Thursday, 17 April 2014

What is a prison for and what can we learn from Norway?

You can listen to BBC Radio 4's thought provoking assessment of prisons here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b040j3y4

My book Doing Time talked about ways to stop reoffending, which as of 2010 was around 6 out of 10 prisoners reoffending within 12 months of release. The book is still available and the BBC did an assessment of it here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-20270600
The cycle of crime, punishment and re-offending needs to be broken. I believe that working prisons and payment by results are a real step forward but Norway is the gold standard, since it boasts a re-offending rate of 20%, the lowest in Western Europe. But we need to change out attitude to crime and punishment as well.


Prisons appear to play a different role in Norway - less about punishment and more a place of rehabilitation. One in particular - Bastoy, an open prison on an island south of Oslo, where only 16% of released prisoners re-offend - has received widespread international attention. How far is its success attributable to the environment or a more humane philosophy? Guards are trained in criminology and psychology, and inmates enjoy a lifestyle described by critics as being like a "holiday camp" (despite the fact it is cheaper to run than most Norwegian prisons).
The programme asks - What is prison for, and what can we learn from Norway?
It is well worth listening to.

Hexham Clean Up day this Saturday morning!

Please come along and tidy your town! We will be going around the town sweeping, cleaning, and making good the town to try and help get the place looking good before the summer tourist season. All are welcome.
Lats year was great fun and really made a difference.

Upcoming Beer Festivals this weekend and over the summer here in Northumberland

I popped in to the Boat House Pub in Wylam yesterday for a pint, and they are holding a Scottish Beer Festival this weekend 17-21 april, with music saturday night. Also on this weekend is the Feathers Beer festival 18-21 april.
Or you can wait for next weeks Ponteland Beer Festival from april 25-26 or the Glenside Beer Festival in Mickley on may 2-3?

The biggest of them all is the Tynedale Beer Festival from June 12-14th
http://www.tynedalebeerfestival.org.uk/

Thursday, Friday 12th/13th June 6-11pm and Saturday 14th June, 1pm-11pm at Tynedale Rugby Club, Tynedale Park, Corbridge.

If you like your beer festivals more relaxed then my favourite is the Haydon Bridge Beer Festival, on the 4-5th July, where I have helped out in the past: I set out their pitch for your support below. Put these future dates in your diary.
http://haydonbeerfestival.co.uk/
The organisers are both delighted and excited to be organising the fifth Haydon Bridge Beer Festival. This year’s event has a fantastic American Independence Day theme, kicking off as it does on 4th July. Whilst coming in appropriate costume is certainly not compulsory, the idea is definitely encouraged!
As well as 40 local beers, ciders from around the UK and wines from across the world to enjoy, there will be some great live music to chill out to.
There will also be delicious local food to savour, with meat coming from the farm just next door. You can’t get much fresher than that.
Set on the beautiful banks of the river south Tyne, the aim of the festival is to ensure people have fun while raising funds for worthy causes. This year’s recipients are the Great North Air Ambulance, St. Oswald’s Hospice and Tynedale Hospice.
If you like a beer Northumberland is the place to be

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ponteland By Election: over 70% vote Conservative

Last week's win in Ponteland is only just beginning to sink in: at a crucial by election neither Labour nor the Liberals decided to put up a candidate. And this was 1 year before a general election and a month before a Euro Election.
Alan Varley was an outstanding local candidate: having worked locally in public service he then decided to put his hand up, and get involved for his local town and help shape his local community. He will be an excellent councillor I am sure.

My congratulations go to Carl Rawlings and his team of supporters who turned out on the day to ensure a big turn out and a 70%+ Conservative vote, and a big win. Because parliament was sitting I was not able to be on the campaign trail in Darras Hall as much as I would have liked but I was able to pop in on election day, as I drove north after the last day of term. I brought with me a surprise guest in the form of Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice. Chris is an MP in Epsom but was in the North East to visit the Oswin Project and go to 3 separate prisons - Kirklevington, Frankland and Northumberland - in 24 hours. We left Frankland High Security prison in the late afternoon and popped into Ponteland for an hour as we drove north. We put Chris to work straight away after he had met the team and for 45 minutes Chris, Carl Rawlings and I made sure everyone locally had turned out to vote. This election mattered a lot in Ponteland, in so many ways but particularly on the issue of how the Council is set up and how we protect the green belt. My congratulations, thanks and full support to Alan and the team of helpers.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Spent yesterday making the case to Scots that people south of the Border want them to stay

I spent yesterday afternoon around Galashiels and Jedburgh with the Better Together team led locally by John  Lamont, the Conservative Borders MSP; this is canvassing but with a difference to the usual conversation on the dorrstep: - you simply canvass "are you proposing to say No in the September Referendum?". The conversation that follows is then a discussion of the merits or otherwise of independence. The response enjoyed in the village of Clovenfords by myself, John, and the local councillor Gavin, was very positive - around 70-75% of the 100+ doors we knocked on were in favour of the Union. I only came across a couple of SNP / pro Independence voters on the doorstep . Later on I attended a meeting with Unionist supporters just outside Jedburgh. I was preaching to the converted but still several of those present made the case that the English need to communicate that we want the Scots to stay. For my part I have no doubt we are better together, but I will be making the hour long drive over the border many times over the coming 5 months.
The message is simple: Please Don't Go!

Immigrant's son, poor family,makes good - to be admired or denigrated? Sajid Javid is a British success story

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danhodges/100267269/labour-fears-sajid-javid-because-hes-everything-its-not-working-class-non-white-successful/
Sajid Javid is being attacked for hauling himself up by his bootstraps. For being aspirational, hard working, and making money...oh and being a banker.
I have included the whole of Dan Hodges article above to let you judge for yourselves, but as Dan writes "it’s now official Labour Party policy to hate the rich."
The approach is now to denounce the aspirational. Read Sajid's life story and you realise that the two Ed's and the Labour Party really do intend to wage a campaign of class warfare to try to secure power in 2015. I find it profoundly depressing.

Labour talks a good game about the importance of working-class political representation.
It also likes to sound off occasionally about the importance of greater ethnic diversity. But look at the comments about how Sajid is treated in the article. His dad arrived at Heathrow airport in 1961, with £1 in his pocket. He worked in a cotton mill, as a bus driver, and on a market stall. Javid himself was born less than a year after Enoch Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech. He grew up in Rochdale, and then moved to Bristol. He went to a local comprehensive school, then university then embarked on a successful career in finance. Then, at the height of his success, he quit his £3 million-a-year job to enter public service. He became an MP earning £65,000 a year. And last week he became the first ever Asian Secretary of State.

At which point the Labour party – the Labour Party – attacked him. Because they think he’s too rich. And worked for a bank. How did they get themselves in a position whereby they are running down the first working-class Asian kid to hold the seals of office?
We have to stop this denigration of the wealth creators. In America they would be celebrated, admired. They create jobs and taxes.

And here is the key thing: without success there are no taxes for public services. All the things that we treasure in this country [our NHS, our Armed Services, our rule of law- I could go on]
still has to be earnt and paid for by the men and women who are running small and larger businesses up and down the country. So when a son of an aspirational migrant makes money and then gives it up for public service and succeeds ......
 surely we should be pleased not denigrating him?

Monday, 14 April 2014

Tynedale Plans this week - including the Hexham Clean Up day this Saturday - take pride in your town!

Haltwhistle today, Ponteland tomorrow meeting everyone from the Chief Constable to the Rotary,
where I am their lunchtime speaker, and then Newcastle to see 2 great businesses on Wednesday, and a meeting to discuss future plans for the Prudhoe Hospital Walled Garden and the whole Hospital site are on my agenda this week. Later in the week I have the Hexham Clean Up day on Saturday morning -
of which more to follow...but put simply come along on Saturday to help give Hexham a clean up. Last year it went really well.

