Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day - good luck to all Northumberland schools taking part

Heddon on the Wall First Schools and Ponteland Richard Coates both invited me in today to be part of World Book Day. The idea is a great one, and fundamentally designed to enthuse kids with a love of reading; sadly I am stuck working all day in Westminster but I have set out a few thoughts below I would have shared.

Favourite books: too many to name but Birdsong and For whom the Bell tolls are both amazing reads that have moved me.
Best opening lines: here are 4 to try that I would have told the children of:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair". —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife". —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice(1813)

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen". —George Orwell, 1984

In early to the Commons for Transport Questions - raising A69 dualling campiagn

Last week I met with John Stevenson MP for Carlisle and the Transport Minister to discuss our ongoing campaign for the dualling of the A69. My thanks to everyone who has signed the online and handwritten petition - not least the team from Haltwhistle led by Margaret Forrest. I will be raising these matters today and trying to get an update on the progress of the Feasibility Study.

My PMQ and the PM reply yesterday

Guy Opperman (Hexham):
Our long-term economic recovery plan for the north-east has seen wages up, apprenticeships doubled and exports up, and unemployment in every constituency in the north-east has fallen in the last year, and by 37% in Hexham. We are fixing the mess left behind by the Labour Government. Can the Prime Minister set out the future plan for the north-east?

The Prime Minister:
We are setting out our long-term economic plan for the north-east. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the figures in his own constituency: the claimant count in Hexham is down by 53%. But what is really fascinating about what is happening today is what is happening to youth employment, and I can tell the House a new figure: in the last year the UK saw a bigger rise in employment levels for under-25s than the whole of the rest of the European Union combined. That is what is happening with our economy recovering. The biggest risk to that economic recovery is the wrecking ball of the Labour party.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

PMQs today - am on the list to be called by the Speaker

Reasons to be optimistic and positive about the north east of England.
The unemployment rate in the North East of England fell by 1.2% on the last quarter, which is the largest percentage fall of any region/country in the UK matched only by the West Midlands.

The fall in the unemployment rate in the North East was four times the national average percentage fall of 0.3%. 
Unemployment in the North East was 129,000 a year ago and has now fallen to 103,000- a percentage fall on the year of 18.2%

The Claimant count in the North East has fallen by 35% since May 2010

Private Sector employment is up 60,000 in the North East since 2010

There are now 44,000 more people in employment in the North east than in May 2010

There are 27,000 more businesses in the North East than in May 2010

There have been 143,780 apprenticeships started in the North east since May 2010

We have taken 119,000 people out of income tax altogether since May 2010

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

CFID & W2W Hustings training session last night - many thanks to the MPs and Tim Montgomerie of the Times

Hustings are daunting for all candidates, no matter how experienced, but particularly for first time candidates, so last night we held a mock hustings for first time candidates; our panel were Charlotte Leslie MP and Stephen O'Brien MP in the hotseat, being grilled by Tim Montgomerie of the Times. Also present was myself, playing an assorted number of roles from a stroppy Ukip candidate, to a Green candidate attempting to channel my inner Natalie Bennett, to a diehard Labour Union man / sometime old style 1970s throwback socialist.

We invited all the Women 2 Win candidates , plus everyone connected to Conservative Friends of International Development for a training session that lasted an hour and which featured set questions on matters of faith, conscience, international development, and some general questions both from Tim and the floor. Over 50 candidates attended and the feedback has been brilliant, both in praise of the two MPs and Tim, who gave up his time for free to play the role of the inquisitor. It is much appreciated by the organisers and all the candidates.
The questions discussed included the following:

• Should the Government commit to spending 0.7% of GNI on international development, and is international aid a good thing?
• Are we the World’s policeman / was intervention in Libya and non intervention in Syria a good or bad thing?

• How would you have voted on Gay Marriage?
• What are your views on assisted dying?
• What are your views on self-selected abortion?
• What are your views on mitochondrial donation?
• Are you in favour of stem-cell research?

• How much should we spend on defence spending?
• Would you as an MP support the renewal of Trident in 2016?
• What are your views on Israel /Palestine, and various Middle East questions, notably Syria and Iraq?
• Several questions on the best way to alleviate poverty / food banks?
• What is your stance on Europe / views on whether we should have a referendum?
• If an MP is also a practising GP [The example of Dr Sarah Woolaston MP / Dr Philip Lee MP were cited] should he/she be prevented from doing this second job if it does not interfere with his work as an MP?

A good night for one and all and a very spirited debate. Clearly there are many more topics we could have debated but just dealing with these matters took over 1 and a 1/2 hours, and our focus was on international development, Britain's role in the world and faith / free vote matters. My thanks to all the W2W & CFID organisers and our volunteer panel.

Youth unemployment is coming down - apprenticeships and local businesses making a real difference

Monday, 2 March 2015

Puffin Appeal Charity Run - come along and support Matt Cawood on the 24-25th April in Hexham

I am often asked to support good causes but this is one I have to share because it is truly exceptional. I received the letter below from Matt Cawood who is running for the Puffin Appeal: I am going to try and join Matt at some stage in his epic endeavour, albeit my lack of fitness will stop me being able to run 100 miles!

