and bustle of the town is put to one side just for two minutes, gives everyone an opportunity to remember the fallen and pay tribute to their sacrifices. And what struck me on Sunday was the sheer numbers of people who were there. Participation seems to grow year-by-year, and it’s particularly pleasing to see so many young people taking part. The baton of Remembrance needs to be passed on to each successive generation, and here in Swindon it certainly seems to be in safe hands.
Our town has a long and proud military tradition, and it will come to the fore next year as we start marking the centenary of the Great War. I am very keen for Swindon’s war memorials and cemeteries to be given a facelift as part of the anniversary, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also as a further mark of respect to the fallen. That’s why it’s welcome news that progress is being made on restoring the historic war memorial which was once the focal point inside the Town Hall. It has sadly been neglected over the years, but last week’s full meeting of Swindon Borough Council heard that restoration work is now well underway. Specialists have been brought in to treat the wood, which was badly warped, and there are plans to put it back on public display. It will once again be a fitting tribute to Swindon’s fallen heroes.
Our area’s military links were for years dominated by RAF Lyneham, and last month the future of the former airbase became clearer. Plans for a £230m Defence College were given the go-ahead and building work will begin early next year. The technical training centre is expected to create 1,700 jobs at the site. I know that some local residents were concerned about noise and traffic problems, so it’s right that the Ministry of Defence must submit an operational noise management plan and comply with a great many planning conditions. These include restrictions on the use of the firing range to certain times and a limit on aircraft operations to no more than three days a week. It’s worth remembering that the noise generated by the former airfield was something we largely accepted as an inevitable consequence of our country’s defence needs, and I hope the same will happen again. I welcome the move forward for Lyneham, which keeps alive our area’s proud military connections.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 13th November 2013)
I am supporting a campaign to change an 80-year-old child neglect law which doesn’t protect children from emotional abuse. I previously wrote about this issue on my website on 13th February 2013 (http://www.robertbuckland.co.uk/2013/02/13/blog-law-on-child-neglect/) At an event held at the Houses of Parliament on Thursday 7th November 2013, I met victims of abuse and supporters of Action for Children, the children’s charity that is promoting the campaign.
Neglect is the most common form of child abuse and yet the police are powerless to intervene in cases of emotional or psychological cruelty. In the light of recent horrific cases such as Daniel Pelka, we must have laws in place that protect the most vulnerable children. Action for Children’s campaign to update the law on child neglect is a timely one and I have been keen to lend my support.
Action for Children has been working with senior legal and academic professionals to propose a new law which will make it illegal to emotionally neglect or abuse a child. The proposed changes will also make it easier for police and social workers work together on cases of child neglect.
I have been working directly with the charity for months on this issue and I helped to table amendments to previous Bills in Parliament. Recently, I was one of the first signatories to a joint public letter by Action for Children and I also wrote directly to the Policing Minister, Damian Green MP, to press him to support these much needed changes. I am excited that we finally have the opportunity to correct this out-dated law and I look forward to supporting the Child Maltreatment at its second reading in the House of Commons on 22nd November.
On Tuesday 29th October I attended an event in Parliament by Macmillan Cancer Support, where I was briefed on the urgent need to improve the lives of people selflessly providing unpaid care to loved ones with cancer, as well as Macmillan’s work to ensure that no one faces cancer alone.
In my meeting with Macmillan, we discussed the needs of the 905,000 people providing unpaid support for loved ones with cancer in England. Half of these cancer carers are not receiving any help despite it having a substantial impact on their lives. Cancer carers come into contact with health professionals far more often than they do with their local authority. However, the NHS is not identifying and signposting enough of them to support. This means that as few as 5% receive a carers assessment. The Care Bill places a welcome duty on local authorities to identify carers. However this duty does not cover health bodies meaning cancer carers will continue to slip through the net. This is why I am joining Macmillan in calling for the Care Bill to place a shared responsibility on both the NHS and councils to identify and signpost cancer carers to support.