The Co-Op is courting danger-it bought a dog & now wants to bark itself

Mutuals are wonderful things and I am a huge supporter but the Co-Op has got to watch out. If it does not steady the ship it will start to founder. And once again the regional board members are not keen to accept the restrcturing plan.
To misquote Oscar Wilde to lose one man who was asked to sort the troubled mutual out – [chief executive Euan Sutherland] - and then lose another in a matter of weeks [this time key director Lord Myners] smacks of a rudderless organisation. It could mean it does not pay the £383 million it owes as part of the bank’s ongoing recapitalisation programme, and potentially a lot more.

I stress that I wish the Co-Op well. But it has lost over £2 billion and is not listening to those who could actually save it. The way Sutherland was dealt with was totally wrong, and the Co-Op members should be furious with their board members. If the mutual does not sort itself out it will need to go cap in hand to shareholders to raise the additional money owed, and see the Group’s current 30% stake diluted further. The remaining 70pc of the Bank’s shares are owned by a number of debt and hedge funds.
Myners announced last week that he is to leave the board of the Co-op Group at the annual meeting in May, when his proposed corporate governance reforms will be voted upon.

The reforms propose the creation of a two-tier board structure and the recruitment of City-style non-executive directors - but at last week’s board meeting all regional board representatives are understood to have rejected the reforms. The probolem is that medecine never tastes nice.
The rift threatens to derail the restructuring process initiated by Mr Sutherland on his arrival in May 2013. The sad reality is that this is a mutual which has been poorly mismanaged for some time, and the regional directors need to recognise that if they continue to reject the rescue plans there will be nothing left to salvage. And that would be a tragedy, because what we do need are well run mutuals. For too long that has not been a fair description of the Co-Op.

You bring in people to turn something around and then ignore and obstruct them. Not clever. It is like going to the doctors and telling them they got the diagnosis wrong, or buying a dog and barking yourself.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Haltwhistle drop in surgery (and cakes) tomorrow in the Methodist hall

We are trying something new tomorrow by having a surgery and drop in together from10am - noon at the Methodist Hall in Haltwhistle, with the added bonus of home made cakes. I will be there to answer questions and help with any constituents problems. I have a meeting in Halty before hand and will afterwards then be going to Scotland to campaign for the Better Together campaign.

Let's end Parking Charges at Hexham Hospital


This week I have called for an emergency meeting with hospital chiefs where he will ask them to consider scraping parking charges at Hexham Hospital.

I have joined forces with Hexham West councillor Colin Cessford who says the parking charges are leading to "misery being endured by patients and visitors alike."
The time is right to review the hospital parking policy after free parking was introduced in the town. As Colin says: "Now we finally have free parking in the town's car parks, there really is little justification for parking charges at the hospital. It isn't fair on patients and their families to have to pay such high charges."

Bosses at Hexham Hospital recently revealed they will be scrapping the current "Parking Eye" system which relies on automatic number plate recognition. However, no changes were announced to the charges incurred by patients and visitors. I personally would like to see parking charges scrapped all together.

It has been suggested that parking at the new Hospital at Cramlington will be free. If that is the case, coupled with the fact that our other car parks in the town are free, then I think there is a very strong case for scrapping parking charges at Hexham Hospital. Cllr Cessford and I are calling for a meeting with hospital bosses in a bid to get a review of the charging regime.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Buy Local and support you local Markets this weekend

Today is Hexham Farmers Market. I shall be in the town all day, but will pop in to the market to do my shopping - it's from 9-1.30.
Then tomorrow we have the Greenhead Market. Please go and support your local producers.
There are also coffee mornings in Haydon Bridge, and Allendale and a spring fair this weekend at the Wentworth centre

Friday, 11 April 2014

Tynedale Plans this weekend

Saturday I am all day in Hexham, starting with surgeries, and then I am campaigning with Martin Callanan MEP in the Euro elections, followed by further surgeries, and then a Quiz Night at the Hexham Cricket Club. Monday I am in Haltwhistle for a surgery and constituent meetings.

Northumberland Schools Parliamentary Debating Competition won by Ponteland High - by a whisker!

Winners Harriet Barrett and Matthew Ross with my fellow judges, Egger's Jackie Stephenson, European Election Candidate Ben Houchen and the famous Egger Trophy.
The debate Title was: "This House believes that the voting age should be reduced to 16"

Hexham, Haydon Bridge, Ponteland and Prudhoe all selected 2 students to represent them at the debate we held recently at Ponteland Community High School; this first ever Northumberland Schools Parliamentary Debating Award, was won by Harriet Barrett and Matthew Ross - having proposed the motion. I was on the judging panel of 4 - featuring Jackie Stephenson, HR Manager of Egger, and Ben Houchen, councillor and the Candidate for the European Parliament. The judging panel was completed by Dan Brown from my office, who did a lot of the legwork and organising .

Our thanks to the schools, our sponsors the Hexham chipboard Manufacturer Egger UK – which is Northumberland’s largest manufacturing employer, the supporters who came and the pupils themselves.
Genuinely on the night all 4 judges selected a different winner. After a long debate Ponteland won by the narrowest margin. They were aided by the best intervention of the night by Matthew, but it is fair to say that all 4 teams were outstanding.
I am hopeful that we will make this an annual event. I know the students had fun, and all the adults who came up afterwards were really impressed. Out of curiosity I took a ballot of the audience and the motion was marginally carried that indeed ...we should give 16 year olds the vote. A great evening.
For a fuller report see here: http://www.thejournal.co.uk/business/business-news/ponteland-community-high-school-pupils-6938225

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Guest Post - Cllr Veronica Jones: It's election time in Ponteland today.


For the residents of Ponteland West there is a Town Council by-election today. Polls open as usual at 7am and will close at 10pm.

The election will be a close race between Alan Varley the Conservative candidate and former Councillor David Butler, standing as an Independent.

So far both sides have put out leaflets and been out on the doorstep, so we expect a close result tonight at about 11pm. Guy has been out campaigning with us and elections are always a great way of listening to the concerns of local people.

As someone who spent a former life on the professional side of politics I am very surprised to see Labour couldn't put up a candidate. Whether it was just bad organisation, or they literally couldn't find someone to defend their record, I'm not sure.

Either way today people will be able to make their voices heard at the ballot box.






Really excited as more news of Atom - our new North East bank - take shape

It was only 9 months ago that we held our banking summit at the Baltic last year to try and persuade new entrants to set up new banks. So it is worth reflecting that the experts from the world of finance and banking, who came together on June 7 2013 at the Baltic in Gateshead to hear how regional banks could prevent banking continuing to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of players, have now followed the project through.

I organised that event to show how the North East can benefit from the changes.
Among those who came was former Gosforth Grammar School pupil Anthony Thomson, named as one of the City’s most influential operators after helping set up Metro Bank, a new customer friendly bank opening branches across London. Mr Thomson has now set up Atom.
Fuller story in todays Jounral:
http://www.thejournal.co.uk/business/business-news/first-direct-boss-metro-bank-6940681

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

New Local Bank to be set up in the North East has my full support

Our local banking summits have been led by Newcastle man, Anthony Thomson, who I am pleased to say has announced that he is setting up a North East based bank:
Full story here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/consumertips/banking/10754266/Metro-founder-to-set-up-Britains-first-phoneless-bank.html
It will be called Atom.
Atom will offer a "full range" of personal and business banking products when it opens for business in 2015. This will include current and savings accounts, as well as loan products and credit cards.
Mark Mullen, who has run First Direct since 2011, an online bank operated by HSBC, will become the new bank’s chief executive.
The bank will be based in the north east of England.