Dear Mr Opperman,
I am writing to let you know of a charity run I am doing on Friday 24th April at the leisure centre in Hexham on behalf of a Northumberland based charity, the Puffin Appeal

I will be running from midday on 24th April until midday on 25th round the track at the Wentworth, covering somewhere in the region of 100 miles. I am raising money for the Puffin Appeal as it is a low profile but highly effective charity that supports research into chronic lung disease such as cystic fibrosis and has helped fund a specialist treatment centre for children suffering with severe asthma and other frightening breathing disorders. I breathe the fresh air of the Tyne Valley every day as a long distance runner and this is my way of doing something positive with my hobby (or obsession as some say). I need support for the event in order to raise as much money as possible. The Courant interview me next week and any support you and your team could lend to further raise the profile of the event would be gratefully received. You are welcome to join me on the track over the 24 hours, as is anyone who donates to the cause on
I look forward to your thoughts in due course. In the meantime, I better get training!
Regards, Matt Cawood

Westminster this week

I am here 4 days this week before heading north, and have a packed week of Home Office work, PMQs, meetings with forestry groups, prison reformers, rail groups, and much more. Home Office have an Urgent Question on the issue of preventing UK citizens travelling to Syria today at 3.30. I am also having our last big Women 2 Win meeting this Monday evening. Proud to have helped the fantastic female candidates standing at the general election.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

2015 Campaign Train Trip next Saturday to Berwick upon Tweed: 9.54 train from Newcastle

Across the Hexham Constituency, local people just like you are working together on my campaign team. Our team of volunteers are at the heart of the campaign to secure a better future for Northumberland – and we want you to be part of it. This coming Saturday we are going to Berwick upon Tweed to help Anne Marie Trevelyan - come along and help! We are almost all going by train - full details on the Team Oppy facebook site but basics are:
9.54am - Meet at Newcastle Central Station.

So get involved today, make great friends along the way, and experience the excitement of being on the front line in the most important election for a generation. Together we can win that election – and help secure a better future for Northumberland, and a better future for Britain. If you can help me, you can sign up to help HERE in just 30 seconds

Real Progress on Air Passenger Duty in the North East

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Long campaign to get rid of the Pacer Trains succeeds

Speech on the need to create local community banks

Wednesday in the House of Commons gave me the chance to talk about what the Coalition government has done to try and make it easier to set up new challenger or local banks to take on the big banks. There is huge progress being made. The full speech is here:

Friday, 27 February 2015

Hexham Farmers Market tomorrow - shop local

Make sure you do your shopping locally and support local farmers, producers and suppliers. The market is on from 9-1 in Hexham

Chancellor writes today exclusively for the Newcastle Journal

Thanks to Trains Minister Claire Perry for coming to support Gilsland Station reopening Project

Great meeting, full of positive energy and a lot of progress made on a long journey. This was the first chance to get Network Rail, Northern Rail, the key councillors from Northumberland County Council, the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group, and the leaders of the COGS [Campaign to Open Gilsland Station], and the BBC all together both outside the proposed station, and then inside the warm of the Samson Inn. My thanks to everyone who came, and the BBC team who stayed to film for Look North in the cold. A lot of the people present had come a long way whether from York or Morpeth to come and listen, learn and see how they could help. For some people it was their first chance to see why this unique project will have so much of a tourist and economic impact, as well a huge impact on transport infrastructure locally. I have to thank the locals wo are driving this project forward. They are too numerous to name but the tireless and ever smiling Alison and Julie should be praised in particular.
These meetings are no a magic wand. But they are priceless for their ability to bring everyone together behind a shared vision. Really grateful to the team from Network Rail and Northumberland County Council for coming, and their positive approach. And thanks to Claire who travelled up by train from London specially to go to Carlisle, Newcastle and Gilsland.  

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Manchester NHS Devolution is first step towards proper integration of health and social care

The Chancellor and the local Labour Councils have come together to agree an integrated way forward for joined up healthcare locally in Manchester.
"This is what the NHS wants to see as part of its own future. And it's also about giving people in Manchester greater control over their own affairs in that city, which is central to our vision of the 'northern powerhouse'- so it's a very exciting development," he said.

The plan would see local leaders, and ultimately Greater Manchester's new directly elected mayor, control how budgets are allocated. The government hopes integrating health and social care services will ease pressure on hospitals and help to improve home care services for patients who need it.

A shadow Greater Manchester Health and Wellbeing board will be appointed, which will work closely with existing clinical commissioning groups of GPs. The board is expected to run from April, before control of the budget is handed over a year later.

Manchester City Council confirmed 10 local authorities, 12 clinical commissioning groups, 14 NHS partners, NHS England and the government are in discussions on a "ground-breaking agreement for health and social care".

The question for us in the North East is whether we can follow Manchester's lead? If we can then much more devolution will follow but they are several years and a lot more integrated than the NE Local Authorities.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Hexham Book Festival Announces line up

There is genuinely something for everyone. Well done to all the organisers. The Festival will run from April 20 to May 4 in venues across the town. Full details here:

Mitochondrial Donation law change passes through the House of Lords last night

I have spoken repeatedly in support of this North East success story. The background is this:
Mitochondria are the tiny compartments inside nearly every cell of the body that convert food into useable energy. But genetic defects in the mitochondria mean the body has insufficient energy to keep the heart beating or the brain functioning.

The structures are passed down only from the mother and have their own DNA, although it does not alter traits including appearance or personality.