The Care Bill represents a crucial opportunity to improve the provision of support for cancer carers and we must capitalise on this chance before it is too late. By identifying cancer carers and letting them know what information and support is available, doctors, nurses and other health and social care professionals can have a positive effect on their quality of life, and improve their ability to carry on caring for their loved one.
The Care Bill legislation must be amended to ensure the NHS in England has a responsibility to work with local authorities to identify and signpost cancer carers to appropriate services. The number of people diagnosed with cancer is set to double in the next twenty years and so there will likely also be a surge in the number of people caring for them. It’s clearly an urgent issue. Macmillan’s campaign aims to drive improvements of care and I am very proud to support it.
Last Friday I was delighted to host a visit to Swindon by a true sporting hero. James Cracknell is a British rowing champion, double Olympic gold medallist and intrepid adventurer. He’s also one of the Conservative Party’s candidates in our region for next May’s European elections. In a whirlwind visit, James first met children at a cycling safety training event at Holy Rood Junior School. He then dropped in to Chalkdown House, the Brain Injury Unit recently opened in Liden, and then went to the cycle track at the County Ground. You may know that James himself suffered a serious head injury in a bike accident in 2010. He now does tremendous work promoting safer cycling and the wearing of helmets, particularly among children and teenagers who too often think that wearing helmets is ‘uncool’. The visit was a great opportunity to showcase the work we’re doing in Swindon to promote sport, leisure and recreation, and I’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks.
On another matter, early next month Swindon Council’s Planning Committee will be deciding whether to give the go ahead to the Wroughton Solar Farm project. If approved, this will be the largest facility of its kind in the UK. It will consist of 160,000 panels covering an area of 168 acres on part of the former RAF airfield. The solar farm would have the capacity to generate enough power for about 12,000 households. Crucially, a community benefit fund will be set up for Wroughton amounting to about £42,000 a year for 30 years to be spent on community projects, with funding allocated by the community.
A public consultation was held in January, with almost 80% of people attending saying they supported the plans. However North Wessex Downs AONB has opposed the proposal. While the site is indeed located within the AONB area, and some views will be affected, these are very broad views from high vantage points. It also needs to be remembered that this is already a light-industrial site which houses several very large aircraft hangars and old concrete runways.
After looking at all the arguments on both sides, I am supporting this proposal. It will truly put Swindon on the map. It will bring huge benefits for the community, the economy and the environment. Solar power generation is a vital part of the UK’s energy mix, and the fact that Swindon will host this important project is something of which the whole Borough can be proud. The fact that the Community Fund will specifically benefit Wroughton is very welcome indeed. I am proud that South Swindon is hosting this exciting project, and look forward to it coming to fruition.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 30th October 2013)
I was privileged to join double Gold medallist wheelchair athlete Hannah Cockroft and Paralympian Sam Ruddock at an event in the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 22nd October, to show my support for social care for disabled people.
The event, organised by disability charity Scope, was part of the ‘Britain Cares’ Campaign, which is calling on the Government to ensure that disabled people receive the care and support they need to live independent lives. I was told that so far almost 30,000 people have contacted their MPs in support of ‘Britain Cares’ campaign, and on Tuesday I viewed an art installation of the hundreds of ‘I care’ photos sent in from constituents in the South West. I have received a number of emails about this issue and I know how important it is to provide proper care and support for disabled people.
The Care Bill will be debated by MPs in the House of Commons for the first time in the coming weeks and I look forward to taking part in this. While the debate on social care has focussed on the demands of an ageing population, one third of social care users are working age disabled people. However, research by Scope has found that currently 4 in 10 disabled people who receive social care support say it does not meet their basic needs.
I was particularly delighted to meet with Paralympians Hannah Cockroft and Sam Ruddock and to learn about how important the issue of good social care is to them and to my constituents. As a Conservative MP I am proud that the Government’s Care Bill will introduce a new, modern law for a care system built around people’s wellbeing. As the Bill passes through the House of Commons, it is important that all MPs remember that one third of care users are working age disabled people and that social care must support them to live fulfilling, independent lives.