Disappointed that Heaton rail maintenance workers going on strike but should be no disruption to services

Rail maintenance workers at depots in Leeds and Newcastle are to hold a six-day strike in a dispute over plans to regrade their jobs. The BBC reports here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-26937967
that staff at Northern Rail's depots at Neville Hill and Heaton will stop work at 18:59 BST on Thursday 10 April until 18:58 BST on Wednesday 16 April.
The strike, by 42 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, follows a 48-hour walkout in February.
Northern Rail have said there would be "no disruption" to normal services, but I will update regular readers as and when I hear more. Everyone knows I support unions but I would hope that the parties will get talking and common sense will prevail. Northern have had trouble keeping a relationship with the unions -  and everyone in Tynedale will remember Torchgate, and not with fond memories. I am raising other matters with Northern at the moment, not least persistent overcrowding which constituents have brought to my attention, but this is the background to where we have been on employer / employee and customer relations; it is not for me to solve this dispute but I will leave constituents and readers to draw their own conclusions: http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/torchgatethere-is-light-at-end-of.html



Calling all Northumberland Teachers /Governors/ Pupils - is your School underfunded? You can do something about it

The key news is that there is
- both a financial increase of 6.4% next year to Northumberland schools.
- and a consultation on change.

Last week the Government announced that schools in Northumberland will receive an extra £10.6 million funding in 2015/16, addressing the historic unfairness in the way school funding has been allocated. This 6.4% uplift is part of a proposed £350 million boost to the most underfunded local authorities. It represents a step towards removing the unfairness which exists in the school funding system - which has seen Northumberland's schools underfunded compared to their urban counterparts in Newcastle and Gateshead for many years.
I raised this with the Schools Minister David Laws in the House of a Commons last week:
Question:
"Last summer the Minister visited Northumberland, where schoolchildren have, historically, been chronically underfunded, compared with those in other areas, by central Government. May I welcome the 6.4% increase in early 2015 and the ongoing consultation, and observe that the case for fairer funding is absolutely overwhelming? The Minister should prepare for a lot of representations from my head teachers.”

Mr Laws responded:
 "I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome of our announcement. I congratulate him on his robust campaigning over a period of time to ensure this fairer funding settlement. As he knows, under our plans Northumberland’s per pupil funding rate will increase by around £269 per pupil per year, which will mean over £10 million more for schools in his area."
The school funding system that we inherited is fundamentally unfair. It is a postcode lottery that results in pupils attracting very different levels of funding without good reason. Compared to schools in Newcastle and Gateshead, Northumberland's schools have got a raw deal for far too long.

The Announcement is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-laws-oral-statement-on-minimum-funding-levels

The consultation document is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/fairer-schools-funding-2015-to-2016
Please fill it in - this really matters!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Good to see the North East Combined Authority showing the region working together and not against each other

For too long the North East local areas and counties have fought each other like ferrets in a sack. The best example is the 4 separate applications for the Green Investment Bank, when Central Government invited bids for the location of the Green Investment Bank. So I am delighted that the Journal today reports the region coming together and supporting the 7 Local Authorities agreeing to act as one combined Noirth East Authority in order to:
- Pitch for big government and other infrastructure projects
- Make a concerted joined up case to big businesses and overseas investors
- Speak as one on key issues like apprenticeships, devolution and job creation
- And work towards both better transport infrastructure and an integrated transport policy - and the ultimate goal of an Oyster card universal payment system for transport across the region, as so successfully launched in London and the South East.
There is a model for this and this is Greater Manchester - which leads the way in joined up governnment. The Journal has covered this here today as follows:
http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/labour-mps-reluctantly-back-north-6933055

Two final points: firstly, it is important that this process frees up Unitary and County Councils to focus on the provision and delivery of core services - and not spend their time making 4 individual pitches for the Green Investment Bank, for example; I believe this will happen; and I made the case that this change must not lead to a loss of rural services, in particular rural bus services; myself and Councillors are working very hard to ensure that rural connectivity is not lost.

The Afghan Elections remind us never to take democracy for granted

I love this picture - it sums up the determination of the Afghan people - and the women in particular - to get to the polls, notwithstanding huge delays and torrential rain.  More than seven million Afghans turned out to vote, defying Taliban militant threats to the poll. The election marks the country's first democratic transfer of power. It will take at least another week before the winner is confirmed. If none of the eight candidates gets more than 50% of the vote, Afghans will vote again in a second round.
But the BBC reports that many Afghans feel their country has already won by holding a relatively peaceful poll. Turnout was double that of the last presidential election in 2009, despite major Taliban attacks in the run-up to voting and a cold, rainy polling day.
There are plenty of countries out there with no democracy, and precious few freedoms. The issues to be decided are genuinely significant: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-26747496

An "energy price freeze" does not control prices and what happens to workers wages?

Ed Miliband’s energy policy needs  to be understood – he proposes to govern by issuing edicts to companies, telling energy firms what they should charge their customers and threatening similar orders to those he regards as ‘predators’. He has a very advanced and detailed business strategy — but seems to lack the support of a single prominent business leader. More importantly his strategy would raise prices not lower them. And who will do the investing in new energy infrastructure?  

I asked this question of the shadow Energy secretary Caroline Flint, in the House of Commons, last week:
Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)

"Does the right hon. Lady accept that an externally imposed price freeze does not control overseas supply or energy prices?"
Answer came there none.

Later another colleague asked her:

"What discussions has she had with trade unions and the energy industry about the possibility, should there be a price freeze, of a demand for a wages and salary freeze in the energy industry?"

I cannot overstate the problems that would occur if government fixes prices - investment will be stymied, wages will reduce and all of us, the customer, will suffer in the long term.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Riding Mill this Thursday - A Debate on how we achieve a sustainable low carbon energy enviroment

This Thursday in Riding Mill at 6.45 there is the latest debate organised by the St James Forum, on how we achieve a sustainable low carbon energy environment, featuring two of our best local experts in Tynedale. 
Past discussions have included debates on Genetic Technologies, Stem Cell Technologies, the Israeli view of the West Bank issues, the banking crisis, farming issues and so on. The Speakers are two experts - Bob Hull, who worked for the European Commission on sustainable energy issues, and both the Higher Education Funding Council and the Council of Newcastle University specialising in low carbon energies, will be debating with Malcolm Reid, who is a tireless campaigner on energy issues, including working with Bob on the Hexham Hydro Project; both are very active in the wonderful Transition Tynedale.

The format for the evening is speakers and food, followed by an open discussion. The evening is in the Parish Hall Riding Mill and begins at 6.45pm - ending at about 9.15pm. If you have not been you should go this Thursday.

North East Local Authorities working together will bring jobs, growth, infrastructure and so much more

Today we have the debate on the creation of local authorities working together - something that has never happened before. 
No more should we be in a turf war between different local authorities, where everyone loses out. My best example of this was the Green Investment Bank, where the North East submitted not one, not two but 4 separate city bids for the bank location. Instead of combining and working together we ended up with nothing.
No other region has addressed its strengths and weaknesses like the North East did with the Adonis Report. This report was business led, written by experts, apolitical, hard hitting and realistic. It pulled few punches. The recommendations, backed up as they were by the Heseltine report, and the NECC, make the case for a combined authority; a Combined Authority will create a new transport authority allowing us to integrate and make infrastructure improvements, which are crucial our area. In addition, the LA7 will allow more money to be devolved from London to the region, and provide real ability to grow the jobs in the area. Greater Manchester, and other areas, have shown what can be achieved if there is unity and a committed agenda for change. This will not be regional government by the back door. This is not another layer of bureaucracy. This is simply the 7 local authority chairs working together under 1 agreed leader to provide the critical mass that wins big bids from government, overseas businesses and gets big infrastructure projects.  I am delighted that the region now has a clear way forward to deliver even more jobs, apprenticeships, and growth.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sunday in Westminster prepping for the week ahead and sorting the outstanding casework

Sat at my desk with a busy three days ahead in Westminster, before I head north for 2 weeks.
Tomorrow we have the big LA7 debate to created the North East Combined Authority, which I support and have campaigned at length to make happen. I shall be speaking in the short debate between 4.30-6. Writing my short speech now.
I also have a Justice and Home Affairs debate tomorrow, plus the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Parliamentary Reception, which I hope to be able to go to. In the evening I will be hoping to fit in a meeting with some of the Better Together team, who will be down in Westminster Monday evening.
Tuesday sees Foreign Office Questions, followed by a series of debates and meetings concerning credit unions. I am particularly looking forward to a meeting with Sir Hector Sants, Chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Credit Union Task Group; Sir Hector is seeking input from interested parties on the Church’s role supporting the growth of credit unions as part of a more competitive financial sector which encourages responsible lending and saving. The meeting is in Committee Room 14, Palace of Westminster, 4-6pm.
Wednesday is busy with PMQs, the end of the Finance Bill in Committee, and a series of meetings with a 7 pm finish and I will then sprint for the 8 o'clock train to Northumberland.
Once back home I have a multitude of meetings and visits over the next 10days, which I will blog about in more detail later in the week.