The technique, developed in Newcastle, uses a modified version of IVF to combine the healthy mitochondria of a donor woman with DNA of the two parents. It results in babies with 0.1% of their DNA from the second woman and is a permanent change that would echo down through the generations.

The Timetable is this:
  • March to August - The UK fertility regulator will develop and then publish their licensing rules for assessing applications to perform three-person IVF
  • Early Summer - The team in Newcastle publish the final safety experiments demanded by the regulator
  • 29 October - Regulations come into force
  • 24 November - Clinics can apply to the regulator for a licence
  • By the end of 2015 - the first attempt could take place
  • Full story and comment here. We should be very proud of this amazing scientific success story

    Tuesday, 24 February 2015

    Democracy, debating the Greens & 3 others and future Hustings

    I have accepted a challenge to debate my Green Party opponent in May's General Election, made in the Hexham Courant. This brings to 5 [along with Labour, liberal democrat and Ukip] the contenders in the Hexham constituency election, who will be debating in a series of debates in April.

    I also should congratulate Lee Ferris on his selection a few weeks ago as the Green Candidate. At present,  I am not aware of any other candidates or parties wishing to put in - last time we also had 2 Independents and 1 representative from the BNP. 

    I am a passionate believer in democracy and it seems perfectly fair to me that candidates should debate each other. I have signed up to 5 local hustings, with a farming one pending, and I expect to all the parties named to be invited. I would be more than happy to do a TV debate too and I have accepted their Green Party TV debate. I believe all parties should be represented in TV leaders debates. I don't see why I should be any different.

    I watched the Sunday Politics in the NE 4 weeks ago and was interested that the BBC described a Green Party surge. I am not sure I'd describe it as surge, but even from my own canvassing in recent weeks and months there is no doubt there has been an increase in Green support.

    The General Election is now just over 2 months away. I have been asked to post the dates of the hustings - see earlier blog posts. When they are all fixed I will do so, but there is a bit of logistics to sort first, so bear with me, not least as this is beyond my control, as churches and local community groups are doing the organising, and other candidates are having to jiggle their diaries around. In particular, the farming debate is proving very difficult to fix. There will definitely be hustings in all the major towns in April.

    At present the intention is to have debates in Hexham on the 18/4, Prudhoe on the 20/4 and Ponteland on the 24/4 but the Church groups and Hexham Debates will notify in plenty of time. 

    Monday, 23 February 2015

    Pleased to be welcoming Claire Perry MP, Trains Minister, to Northumberland Thursday

    My plan is to take Claire to meet the team behind Gilsland Station on the Cumbria Border and see why the COGS campaign is worth backing. Precise details of the trip are still being worked upon but I am liaising with key local stakeholders as we sort the details of the trip, when she gets in from Carlisle, and how long we will have Claire with us in Gilsland; not least of our decisions is which train she is going on!
    Gilsland details are here:

    Sunday, 22 February 2015

    Westminster this week

    Monday sees Home Office meetings, the remaining Stages of the Serious Crime Bill, and various meetings in Westminster. Tuesday I am meeting with William Hague to discuss his plans for English Votes for English Issues, then we have further bills in the commons. Tuesday evening  we have a meeting with the Air Ambulances as a result of the announcement of the Libor funding. There is a debate on the BBC, and also on Equitable Life on Thursday in the Commons but I will be in the constituency from Wednesday night very late until the following Monday.

    Saturday, 21 February 2015

    Wark Bridge rebuild is a triumph for many locals and vital to the village

    The top picture is the culmination of a meeting that took place in September 2009; it happened early on in my candidacy and this photo is one I really treasure, for it was a special meeting. In the top picture are the Wark Bridge Warriors - also known as a group of locals who liked to meet in the local pub and then decide how to improve their village. They decided that they were not happy with the state of the bridge, and that they would campaign to stop the bridge being closed. If we had not carried out the improvements the bridge would have become a pedestrian / cyclists bridge - see below - thereby cutting the Upper North Tyne community in half. It would have had a massive effect on trade, farmers, and the vibrancy of the village. The rebuild is down to many people - too numerous to name - but primarily due to the efforts of Councillor Edward Heslop, all the petitioners, and the people pictured on the bridge above.
    How we managed to persuade the then Liberal run Northumberland County Council to rebuild the bridge I am not quite sure as the money required was large, there are huge logistical issues involved, the actual design is complex, and there were significant environmental impacts that need to be accommodated. However, I am pleased to say that the long journey is now over and the bridge is completed. Full credit to the engineers at NCC.
    A final word on the group pictured on the bridge. They are what makes Tynedale, and particularly the Upper North Tyne, special. A collection of individuals whose attitude is positive, and full of why not, rather than the rules do not allow it. I lived in a cottage near Chipchase just over the bridge for several years pre and post election and know Wark and Barrasford well. The people are the best bit - albeit a couple of great pubs definitely help! I look forward to having a pint with the Wark Bridge Warriors soon. Their grandchildren, and the people locally should be very grateful to them, to Edward Heslop, and all the locals who made this happen.