Over the past week, three of the country’s major energy companies have announced significant price increases. Of course the government understands that higher energy bills cause difficulties for many hardworking families and pensioners. That’s why we’re forcing companies to put people on their lowest tariffs, and making them simplify their price structures so it’s easier to compare and sign up for the best deal. This could save households as much as £158 a year. We’ve also introduced discounts and financial support for people to help pay their bills. We’ve given £130 off energy bills to two million households, protected 12.7 million pensioners’ winter fuel payments and made cold weather payments to over 4 million people.
Much has been said about Labour’s pledge to freeze energy bills after the next election. However, I’m afraid this is nothing more than a con. They just can’t deliver on this promise. The prices we’re charged are dictated largely by the wholesale costs of oil and gas on the world markets. No government can control those. Indeed Ed Miliband himself has admitted that a spike in the global oil price would mean he may have to break his promise. And even if Labour did manage to persuade the companies to hold their prices, there would be nothing to stop them introducing huge price hikes the moment the freeze comes to an end. All in all, Labour’s record on energy prices is not good. Electricity prices went up by more than 50 per cent during their time in government, and gas bills more than doubled. And who was Labour’s last Energy Secretary? Ed Miliband.
The government is also taking steps to ensure our energy security; that is, ensuring Britain can be as self-sufficient as possible in the years to come, reducing our dependence on costly imported energy and making sure the lights don’t go out. This week David Cameron announced a deal to build Britain’s first new nuclear power station in a generation, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. That single facility will produce about 7% of the country’s entire energy needs, and no taxpayers’ money is being spent to build it. This is a sensible, forward-looking and clean energy policy for the future.
It’s also important that the regulatory authorities do their jobs to keep the utility companies in line. That’s why I welcome Ofwat’s decision to reject plans by Thames Water to slap a £23 increase on everyone’s water bill to pay for infrastructure improvements. Quite rightly, Ofwat have told Thames Water to go away and think again, and I hope that’s just what they do. Rest assured, this government will keep working to reduce peoples’ utility bills, now and in the future.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 23rd October 2013)
Fewer than 20 years ago, the internet was a complete mystery to most of us. The few people who knew or cared about the ‘information super highway’ could only access it on glacially slow dial-up connections. And even if you were connected, there was not much to see. How times have changed. Now, the internet is part of everyday life for most people. The majority of businesses wouldn’t dream of being without a web presence – many rely on it for their very survival. And it’s difficult to remember how we got anything done without emails!
The internet is vital, but there are still too many parts of Swindon where residents cannot get a decent connection. Superfast broadband – which is the way most people would like to be able to access the internet – has been too slow in coming. Rural areas are a particular challenge of course, but even more heavily populated communities are crying out for improvements. For instance, I know there’s a particular problem in Priory Vale which my colleague Justin Tomlinson and local Conservative councillors are working on.
In South Swindon,Old Town and the Town Centre are generally OK. And we’ve just heard that BT has decided to roll out its high-speed fibre-optic service in Toothill. This is a significant investment and is something I welcome. But this is one of the last commercial expansions being planned, so we now need to be clever in getting more investment to extend fast broadband coverage to other areas in Swindon. That’s why I’m pleased that Swindon Borough Council is now in talks with BT. Things are at an early stage, but it’s a positive move forward.
Meanwhile the government is playing its part. In 2011 the government pledged that 90 per cent of the UK would have superfast internet by 2015, with contracts worth £230 million being offered to telecoms firms. Hopefully the Council can attract funding from this and other sources.
It’s also important to look beyond our borders at the solutions that have been found elsewhere. For instance I have been speaking to colleagues in the west about the ‘Connecting Devon & Somerset’ scheme. This has seen the local authorities in those two counties coming together in a partnership with BT. In January they signed a £94 million deal to roll out faster broadband across the region, and they have just released the final map of the areas to benefit. If that can be achieved in two mostly rural counties, I am sure we can make progress here. That’s why I welcome Swindon Borough Council’s initiative. The internet isn’t just about shaky videos of cats playing the piano. Swindon’s economic future relies on it.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 16th October 2013)