The income tax-free personal allowance increases to £10,000: 24 million taxpayers will benefit

Today:
•The income tax-free personal allowance increases to £10,000. 24.5 million taxpayers will benefit, with a further quarter of a million taken out of paying income tax altogether. From April, typical basic rate taxpayers will have gained by £705 from all increases announced by this Government. Three million people on low incomes will be taken out of income tax altogether.
•Employer National Insurance Contributions will be cut by up to £2,000. This new Employment Allowance will benefit over one and a quarter million employers, over 90 per cent of them small businesses. 400,000 small businesses will no longer pay employer National Insurance at all.

This is in addition to the savers’ package of measures, increasing the ISA allowance, offering new Pensioner Bonds in the next financial year and freeing savers to make their own decisions about their pension savings.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

1 year to the election: look to France to see the kind of future awaits Britain if Miliband wins

Francois Hollande’s presidency has been a total disaster;
-         French unemployment is now over 10 per cent;
-         among the young it is 24 per cent.
-         His war on wealth creators has led to a collapse of foreign investment into the country — it has more than halved in the two years since he came into office.
-         In the same period, it has trebled in Germany. While most countries in the eurozone think the worst is behind them, France fears that the worst is yet to come.

Hollande cannot be faulted for being serious about doctrine. He wanted to impose a 75 per cent rate of tax on the richest, and when the courts struck that down he imposed it on the employers instead. Rather than leading to a flood of revenue, it has put up a ‘keep out’ sign above France for anyone serious about starting a business. Success is penalised. Miliband’s proposed above 50% tax rises would do precisely the same.

Meanwhile, George Osborne is squeezing the richest better than anyone: the best-paid 1 per cent now contribute 30 per cent of all income tax collected, the highest share in history. The Conservative party’s secret? It cut the top rate of tax. Hollande now talks grandly about his ‘responsibility pact’ with French business, whereby he cuts taxes in return for them taking on workers. It is not working. This is what George Osborne has been doing: since entering office, corporation tax has fallen from 28 to 21 per cent. Employment has soared to an all-time high (defying the predictions of Ed Balls, who said hopes of such a jobs surge was a ‘fantasy’). France has found out the hard way that no country has ever taxed its way into prosperity; if Miliband wins the election, and implements his agenda, Britain will be plunged into precisely the same crisis which now engulfs France. The stakes at the next election are terrifyingly high.

Visiting the local Gurdwara, Mosque and Hindu Temple in Newcastle

A month or so ago I got the chance to spend a day with Martin Callanan MEP, and Saj Karim MEP visiting the local Gurdwara, Mosque and Temple in Newcastle. My thanks to all of our hosts, and the organisers. It was an outstanding day and I came away grateful for the local leaders of the local religious communities who co-exist so successfully together. I have just received this short you tube of the event, which I share with you all:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCpSnpaFCMU

The same afternoon we did a working Q & A with a group of local schoolchildren. Again here is the video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rOi4201Q-s

Friday, 4 April 2014

Oh to be in Scotland at the Eddie Izzard "Scotland Please don't go" gig

Tonight Eddie Izzard has gone north to make the case to Scots that we are Better Together. I have seen the great man many times and I am gutted I cannot be there. But Izzard is going to give those in the rest of the UK a voice in the independence referendum even though they don’t have a vote, and offer them an "opportunity to play their part in keeping our family of nations together"
For more details see here, but this is great news:
http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jennyhjul/100266366/eddie-izzard-is-campaigning-for-a-no-vote-but-many-scottish-public-figures-are-too-scared-to-defend-the-union/

Syrian Refugees arrive in UK as part of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme

Good news that the first Syrian refugees have now arrived in the UK as part of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme. This scheme, which the Home Secretary outlined to Parliament on 29 January, is designed to provide protection in this country to particularly vulnerable people displaced by the conflict in Syria. A number of local authorities have already signed up to support the scheme and further discussions are ongoing with other authorities.

The UK has a proud tradition of granting protection to those in need. Indeed, the UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the Syrian relief effort after the USA, having provided £600 million so far. In addition, the Government continues to offer humanitarian support in the region and in the UK. The greatest contribution we can make, of course, is to work to end the conflict altogether and we continue to seek a peaceful settlement that enables a political transition and an end to violence.
A copy of James Brokenshire’s statement on the full details of the scheme can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/vulnerable-persons-relocation-scheme-for-syrian-nationals

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Miliband's Bon Ami Hollande shows why French socialism is no way to run a country

As the French economy struggles on and socialism fails I am not sure Ed Miliband will continue to argue that the French way is a better way. But if you want an understanding of how bad Britain would be under the 2 Ed's then France is your example.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10735650/Francois-Hollande-picks-a-government-of-combat-after-disaster-at-the-polls.html

Big Shu is my 25-1 each way tip for Saturday's Grand National. Walkon a good outsider

For those who do not know before becoming an MP I was an amateur steeplechase jockey, and racing journalist. And while that gives no guarantee of success
I pick the Irish 25-1 shot Big Shu to land the odds in the National.

Everyone knows you need a great jumper, and Big Shu certainly fits the bill, having won over the towering fences of the Cheltenham Cross Country race. He stays and has both a touch of class and a racing weight at 10 stone 8. I spoke to connections of Big Shu last month and know that they have prepared him specially for this race, and that they will be welcoming the recent softening of the ground.

There is a huge gamble on the Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall owned Monbeg Dude, but I have real concerns about his ability to jump round. He always seems to really clout a fence in any race and you cannot do that at Aintree, even with the softening of the fences.

The big dangers in my opinion are Teaforthree, last year’s third and Triolo D’Alene, who won the Hennessy in November relatively easily. I would love to make the case for North Eastern owner Graham Wylie’s top weight Tidal Bay but whilst he is a class act, he has to overcome two vital statistics: no 13-year-old has won since 1923 and no top weight since Red Rum in 1974. Tidal Bay is many things, but he is no Red Rum. 

If you want an outsider then I think that Alan King’s Walkon, must go well at a massive 50-1.But I still think Big Shu is the bet of the day and he will carry my £10 each way. A longer version of this blog will appear in tomorrows Journal. I still have not hung my boots up yet and will hope to race at Liverpool one day.
So my forecast is:
1. Big Shu
2. Teaforthree
3. Triolo D’Alene
4. Walkon

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

PMQ Today - my Q&A with the PM 27 mins 10 seconds in

http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/house_of_commons/

Guy Opperman (Hexham):

In 2012, 150,000 people petitioned this House to stop charitable air ambulances having to pay VAT on fuel. May I thank the Prime Minister for his actions in the 2014 Budget which will mean that more missions are flown and more lives are saved? Does he agree that this is possible only because we are using the LIBOR fines for good purposes and because we have a long-term economic plan?

The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him because he is the founder and chair of the all-party group on air ambulances. He has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, and he led a debate in the House in 2012. I am delighted about the result that was achieved in the Budget. As he says, it will lead to an expansion of the service. He is also right that you can only make these decisions if you look after the nation’s resources, control public spending, and get the deficit down—in short, if you have a long-term economic plan.