    Friday, 20 February 2015

    Tynedale Point to Point at Corbridge next Sunday 1/3 first race 11.45

    Exactly 6 years ago on 1/3/2009 I rode my last winner at the Tynedale Point to Point. I still remember every bit about the day, the race and Lowlander, the horse, who did the hard work! The report of that race in 2009 is below.
    So I will definitely be at the point to point next Sunday. Access is off the Military Road, near Aydon.
    Please come along - there is lots for all the family to do and the atmosphere is great. And yes I miss racing all the time!
     The report of the race in 2009 is here:

    Thursday, 19 February 2015

    Wednesday, 18 February 2015

    North East Job figures for the latest quarter Oct-Dec 2014 show real positive change

    The unemployment rate in the North East of England fell by 1.2% on the quarter which is the largest percentage fall of any region/country in the UK matched only by the West Midlands.

    The fall in the unemployment rate in the North East was four times the national average percentage fall of 0.3%

    Unemployment in the North East was 129,000 a year ago and has now fallen to 103,000- a percentage fall on the year of 18.2%

    The Claimant count in the North East has fallen by 35% since May 2010

    Private Sector employment is up 60,000 in the North East since 2010

    There are now 44,000 more people in employment in the North east than in May 2010

    There are 27,000 more businesses in the North East than in May 2010

    There have been 143,780 apprenticeships started in the North east since May 2010

    We have taken 119,000 people out of income tax altogether since May 2010

    Universal Credit is a genuine game changer of a reform - very proud to support it

    Trying to bring in wholesale welfare reform and change the benefits system so it rewards a gradual return to work is never going to be easy. Yet I genuinely believe that universal credit, in 10-20 years time, will be seen as one of the bravest and best reforms of the Coalition Government. Its roll out has been slow and steady - to try and make sure it is got right rather than rushed. This, in itself, is different to the norms of all governments, which have a tendency to announce and then be surprised that the devil is in the detail. It started in the north east Monday. 

    This new, consolidated benefit will replace six working-age payments (jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, working tax credit, child tax credit, employment and support allowance and income allowance) and should be on offer in all job centres next year. All parties support Ian Duncan Smith's reforms, although Labour constantly snipe that it is too slow, or not road tested enough. Such is their way. 

    But don't take my word for it. I could refer you to right leaning papers estimations but take it from the Guardian. 

    This from Mondays Guardian:
    "The universal credit may well reduce the colossal benefits bill. But its primary purpose is to simplify the process for claimants, to base payments upon collated and up-to-date information (the hardest bit), and to reduce the marginal penalties and disincentives in the present system that dissuade claimants from taking on more work. Those who believe that Duncan Smith’s purpose is to shrink the state or slash public spending do not understand him. They may well despise his definition of “social justice” and its emphasis upon personal responsibility. But – in contrast to many Tories – he undoubtedly sees welfare through an ethical rather than a fiscal prism."

    Some of the companies handling the complex computer programmes behind the roll out are in the North East. I have met some of these local people. We should be proud that it is north east based people helping bring about the change that takes away the benefit cliff edge and encourages a steady return to work, supported as you go. 
    In my view the objective behind Universal Credit is this:
    - it is as an important step towards a welfare system that protects the vulnerable, without promoting the economically and socially destructive phenomenon of dependency on the state. 

    That is a project worth striving for. 

    Tuesday, 17 February 2015

    Greek debt crisis is a mix of Greek false expectations and a possible Euro fudge

    We are in the midst of a debt crisis with the EU / Greece talks stalling. Syriza and it's finance minister know Greece is broke and bankrupt in literally weeks, but they are banking - excuse the pun - on the EU bailing them out on their terms, again. I don't see it happening. And, more importantly, I don't think it should happen. The EU have said there is no alternative to a debt extension for Greece. If Greece says no then it should leave the meeting and prepare to leave euro. If we keep giving in to Greece then what do we say to the Irish, the Spanish, or our own countrymen and women who have had to cope with the difficult decisions and the hard process of balancing books in difficult times? I genuinely now believe that any euro difficulties caused by Greek departure from the euro would be less than an enforced continuation of a farce when Greece will clearly never pay. But the consequences for Greece, and the rest of the EU will be significant and destabilising.

    Who would Labour do a deal with to get into Number 10? Labour / SNP Coalition seems most likely on all fronts

    Mr Miliband has repeatedly refused to rule out a deal with the SNP amid an expected collapse of Labour’s support base in Scotland, and a lack of sufficient votes to get him into Number 10 Downing Street. I don't think the SNP rise will be as large as is presently trumpeted by Salmond but ...
    Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, has indicated that ignoring any attempt to balance the books, spending loads more that we do not have, changes to defence spending and a whole swathe of new powers for Scotland would be the party’s price for a deal.

    More details on the story here:

    Monday, 16 February 2015

    Tickets to Haltwhistle Walking Festival going fast - book soon for our best country

    The popular Haltwhistle Walking Festival returns this Spring. It features walks around Hadrians Wall, the Pennine Way, Isaacs Tea Trail and assorted local walks taking in local history and landmarks. The team behind the festival are very enthusiastic, and the walks are good fun, normally ending in a pub or tea room, so take your choice. 
    The Walking Festival returns on April 25thto May 4th and promises to be a wonderful experience for all involved. There are plenty of walks available for all different ages and fitness levels, but you will definitely want to book ahead as this event is always a local and tourist favourite and fills up quickly. I would love to take part this year but I fear these ten days may be a little busy for me. 
    See the website for full details.
    You won't be disappointed. 

