On Monday I was delighted to host a conference to discuss Swindon and Wiltshire’s bid for a City Deal. It’s worth stressing straight away that this has nothing to do with Swindon applying for city status – that’s a largely symbolic gesture which most people agree is not a priority at the moment. Instead, City Deals are a government initiative aimed at accelerating growth in jobs, housing and economic development. We are one of only a few English regions selected to apply for the process, which would see us given powers to unlock projects that will drive local economic growth. Swindon and Wiltshire Councils are working closely with the Local Enterprise Partnership on our bid. We have already passed the first hurdle, and now the final details are being developed with ministers. I have offered whatever help I can, and it’s hoped we will get the go-ahead by the end of this year.
The event on Monday was very much about the ‘green’ element of the City Deals bid. Working with an organisation called the Green Alliance, we brought together all the key players. High on the agenda was the economic opportunity of a low carbon bid. This offers Swindon social, economic and environmental benefits from activities such as retrofitting energy efficiency measures, local renewable energy and sustainable transport investment. It’s also about tackling climate change. The meeting aimed not only to identify opportunities at the local level, but also make recommendations for other regions drawing up City Deals. The conference was a success and will add to the excellent work already being undertaken by Swindon Borough Council, Wiltshire Council and the LEP.
The green element of the City Deal is all about encouraging the growth of jobs and investment while at the same time reducing our energy consumption. This dovetails perfectly with the work I’ve been doing on the new Energy Bill in Parliament. This proposed law will reform the electricity market to promote low carbon electricity generation and ensure the security of supply. Central to the new arrangements is a £110 billion investment to replace and upgrade our supply grid. Around a fifth of the UK’s power generation capacity is set to close over the coming decade. At the same time, demand for electricity is expected to double from its current level by 2050. Importantly for consumers, the government is to set a limit on the number of tariffs offered to customers and require the power companies to move people on to the best possible deals. I have been working hard throughout the process to protect both consumer interests and the environment, and will continue to do so.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 12th June 2013)
This week we’ve had the welcome news that Swindon is to receive nearly three million pounds of government funding to help pay for two major road improvement projects. The funds will be used to replace the four roundabouts at Bruce Street Bridges with one large roundabout, and also to install a traffic-light controlled junction to allow direct access to Newcombe Drive. The two schemes are estimated to cost £4.7m in total, with the remaining funds coming from money provided by developers. Congratulations are due to the highways team at Swindon Borough Council for putting together these projects and successfully bidding for the government money. The Bruce Street Bridges work is particularly welcome: when coupled with improvements to the other roundabouts on Great Western Way, it will be a great help to the many thousands us who use this busy road every day.
This is an example of modest amounts of public money being used efficiently to maximum benefit. What a contrast, then, with the economic policies which the Labour Party are still promoting. On Monday, their shadow Chancellor Ed Balls made a speech designed to restore his party’s economic credibility. It was rather overshadowed by his announcement that a future Labour government would stop paying the winter fuel allowance to some pensioners. This has quite rightly been widely condemned. The winter fuel allowance is a universal benefit – pensioners have paid tax and national insurance all their lives and are entitled to receive this payment, irrespective of their circumstances. There is some merit, I think, in looking at the way our tax system operates to ensure fairness. But means-testing these universal benefits would be both unfair and extremely complex, and the whole proposal would end up saving very little money at all.
The headlines concentrated on this aspect of his speech, which tended to mask the fact that Ed Balls still denies that Labour spent too much and borrowed too much. He set out economic policies that would do the same thing all over again. This would mean more debt and soaring interest rates, with hardworking people paying the price. His speech just reminds us again that Labour cannot be trusted to run the economy.
Finally, a note about my surgery this Friday. It will be at the Ellendune Centre in Wroughton from 9.30 until 11am. No appointment is necessary, but if you have a complex or long-running case it would be helpful to contact the office in advance. This is particularly so if there are large numbers of documents to be reviewed, as time can be tight at the surgery itself. Please call 01793 533393, and I look forward to meeting you.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 5th June 2013)
One week on, and the horrific events that unfolded in Woolwich last Wednesday afternoon are still shocking and incomprehensible. Our first thoughts of course are with Drummer Lee Rigby and his family, friends and colleagues. They are grieving for a loved one and we have lost a brave soldier.
We must remember that this was an attack on all of us by a tiny minority of fanatics who have no place in our society. By carrying out this horrific murder and then attempting to justify it in the way they did, the attackers were trying to divide us. They should know that something like this will only bring us together and make us stronger. Organisations such as the English Defence League that choose to respond with violence and hatred are falling into their trap. The same is true of those who have carried out attacks against Muslim communities, from graffiti at mosques to people being abused in the streets. There has been a reported increase of such incidents, but that only serves the motives of the attackers. This was an appalling crime committed by despicable people who should not be seen as political crusaders – this gives them too much credibility.
We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms. This view is shared by every community in our country. The attackers sought to explain their actions by invoking Islam, but this was a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act. We will defeat violent extremism by standing together, by backing our police and security services and above all by challenging the poisonous narrative of extremism on which this violence feeds. The Police have responded with heightened security and activity – and that is right. But one of the best ways of defeating terrorism is to go about our normal lives.
Here in Wiltshire, with our proud military links, we know that better than most. The Woolwich attackers are of the same ilk as those who threatened the repatriation ceremonies at Royal Wootton Bassett. The security services foiled that plot as they have done many others over the years. The problem of course is that we rarely hear about their successes, although they keep us safe day after day. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with our military personnel and security forces at this difficult time. And we should also stand together as a society, people from all faiths and no faiths, in condemning this crime. Here in Swindon we have a long and successful history of community harmony, and long may that continue.
(This article was originally posted in the Swindon Advertiser on 29th May 2013)
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)