Northumberland County Council may move County Hall further east to Ashington

The decision in relation to County Hall is to be taken next week. If the result was the return of some services to Tynedale, and a better focus on the rural parts of the county, then many of my constituents would be very pleased.  However, the BBC reports that the proposal is to go further east to Ashington. The disconnect would actually get worse not better. More details on the story here.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-26843925

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Government cuts tax rates even further

New corporation tax year begins as the main rate is cut to 21 per cent.
Again this government is cutting tax: why? Because lower taxes on businesses allow employers to employ more people. The rate of corporation tax has fallen as follows:
2011 - 26%
2012 - 24%
2013 - 23%
2014 - 21%

In addition:
•Tax on business investment virtually abolished for most businesses. The annual investment allowance will be doubled to £500,000, and will be extended by a further year to December 2015. This means 99.8 per cent of businesses could pay no tax on investment.

•Business rates reformed so that:
•The annual increase is capped at two per cent;
•The small business rates relief is extended for a further year, so that over half a million of the smallest businesses pay reduced rates and over a third of a million pay no rates at all; and
•Targeted help for the high street in the form of a £1,000 discount for retail properties takes effect, benefitting around 300,000 shops, pubs and restaurants

BBC Sunday Politics Show on Iplayer - 36 minutes, 30 seconds in

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03yvtxc/Sunday_Politics_North_East_and_Cumbria_30_03_2014/
Discussion of Living Wage, Welfare Cap, Labour disarray on welfare and SNP stance on the referendum on scottish independence

Monday, 31 March 2014

10,000 pounds earnings before you pay tax - real help for the low paid from tomorrow

The amount of money that workers can earn before they start paying tax will be raised to £10,000 from tomorrow.
That will take another 700,000 people out of tax altogether.

RECENT TAX FREE ALLOWANCES

  • tax
    2010/11 - £6,475
  • 2011/12 - £7,475
  • 2012/13 - £8,105
  • 2013/14 - £9,400
  • 2014/15 - £10,000

If you are in or around Corbridge please keep a look out for Thomas Diggle

Thomas Diggle is 92, white, and 5ft 9ins tall with thin grey hair, and walks with a stoop. He often wears a flat cap, and a dark-coloured long wool coat and uses a walking stick; he left Abbeyfield in Corbridge - probably early on Frdiay morning. Please have a look in any sheds, barns or outbuildings locally, as his family and the police are understandably very concerned.

Full story and a picture of Thomas is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-26809406

Prudhoe Hospital Meeting tomorrow night at 7pm - a key opportunity to have your say about the site's future

The Prudhoe Civic and Community Forum meeting will be held at 7pm on April 1 at Prudhoe Community Church. There will be a forum presentation and discussion on the future of the Prudhoe Hospital Walled Garden.

I have been working with many of the locals to try and make the case for retention of the walled garden and an assessmen of the site in general. This has involved meetings with key locals - the record of which is set out here, along with the key questions. My thanks to Robert Forsythe and all the team of enthusiasts for their efforts.
http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/what-to-do-with-prudhoe-hospital-site.html

One of the activists is Dr Julia Cooper who told the Hexham courant recently that - “The forum meeting is a chance for people interested in the walled garden to come along and we can hear their ideas and gauge how much interest there is. We would like to put together a group to take on the garden. Hopefully at the meeting we’ll be able to identify who the key players are. We’re hoping people will come together in the town to work together.”
http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk/news/prudhoe-plants-the-idea-of-a-community-garden-1.1125589

I urge anyone interested in the long term fate of the Prudhoe hospital site to go to tomorrow's meeting. I will be in Westminster but am sending along Pete, who works for me, to take notes and answer any questions.

Westminster this coming week & I have a question at Prime Ministers Questions!

Question 15 at PMQs is the MP for Hexham! Very excited as only the 4th PMQ I have ever managed to secure in 4 years - as it is run on a pure ballot basis. Still working on the question, although there are several options.
Today I am meeting William Hague for an update on Crimea and Ukraine, along with the regular Monday Home Office meeting. We have the Finance Bill going through the Commons enacting the budget on Tuesday when we also have the last day of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill Committee - this has taken up a huge amount of my midweek time this last month and it will be a relief to be free to get back into the Commons.

Wednesday morning there is a debate on the FSA and the Connaught scandal - which I will attend to support Alun Cairns MP, who has secured the short 30 minute debate at 11am. Then after PMQs I will stay for the Opposition Day debate.

Thursday I have a number of constituents coming to Westminster and I will be using the day to try and catch up on your letters, casework and emails. I will also be trying to meet again with Sir David Higgins and the HS2 team.
Update: sadly the Connaught debate has been pulled by the Speaker and will be heard in a few weeks time.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Scotland independence and the impact on border controls and immigration policy

My debate with the SNP today on the Sunday Politics featured discussion of immigration controls, and the impact of both a split currency and trade between the 2 nations if Scotland were to go independent.  My argument is that there is a significant difference between controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as shown on the debate. The reason is simple. Both parts of Ireland are part of the EU common travel area. An independent Scotland would not be.

On Border controls this is what my boss, Theresa May, recently said on the issue:
"If the people of Scotland vote to leave the UK there would be profound changes for migration policy. An international border would be created where one does not currently exist. This would have implications for people travelling to visit family, go on holiday or do business, and for our economies more generally.
Alex Salmond's white paper has the admission that, just like the last Labour government, a separate Scotland would pursue a looser immigration policy. That would undermine the work we have done since 2010, and the continuing UK could not allow Scotland to become a convenient landing point for migration into the United Kingdom."

The Scottish government's independence white paper said that Scotland should try to join the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, which allows free movement between both countries. But this is conditional on Scotland dropping plans to have more liberal, open immigration rules than the UK.

We already know that a yes vote would mean that, when it became separate, Scotland would no longer be part of the EU, and EU President  José Manuel Barroso has been quite clear that it would be impossible for an independent Scotland to join the EU Common Travel Area, while it negotiated independence from the UK. In reality, the Scots would require an agreement from the countries of the EU, and the French, Spanish and southern EU countries have made their position very clear on this issue. As always, with the Scots on these debates there is an element of wanting to keep their cake and want to eat it at the same time. The UK has gone to great efforts to create proper border controls. The Scots want to be independent, and a country out of the EU but uniquely in the EU want to have post independence:
- a different immigration policy,
- and a common travel area following independence.
You cannot have both say not just the UK, but others in the EU. I will post the BBC Debate on Iplayer when it goes up.

My fellow Border MP Rory Stewart's 8pm BBC programme tonight on the Norhumberland / Cumbria Borderlands

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2014/13/border-country.html

Saturday, 29 March 2014

On BBC Sunday Politics show at 11.30 Sunday morning

Channel 955 if you are not in the North East. Issues discussed are the living wage and the welfare cap.
Also, we are Debating Scottish Independence with an SNP MP. I have set out my views in the past on whether Scotland can keep the pound post independence: http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/we-will-do-what-we-like-post.html

The Euro Sensibles are winning the argument on reform of the EU

The Germans agreeing with us is a significant step forward. There was a joint article yesterday in the FT by the Chancellor and the German Chancellor, as reported below. The prime minister has worked very hard to build up alliances in the EU - with a particularly close relationship with the Dutch and the Scandanavian countries producing a "Euro Sensible" approach to change in the EU.
The Germans are now signalling that any moves towards deeper economic and political integration within the eurozone are a trigger for the UK to secure a "better deal" in Europe and redraft the terms of its membership. The key point is that existing EU treaties will need to be rewritten - although France has signalled that it does not believe this is a priority at the moment.
Full story here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26780836

Amazing story of Gateshead lady who hears for the first time

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-26779079

Friday, 28 March 2014

Torrential rain in Tynedale tonight but campaigning for sure tomorrow

Humshaugh and Wark in the morning for the team, followed by lunch in the Crown Pub and then campaigning in the Ponteland by election in the afternoon for us. All of us will be praying for fair weather! British summer time starts this weekend. We are hoping it comes early for us on the doorstep.