    A local headteacher comments on Teacher training, Nuns, Tristram Hunt, & an obsession with conformity

    I do not always agree with local Headteacher, Bernard Trafford, who writes regularly for the Journal. But on the issue of Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt's fixation - and proposed policy under a Labour government - that no teacher can teach without a specific teacher training qualification I do agree. The policy is that Labour in government would effectively ban all teachers who did not have a teacher training qualification; I, and others across the House of Commons, including Labour MPs, have been pointing out the illogicality and "one size fits all" approach of Hunt's position in the House of Commons for 2 years: not least as Hunt is a historian, who has successfully taught history himself.... despite being unqualified.

    But the flaws in this policy has only really been exposed when Hunt chose last week on Question Time to launch an attack on a catholic columnist, Chritina Odone, because she was educated by Nuns. You can see the video here and judge for yourself:

    The full article in the Journal this week is worth a read, as it fairly makes both sides of the argument in a balanced way:
    The highlight is this passage:
    "His [Hunt] obsession with teachers having to be qualified is boring, as well as dogmatic. By “qualified” he’s talking not about subject knowledge but about completing teacher-training. Take him as an example: he wouldn’t be deemed competent to teach, despite a history degree, unless he’s done teacher-training.

    The vast majority of teachers are classroom-qualified, as well as in their subject specialism. They should be. If I appoint teachers to my (independent of government) school who don’t have a teaching certificate, I help them get one. It generally makes them better teachers and gives them a go-anywhere qualification. But sometimes, just sometimes, I interview amazing natural-born teachers who outshine even those who have been through the formal training programme.

    Hunt wants to ensure that no one teaches children without that qualification. I find politicians like him insisting on everything being black and white just as bigoted and out-of-step as those private school heads who aver that teacher-training somehow prevents teachers from being inspired and original: that’s rubbish too.
    Hunt’s insistence on conformity leaves heads and schools no flexibility (which we need when there’s a teacher-supply crisis), outlaws the unconventional genius and risks imposing a dull orthodoxy on all our schools. But then, I fear that’s what he wants."

    Saturday, 14 February 2015

    The Sandstone Way between Hexham and Berwick is a great Northumberland cycling success story

    The official map for Northumberland’s most exciting new mountain bike trail - The Sandstone Way, is now available, together with a brand new website. 

    The 120-mile (193 km) mountain bike trail between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hexham passes through numerous villages and small communities including Wooler, Belford, Rothbury, Elsdon and Bellingham, hugging the coastline before taking in the Simonside sandstone ridge and other features of Northumberland National Park.  Cyclists will ride through an amazing, ever-changing landscape, rich in history, geology and iconic scenery.
    Maps can be purchased either through local retail outlets such as Tourist Information Centres or on-line at: Northern Heritage or

    The new Sandstone Way website: , created by Blaydon-based social enterprise, The CyclePAD Ltd, goes live on the 21st February 2015 and will become an essential aid to all those planning to ride the route, with information on local facilities and cycling-friendly accommodation along the way.

    Most riders are encouraged to take 3 or 4 days to complete it, whilst the ‘fit and the fast’ could possibly ride the route in 2 days. Organisers hope that families will be encouraged to ride safe, traffic-free sections of the Sandstone Way with older children. The route is clearly waymarked with the distinctive green and yellow “S” roundel, and ten optional loops are also offered to appeal to ‘day riders’ who wish to cycle back to their starting point or follow a more challenging option. Package holidays to cycle the Sandstone Way are being developed by Skedaddle.

    The Sandstone Way is the brainchild of local passionate cyclist, Ted Liddle, and was seed funded by Northumberland National Park Authority, Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural 
    Beauty Project, Northumberland County Council, Tyne Valley Mountain Bike Club and the Rural Development Programme for England through the Northern Lands Project. Full credit to one and all. The County Council are genuinely making an effort to improve cycling in Northumberland. 
    Ted Liddle is our local cycling champion and, along with other local projects,we have agreed to try and do some or all of the ride sometime later this summer. He said this about the Sandstone Way:
    “The Sandstone Way was designed to link some of the best lengths of off-road track in Northumberland taking mountain bikers into Northumberland’s hidden corners on centuries-old tracks and historic byways. Cycling the Sandstone Way really is an adventure which guarantees a truly memorable experience for all the right reasons.”

    Cycling tourism is on the increase in Northumberland with many visitors making the most of the county’s quiet and scenic roads and challenging hills. The boost has come about through a wide range of new events and facilities that have made it easy for people to bring their bikes north to enjoy challenging but unpressured rides.  

    Both Hexham and Berwick upon Tweed are served by rail, and there are bus connections along the Northumberland Coast AONB and into the valleys of the National Park for those wishing to make a holiday of it and leave the car behind.  

    The Weekend Read: Details on the QEHS upgrade

    Queen Elizabeth High School is to be handed millions to upgrade it's schools buildings after our long campaign. 

    The Department for Education has announced the school has been successful in a  funding bid as part of the government's Priority Schools Building Programme.

    It is a huge relief our campaigning and lobbying to ministers has paid off. This is the most significant cash investment in Hexham's schools for decades. It is fantastic that the Government has listened to our case, recognised the buildings at QEHS need upgrading and has now provided that investment.

    When I first became an MP in 2010, one of the key messages I was hearing from local people was that not enough was being invested in our schools. It has been one of my key priorities ever since. It is a huge step forward that we have been able to secure this capital investment in QEHS buildings on top of the extra £12m we have secured for Northumberland's schools this year.

    Northumberland County Council also deserves some of the credit for taking the bid forward on behalf of the school, having previous had success with a bid for the total rebuild of Prudhoe High School, which starts in March.

    The Schools Minister David Laws saw first hand the issues facing QEHS after visiting the school at my request in July 2013. He accepted an invitation and saw for himself the condition of the school buildings as part of the our lobbying efforts.

    Having David here did help make a big impact. He was able to see for himself that this great school deserves great buildings to match its academic success. The report of his visit 18 months ago is here:

    With this new investment that is exactly what will happen.

    The success of Prudhoe and QEHS's bid follow decades of complaints within Tynedale that rural areas had been neglected by Westminster when it came to funding for repairs.

    Last month I raised the funding bid in the House of Commons urging schools minister David Laws to include Queen Elizabeth High School in the government's Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), which addresses the needs of sites most in need of urgent repair.
    It is true that for many decades Tynedale has suffered from a lack of investment in both its schools, and from poor level of education funding. I am immensely proud that, after 30 years or so of getting a bad deal, this Government will be delivering investment in our high schools at Prudhoe and QEHS and a fairer
    funding deal.
    County councillor for Hexham East, Cath Homer, who pledged to make investment in QEHS one of her top priorities when elected in 2013, said: “This is one of the most significant announcements in Hexham for
    the last ten years. This will be hugely welcomed by parents and will bring an end to the sticking plaster repairs we have seen for too long. QEHS is a great school, and with this extra funding it can only
    get even better. After all of our efforts this really is wonderful for the future education of kids in our town.

    The welcome news for QEHS came as part of £140m Government investment to rebuild 16 more schools in the North East.

    More of our campaign here

    Friday, 13 February 2015

    English Votes for English Issues - William Hague sets out the Conservative Party position post Scots devolution

    I support William Hague's plans to revise the voting rules to ensure Scottish MPs do not hold the rest of the country to account.
    Full details are set out here:

    It is fundamentally wrong that Scottish MPs should decide how things such as schools and the health service are run in England, when English MPs have no such say over how they are run in Scotland.
    I cannot see how this can continue to be justified as devolution continues to expand the Scottish governments powers.

    How Hague's plan would work
    • Before a Bill or parts of a Bill affecting only England, or England and Wales, is put to its final Commons vote, English and in some cases Welsh MPs would meet separately to consider it.
    • The Bill could not proceed without the backing of a majority of this English Grand Committee
    • In addition, only MPs for English constituencies (and Welsh seats where relevant) would be allowed to take part in the committee stage, where the fine details are thrashed out and amendments proposed.
    • But MPs from all parts of the UK would be entitled to take part in the final Commons vote passing the Bill into law.

    Thursday, 12 February 2015

    Options are running out for Greece, but do we want Greece in league with Russia?

    The saying is - "beware Greeks bearing gifts". In this case the EU is asking - do we give the Greeks any more gifts? Looking at the Greek financial problems and the consequences of the EU being too kind to its spendthrift neighbour I fear that brinkmanship by the Greeks will scupper any deal. 
    “A deal may still be possible but the Greek side will have to move most,” said Guntram Wolff, head of the Bruegel thinktank in Brussels.
    As the Guardian reports: It is not only northern German-led fiscal hawks who are resisting the demands of Tsipras. Spain and Portugal, who have also been bailed out and having gone through their own wrenching austerity programmes, show no sign of being generous to the Greeks.
    And why should these countries - who have been through the pain - and done the right thing, bail out their neighbour who refuses to 
    France and Italy, meanwhile, though broadly sympathetic to an easing of fiscal rigour, have been irritated by Tsipras’ megaphone diplomacy, seen in Brussels and elsewhere as importunate, hubristic and counter-productive. 
    For my part I would not be giving the Greeks any money unless they left the straight jacket of the Euro. It is obvious they are incapable of living within their means. So let them quit the euro and devalue their own currency. But, of course, the Greeks do not want that. Even the far left new Greek government still wants the rest of Europe to pay its bills. 

    Finally, the father of the House of Commons, Sir Peter Tapsell (aged 85) asked a very good question at PMQs yesterday, underlining the threat of Greece embracing Russia and the return to Cold War satellite states:
    Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I put it to the Prime Minister that from President Monroe onwards it has been generally acknowledged by leaders of great powers that, for the avoidance of war, it is often wise to acknowledge the concept of traditional spheres of authority and power; and that although Ukraine is of absolutely no significant strategic importance to Britain, Greece most certainly is; and that unless western statesmen show rather greater skills than they have in recent years, Greece will pass into the Russian sphere of influence without a shot being fired?

    The Prime Minister: It is difficult to answer the Father of the House without a long, historical exegesis, but I would argue that, when it comes to Ukraine, it does matter on our continent of Europe that we do not reward aggression and brutality with appeasement; that would be wrong. That is why it is right to have the sanctions in place, right to keep the European Union and America together on the issue, and right to stand up to President Putin. On Greece, of course there is a British interest, which is that we want stability and growth on the continent of Europe. The eurozone crisis has held that growth and stability back; we want those concerned to come to a reasonable agreement so that Europe can move forward. It is good that the British economy is growing and jobs are being generated, but we have to recognise that our largest market at the moment is still relatively stagnant, and the situation in Greece does not help that.