Tynedale plans this weekend

Living Wage event this morning and then I am have meetings and am then speaking at Lunch in Newcastle, followed by the recording of the Sunday Politics Show at the BBC. Then in the evening I have the Conservative AGM in Hexham.
Saturday we have a double action day - we will be knocking on doors in Humshaugh in the morning and Ponteland in the afternoon, punctuated by lunch in the Crown.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Bishop Graham Usher's Consecration at St Pauls - a special and truly spiritual day

Northumberland came to St Pauls and helped consecrate their friend and canon as the new Bishop of Dudley. How does one start to describe the day? It began with a celebration of old friends and parishioners descending on to the bustling metropolis that surrounds St Pauls Cathedral. As I parked my bicycle, having cycled from the House of Commons, London thronged around this wonderful Cathedral, as the multitudes went to work. Inside was calm and wonder at Wren's masterpiece of architecture and design. And then began the procession: I have been to the state opening of parliament and other ceremonial occasions and this surpassed all I have seen. The list bears repeating - a virger, the crucifer and acolytes, ostiarius, the prolocutor and deputy prolocutor and registrar of the House of Canterbury, the Bishop Designate [Graham!], The Presenting Bishops, The College of Bishops, The Dean's Virger, The Chapter of St Pauls, A Virger, The Bishops of Winchester and London, The principal Registrar, Another Virger, The sub Deacon, the Deacon, The Primatial Cross of Canterbury, and finally the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was quite a procession!
   
They entered as we all sung "Praise my soul the King of Heaven". Two things struck me immediately. Firstly, Graham is much younger than most of his fellow Bishops. Secondly, the acoustics in St Pauls are breathtaking. After every verse the sound lingered on for at least a second, echoing softly around the hallowed space. I have never heard such a sound in a church before. 

This blog could not describe each and every event of the near 1 and 3/4 hour ceremony but certain highlights stood out:
- We were treated to a wonderful sermon by our own Reverend Canon Dr Dagmar Winter, of Kirkwhelpington and the villages around. Her clear strong voice and the wisdom of her words moved one and all - certainly I noted Archbishop Justin listening attentively.

- But what was most moving is the actual Ordination Prayer, where all the Bishops gather around their brother Bishop, called the Ordinand, and
"lay their hands on the head of the Ordinand as the Archbishop says: "Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant Graham for the office and work of a Bishop in your Church."" I had no idea that this was the process of Ordination and that all the other Bishops were so involved. It was very moving.

- Then followed a Communion that was a logisitical masterpiece, with multiple Communion Assistants fanning out around St Pauls, so that one could look around and see Communion being given at all points of the compass within the Cathedral. I was by chance asked to process up the main aisle and toom Communion from the Archbishop.

- And finally we observed the Archbishop's procession exit the Cathedral as we sung "Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord". Again the sound was incredible.

And then we were all outside. Dozens waited to greet, congratulate, and chat to the new Bishop who was smiling, and only mildly over awed by the magnitude of what had taken place.
    
There is a great moment in Shakespeare's Henry V when the king has to describe Agincourt, and his desire to share the moment with his comrades in arms: he replies - "God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour". All of us who were there on Tuesday March 25th 2014 shared this honour. We lost a Canon, as he went on to higher things. But we wished him well. If all of us could have laid our arms upon him - as the Bishops so memorably did - then we would all have done so. The Church and the people of Dudley and Worcestershire are wise in their choice, and lucky souls. We, in Northumberland, are lucky to have known this great and truly spiritual man. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Living Wage Conference this Friday morning in Newcastle

The Living Wage Foundation and I have been working together for a while now, and we want to spread the Living Wage message to the North East. I have met with and worked closely with Boris Johnson and his team in London, and seen the changes their leadership is bringing in London. In addition, I have met with many employers and employees, and discussed the nuts and bolts of payment of a Living Wage for both the employee and the employer. As a result I want to hold Friday's event to raise the profile of the Living Wage in the North East.

Like everyone I welcome the increase in National Minimum Wage - up 19p to £6.50 from October, but this does not change the bottom-up argument for the Living Wage. I do not support a statutory Living Wage. It should continue to be an organic, voluntary campaign, because that is when it is at its best; certainly if you look at London and the South East the campaign has really taken off and gained momentum.

Part of Friday is making the case to employers, and the wider public, and showing that businesses can benefit from paying the Wage, just as much as employees can. I have spoken to businesses that say that morale has been boosted, productivity increased and staff turnover decreased, as a result of paying the Wage. We need to shout about these benefits. Fridays event, beginning at 9.30, will feature such diverse employers as KPMG, our hosts, to the local housing provider, Aquila Way, with representatives from the Church, Councillors, other local businesses and such key stakeholders as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the TUC. It is not too late to come along, whether to listen to us make the case or merely to observe - but call the Hexham office if you want to come. As Boris and the PM have made clear - "this is an idea whose time has come".

If you want to read more, my detailed article on the subject, and an assessment of the pros and cons for a volontary Living Wage is in last summer's New Statesman here: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/08/guy-opperman-conservative-case-living-wage

Northumberland Schools Parliamentary debating Competition: Should we lower the voting age to 16?

Tomorrow the 4 high schools take each other on, hosted by Ponteland High School 
Starts at 6
Finishes at 7.30
Feel free to come along and support your local school, friends and community
My thanks to all the organisers, sponsors and those brave enough to take part!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Meeting many of Ukraine's leading politicians tomorrow - is it next on Russia's hit-list?

Tomorrow I hope to meet, talk and listen to many of the Ukrainian MPs who are coming to Westminster. In addition the PM is making a statement at 12.30 in the House on the issue of the Crimea and the Russian agression. I shall be there.

The Ukrainians are rightly concerned that their country as a whole could be next on Putin's list, now that the effective land grab and annexation of the Crimea has taken place. Sanctions are a good start by the West, in response, but clearly this is a fluid process. My other concern is the small region of Transdneister in Moldovia. The concern is that Putin's new doctrine might extend to incorporating the Russian-speaking region of Transdniester.
A fuller assessment of the story here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10721463/Ukraine-the-next-possible-flashpoints.html

Labour and Benefits - committed to spending more on benefits for all, and opposing every welfare reform

The budget debate today focused on the words of Rachel Reeves, Labour Welfare Minister, who stated at an earlier meeting:
‘It will be much better if we can say that all of the changes that the Government have introduced we can reverse and all benefits can be universal.’

Despite being pressed she refused to deny saying this.
As others have pointed out:
- Implementing working-age Universal Benefits alone after the next election would cost Rachel £180 billion a year, which is double the benefits bill now.
- If you then include reversing all of IDS’s savings made in this parliament - like £2.1 billion to Housing Benefit Reforms or £1.3 billion to Employment and Support Allowance - you’re looking at another £50 billion needed. That takes Rachel’s bill to £230 billion . How can that figure possibly be seen as ‘much better’?
The truth is that Labour have opposed every single cut to the Nation's Budget. They are addicted to spending.


High School Debate Competition in Ponteland this Thursday- Are you coming to support our brightest and best?

4 schools, 2 pupils per team, a brand new debating competition, one epic prize.... what more could you want?
This Thursday I am pleased to say that we are launching our first schools debating competition. It has taken a lot of work to organise, and my thanks to all the High School teachers who have enthusiastically signed up, Ponteland High School for hosting the event, all the star pupils who are performing, or coming to support, and former Ponteland pupil, Dan Brown, who now works in my London office, and who has done a lot of the legwork. Our thanks also to Egger, who have donated a great trophy - out of local Northumberland Egger Wood! It will put the Glitterball Trophy to shame.
It is not too late to come along and support your school and their chosen representatives in this clash of the debating titans. The event starts at Ponteland High School at 6.00 on Thursday. I will preview the topic and teams of speakers from Prudhoe, Haydon Bridge, Hexham and Ponteland later this week - I am hoping to spot the next Churchill: no pressure debate teams!! More seriously I am hoping that we create an enjoyable competition that stretches the local pupils, develops their advocacy and presentational skills, and shows them and us that our future stars are within our midst.

Monday, 24 March 2014

"Trusting people with the money they have saved is a good thing" - the man on the Ponteland Doorstep

In Ponteland over this weekend I knocked on a number of doors. I spoke to many locals about the proposed pension changes and the new law which will allow pensioners who have saved to take their pension pot and invest it -  rather than having to buy an annuity. Everyone I spoke to welcomed the changes. I will try and set out the position in a little detail below.

What is the change?
Under the proposals, from next year millions of people reaching retirement age will be able to spend their pension pot in any way they want. This will remove the requirement on many people with defined contribution pensions to buy an annuity; an annuity is a financial product that guarantees an income for the rest of your life. The problem is that annuities pay very low returns, are taxed very highly and incur significant charges from the provider.
The government says that the overhaul will give retirees more flexibility to do what they want with their pension savings. As the man in Darras Hall put it to me, on his doorstep of Western Way.
"People have saved all their lives. They are the responsible ones. And isn't a Conservative policy to trust people?"
Another householder said: "Trusting people with the money they have saved is a good thing"

Who does it affect?
The new system is planned to be introduced fully in April 2015, but only for the 320,000 or so who retire each year with a defined contribution pension pot. If you are already into an annuity then that situation will stay.

What's wrong with annuities?
Some have called these poor value and you are locked into the income it provides for life, with no possibility of this increasing if rates improve. You also cannot pass on any remaining pot to surviving family. So if you buy an annuity and die two years later, your remaining pension pot goes to the annuity provider. It is possible to buy one with a guarantee that will pay out any remainder on death to surviving family, but these are more expensive, while any remaining lump sum left is taxed at 55%, making them unappealing. It is great news that the government have decided this has to change.
The changes will come with free and expert advice, provided for by the government so that people make their own informed decisions.

The Labour approach:
- their response was best summed up by this comment from a Labour spokesmen Tom Watson MP and he Blair advisor John  McTiernan - "you cannot trust people to spend their own money wisely" - on last weeks Newsnight.

For my part I agree with the man in Ponteland: "Trusting People with the money that they have saved is a good thing".

Sunday, 23 March 2014

What is Labour's position on our Budget? I have debated two of their key people lately and I am still unclear

On Wednesday I listened to Ed Miliband MP in the Commons replying to the Budget. It was all class war, and a few short term fixes. That afternoon even Ed Balls MP criticised his boss's performance. And then on Friday I debated Catherine Mckinnell MP at a North East Chamber of Commerce Event. I went second after the key budget issues were outlined by James Ramsbotham, Chairman of the NECC. Then third up was Catherine.

I waited for what she would do differently. She is a very important woman - because she is number 3 in the Treasury team behind Ed Balls and Chris Leslie. I have my notes of her speech.
I know she would put up taxes.
I know she loves a short term energy price freeze that will not make a difference.
But on the issue of a Labour policy approach to business, Corporation Tax, Business Rates, NICS, in fact on any policies, I am still no clearer. I know business would be hit. And, as usual, there was criticism of what the Coalition did not do.

In short, on economic policy, I would love to be able to help the thousands of my readers that I could tell them what the Labour alternative is. The reality is that we are 46 months into this parliament and we are still unclear. Every financial, welfare, and budgetary reform has been opposed with no alternative provided.
We did discuss APD, Help to buy, local banks, new housing projects, regional development, LA7 and changes in energy policy. Again, I struggled for an a different approach, save criticism.  
Boris Johnson has done a good piece on Labours approach: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/pensions/10717846/Budget-2014-the-Lamborghini-ride-that-says-power-to-the-people.html  

A trip to St Pauls Cathedral for consecration of Bishop Graham Usher punctuates my week in Westminster

Back in Westminster prepping for a busy week, hoping to speak in the Budget debate and education questions on Monday and a further session of the Criminal Justice Bills Committee on Tuesday. I am also meeting the HS2 team, including Sir David Higgins.
But the highlight of the week the visit on Tuesday morning to St Pauls to worship, and also support Bishop Usher at his consecration.  Graham has been a central part of our lives for a very long time, and I certainly owe him a massive debt.
When he was chosen I wrote of what a loss he would be:
http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/hexhams-loss-huge-gain-for-dudley-black.html
but everyone locally has a collective agreement that the Church was wise to promote one who is so able on so many levels. Many constituents are coming down to support him. It will be a special morning.

Tomorrow is a very busy day for me: I am prepping a Budget Debate speech to be given on Monday evening. Before then I will be asking questions of the Education team at 3.15 tomorrow afternoon. I am unsure if David Laws or Michael Gove is responding but I intend to try and raise the Fairer Funding Campaign if I can. I also have plenty of constituents visiting the House of Commons during the week.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Care Bill passes the Commons - its key measures outlined

I am a huge supporter of our NHS, both locally and nationally. We are lucky to receive such fantastic care in our region, and I am determined that this should continue. My grandmother was a matron in an NHS hospital, and I have spent more time in hospitals than most MP’s, due to my previous profession, and bone-breaking falls, as a jockey, and through the many visits and meetings I regularly hold both in hospitals and with nurses and doctors in our area. I am very clear that this Care Bill, in all its parts, is a vital reform of social and other health care in our country. We have ignored the need for this reform for many years and I am very pleased that we have changed this. I have recently written in detail about the cpontents of the Bill to constituents and set out below a shortened version of that letter:

The Care Bill was debated in the House of Commons at length on 10th and 11th March.
It is over six decades since the foundations of social care law were put in place, based on principles that are no longer relevant in today’s society. All parties agreed that we needed new laws that reflect modern standards, practices and expectations. There are several key steps to the Care Bill.
- reforming care and support. For the first time, we have introduced a cap on the costs that people will have to pay for care in their lifetime. It is intended that this cap will be £72,000 and put people more in control of their care and support.
- takes forward elements of the Department’s response to the unacceptable failings in care at Stafford Hospital, which saw literally hundreds of avoidable deaths in an NHS hospital over several years. It will allow for Ofsted-style ratings for hospitals and care homes that will allow patients and the public to compare organisations or services in a fair and balanced way, so they can see which they prefer and where they want to go. The Bill gives the new Chief Inspector of Hospitals the power to tackle unresolved problems with the quality of care more effectively than before.
- establishes Health Education England as a statutory body which will assist local healthcare providers and professionals to take responsibility for educating and training their staff. It also establishes the Health Research Authority, which promotes research and strengthens patients’ interests in health and social care research.

Several constituents wrote to me about Clause 119. In short, the Clause:
• extends the public consultation period from six to eight weeks so that the public and others in the wider health economy can give their views and improve the recommendations;
• gives the administrator more time to produce draft recommendations, from 45 – 65 working days;
• allows a more holistic view to be taken of the wider local health system by allowing an administrator to make wider recommendations;
• widens consultation to affected trusts, their staff and commissioners.

In extreme circumstances, when a Trust goes into administration, it is necessary to give the administrator enough power to take the difficult decisions necessary to ensure patients get safe care. Clause 119 makes vital changes to the Trust Special Administrator regime (TSA) that will help protect hospital services and save patients’ lives.

The TSA regime, introduced by the previous Government in 2009, provides a time-limited, clear and transparent way of dealing with local health services which are badly failing. This process is used only as a last resort, in the most urgent cases when all other efforts to ensure safe and effective local services have been unsuccessful and lives are potentially being put at risk. It has only ever been used twice. The problem with the current legislation is that it only covers financial failure of a Trust, not a failure in care. The Care Bill introduces a new role for the Care Quality Commission for triggering the regime when there has been a serious failure of quality. The emphasis will now be on quality, rather than merely on financial failure. This clause will ensure that swift action can be taken against Trusts that are significantly failing their patients, like we saw with Mid-Staffs.

As the Health Minister, Dr Dan Poulter MP, made clear to the House of Commons on 11th March:
“I stress at the outset that the TSA regime will not be used routinely, and will only be used when all other processes at a local level to deal with the challenges of hospitals have been exhausted. The usual approach for locally led reconfigurations will remain. TSAs are for rare and extreme cases of failure. This is not a power to be used to reconfigure services routinely—we need to get that right at the outset. This is a system of last resort, and other actions will of course be taken first to address the problems of trusts in difficulty.”