    Scriptwriters for "The Thick Of It" could not make up the Labour Pink Bus disaster

    On the day 40 years on from when in 1975 this country celebrated appointing it's first female Prime Minister, the Labour Party has been responding to criticism of the Pink Bus; the bus, pictured, today arrived & then parked on a Zebra Crossing in Stevenage. You could make the point that the bus is not British but was built in Turkey, is to be driven in the future by a male driver loaned by the union Unite, and this after a campaign last year against gender specific toys. Like I said you could not make it up.

    This comment featured in the Guardian in defence of the Labour Pink Bus: “a bright pink minibus of female Labour MPs will tour constituencies to talk to female voters around the kitchen table”.
    Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, told the Western Morning News: “It’s just a tiny bit condescending because it’s bright and pink therefore women relate to it more. It’s a bit like saying that political parties should drive around in macho red sports cars and blokes across the country will suddenly listen to them.”
    Mark Ferguson, editor of the LabourList website, also expressed concerns, tweeting that he had thought it was a wind-up when someone first told him about it two weeks ago. He claimed it was an “unnecessary own goal”.
    My Labour friends in the Commons are cringing when we chatted after PMQs today, and it is fair to say that some of the Columnists have had fun commenting on the idea - see here for example:

    As co chairman of Women2Win I am helping get more female candidates, and could set out in detail [see previous blog posts] all the things from free childcare to the fact more women are in work in the UK than ever before. But elections are good value for many things - and we will definitely see more "The Thick of It" moments on all sides


    Wednesday, 11 February 2015

    The Ukraine situation is genuinely the biggest threat to world peace

    This is the statement by the Foreign Secretary and the debate yesterday:

    The key points to be made are: from the FS overview and statement:

    "The past month has seen an escalation of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Fighting has been intense around the town of Debaltseve, a strategically important rail and road hub between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainians have suffered indiscriminate missile attacks on buses in Donetsk and Volnovakha and on the port city of Mariupol. What is happening on the ground now resembles, to all intents and purposes, a small-scale conventional war. Over 5,000 people have been killed since the crisis began last spring, and over 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes.
    In recent weeks, Russia has aggravated the effects of its initial incursion by stepping up the military support it provides to its proxies. It has transferred hundreds of heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, heavy artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles; and it maintains hundreds of regular soldiers, including special forces, in Ukraine, as well as command and control elements, air defence systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and electronic warfare systems. The Russian army is also the source of ex-regulars who resign their army posts to fight in Donbass as “volunteers”. The recent escalation in fighting would not have been possible without the military support and strategic direction that Russia provides.
    In these circumstances, it is vital that all the countries who have a stake in the rules-based international system remain clear and united against Russian aggression. In Normandy last summer, we agreed with the US and our European partners that the most effective channel of communication with the Kremlin would be through a small group. This is known as the Normandy Format, comprising Germany, France as the host of the Normandy meeting, Ukraine and Russia.
    Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande met President Poroshenko in Kiev last Thursday, and President Putin in the Kremlin on Friday. On Saturday, in Munich, I held meetings with Secretary of State Kerry and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier to assess the prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. On Sunday, the German Chancellor and the French President held a conference call with Poroshenko and Putin, agreeing to meet in the Normandy format in Minsk tomorrow. Their aim is to reach agreement on an implementation plan for the Minsk ceasefire agreements that the Russians entered into last September, updated, as they need to be, to reflect subsequent changes on the ground.
    The UK welcomes these efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the situation in eastern Ukraine, while remaining sceptical of Russian commitment to such a resolution. It is clear that Putin respects strength, so Britain’s focus has been, and will continue to be, on ensuring that the EU remains robust, resolved and united on the maintenance of economic sanctions, and closely aligned with the US.
    The consensus within the European Union that Russia must pay a price for its disregard of the international rules-based system remains strong. Equally, there is a clear consensus that the EU does not, and will not,
    recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The emergency EU Foreign Affairs Council on 29 January agreed to roll over all the Crimea-related tier 2 sanctions against individuals and companies. That is another clear sign that the EU remains united in its response to Russian action in Ukraine.
    The package of economic sanctions which the European Union and the US has imposed on Russia, coupled with the catastrophic impact on the Russian economy of the decline in the oil price, is a critical element of the pressure on President Putin to change his behaviour. Britain was and remains at the forefront of the successful effort to build and maintain an EU-wide consensus on a sanctions regime on Russia, to the evident surprise and dismay of the Kremlin. Yesterday in Brussels I represented the UK at the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which discussed Ukraine and reconfirmed its decision to apply additional sanctions, but, at the suggestion of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and as a gesture of support for the political process, decided to delay their entry into force until next Monday. The informal European Council of Heads of State and Government will have further discussions about Ukraine on Thursday.
    The crisis has inflicted substantial damage on Ukraine’s economy. The World Bank estimates that it shrank by 8.2% in 2014. Public debt has risen sharply, foreign exchange reserves have fallen and the currency has lost nearly half its value against the US dollar. Ukraine clearly needs support from international partners to stabilise the economy, in return for which it must pursue the reforms to which it has committed under the association agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund programme. Britain is providing £10 million in technical assistance to support economic and governance reforms and the humanitarian effort. The EU will make a substantial contribution to the immediate estimated $15 billion financing needs of the country, the majority of which will be provided through an IMF-led package.
    We shall also continue to work through NATO to offer technical support to the Ukrainian armed forces and reassurance to our eastern NATO allies. At the NATO Wales summit last September, NATO allies sent a strong message to Russia, agreeing to maintain NATO’s long-standing capacity building work in Ukraine by setting up five dedicated trust funds for Ukraine, one of which will be co-led by the UK.
    The Wales summit also agreed a readiness action plan to reassure our eastern allies. As part of the package, NATO allies agreed to a new spearhead unit—the very high readiness joint taskforce—within the NATO response force, which, supported by the newly created forward integration units in the Baltic and eastern European states, will be able to deploy at very short notice wherever they are needed.
    On 5 February, NATO Defence Ministers agreed the size and scope of that mission. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has announced that the UK will lead the force in 2017 and on a rotational basis thereafter. The UK also made a commitment to contribute to headquarters in Poland and Romania and the six NATO forward integration unit headquarters in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the UK will contribute four RAF Typhoons to operate alongside Norway in support of the Baltic air policing mission.
    The UK also remains a strong supporter of the OSCE’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. We have provided funding of more than £2 million, the second largest number of monitors and 10 armoured vehicles to allow monitors to move around dangerous areas in a more secure manner.
    Our policy since the start of the crisis has been to supply non-lethal assistance to Ukrainian armed forces, in line with our assessment that there must be a political solution to this crisis. We have increased our defence engagement with Ukraine and are providing additional support on crisis management, anti-corruption, defence reform and strategic communications.
    We have offered three members of the Ukrainian armed forces who were wounded in the Donbass life-changing specialist medical assistance in the form of reconstructive surgery at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. We are providing a substantial package of non-lethal equipment to Ukraine, comprising medical kits, winter clothing and equipment, body armour, helmets and fuel. The package is focused on reducing fatalities and casualties among members of the Ukrainian armed forces.
    It is a national decision for each country in the NATO alliance to decide whether to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. The UK is not planning to do so, but we reserve the right to keep this position under review. Different members of the alliance take nuanced positions on this question, and are entitled to do so. However, we share a clear understanding that while there is no military solution to this conflict, we could not allow the Ukrainian armed forces to collapse.
    By its illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine, including its direct military support of the separatists, Russia has demonstrated its disregard for international law. It is clear that President Putin respects only strength, and by standing united, using our combined economic muscle to impose significant economic costs on Russia, the international community has shown its determination to rebuff Russia’s anachronistic behaviour.
    The ball is now firmly in Russia’s court. Until we see Russia complying with the terms of the Minsk agreement on the ground—withdrawing troops, stopping the flow of weapons and closing the border—there must be no let-up in the pressure. Fine words in a declaration tomorrow will, of course, be welcome, but we have seen them before. The proof of the pudding will be in actions on the ground. We will monitor the situation carefully, and we will agree to a relaxation of the pressure only when we see clear evidence of changed Russian behaviour and systematic compliance with Russia’s obligations under the original Minsk agreement.
    Meanwhile, there will be no let-up in our efforts—with the US, in the EU and through NATO—to ensure that Mr Putin hears a clear and consistent message: civilised nations do not behave in the way Russia under Putin has behaved towards Ukraine, and those of us who live by the rules-based international system will be steadfast in defending it against such aggression. I commend this statement to the House"

    Broadband debate in the Commons &update on where Northumberland CC have provided fibre broadband

    The County Council have now given me an updated list of communities in West Northumberland that they say now have access to fibre broadband: 
    -          Stocksfield
    -          Heddon on the Wall [although there remain problems with parts of Heddon]
    -          Parts of Wylam (more to follow by end of 2015)
    -          Ponteland
    -          Stamfordham
    -          Albemarle Barracks
    -          Great Whittington
    -          Prudhoe
    -          Most of Corbridge (more to follow by end of 2015)
    -          Slaley
    -          Most of Hexham (more to follow by end of 2015)
    -          Parts of Allendale (more to follow by end of 2015)
    -          Gilsland
    -          Greenhead
    -          Haltwhistle
    -          Bardon Mill
    -          Haydon Bridge
    -          Humshaugh
    -          Wall
    -          Chollerford
    -          Wark  

    The NCC  add that "We expect Riding Mill and Barrasford to be live by the end of this month".
    In addition to gaps in those communities listed above the NCC expect the following communities to be connected by the end of 2015:
    -          Horsley
    -          Blanchland
    -          Whitley Chapel
    -          Allenheads
    -          Bellingham
    -          Greenhaugh
    -          Kielder
    -          West Woodburn
    -          Otterburn
    -          Rochester
    -          Byrness
    -          Elsdon
    -          Belsay
    -          Kirkharle
    -          Capheaton
    -          Kirkwhelpington
    -          Scots Gap
    -          Whalton
    -          Bingfield
    -          Hallington
     I was able to speak in last weeks broadband debate and my speech is here:

    Clearly there are significant on-going problems with some places not listed above and I am trying to get bespoke solutions to problem areas like Matfen. Where you disagree with this information NCC and BT are giving me please let me know.

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