Claims that hospitals will be closed without consultation are nothing more than irresponsible and opportunistic scaremongering. The NHS is currently turning round a number of hospitals in special measures, like Carlisle / North Cumbria, many of which have had deep seated problems for years. Clause 119 ensures that commissioners of affected trusts would have every opportunity to make their views known. It also lengthens the time the administrator has to produce their draft report and extends the formal consultation on the recommendations, crucially giving more time for involvement of the public and all key stakeholders.

We need to have a regime of last resort that is able to address these problems in the interests of the patients and the public, rather than simply ignoring problems, amnd suffering unavoidable deaths, or bailing out failed and unsafe services.
New Clause 16
NC 16 was tabled by Paul Burstow MP. To say that this new clause would stop “the hospital closure clause”, as some have sought to suggest is simply misleading, and Paul Burstow MP would agree.
Parliamentary debate and agreement
After much debate, the Government agreed to update the guidance to make it clear that the agreement of commissioners to the TSA report should include their agreement that essential services have been protected at other trusts, as well as at the failing trust, so that all local commissioners have an equal say, with NHS England arbitrating in the event of disagreement.
It is important to note that Paul Burstow MP, the MP who tabled the amendment, later thanked the Health Minister for his clarification and reassurances, and did not wish to call for a vote on his amendment as he was satisfied. Mr Burstow said in the House:

“I have heard the Minister tell us that there will be an equivalency between commissioners whereby they will all have to agree to changes being led by a trust special administrator, that there will be further examination of the consultation issues, and that we will make sure that the process is used rarely and exceptionally. Given his confirmation of those things, I want him to know that I am satisfied that my concerns are being addressed. On that basis, I do not intend to press my new clause, and I urge colleagues to do likewise.” Hansard reference: (Citation: HC Deb, 11 March 2014, c268)

I would make the final point that the hospital closure clause was introduced by the Labour Government in 2009. This Government has merely taken steps to give powers to ensure no new Stafford Hospital disaster ever occurs again. This Care Bill is long overdue and is a much needed reform to the Care system that we so rely upon.

Friday, 21 March 2014

North East Unemployment drops a further 8000 between November and January

An 8,000 drop in the number of people unemployed in the region means the rate now stands at 9.5%.
Nationally unemployment fell by 63,000 between November and January to 2.33m, official figures showed today.
Youth and long-term unemployment both fell, with those out of work for over a year down by 38,000 to 828,000, while 912,000 people aged between 16 and 24 were jobless, down by 29,000.
The number of women on work in the north east is good as well: the number of women in work in the North East is at a record high of 566,000, which shows that the growing economy is helping people to find a job, turn their lives around and have the security of a regular wage.



Thursday, 20 March 2014

Thoughts on a great Budget for the North East - more money in our pockets and help for Air Ambulances

Savers and pensioners will benefit most but here are the key measures:
- tax-free Isas more “generous” [now £15,000] and unveiled a million new “pensioner bonds”.
-The amount people earn before tax will also go up by £500 to £10,500.
- The chancellor also froze petrol duty, cut bingo tax from 20% to 10%, froze Scotch whisky and cider duty and cut a further 1p from a pint of beer - but put the price of cigarettes up.

He also outlined a new Pensioner Bond paying market leading rates to be available from January to all people over 65, with interest rates of 2.8% for one-year bonds and 4% for three-year bonds.

The cap on the amount of Premium Bonds a person can own will rise from £30,000 to £40,000 in June and £50,000 in 2015. The number of £1m winners will also be doubled.

The North East Chamber of Commerce described it as "a sensible budget to support North East growth"
Ross Smith said: “The Chancellor promised no quick fixes and he was right to do so. With the North East recovery accelerating, this was not a time for gimmicks that might cause instability.

“What we got was a series of measures that match NECC members’ priorities. Greater support for exporters and energy intensive industries play to the region’s strengths, while measures on skills and capital investment are also welcome. Backing for new long haul flights from regional airports could meet another of our top transport priorities if the scope is right. This was a sensible budget, and the conditions within which North East businesses can continue their strong contribution to UK growth have been strengthened by these announcements.”

Other Measures announced include:
PERSONAL TAX
:: Personal tax allowance to be raised to £10,500 next year; £800 average savings for locals
:: Higher rate threshold for 40p income tax to rise from £41,450 to £41,865 next month and then by further 1% to £42,285 next year
:: Transferable tax allowance for married couples to rise to £1,050

TAX
:: 15% stamp duty on homes worth more than £500,000 bought through companies
:: Inheritance tax waived for emergency services personnel who “give their lives protecting us”
:: VAT waived on fuel for air ambulances and inshore rescue boats
:: Fuel duty rise planned for September cancelled

PENSIONS AND SAVINGS
:: All tax restrictions on pensioners’ access to pension pots removed and tax on cash removed on retirement cut from 55% to 20%
:: Reform of taxation of defined contribution pensions to help 13 million people from March 27
::: Abolition of 10p starting rate of tax on income from savings

ECONOMY
:: GDP growth forecast to be 2.7% this year, then 2.3%, 2.6%, 2.6% and 2.5% in following years - making UK economy £16 billion bigger than predicted.
:: Deficit revised down to 6.6% this year, and forecast to fall in following years before going into surplus of 0.2% in 2018/19
:: Borrowing expected to be £108 billion this year - £12 billion less than forecast
:: Debt revised down to 74.5% of GDP this year; then predicted to peak at 78.7% in 2015/16 and fall to 74.2% by 2018

JOBS
:: OBR forecasts 1.5 million more jobs over the next five years and earnings to grow faster than inflation
:: Welfare cap set at £119 billion for 2015/16, rising to £127 billion by 2018/19, only state pension and cyclical unemployment benefits excluded

ENERGY
:: £7 billion package to cut energy bills includes £18 per ton cap on carbon price support, saving medium-sized manufacturers £50,000 and families £15 a year
:: Compensation scheme for energy intensive industries extended four years to 2019/20; £1 billion to protect manufacturers from cost of green levies

LEISURE
:: Tobacco duty to rise by 2% above inflation
:: Alcohol duty escalator scrapped
:: Duty on spirits and ordinary cider frozen. Beer duty cut by 1p a pint
:: Duty on fixed-odds betting terminals increased to 25%
:: Bingo duty halved to 10%.
:: 20% tax relief for theatre productions

INVESTMENT
:: £270 million guarantee approved for the Mersey Gateway bridge.
:: Support to build 200,000 homes.
:: Additional £140 million made available for repairs and maintenance to flood defences

BUSINESS
:: Business rate discounts and enhanced capital allowances in enterprise zones extended for three more years
:: Research and development tax credit for loss-making small businesses raised from 11% to 14.5%
:: Annual investment allowance doubled to £500,000 and extended to the end of 2015

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"Education breaks down barriers that holds young people back" Bishop of Newcastle spot on

Could not agree more with the Bishop of Newcastle who has said today:
"Education is the only means to break down some of the barriers that hold young people back. To build an aspirational culture that values, encourages and equips every child it has to permeate all that we do, so that we can overcome the disadvantage in which our children find themselves and enable each of them to be the best that they can possibly be."
Full story here:
http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/bishop-newcastle-must-solve-education-6848362

Educational improvements are the key to aspiration. I go regularly to the Excelsior Academy in west Newcastle, which is an inspiration to many.
Really welcome news about the rail academy in Newcastle today as well.

Congratulations to our 2 local North East Winners of Countryside Alliance awards

The village shop and post office section was won by Bardon Mill Village Store and Tea Room, which was commended for being the “heart of the community”. I have been emailing Michael, who runs the store with his wife and I am pleased to say that they are coming to Westminster with their children both for the awards and a tour of the Houses of Parliament in April.

Blagdon Farm Shop won the butcher category, winning praise for “offering a wide range of the finest meat Northumbria can offer”. Both won their awards for the service they provide to their communities; the Countryside Alliance Awards recognise firms that provide a lifeline to rural communities.
Both go on as finalists in the Alliance’s national awards, which will presented at the end of April.